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Not essential Bennett but definitely worth the price of admission.
on September 22, 2011
At the time of the release of the 2 best-selling albums of Sinatra's career, the Duets albums from the mid-'90s, I was elated. Many of us simply didn't want to believe, in fact rejected the unthinkable, i.e. that Sinatra was finished, so these latter-day gifts were sufficient cause for celebration. And for the first month or two after each of the two releases, I played them repeatedly. But soon the novelty wore off, and I had no interest in these concoctions, especially with the vast Columbia catalog, the priceless Capitol recordings with Nelson Riddle, the final extended chapter of his Reprise years all beckoning to be revisited. Apparently, others felt much the same (recently, I've seen either disc going for a buck or two used).
The Bennett Duets are less "tricked-up" than the Sinatra ones, which involved long-distance, call-in performances by his partners. Moreover, Tony sounds almost as good as ever, much more vibrant physically and in control musically than Ole Blue was after 1990. Moreover, the program comprises winning songs from the Great American Songbook, with Tony so confident and secure that, rather than being "carried" by any of his younger, more vigorous, partners, he's the one who makes up for their deficiencies with this material.
Perhaps the track with the greatest interest will be "Body and Soul" with Amy Winehouse. It's the most recorded popular tune in music history (check out the numbers at jazzstandards.com or allmusic.com), partly because much of its satisfaction comes from the challenge of executing it--difficult but ingenious and logical chords, unforgettable melody, mediocre lyrics--but Bennett and Winehouse (who sounds mature lightyears beyond her actual age) pull it off quite nicely. Listening to Amy's first album--"Frank," the one before her hugely popular "Back to Black"--it soon became clear that the very young girl at this time knew jazz phrasing and could swing. Once she finished the daunting "Moody's Mood for Love," you knew right then that she was capable of delivering the goods in more than one style or genre.
The one thing that may be slightly off-putting is Amy's attempt to sound rougher, more blasé, even a bit inebriated (stoned--or an affectation?), than either she or the song requires. The same could be said about Lady Gaga's otherwise sparkling performance on "The Lady Is a Tramp" (what a travesty this number becomes when certain latter-day singers substitute "champ," which not only wastes Lorenz Hart's clever, subtly ironic, lyrics but actually destroys the non-conformist, free and independent spirit of the lady portrayed in the song). But Lady Gaga sings the song and the word "Tramp" with the most assured conviction (it's Tony who almost messes it up by (only once) substituting what sounds like "champ"). Though she could do without a couple of "growls," Gaga proves that she's more than some sort of insubstantial hoax, one-trick pony, or year-round Halloween media creature. Like Tiny Tim (whose musicianship won me over after the initial shock wore off), the person who plays the role of "Lady Gaga" is a wonderful "straight"performer, perhaps even a first-rate musician. Sounds like she's listened to Sinatra.)
The duets with Michael Buble, Natalie Cole and Dana Evans (Queen Latifah) are predictably right in Tony's wheelhouse. He could easily make an entire album of arresting performances with any one of these musicians, who have jazz sensibilities similar to Tony's.
The rest of the album will score big with some listeners, especially those who responded favorably to Michael Bolton singing with Pavarotti. But to my ears the album tends to get a bit thick and mushy, even "injured" by musicians who simply can not swing. I appreciated Merle Haggard's lengthy interview in the NY Times shortly after his "jazz" album. Whatever one might think of the result, there was no question that Merle knew he was in unfamiliar territory, over his head and studying up as hard and fast as he could about the elocution, phrasing, and timing required to deliver a classic Gershwin ballad or swing tune and do it justice. Willie Nelson keeps revisiting the "American Songbook," but I have yet to hear him adapt to its standards.)
Bocelli and Groban contribute to the schmaltzy quality weighing down stretches of the album (The solo version of Tony's early signature song, "Stranger in Paradise," is far superior to this new version. Inexplicably, Aretha goes after a song that was one of the highlights of the first Duets album, "How Do You Keep the Music Playing." My advice: revisit the first version with Tony and George Michael or simply forget about it. Aretha is one of the all-time great soul singers (starting out as a jazz singer, despite the popularity of her dad's recorded sermons), and she was delightful on the Sinatra Duets album, providing much needed life. But here she takes on a freely structured song that goes no where unless the singer is able to take it somewhere. She's in good voice but the effect on this listener is: "Been there, done that."
As for the others, if you prefer a duet for Harold Arlen's wrist-slasher, "One for My Baby," make it any Sinatra version, or even the Kurt Elling-John Pizzarelli meeting. On this occasion, the song, which is a musical soliloquy, or a Robert Browning dramatic monologue addressed to a silent auditor, and moreover a haunting cry of despair (one of Sinatra's greatest "suicide songs"), was a mistake from the very beginning (I can imagine the Arlen estate even being offended by this insult to the the memory of Harold Arlen and lyricist Johnny Mercer). Performed as a duet by Tony and his youthful counterpart, it comes off as little more than slightly mischievous and lightweight albeit pleasant musical conversation. In fact, there's a bit too much pleasant, pretty music on the album--nice-sounding voices, thick layers of sweet-sounding strings.
But for Tony and the highlights on the album, the result, on balance, still amounts to a winner: 3 stars, a definite thumbs-up though certainly not a high-five. This time I'm not as quick to pull the trigger as was the case with the so-so (in retrospect) Sinatra Duets. I could readily list (and produce from my collection) a dozen albums by Tony that trump both Duets dates--timeless performances, some with just Tony and the piano of Bill Evans, or Tony with Flanagan's or Sharon's trio, or Tony with Count Basie. The man unquestionably knows the routine (to quote from the aforementioned Arlen song), and on a number of his solo recordings, he's gone beyond and above it--way above it, reaching artistic heights on the level of the best by Armstrong, Astaire, Garland, Holiday, Crosby, and even Frank, singing his heart out just for the joy of it (and not a fiddler in sight).