For vocal tribute albums to amount to more than a collection of standards, there should be either strong stylistic connections between artists (Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Dear Ella
) or strong personal ties (Carol Sloane’s The Songs Carmen Sang
). Keely Sings Sinatra
has both. Keely Smith and Frank Sinatra shared a longstanding professional relationship as well as being romantically involved during the 1960s. Unfortunately, nothing on the CD suggests that those associations have given Ms. Smith a greater understanding of Mr. Sinatra’s music.
To be fair, psychological insight has never been a large part of Keely Smith’s work. Stylistically, she epitomizes the Las Vegas lounge, “ring-a-ding-ding” aspect of the Sinatra legacy. Although more disciplined than Dean Martin and less mannered than Sammy Davis, Jr., Ms. Smith has never really managed to overcome the inherent limitations of her glossy Vegas style. She is a delightful and polished entertainer, but she has never been, and is not now, a great jazz singer.
Vocally, Ms. Smith is still in very good shape. Her resonant alto remains strong and clear, but her vibrato, which has always been evident on sustained notes, now sounds worn. Her diction is fine although her unusual pronunciation of certain vowels renders some words almost unintelligible. She compensates for an essentially monochromatic timbre through changes in dynamics, which generally involve escalating levels of loudness. Ms. Smith tends to hug the beat closely, which makes her an ideal big band singer.
Backed by the Frankie Capp Orchestra, Keely Sings Sinatra plays like a 60’s Las Vegas revue complete with an “introduction” and mid-show monologue. Several of the supposedly humorous lyric alterations sound like they are also refugees from the Martini Era. Still, when the big band is roaring behind her, Ms. Smith generates an energy that is positively infectious. She transforms tunes like “Night and Day,” “The Music Stopped,” “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” and “Without a Song” into unadulterated celebrations of the power of swing. However, Keely Sings Sinatra falters when Ms. Smith reaches for those aspects of the Sinatra legacy that lay outside her limited stylistic reach. Although she does particularly well with a pairing of “I’ll Never Smile Again” and “Dream,” most of the ballads sound prosaic. The CD also contains a number of glaring misfires most notably a cringe inducing, up-tempo arrangement of “It Was a Very Good Year.”
Regardless of the quality of the song, the arrangement or the concept, Ms. Smith sounds game, and she manages to uplift all of these performances, good and bad, with her sincere affection for Mr. Sinatra, both the man and his music.