Frank Sinatra’s “A Swingin’ Affair” Reviewed

Written by | May 12, 2018 9:07 am | No Comments

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45 minutes in  length, recorded in Hollywood over two weeks  in November 1956, with conductor and arranger Nelson Riddle at the helm, and a track list that reads like a greatest hits, plus a punchy hard jazz dance push, on top of which it functions as, if not a corrective, certainly a corollary to  the Hollywood String Quartet  featured  Close To You (here), Frank Sinatra’s thirteenth album, the second of three albums he dropped in 1957,  A Swingin’ Affair, has the texture of a masterpiece. But it isn’t one.  It isn’t the of a piece Songs For Swingin’ Lovers (here) . Lovers followed on the heels of Sinatra’s blue blue electric blue  In The Wee Small Hours  and was like an act of recovery. and Affair is stationary, it is in stasis.

1957 found Sinatra at the peak of his skills on nearly every single level, his only problem was our over familiarity.  A well beyond skilled interpreter of the Great American Songbook, Sinatra had found a way to imprint on some of the greatest songs of all time, it is a quasi improvised, sweet spot sting of a certain skill set   Listen to the way he adds a “ring-a-ding-ding”,” to “I Won’t Dance,” “You know what? You’re lovely. Ring-a-ding-ding, you’re lovely”  as in just one couplet he owns the song but once he owns it all he can do is swing it out: perhaps the Kern-Hammerstein song doesn’t lend itself to a touch more subdued take, but the song is about seduction by ambivalence and Sinatra is so at his ease here he bangs his way right through the complicated emotions hiding as an iterated hook not unlike a rap song. And, not unlike rap, it is an arrogant slug of bourbon.

Here is the tracklist plus composers:

“Night and Day” (Cole Porter)
“I Wish I Were in Love Again” (Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart)
“I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin'” (DuBose Heyward, George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin)
“I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” (Arthur Schwartz, Howard Dietz)
“Nice Work If You Can Get It” (G. Gershwin, I. Gershwin)
“Stars Fell on Alabama” (Frank Perkins, Mitchell Parish)
“No One Ever Tells You” (Hub Atwood, Carroll Coates)
“I Won’t Dance” (Jerome Kern, Jimmy McHugh, Oscar Hammerstein II, Otto Harbach, Dorothy Fields) –
“The Lonesome Road” (Nat Shilkret, Gene Austin)
“At Long Last Love” (Porter)
“You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” (Porter)
“I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” (Duke Ellington, Paul Francis Webster)
“From This Moment On” (Porter)
“If I Had You” (Jimmy Campbell, Reginald Connelly, Ted Shapiro)
“Oh! Look at Me Now” (Joe Bushkin, John DeVries)

Of the fifteen songs here, 12 are immediately identifiable classics, and nobody can do these songs as well as Sinatra, but his swing here steamrolls em and leaves them gasping for air and while long enough for a dance band, it plays out like a dance band (the album cover certainly implies that that is what you’re getting) without the instrumental breaks. Sinatra is a legend of self-confidence here from the very top: “Night And Day” is a highly dramatic song and well within hisscope and yet the “night and day”-“day and night” trope amounts to nothing here. 41 years old when he recorded A Swingin’ Affair, this is a prime of life primer for middle aged American white men: SInatra takes without returning, he was so secure in his skills that he drove right past his interpretive skills: he is neither ebullient nor subdued, but rather a hip playboy and an effortless seducer of the USA.

If what hurts Sinatra is a distilled self-awareness, what hurts Riddle is familiarity. He might have been following orders, but really, I get more of a Michael Jackson- Quincy Jones vibe from their collaborations, and therefore it was up to Riddle to fill the holes. Listen to Sinatra’s fine but no more than fine take on Duke Ellington’s “I’ve Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” which underlines his voice with a horn, then compare it to the Francis A. & Edward K. album with the Duke in 1968, Sinatra is singing just as well (though his phrasing is a little better) but the band he used in 1968 is much better.

Given the grade you may be wondering what I’m complaining about. I’m complaining because the greatest singer of the 20th Century failed to nail an album filled to the brim with money in the bank  and didn’t pull off single best version ever.

Grade: A-

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