United States Michael Feinstein: Sinatra Centennial Celebration: Tedd Firth (piano), Sean Smith (bass), Mark McLean (drums), Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts, 24.10.2015 (RP)
Michael Feinstein has dedicated his life to performing and preserving what has become known as the American Songbook, the canon of American popular songs and jazz standards from the mid-20th century. Born in 1956, he is too young to have heard the performers live in their heydays, but he met many of the greats, listened to their stories, and absorbed everything he could from them. His tribute to Frank Sinatra was as much a salute to the era as it was to the man. Ol’ Blue Eyes has been dead for 18 years, but the audience at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts knew the songs and, remarkably, unless asked to sing along, they were silent, just enjoying the show with not a hum to be heard. And Michael Feinstein knows how to put on a show.
Interspersing anecdotes among the songs, he dropped starry names along the way. He told how he first met Frank and Barbara Sinatra while playing a party at their home, where the guests included Elizabeth Taylor, Gregory Peck, and other Hollywood legends. Introducing “What kind of fool am I?”, a hit for Sammy Davis, Jr., that Sinatra passed on, thinking it better suited for his friend, he noted that he had also met that legendary entertainer. The song became a tribute both to Davis and to those heady Las Vegas days that found Sinatra as tabloid fodder, along with his pals in the Rat Pack. Feinstein played a guessing game with the audience as to who was Sinatra’s favorite composer. Harold Arlen, Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn, and other names were shouted out before Feinstein broke it off – it was Cole Porter – and the audience let out a collective sigh. No less than Rosemary Clooney taught him the seldom heard verse to Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” recorded by Sinatra and so many others.
In addition to the stories, there was the music. Feinstein is not gifted with the vocal chops of Sinatra, and in fact said that his favorite singer in his younger years was Fred Astaire, who was slight of voice but a stylist of the first rank. Feinstein could stand and sing in front of the excellent trio that he hired for the gig, but he was most at home sitting at the piano. One of his finest numbers was “Time After Time,” the jazz standard written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne in 1947 and introduced by Sinatra in the film It Happened in Brooklyn. (If you are in Brooklyn, might as well go for it.) In the ballads, he could use his way with words, sensitive phrasing, and remarkable breath control to create wistful, romantic renditions that capture the magic of those songs. In the big numbers, Feinstein doesn’t have the high notes or the heft in his voice to nail the climaxes, but the spirit is there and he is a master illusionist.
Feinstein is also dedicated to passing on the flame to future generations of performers through his Great American Songbook Foundation, which trains young performers in the style. One of them, Annie Yokom, a recent Carnegie-Mellon University graduate and just five months in NYC, shared the stage with him. She paid tribute to Eydie Gorme, who toured with Sinatra, by singing “What did I have that I don’t have now?” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Gifted with a rich, vibrant voice, Yokom lights up the stage with her bubbly effervescence and can belt out a song with the best of them. The Chicago native is a winner in more ways than one. Yokom not only won the Michael Feinstein Foundation Great American Songbook high school competition in 2010, she beat lymphoma.
Ending with “For Once in My Life,” Feinstein brought down the house, but there was an encore. As a child, Sinatra could look across the Hudson River from Hoboken, New Jersey, where he was born on December 12, 1915, and see “the city that never sleeps.” And as the song goes, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” He made it there. He made it everywhere. Happy Birthday, Mr. Sinatra.