For a man who’s been doing eight hours of interviews today alone, Mark Tremonti is looking relaxed and happy, the Alter Bridge guitarist and solo artist exuding warmth and bonhomie. Whilst MetalTalk would be covering the forthcoming album release and UK tour by the Floridian four-piece elsewhere in our chat, it was a good opportunity to discuss the much-lauded passion project of Tremonti’s recently released Frank Sinatra swing album.
Given his day job as the purveyor of big, crunching riffs, this side-step into the world of big band music and the classic crooners of the fifties and sixties may seem from the outside an odd one, but the musician has many more layers to his soul. A long-time fan of Ol’ Blue Eyes, we delve into his recording of the album to raise funds for Downs Syndrome and just what it meant to him.
“One of the biggest benefits other than having my daughter during Covid-19 was recording an album with Frank Sinatra’s band,” Tremonti told MetalTalk’s Paul Monkhouse and Steve Ritchie on a recent visit to London. “I would have never had the time to focus on it, to practice it and to obsess about it. I had nothing but all the time in the world before my daughter was born to hyper-focus on how this incredible singer sang.”
The birth of his daughter Stella would provide further focus for the Sinatra idea. “I asked myself, what the hell am I gonna do with this,” Mark says. “I love it. And then once my daughter was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, I decided to record a record for charity.”
Frank Sinatra’s legato style of singing took pop singing in new directions in the 1940s. His vocal tone and his meticulous usage of vibrato remain iconic to this day, while his early studying of Tommy Dorsey’s trombone playing as a means of cultivating a more free-flowing vocal style led to that complex but engrossing vocal phrasing.
These are skills that Mark Tremonti now possesses, evidenced wonderfully by the opening line of the opening song I’ve Got You Under My Skin, on his Sings Sinatra album. The orchestration over the entire fourteen tracks is stunning, but Tremonti’s vocal phrasing on songs such as Nancy (With The Laughing Face) is awe-inspiring.
Mark says he paid attention to the details of Sinatra as he did in the days spent learning guitar. “One of the things I used to do when I was trying to learn a guitar part or a guitar song,” Mark says, “is I would listen to it over and over and over and over and over until I could hum it. So I knew every little ounce of what it was. Then I would take each little five-second clip and see if it was played on the G string, the D, or A. Does it sound like it’s an unwound string? Is it picked, or is it a pull-off? I would focus, focus, hyper-focus.”
This process was used on the Sinatra project, though at first, he looked for help in mastering that style. “Admittedly, I looked for people teaching how to sing like Frank Sinatra,” he says. “I scoured the internet and saw Frank Sinatra singing lessons, but the people would sound nothing like Frank Sinatra.”
Listening to the song You Make Me Feel So Young, at about 1:50 in, you will hear the line “You and I are just like a couple of tots. Running across a meadow, picking up lots of forget-me-nots.” The phrasing of the ‘T’ in tots, and the length of the ‘R’ in running, shows he has nailed it. The way he sings the last word in the line “Wonderful fling to be flung” is a goosebump moment.
“I had to rely on my ear,” he says. “I broke open my computer and spelt out how he pronounced the lyrics. I took that and would move it to how he phrased it. So if he phrased off, I’d push it left, and if something came in early, I have to draw little arrows. If I had to come in immediately or push it late, I would listen to how he breathed. Where does he take a breath? Where does he add vibrato? Where does he stop vibrato? Where does he change the vowel sound as he’s going?”
Then it was down to practice. “Little by little, I would memorise. Memorise it closer and closer, and now I have a rule if I’m in a car and I’m driving, I throw on my Sinatra set list, and I sing it over and over and over and over. Because every time I haven’t done it, I’ve been over here [Europe] for a week, I’ll get home, and I’ll forget a couple of things. There are a lot of little things in these songs. He never sings the first verse like the second verse. You have to memorise and then do your own thing to it.”
Tremonti was very well prepared for the recording sessions and quickly earned the respect of Sintra’s band. “After we recorded the first session, almost all of them came up to me saying they did not know what the hell to think, with me being this rock guy coming in and singing. They said, ‘but wow, you did a great job, you did your homework, and we’re excited to do the rest of this album’.”
My Way, one of the standards on the album, is a fascinating take on the old song we still hear on the radio today. The first verse is with a Spanish guitar, and the second introduces piano before bass and drums join as the song builds gently.
Luck Be A Lady, from Guys and Dolls, is one of Sintra’s signature songs, and here it is wonderfully complex, with the orchestration all built around the vocal. It was the first song Tremonti recorded with the Sinatra band.
“Mike Smith, Frank Sinatra’s band leader, says all right, Mark, come on in here. Luck Be A lady, the singer dictates the song’s rhythm. So I begin, ‘They call you Lady Luck.’ However long I held out a note, the band would follow me. I picked that song to start with, and it just so happens that it’s the song where the singer is the guy. So I had to enter the room, and nobody had heard me sing. The band got into it. Then we did That’s Life. It was one of the best moments of my career.”
Was Mark nervous or terrified? “I couldn’t have prepared another second more,” he says. “I had worked tirelessly on it, and I obsessed about it. So I was way more excited than I was nervous. You should never be afraid of doing whatever you’re doing to raise money for charity.”
Mark describes it as an emotional roller coaster. “It was a hard, hard, hard thing to accomplish,” he says, “not only to get the skills and the knowledge to do it but to get the approvals from the Sinatra family to use their father’s name and likeness. To get all these guys in the same room, find the right producer, and find the right studio. So many things went into it to find the right partner too. We found the National Down Syndrome Society, and we’ve raised three-quarters of a million dollars already for this, so we’re on our way to the million mark.”
If the album is not compelling enough, the prospect of Sinatra live shows is thoroughly mouthwatering, and for those in the UK, O2’s Indigo on 15 December is the place to be. “It’s going to be amazing,” Tremonti says. “The shows we’ve done so far have been smaller, 400-500 people. That’s how Sinatra used to perform in casinos. They weren’t huge arenas, so this will be almost 3000 people at the Indigo. I’ll be more exposed than getting up there and playing rock guitar. These songs are very personal, even though somebody wrote these 60, 70 years ago.”
Personal for Mark Tremonti. “When I sing Nancy (With The Laughing Face), I’m thinking of Stella with the laughing face,” he says. “When I sing The Song Is You, I remember singing that song to make my daughter smile. Singing My Way with the whole crowd… When you can sing a Sinatra set, some of these songs are unfamiliar to people, and they appreciate it. But as soon as you sing, “and now… the end is near”, everybody focuses, and it gets so personal. So one of the biggest challenges is to hold it together and not get emotional.”
With Mark now writing for the next Tremonti album, it will be interesting to see if this chapter has a bearing. “I’m getting into other singers,” Mark says. “Recently, I found Kurt Elling, and I know we’re talking about the big band stuff, but Kurt Elling is an incredible jazz singer with a similar range to mine. So it’s easier for me to find a singer that sings lower and just see how that master sings and add it to whatever knowledge I already have. And it’s just like the guitar, you learn from this guy, that guy, that guy, and develop your own thing.”
With some breathtaking interpretations of some of Sinatra’s finest work, Tremonti Sings Frank Sinatra stands as a very fine work on its own and should encourage the curious and sate the connoisseur.
The genuine love of the material shines through here, and this is far from a throw-away token gesture or a stab at credibility in another genre, the musician way too smart and genuine for such a move.
With a sole date at the O2’s Indigo on 15 December 2022 raising money for Down Syndrome International, the UK-based charity, there’s never been a better time to catch up with one of the wildest and most entertaining sidebars in music for a very, very long time.
Mark Tremonti is a class act, through and through.
For more details of the Down Syndrome International, visit www.ds-int.org