November 17, 2015

#11: Concentrated awesomeness

Fasten your seat-belts for this 1960 Riddle arrangement, souped-up at Sinatra's demand, of Cole Porter's glorious 1939 creation, "I Concentrate On You":

Mark Steyn has made this one easy for me:

This is Nelson Riddle less in his famous "tempo of the heartbeat" and closer to Billy May's hard swing. "Concentrate" is one concentrated blast, starting with Riddle's tip of the hat to André Previn, the main theme of whose goofy beatnik anthem of a couple of years earlier, "Like Young", provides the arrangement with a driving vamp, Sinatra takes his cue and gives a three-exclamation album a four-nay fire:

When fortune cries "Nay, nay, nay, nay" to me
And people declare that you're through...

The nays have it! Bad mood or not, Frank certainly responded to the band. Riddle, unusually, had written in some bongos - unusually for Sinatra, that is: he used bongos a lot when he wrote for Judy Garland. But the singer sure taps into them. It's a wild two-and-a-quarter minutes and Sinatra is seriously juiced by the time he returns for the outro :

And so when wise men say to me
That love's young dream never comes true
To prove... The wise men can be wrong
I Concentrate On You...

I infiltrate...


On you...

And back to that Previn vamp to close. His harmonic sense and his phrasing - the pause on that "wise men" line - are so surefooted it doesn't matter that you're never quite certain what he means by "I infiltrate".
Yes, "infiltrate" is baffling, but who cares. And YES, Frank's timing before and after "to prove"(coming in a shade early, then the perfect pause that follows) is an exceedingly satisfying musical moment.

This is the tenth Cole Porter song (so far!) to make my list. I'm going to have to quote Mark again to explain Porter's greatness. First, this analysis of the rhyme scheme, which warms my English-major heart:
Porter was a flamboyant and exhibitionist rhymester, but here he rhymes in a complex but very subtle way. They're rhymes across the quatrains: "grey to me" rhymes with "'Nay, nay' to me" 16 bars later, and then with "say to me" after the release. Likewise, "brew" rhymes with "through" rhymes with "true". And "strong" with "song" and "wrong". "Sunny Side Of The Street" does something similar - "Just direct your feet... Life can be so sweet... Gold dust at my feet..." - but on a far less ambitious scale and on a conventional tune of eight-bar rather than 16-bar sections. Porter's using rhyme here mainly to support the musical architecture and help with the forward momentum, but unlike, say, "You're The Top" you're not meant to notice them, or be aware of them. But it's awfully skillful writing.
Yes indeed. And then there's the emotional content:
Porter wrote more ardently than most of his contemporaries, and his best love songs are really about obsession: "This torment won't be through/Till you let me spend my life making love to you..." "I'd sacrifice anything come what might for the sake of having you near..." "So taunt me and hurt me/Deceive me, desert me..." Well, if you insist.

"I Concentrate On You" operates on the slightly less psychologically unhealthy fringes of that territory.
And, finally, Mr. Porter knew how to put words and music together for maximum effect:
You can only write at that heightened level of passion when the melody and harmony are good enough to support the sentiment. His always are.
Sinatra recorded "Concentrate" early on as a ballad with an Axel Stordalh arrangement. And in 1967 Frank and Antonio Jobim did an awesome bossa nova version. But for me there's no contest: the Riddle version is unbeatable. (More on Sinatra's truly excellent, not-to-be-missed work with Jobim here, here, and here.)

(This is our fourth pick from SSS!!!, a must-have for every Sinatra fan.)

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