Sylvia Syms has often been called the female counterpart to Frank Sinatra, who has in fact been her longtime friend, champion and major influence. So decades after those facts, Old Blue Eyes has finally stepped into the picture as producer and conductor (with a little help from Don Costa) of the new Syms album.
Like Sinatra, Syms seems most at ease with American popular standards from such folks as Arlen, Cahn, Mercer and Harburg, who dominate the spirit and substance of the album. The three more contemporary cuts -- Jobim's "Someone to Light up my Life," Johnny Mandell's "Close Enough for Love" and the insufferable "You Must Believe in Spring" from the Alan and Marilyn Bergman axis -- are overly maudlin ballads that suffer from dull arrangements and soundtrack mushiness that make them sound older than they are. Compare them with Harold Arlen's sprightly wordplay on "Hooray for Love," or the innocent lust of "Them There Eyes" and it becomes obvious that Syms has to have lived inside a song for a while to claim it as her own (though she does a splendid version of the torchy "All My Tomorrows" by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, which Sinatra did in the film "Hole in the Head").
Syms has a big wraparound contralto, beautifully controlled. She never seems to overreach or hurry her lyrics just to swing them a little harder; in fact, Syms builds from a simple, direct base to supple, subtle, internalized dynamics. Maybe because she's been an actress almost as long as a singer, Syms invests her lyrics with cool passion and red-hot honesty. Listen to "Them There Eyes," which starts off with the singer and a walking bass line, slides into a piano trio breeze and marches out full blast with an orchestra. She doesn't lose control: Her intonation and diction are agile and effortless. Caution: romantic at work.
ON RECORD, ON STAGE
THE ALBUM: SYMS BY SINATRA (Reprise 23724-1)
THE SHOW: SYLVIA SYMS, Tuesday through October 24 at Charlie's (Georgetown).