Michael Feinstein brings The Sinatra Project to Seattle on July 16, performing at Benaroya Hall with songs in homage to the Great American Songbook and to Frank Sinatra, with whom the crooner had a long friendship.
SAN FRANCISCO — As a master of musical seduction, Frank Sinatra could turn familiar tunes into soul-baring tales of lovelorn torment. So there’s something deeply satisfying about the way that Michael Feinstein, the suave American Songbook torchbearer, sidles up to his legacy on the recent Concord album “The Sinatra Project.”
Rather than simply interpreting a set of standards associated with Ol’ Blue Eyes, Feinstein comes at Frank from left field. Working with bandleader Bill Elliott, who wrote the arrangements, conducted the orchestra and produced the CD, Feinstein pulls a temporal sleight of hand, resetting World War II-era songs with new arrangements that capture the mood of Sinatra’s 1950s late-night heartache sessions.
The effect can be subtle but startling, as with Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” a Columbia hit for Sinatra in the mid-1940s that he never revisited in the studio. Elliott wrote a lush, swinging chart in the style of Nelson Riddle, who collaborated with Sinatra on some of his most powerful concept albums for Capitol. Feinstein performs the Sinatra material tonight with a swinging 17-piece band at Benaroya Hall.
“At first it was going to be an album of songs written for Sinatra by Yip Harburg, Sammy Cahn, and that he sang but didn’t get around to recording,” Feinstein said, looking boyish at 52. “But when we put it together, it didn’t feel like Sinatra. All these great songs didn’t evoke him. Bill and I thought, let’s do a tribute to romantic Sinatra, an album of energetically presented love songs.”
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For the new album, Feinstein and Elliott took over Capitol Studio A in Hollywood, where Sinatra made melancholy masterpieces such as “In the Wee Small Hours” and “Frank Sinatra Sings Only For the Lonely.” Recording “live” with the orchestra in one room, they employed two strategically placed microphones, creating the sense of depth that defined Capitol’s early stereo albums.
“We tried to do it as if we were making a Capitol record in 1959, and I tried to write as if I was a peer of Nelson Riddle and Billy May,” Elliott said. “I arranged ‘Exactly Like You’ as an homage to May with his trademark ‘slurping saxophones,’ where they don’t play the note straight on, they slide up to it.”
The seeds for “The Sinatra Project” were planted three decades ago when Feinstein was a young pianist newly arrived in Los Angeles. He doesn’t know who dropped his name, but somehow he got hired to entertain at a birthday party for Barbara Sinatra at the Beverly Hills eatery Chasen’s. Playing obscure songs that Sinatra had recorded in old films, like “Siesta” from 1948’s “The Kissing Bandit,” Feinstein kept his cool as guests like Johnny Carson, Don Rickles, Henry Mancini and Dinah Shore arrived.
“I did my homework in the hope that Sinatra would recognize me, because I understood that this was a great opportunity,” Feinstein said. “Every time I would start to play one of these songs, he would kind of look at me and get this perplexed expression. Finally, after about an hour, he came and leaned over the back of the upright piano and said ‘Jesus, kid, how do you know all those songs? How old are you, 12?’ “
He ended up with a dinner invitation at the Sinatras, the start of a friendship based on his love of show-business lore and encyclopedic knowledge of the American Songbook’s back pages.
“The Sinatra who I met,” Feinstein said, “was somebody very enthusiastic about the songs, and was great to me, a nobody.”