After a memorable headlining set at Ravinia in 2016, Seal is heading back to the summer music mecca, but this time around the British crooner will have new material padded into his songbook courtesy of his latest album, “Standards.”
Released last November by Decca/Universal, the record is a contemporary cover collection of Rat Pack-era jazz tributes, swing and big-band staples and rhythm and blues footnotes that trace the lineage of Seal’s own sound, which lies in the crest of soul, R&B and new jack swing.
SEAL When: 8 p.m. June 19 Where: Ravinia, 418 Sheridan Rd., Highland Park Tickets: $38-$130 (pavilion) Information: ravinia.org
Among the selections on “Standards” are Frank Loesser’s “Luck Be a Lady” as well as Ervin Drake’s “It Was a Very Good Year,” of course both signatures in Frank Sinatra’s repertoire. Seal also takes on Cole Porter’s “I Got You Under My Skin,” George Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and perhaps the most provocative of all, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” among 11 total tracks.
“In my opinion these are some of the greatest songs ever written,” says the singer, born Henry Olusegun Adeola Samuel, who first made waves from across the pond in 1991 with the catchy electro-soul single “Crazy” from his eponymous debut album. That record was also notable for being the first in a long procession of collaborations with producer and mentor Trevor Horn (of new wave group The Buggles), who early on tried goading Seal into making an album like “Standards.”
“We always messed around in the studio but never got around to it,” Seal says, admitting he then “jumped at the chance” when Decca/Universal approached him about the idea a couple of years ago. “They felt really passionate about me doing this kind of album, and I thought why not? Getting someone interested is half the battle.”
In the years leading up to “Standards,” Seal had broken ties with Warner Bros. Records upon the release of his 2015 sleeper hit, “7,” jaded by the changes in the music industry in the digital age and admitting to Billboard a year later he’d likely never release traditional albums again. But something changed with the “Standards” project, he admits.
“I got to make a record in a way that people aren’t making them anymore, and that became a really emotional and also luxurious experience for me. I have so much respect for the songs if not only because a lot of them are from a different and forgotten era of songwriting,” he says.
To make the album even more authentic, Seal pieced the songs together in the hallowed sound rooms of Capitol Records and Sinatra’s own United Recording Studios, where many of the original classics from “Standards” were first set to tape. Seal also had the chance to use Sinatra’s old microphone and work with some of the key players behind the greats, including one-time Ol’ Blue Eyes pianist (and Chicagoan) Randy Waldman as well as bassist Chuck Berghofer, who performed with Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles.
“I have a saying I like to use: A record sounds like the process and the time you had making it, and I had an incredible time; it was certainly an education too,” says Seal of “Standards,” humbled by the heightened level of discipline that jazz requires. “I don’t feel it’s my birthright to sing any song I want to just because I’m a singer, unless I can bring something to it, and I liked that challenge on this record.”
Though Seal is also working on new original material (which he may or may not introduce at Ravinia), you can count on the hits, too, such as his biggest claim to fame, “Kiss From a Rose.” After finding traction from an innocuous placement in the “Batman Forever” soundtrack in 1995, the song sold millions of copies, garnered three Grammy Awards for the artist and advanced him from modest import to superstardom nearly overnight.
“I owe [director] Joel Schumacher my career,” Seal says, copping to the fact that the placement (which was almost axed from the film completely but was salvaged by Schumacher for the end credits) helped him gain more recognition in America with his first No. 1 hit on the charts. “I consider myself very, very fortunate, and through that experience I have a love and appreciation for that song that perhaps I didn’t have before.”
Seal paid the patronage forward by appearing as a mentor and judge on “The Voice” in Australia for several seasons, lending his advice to budding hopefuls. “There’s so much great talent out there,” he says of his takeaway from the show, hoping that new generations of singers will bring back the heyday of recording albums like they used to be made.
“I do think music is going through a transitional period. A lot of the albums that inspired me and so many others back in the day — they took time, there was a whole process, they were whole chapters from people’s lives. Now it seems more disposable,” he says. “But I do think it will come back around to that. Music is such an incredible phenomenon that it has ability to lift and move us and affect our lives, and hopefully that will always prevail.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.