Saturday, December 22, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1211: Frank Sinatra

As Christmas approaches I try to cut off purchasing new music but it has been hard this year. I’m in the middle of discovering a whole bunch of new artists and I’m eager to give them my money. Luckily, I have a few albums here and there to keep me busy while I wait. Here’s one of them.

Disc 1211 is… In the Wee Small Hours
Artist: Frank Sinatra

Year of Release: 1955

What’s up with the Cover? Frank is the paragon of cool as he steps out in the wee small hours for a smoke.

How I Came To Know It: My friend Gord was cleaning out a bunch of his father’s old CDs. He took a few photos of the collection to see if anything caught my eye.

How It Stacks Up:  I have a bunch of Frank Sinatra, but two are Greatest Hits packages and one is a live record. The only other album is “A Swingin’ Affair” from 1957 (reviewed back at Disc 922). It is hard to compare the jump and joy of that record with the quieter tones of “Small Hours” but if I had to do it, I’ll give the edge to “A Swingin’ Affair”…by a hair.

Ratings:  4 stars but almost 5

“In the Wee Small Hours” is a lonely city street at 4 a.m. There is no traffic. There is no wind. There may be rain, or if not rain, fog. It’s just you, your thoughts, and these songs helping you explore old memories and lost lovers.

The songs are an introverted affair. Quiet, contemplative numbers that despite being only two and a half and three and a half minutes long still manage to take their time lazily meandering through tales of unrequited love and regret. Despite this the music doesn’t put you in a sulk, it just helps you realize that sometimes the only company you need is your own.

Frank Sinatra is the greatest male jazz singer of his time. He possesses a rich full tone, into which he can inject as little or as much air as the occasion demands. His phrasing and timing are immaculate – the kind of perfect imperfection that no amount of post-production could recreate.

“In the Wee Small Hours” calls for a lot of reverie, and Frank is the perfect person to express it. His performance is wistful, but never absent-minded. Every word is a pearl, turning some pretty basic stories of the lovelorn into something deep and meaningful.

Supporting Sinatra is arranger and conductor Nelson Riddle. I wouldn’t have thought to look up Riddle’s name, except a fellow music enthusiast who rides my bus mentioned how great he was (thank you, David). On “In the Wee Small Hours” Riddle recognizes that these songs need a lot of quiet to sink in, and he supplies understated string and piano flourishes, that underscore every line Sinatra sings, while never upstaging him – as if that were possible.

I’m not a big jazz fan, and one of the reasons is I’m not fond of the overly creative melodic structures that value cleverness over listenability. “In the Wee Small Hours” is the exception. Often Frank resolves a melody in a surprising way, landing a note that feels slightly out of place, and yet fits in that moment. His masterful performance makes me appreciate and enjoy this experience, which I usually find annoying.

With so many “woe is me” tunes, this record could have easily fallen into the world of the maudlin. It does nudge up against that line here and there, but it never crosses over.

My main issue is that there are too many songs. Even though the total play time is only 50 minutes, with 16 tracks all so similarly themed, I was ready to be done the wallow a few tracks before the record decided to end it.

Overall, though, “In the Wee Small Hours” is a vocal masterpiece. It is the musical equivalent of spending an evening drinking scotch and thinking fondly of old lovers. I can forgive that the reverie goes on a bit longer than it should when it sounds this good.

Best tracks: In the Wee Small Hours, Mood Indigo, Glad to Be Unhappy, I Get Along Without You Very Well, Can’t We Be Friends?, I’ll Be Around, It Never Entered My Mind

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