[Dixielandjazz] Feinstein and Sinatra (plus a little Gershwin)

Stephen G Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Mon Sep 1 06:29:56 PDT 2008

If you are into Sinatra (or the American Songbook) Michael Feinstein  
is a great act to see when in NYC.
Steve Barbone

September 1, 2008 - NY TIMES - By Stephen Holden
Feinstein Comes Full Swing to Capitol-Era Sinatra

When Michael Feinstein begins a five-night engagement on Tuesday  
evening, performing Frank Sinatra songs with a 17-piece big band in  
the ballroom at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, the Manhattan supper  
club bearing his name will open its 10th-anniversary season. The date  
coincides with the release of his 24th album, “The Sinatra  
Project” (Concord), a record that differs from all other tributes to  
Ol’ Blue Eyes in its fusion of Mr. Feinstein’s passions for performing  
and musical archaeology.

Before he took to the stage, Mr. Feinstein, who turns 52 on Sunday,  
spent seven years as Ira Gershwin’s assistant and amassed an  
invaluable trove of Gershwiniana that is now housed at the Library of  
Congress. His cabaret performances and four annual concerts at Zankel  
Hall include fascinating obscurities he has dug up from the past,  
alternate lyrics and little-known verses from familiar standards.

Recorded mostly in Los Angeles at Capitol Records’ Studio A, where  
Sinatra made his classic concept albums, “The Sinatra Project” is a  
scrupulous effort to recreate the sound and style of the late-’50s  
Capitol albums Sinatra recorded with arranger-conductors like Nelson  
Riddle and Billy May. Several of the arrangements by the gifted retro- 
bandleader Bill Elliott might be described as “aural trompe l’oeil.”

“Begin the Beguine,” a song Sinatra recorded in 1946, has been  
reoutfitted in the stealthy swinging style of Nelson Riddle’s famous  
1956 arrangement for “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” “Exactly Like You,”  
which Sinatra performed only on the radio and never recorded,  
recreates the braying saxophone sound of the Billy May band.

“The concept of the album followed a circuitous path,” Mr. Feinstein  
explained recently in the piano room of his Upper East Side town  
house. “It began as a tribute to the Greatest Generation without the  
hackneyed material. Then it became songs Sinatra might have sung but  
never did, then love songs, and finally songs he did perform but with  
different arrangements, so that it wouldn’t sound like I was trying to  
copy him.

“I spent a number of evenings with Sinatra in the ’80s and early ’90s,  
and he was wonderful to me,” Mr. Feinstein continued. “I have qualms  
about the way he sometimes changed lyrics. But he had a tremendous  
reverence for songwriters and arrangers.”

More than two decades ago, when Mr. Feinstein was starting out as an  
intimate piano-bar performer specializing in Gershwin, the notion that  
he would some day record a swinging big-band album would have seemed  
unlikely. Since then he has evolved into a stand-up concert  
entertainer whose singing has grown in stamina, vocal range and  
rhythmic freedom. Nowadays he plays 150 dates a year, mostly in large  

As he has stepped out from behind the piano, he has also developed  
into a polished storyteller and celebrity mimic. He is one of the last  
all-around traditional entertainers in a postvaudeville tradition that  
stretches from Al Jolson to Billy Joel.

“There is no one on this earth who has expanded, exposed and embraced  
the American songbook as passionately as Michael,” Jonathan Schwartz,  
the disc jockey and author who carries the torch for the same  
tradition, said in an e-mail message.

Mr. Feinstein’s archivist’s mentality lends “The Sinatra Project” a  
dimension of esoteric scholarship. One of the songs, “How Will It  
Last?,” is an obscurity Sinatra recorded for Columbia in the 1940s  
with Xavier Cugat but never released. Mr. Feinstein discovered that  
the song, written by Max Lief and Joseph Meyer, had been introduced by  
Joan Crawford in the early-1931 movie “Possessed.” On the album it  
becomes a sultry bolero done tongue-in-cheek as a duet between Mr.  
Feinstein and China Forbes of the retro-lounge group Pink Martini,  
which plays on the cut.

Another obscurity, “The Same Hello, the Same Goodbye,” is an excerpt  
from a four-part dramatic performance piece with lyrics by Alan and  
Marilyn Bergman that Sinatra invited them to write in the late 1970s.

“After they finished it,” working with the composer John Williams,  
they “drove to Sinatra’s compound in Palm Springs,” Mr. Feinstein  
said. “After they played it for him, Sinatra, in tears, asked, ‘How do  
you know so much about my life?’ And Marilyn said, ‘As if your life  
was a closed book.’ But though he loved it, it was getting a little  
late in the game for him, and he never learned it. When I found out  
about it, I thought it would be a fabulous centerpiece for the album.  
But Alan and Marilyn realized they had cannibalized it and used parts  
for other songs. They were only able to extract one section.”

For Mr. Feinstein such detritus is artistic treasure that deserves to  
be rescued from oblivion.

“I preserve things that are significant to me,” he said. “Only time  
will determine what is important in the long term. But something can  
be rediscovered only if someone has collected and preserved it.”

The walls of his town house are plastered with vintage movie posters  
and photographs that lend the home he shares with his companion of 11  
years, Terrence Flannery, the feel of a lively show business museum  
(with elegant furniture). He and Mr. Flannery, who owns health  
facilities in Indiana, are planning to be married on Oct. 17 in Los  
Angeles with their friend Judith Sheindlin, better known as Judge  
Judy, officiating. She will be assisted by Gabriel Ferrer, an  
Episcopal priest and a son of Rosemary Clooney. Ms. Clooney, who was a  
mother figure to Mr. Feinstein and to many other musicians, was the  
biggest influence on his style.

When not touring Mr. Feinstein holes up in the basement studios of his  
homes in New York and Los Angeles and digitizes his ever-expanding  
sound archive. Its ultimate destination is a $160 million performing  
arts center in Carmel, Ind., to be completed in 2010. An attached  
museum, offered rent free, will be the national headquarters of the  
Feinstein Foundation for the Education and Preservation of the Great  
American Songbook and will include all his memorabilia and manuscripts.

Mr. Feinstein, unlike Harry Connick Jr. and Diana Krall, who made  
their initial impact in cabaret then left it behind, still keeps one  
foot firmly planted in the nightclub world. Situated in a room that is  
a popular power-breakfast hub, Feinstein’s at Loews Regency has been  
marginally profitable, but its value to the hotel in terms of prestige  
and visibility is incalculable, said Jonathan M. Tisch, the chairman  
and chief executive of the Loews hotel chain.

“To be honest,” he added, “hotel restaurants aren’t drawing that many  
dinner reservations unless they have a celebrity chef. On a good night  
the club draws 100 to 120 diners compared to the 10 or 12 before it  
became a cabaret.”

Mr. Feinstein is expanding in other directions. After dabbling in  
songwriting for years, he has composed most of the music for two  
shows: “The Day They Saved Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” a family  
musical, and “The Gold Room,” a two-character musical set in London  
about the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. (Victoria Clark has  
expressed interest in playing the role, he said.) Mr. Feinstein has  
also been given the rights to compose music for a show based on “The  
Thomas Crown Affair.”

“Composing gives me a sense of discovery that is exciting, because  
sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from me, as opposed to  
singing, when I know exactly where it’s coming from,” he said.

But the center of his life still revolves around his performing and  
preserving the pre-rock music of Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan  
Alley. “I think of myself as an enthusiast,” he said. “Even in the  
guise of education, the goal is always to entertain.”

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