So the story goes, Tony Bennett
and Bill Evans
first met each other at The White House back in 1962. President Kennedy was throwing a jazz party and the singer and pianist crossed paths backstage. Fast forward some thirteen years later and the pair would come together for the first of two albums to highlight their ways with a standard. Billed simply as The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album
and released by Fantasy Records back in 1975, the pair's debut has attained some sort of cult status, while the reunion set is widely unknown.
Back in 2009, Concord Music Group gathered together all the material from both albums and additional alternate takes for a two-disc set that provided a better vision of these unlikely encounters. Mirroring that set to a tee, a new 4 LP box features the original master takes from both albums along with twenty-two bonus/alternate takes spread out over the third and fourth records. Vinyl mastering is done by George Horn and Anne-Marie Suenram, the pair being previously involved with the Evans Village Vanguard vinyl set. No mention is made of the pressing plant, but these 180 gram discs were flat and largely free of blemishes.
Evans was reticent about accompanying singers. In fact, he only recorded with Swedish singer Monica Zetterlund and Bennett. For the first album with the latter, Evans had thought of making it a two-piano affair with John Bunch, who backed out at the last minute. No planning or prep went into the material at all. Either Bill or Tony would suggest a tune and then they were run it through a few times before recording. Of the nine selections chosen, all should be familiar with the possible exception of "When In Rome."
In some ways, the pairing of Bennett and Evans is somewhat of an oddity. Evans really does little to change his usual way of playing. His was a delicate muse marked by a crystalline touch; a real thing of beauty. On the other hand, Bennett's methodology is full of bravura. If the two had met somewhere in the middle, the results might have sounded quite a bit differently. Bennet seemed to err on the side of brashness where a more subdued approach might have been a better fit. For a perfect example of this, contrast Bennett's approach to "Waltz for Debby" with that of singer Johnny Hartman. Where the former goes full out with some operatic runs, the latter tones it down to an appropriate lilting affair.
A little over a year after their first encounter, Bennett and Evans would record their follow-up, Together Again
. The pianist would open the record solo on a version of "The Bad and the Beautiful." Again, the focus seems to be on slower, ballad material. This, of course, is right up Evans' alley even if Bennett still seems to have a penchant for over stating his vocals. Still, pieces like "A Child is Born" and "You Must Believe in Spring" offer some special charm and hint at the potential of this pair. It is a shame this second album is unfairly overlooked, as it might actually be the better of the two.
As for two records full of extra material, one might think of this a mere folly for marketing sake. Nothing could be farther from the truth. "Who Can I Turn Two" and "Dream Dancing" are bonus tracks from the first date and are actually quite rewarding. Furthermore, several of the alternate takes find Bennett in a more subdued tone of voice that actually better suits the musical purposes. It just goes to show that master takes are not always the definitive statements.
No mention is made of the sources for this material. The master tapes are not that old, but one can only speculate whether an analog or digital master was used for these pressings. What can be said is that the records were quiet and full-bodied with Evans' piano characteristically bell-like and every nuance of Bennett's voice rendered clearly. Recording engineer Don Cody seemed to go for the barest of studio embellishments and the casual flair of these gatherings means that you can even hear when Evans takes his foot off the sustain pedal at the end of a tune.
Comparing this new pressing of the first album with an XRCD of the same material, there seemed to be more air surrounding the music. Bennett's voice also seemed more centered between the speakers, even while the stereo spread remained somewhat limited. Flaws and all, the music here should still be on the short lists of fans of both Evans and Bennett and this new vinyl edition is clearly the way to hear it best. Associated equipment used for evaluation:
VPI Scout 1.1 turntable with Clearaudio Virtuoso V.2 Ebony cartridge
Musical Fidelity A3CR amplifier and preamp
Sutherland Insight phono preamp
Bryston BCD-1 CD player
Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus 805 loudspeakers
Cardas cable and interconnects, Chang Lightspeed power conditioner