While the title sounds impressive in size and scope, The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings set features music from just two original releases. Disc One’s tracks 1-9 come from The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (1975), and tracks 10-19 come from Together Again (1976). Disc Two includes alternate takes from both albums. But within the space of those two albums, a momentous meeting of jazz giants took place.
In terms of his vocal delivery, Tony Bennett was inspired by Mildred Bailey. He learned breathing and phrasing by culling ideas from the great pianist Art Tatum. So it’s not that much of a stretch to find that when Bennett and Evans collaborated for these projects, the give and take came naturally. Before the sessions they would meet and banter back and forth, asking questions such as, “Do you wanna modulate here?” or, “How many choruses do you want?”
What’s bargain-basement brilliant and thrilling here is that the whole is equal to the whole of it’s parts — we hear two virtuosos, Bill Evans, the quiet pianist-composer who borrowed from Debussy, and the timeless Tony Bennett, a vocalist who has made so many songs classics by using intuitive and intelligent nuances. Here, Bennett pays close attention to the rhythm and lyric of each song, wisely leaving plenty of room for Evans’s sly and interpretive fills, runs, echoes, block-chords, chromaticisms and all-round finesse.
Though Evans has been criticized for not knowing how to “swing” — he certainly demonstrates an understanding here — he shows remarkable respect when anticipating Bennett’s flourishes, but eagerly grabs the reigns when Bennett takes a pause. That said, Bennett is a generous vocalist, and never sidesteps the virtuosity which Evans brings.
Add to the mix the fact that both professionals carefully selected the classics here with lyrics that seem to be sculpted by Renaissance artists. “Young and Foolish” starts, “Soon enough the carefree days / The sunlight days go by / Soon enough the bluebird has to fly”. Bennett approaches each lyric like a taster at a Mendocino Valley fair. Nothing is ever wasted and the best is consistently pursued. Each lyrical phrase is savored, whispered and remembered here and throughout, but never rehashed.
“The Touch of Your Lips” features Evans’s lavish solo at the top. Then, in “Some Other Time”, Bennett thrusts his feathery vocals straight-ahead before deplaning into homeostatis. Then the duo square-off with the syncopated “When in Rome”, where the lyric jests, “If perchance I’m saying farewell to France and romance drops in from the blue…”
Bennett and Evans pull back momentarily for “We’ll Be Together Again”, perhaps to prepare for, “My Foolish Heart”, which begins, “The night is like a lovely tune”. Evans’s original composition, “Waltz for Debby”, is a classic bittersweet jewel: “In the sun she dances in silent music”. And “But, Beautiful” is a study in contrast: “It’s a good thing or it’s bad, but beautiful”. Evans begins the striking ballad “The Days of Wine and Roses” with a series of exhaustive, jumbled chordings which set the stage perfectly — the song was the theme for a movie about alchoholism — and this introduction illustrates the wide mood swings the protaganists experienced.
Together Again begins with the beguiling Evans solo “The Bad and the Beautiful” — a rich reminder that he can infuse a classic with personal flavor — and a grounded statement for what follows. “Now I wouldn’t give a dime to be anybody else but me…” begins “Lucky to Be Me”, and Bennett is at home with the off-kilter rhythm. The ironic, “Make Someone Happy” — interpreted here with restraint, reserve, and melancholia — is timeless. Bennett swoons, “One girl you’re everything to / Fame if you win it / Comes and goes in a minute…”
“A Child Is Born”, another jazz trio standard, is mesmerizing. “Come into the light, this child, innocent child…” Bennett soliloquies. And “The Two Lonely People”, who have turned into statues, continues the somber setting.
“You Don’t Know What Love Is” has a dark, de-escalating melodic line and you thank God it is being championed by these two perfectionists. The optimistic “You Must Believe in Spring” features Bennett’s choir-boy best. If a voice could glisten, his would, and the warmth of the rays would be as sensual as a musician’s silk. Another ballad with extraordinary lyrics — “This little boy lost will find his way once more / Just like before / When lips were tender” — is “Maybe September”. Again, the pairing is flawless and seemingly effortless.
Recommended? For jazz lovers, this is a must. And for those discovering that jazz is not simply an esoteric idiom, this collection will serve as both primer and historical novell