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The intimate Tony Bennett

The Complete Tony Bennett / Bill Evans Recordings
The Complete Tony Bennett / Bill Evans Recordings
By Tony Bennett and Bill Evans

Fantasy / Concord: 2009

This review first appeared in Turbula in June 2009.

Tony Bennett can sing jazz, the man's proven that over and again and never you mind the pop hits or even the country crossover stuff in the mid-'50s. Sessions with the Basie band, with Stan Getz, with Art Blakey proved the point long before he went into the studio in 1975 with pianist Bill Evans. Still, even repeated listens to the above recordings couldn't have prepared Bennett's fans (nor Evans') for what resulted from those sessions, and a second meeting a year later.

Now out in a two-disc set that includes a full second disc worth of alternate takes, these meetings between singer and pianist were set up as a full partnership rather than accompanist and star. That basic framework – that Evans was every bit as important to the proceedings (including a solo piano take on "The Bad and the Beautiful" on the 1976 set) – led to a set of songs that continue to rank as among Bennett's most intimate and illuminating.

A pop singer in the Frank Sinatra / Bing Crosby mold at heart, Bennett has always had an affinity for jazz. But neither the brassy flag-wavers he sang in front of Basie's combo nor the quieter material he did with Getz and Blakey even hinted at the depths of emotion Bennett would pull from that voice of his in the spare arrangements he and Evans concocted some three decades ago. With only Evans' modernist piano playing to frame his singing, Bennett is fully exposed as few singers of his generation would care to be. But on songs like "My Foolish Heart" or "The Touch of Your Lips," he embraces the intimacy of the setting, pouring a lifetime of emotions into each tune.

And Evans plays with a melancholy and introspection usually associated with a solo piano recording, adding another layer of depth to the performances here.

The singing and playing here are so stirring in their bare-bones honesty that comparing them to any other recordings in a search for context is difficult. It is likely that only the similarly oustanding pairing of Sammy Davis Jr. with Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida on their 1966 album "Sammy Davis, Jr. Sings and Laurindo Almeida Plays" provides as unlikely an example of a popular singer being placed in such an intimate jazz setting and succeeding so wonderfully, and doing so by embracing the setting's inherent vulnerability.

The alternate takes on the second disc are as revealing and evocative as those originally released, and are a welcome addition to both Bennett's and Evans' recorded canons. Will Friedwald, who co-wrote Bennett's autobiography, provides a loving paean to the music found here in the liner notes, also laying out the meeting of the two disparate artists that made these recordings.