The Off-Handed Cool of Michael Franks

by Will Layman

21 August 2011


Brazilian Flavor, Too

Franks would have a run of five albums between 1975 and 1980 that maintained this mix of great songs, cool persona, and fine musicianship. During this time, there wasn’t anyone—of his generation anyway—who was quite like him. In the absence of an “easy listening” jazz category to be anonymously lumped in with, it was Franks’ quirks that defined him.

Sleeping Gypsy, from 1977, was certainly not a letdown, featuring the same musicians and an even wider mix of tunes. \ “Don’t Be Blue” is a rocking little swinger that alludes to Antony and Cleopatra while still finding time for a Sanborn solo. “The Lady Wants To Know” is a bluesy, minor ballad that manages the line “Daddy’s just Coltrane / Baby’s just like Miles / Lady’s just like heaven when she smiles” without a cringe. But now, Franks plays what may be his strongest card, absent on The Art of Tea. “Antonio’s Song” and “Down in Brazil” are both accomplished bossa nova tunes, utterly convincing, that put Franks’ underwhelming vocal power into its natural context.

“Down in Brazil / They never heard of win or lose / If you can’t feel / Then all those café au lait girls / In high heel shoes / Will really cure your blues / Seems they all just aim to please / Those women sway like wind in the banana trees”, Franks coos over a pulsing Brazilian groove.  \On his fourth Warner album, Tiger in the Rain, Franks would double down on this bossa sound with “Sanpaku”, “Inside You”, and the title track. Indeed, nearly every disc from there on out would contain several Jobim-inspired tracks, a well that kept giving.

The third album in this run, Burchfield Nines was recorded in New York rather than California, but the sound of the band is the same, with studio pros like Will Lee, Ernie Watts, Steve Gadd, and Leon Pendarvis giving Franks a more popping set of cross rhythms. Again, Franks gets away with a set of winkingly sexy tunes that flirt and have fun—all light and cool. The grin that sits beneath the Franks’ mustache on this cover is charming and almost sheepish. The California kid has arrived on the Upper West Side, but he’s still modest and kind of quiet: the singing is still almost whispered.

A Jazz “Vocalist”?

The sound of Franks’ singing is, on the surface, his calling card. Its powdery pleasantness is easy to listen to. But it’s certainly at a particular end of the jazz singing spectrum—and not the end involving limber voices scat singing across a few octaves. For older listeners, the reference might have been to Fred Astaire, whose flat but cool singing sounds very “jazzy” on his great 1952 Verve album backed by Oscar Peterson. For younger ears, he sounded enough like Kenny Rankin or Dan Fogelberg to get away with things. I thought he had some of the cool intensity of Chet Baker but with a more limber sense of rhythm.

There’s a decent argument that Franks sings more like a “jazz” singer than anything else—maybe in spite of his poppy tone. It’s a rhythm thing.

First, Franks swings his phrasing in a way not rock singer does. On “A Robinsong” from Burchfield Nines, Franks alternates stresses and non stresses on the verse just like Sinatra, dodging around Steve Gadd’s drums and Will Lee’s walking bass with rubbery bounce. Then on the chorus, he drops back behind the beat like Billie Holiday. Not that he’s as great as either of those singers, of course, but the bag is most certainly jazz.

Hearing Franks sing alongside an obviously “better” and more powerful singer doesn’t hurt his case either. In this live duet with Veronica Nunn on “When I Give My Love to You”, Franks is outsung by a mile in most respects, but you can hear how carefully he places every syllable along the beat, actually swinging the tune more precisely and powerfully than Nunn, who approaches it more as a soul singer.

Franks’ particular kind of “undersigning” always sounds subtly syncopated on his Brazilian material.  On this live version of “Under the Sun”, for example, Franks tugs and lets go of the regular groove in small but effective ways.  At about 3:20, he drags the last two words of “Oh, the gardenia’s scent . . . is sweet”, but then in the very next line he slightly rushes the last two words of “I need the heat”.

Particularly on a track like this last one, with Franks backed by acoustic instruments and legitimate “non-smooth” musicianship, it’s hard to argue with his jazz bonafides.  He’s not Ella or Sarah, of course, but how is he any less a jazz singer than, say, Luciana Souza?

The Cheese Factor

But mostly, of course, Franks has not been backed by straight-ahead jazz bands. And as the Smooth Jazz Industry revved itself up in the mid-1980s and 1990s, Franks inadvertently found his market. He was already using a lite-funk groove on his witty tunes and advancing a soft-focus vocal style.

To increase record sales to fit in with prevailing trends, Warner Brothers didn’t have to do a whole lot other than ask the keyboard player to play a Yamaha DX-7 rather than a Fender Rhodes and shoot Franks for the cover photos in a more seductive style. On 1980’s One Bad Habit, Franks still looks like a ‘70s hipster in faded jeans, and the keyboards are funky and in a cool tradition. By 1985’s Skin Dive the mitts of too many art directors were on the product, and the flirtation seems less witty than just soft.

In short, though Franks continued to write lovely songs, the webbing of his Smooth-ness overcame the fun and the cheekiness of “Popsicle Toes” or “In Search of the Perfect Shampoo”. Real fans could find plenty to like in any particular album, but the industry seemed to have watered down an artist was already a very gentle confection. Fans from the early days (by which I mean, well… myself) didn’t miss much by giving up on Franks or, at least, tuning out for a decade or two.

Still at It, and Pretty Fine

But Franks has not packed it in. Why would he? Sure, smooth jazz seems like a radio format that has (finally) lost its legs, but that was not really his core anyway. His own interest in well-crafted lyrics, tricky chord changes, and bossa nova grooves is a timeless formula.  And at a lean cross-country framed 66, the guy is essentially still young.

So, 2011 brings his first recording in five years, Time Together. While there’s still too much fluff in the production on certain songs, Franks continues to write wonderful story songs and to craft worthy melodies. His characters try to chill out in hammocks, they wander through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they revisit Paris with a woman they met there decade before, they even lament a lost companion.

Not that musical fashion has ever mattered to him, but Michael Franks might just be reemerging at a time when some rather popular artists have a slightly Franksian sound. John Mayer’s wispy singing tone owes more than a little to Franks, and Jack Johnson has something of the man’s tone and attack.

Regardless, Franks’ nearly-spoken attack for many songs continues to beguile—at least some of us. The man exudes sincerity… but also puckish humor. He sways onward, no longer the wordsmith Cassanova but most certainly a craftsman.

Is he a jazz singer? More and more in jazz—what with Cassandra Wilson and Gretchen Parlato staking out new territory for what this category even means—the term “jazz singer” has lost meaning. My argument is that he fits within the tradition reasonably well, and he is pressing forward as an individual voice.

Sounds pretty jazz to me. And pretty pretty. Which is also okay.

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