Writings about Music
A few weeks after my recent time with Lee Konitz, and also listening to Frank Sinatra quite a bit, I had a dream that I was seated at a table in a nightclub with Sinatra and Konitz. The only conversation I recall is beginning to introduce Frank to Lee, but Sinatra cut me short saying: "We've already met." I don't believe Lee ever met Frank (I will ask him), but he did tell me how once in the green room during intermission of a performance, Tony Bennett came in and handed Lee a drawing he had made of the alto saxophonist playing while sitting in the audience.
Dreams are sometimes said to be windows into the soul.
Recording piano improvisations has become something new for me, and driving to a recent session, I chose to listen to Sinatra, enjoying the musical feel he imparted, while being grateful to Bill Evans for pointing out that the best one may do is take the time to develop a personal approach to piano improvisation as opposed to copying his or any other style, something I've taken to heart.
Lou Levy once told me that he believed Sinatra to be the finest jazz singer, an opinion shared by Miles Davis, Konitz, and many others. However, Lou then went a step further, stating that he believed Sinatra was the finest jazz musician period, an assertion that surprised me given how jazz instrumentalists and vocalists appear to have varied if related disciplines.
Jazz standards are the ragas of jazz together with blues forms, and the lyrics of these songs are equally essential as the music. The finest jazz instrumentalists use awareness of a song's lyrics synergizing with the musical setting for inspiration, while vocalists obviously use the lyrics literally. Improvisation is largely about capturing the moment, and subtle variations upon the material may be more significant than dramatic and voluminous elaborations dependent on specifics, of course. Perhaps this explains Levy's point of view - he's no longer here to elaborate.
But no need. This is what Lou Levy was essentially saying: Our greatest musical artists, irrespective of genre, create a world unto their own that we may enter into. Lou was simply saying that in the solar system of jazz, Frank Sinatra was his favorite planet to live on for all the apparent musical reasons, namely tone or quality of sound, phrasing, rhythm, expression, form, diction, and overall individual personality.
Famous examples of some who do both singing and playing are legendary trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Chet Baker.
I just asked Lee on the phone if he ever met Frank Sinatra, and he said they "crossed paths" once, but didn't recall specific details momentarily. Lee was good friends with Charlie Parker, but didn't know John Coltrane other than saying "hello" to each other. At the time I studied with Lee, he was transcribing Coltrane's luminous Weaver of Dreams recording, the song performed by Tony Bennett above. John's ecstatic Out of This World was evidently inspired by Konitz's recording of the same song with arrangements by Jimmy Guiffre. A deep admiration for Frank Sinatra is exhibited on the tenor saxophonist's sublime Ballads album. From that album, it became customary for me to begin my lessons with Lee - supposed to last one hour but often went on for three - by putting on Coltrane's exalted interpretation of What's New - a practice that intrigued Lee - the reason being that it relaxed me to a place where I was most receptive to both learn and be creative. Now, from this vantage point, it's clear how John's playing on that song was influenced by Indian ragas.
- Michael Robinson, August 2019, Los Angeles
© 2019 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).