Recording of July 2001: The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album

TONY BENNETT/BILL EVANS: The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album
Tony Bennett, vocals; Bill Evans, piano
JVC JVCXR-0208-2 (CD). 1975/2001. Helen Keane, prod.; Don Cody, eng.; Akira Taguchi, XRCD2 prod., Alan Yoshida, XRCD2 mastering eng. AAD?. TT: 35:09
Performance *****
Sonics ****

Everybody's favorite saloon singer, Frank Sinatra, often cited Tony Bennett as his favorite vocalist, and Bennett's returns of that favor have been quoted at length. A case can be made for Sinatra's spiritual relationship to Billie Holiday, while Bennett acknowledges Louis Armstrong as a vital influence.

What Sinatra and Bennett lacked in sheer chops they more than made up for in theatrical timing and dramatic depth, animated by innate understandings of jazz phrasing quite unlike that of any other singer with a sizable pop audience (save perhaps for Bing Crosby and an unreconstructed jazzbo like Nat "King" Cole). I'm not talking about jazz phrasing in terms of the blues or the kind of rhythmic/harmonic bravura that defined the work of Ella Fitzgerald, but a relaxed relationship to the beat, a coy sense of give and take with tune and tempo, a supple ability to use space in the ensemble playing and a keen harmonic sensibility. Even when Sinatra's or Bennett's pitch wavered, the way each singer sidled back into tune was indicative of theur swinging artifice.

Given their genuine aptitudes for swing, Bennett and Sinatra were widely admired by jazz musicians, and I count their sessions with Count Basie among my most treasured vocal recordings. But nothing in either singer's catalog leaves him quite as naked and exposed as the famous 1975 encounter of Bennett and jazz piano innovator Bill Evans. The introspective Evans had by then perfected a nuanced harmonic language and a modern style of collective improvisation, lyrical and elliptical by turns, that remain immensely influential among instrumentalists. He was not by any stretch of the imagination a typical accompanist, and part of what makes The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album so darkly alluring is the dangerously beautiful nature of their interaction—these are duets in the truest sense of the term, so far out on the limb does Bennett go in this game of role reversal.

Bennett is exposed because of the way Evans arranges these songs. It wasn't enough for him to merely sing the form, but to react in an interdependent manner, answering the pianist's contrapuntal ripostes and harmonic inversions on the fly, following as much as leading. Which is quite a trick, because Tony Bennett is a singer for whom the words truly matter, but he has a gift for breaking up his more operatic cadences with an easygoing, conversational delivery. Dig the way he emerges from the verse of "My Foolish Heart" and into the tune's familiar main strains, emulating Evans' melodic fealty and harmonic ambiguity in a manner both elegant and earnest, formal yet swinging, and inspiring some exceptionally cultivated stride from Evans—ever so lightly blued, through and through. Even on Evans' "Waltz for Debby," whose lyrics don't quite rise to the heights of the other standards here, Bennett's tender shadings and dramatic inflections help convey the gentle, unconditional affections of a grown man for an adored female child that are intrinsic to Evans' classic theme.

The sense of resignation and longing in Bennett and Evans' performance of the Betty Comden-Adolph Green-Leonard Bernstein standard "Some Other Time" is so moving that I almost don't notice the slight dropout in Evans' opening chords. "Where has the time all gone to," Bennett sings, elongating and extending his phrasing of "haven't done half the things we want to" in a triplet-like manner before alighting on "Ohhhhhhh, well..." with a chilly descending trill, then completing the phrase with "...we'll catch up some other time," the catch in his voice suggesting a stifled cry. Evans' bell-like upper-register filigrees against droning left-hand chords only add to the yearning sense of things left unsaid and undone. Magnificent.

The most swinging performance here is of "When in Rome." Evans matches Bennett's expressive swagger with big two-handed flourishes that carry the rhythmic thrust forward in a kinda bluesy manner that offers a rare glimpse of Evans' jazz antecedents (Bud Powell, Teddy Wilson, etc.), and adds an almost whimsical touch to this fairly ruminative recital.

The sound of this JVC XRCD reinforces the ambiance of the performance: close-miked and forward, yet not so analytical as to diffuse the music's magical, mysterious qualities. The piano is richly rendered if not highly resolved, but Bennett's voice is warmly detailed and wonderfully articulated, and offers a revealing glimpse into this master vocalist's superb mike technique. Overall, this fine new audiophile remastering reinforces the warmth of the sound and the rich intimacy of two innovators, seemingly overheard in the process of pure creation.—Chip Stern