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Jazz Review

Caldwell Goes Back a Bit and Does It Frank's Way

August 02, 1999|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Singer Bobby Caldwell may have made his name with contemporary music, but he's staking his future on nostalgia. Goodbye smooth jazz; hello Frank Sinatra.

With a 17-piece big band at the Hyatt Newporter's outdoor amphitheater before a nearly sold-out crowd, Caldwell on Friday night mixed some of his R&B, easy-listening hits of 10 or so years ago with Sinatra-styled material, some of it dating back 50 or more years, during the first set.

But after intermission in the Newport Beach concert, Caldwell returned to concentrate on the standards--"I've Got You Under My Skin," "I Get a Kick Out of You"--that will be forever be remembered as part of the Sinatra repertoire.

Working from the Great American Songbook is nothing new for Caldwell. His 1996 recording, "Blue Condition," found him exploring the same type of material. And lately he's been playing Las Vegas as part of a Rat Pack revival stage show.

Two things kept Caldwell's performance from becoming pure shtick: the fine performance of his orchestra and the singer's natural feel for his material.

Caldwell shares a similar vocal tone with the late Chairman of the Board, and he obviously has taken more than a few cues from the master when it comes to phrasing. That he didn't overplay the phrasing similarities worked to his advantage. Comfortable inside the material, Caldwell showed that he knew how to swing with the best of them. He often let the band develop a line before he entered with the lyric and, in finest Sinatra style, often used his voice in counterpoint to the rhythm.

But there was no doubt that a certain amount of aping figured into the performance. When covering Bobby Darin's hit "Beyond the Sea," Caldwell sang with Darin's panache and enthusiasm. On "I've Got You Under My Skin," Caldwell followed Sinatra's recorded version like a shadow. Like Sinatra after 1960, Caldwell worked well inside a limited vocal range, though he sounded less like Ol' Blue Eyes and more like Jerry Lewis as he moved into the upper register.

The evening's other saving grace was Caldwell's orchestra, directed by alto saxophonist Karolyn Kafer. The brassy orchestrations, especially the title tune of Caldwell's forthcoming album "Come Rain or Come Shine"--arranged by longtime Caldwell collaborator Randy Waldman--lent an air of credibility to the singer's revivalism.

The evening's best moments came when Kafer, tenor saxophonist Doug Webb or pianist Mark McMillan soloed, leaving all trace of nostalgia behind. Kafer, who took the bulk of the solos, was especially ambitious.

(During intermission, in a moment that recalled the exuberant interest in the world-champion U.S. women's soccer team, girls came out of the audience to ask Kafer for her autograph. One grade school-age girl, after receiving her autographed program, told Kafer: "I like your hair.")

Though the crowd appreciated Caldwell's Sinatra leanings, it came down squarely on the side of the contemporary material, giving the evening's biggest ovation to Caldwell's 1986 R&B-flavored hit "What You Won't Do for Love." Caldwell may be an above-average Sinatra imitator, but he shouldn't give up writing and performing his own material.

For now, though, Frank's way is his way.

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