Reviewing a Tony Bennett record is, I suppose, beside the point. Mr. Anthony Benedetto of Astoria, Queens has been singing popular music at the top levels for almost a half-century. He has crooned and shouted, sung pop and interpreted highbrow jazz, entertained at casinos and swung rock venues. This is a man who has been working with the same pianist since before I was born, who hosted his own TV variety show in 1956, and whose vocal technique is so formidable that he sounds nearly as good today—at 79—as his did in his prime. This is even a man who took part in the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, singing for Martin Luther King, and who refused to play South Africa under apartheid long before it was cool for musicians to take political stands.
In short, Tony Bennett is a bulletproof singer and artist whose career straddles the rock era, with brilliant work on both sides. Is he as good as Frank Sinatra? In longevity, variety, and intensity, I’d argue he is better—if less well appreciated.
This entry in the Columbia Records Jazz Moods series consists of 14 tracks from Mr. Bennett’s pre-rock years, 1957-1965. They were great years for Bennett and, it turns out, for American pop music in general. It was a time when certain cultural barriers had fallen but the currency of the great Tin Pan Alley songs was still reasonably high. So on this collection you find Mr. Bennett singing with likes of Count Basie and Dave Brubeck, giving every song—nearly all classics by Gershwin, Porter, Ellington, Kern, and Arlen—a driving swing.
“Let’s Begin” is the obvious starter, a snappy 1957 chart with drum breaks setting up the vocal and the tempo shifting from medium swing into up-tempo, though Tony glides over it all with natural ease. It’s a novelty, though. Which is why it was wise to follow it with a pair of Ellington tunes. “Love Scene” is rarely heard, but this track sports a vintage Basie-style arrangement that lets Bennett build to the big finish. “Caravan” is given a drum-grounded jazz arrangement that encourages Bennett’s bel canto sound at maximum volume, which is then contrasted with a tasty guitar solo and percussion breakdown. While the larger collection these tracks were drawn from (Fifty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett) contains much medium-quality pop stuff, this collection is strong on jazz content.
Mr. Bennett’s “Sweet Lorraine” is unusual—accompanied only by acoustic guitar, acoustic bass and clarinet. It features one of the things Bennett does so well, which is to appear to be “tossing off” a tune as if it were nothing. “Close Your Eyes” starts on that note, then Bennett drives the band into greater intensity after the solos. “Until I Met You” is the Basie staple, played with the great man himself, Freddie Green strumming away, Bennett actually chuckling as he delivers the first part of the tune, he’s so relaxed. It’s all singer plus rhythm section throughout—perfect swing.
On “I Get a Kick Out of You” you get a sense of how careful Bennett was to avoid the Sinatra comparison. The arrangement here is small-band bop, twisting its way around the singer, reharmonizing certain parts of the song, modulating just where you expect the usual Nelson Riddle stuff in front of which Sinatra sang. On ballads like “Stella by Starlight”, this collection finds Bennett swinging easy, coming off the harder edges of his voice and floating as much as shouting.
Sony has clearly crafted this collection as a jazz package, and it is terrifically enjoyable. But it overlaps quite a bit with an earlier collection called Jazz. For serious jazz fans, the older collection is superior, containing Bennett’s collaborations with Stan Getz among others. But the new collection is also distinct from the Columbia’s All-Time Greatest Hits collection, which leans toward Bennett’s purely pop stuff (such as his “signature song”—“I Left My Heart in San Francisco”) with strings. Is it the perfect compromise or just an unnecessary addition to an already crowded discography?
The Bennett collection that doesn’t exist yet is a compilation of his superb more recent recordings. This package just repeats much of what’s good about other albums you could already get. But, if the nice price and easy availability of this one wins you over, you won’t regret owning it. There isn’t much Tony Bennett you would regret owning, though.
The man can sing.