ALBUM OF THE WEEK 2-9 JUNE In the 1970s The Art of Tea as a milestone included the singer songwriter instrumentalist composer Michael Franks’ indelible ‘Popsicle Toes’ and most notably ornaments his long and fertile career. His songs have been covered by many great jazz artists, Carmen McRae and Kurt Elling (the Franks written title song of 2007’s Nightmoves), chief among them. The tea this time written into the lyrics is the finest lapsang souchong.
The issuing label behind the samba beat of the brand new album is once again the New Jersey based Shanachie, who released the far too smooth Time Together by the now youthful looking septuagenarian Californian, back in 2011.
These days half forgotten by today’s young and early middle aged jazz generations the kind of radio shows that play Michael Franks are for easy listening or a soaking of 1970s pop nostalgia by including elements of his very credible back catalogue snuck into their play lists like stowaways.
His melodies are never a straight line from A-Z more containing a Bob Dorough-like joie de vivre and the magic dots and sinuous metre that takes the song for a walk and is reluctant to come home is less of a shaggy dog story than an experience.
In the new album The Music in My Head (**** recommended) I keep thinking of both Christopher Cross and even more so the vocals side of the musical portrait of Chet Baker because Franks’ essential style is a twist on the soft singing that Chet Baker first introduced. There is plenty of improvising particular in the Chuck Loeb passages that contribute just enough emphatic substance and body to the zesty Brazilian flavoured marinade within.
The lyrics, Franks’ lyrics, steal the show. They say their stories simply without even trying and suddenly there is the clarity of a place inside the story of American song that floats on the same sentimental sea as many but avoids even the testiest of tides. His voice never insists and yet is there to convey. His words on the page need to be sung to be believed and have a throwaway insouciance to them. He does not care if he is being wordy. He certainly is not afraid to be unmonosyllabic.
‘It may be cliché to say our love is stronger than Gibraltar/Deeper than the deep blue sea/But me I believe it if you read the history/That tells the tale of you and me/We conquered all adversity together/As long as we’re both together.’
These tales of intimacy creep up on you or fade into improvisation and back again.
On ‘Bebop Headshop’ for instance, technically dazzling as a vocal performance without any need for acrobatics, way ‘down at the bebop headshop’ there is a Jon Hendricks-like sophistication as the song dives into an unexpected elegy for the bebop headshop now closed, all this set against a conversational syncopated to-ing and fro-ing of saxophone, beat and rhythm that curls and sweeps up the vocal in its wake and travels ultimately shotgun.
Personnel on the album include the much admired Yellowjackets tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer and one of the great jazz arrangers alive today in Gil Goldstein. ‘Where you hid the truth’ is a song title and an unpreachy home truth turned into a short story like all these songs rolled into one. That’s – thanks – Franks. SG