|‘Sinatra & Jobim @ 50’ and ‘Portrait of Joni’ Reviews: Celebrating Pop’s Past
John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey pay homage to a storied collaboration and the songbook of a musical matriarch.
Will Friedwald Aug. 2, 2017 3:04 p.m. ET
John Pizzarelli’s new album is 'Sinatra & Jobim @ 50' Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff
A half-century ago, there were major changes afoot in the conjoined worlds of popular music and jazz: In 1967, Frank Sinatra, long an industry leader, made one of the most remarkable—and different—albums of his career, “ Frances Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim. ” A year later, Joni Mitchell released her debut album, “Song to a Seagull,” thereby establishing herself as the first major female singer-songwriter of the rock era. The two are linked by more than chronology; both releases were on Reprise Records, the label founded by Sinatra in 1960. And before 1968 was over, Sinatra had recorded one of Ms. Mitchell’s classic songs, “Both Sides, Now,” even before the composer could release her own version.
In John Pizzarelli’s “Sinatra & Jobim @ 50” and Jessica Molaskey’s “Portrait of Joni,” an exceptional pair of married musical auteurs, who work both together and separately, are celebrating the Sinatra-Jobim collaboration and the songbook of Joni Mitchell. They are credited as co-producers of each other’s albums, which have just been released. (A part of the albums’ launch, Mr. Pizzarelli and Mr. Molaskey will play a week-long residency at New York’s Birdland beginning Aug. 8.)
One of today’s best jazz guitarists, Mr. Pizzarelli also sings with a comparatively small but musicianly voice—most reminiscent of Nat King Cole in his early trio period. Although he’s already done one Chairman tribute album (the excellent “Dear Mr. Sinatra” in 2006), the aspect of Sinatra’s career most appropriate for Mr. Pizzarelli’s voice is the group of 20 tracks that Sinatra and Jobim recorded in 1967 and 1969. This was a softer, sweeter Sinatra, set to an undulating bossa nova rhythm, and though they seemed like a radical departure at the time for him, the two Sinatra-Jobim albums have long been regarded as milestones in his storied career.
Mr. Pizzarelli starts with 10 of those songs, and though he employs the same samba groove, he doesn’t slavishly re-create the original orchestrations. There are no strings; instead he utilizes the highly expressive tenor saxophone of Harry Allen, whose playing evokes Stan Getz, the Bronx-born jazz star who helped make the bossa nova an international phenomenon. There’s also a backing vocal trio on several tracks featuring Ms. Molaskey. But the most prominent guest star is Daniel Jobim, the composer’s grandson, who supplies the accompanying vocal obligatos that his grandfather sang on the original sessions. Messrs. Pizzarelli and Jobim’s voices suit each other especially well on a medley that begins with the Brazilian singing “If You Never Come to Me” and leads into the American singing Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners.”
“Sinatra & Jobim @ 50” is most successful when it’s at its most original, as when the fundamental Sinatra-Jobim approach is applied to other songs. Michael Franks’s dedication to the late composer, “Antonio’s Song,” and two worthwhile new originals by Mr. Pizzarelli and Ms. Molaskey, “She’s So Sensitive” and “Canto Casual,” are all highlights.
Jessica Molaskey's new album is 'Portrait of Joni' Photo: Bill Westmoreland
Ms. Molaskey is best known as a Broadway performer, with credits in almost a dozen shows, yet she has a warm, husky voice that works wonderfully in folk and jazz projects with her husband. Throughout “Portrait of Joni,” she perfectly captures the spirit of the source material—especially on “Marcie,” the most folkish track, a duet with Mr. Pizzarelli’s acoustic guitar.
As Herbie Hancock showed in his 2007 album, “River: The Joni Letters,” the songs of Ms. Mitchell appeal to jazz performers much more than those of other folk-rock singer-songwriters of her generation. Many of the settings on the new album are highly jazzy, in both a North and South American vein.
The Carioca percussionist Duduka Da Fonseca is a steady presence on both new Pizzarelli-Molaskey albums, which in many spots sound like they could have been taped during the same sessions. On “Portrait of Joni,” “A Case of You” features Mr. Allen again summoning up the spirit of Getz, while “Chelsea Morning” sounds more like Rio than Manhattan. “The Circle Game” is even more Brazilian, being fitted into in a mashup with Jobim’s “Waters of March,” sung by Mr. Pizzarelli; the two songs go perfectly together, both musically and metaphorically.
“The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines,” with Ms. Mitchell’s lyrics to a tune by Charles Mingus, steers clear of Brazil, instead evoking the legendary jazz vocal group Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. It’s also set to a swinging 4/4 beat and, overall, could be a bonus track from Cole’s “After Midnight,” with a muted trumpet solo by Randy Brecker that evokes Harry “Sweets” Edison.
Both albums succeed at maintaining a tricky balance: staying true to the originals while, at the same time, creating something new and exciting out of music already considered classic.
Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for the Journal.