Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Album Review - Duets: An American Classic

By Dennis Sherrard

The great Tony Bennett is a singer with a career that spans over 60 years.  Frank Sinatra once replied when asked who his favorite singer was: “Anthony Benedetto” (Tony Bennett’s real name).  Bennett has enjoyed popularity with a variety of age groups and people who like different styles of music.  He saw his popularity spike in the early 1990’s with several appearances on MTV on shows like "Unplugged" and appearances on The David Letterman Show and on Conan O’Brien’s show.  His son Danny, had become Tony’s manager and made it a point of booking him in small clubs and college venues out of Las Vegas where Tony had been living and working for over 20 years.   As a result of his exposure to a new audience, his popularity began to increase and album sales started to pick up.    

This album, released to celebrate Tony Bennett’s 80th birthday, has Tony performing several classic tunes considered in the “Great American Songbook” with popular stars from different genres and eras including Rock, Country, Latin, Jazz, Soul and Pop music.  Bennett recorded the album in a studio with each of the artists in front of a live house band that included Bill Sharlap on piano, Chris Botti on trumpet, and Harold Jones on drums.  The band was conducted by Johnny Mandel and Torrie Zito. 

What I found very interesting about this album and it’s follow on release Duets II released in 2011 (This album will be reviewed in a later edition of The View Point, so stay tuned.) is that it brings unexpected artists forward to do their renditions of these great tunes and it shows just how great their talent is.   Each person, whether it is Billy Joel or Tim McGraw works with Bennett on these songs like they always sang standards.    I’ve provided a brief highlight of each of the tunes, Tony’s partner on the song, who wrote them, when they were published and what I think of them.   Some I like very much, others were disappointing, but overall it’s a great album and I recommend it for anyone who loves the standards.  I hope you enjoy the notes on the songs. Go get the album, you’ll like it very much.

Duets – An American Classic , Playlist.
Lullaby of Broadway – (With The Dixie Chicks) – Words and music by Harry Warren, Al Dublin, published in 1935.  This is an up tempo tune and Bennett gets the better of the song.  His support from The Dixie Chicks are reminiscent of backing vocalists such as the Andrews Sisters from the “Big Band” era.  It’s a good tune, but not the best on the album in my view.

Smile – (With Barbara Streisand) – The music in this tune was composed by Charlie Chaplin for his film “Modern Times” and published in 1936.  Lyrics and a title were added in 1954 by Geoffrey Parsons and John Turner.  This tune is one of my favorites, and Bennett and Streisand are well suited for the duet.  Barbara’s phrasing is terrific in this and provides a fine mix with Bennett’s gravely baritone crooning.  These are two old masters showing the rest how to do it and do it right.  

Put on a Happy Face – (With James Taylor) – Words and music by Charles Strause and Lee Adams, published in 1961.  From the musical Bye Bye, Birdie, Taylor and Bennett do a catchy rendition on an old Broadway tune. 

The Very Thought of You – (With Sir Paul McCartney) – Words and music by Ray Noble and published in 1934.  One of my favorite old standards, the song is a sweet love letter to from the singer to his love about how just thinking about her makes him “forget the little ordinary things one ought to do”.  This song doesn’t work for me, primarily because of McCartney’s part of it.  His version just doesn’t sound right to me, it seems like he’s trying too hard to be a crooner and not just singing.  Still, it’s not bad, just not my favorite version of the song.  I do like the little jazz guitar break in the middle.

The Shadow of Your Smile – (Juanes) – Words and music by Johnny Mandel and Paul Weber, published in 1965.  Tony’s partner on this tune is Juanes, a Columbian rock musician formerly with a heavy metal group known as Ekhymosis.  Surprisingly, he comes back to singing standards very well and this version is a quiet and smooth version with a bit of Spanish craftily added to the second verse of the tune.  The song is from the movie The Sandpiper in 1965

Rags to Riches – (With Sir Elton John) – Words and music Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, published in 1953.  Some might remember this tune from the opening of the movie “Goodfellas”.  Elton and Tony have a lot of fun with tune and John’s accompanying piano is great to hear. 

The Good Life – (With Billy Joel) – Words and music by Jack Reardon, published in 1962.  This tune has been on Bennett’s playlist since the early 1960’s, and was a big hit for him back in the day.  Billy Joel brings his amazing vocal talents to this song and provides Bennett with great piano backing and vocals.  A tight little duet here.

Cold, Cold Heart – (With Tim McGraw) –Words and music by Hank Williams, published in 1951.   Going country here, Tony and Tim provide a terrific update the old Hank Williams standard.  It’s my favorite song from Williams, with less “honky-tonk” and more of the ballad genre.  I like the Williams version, but this one is better in my view.

If I Ruled the World – (With Céline Dion) – Words and music by Leslie Bricusse and Cyril Ornadel, published in 1963.  Tony and Celine belt out this tune with gusto, but I just cannot get past Celine Dion.  I know many people love her, but she grates on me like no other artist on these albums.  She is bombastic and overwhelms Tony.   She’s talented to many, but not my cup of tea.

The Best is Yet to Come – (With Diana Krall) – Words and music by Carol Leigh and Cy Coleman, published in 1959.   My favorite tune on this album.  The lovely Diana Krall is a jazz musician of great talent. Her phrasing is reminiscent of Peggy Lee.  Click on the clip and watch the version of the song.  Terrific!

For Once in My Life – (With Stevie Wonder) – Words and music by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden, published in 1967.   A big hit for Stevie Wonder in the Motown days, Tony brings a jazz flavor to a song with the special treat of having Mr. Wonder himself join Bennett on the vocals.  Great tune.

Are You Havin’ Any Fun? – (With Elvis Costello) – Words and music by Sammy Fain and Jack Yellin, published in 1939.  Tony and Elvis Costello, one of the better singer-songwriters in the last half century are indeed “havin fun” on this tune. 

Because of You – (With k.d. lang) – Words and music by Arthur Hammerstein and Dudley Wilkinson, published in 1940.  Hammerstein from the Rodgers & Hammerstein music machine published this tune at the start of World War II.  k.d. Lang, one of the best vocalist of any genre, and a veteran team mate of duets with Bennett, shines on this tune.  Chris Botti’s trumpet on this tune is outstanding.

Just in Time – (With Michael Buble’) – Words and music by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Jule Styne, published in 1960.  My favorite version of this song is Dean Martin’s, but this is a close second.  Michael Buble’ is one of the more popular vocalists today and you can see why from this song.  Bennett provides him a great foundation from which to riff upon. 

The Boulevard of Broken Dreams – (With Sting) – Words and music by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, published 1956.  I always thought Sting was a good jazz singer.  He did a version of “Someone To Watch Over Me” for a movie soundtrack back in the 1980’s and his interpretation of that tune was spot on.  George Gershwin would have been proud.  This tune, more melancholy than others on this album once again shows how Mr. Gordon Sumner can present a jazz song.

I Wanna Be Around – (With Bono) – Words and music by Johnny Mercer and Sadie Vimmerstadt, published in 1959.  Johnny Mercer got the idea and title for the song from housewife Sadie Vimmerstadt.  Mercer agreed to share the royalties on the tune with her.  Bono, the front man for the Irish super group U2 does a great rendition of the tune with Bennett providing his classic, cool phrasing.  The piano intro on this is classic Mercer.
Sing You Sinners – (With John Legend) – Words and music by Sam Coslow and W.Franke Harling, published in 1930.   John Legend, an excellent cross-over singer (soul, popular music) in his own right and Tony do a terrific job on this tune from the early 20th century.

I Left My Heart in San Francisco – solo – Words and music by George Cory Jr. and Douglass Cross, published in 1954.   What can you say about this tune and Tony that hasn’t already been said.  It’s Bennett at his best.  No one else owns this tune like Tony.

How Do You Keep The Music Playing? – (With George Michael) – Words and music by Michel Jean Legrand, Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman, published in 1982, is the most recent song on the playlist but it sounds like a standard.  George Michael, one of the best voices in popular music in the last 30 years teams with Tony on a heartfelt version of this tune.

Put on a Happy Face – (With James Taylor) – see the note on the tune above, but there is some commentary between Tony and James Taylor about James’ remembrance of the song and going to see Dick Van Dyke in “Bye Bye, Birdie”, a Broadway musical about a rock star named Conrad Birdie.

released in 2006 by Columbia records, produced by Phil Ramone  

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