Frank Sinatra began recording A Swingin' Affair in Hollywood on November 15, 1956 and finished on November 28. He used four studio sessions to complete the 15-track album. All of the songs were arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, who had scored Sinatra's groundbreaking Songs for Swingin' Lovers recorded just 10 months earlier in January.
On A Swingin' Affair's first, second and fourth recording dates, Riddle used a full band plus strings—33 musicians in all. On the third session, Sinatra and Riddle decided to do without the strings to maximize the swinging dynamic of the four tracks recorded that day.
A Swingin' Affair comes as close to a jazz album as Sinatra would record during his Capitol Records period. It's also quite possibly his best album of the 1950s. While all of Sinatra's "dance" albums for Capitol have a high-shine polish, A Swingin' Affair captures a slightly deeper level of Sinatra's musical sophistication and jazz commitment.
On the album you hear Sinatra inside each song improvising phrases with a certain brinkmanship and bravado. There's pure jazz-influenced risk-taking here. Much of his vocal choices were spur of the moment, a raw feel Sinatra actively sought by warning Riddle and the band not to make first-take mistakes. To capture his most energetic, out-of-the-gate feel, Sinatra insisted the band provide a flawless foundation the first time around.
Sinatra's jazz sensibility was likely motivated by two jazz stars on the session—Juan Tizol, Duke Ellington's trombonist, and trumpeter and Count Basie veteran Harry "Sweets" Edison. Both players also were on Songs for Swingin' Lovers, but on Swingin' Affair their confidence level seems to be higher after the former album's success. Sweets was one of the West Coast's top session trumpeters during this period, and was recording Ray Brown's Bass Hit! for Verve at exactly the same time. If you listen carefully to Swingin' Affair, you'll hear that Tizol gave many numbers a Caravan feel. Tizol, of course, was the composer of Caravan, one of Ellington's biggest hits.
Riddle's arrangements on A Swingin' Affair are miraculously inventive. As Will Friedwald points out in Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art (1995), almost every track on the album is directly or indirectly patterned after Riddle's arrangement for I've Got You Under My Skin from the Songs for Swingin' Lovers album. Nearly all of the songs on Swingin' Affair start out slowly, with some type of compositional intrigue. Then they gradually intensify until reaching a swinging crescendo.
Riddle's arrangements on A Swingin' Affair are knockouts and constantly in motion. To hear how innovative and how far beyond what most big band arrangers were writing at the time, you merely have to consider two songs—I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan and Stars Fell on Alabama.
Riddle opens I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan with a swinging exchange between three flutes and a bass clarinet, with Sweets Edison turned lose to wander on a mute. But wait—it's not that simple. Listen to the complexity of just the first measure and intro. Riddle has the flutes play the downbeat alone—with the bass knocking twice on the first beat. He does this so the bass winds up playing in between the beats as the flutes play on the beat. Your foot taps to the bass while your ears listen to the flutes and Sweets' trumpet. Pure magic!
When Sinatra starts to sing, Riddle initially frames his voice with just the bass, drums and a celeste—a sweet instrument that reminds listeners that this is the same Sinatra of I'll Never Smile Again, only better and hipper. A bed of strings comes up, followed by muted trombones and the return of the flutes, strings and a harp riff that sets up a repeat of the intro.
Then the pace kicks up. Listen as Sinatra swings freely into motion, at one point playfully grousing the lyric, "Why did I buy those blue pa-jamas, before that big affair began." But listen carefully. He spends the first half of the line hanging behind the beat to punctuate each word—and the second half of the line rushing to the front of the beat. This is pure 1956, with Riddle and Sinatra at their jazzy best.
Or listen to the strings angelically spiraling downward on the intro to Stars Fell on Alabama, setting up the walking bass and trombones. Piano, bass and drums back Sinatra as he starts the song—with trombones, flutes and strings joining in the seventh and eight measures. Riddle never repeats the configurations or instrument mix. Like everything in the mid-1950s, each measure had to be new and fresh and immediately disposable.
You don't find Sinatra bored on any of the albums' tracks. He's fooling around musically with every number. As Will Friedwald points out in Sinatra!:
"[Swingin' Affair] as a whole package has even more wallop than [the song] I've Got You Under My Skin [from Swingin' Lovers]. Affair is leaner and meaner; there are far fewer filigrees, less of the highly ornamental filling of every space that we find on Swingin' Lovers."
While Sinatra's singing style on A Swingin' Affair may have been loose and jazzy, he had zero tolerance for musical distractions or unnecessary re-takes on the date. In Peter Levinson's book, September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle (2001), tenor saxophonist Don Raffael relates the following story from the November 15 session:
"We had rehearsed the music and we're sitting there. The double doors at Capitol open up and there's Sinatra. He's got a black hat on with a white band, black suit, black shirt, black shoes, white necktie—gangster. He doesn't say anything to anybody, walks into the recording booth, and says: 'You've had plenty of time to get the balance on this thing. I don't want any fooling around or it'll be your ass!' He says that like a hoodlum. We did one take on everything that we did. One! That's it. That's all he wanted to do. No slips, no nothing. He was an evil mother!"
For whatever reason, Raffael wasn't brought back into the studio for the next three Swingin' Affair sessions, based on John Ridgway's Sinatrafile Part 2 discography. Sinatra's mood that day also may have been a reflection of what happened a week earlier on November 8. According to Sinatrafile, only two songs were recorded that day. Sinatra apparently was so displeased with the arrangements or the band that he canceled the session. The two song versions were never released.
Sinatra's sudden mood swing in the mid-1950s from life's punching bag to its swinging chariot racer may have been influenced in part by Sammy Davis, Jr., whose ability to swing on any song was already well known among jazz insiders, West Coast arrangers and Sinatra.
"Sinatra was influenced a lot by Sammy. A lot! Sinatra was intrigued 'cause Sammy could swing anybody to death. Sammy was very influential as far as clipping the notes, popping the fingers and making sure the thing had a groove. I know that from the early 1950s, when I started working with Frank, to 10 or 15 years later, he was a different Sinatra in the way he approached a song."
Riddle and Sinatra were pure magic together, Neal Hefti recalled in Will Friedwald's book:
"As far as I'm concerned, no one has even come close to what Nelson achieved with Sinatra. This isn't taking anything away from any of the other people. It's just that the moon and the stars were in the right position at the same time, with Frank and Nelson plus Capitol Records, plus Frank being so exuberant because he had won the Academy Award [in 1954]. It was all of these things. God! That enthusiasm just keeps going on and on and on! It's just like the Richter scale; each new thing makes the last number 10 times higher. It was just unbelievable."
Give a fresh listen to A Swingin' Affair. I think you'll agree that it captures Riddle and Sinatra at their experimental, jazz-influenced best.
JazzWax tracks: A Swingin' Affair has been available as a remastered CD since 1998. if you don't own it, you can find it at iTunes or here.
The Lady Is a Tramp was added to the CD release because it was part of the Swingin' Affair recording session. But Tramp was not included on the original LP released in 1957. Sinatra wanted to hold it back for the soundtrack release of Pal Joey, so he substituted No One Ever Tells You instead. Unfortunately, Pal Joey remains unavailable as a single CD.
JazzWax close-up: The catchy call-and-response figure that Riddle used for the intro to I've Got You Under My Skin on the Songs for Swinging' Lovers album not only became the foundation on which A Swingin' Affair was built but also would forever be identified with Sinatra.
Riddle, according to Will Friedwald's book, Sinatra!, was under enormous pressure to deliver I've Got You Under My Skin as a last-minute addition in January 1956. My guess is that he adapted the line from the intro that arranger Bill Finegan used to open Comin' Through the Rye, written for Tommy Dorsey's post-war band in 1950. Or it was buried in his subconscious mind.
You be the judge. The song and 1950 chart appear on a Tommy Dorsey CD that's long out of print. But you can sample the Finegan intro here. Just click on Comin' Through the Rye in the song list.