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Jazz and Cocktails

September 29th, 2012 - 3:00 pm

I’m going to make you read the text before we get to the video for this one, because it took me a long time to understand why I love this record so much — and maybe I can bring you up to speed in just a couple minutes.

Cole Porter wrote one of the great American songs with “Night And Day,” from Gay Divorce. I’ve never seen the show, but I bet I’ve heard the song more than a thousand times, and by too many artists to count. But none compares to this concert version by Frank Sinatra.

It might seem strange with his extensive touring history, but in 1962 Sinatra had yet to put on a show in Paris, which he decided to make a part of a new European tour. You usually think of Sinatra as the guy easy in front of a massive swing band, but he did something different that year. He put together a band, Sextet, which is exactly what it sounds like — a small jazz combo. None of the six members had ever been part of a band together before, but most of them had played with Frank. That common bond turned them into a real band, instantly. I don’t know how large the concert hall was, but the music and the vocals are as intimate as a candlelit dinner for two.

Sinatra only recorded two other concert albums. Sinatra at the Sands is a still-beloved collaboration with bandleader Count Basie and arranger-conductor Quincy Jones. Can you imagine that much firepower on one stage? It remains one of the great concert albums of all time, even though it consists of selections recorded over a month of concerts, rather than a record of a single show. It was released in 1966 as the second part of Sinatra’s 50th birthday package, which began the previous year with September Of My Years.

The Main Event was Frank’s final concert album, and the less said about it, the better. It sold like crazy, but I find it absolutely unlistenable. Sinatra hits half of the songs with brutal bombast, as if he were trying to fill the whole of Madison Square Garden without the aid of amplifiers. And without any of the tenderness typical to his phrasing. On the other songs he just sounds tired. Good lord, but it’s crap. Anyway.

Although Sinatra & Sextet: Live in Paris was recorded as a single set in ’62, it didn’t get a commercial release for more than 30 years. Fans had to wait until 1994 to hear some of the best concert material he ever recorded. It’s light, it’s breezy, it’s jazzy. It’s fun. Sinatra is clearly playing up his jazz chops, bending more notes than Salvador Dali did clocks.

The concert also shows Sinatra at the peak of his powers: As his voice was settling into an easy baritone, but before it lost its subtleties to whiskey and cigarettes. Frank’s phrasing was never better than it was during this era, either. “This era” running from the mid ’50s through the mid ’60s, from In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning on through to September Of My Years.

Now when I said this version of “Night And Day” was a Sinatra record, that’s not quite right. Really, this is a jazz duet between Sinatra and his longtime guitar player, Al Viola. Did I say “guitar player?” No, that phrase won’t do. Viola here is Frank’s guitar accompanist. These two play off each other exquisitely, resulting in something that makes me stop and listen — really listen — every single time it comes on. Enjoy, then we’ll get to this week’s cocktail.

Wow.

Every. Single. Time.

For this, we need something Frank himself drank and helped to make famous. It’s a variation on last week’s cocktail, and it’s the Dry Manhattan.

You’ll need:

2 ounces bourbon
1 ounce dry vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
lemon peel garnish

Fill your cocktail shaker halfway with ice, pour in your bourbon and vermouth, then hit it with the bitters. Stir, very gently, until well chilled. Strain into a chilled martini glass, then garnish. Feel free to have some fun with the garnish, too. I’ve seen bartenders do some crazy stuff with a lemon peel.

Here’s the one I just made.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take another listen to Frank & Al.

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