A sacrilegious as this might sound to some, I don’t care for Frank Sinatra’s singing. It took me a while to figure out why. Ironically, for me at least, it was a comment Nancy Sinatra made about what a “master” of phrasing her father was that got me thinking about and paying attention to it.
To even define ‘phrasing’ is a bit of a challenge because it encompasses delaying (or speeding up), altering note length, changing the cadence of, and a bunch of other aspects of the lyrical content of a song, so it would be overly ambitious to be extremely technical and comprehensive about it. But, in essence, for me, phrasing is how a singer “bends” their voice around the lyrics.
Obviously, phrasing is largely how singers (though not exclusively so) take musical ownership of a song. Some – Willie Nelson comes to mind – frame their entire style around (let’s face it) idiosyncrasies that become their musical signature.
It would likely be specious to ascribe ideas of ‘good’ or ‘correct’ phrasing to any artist or piece of music (within limits, I suppose), as aesthetics are largely matters of personal taste and opinion. What’s interesting to me is that phrasing is an aspect of music that is seemingly largely “under the radar” until you really start to pay attention; things like voice quality, range and timbre aren’t.
So, while Frank’s voice quality is just fine with me, I realize it’s the phrasing that prevents me from connecting with his work on some kind of largely subconscious level because, even now, I’m not exactly sure what about his phrasing I don’t like. Mostly, I guess, the accents, displacements and emphasis just somehow don’t feel “right”.
I sometimes hear versions of songs that have long since been seemingly ‘trademarked’ as Sinatra numbers sung by other artists. Almost without exception, I like them better done by someone else. There’s one singer, though, whose phrasing always resonates for me – Tony Bennett.