Frank and Nelson Got it Right the First Time…

This is a really interesting album … an unusual album even. Back in 1963 Frank eschewed the saloon titles, love songs and swing’n hits that made him a giant and grabbed four sound stages at the Goldwyn Studio in Hollywood to lay down this 8 track record — cut from the heart of Broadway’s finest composers/lyricists.

Four tracks from Rodgers and Hammerstein, a couple from Rodgers and his earlier partner Lorenz Hart … one song from Hammerstein and Kern (one from a pair that I’d not heard of before — Anderson and Weill).

Though the track list is somewhat less approachable than the swing’n pop numbers that made him so popular, the 1963 Reprise Records release of The Concert Sinatra was critically acclaimed for showing off Frank’s vocal control, unique intonation, Nelson Riddle’s masterful but unusually orchestral arrangements and amazing (for the time) recording technology.

After Concord did such a fabulous job with the re-master of the Sinatra-Basie studio recordings (VS review here), I’ve been anxiously awaiting the arrival of The Concert Sinatra. Passed though the same engineering team as the Sinatra-Basie LP, I was hopeful this effort would render a similarly impressive result. Well …

It just goes to show…

…that digital remastering and audio engineering is an inexact science — a black art. Apply the same magic audio juju to different recordings and you can get vastly differing results. This axiom is proven true with this remastered release.

I don’t know if the elaborate recording methods Reprise used at the Goldwyn Studio in ’63 (24 microphones and super high output film*) did not lend themselves to the digital remastering process as well as the Sinatra-Basie studio sessions clearly did … or if the 50 year old original tape no longer held enough data to work with … all I know is the 2012 remastered edition has issues that send me back to the original recording (2009 CD release) when I want to listen to this unusual and beautiful material from Sinatra.

The main problem with the remaster for me is Frank’s vocal track. Again, UNLIKE the Sinatra-Basie 2011 remaster, this attempt seems to thin out (maybe “flatten” is a better term for it), and over tighten Frank’s vocals for the sake of … clarity I guess.

For you photo buffs, it’s like sharpening a photograph during post processing in the pursuit of enhanced contrast and ending up with an image that is over-crisp.

In this case Frank’s vocals just seem a bit over bright and crisp throughout The Concert Sinatra / [Remastered & Expanded] — manifesting in exaggerated “S” sounds and a … “thinning brightness” is the best way I can describe it.

I really was taken back by this outcome after BluWave Audio’s stellar Sinatra-Basie rendering, so I spent the better part of three days listening and comparing in detail the original 1963 LP vs. the 2012 remaster … a variety of volume levels, headphones, small room stereo system listening, full up studio speaker music room listening … they all left me in the same place with this release — not good.

Hey, “listening” is an inherently personal process and I’m not saying this album sucks. I am saying that Frank’s vocal track is distinctively different from the original material; that difference is not well received by my listening ear.

The goal of any re-mastering attempt should be to reach for noticeable improvement, but regardless of achieving that goal the process should do no harm and sadly in my opinion they did not meet that test in this case.

Nelson and Frank

That said, the original album track list is awesome!

Frank Sinatra in his prime with an incredible 70+ musician orchestra conducted by Nelson Riddle … I know what you’re saying. “yeah, yeah I’ve heard Frank and NR together before.” … but they hit a different stride here that is again — unique.

The track list (below) is pure broadway … at least the original eight tracks off the 1963 release. We’ll talk about the “bonus tracks” in a bit.

These classic stage pieces come to Frank and Nelson asking for something special and they deliver in full measure with wonderfully intoned and controlled vocals that interleave perfectly — hand-in-glove — with Riddle’s lush arrangements … a passion play performance for them both.

I could not say it better myself…

In the liner notes from the ’63 Reprise release, Lawrence D. Stewart “sells” the unique aspect of this record and the exploratory approach we should bring to the listening:

“… And then we listen and we hear a new Sinatra, set to some of the purest arrangements we have ever heard. And suddenly several well-known songs become not well-known at all. The frisson of discovery, the chilling thrill, the impulse felt in the blood and felt along the heart, the revolutionary moment of seeing the familiar in an unfamiliar way… ”

The Concert Sinatra presents the best-known voice of our time in a new achievement of artistic purity and control…”

Stewart’s liner notes are not to be missed. He writes beautifully and his detailed dive into the track list is great stuff. I will not replicate his work here, but I definitely have a few favorite songs off the list worth noting.

All eight of the original songs are tremendous efforts…

…but my particular favorites start right up front. Frank opens the album with “I Have Dreamed” — a wonderful rhapsodic ballad from The King And I that has always been a favorite of mine … Frank’s control and range on full display. “Ol’ Man River” and “My Heart Stood Still” are superb but the last four original tracks are where the gold is for me on this record.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel, “Bewitched (Bothered and Bewildered)”, and the hauntingly tragic but beautiful “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific are truly best of class Sinatra/Riddle numbers.

“Soliloquy (My Boy Bill)” is Frank at his vocal best with Nelson weaving the string charts and orchestral arrangements around the shifting pace and drama beautifully. “Soliloquy” has always been a Sammy Davis Jr. number for me (I think this is a result of hearing it for the first time off Sammy’s Yes I Can compendium album), but Frank wrests it onto neutral ground in my book with his The Concert Sinatra performance.

Un-necessary Expansion…

So, Frank and Nelson recorded a couple of non-Broadway songs at the Goldwyn soundstage sessions that were left off the original ’63 release. They find their way on to the 2012 re-issue as bonus tracks. I understand the rationale for adding “California” and “America, The Beautiful” to the re-release — being a part of the original recording session — but thematically they are a jarring appendage to the dramatic stage tune array of the original release.

Good renditions both but the choir sections in each song kill the Sinatra buzz for me … again, these are supreme Sinatra/Riddle recordings, and I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but these songs really do not fit well on this LP.

The net/net…

The Concert Sinatra (’63) is a wonderfully different taste of the fine feast that is Sinatra & Riddle. Sadly the 2012 re-issue does not improve on the original recordings laid down 50 years ago … and in fact, my listening ear “sees” it headed in the wrong direction.

The “bonus tracks” are a jarring and unwelcome addition … sadly the net/net on The Concert Sinatra / [Remastered & Expanded]
is a “pass” recommendation. Stick with the ’63 recording.

Again, I find this incredibly sad after the fine job Concord/BluWave Audio did with the Sinatra-Basie sessions, but this time around the result was not a good one.

Track List…

(VS_Guy ratings: “+++” pluses are good; “~” for meh to middling;  “- – -” minuses are not good … the ratings on tracks 1-8 are based on the 1963 release/2009 CD)

The Concert Sinatra (Reprise 1963 – reissued Concord, 2012)

  1. I Have Dreamed +++
  2. My Heart Stood Still ++
  3. Lost in the Stars +
  4. Ol’ Man River ++
  5. You’ll Never Walk Alone +++
  6. Bewitched ++
  7. This Nearly Was Mine +++
  8. Soliloquy ++++
    ———— Bonus Tracks (of a sort) ———-
  9. California ~
  10. America, The Beautiful ++ (beautiful indeed … just not thematically aligned to this LP)

* There is a bunch of detail on the original 1963 recording methods and process in the liner notes of both the ’63 (2009 CD) and 2012 re-issue, expanded release.