By Don Heckman
Bel Air, CA. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”
The line kept coming to mind Tuesday night at Herb Alpert’s elegant restaurant and jazz club Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc, while we were listening to singer James DeFrances. No, not because DeFrances was thinking – or even singing – about New York. He’s actually from the Philadelphia area.
But the fresh-faced, ambitious young vocalist (he’s 24) performed with the sort of enthusiasm present in the classic Kander/Ebb song about the Big Apple. Except that – for DeFrances – the line applied to his rapidly accelerating career in Los Angeles.
His performance at Vibrato also had another “New York, New York” connection. And that, of course, was the impact that Frank Sinatra has had upon DeFrances’ musical vision.
It’s not surprising that a talented young male singer would choose Sinatra as a model – especially when such highly successful performers as Michael Buble and Harry Connick, Jr. have preceded him in his affection for Ol’ Blue Eyes.
On Tuesday night DeFrances, appropriately tuxedoed, sang a program of songs overflowing with Sinatra references. Starting with “The Girl From Ipanema” he shifted quickly into a hard-driving “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
He followed with “The Way You Look Tonight,” “ They Can’t Take That Away From Me” before winding up with “All The Way” and “Just In Time.”
DeFrances sang the ballads – especially “All The Way” – with warm musicality. And rhythm tunes such as “Witchcraft” and “It Had To Be You” were done with propulsive, briskly swinging energy.
The Sinatra inspiration was present in most of the tunes. At his best, DeFrances made the most of the connection, usually shaping his interpretation well within the templates of the original Sinatra versions.
But the finest moments came in the passages in which his own warm, youthful sound and lyrical expressiveness took charge of his singing. And one could sense the impressive future that DeFrances faces, especially as he moves beyond the Sinatra references into his own mature interpretations.
Still relatively unfamiliar to the wider pop audience, DeFrances’ performance clearly showcased his growing skills as one of the significant male artists rapidly emerging into the arena of jazz and big band oriented pop music.
He was superbly backed by the trio of pianist Tom Ranier, bassist Pat Senatore and drummer Tina Raymond. Filling in before the show opened and on the set breaks, the trio romped through their own program of standards, bringing dynamic enthusiasm to songs reaching from “Emily” and “Autumn Leaves” to “The More I See You.”
Working closely with the solid musical embrace of Ranier, Senatore and Raymond, DeFrances clearly established his future potential, thoroughly underscoring his ability to “make it anywhere.”
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Photos by Faith Frenz.