Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Michael Bublé Sings and Swings (BBC/NBC, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Before the much-hyped main attraction on NBC last night — a celebration of the 90th birthday of singer Tony Bennett — they offered a show with Canadian crooner Michael Bublé, who as I’ve written in these pages before isn’t a great singer but is a sufficiently appealing one that it’s nice to know there will still be singers around who can handle the Great American Songbook after Bennett finally croaks. I had expecting Bublé’s show to be another Christmas-themed special, but it wasn’t; it was a BBC-TV production called Michael Bublé Sings and Swings and it was apparently promotion for his latest album of that title. The show was a mixed bag that proved that Bublé is a good performer but also one with a narrow range — and I don’t mean the actual compass of his voice, but the sorts of styles he should be doing and the kinds of songs he should sing. He opened with a surprisingly dissident orchestral intro (incidentally I was impressed by the sheer size of his orchestra — he was using the same number of musicians as Frank Sinatra did at his peak, and I wondered what the budget for musicians was like on this program) that led into his first song, a quite good cover of Julie London’s 1956 hit “Cry Me a River” that ably suited his voice (even though I like London’s sparse version — she was backed just by Barney Kessel playing beautiful jazz guitar, and a rhythm section — and Ella Fitzgerald’s cover from 1961 better). Alas, Bublé strayed from the traditional pop songs that show him off best into more contemporary material; his next song was a modern-day power ballad called “I Just Haven’t Met You Yet” (an odd choice for a performer who paraded the happiness of his family arrangements with his wife and kids during his between-songs patter) that required a more openly soulful sort of singing than Bublé could provide.

The yin and yang between stuff Bublé can do effectively and the sort of songs that put him at sea went on throughout the entire program, and sometimes even within the same song; after “I Just Haven’t Met You Yet” he sang two songs that perfectly suited him, Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You” and Walter Donaldson’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” Donaldson wrote the latter for Eddie Cantor’s 1930 film Whoopee (the movie was based on a stage show that Donaldson had written for Cantor, but producer Sam Goldwyn commissioned new songs and wisely chose Donaldson to write them), but Bublé said he’d learned the song from Nina Simone’s recording on her first album, Little Girl Blue. One could tell from the melodic variations and the tricky countermelodies his pianist had taken from Simone’s version (of course Simone, an accomplished pianist, had played the countermelodies herself!), but it really worked. Alas, the show then went off the rails again for a modern pop-ballad called “Nobody but Me” that’s supposedly the first single from Bublé’s new album, and then into a cover of Willie Nelson’s “You Were Always on My Mind” that showcased Bublé the wanna-be soul singer. Bad move: it’s not that great a song in the first place (Nelson was great writing songs about dysfunctional relationships but nowhere near as good doing a straightforward love song) and Bublé’s “take” on it didn’t help.

The next piece was another undistinguished modern song called “I Want to Go Home,” but what followed that was the best song of the night even though it didn’t come from the 1930’s, 1940’s or 1950’s. It came from the 1960’s: Brian Wilson’s wrenching ballad “God Only Knows,” taken much slower than Wilson’s original recording with the Beach Boys on the Pet Sounds album, but while I wouldn’t say Bublé’s version is better than the original, it brought out the sheer aching beauty of the melody at least as effectively and was a quite valid cover, offering a different “take” on the material instead of just slavishly copying the original. (I still have bitter memories of the awful version Olivia Newton-John did in the 1970’s — ouch!) The final song on Bublé’s program was the Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse ballad “Feeling Good,” which has been very lucky in its artists — Carmen McRae, Nina Simone and John Coltrane. Alas, this was another song Bublé learned from Simone’s version, which was fine as far as she was concerned but, like a lot of other recordings from singers on Mercury or its affiliated labels in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, afflicted with an awful arrangement by Hal Mooney — and Bublé and his musical director copied Mooney’s arrangement all too well, so a song that Bublé started in the same soft, slow, moving fashion in which he’d sung “God Only Knows” ended up as more of a battle between him and his band, much the way Pentatonix’ version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” from an NBC-TV special aired last week suffered when they sped up the tempo and started doing those damned drum-machine effects that drive me crazy. Overall, Michael Bublé is a talented performer but one who needs to be a lot more careful in how he chooses his material and how the people around him arrange it for him!