It was a Tuesday afternoon in Camelot when giants met.
These giants weren’t the types who resided in the clouds atop beanstalks, of course. These were giants of a decidedly more earthy variety. It was at the behest of John F. Kennedy’s White House that Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck came together. On August 28, 1962, they shared a bill at the base of the Washington Monument as a parting gift to an audience of college-age interns who had served that summer in the nation’s capital. Following two individual sets – Brubeck’s as a member of his storied Quartet, and Bennett’s fronting Ralph Sharon’s trio – the singer and the pianist teamed up for the first time. (Their second and final performance together didn’t arrive until 47 years later, in 2009.) Though the concert was recorded by a prescient Columbia Records, only one song – Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “That Old Black Magic” – had ever been released. The tapes were thought lost. And then, late in 2012, they surfaced. And now, Columbia, Legacy and RPM Records have released this titanic summit as Bennett/Brubeck: The White House Sessions, Live 1962 (88883 71804 2). It doesn’t disappoint.
The pairing might have sounded odd on paper. Brubeck, who hailed from California, studied with Darius Milhaud, who also counted Burt Bacharach among his students, and established himself as one of the most original voices in jazz. The avuncular Brubeck could make the most experimental time signatures seem accessible, and his Quartet – with Joe Morello on drums, Eugene Wright on bass and Paul Desmond on alto saxophone – wedded commercial and artistic success. Bennett, on the other hand, was an Astoria boy who, as he’s fond of joking, was one of the original American idols. An amateur contest winner and onetime singing waiter, Bennett worked his way up the ladder of showbiz to secure a contract with Columbia Records. There, he scored pop smashes with tunes from Broadway’s Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (“Rags to Riches”) and Hank Williams (“Cold, Cold Heart”) Bennett’s hit singles seemed far removed from Brubeck’s jazz world. Bennett was keeping a secret, though. He was a jazz singer at heart. “[Columbia honcho] Mitch [Miller] really didn’t like jazz,” the 86 years young crooner wrote in his 2012 memoir Life is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett. “He didn’t care for Duke or Count Basie – and when I came to the label, I was a jazz singer.” That identification served Bennett well when sharing the stage with Dave Brubeck and in the studio with the likes of Count Basie, Bill Evans, Stan Getz and Herbie Hancock. Yet their ties to each other ran even deeper. Both men were veterans of World War II and passionate Civil Rights supporters, and at Columbia Records, both evinced a gift of making art commercial.
We’re giving Bennett/Brubeck a spin after the jump!
The new single-disc CD begins chronologically with William B. Williams of radio’s The Make Believe Ballroom introducing the Dave Brubeck Quartet for their four-song set. Joe Morello’s drum licks are smoking as he kicks off Paul Desmond’s most famous composition, the sinuous “Take Five.” Brubeck’s introductory piano phrase is one of the most iconic in popular music; Eugene Wright keeps the performance anchored on bass as Desmond’s warm sax tones soar. The foursome take the song at a speedy clip but with the kind of precision that only musicians so closely attuned to each other could pull off. Brubeck introduces his composition “Nomad” (from 1958’s Jazz Impressions of Eurasia) by pointing out its “simple middle eastern rhythms” but that’s where the simplicity ends. It’s a beguiling and, yes, catchy workout for the group, with Desmond savoring the exotic flavor and Brubeck and Wright nailing those driving rhythms and translating them to their own American idiom. From the same 1958 LP comes “Thank You (Dijekuie),” with a Chopin-inspired solo from the pianist that is lyrical and stately. The Quartet closes out their portion of the concert with “Castilian Blues,” from 1962’s latest time signature exploration, Countdown – Time in Outer Space. Morello takes a strong solo on this shifting, harmonically tricky Latin outing.
The Quartet’s half hour-plus set then leads to Tony’s turn. William B. Williams hints “They will be back!” before presenting Bennett with an introduction that still holds true today: “This next gentleman is a showstopper…a wonderfully vital performer.” Bennett’s eternal dedication to songs that stand the test of time is most evident by the fact that virtually every one in his six-song set remains in his concert repertoire today. Bennett opens with three Jule Styne love songs from Broadway – “Just in Time” from Bells Are Ringing, “Small World” from Gypsy and “Make Someone Happy” from Do Re Mi. (Stephen Sondheim penned the lyrics for “Small World” while the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green did the honors on the other two compositions.) He delectably and humorously takes the rarely-sung verse to “Just in Time” (“Well, I was resting comfortably face down in the gutter/Life was serene, I knew where I was at/There’s no hope for him, my dearest friends would mutter/I was something dragged in by the cat/And then…”) before launching into a gently-swinging rendition. His reading of “Small World” is rueful and sensitive, with spare and sympathetic accompaniment from Ralph Sharon piano, Hal Gaylor on bass and Billy Exiner on drums. Bennett intuitively understood how to emphasize the conversational in Sondheim’s deliciously-rhymed lyrics: “We had so much in common, it’s a phenomenon /We could pool our resources by joining forces from now on...” Though still young at the time of the concert, Bennett is completely believable in professing Comden and Green’s wise words in “Make Someone Happy”: “Fame, if you win it, comes and goes in a minute/Where’s that real stuff in life to cling to? Love is the answer/Someone to love is the answer/Once you’ve found her, build your world around her!”
Bennett and the Sharon Trio give a jazz makeover to Adler and Ross’ “Rags to Riches,” and the romantic atmosphere cedes to a smoky bar for the setting of Arlen and Mercer’s “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road).” He jokingly introduces the torch standard as “the new version of the Whiffenpoof song,” name-checking the Yale University a cappella group’s closing anthem, and rather than singing it bleakly, he infuses its melancholia with a dose of brashness and bravado. An elegant “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is the final song in his set. Written by George Cory and Douglass Cross, it was capturing hearts here, there and everywhere as it first appeared on the Billboard charts a scant seventeen days prior to the Washington, DC performance. Its success can be measured by the fact that an audience member shouts enthusiastically upon Bennett’s uttering of the song’s first words.
Of course, the main attraction on Bennett/Brubeck is the two men playing together. Wright and Morello joined them on a truly impromptu set. Bennett even warned the audience, “We haven’t rehearsed this, folks – so lots of luck!” But nobody need have worried. It’s a sheer delight to hear Bennett veer when Brubeck takes a solo on the set-opening “Lullaby of Broadway,” and move back to the microphone to end the song on a high note, literally and figuratively. With the improvisatory nature of the Brubeck trio’s performance a comfortable fit for the vocalist, he was free to take melodic liberties with his phrasing. A loose and funky “Chicago” makes way for the set’s sole previously released track, a relaxed but expressive jaunt evocation of “That Old Black Magic.” Bennett perfectly modulates his voice to the contours of Brubeck’s piano lines, from slyly quiet to full-voiced. The finale of this far-too-short duo act, “There Will Never Be Another You,” is the most adventurous of the four songs, with Brubeck’s rapid-fire bop piano supporting Bennett’s fluid and limber vocals. Despite his pop success, that Tony Bennett was a jazz singer couldn’t have possibly been in doubt.
As originally produced by Teo Macero and mixed and mastered for this release by Mark Wilder, Bennett/Brubeck is presented in pristine sound. Ted Gioia supplies a strong essay, and the booklet is illustrated with photographs of the event as well as a painting of Brubeck by Bennett, in which he captures the pianist’s essence. Make no mistake: this is a landmark release by two great American artists at the peak of their powers. Dave Brubeck died last year one day short of his 92nd birthday, but surely he too would have rejoiced at seeing this concert finally available. As another Jule Styne song once surveyed by Tony Bennett goes, an event – and now a CD - like this “comes once in a lifetime.”
You can order Bennett/Brubeck right here!
Suzanne Chiles says
Great review of a real masterpiece.
I must admit that I was hoping to hear Paul Desmond play a solo with Bennett, but no such luck.
Joe Marchese says
If only, Kevin!