Older Than That Now: Dylan Sings Frank
As near as I can determine, Frank Sinatra never sang a Bob Dylan tune. No lush Gordon Jenkins arrangement of “I Want You”; no swinging, finger-snapping treatment of “Sad-Eyed Lady”; no symphonic Nelson Riddle big-band rethinking of “Masters of War.”
As of Tuesday, February 3, however, the reverse will not be true. That’s the day Dylan’s new album, Shadows in the Night, is due to be released. The album is just ten tunes, and all of them are standards that Sinatra recorded, and in some cases made famous.
To be certain that the release is duly noted by all the relevant demographics, Dylan has granted a long interview on the project (reportedly the only one he gave) to AARP Magazine. It will be in the February issue.
As an actual musical experience, it’s almost certain to be painful.
Somebody the other day called this new album “coming full circle.”
Well, maybe, but I’m not sure which circle that would be.
For sure, it’s some kind of significant musico-cultural moment. And perhaps we should have seen it coming, especially, when we learned in Bob’s Chronicles that in the early '60s, he used to play Judy Garland records on coffeehouse jukeboxes when he was a newly-arrived vagabond in the Village.
So maybe Bob doing Frank is in some way circular. Of course, as an actual musical experience -- as a thing to sit down and listen to, if only out of curiosity -- it’s almost certain to be painful.
Somebody the other day called this new album "coming full circle." I’m not sure which circle that would be.
Bob himself might be willing to grant that. After all, self-critical artist that he has always been, he must realize that his voice, never the most luxuriant of instruments, is now a barking, pitch-approximating husk. As barking husks go, it may well be slightly above average among 73-year-old lifelong rockers, but it’s not going to invite flattering comparison even with the declining pipes that Frank brought to his two autumnal Duets albums. (The Chairman was 78 when the first of those appeared in 1993.)
Our fears here are more than mere theorizing: as a teaser, we have been allowed, online, to listen to one of the tracks -- “Full Moon and Empty Arms.” The ironies bring a smile. As many of you will know, this tune – which was introduced in 1945 – is based quite faithfully on the swooning Second Piano Concerto of Sergei Rachmaninoff. The lyrics were by one Buddy Kaye, who did a similar retrofitting of Chopin to produce “Till the End of Time.”
Frank’s rendering, which became the most successful but no means the only version, was a fine example of his smooth balladeering side. They say nobody phrased like Sinatra, and this tune shows his capacity to sing slightly behind the beat, and to stretch a phrase for emotive effect.
Out of respect for the man, let’s just say that Bob is also behind the beat, but for reasons that seem to have more to do with drawing a breath than making a romantic statement.
Other tunes on the album include “I’m a Fool to Want You,” one of Frank’s so-called “suicide songs,” which in this case was an especially uncomfortable metaphor, since the song came to be interpreted as referencing his agonizing liaison with Ava Gardner; “The Night We Called it a Day,” a sturdy if under-appreciated jazz standard; and – hold on to your hat – “Some Enchanted Evening,” composed for and introduced by Ezio Pinza, a star basso at the Metropolitan Opera.
The playlist seems calculated to make us simultaneously scratch and shake our heads, somewhat in the manner of his sad little Christmas album of a few years back.
Is Dylan – the self-proclaimed trickster, the sneaky self-promoter who somehow makes us (some of us, anyway) look the other way when he does a Chrysler commercial – playing one more inscrutable Dylanesque joke here?
I think not.
I take him at his word when, in the AARP interview, he says:
“Frank is the mountain. That’s the mountain you have to climb, even if you only get part of the way there. Frank sang to you – not at you. I never wanted to be a singer that sings at somebody. I always wanted to sing to somebody.”
I don’t know if it qualifies as full circle, but if nothing else Dylan’s new album reminds us we’ve never had rockers get into their 70s before. Maybe something happens to a person after they’ve used up their biblical allotment of threescore years and ten. Maybe rock really is, as our elders used to tell us, only for the young -- and you can’t be young forever.
Or, for that matter, forever young.
Music for Bombogenesis
The big snowstorm predictably motivated classical music bloggers everywhere to recommend to shut-in listeners their roster of winter-themed compositions: “Winter” from Vivaldi’s (or Glazunov’s, or Haydn’s) Four Seasons; Rimsky’s “Snow Maiden”; even Walteufel's “Skater’s Waltz.”
But nobody ever mentions an apt little piece that happens to be one of my very favorite short works of music: Edward Elgar’s wistful little part-song for women’s voices, titled simply, “The Snow.” The words, endearingly sentimental, are by the composer’s wife, Caroline Alice Elgar.
It’s not even six minutes long, but it’s a very affecting, very beautiful piece of work. I admit I’m a sucker for nearly any music by Sir Edward, but I think this little miniature gem deserves to be better known. Especially at this time of year.
There are several recorded versions out there. My favorite is an EMI release, with the London Symphony Chorus, conducted by Richard Hickox.
Bring the Kids
Although the claim is made too often and for too many works, one opera that is authentically suitable for the whole family is Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
Thursday, January 26, through Sunday, January 29, the Hartt Opera Theater will present its brand new production in the school’s cozy Millard Auditorium. The performances are at 7:30 pm, with a 3:00 pm matinee on Sunday.
The production is directed by Eve Summer, with set design by Scott Aronow and costume design by Lesley Neilson-Bowman. All three are making their Hartt Opera debuts.
Doris Lang Kosloff, the indefatigable director of the Hartt opera program, conducts.
Note that the Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances will also be available via live streaming. Please go to the Hartt website for particulars.
Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant’s fulltime classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached at email@example.com.