Interview: Dominic J Marshall on studying jazz at university

Dominic J Marshall

Rising star pianist Dominic J Marshall has produced four impressive albums to date, his latest being The Triolithic, featuring his molten blend of hard hitting melodic jazz underpinned with slugged hip hop grooves and daring dynamics. He’s also keyboardist with internally acclaimed trip hop pioneers Cinematic Orchestra, and is currently on a world tour with them, while he also moonlights as an electronica artist under the moniker DJM. Born in Scotland, Marshall moved to England when he was three years old, with music running in his family: his father an Oxford graduate, classical piano player and teacher and his mother a self-taught pianist. Attending both Leeds College of Music and Conservatorium van Amsterdam, where he studied jazz piano and obtained Bachelors and Masters diplomas respectively, before turning professional. Fellow Leeds and University of Amsterdam alumnus, musicologist Rokas Kucinskas, interviewed Dominic this summer in Amsterdam about his life in music so far...

Before attending higher music education, what were your piano studies like?

My father was my first piano teacher, introducing me to the instrument and giving me lessons. At the beginning they were mainly classical music focused, but with time my father also introduced me to improvisation and composition via scales, and how rearranging notes in them affects the music I was playing. It also was something that I really liked, being a bit of an opposite direction to what my main focus at the time was – classical music. I did develop an appreciation for playing, and it became a daily habit that after school I would come home and play for two hours. Just improvise and what not. I had a few lessons with jazz pianists before my auditions, as people told me I should consult with people who know about jazz more than my father, but he was my only true teacher until I enrolled in Leeds College of Music.

So you were not really playing jazz until you enrolled in LCM?

I was, but it was quite a low standard playing. I mean we had gigs and all. There was one in a pub, across from my house just before I left for Leeds, where together with my friend I was trying to play “Giant Steps” (by John Coltrane), but had to stop after 20 bars. We just couldn’t follow the form [laughs]. The thing is, that I never learned the simple stuff, like say “Satin Doll”. I wanted to play things like “Giant Steps”. The first jazz tunes I learned were “Turn Out the Stars”, “Time Remembered”, “Waltz for Debby”.

You started playing Bill Evans’ compositions straight away?

Yes [laughs]. I had books with his transcriptions, and I read some of his pieces.

How did your study habits change in LCM then?

I spent a lot of time practicing. Especially from the second year onwards. I realized that I didn’t have dexterity in my fingers. The speed in my hands was nowhere near the speed I wanted to have. It sort of developed into an inferiority complex, and I became anxious that other students had something I didn’t. All the first year I overlooked it by not being strict with myself, so during my second year I started practicing seven hours a day. Scales, arpeggios, J. S. Bach, transcribing other pianists’ solos, learning new songs – all became a daily routine for me.

Working with a metronome?

I’m doing that now [laughs]. It’s funny, because during one of the workshops [bassist and educator] Jeff Berlin came to LCM and told everybody not to practice with a metronome. He was very confident about it, and it did affect many of us, students. Suddenly we all were like “wow, he must be right”. Looking back, I appreciate what he said. Time comes from inside not from a machine; rhythm is not mechanical. But today, musicians work in highly technological environments, recording studios, and so forth. One needs to be aware of that, and the metronome becomes very important tool, especially if you consider something like BPM – an essential aspect in today’s music world.

Did you escape from that inferiority complex regarding the speed of your playing?

Well, it became one of the many things I want to have in my playing. But that’s the thing, you can never have anything in music – it just doesn’t belong to you. Now we’re sitting here, talking, and where is the music? Nowhere. If I sit down and start playing after a few beers, my hands will act very differently to what I am used to, and the whole speed element becomes something you shouldn’t solely focus on, because same beers might enhance my creativity, but the speed might suffer.

That’s an interesting way of looking at it. When did you start thinking about the matter in this way?

Just a little before I graduated from my Masters. I stopped being strict on myself in general, because the goal where you want to be, which is essentially why one practices, is always moving. It’s a moving target, and it can become a trap, if you do not have it set. You should practice for something, and if you do that for 5 years, there needs to come a time when you stop, look back, and say: “Did I achieve what I wanted? Because if I did, then I don’t need to practice it anymore”.

But when do you know that you have achieved your goal?

It’s funny, because I’m reminded of another workshop I went to LCM, when one of the fellow students asked a person, I can’t remember his name, leading the workshop: “How do you know when you have to stop practicing something?” And the person gave such a great answer: “How do you know when you fall in love?” It’s a feeling – you just know.

Dominic J Marsall

Going back to the beginning of the topic, Leeds, how would you describe your three years spent in there? How would you describe the institution itself?

Just a lot of work. A lot of time spent in classrooms; some great teachers. Mark Donlon, my principal teacher during my last year, for example, suggested me that I could do the Masters. Jamil Sheriff was also great. He was strict, but great because of that. I learned a lot from Mulele Matondo, too. Just by playing with him I learned a lot about rhythm and melody. These people make the institutions, and because of this institutions are always changing. I mean it was great back when I studied there. There were some lectures I didn’t attend, especially during my second year, but I was constantly working. I sort of made selective sacrifices for my individual practicing. Also, I learned as much from different musicians in LCM as I did from the teachers; made some good friends. In the end, I got a lot from it.

Do you miss it?

Do I miss it? Well, I never really missed schools. You take what you can from them and you move on. It’s like attending swimming lessons – once you know how to swim, you don’t think: “Oh, I want to go back to swimming lessons” [laughs]. That’s the thing with institutions that I said before – they’re always changing. I went and did a workshop there after I graduated, and it already felt like a different place. Some people were still there, but it did feel like a different place from what I remember. I do miss playing basketball though [smiles].

Ok, let’s talk about your Masters programme. Did you enroll in Conservatorium van Amsterdam straight after Leeds?

Yes, straight away. As I said, Mark Donlon gave me the idea to do the Masters programme. Perhaps he saw me practicing a lot and thought it could be something for me. I applied for a few programmes, and was accepted in Amsterdam. It wasn’t my first choice, but it turned out to be the best one for me. For my auditions I played Bill Evans’ and Robert Glasper’s tunes. As it turned out, piano teachers in Amsterdam are fond of Bill Evans, and maybe because of that I was given the place in the programme [smiles].

So you didn’t play some well-known jazz standard? Was it always like that for you?

Absolutely. I need to like the tune to perform it well, and if I played something like “Autumn Leaves” for my audition in Amsterdam, I don’t think I would have gotten in [laughs]. Even in Leeds with all the mandatory repertoire of jazz standards, I didn’t play many of them. I remember completely rearranging “All The Things You Are” because I didn’t like it, and I must admit, I’m still very much like that today. It’s all about the composition for me, and not so much about improvisation – I care about the framework in which I improvise. I met a lot of people during my time in both Leeds and Amsterdam, who complained to me how boxed-in they feel having to play all those jazz standards, but somehow I always managed to avoid this.

Are there big differences between BA and MA courses?

I think that both of them are similar, except that the MA programme is like a bigger pool to swim in, with more challenges. Most of my time spent in Amsterdam, however, I was doing the same things as in Leeds. I was behind the piano practicing, playing with people, learning from my fellow students, and some very good teachers. I could have socialized more than I did. I could have benefited from that. There’s definitely more freedom in the Masters. Teachers expect you to know what you want, and how to go there. For me that was perfect, because I knew where to go to in terms of my goals. Where the BA programme was more like: “You don’t know what you’re doing, so just come this way” [laughs].

Did you meet people in Amsterdam who were doing BA programme in jazz?

Of course.

Have you ever looked at them and compared them to yourself when you were studying in LCM? Maybe you thought about differences between the two institutions you studied in?

To be honest, I think that both LCM and CvA are very similar. They both are very big schools, which offer places to a lot of people, more than some other schools. I really like such approach, because it’s more sociable and you meet more people; rather than feeling isolated, you feel being a part of something bigger. I can imagine that in some schools that admit less people, you might run into troubles if you don’t like playing with them. What if you don’t like a bass player, but there isn’t any other to play with? What happens if he can’t play a funk groove, and you love playing it?

I don’t think you’re allowed to play funk in such schools…

No, you’re not – it’s bad [laughs]. Perhaps the basic difference between Leeds and Amsterdam is how much more international Amsterdam is. I really liked it, and because of that, while doing my Masters, I played in Germany, Russia, and Latvia. If you live in Amsterdam then all of the big European capitals, where one can find gigs more easily, are reachable by trains in a matter of hours, which is so great. In Leeds, you have the whole UK, but it’s not the same. It isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s not the same. The problem I’m experiencing is that people don’t want to go and listen to jazz anymore. Hence, it doesn’t matter where you live – Leeds or Amsterdam – the audience for jazz is getting older and older. It’s sad, but to me it feels like jazz scene in the world is dying, and I don’t want to be tied up to it, that is to say jazz.

The best of Bobby Wellins on record

Jazzwise is saddened to hear of Bobby Wellins' death. Peter Vacher interviewed the great saxophonist in the magazine 10 years ago, and he provided this list of Wellins' finest recordings:

WellinsStan Tracey Quartet

Under Milk Wood (1965)

Trio TR564

Tracey had Wellins in mind when he composed his suite inspired by Dylan Thomas’ famous radio play. Both men rose to the occasion magnificently; Wellins is especially eloquent on ‘Starless and Bible Black’. A defining career moment.



wellinsStan Tracey Quartet

With Love From Jazz (1967)

Trio TR569

Newly remastered and reissued, Tracey’s later suite evokes “the tragic-comedy of human love” and has the two protagonists at their quirky best. Wellins swings hard on Two-Part Intention’ supported by Dave Green’s purring bass and is hauntingly fragile on the lovely ‘Amoroso Only Moreso'.




WellinsBobby Wellins

The Satin Album (1996)

Jazzizit JITCD 9607

Wellins is a ballad master and excels on this sublime examination of the songs from Billie Holiday’s 1958 recording, Lady In Satin. The late pianist Colin Purbrook plays sparingly but sweetly and Bobby’s tenor improvisations, spacious and quite sensual, are among his best on record.




WellinsBobby Wellins Quartet

The Best Is Yet To Come (2000)

Jazzizit JITCD0024

Wellins was inspired by a rather different vocalist in this fine album of songs associated with Tony Bennett. His unique sound, plaintive yet robust, is beautifully caught and there’s plenty of thoughtful piano from Bobby’s current associate, Liam Noble.




wellinsBobby Wellins

Fun (2003)

Jazzizit JITCD 0434

And it is, with Mark Edwards playing Hammond or piano as drummer Spike Wells clatters away. Wellins hoots and hollers as only he can and everyone seems to be having a ball. Fun? Just listen to the ‘The Odd Couple’ or the swingy ‘Smouldering’.





wellinsBobby Wellins/Wells/Edwards/Cleyndert

When The Sun Comes Out (2005)

Trio TR572

Recorded live at the Appleby Festival, this retains the Fun quartet and is another breezy affair. Wellins is a fund of ideas and Edwards presses hard over Cleyndert’s bass and the inspirational drumming of Wells.





And don't miss...

wellinsBobby Wellins/SNJO

Culloden Moor Suite (2014)

Spartacus STS 020

Although there are solo cameos for Tom MacNiven, Steve Hamilton and drummer Alyn Cosker (who also provides the militaristic underbed for the ‘March’ movement) this is really all about Bobby Wellins. His tone is as blurry and magnificent as it was in the 1960s, his phrasing as oblique, yet centred, and his ability to channel forceful feelings while appearing not to, is quite magical. His duet with the drums on ‘Battle’ and his reflective keening on ‘Epilogue’ are as fine as anything he has ever recorded.



Symphonic jazz: a history

Long-form classical-indebted compositions are back in style. Stuart Nicholson takes a close look at the evolution of extended symphonic orchestrations in jazz, from the creations of Gershwin to Ellington to a 21st century renaissance led by former members of EST, Kamasi Washington (pictured) and Tommy Smith. Plus, listen to our Symphonic Jazz: a history playlist on Apple Music

In 1892, the Czech patriot Anton Dvořák arrived in New York to take up the position of director at the new National Conservatory of Music. His aim, published in newspaper articles shortly after his arrival, was to encourage young American composers to adopt the melodies of Native American and African-American communities in their orchestral music, saying how he was convinced: "The future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States." He showed the way with his Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, 'From The New World', premiered in December 1893 in Carnegie Hall. Just 30-odd years later the musical landscape had changed beyond all recognition and while it was not in quite the way Dvořák had envisaged, he was at least half right. The future was being shaped by Afro-American inspiration alright, but not in classical music, rather emerging in vibrant new forms of popular music called ragtime and jazz. This was underlined by a concert that took place in the afternoon of 12 February 1924 at Aeolian Hall called An Experiment in Modern Music. The orchestra was led by Paul Whiteman who presented 26 items in all, the penultimate a premiere of an original piece that had hastily been written in the five weeks leading up the concert. By the end of its 14 minutes, as composer and musicologist Howard Goodall later pointed out, "The world of music had been changed forever".

Today, the concert is remembered for one reason only, the premiere of 'Rhapsody in Blue', with the composer George Gershwin at the piano, an event which is now regarded as the defining moment of the 'Jazz Age' and of the cultural history of New York. But Whiteman's band was clearly not a classical orchestra, and 'Rhapsody in Blue' was not a classical piece, so what was it? To answer this, it had to be acknowledged Whiteman's was an American orchestra playing music that was uniquely American, but what made it American? The answer was it was strongly influenced by jazz, that was uniquely American in origin. This situated Whiteman's success in the broader debate of what constituted 'American-ness' in the arts and how this might be expressed in national culture. In the months that followed, jazz, which some elites had been trying to ban, like alcohol through the Volstead Act of four years earlier, began to be viewed differently, the Musical America announcing that: "Jazz Music Not Such an 'Enfant Terrible' After All". Equally importantly, the challenge of the long compositional form in jazz was taken up by bandleaders such as Fletcher Henderson who, in the winter of 1924-25, was performing an arrangement of 'Rhapsody in Blue' and whose arranger Don Redman came up with the impressive 'Whiteman Stomp' in tribute to Whiteman, and Duke Ellington, who began billing himself as 'The Paul Whiteman of Harlem', who was also performing 'Rhapsody' (the score is in the Ellington Collection at the Smithsonian) and working towards longer form compositions such as 'Creole Rhapsody' in 1931, where, as Alex Ross has pointed out, "'Rhapsody in Blue' was the obvious model." For the rest of his life, Ellington continued to experiment and perfect the long-form composition in jazz.

The idea of the long-form classically influenced composition in jazz was not just pursued by Henderson and Ellington – pianist James P. Johnson composed 'Yamacraw – A Negro Rhapsody' in 1927, and the 'Jazzamine Concerto' in 1934; Bix Beiderbecke discussed 'modern' ideas with Maurice Ravel when the composer visited New York in 1928, while Ferdinand Grofé, Whiteman's arranger who orchestrated Gershwin's 'Rhapsody', tried his hand with 'Broadway at Night', 'Three Shades of Blue' and 'Grand Canyon Suite'; Victor Herbert came up with 'A Suite of Serenades'; Rube Bloom 'Soliloquy'; Matty Malneck 'Midnight Reflections' and 'Caprice Futuristic' and Domenico Savion 'A Study in Blue'. Nat Shilkret, who conducted Whiteman's orchestra when they recorded 'Rhapsody' came up with 'Skyward' and classical composers got in on the act with John Alden Carpenter's 'Krazy Kat' ballet and 'Skyscrapers'. William Grant Still composed his 'Afro American Symphony' and 'The Lennox Avenue Suite' and in the 1940s was contributing arrangements such as 'Deserted Farm' and 'Gloomy Sunday' to Artie Shaw, whose 'Concerto for Clarinet' was an obvious swing-era manifestation of symphonic jazz. And Dana Suesse, whose career was sponsored by Whiteman, came up with 'Jazz Nocturne' in 1932 and carried the banner of symphonic jazz into the 1950s.

It's a strange thing, but the symphonic jazz idea never quite caught on, but neither did it go away. The Sauter-Finnegan Orchestra in the 1950s came up with Concert Jazz in 1955; Stan Kenton's many experiments included Bob Graettinger's City of Glass; Stan Getz and Eddie Sauter collaborated on the classic Focus (an album that has currently inspired Britain's Tim Garland) and the less successful Mickey One in the 1960s, and Gunther Schuller coined the term 'Third Stream' for experiments bringing jazz and classical closer together. There are countless other examples lurking beyond the glossy patina of jazz history as conventionally constructed, but just as in Jaws III when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, the whole concept is resurfacing again.

In 2005, the Pat Metheny Group recorded The Way Up, a 68-minute through composed piece that was orchestral in concept and execution and although never called symphonic jazz, pretty much was – and a major achievement that never got the hosannas it deserved. In more recent times, The Symphonic Jazz Orchestra in the US has come up with Looking Forward Looking Back; in Poland Tadeusz Ehrhardt and Eugeniusz Marszałek recorded the impressive Suita Nowoorleanska; Jan Lundgren has recorded the music of Jan Johansson with a string quartet; Marius Neset has just released Snowmelt with the London Sinfonietta; Tommy Smith has just issued the impressive Modern Jacobite with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, while waiting in the wings is the EST Symphony, where Magnus Öström and Dan Berglund have made Esbjörn Svensson's dream a reality with the Stockholm Symphony Orchestra and pianist Iiro Rantala. The form is breaking through to the mainstream as well, with large string arrangements fuelling the music of Kamasi Washington's 100,000 selling album, The Epic, selections of which were performed at the BBC's Henry Wood Proms Concert series, while Snarky Puppy recently won a Grammy for their symphonic album Sylva with the Metropole Orchestra.

It may seem remarkable, but symphonic jazz's compositional and orchestral challenge remains as alluring and elusive to musicians today as it was to George Gershwin in the closing weeks of 1923 and early 1924. Not all symphonic jazz experiments have been successful, but it's faulty logic to judge any art form by its failures. As we are beginning to see in its 21st century manifestations, there's enormous potential to be realised in broadening the expressive and emotional resources of jazz through powerfully conceived long-form orchestrations framing jazz improvisation – for evidence of that, just check out The Way Up.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise magazine, visit:

Ten Essential Albert Ayler Albums

Albert Ayler


Spiritual Unity

Get Back/Esp-Disk (1964)
Ayler's 1964 studio debut for Bernard Stollman's ESP-Disk label is a bench mark free jazz recording that still has the power to shock and awe those who confront it for the first time. With forceful backing from Peacock and Murray, Ayler blows up a soul stirring hurricane of free expression and new sounds whose echo in the avant jazz and rock scene still resonates today.



Get Back/Esp-Disk (1965/1964)
This reissue slaps the original 20 minutes of Bells together with Ayler’s earlier blast at the Cellar Cafe in New York with the same line up that created Spiritual Unity. Here the trio summons up spirits, ghosts and wizards in an explosive free jazz seance that left the audience reeling from its heart wrenching impact.


Complete Live At Slugs Saloon

Lonehill/ESP-Disk (1966)
Hot from the stage of Slugs – a jazz venue that was situated in the East Village district of New York – these sets feature much elastic interplay between the saxophonist and his band. Those involved were Donald Ayler, Lewis Worrell, Michael Sampson and budding young free jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson.


Live In Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse! Sessions

Ignore the appalling puppet cover artwork this 2CD set comes wrapped in and just open up to the hallucinogenic horn power of Ayler’s 1966 and 1967 Greenwich Village sets where he shares the stage with Joel Freedman, Bill Fowell, Beaver Harris, Sunny Murray, Alan Silva, Henry Grimes and brother Don on trumpet.


Love Cry

Impulse! (1967)
The swirling psychedelic typography that adorns the cover of this often overlooked album from Ayler’s discography hints at the direction he was heading at the time. Along with John Coltrane's ‘Om’ and Archie Shepp’s 'The Magic of Ju Ju’, this was experimental acid jazz at its most potent.


The Last Album

Impulse! (1969)
Part of the same Ed Michel produced sessions that unleashed Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe, Ayler's final studio recordings are a mixed bag of musical oddities – the strangest being 'Untitled Duo' where electric guitarist Henry Vestine jams with Ayler who is blowing wildly at a bagpipe chanter. Regardless of what his critics thought, Ayler remained defiant in pushing his new direction through to the end.


Nuits De La Fondation Maeght 1970

Water (1970)
Ayler’s last bow at Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France reveal an artist and musical visionary at the peak of his extraordinary powers. Accompanied by bass player Steve Tintweiss, drummer Allen Blairman, piano player Call Cobbs and vocalist Mary Maria Parks, the performances here are spiritually and soulfully volcanic.


Plus - check out these two albums if you can find them!

The Copenhagen Tapes

Ayler Records (1964)
Early live and radio recordings from the Spiritual Unity trio where Ayler, bass player Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray are joined by an equally wild Don Cherry on trumpet. As well as a descriptive speech from Ayler, we also get an introduction from announcer Borje Roger Henrichsen as preparation for what turns out to be a momentous and historical musical occasion.


Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe

Impulse! (1969)
Along with the equally outstanding and misunderstood New Grass album, Ayler here is taking jazz into a new dimension. Complete with a bagpipes solo, an intensely spiritual recitation from his wife Mary Maria and former Mothers Of Invention/Canned Heat guitarist Henry Vestine playing electric free blues, many jazz critics at the time found this, now groundbreaking album, too difficult to decipher.


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Frank Sinatra – the artist behind the image

Frank Sinatra

Keith Shadwick charts the career trajectory of one of the great singers of the 20th century, classic albums and artistic lapses included. Plus, explore our 'Take 2: Frank Sinatra and John Coltrane' playlist on Apple Music

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome when coming to Frank Sinatra for the first time is the image of him, created by both the man himself and the people who worked with and for him. As with Elvis Presley, his good qualities are laid before the public as if they should be treasured as minor miracles, his talent spoken or written of in terms of hushed awe or indisputable statement, his blemishes the necessary patina of genius that separates the authentic from the imitation.

In some instances this may not be too far from the truth, but the sheer extent and longevity of the propaganda about this man and his music often threatens to overwhelm any attempt to locate ‘the real Sinatra'. For a start, his personality was much too complex and at odds with itself to be conveniently packaged in the manner most of his chroniclers prefer, and while the bare bones of his life have been exposed now for years, his artistic motivations remain largely obscure to the general public. Yet they shouldn't, because Sinatra, himself a generous man with regard to his peers and contemporaries, made plenty of allusions during his career as to what made him tick and who helped him find his musical self.

A New Jersey kid with strong Italian roots, Sinatra came to maturity during the swing era, but was also influenced by the age just prior to that, where both jazz and 'sweet' music vied for the public’s attention. The most popular male singers outside of the Nelson Eddy types in his pre-professional days were Bing Crosby and Al Jolson: he learned from both. But there were others as well, such as Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.

Sinatra made his start as a big band singer, first with Harry James and then, famously, with Tommy Dorsey. His many sides with the Dorsey band from 1940-2, alongside his thousands of one-nighters with it, established him as a popular phenomenon, and the biggest male singing star since Crosby. It also helped nudge public taste away from jazz, in the form of swing and towards vocal romance. Sinatra may have looked with ardent affection back to the days of big band swing, but he was one of the major musical reasons for swing's eclipse: he concentrated almost exclusively on long-breathed, romantic interpretations of ballads at tempos that rarely raised a sweat. Had that been all he had in his arsenal, then he’d have become a bit-player in popular music, but Sinatra had much more.

Apart from the range and warmth of his baritone voice, he was a perfectionist not afraid of the pain involved in attaining something that could pass for perfection. So his diction was always immaculate, his understanding of even the most trite lyric consummate. His ambition was matched only by his ego, and he was determined to master every type of popular singing; an ambition that led him into some very dodgy material indeed, including 'Have You Met Tallulah?'

Yet this relative failure points to another essential facet of Sinatra’s unique musical persona: his intensity. It is clear that, even on the most sentimental schmaltz, Sinatra focused intensely on the message the song had to give, and made it count. This was no longer entertainment, but self-expression to an extent popular American music had never heard before unless you were a devotee of then-obscure jazz artists such as Billie Holiday. Sinatra often named his bandleader boss, Tommy Dorsey, as a seminal influence on his developing style, and it is true that the singer learned how to 'sing' a melody through even weighting of his phrasing and perfect breath control a-la-Dorsey.

After leaving Dorsey, Sinatra spent a decade recording for Columbia in just about every stylistic situation known to the post-war American male singer, but that seriousness of intent never deserted him. Even in the glutinous strings-and-chorus morass of ‘Adeste Fideles’ (0 Come All Ye Faithful), made in August 1946, he sings it as if he is in front of the Pope. It is not a warm performance in the sense that Crosby would have sung it, but it is passionate. You may wonder what such emotional nakedness was doing in showbiz, and perhaps later in his life Sinatra wondered too, because by the late 1960s he was regularly substituting his invented persona for his real artistic self. For better or worse, this approach - a seeming personal musical notebook of his life - informs all his Columbia records and delivers its fair share of sides that came to be looked upon as definitive, not just by other singers, but by musicians in general.

A quick comparison of Sinatra's 40s versions of ballads such as ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’, ‘Nancy (With The Laughing Face)’, 'You Are Too Beautiful’ and 'They Say It's Wonderful' with those of John Coltrane shows just how deeply Coltrane absorbed Sinatra’s phrasing, dynamics, even his alternation between vibrato and vibrato-less phrase endings.

That wonderful pause, that dragging-back of note delivery in a melody, that makes for so much of the poignancy in Coltrane's ballad delivery, is there, wholly intact, in Sinatra, combining just as sweetly with his wonderfully expressive baritone. Coltrane recorded versions of a number of Sinatra's great Capitol ballads from the 1950s, to equal effect.

Outside of such things, however, there is little for the jazz-oriented listener in Sinatra’s Columbia years: the stylistic gap is just too large to bridge. To connect fully with Sinatra at his mature best, try the Capitols (1953-1961). He moved to the label in pretty poor shape, having come through a crisis with his voice which left it permanently changed, and vulnerable to technical wobbles. Even worse, his confidence had been undermined by the plain idiotic production ‘guidance’ of Columbia boss Mitch Miller, whose absence of taste was as complete as anyone’s in the history of post-war popular music. He seemed to take pride in proving that the public's taste could never be underestimated by - almost as if on a series of dares - subjecting his best singers to the worst imaginable material. He had Sinatra singing about dogs, before he left the label in 1952.

Now approaching 40, and divested of all traces of his bobbysoxer following as his original fans settled down, got married and had kids, Sinatra took the opportunity to reinvent himself, even down to brilliantly exploiting his mid-range weakness to great emotional effect. That his first great Capitol albums and singles coincided with his screen reinvention (From Here to Eternity won him an Oscar) is one of those marvellous quirks. But suddenly Sinatra was relevant again, striking deeper personal chords with a world-wide audience than the novelty hits and cutie films that competed for their attention.

In a market that had too many parallels for comfort with today's essentially trivial and novelty-obsessed mass-market popular music scene, Sinatra opted for maturity of vision and expression, for his own personal vision of what popular singing should be about. It gave him a decade's grace in which to create a series of records which, to this day, are unparalleled in their consistent good taste, inventiveness and human depth.

The change is instant, as Songs For Young Lovers, his first 10" LP for Capitol (1953), shows. Sinatra adopted two basic interpretative approaches to his repertoire: the continuation of his Columbia-style rhapsodic ballad caress of a song such as 'My Funny Valentine’, often with strings-and-woodwind orchestra or section, contrasted by a swinging, jazz-based approach where Sinatra uses a two-beat, kicking style of swing. On Young Lovers and its 1954 follow-up, Swing Easy, the two parallel courses are still being worked out in detail (the jazz-based numbers on Swing Easy, arranged by Nelson Riddle, contain much, much more real jazz) but Sinatra’s own response is fully developed and quite miraculously perfected.

Sinatra broadened and deepened his artistry during the 50s, but there were no fundamental changes to his system of creating his records - why should there have been? It was all going ridiculously well, when you think of what he had achieved. Just some of the highlights are In The Wee Small Hours, Songs For Swlngln’ Lovers, A Swingin' Affair, Come Fly With Me, Where Are You?, Come Dance With Me, Only The Lonely, No-One Cares and Come Swing With Me. The final title was completed in 1962 after the singer had made (but not yet released) the first album for his own fledgling label, Reprise. If any other male singer of his generation had made just one of these albums, they would have been content to have made a classic of the genre that would influence generations to come. But Sinatra was making them every year, sometimes twice per year. They are a monument, every bit as commanding and influential as Billie Holiday's pre-war output, or Ella Fitzgerald's Song Book series. They changed the landscape of popular singing, and the ambitions of the people who operated within it. And Sinatra pulled it off because he concentrated on what he was best at: avoiding mere sentiment and communicating his intensely personal vision of life in the most intimate and unadorned way possible. That he did it through the medium of the popular song, and that he always chose good popular songs was not an accident or good fortune: he had an innate ability to weed out crap and was not beholden to anyone when it came to committing tunes to disc. This immediately puts him in a different camp to many vocalists who had as good a voice as him, or as much expressive potential. Where would Elvis have ended up should he have had Sinatra’s taste and self-determination? For one thing, he wouldn't have made all those appalling movie soundtrack records that did so much long-term damage to his career and sense of musical self.

Frank Sinatra

Sinatra began his Reprise phase in exactly the same manner as he’d rounded out his Capitol years: alternating swingin’ and rhapsodic albums and singing with unabated relish in both settings, as Ring-a-Ding Ding! and Sings Great Songs from Great Britain demonstrate. Now, not far short of 50 and flexing his artistic and economic muscle, he was initially cautious in the methods he used to update his appeal for early 1960s audiences. His first departures from what had become a formula were his albums with other musical greats - pairings denied him previously by contractual complications. Now all he had to do was sign artists to his label or negotiate releases himself. Thus he made three albums in quick succession with Count Basie (Basie’s is the band on At The Sands) while also completing a memorable 1967 outing with Duke Ellington and, earlier that same year, carefully pushing into more contemporary sounds with an album paired with Antonio Carlos Jobim. Even with this record, though, Sinatra made sure that things were on his terms by hiring Claus Ogerman to arrange and conduct, with Jobim supplying walk-on vocal and guitar parts. It is possible to make a case for Sinatra attempting to pace changes in musical style and fashion throughout the 1960s, while staying true to the best characteristics of his voice. He may have enjoyed a kitsch hit in 1966 with the Euro-style 'Strangers in the Night' but he never liked the song and, to be truthful, its sentiments sat uneasily with his middle-aged persona. Yet the rest of the eponymous album, arranged by Nelson Riddle, finds him comfortable and convincing on repertoire much closer to stylistic home.

Other hits from 1966/7 find him experimenting with different contemporary influences. One of Sinatra's lapses of taste in his post-Columbia and pre-retirement career came with 'Winchester Cathedral' on the That’s Life album: the song is just too silly for even Sinatra to salvage, soft swingin’ and all. This is compounded by close to a whole album’s worth of kitsch on The World We Knew, which includes the aptly (and knowingly) titled ‘Somethin' Stupid'. But then he comes up with the superb 'Drinking Again’, scored by Claus Ogerman, and all is forgiven.

Sinatra continued to chase the popular vote with his takes on songs such as 'From Both Sides Now', 'By The Time I Get to Phoenix', 'Yesterday', 'Hallelujah I Love Her So’ and 'Mrs Robinson', while continuing to search out more anthemic material that reflected a changed self-perception. He knew that he was reaching the end of his voice’s natural professional life, and he was looking for material that would help him sum things up. 1969’s My Way continued his interest in translating European popular music into the American vernacular. But the coarsening of his musical instincts as he began to believe his own propaganda about being the 'eternal Frank’, as well as the deterioration of his vocal equipment meant that, for the first time since Mitch Miller, his music was no longer addressing people's souls, just their delusions.

Frank Sinatra

The singer made three more attempts to come to a sort of artistic reckoning as the decade closed and the 1970s beckoned, but the collaboration with Rod McKuen suffers from the poet/songwriter's portentiousness, even though Sinatra sings and speaks with great and honest urgency. The follow-up concept album, 1970's Watertown, was a commercial disaster but one of the most interesting of Sinatra’s latter-day efforts, being a concept album that remains largely sustained, albeit bleak, and being a record that escapes the singer's own self-absorption by having a narrative and narrator the singer could act through. The style of the music is also the most comfortable amalgam of rock and pre-rock idioms that Sinatra managed.

After this surprisingly high-quality feat, Sinatra closed up shop with the 1971 release Sinatra and Company, another shot at Frankie-goes-to-Brazil that lacks the vocal grace and variety of the 1967 effort with Jobim but is still high quality pop. By then Sinatra knew the game was up and had retired from public appearances. His return in 1973 with album and TV show Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back and subsequent career on record has little to do with music and much more to do with showbiz, as the astoundingly awful 1980 album Trilogy unhappily demonstrates - although a 1995 anthology of his Reprise material, Everything Happens To Me, chosen by Sinatra himself, avoids all the obvious banalities. While concentrating on his 1960s back-catalogue, he also chooses three affecting ballads from the early 1980s. He knew. He always knew.


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All photos are courtesy of Capitol Records.

This article originally appeared in the February 2002 issue of Jazzwise, the UK's biggest selling jazz magazine. For more information about our various subscription options, please visit:

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