Pop-jazz chanteuse AJ Lambert focuses on granddad Frank Sinatra in New York solo vocal debut
AJ Lambert sings "Mood Indigo," a song sung by Frank Sinatra on his album"In the Wee Small Hours"
Multi-talented songstress AJ Lambert is digging deep into herself and her Sinatra family heritage for her New York debut as a solo vocalist.
Lambert, who played bass in several New York rock bands years ago and is now based in Los Angeles, will perform in its entirety one of her grandfather's classic albums—Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours—on Aug. 18 at Feinstein's/54 Below. She'll be accompanied on piano by John Boswell, who has served as musical director for the likes of Judy Collins, Andy Williams and Bob Newhart—and who fittingly received the Frank Sinatra Award for popular instrumentalists while a student at UCLA.
"In the Wee Small Hours has always been my favorite album, and I know it very well," says Lambert, who is Nancy Sinatra's daughter.
"As I get older I relate more and more to the feelings [Sinatra] expresses through these songs. It took a while but I feel like I've built up sufficient gut-punches to feel like I can even attempt anything he did so brilliantly the first time. This record is so perfect, it's just the thing I've been hoping to put out on a stage--these emotions and these incredible songs, and they're so perfect as a whole."
Sinatra's ninth studio album, In the Wee Small Hours was released in April 1955 as a 12-inch vinyl LP record—among the first pop recordings in that configuration—as well as two 10-inch LP discs and four four-song EPs. It reached No. 2 and was eventually certified gold for selling over 500,000 units; critically acclaimed then, it was ranked by Rolling Stone in 2012 as the 101st greatest album of all time.
In the Wee Small Hours is also regarded as one of the first concept albums, as its songs all centered on melancholic themes.
"It makes for a pretty sad show," says an upbeat Lambert, "but I figure if you're a fan of the album--and there are more than a few out there--you know what you're in for. And sad is my arena for sure! I don't mean to sound like an insufferable singer-songwriter--which I'm not--but the vibe is dangerously close: I honestly feel like I can sing the sadder songs better. I wear my heart on my sleeve pretty easily but I'm not super-articulate, so I get to sing things that people who are far more adept at verbal communication than I am have written. Even 'happy' songs that have an element of bitterness or melancholy to them, I just like them better in general.
"So the pathetic part is to say, 'I feel like I relate to misery better as a singer!' I am a pretty goofy, happy, silly person in life--mainly because I am trying to cover up my anxieties/awkwardness. I want things to be good, always. But my natural state of being, where I'm more at home in my own true skin, is in sadness or a state of experiencing loss--which sounds so pretentious and horrible, but it's true and I can't think of another way to put it that sounds less Morrissey. So I feel like if anything of his can be attempted by me it's this--this and [Sinatra's 1958 torch songs concept album Frank Sinatra Sings for] Only the Lonely. That's next year's show!"
Lambert's mention of Morrissey, incidentally, is particularly apt in that the morose English singer-songwriter is a huge fan of Nancy Sinatra, for whom he sang on her version of his song "Let Me Kiss You," which was featured on her acclaimed 2004 album Nancy Sinatra and was a U.K. hit. Lambert co-produced the album and co-wrote its track "Bossman."
It was during this time that Lambert was playing in New York in indie and alternative rock bands like Here We Go Magic, The Homosexuals and a band with Murph of Dinosaur Jr.
"It was fun times but singing was not really the focus during those years [2000-2010]," says Lambert, who was also working as a music supervisor then, with credits including Lee Daniels' directorial debut Shadowboxer, and Tennessee, which he produced. She also wrote and directed a film as a companion piece to a 2006 EP that she released, for which she wrote all the songs and played all the instruments.
More recently, though, Lambert has focused on the pop standards and jazz exemplified by her grandfather; in fact, like her mother, she hosts a program on SiriusXM's Siriusly Sinatra channel. On its Third Generation with A.J. Lambert, which is on the last Friday of every month at 10 p.m. ET, she plays some of her favorites by Frank Sinatra as well as contemporary music from her own eclectic collection.
She's likewise carried on this dual repertoire in her monthly shows at the Gardenia cabaret club in Los Angeles, where she interprets standards by such "Great American Songbook" tunesmiths as Harold Arlen (who co-wrote In the Wee Small Hours track "Last Night When We Were Young" with Yip Harburg) and Duke Ellington (co-writer of the album's "Mood Indigo" with Barney Bigard and Irving Mills) and modern fare by the likes of David Bowie and Liz Phair. Meanwhile, she's currently working on an album of songs by Spoon, TV on the Radio and John Cale, as well as gems from her grandfather's Only The Lonely.
But until now "I've never come close to even considering doing anything remotely resembling a 'Frank Sinatra' show before!" Lambert says, acknowledging the uniquely personal challenge she has in exploring her grandfather's legacy on her terms.
"I feel like in the past when I've tried to do anything with jazz it's fallen flat because I wasn't seasoned in any way except from my experience in the rock world," she notes. "I couldn't sing these kinds of songs properly before because I was too young, too inexperienced and too drunk to manage it! And I never dared come close to acknowledging my lineage this way before because I felt like I didn't deserve to be in the same sentence, as a musician, with him. Now I'm more practiced and solid and feel like I can wade into this music that I've always loved without being worried that I can't do it some shred of justice."
Lambert has also never performed an "album" show, either, "but I'd noticed that people were doing that, and it seemed like In the Wee Small Hours, being the first concept album, as they say, was perfect for a show in which I could sing the kind of material I want to do and have it make sense on all fronts."
One wonders, of course, if her new facility with Sinatra's work is hereditary.
"It's not genetic at all!" Lambert maintains. "I think there is a modicum of 'talent' that might get passed down but that's not all it is. I have to work hard to be able to sing this stuff. It's a challenge every time. But as I said, I'm up for it now. It's also, for me at least, about confidence in the fact that I know what I'm doing, and there's also a challenge inherent in showing people who show up out of curiosity that I actually can sing, that I'm not just there because I'm the granddaughter. If I'd wanted to do that I could've done it long ago--but I never did because I wasn't worthy of it. Now, I'm loving stretching myself as a vocalist--and as a relative newbie at song interpretation. It's the most fulfilling music I've ever performed."
It helps, too, that she has a veteran accompanist.
"John Boswell is amazing," she says. "He has been playing with major talents for years and I'm really lucky he agreed to play with me. We are both part of this little cabaret circle that plays every month at the Gardenia here in L.A. and we met that way."
She notes that she and Boswell have structured their take on In the Wee Small Hours according to the original two-disc album release.
"We play the album as if we are all listening to it together, i.e., there are four sides to the original release and we play it that way: four songs, then 'flip' the record--during which I share memories and impressions of my grandfather from my life with him. He was a very private person, and I only knew him 'well' when I was a child --so those two things create a very specific memory in my mind of who he was, to me. I share those things with the audience as a series of impressions more than anecdotal banter as in a traditional show of this type. I found that this album lets me share the fact that I am still getting to know him through music, and it's deepening my understanding of someone I wish I'd known better--had more time to get to know better."
Now 43, Lambert explains that by the time she was approaching adulthood, "he was already getting old and declining." She was 24 when Sinatra died in 1998, and can now present an intimate understanding of both the intricacy of the music of her grandfather and the complexity of the man himself.
"I did get to go on the road with him, but even then it was a really specific relationship since a lot of the time he was confused or disoriented and not as present as he was when I was too young to attempt an adult connection with him," she says. "We were kind of like ships in the night in that way. But he was a lovely person, so full of joy--something I don't think most people know about him--and hilariously funny. He was quiet, too, and solitary--things I really relate to--but then he'd want tons of people around at other times, another thing I very much relate to. He was a good person and someone who I wish I had gotten to know more. It's too late for that, but at least I have the music. It has a way of filling out those impressions I mentioned before: I can now add more dimension to that person I knew in my specific way, the older I get and the more I relate to him, solely through what he expresses in records."
And it must be asked, obviously, how her mother, a pop superstar in her own right, who scored the 1967 chart-topping "Something Stupid" duet with her father, feels about her daughter's interpretation of her father's music.
"She digs it!" declares Lambert. "I think for her it's hard sometimes to access the sad side of him, because she was so much closer to him than I was and had such a different perspective on him as a person. That's why I think it might not be the most pleasant thing to sit through such an emotion-heavy show, for her, except that it's me doing it!"
And has she ever wanted to do a similar show based on her mother's immortal songs?
"I have so many songs of hers that I adore, but I'm interested in re-interpreting music in ways that they weren't done originally," says Lambert. "The record I'm working on right now is that--pop songs that I've done with very different instrumentation/styles. The show I was doing before this one was pop songs done in this solo piano and voice jazz style. In this show the incredible Nelson Riddle arrangements from the album are there but they're just a skeleton, really. So I'd want to turn something she did on its head if I were ever to do it. I guess [Nancy Sinatra's 1968 single] 'Happy' could be done in a really different way, though my version would, of course, be sad!"