Clive Davis had made his mind up. According to his autobiography, he considered Tony Bennett’s career “in jeopardy” by the late 1960s and felt that “new vitality was needed.” As recently-appointed head of the venerable Columbia Records, Davis brought that new vitality to the label, but at what price? In actuality, Tony Bennett’s contributions to the storied label were more vital than ever as the 1960s came to an end. He was carrying the torch for unassailable adult pop with sophisticated collections of the finest songs of past and present. Titles such as The Movie Song Album (1966), For Once In My Life (1967), Yesterday I Heard the Rain (1968) and Something (1970) offered a cross-section of recordings that made it all too easy to remember why Frank Sinatra called Bennett his favorite singer. But Bennett and Davis didn’t see eye to eye. Within three years of 1969’s controversial Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! , the album which made the singer physically ill, Bennett was off Columbia. After a brief stint at MGM Records, he followed in the footsteps of Sinatra and formed his own label, Improv Records. Only ten or so albums were released by Improv in its short lifetime, only five of which featured Bennett. On the occasion of the singer’s 85th birthday, Concord has released The Best of the Improv Recordings (CRE-32955), collecting sixteen of the finest tracks recorded between 1973 and 1977 for the little label that could.
The new collection is culled from all five albums, and feature Bennett primarily in three settings: solo piano with Bill Evans, jazz quartet with Ruby Braff and George Barnes, and orchestral with Torrie Zito. Two live tracks recorded at Buffalo, New York’s Downtown Club in 1977 round out the new disc. However different these accompaniments are, however, all display the great refinement in Bennett’s style of singing. Jazz historian Gary Giddins opined that “all of the crooners [preceding Bennett] were casual baritones. Bennett was a tenor and ‘casual’ was not in his makeup.” The melodramatic quality of many of Bennett’s early records added a potent gravitas to those singles, many of which were aimed squarely at the pop charts by Columbia A&R chief Mitch Miller. (“Every hit song was a fight with Tony,” the sing-along king once quipped.) The earliest recordings here were committed to tape in 1973 though not released until 1976, and these recordings of Rodgers and Hart classics are refined and restrained. Bennett’s full-throated, operatic quality isn’t so readily apparent, and his restraint made the “money” notes all the more magnificent. Young singers in today’s American Idol crop might take note.
This fall, Bennett will release his second collection of Duets. But he was a generous musical collaborator long before these all-star salutes. His first major statement as a jazz singer, 1957’s The Beat of My Heart, was a unique percussion-driven effort featuring top-flight names like Herbie Mann, Kai Winding and Nat Adderley. Of Bennett’s two joint albums with Count Basie, Harry Belafonte observed that “no white man ever stood in front of a black crew and sang with more credentials and belonging.” And Tony had recorded two piano-centric albums with Ralph Sharon, Tony Sings for Two (1959) and When Lights Are Low (1964). All of his past works in a jazz vein led to the personal breakthroughs at Improv. Hit the jump to continue!
The most famous collaboration of the Improv period was undoubtedly with Bill Evans, the pianist and modal jazz pioneer. The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album was their first undertaking, but as it appeared on Evans’ home of Fantasy Records, it’s out of this collection’s purview. 1977’s Together Again is well-represented here with four tracks, or one-quarter of the whole compilation. These recordings are as eye-opening now as they were then. Evans was possibly the most introverted pianist in jazz, but he was remarkably sympathetic to the supple-voiced singer. The songs chosen from Together Again are moody but far from one-note, with stunning dynamics applied by both Bennett and Evans. Both intuitively know just when to perform “outwardly” and when to turn it down.
“Make Someone Happy,” written by the team of Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green for the 1960 Broadway musical Do-Re-Mi, is a revelation regardless of how many times one has heard the song. The ever-inventive Styne didn’t merely compose the straightforward sunny melody that might be expected for such an uplifting lyric (“Make someone happy/Just one someone happy/And you will be happy too”). Evans and Bennett revel in the poignant dichotomy. They respond accordingly with a deep, profound belief in the songwriters’ message, typified by the sentiment of “Once you’ve found her/Build your world around her.” It’s almost a prayer.
So is “You Must Believe in Spring.” The Michel Legrand melody originated in the 1967 French film Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort) as “Chanson de Maxence,” and in the hands of Bennett and Evans, it’s hushed, solemn and subtle. It’s very definitely an “art song,” but it’s direct enough to address listeners conversationally as Bennett implores the listener in song (as he does in “Make Someone Happy.”) There’s no “easy listening” in their approach to the Percy Faith-written “Maybe September.” Every note counts, and there’s a measured ray of sunlight when Bennett sings, “Maybe September, I’ll love again.” Even when recording a torch song or smoky jazz paean, Bennett’s innate optimism shines through.
“You Don’t Know What Love Is,” a 1941 film song by Gene De Paul and Don Raye, features the most heartbreaking, fragile vocal on the entire disc; Bennett even approaches falsetto territory. Evans sensitively accompanies him, but “accompany” just isn’t a strong enough word. Each of these tracks can fairly be described as duets, and Bennett went so far on Together Again as to have the album open with a piano solo! The more swinging Bennett/Evans sides, like their joyful, sly treatment of Cy Coleman’s “When In Rome” from the Fantasy Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album haven’t been included here, naturally, but that’s all the more incentive to seek out The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings on Fantasy/Concord.
There’s also relaxed interplay between the singer and the Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet on the Rodgers and Hart compositions that formed 1976’s Tony Bennett Sings 10 Rodgers and Hart Songs and its 1977 follow-up Tony Bennett Sings More Great Rodgers and Hart. (Both albums were recorded during the same 1973 sessions.) Braff’s cornet positively sings on the easygoing and insouciant “This Can’t Be Love” (“Because I feel so well!”) and the laconic guitars of Barnes and Wayne Wright impress on “Thou Swell.” And chances are you’ll dig the rarely-heard verse on Bennett’s take on the classic “Blue Moon.” The quartet tracks demonstrate the powers of an artist at his peak, joyously finding the still-vibrant life in the Rodgers and Hart catalogue, thirty years after Hart’s death in 1943. In fact, Hart’s sharp lyrical observations and Rodgers’ bright melodies have lost none of their relevance.
There’s an unexpected and indeed, improvisatory quality to Bennett’s singing throughout. The most commercial tracks here are those from the Torrie Zito sessions for the 1975 LP Life is Beautiful. For the title song, Zito employs Burt Bacharach-esque horns, indicating that Bennett had at least one eye on the contemporary pop charts. The American Theatre Wing-trained performer imbues the lyric with resolute honesty. When he sings “Life is rainbows chasing all the clouds of gray/Life is beautiful and fine,” who’s to argue? It’s likely that Bennett still believes that credo. It’s delicious when he adds, “But, darling, only because you’re mine!” Zito’s big, echo-y sessions are the most out of place compared to the meditative Evans tracks and gently swinging Braff/Barnes cuts, but they’re still delightful, and like “Blue Moon,” you’ll get to hear a long-forgotten verse on “As Time Goes By.”
The final two tracks on The Best of the Improv Recordings are drawn from the Improv grab-bag Tony Bennett/The McPartlands and Friends Make Magnificent Music, and the loose, off-the-cuff nature of that album’s material doesn’t sit well alongside the other music here. Most disappointing is the live “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” that closes the album. Though impeccably performed, it’s less than two minutes in length and feels unfinished as a coda to the collection.
The Best of the Improv Recordings contains a fourteen-page booklet with insightful liner notes by jazz historian (and co-author of Bennett’s autobiography, The Good Life) Will Friedwald. What’s the bottom line? If you’ve gotten this far, you undoubtedly should splurge the extra few bucks for The Complete Improv Recordings (Concord CCD4-2255). Every track on this sampler, of course, appears there, and it’s an investment you won’t regret. Its four discs feature every track recorded by Bennett for his label. But if you believe that “less is more,” or need more convincing, then this compact sampler might be right for you. In any configuration, life is just a little bit more beautiful when Tony Bennett is around.