Jazz Album of the Week: Frankie Valli's 'A Touch of Jazz' Could Use a Touch More
July 26, 2021. Frankie Valli and the vast catalogue of popular hits he’s produced over six decades are an American treasure. Nobody does nostalgia-with-substance better. Bob Gaudio, who wrote so many of the Four Seasons’ hits, created an aesthetic for which Valli’s distinct alto was the perfect fit; in time those songs became so beloved that Valli’s voice, for all intents and purposes, became the only fit. With brilliantly maximalist pop hooks and bridges offering clever musical contrast, Gaudio and Valli together produced pop music that proved that hits don’t have to be insipid; they can be evocative cultural touchstones with—as the massive success of Jersey Boys proved—tremendous staying power.
A Touch of Jazz, Valli’s vocal jazz debut, misses Gaudio. It misses him like an ace pitcher misses his personal catcher. Like Seinfeld would’ve missed Larry David. Imagine if Seinfeld had rebooted without David—and Jerry, having always admired Ted Danson’s work, tried to pull off something with a comedic sensibility similar to Cheers. Two great concepts in and of themselves, Seinfeld and Cheers, but their respective strengths don’t mesh well.
And that’s the issue here, too. Valli’s sidemen are some of the best jazz musicians in the world; Joey DeFrancesco’s on organ and trumpet (and even plays a little tenor saxophone), Byron Landham’s on drums, and Paul Bollenback’s on guitar. When Valli lays out and these guys give this nine-song collection of American Songbook tunes some gas…forget about it.
But that’s actually part of the problem. There’s an incongruity between Valli and the rest of the parts. The pacing of Valli’s vocals on almost every tune is maddeningly deliberate. Laid back and elongated is maybe okay for a couple tunes, but this static vocal dynamic pervades nearly the entire album. The characteristic athleticism of solos from DeFrancesco and Bollenback juxtaposed with a Valli vocal delivery that’s almost uniformly leisurely, bordering on protracted, feels…off.
The product as a whole doesn’t amplify the strengths of these great instrumentalists, but, most disappointingly, the arrangements don’t amplify the strengths of Valli, who shows that he can still really sing. His high alto range is still pure but out of place here, context-less. Valli’s pop tunes are evocative of a place and time; they are full of yearning and ego and attitude. They infuse the listener with life. The tunes here, unfortunately, are stillborn. The notes are right, but the feel is wrong.
Too often, where Valli’s vocals need a little wiggle, the presentation is just a little stiff, like a first-timer at a salsa-dancing class with a fundamentally good sense of rhythm who’s just never really opened his hips before.
It’s not as though there aren’t good moments here; the scat at the end of “How High the Moon” is a shining moment, as Valli’s responding to what the musicians are doing and vice versa. And on “The Last Request,” we finally start to hear Valli swing a little, even if the tune itself isn’t that memorable.
But, ultimately, A Touch of Jazz underscores the truth that there’s a yawning chasm—a veritable valley even—between admiring this music from afar and possessing the kind of refined aesthetic and idiomatic feel to step into the batter’s box against big league pitching. The all-star instrumental backing here only serves to further clarify the dynamic; instead of sounding like he’s truly in his element, Valli sounds like a solid voice at vocal jazz fantasy camp.
And why shouldn’t he chase down that fantasy? At 87, having sold 175 million records and inspired one of the longest running Broadway musicals ever, this is exactly what anyone in Valli’s position would reasonably do. Six decades of success affords one the luxury of being able to live out one’s dreams.
And a solid couple years of business enabled my father, years ago, to secure a spot in Phillies Dream Week. But he still couldn’t hit Mitch Williams’ fastball.