Downbeat magazine's listing of this recording as among the best of 2007 reminds us that not the least of the phenomenal one's talents was his towering strength as a "jazz singer": Sinatra, in fact, was a classy hat trick, a spectacular three-act opera, three scenes per act. First, there's the Columbia, Capitol, and Reprise Sinatras; next, there's the swinger, the torch singer, and the surprisingly "legit" descendent of Caruso who projected Hammerstein ("Ole Man River," "I Have Dreamed") into orbit; finally, there's the matinee idol who introduced "bobby soxer" and "swoon" to the American vernacular, followed by the reactionary who rescued the Great American Songbook, followed by the commanding Chairman with blue eyes capable of reaching higher than Michael Jordan into the uppermost rows of the same Chicago Stadium where both stars played. This set is a reminder of the latter Sinatra, who was the primary reason that Las Vegas was once a genuine "cabaret" city worth visiting, as opposed to a family theme park gouging tourists before they'd ever seen a slot machine.
The first disc alone, a 1961 concert at the Sands, is arguably the best live Sinatra on record (including the later Sands date with the Basie Band). Not only is the performer in perfect voice, but it's one of those sets containing magical if not miraculous moments that surprise and amaze the artist as much as the listener fortunate enough to experience them. It's also one of those times when a Sinatra profanity (after a breath-taking, seamless linking of the bridge to the out-chorus of "Moonlight In Vermont") is less a curse than at once the acknowledgment of a higher power and the only defense any of us has against emotion strong enough to stop the show. On Cole Porter's "In The Still Of The Night," the featured performer hits the high note of the last 16 bars from above, not below, the pitch, then rocket fuels the tune for an exhilarating ride home. In short, there's much here at which a listener can only marvel (and, if you ever saw him, give a little prayer of thanks).
Once again, on the second discSinatra and Basie at the Sands in 1966the Master Storyteller has never been in better voice (at least since the Capitol days), his love affair with the Basie band even more palpable than the familiar commercial release of the same show from the same year. He also exudes confidence, quickness of wit, and no small amount of repartee that might be deemed "for adult ears." A highlight has to be the Gershwins' "I've Got A Crush On You" (one of the few by the brothers that has always tested this listener's patience). On this occasion, Sinatra first exposes the song's lyrical and musical absurdities before deconstructing and subsequently trashing the number. Not only is the still-slim Sinatra in better voice and higher spirits than on the original commercial release (still probably his most highly-regarded concert recording), but the audio is superiorwith more balanced ensembles and fresher, fuller-frequencied sound (without the artificially boosted bass of the previous release).
Discs 3 and 4, from 1982 and 1987 (at Caesar's and the Golden Nugget respectively), find Sinatra in rougher, more weathered voice but no less communicative. The breath support may be noticeably lacking on the slow ballads, but Old Blue's interpretive and acting skills quickly disguise these technical deficiencies. Moreover, these final two dates feature a kinder, more munificent and generous Sinatra, grateful in equal proportions to his composers (mentioned far more frequently), arrangers, musiciansand his audience. With the exception of Jule Styne's "Hey Look, No Crying" the program at Caesar's is the most predictable of the five, with the duet with daughter Nancy ("Somethin' Stupid") arguably representing the weakest musical moment in the entire box.
The late date at the Golden Nugget features at least two notable surprisesRodgers and Hart's "Spring Is Here" and a bracing reprise of "Pennies From Heaven," with the memorable chart supplied for the singer on the occasion of the first recorded meeting of Sinatra and Basie (Sinatra-Basie, Reprise 1964). In his determination to credit each of the composers, the performer mistakenly attributes the Arthur Johnston tune to Jimmy Van Heusen (usually a safe guess). To the icon's credit, on these four discs the singer who had by this time become an "institution" manages to avoid almost entirely the tiresome twosome, "My Way" and "New York, New York," the use of the latter tune as a closer on Disc 4 the lone exception.
The DVD, a 1978 performance, has much of the earlier Sinatra bravado and swagger but also looks forward to the 1980s Sinatra, for whom the top priority was always the music and its makers, the "Vegas smart talk" not as pervasive as has been reported. Parts of the tape have long circulated in bootleg form among collectors, and the rumors about Sinatra's salacious off-the-cuff remarks have grown over the years. Compared to the rumors, the supposedly unsanitized Sinatra is working more at his best than his blue-est. Some listeners no doubt will feel cheated that Sinatra-Vegas falls short of delivering the uncensored Sinatra, the bigger-than-life man of extremes whose warts could provoke as much controversy as the excitement generated by his watts. Some quick research on the Sinatra blogs reveals that the entertainer's raunchy riff on Elizabeth Taylor's "queynte" (look it up in Chaucer) and his well-intentioned salute to his "colored" friend, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, have been bleeped, apparently by the Sinatra estate.
The omissions should be considered incidental if not negligible. One of the non-musical highlights of the video is the Chair's acknowledging Orson Welles in the audience and using the great corpulent director's Citizen Kane as a platform to denounce bigotry and phoniness (along with specifically naming those who represent and promulgate it)a rhetorical rant worthy of a Keith Olbermann polemic. The program is varied and ambitious, mixing the old masters of the Great American Songbook with contemporary composers. Sinatra's readings of Jimmy Webb's "Didn't We?" and George Harrison's "Something," both with lyrics that, to put it mildly, pale alongside those of a Porter or Hart, are undeniably effective. Old Blue not only manages to salvage something from "Something" but transforms the tune's papery words into exquisite poetry, even taking over conducting duties to insure a poignant result. The breath support is there for the characteristically dazzling "breathless" segues between choruses and bridges, and the man turns in arguably his best televised performance ever.
The one medium in which the "Entertainer of the Century's" dominance was most seriously challenged was television. The performance on the DVD helps the viewer understand why his was not a persona for the small tube, which favored "cozier" performers like Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Dean Martin, and Fred Rogers. Yet the show is a crowd- pleaser and artistic triumph at the same time. Apart from an irresistibly affecting "America" as a closer, the kicker is a jazz quartet background, on "Baubles, Bangles and Beads," for a vocalist normally drawn to epic-scale string sections, reminding us, as he does on the 1959 Australian concert with vibraphonist Red Norvo, of his chops as a pure jazz singer. (He's so good one can forgive him his dismissive remarks toward Jimmy Carter for not allowing hard liquor in the White House. It's all too easy to forget that Carter was more welcoming toward jazz greats than any President before or since, opening both the American people's House and his heart to Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, and a gravely ill Charles Mingus). The penultimate number of the televised event is "My Way," its only appearance on all five discs.
The joy of experiencing this music in chronological succession is mixed with not a little sadnessthe elegiac sense not just of time passing but of an entire era. And the sadness stems from not only the loss of a legend but, to some extent, of an attentive, receptive public for this music. One can't blame the featured performer for getting testy whenever outspoken members of the audience insistently demand "NY, NY" or "My Way." And then there's the last concert when the Chair not only sings the lady is a "Champ" but goes to the effort to "explain" (not once but twice!) that the words for Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well" are not meant to be taken literally.
Of course, this is a box set aimed at the "younger" fans who now constitute a decisive majority among the Master Storyteller's admirersthe boomers for whom Sinatra is the Chairman of the Rat Pack, not the legato, bel canto singer from the Dorsey days or the daring reactionary and sensitive interpreter who, along with Nelson Riddle, elevated American popular song to an indisputably stunning American art form on the Capitol "concept" albums of the 1950s. Still, one can only hope that Sinatra either misinterpreted his later champions' level of literacy and understanding or that those to whom he directs his more didactic efforts actually represent a small minority. If not, there's not much hope for American popular song or the culture of which this sublimely poetic and dramatic, sophisticated and complex artistic expression was once an integral part.
Tracks: CD1: Introduction/Announcement; The One I Love Belongs To Somebody Else; Don't Cry; Imagination; Moonlight In Vermont; Without A Song; In The Still Of The Night; Here's That Rainy Day; The Moon Was Yellow (And the Night Was Young); Monologue; You Make Me Feel So Young; The Second Time Around; River, Stay 'Way From My Door (Parody); The Lady Is A Tramp; Just One Of Those Things; You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You; Bows; Young At Heart; Witchcraft; On The Road To Mandalay; Bows; Sinatra Speaks on Segregation in Nevada. CD2: Introductions; Come Fly With Me; I've Got A Crush On You; I've Got You Under My Skin; The September Of My Years; Street Of Dreams; Fly Me To The Moon (In Other Words); Monologue; You Make Me Feel So Young; The Shadow Of Your Smile; Get Me To the Church on Time; Luck Be A Lady; It Was A Very Good Year; Don't Worry 'Bout Me; My Kind Of Town; Introductions; My Kind Of Town; Sinatra Speaks on Working with Count Basie. CD3: Get Me To The Church On Time; I Get A Kick Out Of You; I Can't Get Started; Without A Song; Hey Look, No Crying; The Lady Is A Tramp; Monologue; Night And Day; All Or Nothing At All; The One I Love Belongs To Somebody Else; These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You); Somethin' Stupid; Theme From New York, New York; Bows. CD4: I've Got The World On A String; At Long Last Love; Witchcraft; Medley: The Gal That Got Away/It Never Entered My Mind; For Once In My Life; My Heart Stood Still; You Are The Sunshine Of My Life; Monologue; Spring Is Here; What Now My Love?; I Get Along Without You Very Well; Pennies From Heaven; Angel Eyes; Mack The Knife; Bows. DVD: Backstage (Before The Show); "Welcome To Caesars"; All Of Me; Maybe This Time; The Lady Is A Tramp; Didn't We?; Someone To Watch Over Me; Something; Baubles, Bangles And Beads; Medley: The Gal That Got Away/It Never Entered My Mind; Monologue; My Kind Of Town; Send In The Clowns; Monologue; Don't Worry 'Bout Me; Introductions; My Way; America The Beautiful; Backstage (After The Show); Bonus Material.
Featured Personnel: Ron Anthony: guitar; Count Basie: piano; Billy Byers: arranger; Gene Cherico: bass; Don Costa: arranger; Irving Cottler: drums; Vincent Falcone, Jr.: piano; Frank Foster: arranger; Neal Hefti: arranger; Jim Hughart: bass; Gordon Jenkins: arranger; Quincy Jones: arranger, conductor; Lou Levy: piano; Johnny Mandel: arranger; Billy May: arranger; Bill Miller: piano, conductor; Tony Mottola: guitar; Sy Oliver: arranger; Nelson Riddle; arranger; Charles Turner: trumpet; Al Viola, guitar; Nancy Sinatra: vocalist.