Music

The Off-Handed Cool of Michael Franks

Is he just a "smooth jazz" hack? Or is Michael Franks a real jazz singer whose best work from the '70s remains a viable way to sing today?

Jazz fans who came of age in the '70s are likely to have committed any number of sins in the name of learning the music. While there was fine jazz being made during that decade, the best of it may have been too "weird" for young folks just beginning their obsession. There was, of course, the whole history of the music available on LP though a wealth of re-releases—a landslide of Blue Notes and Prestiges, all the delicious Duke Ellington or Jelly Morton or Charlie Parker that you could afford on LP.

But for relative novices looking for living, breathing jazz that offered a way into the music, there were compromises aplenty to be found.

For me, there were glorious musicians (Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson, Randy Weston) making somewhat questionable music for Creed Taylor on CTI. There were giants having a rough patch, such as Sonny Rollins. There was the first blossoming of fusion (Weather Report, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever), which turned flabby or pointlessly baroque with remarkable speed. And there were the proto-smooth bands that blended soul and jazz: Grover Washington, Jr., whose Mister Magic was a hip record, and The Crusaders, a group of guys from Houston who put a muscular front line of tenor and trombone on a swampy soul groove.

And there was also this singer from Southern California with a Masters in English who managed to combine the sensibilities of Nat Cole, Antonia Carlos Jobim, Dave Frishberg, and... James Taylor, maybe?

An Unlikely "Jazz" Musician

Michael Franks was from La Jolla, California -- born at the start of the baby boom in 1944 -- and like a million other teenaged boomers, he bought himself a guitar. Franks’ sensibility, however, was more Theodore Roethke than Elvis Presley. He studied comparative lit at UCLA, got his Masters at the University of Oregon, then wound up back in LA to teach.

The mid-'60s, of course, were supposedly all about Rubber Soul, "White Rabbit" or The Beach Boys. But it was also a time when a university student was likely exposed to a particular strain of jazz that was also reaching a mass audience. Dave Brubeck was on the cover of Time in 1954, Monk made the cover in 1964, and there was something nearing a “craze” for jazz-infused bossa nova music, thanks to Stan Getz. Miles Davis was still playing "My Funny Valentine" while wearing a sharp Italian suit and a skinny tie. And guitarist Wes Montgomery was playing pop hits in a breezy jazz style on AM radio wherever you went. Why, a smart young man with a guitar and an oblique sense of a rhyme scheme might just think that playing jazz could be a career.

The career that Franks would go on to have in music may or may not be "jazz" as defined by serious critics. Given the context of this first real success, however, a 1975 album on Reprise called The Art of Tea, he certainly started out on that path.

Before he broke through, Franks was already a professional musician. He wrote music for several movies in the early ‘70s (Zandy’s Bride, starring Gene Hackman, and The Cockfighter with Harry Dean Stanton), composed an anti-war musical that featured the actor Harry Hamlin, and he wrote three songs that appeared on a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee album in 1973—on which Franks appeared as a guitarist and banjo player, no less. There was a debut album from Franks that same year that is little heard, but it was the The Art of Tea that defined this soft, cool voice for a run of albums to come.

Sly Wordplay, Slinky Grooves

The Art of Tea was a unique combination for its time. Franks vocals are soft and airy, with a folk-music gentleness. The accompaniment is courtesy of the Jazz Crusaders (Joe Sample on Fender Rhodes, Larry Carlton on guitar, Wilton Felder’s bass), John Guerin on drums, Dave Sanborn and Michael Brecker on saxophones, and Larry Bunker on vibes—a slinky mixture of swing and funk that stays light enough not to overwhelm Franks’ voice, but also makes the trickiest harmonies sound easy.

The key, however, is the songs themselves. Franks works out of a few bags, each of which works well for his voice. The disc will always be known for "Popsicle Toes" and "Eggplant", a pair of hip swingers that rely on humorous double-entendre to grab the ear. “Maybe it’s the way she grates her cheese / Or just the freckles on her knees / Maybe it’s the scallions / Maybe she’s Italian / I can’t reveal her name, but eggplant is her game.” The chorus of that tune has a straight walking bass line and jazz propulsion.

"Popsicle Toes" walks from tip to tail, and its lyrics are even more clever. “You’ve got the nicest North America / This sailor ever saw / I’d like to feel your warm Brazil / And touch your Panama / But your Tierra del Fuegos / Are nearly always froze / We gotta see-saw until we unthaw / Those popsicle toes.”

These tunes are puckish and hip—straight up cousins to a song like Dave Frishberg’s "I’m Hip" and "Peel Me a Grape", which were seductively cooed by Blossom Dearie a decade or so earlier. Like Dearie, Franks is having fun with the naughtiness, a dorky Casanova with a Norton Anthology under one arm.

There is a pair of clever funk tunes in "Monkey See-Monkey Do" and "Jive". The former benefits from a popping Felder bass part and then a bristling Sanborn solo, with the altoist’s vinegar tone sounding great against the rhythm section’s gliding texture. "Jive" uses a big lick by Brecker out front before Franks narrates a tale of a couple that breaks up but maybe not. “You cut me loose, I hit the juice / Somebody deep inside me died / Who punched that tune, who hid the moon? / Who made the dime-store gypsy lie?”

The question of whether the tunes on The Art of Tea should be considered jazz is easily answered in the affirmative, hearing them again 36 years later. Sample, Carlton, and the saxophone players blow genuinely passionate, smart, harmonically complex solos. The feeling in the rhythm section, even when it isn’t swinging, is rich in the give-and-take of jazz. The relatively subtle string arrangements on a few tunes don’t offend, and the whole thing feels like a conversation. Sample’s Rhodes is almost continuously improvising, commenting on the words, adding delicious licks to the proceedings.

The ballads confirm this. "St. Elmo’s Fire" takes several interesting harmonic turns, never sounding like a simple folk song. "Mr. Blue" is based around a series of tricky chords articulated on acoustic piano, and the lyrics come off as not merely clever but explicitly literary—“We touched like watercolor fawns / In landscapes painted by Cezanne”. The comparative lit major is writing jazz tunes.

Beyond the music itself, The Art of Tea established an interesting persona for Franks. On the cover he sits cross-legged, staring at the camera with a blank expression but sporting shaggy ‘70s hair and a mustache. He looks absolutely like a guy who would sing, “Earthquakes, and my Bug breaks / You need lights to see through the smog / It’s like D-Day out on the freeway / I’d like to crawl back under my log”. Here is a guy hip and wry enough to put the moves on girls with puns and metaphors but also directly in his moment, driving a VW Bug, actually from LA. His singing affect is cool; his talent is smart; his musicians are hiply killing.

Next Page

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image