Hip-notized by a Male Billie Holiday

by Will Layman

19 August 2009


Plenty of Love, but No Musical Spark

Plenty of Love, but No Musical Spark

When I first encountered the Bennett/Evans duets, I was a kid getting my first sense of what musical romance really felt like. I fell in love with nine performances that expertly straddled the strengths of pop singing (directness, emotional clarity) and jazz (elastic swing, spontaneous communication, surprise).

But what foolish searchers we were back in those days of hanging in “record shops” and flipping—kind of “whumping” the 12-inch LPs in their shrink-wrapped cardboard sleeves—through collections by hand. No Internet, no Amazon, no DowntownMusicGallery.com. So I had no reasonable way of knowing that Bennett and Evans had, in fact, recorded a second collection of duets in September of 1976, but that this second collection was released by Bennett’s small Improv Records, with weak distribution. 

Together Again looked terrible when I finally found it in a cheesy compact disc reissue on DRG Records, with a color scheme in Kelly green and neon blue and a cover photo with Evans in a leather jacket and ghastly full beard. I dashed home, turned down the lights, and made my wife listen with me. Plenty of love there, but no huge musical spark.

The ‘76 session wasn’t awful; it just wasn’t what I’d dreamed of for two decades. Where the first record had given us the near perfect sentimentality of “Waltz for Debby”, Together Again seemed cloying with “Make Someone Happy”. Hearing the duo on Thad Jones’ modern jazz classic “A Child Is Born” is a treasure, but the version of “Some Other Time” from the first set is so good that it has become the definitive version of the tune.

Before the first disc, few people had heard “When In Rome”, yet it was then instantly familiar. Before hearing Together Again, I didn’t know “Two Lonely People”, and after hearing it, well ... I’d wish to skip it in the future.

Possibly I had simply fetishized the first recording through two decades of reverent repetition. But I never thought so. Until now.

Revision and Revival
In the past month I have listened to both discs—plus much more—with fresh ears. Fantasy has released The Complete Tony Bennett Bill Evans Recordings, a two-disc set that collects both original recordings, plus unreleased masters of “Who Can I Turn To” and “Dream Dancing” (from the ‘76 session), plus a full disc of complete and solid-gold alternate takes. It is Bennett/Evans heaven this summer. Happily, I still have my wife to pull to the couch.

The news is this: the second recording is, in fact, another treasure. It’s a bit more downbeat, perhaps, but it gleams just as brilliantly. Bill Evans’ harmonies on “You Don’t Know What Love Is” are both surprising and perfect. As the partners move into that song’s bridge, it is remarkable how Evans syncopates the attack of the chords yet still provides Bennett with a proper groove to move over. 

“Lucky to be Me” becomes that song you didn’t really know before but suddenly can’t stop digging, wondering why other singers hadn’t properly discovered it. “You’re Nearer” is Rodgers and Hart pure and true: simple, warm, logical. The two “new” performances both deserved to be heard from the outset, too. Why didn’t I love this the first time I heard it?

The alternate takes prove what listeners had intuited from the beginning: these performances were pure classics. The unused takes, in most cases, are just as good as those chosen for release. But they are significantly different. The alternate “Young and Foolish” not only contains the rarely heard introductory verse, but it also features a series of different musical choices by both men—tones held longer into decay, smart melodic variations, and moments of pure togetherness that are incandescent but were plainly not carefully planned.

Going back to “The Touch of Your Lips”, we find an alternate that is not introduced by the a cappella singer, and also a busier sense of give-and-take once the pair are both in the track. It’s a less spare recording—cuter, more fun, more swinging perhaps, and with a few notes that seem more daring. Or how about “Some Other Time”?  Bennett varies the rhythm of the main melody in the very first line of the lyric. 

Of course, Bill Evans’ improvised solo is utterly different if just as lyrical. To hear a different version of something this timelessly lovely simply takes the breath away. With their differences all bolstered by remarkable mastery, the alternate takes prove both how spontaneous these sessions were and how comfortable each player was with the material and with each other.

When I first encountered the Bennett/Evans duets, I was a kid getting my first sense of what musical romance really felt like. I fell in love with nine performances that expertly straddled the strengths of pop singing (directness, emotional clarity) and jazz (elastic swing, spontaneous communication, surprise). Intuitively, I understood that what I was hearing was over my head. 

The music was being performed by two men each with a good half a life behind them. Therefore, the music expressed a deep knowingness about disappointment, longing, serenity, value, and joy. It was a graduate class in feelings I was only then starting to imagine I could have.

Today, listening to it all again as if for the first time, I’m almost exactly the age of Tony Bennett and Bill Evans at the time they recorded their duets. And I think for that reason, the music sounds wonderfully changed. It’s less likely now to inspire me to grab my girl and much more likely to make me wonder if I really appreciate her. 

When I hear “Make Someone Happy” now, I don’t hear a cloying sentiment as much as I hear a strain of impossibility. “Make someone happy / Make just one someone happy / And you will be happy too”. Ahhhh, I think today. “Harder to do than any young person knows ...”

Bill Evans, a man who perhaps never found a real way to be happy, left us in 1980 after what a friend called “the longest suicide in history” from drugs and alcohol. If I could, I would thank him for a couple of dozen different records he made that simply own my ears.  ut mainly I’d thank him for these duets with Tony Bennett because they own my heart.

Tony Bennett remains, in 2009, a joyous performer. He still sings many of these songs, but I’ve never heard him dare to perform them with just a pianist helping out. To Tony, I feel I owe more than thanks. Your singing, man—your honest understanding of the lyrics and your ability to put that into the music as plain humanity—it made me see past distinctions between “jazz” and any other alleged category or style. Thanks, Tony, because you taught me the value of open ears as well the importance of facing my feelings.

Just like Debby, the little girl in Bill Evans’ great tune on these records, I’m not a kid anymore. Thanks to this music.

Tony Bennett performs “Who Can I Turn To” with a full band. But all he needed was Bill Evans.

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