Sunday, April 17, 2011

Michael Feinstein at Orchestra Hall

The singer/piano player and Great American Songbook archivist Michael Feinstein was at Orchestra Hall last month for two concerts that focused on his 2008 album, "The Sinatra Project." It was a fantastic concert, Michael's voice is as good as it has ever been, and I think this is one of his strongest albums. I've been a fan of Michael Feinstein's music for a long time, ever since I was about 9 or 10 years old, and he and Harry Connick were really my entry points into the Great American Songbook. (My appreciation for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Bobby Darin would come in my teens.)

For those of you who need a little intro to Michael Feinstein, he worked as Ira Gershwin's archivist at the end of Ira's life, and then he started playing piano in clubs, which eventually led to a record deal. He's been making records since the mid-80's, at the pace of about one a year, most of which focus on songs from the Great American Songbook. Feinstein is dedicated to preserving the legacy of these songs, and he does deep research into them, often performing forgotten verses or special lyrics that were written for a radio show but never before recorded. He's as much an archivist and historian as a performer. It's clear from every song he sings that he really cares about these songs and loves them. But it doesn't mean that he treats them as musty museum pieces. On the contrary, he sees how these songs can still be vital in the 21st century. His PBS program, "Michael Feinstein's American Songbook," which aired last fall, gives viewers a closer look at what Feinstein does. From going to antique sales to cleaning out storage spaces of a composer who has passed away, Feinstein is always on the lookout for rare material. He's a terrific singer, with a pure tone, and you can always hear the happiness in his voice. His piano playing is also extraordinary, although he doesn't often feature his own playing on his records.

The "Sinatra Project" album is very good, in part because Feinstein isn't trying to imitate Frank, and most of the songs he sings on the album are not indelibly associated with Sinatra. He even sings one song that Sinatra never recorded, "The Same Hello, the Same Goodbye." (It was written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman for Sinatra, but he never recorded it, despite liking the song.) One of my favorite songs from the album is Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine." Sinatra only recorded "Beguine" in the 1940's, but Feinstein re-imagines it as arranged by Nelson Riddle, in the style of Sinatra's 1956 recording of "I've Got You Under My Skin." (Both songs use what Riddle called "the heartbeat rhythm," also a feature of Sinatra's recording of "Night and Day.") Feinstein swings hard on Porter's "It's All Right With Me," and it's nice to hear him sound a little more jazzy than he usually does.

In concert Feinstein added more songs associated with Sinatra, which makes me hope for a Volume 2 of the Sinatra Project. He led off with a medley of "Luck Be a Lady/All I Need Is the Girl," mixing one of Frank's most well-known swingers with an underrated gem. (Check out Frank's 1967 recording of "All I Need is the Girl," with Duke Ellington, it's amazing!) Feinstein is equally at home singing ballads or up-tempo songs. For most of the concert he just sang, but he would occasionally sing a song solo at the piano, which was wonderful to hear. You could have heard a pin drop when he sang a solo of "Time After Time." Beautiful. Feinstein has amazing control over his voice, and he seems to be using his upper range more, as he ends a lot of songs on a high falsetto, which is very affecting. Feinstein brings such a joyous energy to performing that you can't help but be charmed by him. (Although he didn't do any of his impersonations this time. In previous concerts he's veered into note-perfect mimicry of Liberace, Peter Lorre, and Jackie Mason.) Here are the songs that he sang, in mostly correct order:

Luck Be a Lady/All I Need is the Girl
I Thought About You
Exactly Like You
Time After Time
Fools Rush In
What Kind of Fool Am I?
Just One of Those Things
Once in a Lifetime
How Do You Keep the Music Playing?
Begin the Beguine
So In Love
All My Tomorrows/All the Way
I Remember You
For Once In My Life-which was apparently one of Frank's favorite songs, I had no idea!
Theme from New York, New York

All in all it was a wonderful concert, it's at least the fifth time I've seen Michael Feinstein in concert, and he never fails to put on a great show!