Fifty years ago, Reprise Records heralded its first release. The label was founded by singer/actor/entertainer Frank Sinatra, who had been with Capitol Records since 1953 and was yearning for total creative freedom; something he felt was denied to him, despite his enormous commercial and critical success.
His own first release on the label was, not surprisingly, ebullient, and with Concord Records now handling Sinatra's Reprise catalog, Ring-a-Ding, Ding! (1961) has been remastered, along with My Way (1969) and Strangers in the Night (1966).
Unlike the other releases to date Sinatra-Basie: The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings doesn't include any bonus tracks, but this is the series' first coupling of two full albums: Sinatra-Basie: An Historic Musical First (1962) and It Might as Well Be Swing (1964).
The remastering has resulted in greater instrumental clarity and the texture of Sinatra's vocal prowess, revealing subtle nuances. The improvement in dynamics is more notable on Historic Musical First, with a richer sound overall. There's a fuller-bodied tone from the reeds in particular, as well as the piano, highlighting the ever-stylish, less-is-more playing from Count Basie.
The tracks dating from October '62 are the most jazz-influenced, and the song selection, for the most part, is top notch. Highlights include "I Won't Dance," "Please be Kind," "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" and three tracks where Neal Hefti's arranging skills match, if not better, the previous Nelson Riddle charts: "Learnin' the Blues," "Pennies from Heaven" and a sublime "(Love Is) The Tender Trap." They are in stark contrast to the rather clumsy treatment on "My Kind of Girl."
The second half of this 20-track collection was arranged by Quincy Jones, with "Fly Me to the Moon" the jewel in the crown. Less convincing is Sinatra's delivery on "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Hello, Dolly!," but he turns in great performances on "More," "The Best Is Yet to Come" and "I Wish You Love"and if it weren't for the misogynistic overtones, "Wives and Lovers" would also be a welcome inclusion. It's a good arrangement and Sinatra swings like crazy, but one would need to place it in the context of sexist Rat Pack humor that was deemed acceptable by many at the time.
Interestingly, on its release in '64, critics were less than kind about the inclusion of strings. Despite Quincy Jones giving inventive sax lines to the strings section, it doesn't have the raw energy of Sinatra and Basie's first meeting.
The Basie Orchestra's ability to swing like almost no other is unquestionable. And paradoxically, on both albums represented in this release, it is the band's renowned precision that unleashes some of the most rhythmically buoyant and playful vocal performances of Sinatra's career.
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