This four-CD set is a first in Frank Sinatra's Columbia Records discography: a box set that encompasses his Columbia solo sides with his work for Tommy Dorsey and Harry James, plus live broadcast sides up through 1952. It may also perplex some potential purchasers, especially those who already have the 12-CD Sony/Legacy Columbia Years set -- which was supposed to be the last word on Sinatra's early career -- although that massive collection is certainly still worth owning. But the truth is that in some respects, A Voice in Time: 1939-1952 gives a wider ranging -- if not actually fuller -- account of the singer's early career, differently nuanced and arranged, and going into areas that the complete Columbia set couldn't reach. The corporate linkup between Sony/Legacy and RCA/BMG allows the label access to the recordings that Sinatra made with Tommy Dorsey's band, which have never before been compiled with the Columbia material, and thanks to a policy shift at Sony, the label also now has access to broadcast performances that were never part of his Columbia library. And by starting this set in 1939, when Sinatra's recording career effectively began as a member of Harry James' band, they're able to legitimately draw on the sides that he cut with James for Brunswick. The interweaving of the studio sides and broadcast airchecks, in particular, makes this set a compelling experience, juxtaposing the carefully crafted perfection of Sinatra's studio sides with the live, spontaneous radio performances (most of which took place in front of his fervid and highly expressive female fans of the period). What's more, the producers have brought this whole end of Sinatra's catalog up to a quality level matching -- as much as possible -- that of his sides from the more familiar Capitol and Reprise libraries.
The set has been broken down into four major groupings. Disc one is titled The Big Band Years 1939-1942, and covers his years with James and Dorsey, though the early solo recording of "The Song Is You," from 1942, is also presented, as it overlaps with the Dorsey years. The material has been chosen to encompass the milestones of the singer's early career, with an eye toward the solo work that followed, which the second disc, entitled Teen Idol 1943-1952, dives into head first. This is where the broadcast performances play a significant role, not only in terms of the mostly movie-related songs that he never got to record officially, but also in the instance of "You'll Never Know." The latter, in its familiar form, was cut in the midst of the Musicians' Union recording ban and had to be done with only vocal accompaniment -- here it is, from a broadcast, with the kind of full-band accompaniment it was expected to have. Seven of the tracks are previously officially unissued radio broadcast airchecks -- the producers have done an excellent job of correcting the source defects and other anomalies, so they're a close match in quality for the proper official recordings. The third disc, The Great American Songbook 1943-1947, is comprised of the most familiar material here -- with only four broadcasts, of "There Will Never Be Another You," "As Time Goes By," "It Had to Be You," and "I Get a Kick Out of You." This is a side of Sinatra's output that has been amply explored elsewhere, and with the exceptions of those tracks, the only special quality of the material here is the crisp mastering. The Sound of Things to Come 1949-1952 is a valiant -- and mostly successful -- effort to distill the best of the singer's final couple of years' work with Columbia; it's been done to some extent up to now on CDs such as Swing and Dance with Frank Sinatra, but the 20 songs here, the Columbia material augmented by one aircheck ("Why Try to Change Me Now"), is a fuller account of this phase of his career.
The state-of-the-art remastering has the contents of this set -- mostly recorded and preserved on metal parts and transcription discs rather than magnetic tape, which didn't come into use until Sinatra's final three years at Columbia -- sounding fresher and richer than one might ever think possible, even based on the quality of the earlier Columbia box. A Voice in Time: 1939-1952 features two small hardcover books, one containing the four CDs and the other giving the discography and sources, along with accompanying essays for each volume, plus an array of hundreds of black-and-white photos from the period interspersed throughout the text. As nice as those are to look at, and as fine as much of the text is -- especially Will Friedwald's and Charles L. Granata's essays, on The Big Band Years and The Sound of Things to Come volumes, respectively -- it's the listening quality that's the point here, and there's not a complaint to be had in that department. Indeed, it's something of a rejuvenating experience for the listener, getting to hear all of these vintage sides in this kind of glowing sonic luster.