Hip-notized by a Male Billie Holiday

by Will Layman

19 August 2009

cover art

Tony Bennett and Bill Evans

The Complete Recordings

US: 14 Apr 2009
UK: 13 Apr 2009

Discovering the first collection of duets between popular singer Tony Bennett and jazz pianist Bill Evans—an event that occurred one afternoon deep in the heart of the ‘70s—popped my top and buttered my bread.

Hey, I was a sensitive kid deeply geeked out about jazz. I was cool enough to know that listening to The Starland Vocal Band or Kansas or Styx was a dead end, but I was hardly hip enough to know that certain kinds of sincerity—quiet, earnest expressions of feeling—were the very essence of command. Tony Bennett, to my ‘70s teenage ears, was one of those singers my parents put on the “hi-fi” when they were drinking “highballs” with other people who didn’t like rock ‘n’ roll. He left his heart in San Francisco, I knew that much.

Bill Evans, on the other hand, was one of the hippest and most influential of all jazz pianists, a tortured loner of a guy (and an addict, too) whose music ripped at your soul. The flat-out genius behind Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Evans was The Real Thing. So, when I saw an album cover featuring the two of them together I thought, Huh? What were these guys doing recording together?

Loving What I Barely Understood
But the moment I put the record on, I was blinkered and dazzled, hardly listening to anything else for weeks. The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album came out in 1975 on Fantasy (Evans’ label), but I didn’t discover it until 1977 or so. I was a 16-year-old kid with a girlfriend named “Holly” and all of suburban New Jersey at my disposal, yet for a couple of weeks all I did was sit in front the stereo in the den, listening to “Young and Foolish” or “Some Other Time”. Hip-notized.

Bennett, I immediately concluded, was no square. His approach to these great songs made him about the best jazz singer you’d ever heard. That is to say, he sounded like a male Billie Holiday: no flippy-dippy scatting or Bobby Darin affectation, but just a deep understanding of the lyric expressed in subtle but masterfully swinging rhythmic variations. Bennett was three years older than my parents (49 the year that first album was recorded), but I forgave him instantly. Middle age, man—it was instantly cool. Bennett’s voice dripped with world-weary knowledge. I wanted some.

As I already knew, Bill Evans’ impressionistic approach to the piano was better than hip—it was elegant and genre-defying. Though he could play with as much fire and swing as Red Garland or Horace Silver, Evans added to the jazz arsenal certain shades, pastels if you wanted to hear them that way, that gave jazz another way to penetrate deeper than finger-popping. Teamed up with this Bennett guy? It almost seemed like classical music.

One example is enough to explain it. How often does a jazz singer begin a song a cappella? On “The Touch of Your Lips”, Tony jumps right in, taking three full bars before Bill even nudges into the action. Together, they are as relaxed as two brothers chatting about a baseball game. But then Tony steps aside to let Bill play the “A” section solo, tit for tat. When Tony reenters after 16 bars, the duo has modulated to a new key where they get in a jaunty groove. 

Evans’ proper solo contains minimal departure from the melody, almost as if the pianist were paying tribute to his partner, mimicking Bennett’s subtle rhythmic shifts and jogs. It’s unusually complete piano playing even though it’s not flashy—that is until Bennett rejoins on the second half of the melody and makes you feel that these artists must be joined at the hip.

I listened to The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album and didn’t care whether it was “jazz” or whether my parents also liked it. It was great music, period. It seemed enough to inspire a kid to get himself a serious girlfriend prontissimo so he’d have a reason to put this platter on the hi-fi yourself and dim the lights. It instantly became my favorite jazz vocal album. Sorry, Ella, Billie, Louis.  And, Mr. Francis Albert Sinatra—this album made me forget you even existed, even though I’m from freakin’ New Jersey.

Searching to Find the High Again
The problem with this disc was in replacing it. Only 35-minutes of music: you could listen to it twice in the time it took some people to get dressed. There had to be more jazz that found this balance. Probably another duo. Probably another great singer and accompanist.

And I looked. In the mid-70s, a movement of brilliant instrumental duos was apparent. Chick Corea and Gary Burton produced Crystal Silence on ECM in 1972 and achieved riveting, meditative beauty without sacrificing a sense of jazz urgency. Burton’s first duet set with guitarist Ralph Towner (Matchbook, also ECM) contained intimate, delicious versions of “Icarus”, “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” and even Bernstein’s “Some Other Time”.

Problem was: every time I listened, I heard Tony singing it in my head. As a pianist, I fell in love for a while with the two double-album collections of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock playing live duets together (CoreaHancock on Polydor and An Evening with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea on Columbia, both 1978), but some of the tracks here were half-an-hour long. Bloated music does not for romance make.

Vocal duets were harder to find. Ella Fitzgerald recorded a mostly-duo collection with Oscar Peterson (Ella and Oscar on Pablo) in 1975, which led me to her early duo discs (Pure Ella in 1950 with Ellis Larkins and The Intimate Ella from 1960 with Paul Smith). Nearly all of these are wonderful, and—to my chamber music ears, anyway—infinitely preferable to Ella’s famed “Songbook” albums where her voiced is slathered in schmaltzy strings. 

“Mean to Me” from 1975 is irresistibly playful, and “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” from 1960 features all of the singer’s richness but also her intimacy. But none of these sides strike the sparks of Bennett/Evans: the 1950 and 1960 dates keeps the pianos far back in the mix where they never get to be an equal partner, and Oscar Peterson spars with Ella more than he works with her. Those duets are fun but not breathtaking.

More genial and personal are the many duet records that Ella recorded for Pablo with guitarist Joe Pass between 1973 (Take Love Easy) and 1986 (Easy Living). I listened to Fitzgerald and Pass… Again (1976) about a million times because hearing Ella sing “My Old Flame” accompanied only by an acoustic guitar gave me chills. 

Ella was not quite 60 when this track went down, and the critics who felt she’d lost her voice by then were just crazy.  Here was a mature woman at the height of her powers—if not vocally then certainly interpretively—singing intimately about her past. If it’s been done better, then it could only be by Bennett and Evans in their version of “Young and Foolish”.  Ah, you see, it all comes back to that record.

The Complete Recordings


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