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.

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