Once upon a time the line between jazz singing and jazz-tinged popular singing was blurred. Singers like Mabel Mercer, Sylvia Syms and Bobby Short roamed the borders between jazz, pop and cabaret, and the world was better for it. On the jazz side, singers like Billie Holiday, Joe Williams, Carmen McRae and Shirley Horn looked across that artificial divide and admired the intimacy and storytelling prowess of their cabaret contemporaries. Concord's release of The Complete Improv Recordings blurs that line further, presenting Tony Bennett performing brilliantly, employing jazz and pop to deliver these songs live.
The Rodgers and Hart Songbook, recorded in 1973 and released in two stages in 1976 and 1977, comprises the most familiar material in this set. Accompanied by the exquisite Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet, Bennett sings in his most hushed, intimate style. Each tune is a miniature. The longest track, "Love,r runs just under four minutes. Many other tracks do not break the two-minute mark, disproving the modern notion that one must sing all night to make a point.
On either side of the Rodgers and Hart collection lie projects that highlight a wider range in song choice, accompaniment (save for the Bill Evans reprise) and vocal attitude. Taken together, this set offers a portrait of a master singer who has more than one way to deliver a song, each of which, however, is his and his alone.
Bennett's inaugural Improv project was Life Is Beautiful, meticulously arranged by Torrie Zito, whose piano also leads the rhythm section. As often occurs in this digital age, this CD presents all recorded material, so newly released material and alternate takes abound, though not always successfully. The long Cole Porter medley is nicely turned but ultimately jarring when set next to such carefully selected and beautifully executed tracks like Milton Nascimento's "Bridges and the melancholy Ellington gem "Reflections.
Although it was arranged for orchestra, Bennett opens up vocally more on Life than on the Braff/Barnes session, but he still achieves maximum intimacy, nowhere more than on, ironically, Porter's "I Used to Be Color Blind (at a slow tempo that allows the love in the lyric to shine) and Rodgers and Hart's seldom-heard and heartbreaking "This Funny World.
The live sessions that end the fourth disc feature Jimmy and Marian McPartland, among others, and are mainly historical. A good-time session, full of high spirits, is outclassed by what has preceded it. Then there is the second Bennett-Bill Evans collaboration, presenting two players, each of whom is a master at his art. Here, Bennett offers the full range of his vocal arsenal: tender on "Dream Dancing and full-throated yet unrequited on "Maybe September, a song he first recorded on Columbia's The Movie Song Album.
If there remains any argument as to Tony Bennett's importance to American singing, this first-rate box set should allay any remaining doubts.
Track Listing: CD1: Life Is Beautiful; All Mine; Bridges (Travessia); Reflections; Experiment; This Funny
World; As Time Goes By; I Used To Be Color Blind; Lost In The Stars; There'll Be Some
Changes Made; Cole Porter Medley: What Is This Thing Called Love, Love For Sale, You'd Be
So Nice To Come Home To, Easy To Love, It's Alright With Me, Night And Day, Dream
Dancing, I've Got You Under My Skin, Get Out Of Town, What Is This Thing Called Love
(Reprise); There's Always Tomorrow; One; Mr. Magic. CD2: This Can't Be Love; Blue
Moon; The Lady Is A Tramp; Lover; Manhattan; Spring Is Here; Have You Met Miss Jones?;
Isn't It Romantic?; Wait Till You See Her; I Could Write A Book; Thou Swell; The Most
Beautiful Girl In The World; There's A Small Hotel; I've Got Five Dollars; You Took
Advantage Of Me; I Wish I Were In Love Again; This Funny World; My Heart Stood Still; My
Romance; Mountain Greenery; This Can't Be Love (Alternate); I Could Write A Book
(Alternate); Thou Swell (Alternate); The Most Beautiful Girl In The World (Alternate); I Wish I
Were In Love Again (Alternate); This Funny World (Alternate). CD3: The Bad And The
Beautiful; Lucky To Be Me; Make Someone Happy; You're Nearer; A Child Is Born; The Two
Lonely People; You Don't Know What Love Is; Maybe September; Lonely Girl; You Must
Believe In Spring; Who Can I Turn To?; Dream Dancing; The Bad And The Beautiful
(Alternate); The Bad And The Beautiful (Alternate); Make Someone Happy (Alternate);
You're Nearer (Alternate); A Child Is Born (Alternate); A Child Is Born (Alternate(; The Two
Lonely People (Alternate); You Don't Know What Love Is (Alternate); You Don't Know What
Love Is (Alternate). CD4: Maybe September (Alternate); Maybe September (Alternate);
Lonely Girl (Alternate); You Must Believe In Spring (Alternate); You Must Believe In Spring
(Alternate); Who Can I Turn To? (Alternate); Watch What Happens; Softly, As In A Morning
Sunrise; Stompin' At The Savoy; While We're Young; In A Mellow Tone; It Don't Mean A
Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing); Let's Do It; 'S Wonderful; I Left My Heart In San Francisco.
Personnel: Tony Bennett: vocals. CD1: Torrie Zito: piano, arranger, conductor; John Giuffrida: bass;
Chuck Hughes: drums. CD2: Ruby Braff: cornet; George Barnes: guitar; Wayne Wright:
guitar; John Giuffrida: bass. CD3: Bill Evans: piano. CD4: Bill Evans: piano (1-6); Marian
McPartland: piano; Jimmy McPartland: cornet, trumpet; George Reed: drums; Brian Torff:
bass; Vic Dickenson: trombone; Herb Hall: clarinet; Spider Martin: saxophone; Buddy Tate:
saxophone; Charlie Byrd: guitar; Torrie Zito: piano; Joe Cucuzzo: drums; John Giuffrida: