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SOUNDS AROUND TOWN

Quietly Charismatic Jazzman Rises With Cream of the Crop : Michael Franks, a crowd-pleaser for 17 years, likes to share the spotlight with his handpicked musicians.

August 12, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Michael Franks doesn't so much seize the stage as he melts onto it. He's the perennial nice guy, a romantic with a touch of salty irony--but not so much that it sours the palatable taste of his music.

Last week at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, Franks closed out a two-night stint with the customary, quiet charisma that has held him in good stead over the last 17 years and 11 albums, the latest of which is "Dragonfly Summer." The night of Aug. 13, he'll perform at the Ventura Theater, as part of a nearly six-month international tour.

"I apologize for the makeup that Chris Hunter and I are wearing," Franks said to the packed house last week. "We raced down here from being on the 'Arsenio' show and didn't have time to scrape this stuff off."

Wearing makeup is not Franks' style. He comes to work in a beige jacket, blue jeans, a too-short tie and an ever-present cabasa which he holds more as a prop--or a security blanket--than as a working percussion instrument. He cuts the image more of a hip English professor than a stalwart of pop. His career certainly has been steady enough: He's stayed on the same label, Warner Bros., and has a back catalogue that refuses to die.

From the beginning of his career, with the release of "The Art of Tea" in 1976, Franks has always known how to pick musicians, maintaining a policy of using the cream of the crop from the jazz and studio musician pools. His current touring group features saxophonist Chris Hunter, keyboardist Charles Blenzig (who also has a fine new solo album out) and the tasteful guitarist Jay Azzolina.

Truly "featuring" musicians appears to be Franks' goal. A benevolent boss, Franks seems to take delight in letting his players loose. "Dr. Sax," which he originally wrote as a vehicle for sax great Michael Brecker, becomes a fiery set-closer peppered with hot tenor saxophone interjections by Hunter.

Blenzig explores some twisty, aptly Thelonious Monk-ish piano passages on "Monk's New Tune," and Azzolina gets opportunities to show both his streamlined pop style and more challenging jazz ideas.

Franks hasn't toured under his name since the release of 1990's "Blue Pacific." Since then, he has pursued numerous projects, including finishing a musical based on the painter Paul Gaugin--which will be produced in New York early next year--and working on a novel.

Critically, Franks hasn't exactly enjoyed unanimous praise. His pop-jazz recipe has often been received with qualifications by the press, which tends to place him as dancing on a line between witty and wimpy. And to love him, you have to know where he's coming from.

Franks springs from the droll school of jazz singer-songwriters like Mose Allison, David Frishberg and Bob Dorough. But, propelled by his surprise hit "Popsicle Toes" in 1976, he has veered into more commercial terrain.

He's had no reception problems with his die-hard base of fans. Like clockwork, Franks releases an album and it flies. His new one climbed to the No. 1 position of the Billboard jazz charts, where it stayed for five weeks early this summer.

The charts don't always lie. "Dragonfly Summer" is as good as Franks gets, and it also functions as a diverse sampler plate.

"It certainly wasn't the result of any careful deliberation," Franks said of that album the day after his Coach House gig. "I was inspired to write in each one of those styles, and to be a little more inside of the styles, I suppose. I just had all those different feelings, and it came out that way."

Obvious airplay candidates, such as the funk-lite tune, "Practice Makes Perfect," are balanced by the openly jazz-flavored song "Monk's New Tune." Of the latter: "For me (writing that song) was like consulting the chord encyclopedia," he said. "I spent a lot of time working on that, just so that it was harmonized in this way I heard."

The new album also contains cameo duets with Dan Hicks in "Keeping My Eye on You" and with an old hero-turned-friend, Peggy Lee, on a cheeky bossa called "You Were Meant for Me."

The new album's most pleasant surprise, though, is his lustrous and sultry version of the "I Love Lucy" theme song.

"When I started hearing that thing slowed down," Franks recalled, "I realized that this was a really great melody. But at that frantic 'babalu' tempo, you would never know. The lyrics, I thought, were really nice. So when I got into that torchy kind of thing, it seemed to take on a life of its own."

* WHERE AND WHEN

Michael Franks will be at the Ventura Theater, Friday, Aug. 13, at 9 p.m. Tickets: $22.50. For information, call the box office at 648-1888.

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