FRANK SINATRA will be 75 years old on Wednesday. That's old by any realistic definition, but especially for the ultimate saloon singer.
Imagine, though, that Sinatra's birthday milestone fell in July, when Northeastern runners go topless, and not on Dec. 12, when those in Northern climes start fretting about the adequacy of their anti-freeze.
In July, the channels of information would suddenly flash-flood with suitably Sinatran epithets -- "Chairman of the Board," "Ol' Blue Eyes," and a host of others no one but a billboard ever called him. But would the bins of record stores suddenly see such huge and wonderful CD retrospectives as "Frank Sinatra -- The Reprise Collection"? Possible, of course, but not bloody likely.
Such multidisc wonders are as seasonal as crocuses, rutabagas, TV sweeps weeks and Santas in the mall. They show up suddenly, as the year winds down, for the gift-giving holidays so that Aunt Barbara can give Uncle Steve (who has been dropping coins into jukeboxes since 1954 to hear Sinatra songs) something appropriately lavish and resplendent with conjugal devotion.
In the compact disc era, the multidisc set has become a far more glorious enterprise. Retrospective artist portraits seem twice as complete; new collections seem encyclopedic.
In recognition of it all, most veteran record columnists of The Buffalo News have banded together to review some of the gaudier and more important boxed sets available this December.
Frank Sinatra: The Reprise Collection (Reprise 9-26340-2). Eighty-one selections recorded between 1960 and 1986, 10 percent of which are appearing on record for the first time. Novelist William Kennedy, no less, provides some notes, and Jonathan Schwartz offers knowing jottings on each selection. "The most potent figure of popular culture who ever lived," apostrophizes David McClintick elsewhere in the notes to this collection. A bit much, that, but only a fool would deny that Sinatra is one of the defining figures in American pop culture and one of the most charismatic figures America will ever know. With this four-CD retrospective, the final stage of his career gets its definitive documentation -- not the heart-rending toad croakings of the singer heard live these days, but the music of the man's late maturity when he was on top of the world, sitting on a rainbow and calling the shots at his own record company -- while still in full possession of his vocal chords.
His swing is a heavy, oaken, bandsman's swing, but no less powerful for all that (listen to "My Kind of Town," "Luck Be a Lady," the Basie collaborations, etc.). His reading of "America the Beautiful" and "California" may sound like personal demo tapes for Nancy Reagan (and, therefore, wastes of space), but the inner core of late-period hits is indispensable -- "The Best Is Yet to Come," "Strangers in the Night," "The Summer Wind" and, yes, "My Way." And the standards are more than that. And Gordon Jenkins' orchestration of "It Was a Very Good Year" was one of the pop music miracles of the past half-century.
Ella Fitzgerald: For the Love of Ella Fitzgerald (Verve 841-765-2). You'll find some of this at the highest reaches of the American sublime. No one -- but no one -- swings and scats like Ella in her prime. Even her few detractors have always ceded her that. But, they say, she can't really sing the blues. Nor can she render a great song's full dramatic value or explore the full operatic range the way Sarah Vaughan could. And what a load of nonsense all that is. Her astonishing agility makes up for any lack of range, and her blues has the glorious sheen and full-bodied inner warmth of everything else she does. And her version of "I Loves You Porgy" will melt your soul. The two-disc set is divided -- ballads and blues on one disc, swingers on the other. The swingers include some of the classic vocal performances in jazz -- her concert version of "Mack the Knife" and "How High the Moon" in Berlin, a 1957 "Lady Be Good" that stands for all time. But it is the ballads that are a revelation.
These nine years between 1956 and 1965 were her greatest period before, as Martin Williams said, time and overuse darkened the loveliest and most agile vocal instrument in the history of jazz. A ballad singer is what she always said she was, even when her incendiary scats and up-tempo wailers make some of the most joyful noises in jazz. "Fitzgerald," says Will Friedwald, "makes melodies, whether a songwriter's or her own, soar through skies of aural heaven and creates a no less effective, no less emotional kind of drama through purely musical means." "For the Love of Ella Fitzgerald" is one of the great jazz vocal anthologies of all time.
Sarah Vaughan: The George Gershwin Songbook, Vol. 1 (Emarcy 846-895-2) and Vol. 2 (Emarcy 846-896-2). If Ella's is the loveliest voice in all of jazz, Sarah Vaughan's was the grandest -- an instrument of unique, operatic power and range that might, if used differently, have made her one of opera's supreme divas. Consequently, she is the jazz singer most adored by classical musicians. For all the emotional drama of her Gershwin songbooks from 1957 (with additions up to 1965), jazz's divine diva is usually on the outside of those songs looking in. No one can deny her expressive power or the plump immensity of her tone, but you are listening to mere great music here, not a deathless American standard and cultural touchstone.