The Curmudgeon: Instead of Singing Sinatra, They're Writing Sinatra

Music Features Frank Sinatra
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The Curmudgeon: Instead of Singing Sinatra, They're Writing Sinatra

There are times on the new album, Monte Warden & the Dangerous Few, when Warden seems to be channeling Frank Sinatra. Warden, the founder of the alt-country band the Wagoneers and a songwriter for George Strait and Patty Loveless, is now crooning with the cool seduction and swinging finger snap of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself. But it you don’t recognize the songs from Sinatra’s catalogue, that’s the whole point. Warden is not recycling old Sinatra songs; he’s writing new Sinatraesque songs and singing them himself.

And he’s not the only one. Over the past 12 months, Warden, Bria Skonberg, Gregory Porter and the dBs’ Chris Stamey have all written albums of new material in the style of the Great American Songbook. This is a welcome break from the tired trend of post-Beatles stars remaking songs originally done by Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Nat “King” Cole. Not only do these current albums unveil appealing new numbers in that grand old style, but they also mix in just enough of the new songwriters’ backgrounds—Americana for Warden, trad-jazz for Skonberg, gospel-soul for Porter and New Wave rock for Stamey—to connect the old with the new.

The very idea of rock and roots musicians recording the Great American Songbook was a bit controversial when James Brown and Willie Nelson did it in the ’60s and ’70s. By the ’80s, however, it had almost become an obligatory career move no more eyebrow-raising than making a Christmas album. Even Bob Dylan devoted four CDs to the activity, one more than Linda Ronstadt’s trilogy, but one less than schmaltzy Rod Stewart’s quintology. Paul McCartney, Queen Latifah, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Cyndi Lauper, Harry Nilsson, Aaron Neville and many more all went the same route.

Some of these were better than others. Nelson’s country-jazz interpretations were peerless, and Dylan’s country-blues readings were appealingly eccentric. Neville’s high tenor is always thrilling, and McCartney was surprisingly understated. But most of these singers are overly polite when tackling their parents’ favorite songs—providing no reason other than celebrity for anyone to buy their interpretations when the recordings of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald are still available.

It’s easy to understand why a singer would want to record those old songs by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and the rest, and why they’d want to adopt those old arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Buddy Bregman and Billy May. There’s no better feeling than to have a great song in your mouth with a great big band behind you. But if you’re a songwriter, wouldn’t you want to try writing in the same style as well? It’s surprising that it hasn’t been done more often.

After all, the Great American Songbook is a traditional music with its own vocabulary and history, no worse and no better than old-time string music, Delta blues or psychedelic-rock. Any of these ancient genres can be dusted off by a modern songwriter and be repurposed for new melodies and new sentiments.

For Warden, it all started when he was hired in 2015 to pen a song in the Sinatra style for a Toyota commercial. He’d never done anything like that, but he couldn’t afford to turn down the money. He was happy with the result and started writing more songs in the same vein. Soon he had enough songs to create a new band that could play this twangy take on the swinging crooners. Call it the Great Americana Songbook. The band—featuring Erik Telford on trumpet, Brent Wilson on upright bass, T.J. Bonta on piano and Mas Palermo on drums—was dubbed the Dangerous Few and started playing every Thursday night at the Continental Club in Austin.

Now the debut album Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few has been released. It presents a dozen original songs by Warden, usually co-written with his wife Brandi, sometimes with Telford or the band’s original pianist Floyd Domino (aka James Haber). What could be more Sinatra-like than a crisply swinging celebration of a good “Martini” when it’s “served in its proper glass?” Telford’s trumpet fills echo the brassy jazz arrangements that Sinatra favored, but there’s also more than a touch of mariachi in it, lending a Tex-Mex twist to the Rat Pack sound.

The album avoids the mistake of so many Great American Songbook revivals. It doesn’t slavishly reproduce a past period of music but rather flavors that period’s basic recipe with seasonings from subsequent genres. “Spring into Summer,” for example, boasts a midtempo, swinging melody that descends with such retro grace that it reinforces the theme of warm-weather romance. But Warden doesn’t belt it out as a big-band singer might but relies instead on the intimacy of a pop-folk singer-songwriter. The same understatement helps “Here Kitty Kitty” sustain its finger-snapping air of come-hither cool. The disc’s best ballad, “Anything but Love,” uses accordion, tinkling piano and drum brushes to achieve a timeless European cabaret feel.

Far more ambitious is Chris Stamey’s New Songs for a the 20th Century, which came out last year. The two-CD set employs 13 different vocalists on 25 original songs backed by a big band. The singers include Whiskeytown’s Caitlin Cary, jazz star Nnenna Freelon and Marshall Crenshaw, while the instrumentalists include Branford Marsalis, Nels Cline and Bill Frisell.

Stamey, co-founder of the legendary New Wave band the dBs and producer of acts ranging from Whiskeytown and Chatham County Line to Alejandro Escovedo and Le Tigre, isn’t one of the singers, but he wrote, arranged and produced the whole affair himself. He even published a sheet-music book sold separately from the recording. The dBs were the most Beatlesque of the early-’80s New Wave bands, because Stamey loved the Great American Songbook as much as Paul McCartney did. When Stamey was reunited with his childhood piano, he started writing songs in that style—and once he started, he couldn’t stop.

Stamey gives the music an unusual sound, for he doesn’t use any brass on the arrangements. Instead he balances his orchestra between reeds, strings and rhythm section. The results are less swinging and punchy than Sinatra or Warden but bring out the lush harmonies and clever wordplay better. This relaxed, non-pushy feel gives the music an autumnal flavor, as if the romances being dissected are those of well-traveled adults rather than hormone-motored kids.

The sprawling project grew out of a jazz radio play, Occasional Shivers, that Stamey wrote and produced in 2016 as well as solo albums he was writing and producing for singers Millie McGuire and Kirsten Lambert. Those songs, he noticed, were connected by piano-based harmonies in contrast to his former guitar-based harmonies. Using 10 fingers rather than four, he told me, makes a big difference in how you compose. That led to more writing, and Stamey documented his progress by notating the songs as sheet music.

Sheet music was an essential tool in the Great American Songbook era, but it was almost entirely abandoned in the rock and soul era, which instead emphasized simple changes and a rhythmic feel. But Stamey soon discovered that putting the notes down on paper fixes the desired melody and tempo variations in place and discourages singers and musicians from simplifying things for their own ease. The ability to be precise about composition allowed him to be more adventurous, confident that the nuances will survive from one rehearsal to the next.

Bria Skonberg, a singer and trumpeter from British Columbia, launched her career on the strength of her charismatic stage presence and her exuberant revival of jazz from the ’20s and ’30s. She always mixed in a few originals with her remakes of tunes by Jelly Roll Morton, Benny Goodman and Al Jolson, but she seemed trapped in the sound and sensibility of the past. But on her latest album, Nothing Ever Happens, Skonberg breaks out of that trap of her own devising.

The first stanza on the recording is, “I’ve heard it all before, don’t need to hear it again, the same old song, you’re doing me wrong.” She’s addressing a no-good boyfriend, but she could also be discussing the state of her own career. She wrote four of the album’s eight songs herself and co-wrote a fifth. In these new compositions, she breaks free from her trad-jazz background to mix the Great American Songbook with folk-blues, as if blending Sarah Vaughan with Bonnie Raitt. She even pulls off a successful mash-up of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy.”

The sultry, bluesy quality of the arrangements glues the best qualities of the older style with the best of the newer. She’s no longer trying to subdue the audience with her virtuosity and stage dazzle; she’s now understating her delivery, so she seems more approachable. And those who come close are rewarded with Sinatra-like songs that are less Broadway brassy and more Laurel Canyon vulnerable.

There was a time when jazz lyricists such as Bob Dorough, Oscar Brown Jr., Abbey Lincoln and Bobby Troup were as skillful as any in the pop world. But that skill set has declined in recent decades, as jazz singers were encouraged to stick with standards and the occasional new lyric was dashed off by an over-confident singer or instrumentalist. That’s why Gregory Porter’s emergence has been such a major development in jazz. His two main heroes are Nat “King” Cole and Donny Hathaway, the gifted but troubled R&B singer-songwriter. In their different eras and different styles, both men took lyrics very seriously as an art form, and Porter has managed to fuse their twin legacies.

Porter reconnected to the Great American Songbook in a profound way when he released the tribute album, Nat “King” Cole & Me, in 2017. He now applies those lessons to his own album of original songs, All Rise. The full album won’t be released till August, but five of the 15 songs have been released as singles, and all the tracks have been sent to the press. The drums and bass are more emphatic than Sinatra or Cole ever dared, but the horn charts and melodic leaps and dives are as sophisticated as anything those late crooners ever attempted.

The most Cole-like track is the string-swaddled ballad, “Love Is Overrated,” which was single release in April. “If love is overrated,” Porter croons over swooning violins, “let me be the one that is deceived.” The song works this conceit of suspended disbelief with an elegant melody that helps us to suspend our own. The same irrepressible faith in romantic love is evident on the May single “Phoenix,” which supplies the album’s title. Love may die, Porter sings, but it will always rise like a phoenix, so climb on his back and we will rise. To demonstrate that flight, the dizzying vocal melody swoops high and low above the horn chart and rippling rhythm.

The latest single is “Mister Holland,” which sounds like a Cole celebration of integration: the black narrator thanks the father of his white girlfriend for being open-minded. Both the idealistic attitude and the swinging horn chart seem rooted in Cole’s ’50s, while the funky rhythm comes from Porter’s adolescence in the ’80s—and Porter’s vocal holds it all together. Two earlier singles, “Revival” and “Thank You,” are straight-up gospel numbers, another major influence for Porter. Album tracks such as the ballads “Merry Go Round,” “The Real Truth,” “Everything You Touch Is Gold” and “Modern Day Apprentice” are Porter compositions that deserve their own pages in the Great American Songbook. Cole would have been glad to sing them.

What’s interesting about all four of these albums is the way they create a dialogue between the present and the past. The Great American Songbook still has something to tell us about stylish elegance and wry sophistication. But we also have something to tell that Songbook tradition. We know more about a multitude of musical traditions and about the physical desire and cynical betrayal that often hides behind that sophistication. Warden, Stamey, Skonberg and Porter are writing the songs that allow us to send a message to the weighty history of Sinatra and Cole.

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