Saturday, January 4, 2014
Tony's Greatest Hits Volume III - Tony Bennett
Columbia CS 9173
I was up at my father's house for Christmas which meant a steady diet of crooners like Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra on his stereo. When he was younger my dad listened to some contemporary music, but now that he is elderly he sticks to the favorites of his youth. When I was a teenager I disliked this sort of music, but now that I'm a whole lot older I like it better although I very rarely listen to it. The one exception to that is the great Tony Bennett. He is easily my favorite singer of pop standards. I was lucky enough to catch him at the Hollywood Bowl over the summer backed up by a small jazz combo and it was a tremendous show. Even at 87 years old the man is still a fantastic performer with a strong voice. I first became aware of Bennett as a child via this record in my father's record collection. This isn't his copy, I purchased it about 10 years ago. I can't say I was really drawn to this music when I was a kid, but rather I was attracted to the album cover which features a dramatic photo by Richard Avedon. The only song that appealed to me back then was "(I Left My Heart) in San Francisco" which was a 1962 top twenty single for Bennett. I grew up in the Bay Area and was born in the City by the Bay so the song has a lot of resonance for me. They play it at AT&T Park after Giants games and whenever I hear it there it makes me happy. I've heard the song many times but I never get tired of it. Bennett's vocal is so tender and resonant, it fills the room with warmth when I play it and it has a tasteful arrangement led by Ralph Sharon's delicate piano lines. Sharon carries the weight on "I Wanna Be Around" as well which was another top twenty single in 1963. Bennett tempers the vindictive nature of the song with his customary sensitivity. Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova classic "Corcovado" (listed here with its English title "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars") appeared on Bennett's 1963 album "I Wanna Be Around." There are many versions of this song, but this is my favorite. It is driven by an acoustic guitar and Sharon's jazzy piano tinkling supplemented with a restrained string accompaniment and Bennett delivers an atmospheric and romantic vocal. "When Joanna Loved Me" was an unsuccessful 1964 single but it deserved a better fate. It is one of my favorite cuts on the album. Sharon's piano lines are superb and the yearning in Bennett's voice really sends me. "The Moment of Truth" comes from Bennett's 1963 album "This Is All I Ask" and was also a flop single. It has a jazzy arrangement and a swinging vocal from Bennett, easily the most dynamic track on the album although the song itself is pedestrian. It still beats "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)" which was a top 40 single in 1964. It is a melodramatic show tune with a sappy arrangement. Bennett's soaring vocal is magnificent but this sort of song is not my cup of tea. Side two kicks off with "The Good Life" which is one of Bennett's best known songs. It was a top twenty single in 1963. The string arrangement on the song is a bit obtrusive, but Sharon's piano is perfect as usual and Bennett sings the song with a lot of feeling. I admire the understated lyrics which endorse love over the materialism and trendiness of "the good life." Bennett's 1964 performance of "A Taste of Honey" is my favorite of the many versions of that classic song, I even prefer it to the version by my beloved Beatles. Dick Hyman's arrangement is subtle with jazz inflections and Bennett's vocal is very expressive. Gordon Jenkins' "This Is All I Ask" is a reflective ballad that was released by Bennett in 1963. It is a beautiful song with a nice intimate feel in its arrangement. "Once Upon A Time" is another corny show tune from 1962. It was the flip side of the "(I Left My Heart) in San Francisco" single. Bennett sings his heart out making a phony song surprisingly moving. "The Best Is Yet To Come" is best known in Frank Sinatra's swinging version with Count Basie but Bennett recorded it first on his 1962 "(I Left My Heart) in San Francisco" album. I prefer Bennett's version. Sinatra's brashness and bravado generally alienate me, I like Bennett's more sensitive and restrained style. He moves me in a way that Sinatra rarely was able to achieve. "If I Ruled the World" is yet another show tune, a big overblown ballad that was a top 40 single in 1965. I hate the background choir and the heavy handed strings. I wish I could erase them and just have the Ralph Sharon trio back up Bennett, the song would be much more enjoyable for me. Bennett sings great of course, but it is by far the song I like the least on the album. Despite the weak finish, I still love this record. If I had to limit myself to a single Bennett album, this would be my pick. I'm a rock and roll guy, I do not have an affinity for this sort of music, but Bennett reaches me just as effectively as John Lennon or Bob Dylan do. For me, Bennett is the best male singer of his generation. For more than 50 years he has been making wonderful records. His impeccable taste and sensitivity combined with a fabulous voice and a remarkable work ethic have resulted in a body of work that will probably never be surpassed. Recommended for a romantic candlelit dinner.