October 31, 2015

#19: One that will thrill and delight you

It's "The Nearness Of You," written in the 1930s by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington for Mickey Rooney (yes, you read that right) and arranged by Nelson Riddle for 1960's Nice 'N' Easy.

It's pure magic:



Sinatra was in his mid-forties when he recorded that and his maturity and vocal skills are in full, glorious display. But there's an earlier recording, arranged by Axel Stordahl and sung by a much younger Sinatra, that's lovely, too. Mark Steyn compares and contrasts:

As with "Stardust", I sometimes wish the two Sinatra versions could be combined into one ultimate "Nearness of You". In a strange way, Axel Stordahl's 1947 arrangement and Nelson Riddle's 1960 chart are the precise inversion of each other. Stordahl starts with one of his characteristic orchestral introductions - string writing of almost classical beauty, overlaid by a flute. And then Frank enters. On the Riddle arrangement, Frank starts cold:

It's not the pale moon that excites me...
It's that cold opening that thrills and delights me. More from Mark:
There's nothing under him until "pale moon", at which point Bill Miller's piano comes in. And for the first eight bars that's it: Sinatra, Miller and a "Nearness of You" that's nearer and up closer than it's ever got. And then at the end of that first title phrase Riddle throws in a little rhythmic vamp - like Stordhal's legato intro, it's flute-driven, by the great Harry Klee. Both Riddle and Stordahl were musically fecund, and hardly ever just scored a song without adding new melodic material in the form of intros and fills and codas and counter-melodies. On the 1960 chart, Riddle introduces a new string line during the second eight, and another at the end, and another in the middle section. And, although Sinatra's vocal is direct and unaffected, what's going on underneath starts to sound a little busier than it ought to be.
Yes, and the bit of drama at the end, which peaks with the word "night," is just a little too much for my taste; it used to break the song's spell for me, but not so much anymore.

Back to Mark:
Stordahl goes the opposite route. After the big intro, he draws his forces back, and you're aware of Frank's voice against the guitar, flute and other individual instruments. And he does something quite beautiful in the middle section, taking out the rhythm section entirely for the full eight bars so that, in the intimacy of the suspended pulse, Sinatra and the song seem to have moved even nearer.

Which is the right way to do "The Nearness of You"? Either. Both. I love Stordahl's intro, but I like Frank opening cold, too. On balance, I prefer Sinatra's mature vocal with Riddle on the 1960 chart, but I wonder what it would sound like against the more sensitive Stordahl arrangement. Perhaps in some celestial recording studio Frank, Ax and Nelson have worked it all out.
And to think the later version was actually cut from Nice 'N' Easy! Mark:
Sinatra's later version of "The Nearness Of You" was supposed to be the title track for an album of classic ballads arranged by Nelson Riddle. But then Lew Spence and Alan and Marilyn Bergman presented Frank with a new number: "Nice'n'Easy." And, even though it wasn't entirely simpatico with the other tracks, Capitol decided to make that the title song, and ditch "The Nearness Of You" entirely. It surfaced in 1962 on a ragbag compilation called Sinatra Sings of Love and Things, and wasn't restored to its rightful place with the Nice'n'Easy tracks until the CD era. Yet there it is on the new centennial Ultimate Sinatra collection, selected as one of one hundred tracks encompassing the entirety of Frank's career.
As it should be.

I like Norah Jones's version, too.

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