CD Review: IN FULL SWING (Seth MacFarlane)

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by Tony Frankel on December 24, 2017



I got a chance to catch Seth MacFarlane with orchestra at Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa last night, and it’s clear that this handsome, dapper, multi-talented artist isn’t just making his fan base happy, he’s making both the lovers of the Great American Songbook and the musicians in the band very very happy. I can’t think of anyone in the recording industry with MacFarlane’s resources who is devoting so much money to producing, preserving and promoting these timeless tunes, which always threaten to be on the verge of extinction.

Both live and on his latest CD, In Full Swing, MacFarlane is moving farther away from his usual Broadway baritone sound (think Brian the Dog on Family Guy) and hewing more closely to Sinatra in the Capitol years (1953-1961), giving us a lighthearted swing that cannily evokes that era with gorgeously produced accuracy. Also recalling Capitol is conductor Joel McNeely’s Billy May and Nelson Riddle-esque arrangements for big band orchestra. Purists could be disappointed if you’re expecting reinvention over redux, but MacFarlane and McNeely’s brand of jazzy fun is out to evoke that era when political incorrectness, smoking, and drinking came with some of the greatest music that this country has ever produced. And at that they succeed outrageously well.

On the Verve/Republic Records release, he begins with a song that never got a chance for Sinatra or his contemporaries to record. In 1982, the same year Nelson Riddle was creating arrangements for Linda Ronstadt’s What’s New? (the album that reinvigorated the Great American Songbook for that generation) and Sinatra was on the verge of recording his final studio album L.A. Is My Lady (with Quincy Jones), Joe Raposo’s “The First Time It Happens” (from The Great Muppet Caper) was nominated for an Academy Award. It’s delightful, amiable nature is perfect for MacFarlane, who is much better suited to this genre than Ronstadt was, and whose voice is far stronger than Sinatra’s at that time; it’s a terrific way to start the 16-track CD.

From there, it’s a few lesser known songs (“I Like Myself” introduced by Gene Kelly in It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) and some rarely recorded tunes, such as “A Kiss or Two” from Vincent Youmans’ Hit the Deck (1927). But more often we get oft-covered standards born of stage and cinema: Lerner and Loewe’s “Almost Like Being in Love” from Brigadoon (1947); Irving Berlin’s “Isn’t This a Lovely Day” from Top Hat (1935); and Rodgers and Hart’s “Have You Met Miss Jones?” from I’d Rather Be Right (1937).

And since MacFarlane has created splashy mega-produced Family Guy episodes parodying the Road to… movies, it’s apropos that we have three by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke: “Moonlight Becomes You” from Road to Morocco (1942), “But Beautiful” from Road to Rio (1947), and “Like Someone in Love” from Belle of the Yukon (1947), and each and every tune gets a fantastic chart from McNeeley. His band includes some of the greatest jazz musicians on the market: Tom Rainer (piano), Chuck Berghofer (bass), Larry Koonse (guitar), Peter Erskine (drums), Dan Higgins (woodwinds), John Parricelli (guitar), Mike Lovatt (trumpet), and Gordon Campbell (trombone).

The album’s two duets are completely sweet: The last track with Elizabeth Gilles, “My Buick, My Love and I”, is an original 1953 Buick jingle by Frank Skinner and Jack Brooks that is as catchy, jaunty and bouncy as can be. In the fashion of Doris Day is Norah Jones purring through Lew Brown, Buddy De Sylva & Ray Henderson’s “If I Had A Talking Picture Of You”, introduced by Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell in Sunnyside Up (1929) (De Sylva, by the way, co-founded Capitol records).

The actor/writer and creator of American Dad and Family Guy hasn’t yet perfected his own inimitable style of phrasing and texture; intentionally or not, his is a facsimile of Sinatra without the emotional depth. His laid-back approach – swinging in a very straightforward manner – means we don’t always get a feeling for the lyric, but he’s getting more serious with each album (this is his fourth, all with mid-20th century American pop songs), and his sincerity, and love for, this music is positively infectious (he’s clearly having a blast on “You Can’t Love ‘Em All”, “The First Time It Happens”, and “You Couldn’t Be Cuter”). And I suspect that younger generations who don’t know one of these songs will more likely give MacFarlane a spin than Dean Martin, Nat Cole, or Joe Williams, so this guy deserves a lot of attention.

What is sad is that there are three misattributed songwriters in the CD’s track contents: Jule Styne didn’t write “You Can’t Love ‘Em All”; Johnny Burke wrote “Moonlight Becomes You” with Van Huesen; and Lew Brown was omitted for “If I Had a Talking Picture.” Those are capital mistakes.

photo by Kurt Iswarienko

In Full Swing
Seth MacFarlane
Verve Label Group/Republic Records
1 disc CD or 2 disc LP | 16 tracks | 48:55
released September 15, 2017
available on Amazon and iTunes

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