Michael Franks – Time Together (2011)

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You don’t see me cover a lot of jazz vocalist or smooth jazz records, so you may wonder what is up with this piece about a record from smooth jazz’s premier vocalist, Michael Franks? When I informed our own Mark Saleski my intention to cover Franks his reaction was to disgusted “ewwwww!” but that didn’t faze me one bit. I’ve already long ago admitted that Franks’ music was a guilty pleasure of mine, so it’s not like I’m going to back down, now.

I guess the appeal is due in part to the fact that I’ve I go back a long ways with Mr. Franks. First catching the Art Of Tea tune “Mr. Blue” on a college radio around 1980, the soft crooning of clever lyrics mated to above-par sideman work got me hooked. With his tales of whirlwind, wit-filled romances usually at some of the world’s most exotic getaway destinations, Franks could be thought of as crossover jazz’s own Jimmy Buffet. But with his unhurried, breathy delivery, I find him to be more like a modern-day Chet Baker (Baker the vocalist, not when he’s playing trumpet). By the middle of the ’80s, he became a favorite among the college set who found R.E.M. too harsh, and he was even a semi-fixture on VH-1. The music also got more pop-oriented and, I dare say, louder. As the 90s wore on, he slowed down his pace and the tempo of music. Time Together is his first one since Rendezvous in Rio five years ago.

Time finds Franks still decelerating, with production even lighter than Rio even though five different producers were used on this record. Perhaps ironically, he’s slowed down to the gentle tempos of his 70s music, but with arrangements about as lean and feathery as its ever been…and a better fit for him, I might add. Franks doesn’t resort to the sly double-entendre’s or outright silliness of “Popsicle Toes” or “Baseball,” but many other hallmarks of his classic style are firmly in place. He still writes all the songs, and keeps to romantic/escapist themes and even on the one serious-minded song, “Charlie Chan In Egypt,” he avoids the heavy-handed lectures, always finding a way to make his message easier to accept.

The breezy, Brazilian feel found on pretty much every album since 1977’s Sleeping Gypsy pervades this one, too. So are the references to the straight jazzers or Brazilian jazzers—on this album, he’s named checked Ahmad Jamal, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Astrud Gilberto—even when the music is often only tangentially jazz. Other times, he does cross right into piano bar chanteuse territory (“One Day In St. Tropez”, “Charlie Chan”, “My Heart Said Wow”), something he’s quite comfortable doing, with all-acoustic (or nearly so) instrumentation.

Session player obsessives can always find plenty of top drawer names credited on a Michael Franks album and this one is no exception. There’s a nice mix of old-school studio hands (Jerry Marotta, Gil Goldstein, David Spinozza, Will Lee, Mike Mainieri) with the next generation (Eric Marienthal, Tim Lefebvre, Till Brönner). Chuck Loeb, probably the current generation’s Larry Carlton (and, naturally, Carlton’s replacement on that smooth jazz supergroup Fourplay), makes the biggest footprint with contributions on five of the eleven tracks and producing four of them. Whenever he’s around, the songs sound more contemporary and polished, but thankfully, he took care not to push it too far into generic snooze jazz. The opener “Now That The Summer’s Here” (video above) is the best of Loeb-produced tracks, the synths staying safely in the back, Franks voice up front, and Loeb’s damned tasty guitar licks providing most of the best accents.

Pianist Goldstein’s production kept things stripped nearly bare, preferring a piano/acoustic guitar/bass/percussion formats. Bassist Scott Petito produced the charming “Mice,” well played by him, Marotta on drums, Spinozza on guitar and Mainieri on vibraphone, a real throwback to the vintage Franks. Keyboard player Charles Blenzig was behind the boards for the best of the “straight” jazz cuts, “Charlie Chan In Egypt,” with a premier rhythm section of Jay Anderson (bass) and Billy Kilson (drums). Original Pat Metheny Group bassist Mark Egan produced the final track “Feathers From An Angel’s Wing,” playing both a lead fretless bass and a conventional fretted bass, and giving Frank’s ethereal melody an appropriately delicate treatment.

A mellow voice and mellow music, Time Together requires a relaxed, content mood to fully enjoy. But isn’t that the mood we wish to be in, anyway? Maybe this is the real reason for my strange attraction to the music of Michael Franks; he’s always exuding that chilled-out state of mind. I wanna be that way all the time, too.

Time Together came out on June 14 by Shanachie Records.

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