If you love the television show, “Glee” — there are many of you — and you are of an older age, you probably do not watch for the redemptive, teenage melodrama but for the music.
While half of the music performed on the show is contemporary, half is older than the performers themselves. Without much alteration or irony, they sing 20-, 30-, 40-, even 60-year-old pop songs in clear voices, earnestly rendering them as they were intended with all the apparent joy of having just discovered them for the first time. For a song, receiving the "Glee" treatment means having the melody re-wired, polished, and shined to a brilliance that often exceeds the original.
That, more or less, also describes the singer and pianist Michael Feinstein at work.
Feinstein is a relatively young man (54) who, with rich and meticulous phrasing of melodies, brings to vivid life songs that enjoyed most of their popularity decades before he was born. Feinstein, who performed a Valentine’s Day concert Monday night at Benaroya Hall, is as much a historian and archivist as a musician, an interactive Smithsonian of early, popular American songs.
Feinstein’s academic and anecdotal knowledge of this part of musical history is near encyclopedic. (He produced and hosted a 2003 PBS documentary called "The Great American Songbook," and is the director of the jazz and popular song series at New York’s Lincoln Center; in his early 20s he worked as an assistant for Ira Gershwin, cataloging and archiving his musical collection.)
As a performer, Feinstein has concentrated on songwriters, devoting whole albums, for instance, to Irving Berlin, Burton Lane, Jule Styne, Hugh Martin, Jimmy Webb, or Jerry Herman. But for Monday's show, he focused on a singer, Frank Sinatra, in a concept he used on a 2008 album called the "Sinatra Project." As Feinstein pointed out, Sinatra’s power and talent was such that he could turn an otherwise obscure number into a pop hit, as he did for “I’ve Got A Crush On You” 20 years after George Gershwin wrote the song for a little-known musical called "Treasure Girl." Sinatra’s magic trick was to turn the song from a dance shuffle into tortured ballad.
Rather than perform a greatest-hits kind of show here — Feinstein played and sang with a local big band made up of some of the members of the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra — he chose a set list based on its meaning to Sinatra’s career. He sang “Exactly Like You,” which Sinatra often performed but never recorded. Feinstein also sang the hit, “Fly Me to the Moon” as a ballad, the way it was originally written, even though Sinatra made it famous as an up-tempo, swing number.
Feinstein sang several songs written by Cole Porter (“Night and Day,” “It’s All Right With Me,” “Begin the Beguine”) after recounting Porter’s first meeting with Sinatra, when Sinatra was a singing waiter in a New Jersey restaurant called the Rustic Cabin and flubbed the words to one of Porter’s songs. Late in the show, Feinstein sang a song more closely associated with Stevie Wonder than Sinatra, “For Once In My Life.” Sinatra came upon it late in his career but performed it until it ended.
The songs of "The Great American Songbook" comprise the basis for the repertoire of all jazz musicians, who use them as vehicles for improvisation and interpretation. Over the last 20 to 30 years, scores of contemporary pop musicians have attempted a revival of these old standards. Sting, Natalie Cole, Barry Manilow, and Linda Ronstadt took turns. So did Willie Nelson, and even Rod Stewart, who perhaps represented the jump-the-shark moment for the trend. A handful of pre-war standards, such as “The Lady Is a Tramp,” have been performed on "Glee." (Feinstein recorded an album, “The Power of Two,” and performed a concert with Cheyenne Jackson, who was cast on "Glee" as Dustin Goolsby, the vocal coach of a rival group.)
Most pop singers perform early standards as a novel experiment; Feinstein made an entire career of it, starting early enough that he was able to meet some of its pre-eminent practitioners. In the late 1970s, soon after Feinstein moved to Los Angeles, he was hired to play piano and sing at a birthday party for Frank Sinatra at Chasen’s, a restaurant known for the movie stars who frequented it. Wanting to impress Sinatra, Feinstein sang some of the most obscure songs Sinatra had recorded, drawing curious stares from Sinatra.
“Jesus, how do you know all those songs?” Sinatra said, according to Feinstein. “What are you, 12?”