One for my baby, the piano solo way

Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958) is one of the Chairman’s finest albums, as he himself admitted, and the 1943 Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer song “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” is among the highlights of the album. Since then it’s been recognized as one of the masterpieces of the Great American Songbook, and certainly one of Sinatra’s.

The version arranged by the great Nelson Riddle for orchestra and solo piano is the version that’s justly entered the pantheon, but in some ways I very much prefer the version below, a rehearsal performance recorded on June 24, 1958, a day before Sinatra and Riddle laid down the track for the album itself. This recording was discovered in 1990 by Ron Furmanek as he was compiling the three-CD collection The Capitol Years, and to my knowledge has not had the reach of the album recording. With only pianist Bill Miller accompanying him, Sinatra achieves a closer intimacy with the listener, the bartender to whom the woozy, half-inebriated singer is disclosing his woes; in this rendition, the song becomes a pained epiphany about the transience of all things, not just a lost love, and the two bars of “You gotta be true to your code” insist upon the value of stoicism and individual integrity in the face of that transience — far more simply and effectively, I think, than the later anthem “My Way.”

Perhaps you’ll agree. In any case, check it out.

Thumbs up

I’m delighted to report that my wife Marilyn Nonken‘s album of music by Scott Joplin and his collaborators, Syncopated Musings from Divine Art, is beginning to garner attention, and not just because I wrote the album notes. (Marilyn will be playing some of these rags — along with a few surprises — in June at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, MO. A few years ago I wrote about the peculiar role of Sedalia and Hannibal in American culture.)

Joplin biographer and ragtime authority Edward A. Berlin‘s review appears in the new issue of Syncopated Times, and he’s got nothing but good things to say. Quoth Mr. Berlin:

Classical artists may differentiate and personalize their performances with subtleties, highlighting features that might otherwise go unnoticed, using touch and dynamics to separate distinctive lines and to adjust expressiveness. Nonken follows these principles and excels in their execution; her playing is always ultra clean, precise, and well considered. …

Most classical pianists whose Joplin performances I’ve heard play [“Stoptime Rag”] slightly percussively; Nonken plays it generally legato, and in the final strain presents an even smoother legato that’s both unexpected and delicious. …

Not all classical pianists who perform Joplin’s music produce a satisfactory result. I’ve heard recordings and live performances in which the pianist, taking to an extreme Joplin’s caution against playing ragtime fast, ignore its dance music function and adopt a dirge-like tempo that destroys its toe-tapping nature. Others play it with the bombast of a late Romantic piano concerto, a course that overwhelms the music. Nonken joins the group of classicists who understand the character of ragtime and have the skill and temperament to enhance it in performance. I expect that Joplin would have been thrilled to hear Nonken play his music; I know that I am.

I’m not sure you can get much better than that. Berlin’s lengthy review, which also considers the provenance and performance practice of this music through the years, can be found here.

Below, a taste of the album (available on all major streaming platforms and on CD from Amazon) with Marilyn’s performance of the lovely “Reflection Rag”:

Wednesdays with Hoagy

When I haven’t been watching my daughter onstage, I’ve been listening quite a bit to Hoagy Carmichael recently, a great American singer/songwriter who has fallen into some obscurity over the past few years. He may be most famous for his appearance as Cricket in Howard Hawks’ 1944 To Have and Have Not; below, he sings “Hong Kong Blues” in an excerpt from the film. (I can highly recommend Richard M. Sudhalter’s fine 2002 biography of the musician, Stardust Melody.)


Ragtime break: Sunflower Slow Drag

In the next few weeks you’ll be hearing more here about Syncopated Musings, Marilyn Nonken‘s new album of music by Scott Joplin and his collaborators, now scheduled for release in January of 2022. As a preview, Divine Art Records is providing Marilyn’s performance of Scott Hayden and Scott Joplin’s “Sunflower Slow Drag” on YouTube below. Per the promotional copy:

While Scott Joplin’s ragtime music shot back to popularity in the 1970s, many of his pieces are still relatively unknown and this also applies to pieces in which Joplin collaborated with other musicians. American pianist Marilyn Nonken has a new album in which she takes us on a journey through some of Joplin’s most attractive rags and concert waltzes, including works in which he partnered with Scott Hayden, Arthur Marshall, Charles Lamb, and Louis Chauvin. Syncopated Musings will be available worldwide on February 11, 2022, and direct form Divine Art in early January.

You can read more about it here. In the meantime, sit back and relax to the strains of this 1901 classic.