Originally created 05/17/98

Sinatra's sound, style explored

It would not be hard to imagine that Frank Sinatra, the American icon who passed away the other day, presents a dilemma at the Pearly Gates.

His life, if we believe only a portion of what was reported, was not that of a Boy Scout.

On the other hand, who could keep that voice from the choir of the angels?

Writing eight years ago in The New York Times, Harry Connick Jr. still couldn't get over the voice.

"He sings every note perfectly," Mr. Connick said.

"People always try to analyze his sound. It's got something to do with the way his jaw is shaped, I think. He has very little air in his tone; every note he sings, whether soft or loud, is all sound."

"Phrasing," said Al Hirt, when once asked Sinatra's secret.

"Phrasing, phrasing, phrasing."

Consider, for example, the way he phrases the first words in It Had To Be You.

"It ... had ... to be you." They come out like perfect triplets.

"He just knows," Mr. Connick marveled. "He understands everything a musician understands and he can articulate it because he is dealing with words, not merely sounds."

Of course, if you put the words and the sounds together, you get that Sinatra mood, that image which Billy Joel describes above.

It is a middle-of-the-night melancholy that evokes loneliness and loss.

It's late.

A drink is nearby.

The cigarette smoke is swirling off into the darkness.

The woman is gone. And she probably won't be back.

Men love this image because they've been there.

Women love the image because they imagine they've left Frank Sinatra in a bar alone, and he's still singing about them.

I love the image because it reminds me of Brahms.

Physically, the skinny, shorthaired Italian-American had little in common with the portly, long-haired German of the previous century.

But like Sinatra, Johannes Brahms understood reconcilation. His music is full of it, combining stubborn determination with lyricism.

Psychologists speculate these themes developed because the composer's parents separated and he spent years trying to get them back together.

There is a passage in Brahms' Third Symphony that I think is the most beautiful in "classical" music. It is sad, plaintive yet not without hope.

Brahms' music can make us feel both consoled, yet inspired -- what music scholars term "the harmony of militance and consolation."

So can Sinatra's.

One other thing, too.

A century after his death, experts cite Brahms as a pivot of musical modernism, but admittedly he is still best known for his famous lullaby.

Sinatra, the first "pop" singer, suffers a similar fate.

Many remember "doobie, dobbie, do," the "Rat Pack," and the tabloid headlines, and forget the blue-eyed genius of his voice.


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