"A Swingin' Time"
Introduction by James Gavin
If you feel that the songwriting of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s remains unsurpassed, that Frank Sinatra and his handful of peers defined all that was worth aspiring to in the art of popular singing, and that swing is still the thing, then this album is sure to bring you joy. And even if you differ with one or more of the above points, the pleasures of this CD are obvious. You don’t have to know a thing about Monte Procopio to hear that he’s got the goods. His robust, virile baritone is dead in tune, his musicianship is clean and effortless, and yes, he swings. But he never slights the lyrics to do it, and the ring-a-ding-ding clichés of his chosen genre are nowhere to be found. Boldly tackling the warhorses of the swinger-crooner era, Monte accomplishes the near-miracle of making them sound fresh. His influences are only shadows; Monte is his own man.
And he found himself a dream setting: a big band led by Bob Freedman, an undersung master of jazz arranging since the ‘50s. With Freedman there to conduct, a fifty-year array of artists – Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Dianne Reeves, Grover Washington, Jr., Wynton Marsalis, and now Monte – have done some of their most inspired work.
Who is this Monte Procopio, and where has he been? Born in 1961, the singer has lived and worked in Arizona since the early ‘80s. “Because I’ve been spending my whole life in the clubs, I’ve had to conform to whatever was needed,” he says. “I do country to pop. I do impressions. I’m kind of a multi-faceted entertainer.”
Originally from Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania, he grew up during the tail end of a golden age of swingers. The Rat Pack had yet to dissolve; Sinatra was still making the singles charts; The Dean Martin Show remained a TV fixture. “Five and six and seven, I was singing Sinatra songs,” says Monte. “My dad was a big lover of this music. He always taught me to be respectful and dignified and have class and style.”
Monte had just passed twenty when he dove into show business. The timing was right: albums of standard ballads by Willie Nelson and Linda Ronstadt were selling in undreamed-of numbers. But Monte wasn’t a crooner. “I always had a bit of a swagger,” he says. “The swing, the energy, the real classy kind of a presentation appealed to me. I always liked that style – you get dressed up in a tuxedo and you look sharp.” He entertained in a slew of Arizona lounges, on cruise ships, even at the 1985 Miss Arizona-U.S.A. Beauty Pageant. In 1990 he began a four-year stint at the Camelback Inn, a popular Scottsdale, Arizona resort. Thereafter he opened for Carol Channing in nearby Sun City.
By the end of the decade, this jack-of-all-trades showman decided it was time to ditch the impressions and the other shtick and put the music he loved in the forefront. “Let’s face it: these are still the best-written songs ever,” he explains. “They’re lyrical, they’re melodic, they’re elegant – you’re talking about music that was created at the very peak, I believe, of popular music in this country.” In 2004 he released his first CD, Swingin’ With Style. It stressed Sinatra trademarks in arrangements that recalled the originals. But he didn’t want to be known as a copycat. “I’m a very dynamic, aggressive singer,” he explains. “I can sing soft, but generally I like to attack the melody. I go for the big notes, I pop ‘em, I reach out and touch you. So we needed arrangements that reflected the way I feel about the music and the way I wanted to make people feel. Bob is of that ‘hot’ kind of a sound.” While planning this CD, Monte was thrilled to discover that Freedman lived in his midst. The suggestion to call him came from Clarke Rigsby, the producer, engineer, and guitarist who wore all those hats in the making of Swingin’ With Style as well as this new album.
Clarke introduced Monte to a musician whose mastery had emerged in the early ‘50s, when Bob boarded a new wave of modern big-band jazz. A pianist, sax player and clarinetist as well as arranger, Bob was barely twenty when he became a shining light of the Boston-area jazz scene. Before the age of thirty he had played with the orchestras of Herb Pomeroy, Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, and Duke Ellington. From there he arranged for Sarah Vaughan, Ruth Brown, and Joe Williams; spent years conducting for Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne; and doubled as one of Broadway’s best orchestrators. The arranging credits kept piling up: Billy Joel, David “Fathead” Newman, Paul Simon, Chanticleer. He earned five Grammy nominations and one award (as co-arranger, with Quincy Jones, for the soundtrack album of The Wiz).
“He is just an intellectual monster,” says Monte of Bob. “But we tried not to do too many tricks. Everybody’s turning out these albums of standards, and a lot of them sound alike – not that they aren’t done well. We spent four or five hours on each tune, just talking about how to approach it. And we put together maybe the finest big band that’s been heard in Arizona in a long time.”
As with Pete Rugolo and Neal Hefti, Bob’s knowledge of classical harmony lends an abundant richness to these arrangements. The energy never flags, even on the ballads. But he knows how to let a singer breathe, and there’s certainly no ego clash. At Bob’s insistence, Monte sings two or even three full choruses of such chestnuts as Fly Me to the Moon and It Had to Be You. You’ll hear how different this jazz-influenced singer makes each chorus sound.”
“Monte and I pushed each other’s limitations,” says Bob. “He would campaign for a modulation that I knew wouldn’t work, but somehow it did. I would suggest altering the length of a phrase and Monte would eventually get the point of it. He would insist on doing a certain song that I truly believed would not fit the line-up, but it would end up as a must-have.”
“Obviously, these songs are all classics. But they are no more ‘old’ than the music of Mozart or Miles is ‘old.’ They have lasted because they are quality material, so they can be reinterpreted virtually endlessly without losing their value.”
All Or Nothing At All is one of the first songs Sinatra ever recorded, just after he joined the Harry James orchestra in 1939. Monte’s version proves how unimitative he’s become. You’ll hear a confident, relaxed delivery, free of mannerisms, his own or anyone else’s. With The Best Is Yet To Come, Monte finds a new way to phrase a song that’s written so tightly it’s hard to reinvent. Likewise, one would have thought there was nothing left to do with That Old Black Magic. But Monte personalizes the melody subtly, using the bent notes he likes. His poise never falters even at a racing tempo.
The Very Thought Of You is arranged and sung with a lilt that makes this Depression-era love song sound joyous, not wistful. Sway, a minor hit for Dean Martin in 1954, would resurface a half-century later when Peter Cincotti and Michael Bublé made it a late-blooming lounge standard. In Monte and Bob’s hands, this Latin come-on sounds sexy, not campy.
Just after World War II, Bobby Troup wrote Route 66, a hip siren call to go west, destination L.A. The trip taken by Monte and Bob is accompanied by walking bass and some loping Basie-style swing. Nature Boy receives the album’s crowning interpretation. This story of a Christlike sage acquires the mystery it needs from Bob’s arrangement, with its ethereal woodwinds and a billowy alto flute solo. (Joe Corral, who plays it, is a distinguished member of the Phoenix Symphony.) The background brings out Monte’s most reflective singing. In Smile – sung once through with only piano – he proves how little dressing-up his voice needs.
Hearing the album’s final mix, Monte was filled with admiration for Clarke Rigsby, “who has mentored me in my craft,” he says. It happened at Tempest Recording, Rigsby’s studio in Tempe, Arizona, where both of Monte’s CDs were made. “It is because of Clarke’s superior understanding of music production and his tremendous musicality that this album has turned out to be something that we can all be proud of,” says Monte. “Every note I sing is a tribute to his undying commitment to make great music and his belief in me as an artist.”
In all, he adds, “I wanted to do a record like this the right way, like they might have in the ‘50s or ‘60s. I wanted to have really great musicians, great arrangements. I wanted to show a singer that had his own style, who people could listen to one time and say, ‘Oh, I know who that is.’” He scored on all counts.
-- James Gavin, New York City, 2006
[Author James Gavin has written for the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly, New York, and other publications. His most recent book is Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, and he is currently writing a biography of Lena Horne for Simon & Schuster.]