Frank Sinatra with the Red Norvo Quintet: Live in Australia, 1959
During his heyday at Capitol in the 1950s, when he recorded his definitive hard-swinging albums with big bands led by Nelson Riddle and Billy May, and indeed throughout most of his long career, Frank Sinatra has seldom appeared and almost never recorded with just a small band backing. This never-before-released live recording, just out on Blue Note, showcases Sinatra in an intimate setting backed only by Norvo's quintet and Sinatra's regular pianist Bill Miller. The small ensemble, playing arrangements based on Riddle and May's Capitol charts, affords the singer greater freedom and room for improvisation, and Sinatra delivers a relaxed, though always swinging performance that is a must for Sinatra fans, jazz vocal fans, and fans of small band jazz in general.
The familiar lineup of classic American popular songs opens with two instrumentals by Norvo's group before Sinatra enters, quietly and with ever impeccable timing, on Lerner and Loewe's "I Could Have Danced All Night." A trio of mid-tempo Cole Porter songs follows, with Norvo improvising breezily behind the singer. A few of the more exuberant numbers, like "I've Got You Under My Skin," suffer somewhat by comparison to the album renditions, crying out for the explosiveness of a big band. However, what impresses most throughout this performance is Sinatra's laid back swing, his seemingly effortless ability to create a mood of relaxed cool. He interacts easily with the band, especially Norvo on vibes and Miller on piano, and seems to enjoy the looseness of the arrangments, which leave plenty of room for extemporizing by both band and singer. While a lot of performers can swing hard, Sinatra shows that the real test of musicianship is the ability to swing easy.
Although he keeps his banter with the audience to a minimum, with the clowning and vulgarity noticeably less than on many of his live dates during this period, there are some of the expected Sinatra flourishes here. Turning down a request for "Chicago," he says that he was drunk when he recorded it and doesn't know the words. Of literary note is his explanation that the song "Road to Mandalay," based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling, was kept off albums in the UK because of a dispute with the Kipling estate. A local Austrailian orchestra is added on the last three songs, including a sensational version of "Night and Day" with Norvo's vibes featured out front.