The Off-Handed Cool of Michael Franks

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.

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.