Michael Franks ‘Original Album Series’ 5 CD Box Set (Warner) 4/5

Singer-songwriter Michael Franks is not a musician who is easy to categorise. He is considered too smooth to be a bona fide jazz singer, yet too jazzy to be an out and out pop artist in much the same way as Steely Dan are. In reality, Franks has effortlessly straddled such limiting categorisation restrictions and has instead come up with a consistently high standard of work. This latest in the continuing series of artist box set focuses on the early period of Franks’ career between 1976 and 1980 when he cut arguably his strongest material. It is not revolutionary, shock and awe music, but it is highly entertaining, fusing jazz and Latin music influences into Franks’ unmistakably laid back delivery. First up and probably best of all is the superb debut album ‘The Art of Tea’ from 1976 that introduced Franks to a niche public. Including the likes of saxophonists Michael Brecker and David Sanborn, Franks was able to enlist the support of the top sessions musicians and crafted some lovely songs with ‘Popsicle toes’ and ‘Eggplant’ just two of several highlights and numbers that attracted interest from rock and pop fans. The formula was repeated with the follow up ‘Sleeping Gypsy’ which had a significantly beefed up Brazilian presence with orchestrations from Claus Ogerman. There was a tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim on ‘Antonio’s song’ and certainly the trademark Franks delivery sounds to have emanated from listening a great deal to the likes of Astrud Gilberto and then husband Joao. Another song worthy of the listener’s attention is ‘the co-written ‘Don’t be blue’ which has become something of a latter day contemporary jazz standard, with Jackie and Roy’s rendition on Concord an especially memorable one. The next album, ‘Burchfield Nines’ from 1978, was more of a consolidation on his previous albums and had more of a West Coast feel with a new line-up of talented musicians that included drummer Steve Gadd percussionist Ralph McDonald, with production duties courtesy of Brazilian Eumir Deodato (who would later go on to produce Kool and the Gang from the late 1970s). Among the sleection of songs on offer here, ‘When the cookie jar is empty’ and ‘In search of the perfect shampoo’ typify the Franks sound which was now deeply engrained and gradually becoming a regular feature on FM radio. By 1979 Michael Franks was starting to sound stuck in a creative rut and in order to change things enlisted the help of rock producer John Simon who, among others, has produced the Band, Leonard Cohen and even Janis Joplin. This was the least convincing of the albums recorded by Franks during this era with a more sombre character to the music and no real songs standing out. He still had some fine musicians on board, though, such as veteran jazz players Kenny Barron and Ron Carter and even the then up and coming Brazilian singer Flora Purim. With a more sympathetic producer, this could have resulted in something more appealing. Two tracks are of note are ‘Sanpaku’ and the Brazilian-flavoured ‘Jardin botanico’. Another breakthrough of sorts came with the release of the last and far more satisfying album showcased on the box set, ‘One Bad Habit’ from 1980. This now had the duet of André and Clare Fischer on arrangements, the latter being a jazz pianist himself (and would later go on to orchestrate albums for Prince and Joao Gilberto no less) and musicians of the calibre of bassist Eddie Gomez and guitarists Eric Gale and David Spinozza on board. The title track proved to be a minor hit and finally Michael Franks was being discovered by a larger public. While there are certainly more concise introductions out there which cover a larger time-span in Michael Franks’ career such as the Rhino double CD ‘The art of love’ which includes the wonderful ‘When Sly calls (don’t touch that phone)’ and the duet with Brenda Russell, ‘Lover I give my love to you’, this new box set will nonethless be the obvious place to start for fans of quality melodic vocal jazz-infused music. Tim Stenhouse

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