‘Down in Brazil,’ With American Jazz-Pop Vocalist Michael Franks

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Michael Franks (mp3.com)

Poor Michael Franks. He gets no respect, no respect at all from jazz purists. Although most critics have grievously placed him in the same New Adult Contemporary, bush-league music category as that of L.A. keyboardist David Benoit — that is, of artists who’ve been plying their trade for years without either public acclaim or mass countenance — Franks doesn’t look like a Rodney Dangerfield, nor does he act or sound anything like the late stand-up comedian.

Despite decades of slaving away in the pop-music business — in itself, nothing to laugh about, that’s for sure — his biggest obstacle to lasting success has always been his inability to please those same critics, if indeed that’s anything to lose sleep over.

As Rolling Stone staff writer Paul Evans so astutely concluded about him, “The attitude his music is intended to provoke is invariably: ‘Dim the lights, get out the Chardonnay, cuddle up.’ ” But for the many Brazilian musicians and performers who’ve worked closely with Franks over the years, it’s another story entirely.

Still, the oddest aspect of Michael’s 33-plus-year singing and composing career is the West Coast native’s apparent lack of hits (his “Popsicle Toes” from 1976’s The Art of Tea the only exception) or multi-platinum-selling albums to crown off his consistently earnest achievements.

In a nutshell, the main difficulty for most people remains his unattainability as a crossover specialist, a singer secure enough in his song-filled art at closing the ever-expanding gulf between the jazz and pop spheres so prevalent in the U.S. during his performance heyday.

Not that Franks worries one bit about his nondescript status among his peers. It’s just that the low-key method he’s brought to his words and music, manifested in the refined manner with which he’s formulated his spare yet insightful lyrics — abetted, to no end, by that Comparative English Literature degree he earned at UCLA in the seventies — hasn’t exactly bowled over what’s left of the uncommitted. And likely never will.

Surely Michael’s laid-back vocal temperament could be the hindrance, being that his basic singing style, which closely resembles that of American pop crooner Kenny Rankin, has been allied more to sophisticated Brazilian-jazz contexts than to pop-music puffoonery.

One could even say his voice is a warmed-over version of folk-rock’s best friend James Taylor, but without the singer-songwriter’s deviated-septum vocal production. Incidentally, before Taylor moved on to Columbia (now part of Sony) Records, both he and Franks were Warner Brothers label-mates in the mid- to late seventies, as was smooth-jazz pioneer Al Jarreau, another under-appreciated denizen of the Redwood State.

In actuality, though, Michael Franks is the nearest Americans have ever come to having that old Bahian bossa-nova stylist, the famously cantankerous maestro João Gilberto, in their midst — minus that eccentric singer’s onstage peculiarities, of course.

It would not be an exaggeration, then, to admit that Franks, in his inimitable fashion, is a continuation of the romantic spirit exemplified by the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim — considered by Michael to be one of his prime movers ‘n’ shakers — alongside the still-imposing frames of Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and the great George and Ira Gershwin.

But whatever issues he has pending with reviewers, they have had no ill-effects with the many steadfast fans who happen to be in the musical “know.” Take, for instance, former Steely Dan band member-turned-record producer Walter Becker, who paid the ultimate tribute to Franks’ compositional skills in the September 1990 issue of Jazziz:

“There’s a purity to what Michael does that I really admire. His songs are always simple in the best sense of that word. You immediately know what the song is about and where it’s going. It has its effect without too much digestive effort.”

“At the same time, there’s a lot there,” Becker added. “They’re very perfect little gems of structure and lyrical purity. Michael has a directness and a Zen-like quality to what he does that I really admire.”

That directness and simplicity was amply illustrated from the get-go with his trend-setting Art of Tea offering, particularly with such song titles as “Eggplant,” “Monkey-See, Monkey-Do,” “Mr. Blue,” “I Don’t Know Why I’m So Happy I’m Sad,” and “Sometimes I Just Forget To Smile.”

Sleeping Gypsy (beatgoeson.main.jp)

Even better still, and an early career milestone in the catalog of his cumulative works, was the Tommy LiPuma-produced 1977 outing Sleeping Gypsy, the first in a series of studio efforts to enlist the aid of Brazilian session players; in this case, Hélio Delmiro on guitar, João Donato on piano, and João Palma on drums — all of them associated at one time or another with Rio-born music-master, Tom Jobim.

Along with the now-classic “The Lady Wants to Know,” a modern-day jazz standard if ever there was one (“Daddy’s just like Coltrane / Baby’s just like Miles / The Lady’s just like heaven… when she smiles”), were two numbers originally conceived in red-hot Rio de Janeiro: “Antonio’s Song (The Rainbow),” a moving evocation of Jobim himself, and “Down in Brazil.”

“I wrote [these] in my room at the Copacabana Palace Hotel,” claimed Michael. “I went to Rio to record at the suggestion of Jobim, who had been very kind in his praise for The Art of Tea. It’s no secret he was one of my major heroes and influences.”

With that in mind, “Antonio’s Song” starts out in nearly the same tempo and rhythm-pattern as “The Lady Wants to Know” — it must have been a deliberate choice on Michael’s part to begin in this mode — but for the gentle-on-the-mind string accompaniment arranged by veteran Claus Ogerman, who worked on many of Jobim’s albums for Warner and Verve, including the timeless Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim pairing on Reprise a decade prior.

The image of a decadent Cidade Maravilhosa (“Marvelous City”), contrasted with that of Rio’s sunniest songwriting native-son — so peerlessly captured by Michael in the first few bars — set the prevailing tone and mood:

Antonio lives life’s frevo
Antonio prays for truth
Antonio says our friendship
Is a hundred-proof
The vulture that circles Rio
Hangs in this L.A. sky
The blankets they give the Indians
Only make them die

That opening phrase (“Antonio lives life’s frevo”) is a masterstroke of understated lyricism. Upon first hearing, it will ever-so-slightly pass by the untrained ear, unless one is intimately aware of the inner meaning of this uniquely Brazilian-Portuguese term: an exceedingly agitated Northeastern dance-rhythm, native to both Bahia and Recife, frevo is typically played during the pre-Lenten season. As a partial metaphor for the composer, moreover, it shrewdly encompasses Jobim’s hectic artistic lifestyle in a brief, eight-syllable sentiment.

While not the bold social statement often associated with the best of Bono and U2 (or early Sting, for that matter), the song nonetheless hints at an undercurrent of tension amid the tropical froth; as if Franks instinctively sensed the adoration his newfound friend felt for his seaside abode, despite all the harshness and strife he may have encountered there from time to time.

Franks & Tom Jobim (michaelfranks.com)

As well, the singer’s laconic, almost vibrato-less delivery of his lines, as matter-of-fact as only he was capable of producing back then — an American smooth-jazz offshoot of German Sprechgesang (“Song speech”) — adds to the objective formality of the piece. More so than the actual words, Michael’s aloof, non-judgmental approach leaves it to the listener to make up his or her own mind about the foibles of “Sin City” Rio:

We sing the Song
Forgotten for so long
And let the music flow
Like Light into the Rainbow
We know the Dance, we have
We still have the chance
To break these chains and flow
Like Light into the Rainbow.

The last line, “Like Light into the Rainbow,” echoes the essential English text (supplied by American jazz essayist Gene Lees) to one of Jobim’s bounciest Brazilian melodies, “Double Rainbow” (“Chovendo na Roseira”), also known by the less-familiar title “Children’s Games,” recorded by Tom with Elis Regina, in Los Angeles, in 1974:

Look at the double rainbow
The rain is silver in the sunlight

“Down in Brazil,” the closing track on Gypsy, is dedicated (for one) to the beauteous charms of Brazilian women, and is relayed high-up in Michael’s reediest tonal range:

Down in Brazil
They never heard of win or lose
If you can't feel
That all those café olé girls
In high-heel shoes
Will really cure your blues
It seems they all just aim to please
Those women sway like wind
In the banana trees
When you know you're
Down in old Brazil

At the fadeout, the oft-repeated verses of “Down in old Brazil” reminds one, too, of music legend Frank Sinatra’s sly sendoff on the time-worn Ary Barroso-Bob Russell theme, “Brazil” (“Aquarela do Brasil”), found in the first — and best — of Ole Blue Eyes’ various Billy May collaborations, namely Come Fly With Me (1957) for Capitol.

Yet what are we to make of the Franks brand of music making? Is it less-than-mainstream jazz, or plain old middle-of-the-road pop styling?

“Michael’s music actually exists in that ideal space between pop music and jazz that’s so difficult for people to locate and be comfortable in,” comments Becker.

“Part of the problem has been that traditionally, in jazz, you have a different kind of lyrical mentality than you have with pop. A lot of people associate jazz-vocal with the less ambitious lyrical things. Michael doesn’t do that. He just writes what he writes, undaunted by the ‘moon-June-spoon,’ Tin Pan Alley tradition of jazz. Again, it’s just hard for people to function comfortably to make that transition.”

In light of this estimation, and Franks’ positive working relationship with Brazil’s native-born performers, his unabated love for the country’s music conveniently spilled over into his subsequent long-play output, significantly in the 1978 Burchfield Nines release, with arrangements by Eumir Deodato (see 1971’s Sinatra & Company on Reprise); in Tiger in the Rain (1979), with the cut “Jardim Botânico” (“Botanical Garden”), featuring jazz artist Flora Purim and trumpeter Claudio Roditi; in Passionfruit (1983), with Astrud Gilberto and Naná Vasconcelos, on “Amazon”; and in Dragonfly Summer (1993), with key contributions by percussionist Paulinho da Costa and guitarist Toninho Horta.

Abandoned Garden (us.7digital.com)

But the work to end all works — the sine qua non of Brazilian tribute albums — was the career-defining Abandoned Garden project from 1995, recorded in loving memory of the late Antonio Carlos Jobim. Described as the “jazziest” of Michael’s subtropical jaunts, the CD features rhythm tracks laid down for him by paulistana pianist Eliane Elias — a current, and past, Jobim acolyte — along with a contemporary all-star lineup of acknowledged light- and smooth-jazz favorites, among them Michael and Randy Brecker (Eliane’s husband), Mark Egan, Art Farmer, Russell Ferrante, Bob James, Bashiri Johnson, Chuck Loeb, Bob Mintzer, Joshua Redman, and David Sanborn.

Two of the disc’s many highlights, “Cinema” (co-written with Jobim) and “Bird of Paradise” (music by Alagoan singer Djavan/English lyrics by Michael Franks), reveal a thoroughly evolved mastery of the lyrical style, as infectiously and flavorfully literate as anything in the Jobim-Moraes canon.

Some of the other songs on the set, including “This Must Be Paradise,” “Like Water, Like Wind,” “A Fool’s Errand,” “Hourglass,” “Eighteen Aprils,” “Without Your Love,” and “Somehow Our Love Survives” — originally on ex-Jazz Crusader Joe Sample’s album Spellbound (Warner, 1989), where it was performed by Al Jarreau — revolve around the themes of love-found, love-lost, and love-regained.

Interestingly, the main title-tune comes at the end of the nearly hour-long endeavor. With its slow, dirge-like musings, this mildly morose homage to Tom more than compensates for any rhythmic shortcomings by becoming a fitting formal close to the storied Jobim-Franks joint venture:

Though the samba has ended, I know in the sound of your voice,

your piano, your flute, you are found,

and the music within you continues to flow

sadly, lost Antonio.

You were my inspiration, my hero, my friend;

on the highway of time will I meet you again?

If the heart ever heals, does the scar always show

for the lost Antonio?

For the lost Antonio?

High hopes tinged with sadness: that was the message Michael Franks tried to make clear and convey in all his best work. And along those same lines, everyone from Shirley Bassey, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ana Caram, Natalie Cole, and Laura Fygi, to Diana Krall, Patti LaBelle, Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae, Melissa Manchester, The Yellowjackets, and Ringo Starr has happily complied in covering his highly sought-after song material.

Shut out of FM-radio due to rapidly diminished airplay, Michael’s only-other completely original release thereafter,* the 2003 Christmas-themed Watching the Snow — with seasoned talents Romero Lubambo and Edson Aparecido (Café) da Silva among the artists present — was sold privately to fans on his personal Website via the Sleeping Gypsy label, an obvious (and sentimental) allusion to the first of his many Brazilian-inspired productions.

If, as they say, you can never go home again, Michael can now feel at ease, rest assured of having earned the love and respect of his infinitely loyal fan-base, not the least of which can be counted one deeply devoted admirer: Brazil’s dearly-departed and best-loved composer, a certain Mr. Jobim.

Take that, jazz purists, if you can! ☼


* His 1999 album, Barefoot on the Beach, for the New Age label Windham Hill, while consistent overall with Michael’s basic songwriting philosophy (“Heart Like an Open Book,” “Now Love Has No End”), was not entirely representative of the best of his earlier works. Consequently, it was not a big-seller either, nor did it do well in the record charts.

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