Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Michael Feinstein-atra

"Sinatra considered himself, first and foremost, an interpreter of song, and his influence on other entertainers is incalculable. He has become so thoroughly entrenched in the history of American popular song that it is impossible to open your mouth and sing without his influence being part of that."

- Michael Feinstein

Although I was born well after Frank Sinatra was at his popular prime, he still remains one of my favorite and most respected musical entertainers of all time. So when someone suggested that I check out The Sinatra Project, I was both intrigued and somewhat repulsed. An entire album of Sinatra songs covered by one man? Who does he think he is? Does he really think he can do The Chairman of the Board justice?

Well, come to find out, the man is Michael Feinstein. If you're not familiar with Michael, he is The Great American Songbook reborn for the 21st century. If you're not familiar with The Great American Songbook, it is the definitive collection of American standards that will well outlast the latest topper on The Hype Machine. We're talking about songs that have been covered more times than many artists have songs of their own, and Michael Feinstein has made it his job to make sure they cross the border into the new millennium.

And if you haven't heard of Feinstein before, The Sinatra Project is actually his 24th album. On it, he's decided to tackle a weighty responsibility: paying homage to one of the definitive performers of The Great American Songbook. Long before rock and roll took over, the music world was ruled by singers performing typically in front of either big bands or smaller jazz ensembles. Sinatra fit into the former category for the most part. To record this album, Feinstein formed a big band of his own, and assembled them in the only reasonable place to do so. The album was recorded at the last remaining recording studio from the days of this music's hey day : Capitol Studio A in Hollywood, California. Yea, that Capitol Studios, where Frank himself worked. You can check out some footage of the sessions here to get an idea of what went into putting together Michael Feinstein and a big band and getting out music from a long past decade.

So enough with the history lesson, how about the music. In the liner notes Feinstein points out that he didn't just want to re-sing the songs. Even he knows that he wouldn't hold a match to Frank. Instead he wanted to play with their arrangements, and sing with a style that is modeled after Sinatra but not just a carbon copy. Looking over the track listing for the album will reveal some surprises. Although this is all Sinatra material, there are very few of his biggest hits. For some of them you might need to go back to the original albums to hear the original versions, and I'm guessing you might need to dig for some vinyl to do so. That being said, it's somewhat difficult to pick-up on the differences he incorporates.

In terms of how his vocals stack up against Ol' Blue Eyes, well... He does a great job auditorally drawing the feeling of the period he's drawing upon. The big band backing him up helps, but even ignoring them you can easily sense Feinstein's appreciation for and immersion in the classics he is singing. His voice is strong, clear, and shifts smoothly but...well, it's almost TOO perfect sounding, too polished. Technically speaking, he's wonderful, he just doesn't have that special something you picked up on with Sinatra: the swagger, the extravagant confidence, the down and out loser, the magic. I don't know, maybe it's too much for one to expect another artist to capture that. It is a tribute album after all, and perhaps that's enough. If you come looking for Frank, dig out that old vinyl instead. If you come to this album wanting to re-visit that period and enjoy some new takes on some old songs, you'll be taken on a grand ride that's worth the price of admission.

Visit his website, his label Concord Records, and become his friend on MySpace.


Frank Sinatra - All My Tomorrows : Nothing But The Best

Frank Sinatra - All the Way : Live In Australia, 1959

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