Tony Bennett: The Best of the Improv Recordings

Sampling of a master vocalist’s indie sides from the mid-70s

At the turn from the ‘60s into the ‘70s, Tony Bennett – the vocalist’s vocalist – parted ways with his longtime label, Columbia. The parting dissolved their business contract, but also served as a declaration that having fruitfully co-existed with the commercial dominance of youth-oriented rock ‘n’ roll, he would not compromise his artistry by covering lightweight, contemporary pop tunes. He wasn’t alone, as Barbra Streisand, Lena Horne, Johnny Mathis and others were each having their arms twisted in the same direction. Bennett’s concert draw was increasing, and in his mid-40s, his voice offered a maturity and richness that may have been the best of his long and distinguished career. So rather than giving in to Columbia’s demands, and accepting other slights, he fled to MGM, and after failing to find success there, spent a few years without a recording contract.

His commercial fortunes wouldn’t be revived until his son Danny rebuilt his career in the 1980s, reuniting him with musical director Ralph Sharon, and, ironically, Columbia. But in the interim, Bennett founded his own label, Improv, and laid down some of the most artistically satisfying sides of his entire catalog. The label failed after only a few years (due to a lack of distribution, rather than a lack of quality goods), but without the major label bean counters breathing down his neck, Bennett was able to surround himself with the talents of Bill Evans, Charlie Byrd, Jimmy McPartland, Marian McPartland and others, and deeply explore jazz-inflections of the great American songbook. His five albums for Improv, along with a wealth of previously unreleased session tracks, were anthologized on the 2004 4-CD set, The Complete Improv Recordings; this single disc surveys many of the larger set’s highlights.

The selected tracks essay Bennett’s mastery in several different settings, including orchestral arrangements, duets with pianist Bill Evans, and a collection of Rodgers & Hart tunes recorded with a quartet led by cornetist Ruby Braff. The latter tracks show the jazziest edges of Bennett’s vocals as he dances atop John Guiffrida’s string bass and trades phrases with Braff and guitarist George Barnes. The duets are deeply thoughtful, as Bennett and Evans speak to each other through their music as much as to the listener, and the orchestral pieces have refined arrangements by Torrie Zito, including lovely bass and strings on “Reflections,” that winningly frame Bennett’s voice. Bennett vocalizes novel interpretations of several well-trod chestnuts, including “Blue Moon,” “The Lady is a Tramp” and “I Could Write a Book.”

The set ends with a pair of live tracks that includes a rousing take on Bennett’s trademark “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” From the thrill heard in Bennett’s voice, the enthusiastic playing of his all-star band and the crowd’s fevered response, you’d guess they were at the Fairmont atop Nob Hill, but in fact the recording was made at his record label partner’s Statler Hilton hotel in Buffalo, New York. It’s a thrilling end to a terrific set that gives listeners a taste of an artistic giant’s most independent statement of art. At just a little over twice the price for four-times the music, it’s hard not to recommend the full 4-CD set, but if a taste will satisfy you, this is a rich one. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

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