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Michael Franks
Thirty Years of Smooth Jazz

Review by A. Colin Flood
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CD Numbers: See Below 

 

Abandoned Garden (1995) CD Stock Number: 45998-2, Warner Bros.

Dragonfly Summer (1993) CD Stock Number: 45227-2, Reprise

Blue Pacific (1990) CD Stock Number: 26183-2, Reprise

Camera Never Lies (1987) CD Stock Number: W2-25570, Warner Bros.

Passionfruit (1983) CD Stock Number: 23962-2, Warner Bros.

Tiger in the Rain (1979) CD Stock Number: 3294-2, Warner Bros.

Sleeping Gypsy (1977) CD Stock Number: 3004-2 Warner Bros.

 

  Admitting to liking Michael Franks is akin to saying that modern Muzak master Yanni is your most revered composer. There is something so pedestrian – and yet so compelling - about his smooth jazz offerings.

Since 1973, Franks weaves a magical blend of soft-spoken polite story telling like Cat Stevens into smooth syncopated jazz fusion like Sade. His voice is like Kenny Rankin, though not or as deep sounding as Al Jarreau, but similar to Joe Sample or Bob James. His hallmark is clever wordplay, unabashed romanticism, with frequent tropical themes and samba rhythms woven into his tunes small jazz group tunes.

Franks is an observational lyricist, interested in weaving quirky, esoteric images over silky grooves. He folds humor into his love songs as easily as cheese into an omelet. His backing music - Bob James, Dave Samuels, Chuck Loeb, and Bob Mintzer - varies between classic, subtle Steely Dan and smooth-jazz vibes. Even when Franks is displeased, his mood and heart remain light.

A native of California, Franks played for Gordon Lightfoot in the 60s and the same gentle story-telling folk feel remains with his smooth jazz syncopations today. He earned a doctorate in contemporary songwriting and his music has been called “thinking man’s rock.” But then, so is Sting’s. They both weave lyrics with intellectual references into compelling songs.

Franks is a resident of Florida’s West Coast; the laid-back, artistic land of wide, flat white beaches and gentle blue-green ocean. He doesn’t live on the other side. The East Coast popularized by the media. The coast of billionaires, Bentleys, BMWs and Benz. These coastal differences reflect in his music and lyrics. He is not phony or showy, neither pretentious nor overly dramatic. He covers all the aspects of love from heartbreak to supreme joy, in fluent, gently woven melodies topped with his mellow voice. Despite a few heartaches here and there over a dozen discs, Franks never really boils over. Before he does, he's back to the wide, flat genial lifestyle of the vacation beach - relaxing, ready for more of life’s adventures and having a blast. This is the kind of friendly, blended Sangria that Franks fashions his career upon. His light music has a delicate spring-in-your-step bouncy attitude.

Countless musical trends have come and gone since the mid '70s when this wry singer-songwriter first burst on the scene with his cryptic hit, "Popsicle Toes." He cleverly expressed the joyous exuberance of youth in mellow, but naughty, pop songs on his hit album, The Art of Tea. The charmingly cool and collected songster gleefully sang irrelevant love songs about “Eggplant, Monkey-See, Monkey-Do” and … “Popsicle Toes:”

 

 “How come you always load your Pentax when I am in the nude

We are to have a birthday party and you can wear your birthday cloths

Then we can hit the floor and go explore those Popsicle toes”

 

Today, the jazz juggernaut at the top of the heap, Diana Krall, and others, sing Frank’s songs. Although Krall gives a dramatically polished performance of everything she does, her version doesn’t have the deliciously sinfully quality that his version has. His songs are recorded by other exceptional voices: Ana Caram, Natalie Cole, Patti Labelle, Miss Peggy Lee, Melissa Manchester, Carmen McRae, Ringo Starr, Livingston Taylor and the Yellowjackets.

With gray hair and glasses now, Franks appears to be winding down his musical career. A new album is promised and a Southwest tour begins May, 2003; but where he once produced an album every two to three years, his last new music release was 1999 and his latest is naught but an anthology:

 

The Michael Franks Anthology:

The Art Of Love (5/13/03)

Barefoot on the Beach (1999)

The Best of Michael Franks:

A Backward Glance (1998)

Abandoned Garden (1995)

Dragonfly Summer (1993)

Blue Pacific (1990)

Camera Never Lies (1987)

Skin Dive (1985)

Passionfruit (1983)

Objects of Desire (1982)

One Bad Habit (1980)

Tiger in the Rain (1979)

Burchfield Nines (1978)

Sleeping Gypsy (1977)

Art of Tea (1975)

Michael Franks (1973)

 

Sleeping Gypsy

Sleeping Gypsy is a smoothly elegant CD, with no big hits and no surprises either. It casts a spacious lilting jazz/pop sound inspired by Franks’ continuing interest in Brazilian music. “The lady wants to know,” he croons on the clearest hit from the disc, “she wants to know the reason why.” His youthful glee with love, and lovemaking, ekes into the grooves on this disc; he begins his lifelong experiment with mild Brazilian background percussion.

 

Tiger in the Rain

Two years later, Tiger in the Rain continuesto express Franks’ original synthesis of smooth jazz/rock fusion, again with the understated South American underbeats. When listening, one is more likely to sway side-to-side than get up and dance. By now, the irrepressible exuberance of youth, so joyously expressed in mellow pop songs on the hit album, The Art of Tea, subsides into clever adult sentiments. This album celebrates an easy life of success: “Living On The Inside, Hideaway, Underneath The Apple Tree, Satisfaction Guaranteed and Lifeline.” Dave Sanborn and George Young back him up.

 

Passionfruit

Checking in with Franks a few years later finds him still up to the same tricks. Passionfruit is another solid release in the same smooth jazz-fusion vein. Only “Now That Your Joystick's Broke” reminds us of his once youthful naughtiness, while “When Sly Calls (Don't Touch That Phone)” brings a Broadway style bop to a snappy tune. If you buy any of the albums of this era, you get the same refined style. Unlike k.d. lang, who did a sharp left turn from her Patsy Cline style country-croonings to a more torchy, jazz night-club ingénue sound in her last few albums; Franks has cut his groove and until he wears it out, seems likely to remain in it. He might change a guest instrument or two here and there - vibes instead of sax, for example - but he always serves an easy-rolling small jazz ensemble with his mellow, thoughtful lyrics.

 

The Camera Never Lies

Following Franks passion for photography, The Camera Never Lies continues in his patented smooth jazz vein with back-up vocals from Patti Austin and Art Garfunkel, and guitar from Earl Kluge. The Brazilian influence fades from year to year, while here the guitar gets more expressive.

 

blue pacific

Thirteen years ago, his blue pacific tightens up his smooth jazz sound. Franks is more confident of his singing on this under-stated, lower-case album. He lifts his voice in track after track in a way he never did. The soft-spoken voice is all but gone. Instead, a female chorus backs him up. He plays with a greater variety of musicians on this album too, even while digging deep into his tropical “life is kinda easy” motif. He is more confident of the musicians too. Instruments once relegated to background now take turns with short sparkling solos in the foreground. This is the modern genre we recognize now as the smooth jazz template. Livingston Taylor backs up one song on this disc, but Jeff Lober’s arrangements and production dominate a third of the tracks.

 

dragonfly summer

Showing the refinement of his age, 1993 brings dragonfly summer. Jeff Lober is back again on production, arrangements and keyboards on a third of the album. Another third is produced and arranged by the Yellowjackets and another third by Gil Goldstein.  Together, the various produces celebrate the seasons of life in Franks’ now polished style. The laziness of sweltering summer days pervades his music. Dragonfly summer is a languid album, swaying as gently as an ocean-side hammock built for two: mature romanticism inherent in its loose, white weaves. Naughtiness is absent - contentment reigns. Instead of irreverent gibes, Franks sings throughout that “all we wished for is coming to life, like a symphony.” Each new release efficiently mellows his arrangements, coming closer to Breyers’ Vanilla Bean consistency. One caustic concert-goer called this genre “laxative jazz.” Yet with his gentle lyrics, Franks remains more musical than the tepid, Muzak blandness of Grecian pianist Yanni.

 

Abandoned Garden

By 1995, Franks refined delicacy in his jazz renditions, his smug happiness with the ease of his love and life reflect mightily in this, his second to last release of new material. Here, the band members change from song to song. Smooth jazz guitarist Chuck Loeb on half of the tracks joins him. Gil Goldstein is back; Bob James, David Sanborn and Joshua Redman appear.  Abandoned Garden is probably Michael's jazziest album, in the now classic smooth jazz genre.

 

It is hard to say which one of these albums you might like best. Of course, if you are a smooth jazz radio listener from the previous decade, it is hard to believe that you have not heard Franks’ work. The closest comparisons I can think are mainstream jazz greats from a decade ago; George Benson’s grooving tunes, Al Jarreau’s or Kenny Rankin’s mellow voice. Steely Dan is stronger sounding, and more rock. Simply Red and Spyro Gyra are more jazzy and more fusion than Frank’s sedate offerings. I’ve danced to live Spyro Gyra many a time, but at Franks’ West Palm  Beach concert in the early 90s, at the appropriately named Carefree Theater, the audience remained in their seats; nodding their heads in rhythm and tapping their feet.

 

The original Sade is similar to Franks in her fluid mix of small group and silky vocals, but her new bass heavy, rap-influenced Lovers Rock (Epic 2000) is not. Yet, Sade’s South American influence fills her early music, while Franks merely experiments with the Latin percussion on the side. Neither Sade nor Franks embark on the sub-continental cultural explorations that Paul Simon did with his Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints (Warner Bros. 1986 and BMI 1990). I would recommend one of Franks’ greatest hit albums as a good compromise between the playful lyrics of his youth and the mellow sophisticate of middle age.

 

In the tail hours of the day, after bopping around the house with Sheryl Crow or Dido, you might reach for Michael Franks, but as the darkness descends, it will be with the female vocalists par excellence - like impresario Sarah McLachlin, newcomer Norah Jones or superstar Diana Krall – that close out the evening.

On the Enjoy the Music.com™ report card, a grade of 50 is passing - about average for a classroom with CDs of all ages and many types. Despite an above average enjoyment mark, these decade-old discs show their age in sound quality. Not one of the vocals or instruments is startlingly crisp enough to make it a stand out reference for testing movie and music reproduction systems.

 

Enjoyment: 75

Sound Quality: 50

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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