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Riddle and Rhythm

Jazz fest fetes Frank Sinatra

By Greg Cahill

As a struggling trombone player in 1974, Christopher Riddle had to pay his dues--literally and figuratively. Though he grew up in L.A., Riddle settled in Las Vegas, where the local musician's union insisted that he pay his union dues for six months before getting any work. "They made you starve and maybe--maybe--you'd get a gig," he says during a recent phone interview from L.A. But no matter how slim the pickings, Riddle could bank on a good time at Caesar's Palace, where he was always welcome to attend Frank Sinatra's concerts free of charge.

After all, Riddle's father was the arranger, trombonist and bandleader Nelson Riddle, who had played a pivotal role in crafting Sinatra's signature sound two decades earlier. "Sometimes I'd be ushered into the inner sanctum afterwards when Frank got through," Christopher remembers.

That backstage access, and growing up in a household in which Sinatra literally was a frequent visitor, has contributed to Christopher Riddle's insight into the charts that underscored some of the most famous vocal albums of all time.

He brings that insight to Jazz on the River this weekend, leading the Nelson Riddle Orchestra in a big-band tribute to the music of Frank Sinatra. The vocals will be handled by Santa Rosa resident Bryan Anthony. The tribute is part of a flurry of Sinatra-related media activity that includes the recent Napa appearance of His Way tribute artist Ron Hawking, an upcoming salute by the Santa Rosa Symphony and other synergies.

"I just want to get the music right," Riddle says of his commitment to preserving his father's musical legacy. "I want it to sound as close to what it should sound like as possible."

It's a formidable legacy. Nelson Riddle contributed his talents to a number of popular singers--including Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee, Dinah Shore and Judy Garland--but his Sinatra charts represent his best work.

"He was absolutely a genius," Christopher says. That genius shone in 1950 when Capitol signed Riddle as a studio arranger after his orchestration helped propel Nat King Cole's ballad "Mona Lisa" to the top of the pop charts. The song remained Cole's biggest hit single.

That success, in turn, led to Riddle's longtime association with then-Capitol recording artist Sinatra. For a decade, Riddle scored a series of highly successful concept albums--including In the Wee Small Hours, Only the Lonely and Songs for Swingin' Lovers--that were sequenced to tell a story and evoked Riddle's evocative mood-setting arrangements.

Those now legendary Capitol sessions--Riddle scored 17 of the singer's 20 albums on the label--stand as Sinatra's best recorded work.

"Those works hold up because they are sheer works of genius," says Christopher. "They are immortal. He had a real knack for underscoring the strengths of a singer and minimizing their weaknesses--shielding them, you know? With Sinatra, there really wasn't much weakness to shield, but there was a lot to highlight--and he did it.

"My dad used to say about Sinatra, you jump in when he's not singing and you jump out when he is."

In the 1970s Riddle--who had scored the music for such films as Stanley Kubrick's Lolita and the Rat Pack's Ocean's 11 and wrote dozens of TV theme songs--retired. He returned to the studio in the 1980s to arrange three successful big-band albums for Linda Ronstadt. He died in 1985.

"I try my best to get the music right," says Christopher, "that's the most important thing."

Jazz on the River runs Saturday-Sunday, Sept. 10-11, at Johnson's Beach in Guerneville. On Saturday, the Jazz at Lincoln Center's Afro-Latino Jazz Orchestra headlines with performances by the Dave Holland Big Band and Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks. On Sunday, Pat Metheny headlines with appearances by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, Carla Bley and the Lost Chords, and Cedar Walton. $47-$100. 510.655.9471.

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From the September 7-13, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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