In the 1980s, if you were a researcher, it was easy and natural to meet world famous singer/pianist/performer Michael Feinstein in person. In that decade, he was in the process of building the beginnings of a giant career, which will be on full local display next Saturday, November 29, when he brings himself and a goodly number of musicians to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center with his latest creation, “The Sinatra Project.”
In the 1980s, Mr. Feinstein was headquartered in the Gershwin home on Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills, where George and Ira Gershwin had written some of their greatest scores, and where he was currently serving as Ira Gershwin’s archivist, assistant and general amanuensis. He was the go-to man for anyone who wanted to enter the world and wonders of the Gershwin brothers, and there couldn’t have been a more informed, gracious and generous gatekeeper.
Short of stature, he was, even at that time, tall in achievement, intellect and energy, the last of which he betrayed through a pair of piercing, fairly glowing blue eyes. In the ’80s, the rich week of research this journalist spent under the Gershwin roof was punctuated every afternoon by Mr. Feinstein at the piano upstairs, playing with elegance unfamiliar but exquisite songs.
They were, I learned as I left, songs that George Gershwin had written and notated but never published before his tragic and early death at the age of 38.
The melodies continued to be heard after Ira died, and, Mr. Feinstein, helped by Liza Minnelli, began claiming his own fame and fortune as, first, a cabaret performer, then a pianist and singer who wove Gershwin anecdotes and Gershwin music into a kind of living history, then a television recording and concert star who appeared worldwide with various symphony orchestras in concert halls and venues such as Buckingham Palace and the White House, and, finally, as a cabaret owner and impresario himself who now presides over Feinstein’s at the Regency, a posh Manhattan nightclub that features not only the royalty of the cabaret world, but new singers, too.
Every year during the holiday season, Mr. Feinstein himself heads a gala show. This year, that show will feature a six-piece orchestra and “The Sinatra Project.” And, yes, it’s the same show he’s bringing to Westhampton next weekend.
Mr. Feinstein has woven a unique career out of his impeccable musicianship, his winning personality and his own superior ability to mine the fascinating depths of his subject matter. In his shows and his previous 23 CDs, four of which won Emmy nominations, he has focused on the usual suspects—writers of show music in the golden and platinum eras of Broadway: Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Rodgers and Arlen.
But he has also fearlessly used his encyclopedic knowledge of show music to capture the overlooked talents of other composers of the era. His double CD of the music of Burton Lane, with Mr. Feinstein doing the vocals and Mr. Lane himself at the piano, is a profound and overdue treasure.
“The Sinatra Project,” his latest undertaking, is a novel and intriguing departure for Mr. Feinstein, whose adherence to songwriters and their worlds and his encyclopedic knowledge of them has earned him not only the titles of “Ambassador of the American Songbook” and “an essential national resource,” but also a seat on the Library of Congress’s National Sound Recording Board.
Rather than focusing his attention on a particular creator, Mr. Feinstein has, this time, expanded his horizons to encompass all aspects of the performer Frank Sinatra, his sound and his era. The ’40s and ’50s were the height of the Sinatra years, built around the swinging creations that emerged from the Capitol Records building in Hollywood.
The Capitol Building itself resembles a stack of vinyl records, and it was a repository of the warm, balanced sound that emitted from the vinyl recordings made in those studios at that time—a sound that the electronic mixing of CDs has largely replaced. And it’s this sound that Mr. Feinstein and his producer/arranger Bill Elliot pursued beyond imitation and into re-creation at its source, the old Capitol Records studios.
“So,” Mr. Feinstein has stated lately, “this … is not only a tribute to Sinatra, but also to his collaborators … Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Axel Stordahl, as well as the dozens of other musicians with whom he worked … from Count Basie to Quincy Jones, Don Costa, Skip Martin, Johnny Mandel” and others.
As befits his thoroughness and imagination, Mr. Feinstein has included, in “The Sinatra Project” not only the expected Sinatra standards—“All the Way,” “Fools Rush In,” “I’ve Got a Crush on You” (the only George and Ira Gershwin song in the show) among them—but also a couple of songs that he never recorded, but should have: “The Same Hello, The Same Goodbye” and “How Long Will It Last?” and a song he didn’t record but might have: Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” as if it were arranged by Nelson Riddle with some Billy May touches.
Fans of Mr. Feinstein who are used to the warm but straight-on cabaret style of his singing will encounter a far more relaxed and swinging Michael Feinstein, with the trademark, tasteful back phrasing that identified the Chairman of the Board’s approach to his songs. All in all, “The Sinatra Project,” in a preview before its Manhattan debut at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center at 8 p.m. on November 29 (box office number 288-1500) will be an evening of both nostalgia and ground-breaking experimentation.
Michael Feinstein and a six-piece ensemble will perform at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, November 29, at 8 p.m. For ticket information, call 288-1500, or visit the PAC website: www.whbpac.org.