Riffs: A Sinatra 'live' affair with NYC

Wednesday, November 4, 2009 at 12:29am
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He’s certainly New Jersey’s first citizen, but there’s still no vocalist in recent times more identified with New York City than Frank Sinatra. Throughout his career, Sinatra shows there were always special and spectacular affairs, especially any concert at Madison Square Garden.

Now his love affair with that locale is celebrated with an outstanding new five-disc boxed set Sinatra: New York (Reprise). The four CDs and single DVD cover various Sinatra shows from 1955 to 1990, with 71 performances arranged in such a manner that they trace the evolution of his sound and the maturation of his voice.

The first disc includes a handful of performances from 1955 when Sinatra briefly rejoined the band that helped launch his career, The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, for a special show at the Manhattan Center to celebrate the Orchestra’s 20-year anniversary.

This was mainly a greatest hits affair, with the highlight being one of the best versions of “I’ll Never Smile Again” recorded outside the studio.

The other songs were taken from a 1963 set where Sinatra had been recruited to help celebrate U.N. staff day. Performing in the Manhattan offices of the United Nations and backed only by pianist Skitch Henderson, Sinatra trimmed some of the embellishments and delivered intimate, soaring versions of “I Have Dreamed,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “I Get A Kick Out Of You.”

The second and third discs feature material from a pair of 1974 concerts at Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden respectively. By now the tone is harder and the range not quite as flexible at the top, but the timing, delivery and technique are honed and exceptional. The only down side from these shows is the tendency toward familiarity in the presentations.

Audiences expected to hear certain songs in every Sinatra show, and he didn’t disappoint them. Thus you get multiple versions of “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “My Way,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” which was among the better numbers Sinatra did from the rock era. Some others (“You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”) just never seemed to work, even as he and his bands tried different things to make them fit into his repertoire.

The final CD, as well as the DVD, comes from the 1980s, which was an erratic decade for Sinatra. He often expressed his displeasure with the quality of songs that were available, and sometimes the live shows were uneven.

Fortunately, the Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall concerts featured here are mostly upbeat and musically strong. He wisely stuck to the standards and show tunes he’d always loved, and there are excellent renditions of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Mack The Knife,” “Fly Me To The Moon,” “I Can’t Get Started” and “I’ve Got The World On A String.”

The DVD also shows an aging lion still able to captivate an audience. He included in the June 25, 1980 Carnegie Hall show tunes like “Summer Me, Winter Me,” “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry” and “The Song Is You” that weren’t always in the Sinatra program by that time, but were still fabulous numbers. He also turns in triumphant performances of “When Your Lover Has Gone,” “The Lady Is A Tramp” and “Street of Dreams.”

Many of these concerts occurred shortly after Sinatra had cut famous albums. Such as The Concert Sinatra (1963), Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back” (1973) and Trilogy (1980). The third CD also features backing from Woody Herman’s Young Thundering Herd conducted by Bill Miller on several numbers, among them “The Lady Is A Tramp” and “Autumn In New York.” His son Frank Sinatra Jr. conducted the orchestra for the 1990 numbers, whose high point was another strong version of “Strangers In The Night” and nearly as good performance of “Mack The Knife.”

This set’s blend of old and new, youthful star and venerable stylist, makes it mandatory for the Sinatra fanatic, but also a good retrospective for those interested in getting a decent cross-section of work from one of the nation’s all-time greatest vocalists.

More Bee Gees

By now music fans may be weary with the numerous anniversary celebrations, but Reprise is hoping that there’s still interest in one more as they’re expanding the Bee Gees 50th anniversary into 2010.

Before issuing a bigger set next March that will honor each member of the Gibb family (including Andy, who wasn’t in the Bee Gees), the new two CD/DVD set The Ultimate Bee Gees spotlights their biggest hits from both the disco/dance era and the rock/pop period.

The first disc contains the familiar club hits, while also including a live version of “Spicks and Specks” and some other numbers like their cover of The Four Tops “Still Waters (Run Deep) and their version of “Secret Love.”

The second CD has signature tunes “How Deep Is Your Love,” “To Love Somebody” and “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” as well as “New York Mining Disaster” and “Massachusetts” as well as “I Started A Joke” and “I’ve Got to Get A Message To You.”

The DVD mixes songs from both periods, though oddly it omits “You Should Be Dancin.” This isn’t exactly music you can’t find elsewhere, but The Ultimate Bee Gees does collect every hit and memorable tune in one tidy package.