The vocalist and pianist reinterprets songs by such greats as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peggy Lee plus more
When the foremost custodian of the Great American Songbook pays tribute to the music’s greatest practitioner, the results are guaranteed to be both dynamic and original. Such was indeed the case in 2008 when Michael Feinstein crafted The Sinatra Project, which marked his ninth Concord release and was nominated for a Grammy. Feinstein, long recognized as not only one of the world’s finest vocal and piano stylists but also for his tireless efforts to preserve, protect and promote the songs and songwriters that shaped the golden age of American music, wanted to pay tribute to the rich Sinatra legacy, but was determined to do so in a way that was fresh and unique. With The Sinatra Project, Feinstein explains, he “decided to focus on the aspects of Sinatra’s art that people don’t always think about; specifically, his particular taste and style in choosing music and how he pervaded it, paying close attention to the arrangements and orchestrations, which were important elements in making Sinatra great.” Feinstein took songs Sinatra had sung—some instantly familiar others relatively obscure—and reinterpreted them in “different ways that still reflected his style and approach. It was a way into the material that allowed me honor him without copying; to bring the essence of him through without being an imitator.”
Now, with The Sinatra Project, Volume II: The Good Life (set for release by Concord Jazz on October 25), Feinstein has found another inventive way in. “The second volume is really about Sinatra and his friends,” says Feinstein. “It’s about the people he influenced and who influenced him. The focus is more on the 1960s. The album includes a few songs Sinatra never sang, which was intentional because I wanted to encapsulate that era and show that, though he was still very important, music and styles were changing. It was the ushering in of a new sensibility, and yet the 1960s was still a time when rich, standards-type songs like ‘For Once In My Life’ were still being created alongside newer pop elements like rock and roll.”
Close to a dozen superstars, many of whom Sinatra counted as close friends and also deeply admired as artists, influenced Feinstein’s song selections and his stylistic choices, including Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Ann-Margret, Duke Ellington, Fred Astaire, Nancy Wilson and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Again Feinstein combines familiar and comparatively obscure material, creating a 12-track playlist that extends from such signature Sinatra tunes as “Luck Be a Lady” and “The Lady Is a Tramp” to the extremely rare “C’est Comme Ça,” co-written by Ellington and Marshall Barer for the 1966 Broadway flop Pousse Café (a musical adaptation of the 1930 Joseph von Sternberg film The Blue Angel, starring Marlene Dietrich).
Throughout the closing decades of Sinatra’s career, Feinstein himself became friendly with the legendary singer. Their first meeting was in the late 1970s at Chasen’s, one of Sinatra’s favorite Hollywood watering holes. Sinatra was throwing a birthday party for his wife, Barbara, and Feinstein was booked to play piano. “Frank invited me to join him after he heard me play,” Feinstein recalls. “I was very excited by that. I wasn’t interested in all the personal aspects of his life, nor did I know much about them. I was interested in the art, and because I got to meet him in such a casual situation he was at his most relaxed, very talkative and freewheeling. He talked about his years at MGM and [producer] Arthur Freed and songwriters. It was really fun. There was no sign of any temperament. He was just great to me.”
Prior to Sinatra’s death in 1998, their paths would frequently cross. “When Liza [Minnelli] was touring with him, I’d often go backstage to see her and would get to spend time with him, too. And I was at his house for several dinners. One time, Barbara asked me if I wanted to perform, but I declined. In addition to Sinatra, the guests that night included Dinah Shore and lots of other big-name singers and music executives, and I was just too nervous. I wish I had, though. It would have been great to sing for all those people, but I felt too overwhelmed!”
When, three years ago, Feinstein conceived The Sinatra Project, he partnered with producer/arranger Bill Elliott to help realize his concept. Together with Elliott, Feinstein was able to recreate the charts he envisioned in the style of such classic Sinatra arrangers as Nelson Riddle and Billy May. Elliott returns for The Sinatra Project, Volume II: The Good Life, again demonstrating his alchemic ability to fulfill Feinstein’s vision. “Bill Elliot is one of the most talented musicians working today,” says Feinstein. “I was recently at a party where somebody said, ‘Bill Elliott is like a secret weapon; he’s this unsung hero,’ and I said, ‘I wouldn’t call him unsung. He’s doing arrangements for the Boston Pops and L.A. Philharmonic and for New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, he did the arrangements for the current Broadway production of Anything Goes and he’s doing them for the forthcoming musical Robin and the Seven Hoods!’ He is becoming more and more in-demand. That’s because Bill’s background is such that he can orchestrate in any style. He’s very seriously schooled in all pop music styles. He knows how to create an orchestration to sound like a 1930 band or a 1935 band, between which there is a huge difference; or he can [replicate] the 1920s, ’40s, ’50s or rock ‘n’ roll. And Bill can do it so it sounds organic, which is fiendishly difficult. I hear so many recordings that want to sound retro and they always sound ersatz to me. Bill, as the result of years of work, can emulate any style and make it fresh. I can’t think of anyone else who can do what he can do.”
In addition to producing the album, working with Feinstein on all the arrangements and orchestrations and conducting the 30-member orchestra, Elliott plays piano on eight of the dozen tracks. The album’s core group also includes guitarist Jim Fox, bassist Kirk Smith, drummer Albie Berk and percussionist Bernie Dresel. Asked if it is difficult to work with another pianist when he is so accustomed to accompanying himself, Feinstein responds, “Not at all… It is fun to work with someone else because it spurs me to sing the songs a little differently.” Feinstein does, however, accompany himself on four tracks, two—“The Good Life” and “Sway”—with the full orchestra and two—“C’est Comme Ça” and “I’ll Be Around”—with just Smith and violinist Sid Page.
As for the album’s subtitle, Feinstein says he chose “The Good Life” because “it reflects the ’60s, when Sinatra had gotten to a point in his life where he became iconic in a way that was different from the ’50s. He really came into his own. And it was also a good time. “The Good Life” is a song from the mid-’60s and people were in many ways, if perhaps illusionary, living a good life.”