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Frank Sinatra: The Master of Rubato

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In analyzing Sinatra’s singing at its best, lovers of the art of singing have pointed to its many virtues—e.g., his fine musicianship, his ability to sing with intimate feeling, his flawless legato (connected singing), his careful employment of vibrato, and his cello-like vocal tone. Still others have believed that the creative way he moved his golden voice through his songs was the crowning achievement of his singing. Let’s consider for a moment this last virtue. What was is about the way Sinatra moved his voice that contributed so much to his remarkable singing?

Music, all music, takes place in time and at a certain speed; this speed is normally referred to as tempo. All musical pieces are composed with at least one tempo, sometimes with more than one. Part of a singer’s (or any musician’s) talent and skill deals specifically with how he treats the tempo he is singing. That is, whether he sings “right on the beat”—for example, remaining true to the song’s typical tempo, or instead becomes rhythmically flexible with the tempo and plays with the beat and sings a little before it—hurrying the beat, so to speak, or after it—slowing the tempo down. This variation of the tempo of a song on the part of performers is called tempo rubato or simply rubato. The exact Italian translation is stolen time. The artistic challenge of singing rubato is to be able to vary tempo without losing the natural rhythm of the musical piece, and to do so in a charming fashion. If a singer steals—hurries or slows—time with respect to a particular beat, he has to return the time somewhere else in the musical phrase in order to keep the rhythm of the phrase, and that of the song as a whole, aesthetically balanced (in time).

Rubato is an important artistic device for singers because, if done well, it adds heightened feeling and meaning to a performance. Without employing at least some degree of rubato, performances could sound stiff, mechanical, unemotional—without visceral impact; they could be in a word—boring. In an ideal case—and with the greatest artists—a tasteful and distinctive use of rubato becomes an integral aspect of a singer’s style. This idea, of course, brings to mind Maestro Rubato himself—Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra sometimes referred to himself humbly as “just” a “saloon singer.” Why such an apparently disingenuous remark from the great artist? In fact, he was the consummate popular singer with an unmatched musical legacy that included big band music, the American Songbook (“Standards”), Broadway tunes, and a number of the contemporary pop classics (e.g., songs by the Beatles and Stevie Wonder). He even sang a Mozart aria (La Ci Darem La Mano from Don Giovanni) in Italian in one of his films (It Happened In Brooklyn). For some music critics, however, he was also—and most interestingly—an original jazz singer. Jazz icons like Miles Davis openly confessed that Sinatra’s singing influenced their own interpretive styles. As far as his seeing himself primarily as a saloon singer, I believe that he felt his artistic mettle the most when he was able to sing his words and their meanings simply, without having to compete with a large orchestra or even a small ensemble. For him, the piano alone was sufficient for him to be at his very best.

The one aspect of his singing that seems to have had the greatest impact on other musicians was “Sinatra’s phrasing”—the expression that one hears most frequently from the lips of those whom he has influenced. Nonetheless, the idea of his being a jazz singer may, at first, appear to be a misnomer. After all, aren’t the hallmarks of jazz singing improvisation (spontaneous and creative vocal and lyrical flourishes that are not in the written music) and, for the most accomplished “jazz singers” (e.g., Ella Fitzgerald), scat singing? To my knowledge, Sinatra never scatted in any of his songs. How about improvisation? Although he did not deviate from the written music with unpredictable vocal flourishes as a vocal style, we have to acknowledge that he was an improvisational innovator, nonetheless. How should we understand him in this light? The answer is simple: if Sinatra’s creative phasing was the skill upon which his claim to jazz fame rests, then it was his expert use of rubato that made him into a jazz singer.

In fact, his musical genius lay, in part, in his remarkable ability to play with the tempo of a song, offer up spontaneous rhythmic give-and-takes, stretching, shortening, and bending the lyrics in the process—and to do so in such a natural, elastic way that the listener is hardly aware of the subtle tempo shifts, even though the listener instantly feels the “emotional moments” and “emotional spaces” they create. It’s through this creative approach to tempo management that Sinatra is able to bring to life—sometimes new life—the nuanced meaning of lyrics and the emotional elements of the music. This is another way of saying that Sinatra’s rubato style is not only inseparable from the story that he is essaying, but is also guided by the natural inflections of the words he is singing. With Sinatra’s rubato singing then, story line, word, and rhythmic structure all come together in a unique and captivating fashion. This is rubato singing par excellence, and it’s in this arena that he has no peers. For a wonderful lesson in rubato, listen to his rendition of George and Ira Gershwin’s Nice Work If You Can Get It that he recorded with Count Basie.

But still there is another aspect of Sinatra’s singing that one could say bespeaks the meaning of jazz. If exceptional jazz music is anything, it’s honest, but it’s an honesty that expresses what’s happening in the very moments of its creation. This means that jazz a performance is not about the past or future, rather it’s about the feelings, thoughts, passions, revelations, joys, fears, sorrows, celebrations, melodies, harmonies that spontaneously emerge in the present—as an artist is performing. In a similar fashion, when you hear Sinatra nimbly weaving his way through a song, you get the feeling that he is revealing his soul—and the personality it informs—at that very moment; that he is singing about what is real to him—and you—right now and from his own point of view. This is why his interpretations are so poignant, so moving. It’s in this sense that we have to conclude that Sinatra possessed the soul of a great jazz musician. And what is the famous Sinatra swagger but the attitude that says, “Pardon my candor, but I am here to tell you the way I see it, the way I feel it—right NOW! Straight talk, right from the heart, my heart—no half-measures, no bullshit, no compromises!” This spirit is the essence of his singing and the essence of jazz as well. 

Gary Catona, photo by Issam Zejly



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