The White House Sessions, Live 1962 is a particular kind of historical document. In one way, it’s exactly what it appears to be: two greats—Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck—playing (separately and together) at the White House while JFK was in office. But to hear the set now feels like being let in on a secret, like being able to witness an exclusive event. It finds both performers at the top of their game, but there’s something intangible about these recordings, outside of the music, that makes them distinct.
Bringing players like Brubeck and Bennett together could be seen, in retrospect, as a curiously political move. Combining the more working-class, once singing-waiter Bennett with the classically trained California prodigy in Brubeck may suggest something of the broad appeal to different classes and cultures in America an administration might be looking to convey. It also probably didn’t hurt that both Brubeck and Bennett were active in the Civil Rights Movement and WWII veterans. They were, in essence, perfect images to put up on stage at a White House event.
But they were also terribly of the moment. Bennett’s big hit, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”—played with wistful power here—was released just before this concert, and Brubeck was fresh off his own biggest hit, “Take Five”—also played here, but in a punchy sprint you don’t usually hear. So whether political construct or popular It-musicians or a combination of the both, this is a fascinating set to listen to. Dave Brubeck and company rip through “Take Five”, but they proceed almost professorially through the rest of the set. Brubeck sets up “Nomad”, from Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, as a tune that “uses some very simple Middle Eastern rhythms.” He also assures the audience, “We’re going to a little more complicated later.” Of course, “Nomad” is hardly an aural lay-up. Paul Desmond’s brilliant solo work keeps things melodic but off kilter, while Brubeck responds with his own tumble-down fills. Particularly striking is “Castilian Blues”, the last tune the quartet plays in this short set. It is indeed less digestible than “Nomad”, with an excellently unruly drum solo by Joe Merullo and complex understated work by Eugene Wright on the bass.
At every turn in the set, things get more challenging, but this isn’t to confront the audience so much as to immerse them in Brubeck’s vision of jazz as the “universal music”. He sounds every bit the ambassador at the White House, and so the set feels both exploratory and instructional, though never overly so. As with his playing, Brubeck handles the crowds expectations well, though the vibe completely changes when Bennett takes the stage. He opens with the winking and charming “Just In Time”, and we immediately shift from Brubeck’s ambassador to Bennett’s showman. The band snaps off smooth tunes like “Make Someone Happy” or the brief “Rags to Riches”, and you can feel the audience transfixed in a whole new way. Bennett’s voice is unsurprisingly honeyed, though the power of his young, subtle swagger is still bracing to get caught up in.
The set that this collection builds to, though, is the somewhat impromptu set where Bennett sings in front of Brubeck’s band (minus Desmond). It’s a quick, haphazard set, where the focus is on the back-and-forth between Brubeck’s piano and Bennett’s voice. On “The Lullaby of Broadway”, Bennett abruptly falls off, awkward singing “Come and listen to the lullaby of Dave Brubeck,” before letting Brubeck solo through some bars. He then drifts back in to first shyly sing and then belt out the chorus one more time. “That Old Black Magic” has a similar frenetic energy, so that the song seems maybe a half-beat too fast, but all the performers charge ahead heedlessly, enlivened purely by playing together. If the Brubeck Quartet’s set was about teaching the crowd, and Bennett’s about astonishing them, the set they do together is about learning from and astonishing each other. The crowd is receptive, but hearing two musical giants trying to work it out on stage makes their applause an afterthought.
That their collaboration is hurried and imperfect only enhances its charm. They sound like genuine fans of each other, and while you may wonder what a planned set with them might have sounded like, you can’t help but enjoy the spontaneity of the music here. The unique charge that runs through all this music makes the performances special, though the jumping from one short set to the next can make the disc as a whole feel rushed. Moment to moment, though, this is an often fascinating listen, as the performances twist songs we’ve heard plenty of times before into something fresh through youthful zeal and, probably, nervous energy. They were two players hitting their stride, playing in the White House occupied by a youthful, dynamic president. It was, and sounds here, like a time of hope, even if much of that hope would be cut short.