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Frankie Valli released a "A Touch of Jazz" this summer. He recorded the album with a combo led by jazz artist Joey DeFrancesco.
Frankie Valli released a "A Touch of Jazz" this summer. He recorded the album with a combo led by jazz artist Joey DeFrancesco.Courtesy photo

Before he sang “Big Girls Don’t Cry” or had his life story turned into “Jersey Boys,” Frankie Valli was a jazz-loving kid who would pay a buck to sit in the “bleachers,” the rows of seats for non-drinkers, at New York’s Birdland to see Count Basie. Or he’d sit in with organist Jimmy Smith in Valli’s hometown of Newark, N.J.

At 87, Valli is finally paying tribute to his roots with “A Touch of Jazz.” The album’s low-key release this summer surprised a lot of fans, especially since it was made without Bob Gaudio, Valli’s creative partner in the Four Seasons for the past six decades.

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Eschewing the orchestral approach usually favored by pop stars who make a standards album, Valli went with a small combo anchored by organist and trumpeter Joey DeFrancesco, who co-produced the disc with Valli and longtime Four Seasons musical director Robby Robinson. “You get a lot more freedom when you do it like we did with Joey,” says Valli when reached by telephone. “It opens everything up. You don’t have to worry about having enough air in between what you’re saying. It keeps the focal point on the melody and the singing.”

DeFrancesco thinks he landed on Valli’s radar after doing a project with actor Joe Pesci. “We wanted to do it for years but between the road and everything else we never had the time, so we’d go in and record a bit here and there,” says Valli.

DeFrancesco and Valli quickly bonded over their mutual love for Little Jimmy Scott, whose vulnerable, high-pitched voice was perhaps Valli’s most obvious influence. With Valli “there’s nothing too fast, it’s more of a laid-back vibe,” says DeFrancesco, whose multi-instrumental chops and own effective singing are nicely displayed on his own new album, “More Music.” (DeFrancesco performs at Scullers Jazz Club on Nov. 12.) “He sings behind the beat, a lot like Dexter Gordon might play saxophone.”

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The cover of Frankie Valli's 2021 album "A Touch of Jazz."
The cover of Frankie Valli's 2021 album "A Touch of Jazz."Handout

Newark is famous for its organ jazz sound, and Valli says he was singing with Jimmy Smith when the organist was a sideman for R&B band leader Don Gardner at a club called the Nightcap. The jazz influence on the Four Seasons extended beyond Valli’s favorite singers like Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. Valli is quick to mention the Hi-Lo’s, the Delta Rhythm Boys, and the Glenn Miller-associated Modernaires. “My favorite group was the Four Freshmen, and they really inspired our harmonies. And we’re not alone in that. The Beach Boys were also really influenced by the Freshmen.”

Valli picked all the songs on the disc, including pages from the Great American Songbook like “How High the Moon” and “Try a Little Tenderness.”

“Some of those songs I’ve been doing since I was a little kid. I would sing them in saloons, before I ever had any success, and back in that period of time if you didn’t have a hit record you did all the standards — Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, those were the tunes you did.”

A Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons show at the Boch Center Wang Theatre slated for this month has been postponed, as have all of the singer’s remaining 2021 tour dates, so that he can continue to recover from a recent bout of pneumonia. When the rescheduled show happens next year on March 4, it will be a night billed as “Greatest Hits,” and Valli says not to expect much in the way of jazz. “When you don’t have the Joey DeFrancesco combo, it’s not that easy,” he says with a laugh.

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But Valli points out that their setlist includes his solo 1975 hit “Swearin’ to God,” which he calls “total jazz. It’s got the big band of Stan Kenton, and the Latin sound of Pérez Prado.”