A zillion jazz tributes to Frank Sinatra have been recorded over the decades. The first and the best is Oscar Peterson’s A Jazz Portrait of Frank Sinatra.
The album’s marathon one-night recording session was done for Verve in Paris in May 1959. The album featured what would become the classic Oscar Peterson Trio—featuring Peterson (p), Ray Brown (b) and Ed Thigpen (d). Thigpen had been added months earlier to replace guitarist Herb Ellis, who threw in the towel on Peterson’s relentless and seemingly endless touring schedule.
Looking back at Billboard’s review of the album in 1961, I found the following: “Performers of lesser stature than Peterson sometimes use such a device to associate themselves with a noted personality, but when a great artist like Peterson uses such a device, it has legitimacy. A fine album, with Peterson’s keyboard work at its apex.” [Photo above of Oscar Peterson in 1959 by Carel de Vogel]
You can say that again. The album is an elegant, exquisite swinger, with more than just music at play. There’s admiration and love in Peterson”s interpretations. Writing in his 1988 book, Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing, Gene Lees pulled the strings tight on the relationship between Peterson and Sinatra:
“One of Oscar’s most ardent fans has been Frank Sinatra, who at the end of an evening in Las Vegas told the audience, ‘I don’t know where you people are heading, but I know here I’m going. I’m going over to catch Oscar Peterson.’ And, of course, he jammed the club where Oscar was playing. Eric [Smith, Peterson’s friend] remembered: ‘One time when Oscar was playing the Hong Kong bar in Los Angles, Frank called and said that he had a party on Friday. He said, I have always wanted you to come up and play in my home. Would you do it? Oscar said, I don’t know how I can do it. I work till one. Frank said, That’s fine. Please do it. Oscar said, All right. I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll play if you sing. And Sinatra agreed.”
When Peterson arrived, there were 12 guests, including agent Irving Lazar, black comedian Godfrey Cambridge, the widow of restaurateur Mike Romanoff and dancers Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly along with their wives. Lees continues with Eric Smith’s story: “I went behind the sofa and sat at the bar. I got talking to Mike Romanoff’s widow before Oscar started to play, and she said, You can’t believe how excited Frank has been about this. He has been like a schoolboy. He planned the evening, who he was going to invite and who he wasn’t. He said that after dinner, there was going to be a treat, but he wouldn’t say what it was.“
Wow. All I’ll say is, there must be a phenomenal reel of tape someplace of Sinatra singing that night with Peterson. The Sinatra family surely has it—and probably dozens of other jazz get-togethers at his L.A. and Palm Springs homes.
The feeling was mutual. On the back of his tribute album, Peterson wrote: “For years, I have been an ardent admirer of Frank Sinatra. I’ve been thrilled by his singing and I’ve respected the taste that goes with his singing. As a musician, I’ve further admired his choice of tunes, and as a fan I’ve recognized that certain tunes are forever, at least in my mind, inextricably linked with Sinatra, both by usage and interpretation, and by that special magic that is his alone. This album is not only a tribute to Frank Sinatra but also my emotional interpretation of the feelings I get when I hear him. I have tried, therefore, to paint as well as I can a portrait told in my personal jazz terms, of Frank Sinatra.”
Why was this album recorded in Paris? Peterson appears to have been on tour in Europe at the time with Jazz at the Philharmonic. Who came up with the idea for a Sinatra tribute album? Hard to say. It could have been Peterson or producer Norman Granz. What was inspiration? Who knows—Peterson may have heard Sinatra’s latest album in his hotel room or heard a single playing in a jukebox. What about the urgency to record the album in Paris rather than wait until they were back in Los Angeles? I’d have to do more research to find out. Either Peterson was so excited about the concept that he wanted to record immediately or there was something more beneficial about recording in France. Less expensive studio time for Granz? A tax-saving play? Unclear at the moment.
And perhaps the biggest unanswered question of all: what ever happened to the five unissued tracks? Left off the album were Violets for Your Furs, Young at Heart, This Love of Mine, Try a Little Tenderness and Someone to Watch Over Me. My guess is they were more problematic for Peterson in terms of expression or simply weren’t as good as the others and only 12 tracks would fit in the vinyl era.
It’s certainly time for Verve to exhume the tape reels and reissue the entire album with the missing tracks and the best alternate takes. According to my research, there were multiple versions of all songs recorded. With any luck, we’ll see Oscar Peterson: The Complete Jazz Portrait of Frank Sinatra in short order.
JazzWax tracks: For now, you’ll find Oscar Peterson’s A Jazz Portrait of Frank Sinatra here.
It’s also available at Spotify.
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