Think of Tony Bennett now, in 2004, as both an aging legend and a still-singular entertainer, a performer who is still doing exactly what he started doing 50 years ago: giving graceful, subtly emotional, generally un-bombastic (though at times still very showbiz) interpretations of standard American songs from decades past. Over the years Bennett has made a few stabs at recording contemporary songs, and every once in a while he has been “rediscovered” by (or remarketed to) younger audiences, but the essence of what he’s doing hasn’t changed at all. To witness this in action, listen to any of his fine recent albums (for example, his excellent tribute to Frank Sinatra, Perfectly Frank) or watch any of his still-riveting performances, and then go back and listen to Cloud 7, a 1955 album just released on CD for the first time. There are differences in his singing style, but they’re physical marks of the passing of time, not signs of someone who cares about what’s currently fashionable or hip.
Tony Bennett isn’t following trends now, and he wasn’t in 1955, either. After teenage success singing with army bands led to nightclub shows, radio performances, and then a series of hit singles, Tony Bennett found himself with the chance to make his first album, at Columbia Records with producer Mitch Miller. Jonathan Schwartz’s liner notes for the Cloud 7 CD release indicate that Bennett pushed for a proper album recording, not just a long-form collection of singles, because it was what his idols Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald were doing for other labels. That story supports the notion of Bennett as a singer with a vision, who knew what he wanted to do and then spent decades doing it.
While Bennett has sung with orchestras and other large ensembles, he seems most comfortable in a small-group setting. Cloud 7 has him singing with a handful of musicians who sound even sparser than they read on paper. On most tracks there are seven musicians—playing guitar, alto sax, tenor sax, trumpet, bass, piano, and drums—yet the approach they take is so delicate and reserved that at times you swear they’re only a trio. There are no dramatic horn trills, no moments when the music rushes to climax with his voice. Instead you have accompaniment that echoes his singing approach by being as gently emotional as he is. Guitarist Chuck Wayne received a “featuring” credit under Bennett’s name on the album cover, and for good reason; his playing is careful and beautiful. Yet all of the musicians play with an understated grace that is the perfect backdrop for Bennett’s singing.
Cloud 7 opens with Bennett quietly humming along to the music of “I Fall in Love Too Easily” before he opens his mouth and belts out the tune with a wonderfully expressed melancholy air. To younger listeners used to the Tony Bennett of the ‘90s and beyond (the MTV Unplugged Bennett, if you will), this song will be no huge revelation—he sounds younger, with a little more of a “professional” singer’s voice, but not that different—yet it will be instantly recognized as a completely pure distillation of Bennett’s style. Cloud 7 contains some songs that he’s performed throughout his career, up to today—“Old Devil Moon” and “Darn That Dream”, for example—and others that he might as well have. These versions of those standards might not have a certain wisdom-with-age quality that Bennett nowadays projects, yet they cut so casually to the heart of the feelings and stories at hand that they disarm you even as they feel familiar. There’s a raw quality to Cloud 7 that transcends the familiarity of it all at this point in time.
Listening to this album in 2004 isn’t just about hearing a baby picture of a still-active legend. If you sit down and spend some time with Cloud 7, Tony Bennett’s history will disappear and you’ll be left with an intimate set of classic American songs performed by a singer with a quietly forceful demeanor, who even at a young age knows how to phrase his words so that they’re perfectly in touch with the emotions contained within them. “Give Me the Simple Life”, one of the songs on Cloud 7 is called, and in a way Tony Bennett takes a Zen-like approach to popular song—using the simplest of elements to dazzle us and make our hearts move.