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April 2002

Tony Bennett
Playin' With My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues
Columbia Jazz

Is there a secret space deep within the Columbia vaults where, a la Dorian Gray, an alternate Tony Bennett voice grows increasingly tired and ragged? That might explain how he's outlasted nearly all of his contemporaries and lost none of the raw energy and gut-level integrity that have defined his work since the "Rags to Riches" days in the 1950s. On this, Bennett's umpteenth release, he celebrates his 75th birthday by singing the blues with nine "friends" and proves, despite a certain unevenness, that such guest-laden projects can be more than mere novelties.

For openers, Bennett dives into "Alright, Okay, You Win" and quickly thaws the oft-times icy Diana Krall. Next comes Stevie Wonder for a boisterous, well-blended "Everyday (I Have the Blues)." Both are, however, just a warm up for the album's two best tracks: a match-up with Ray Charles on "Evenin'" so seamless that there's actually a moment when it's impossible to tell which of them is singing; and a rollicking romp with B.B. King through "Let the Good Times Roll" where, even though you sense that Tony's uptown nursing a highball while B.B.'s downtown knocking back boilermakers, it's clear they were made for each another. Bonnie Raitt drops by to trade lines on "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," though neither sound terribly convincing as they ruminate over a life of misery. Far better is the guarded optimism of "Keep the Faith, Baby," which ably demonstrates why Tony and k.d. lang make such dynamic tour mates.

Bennett's sole nod to the old school is his teaming with Kay Starr on "Blue and Sentimental." Sassy as ever, Starr's instincts remain razor sharp; sadly, though, that sensational, steamroller voice of hers is shot. Disappointing in a different way is his pairing with Sheryl Crow. Crow's soaring interpretation of "Good Morning, Heartache" is a revelation, but seems out of sync with Bennett's comparatively shallow interjections.

The album also comes with a gimmicky coda, penned by Robert Cray, that allows Bennett to reintroduce all nine pals. It's cute in a cloying kind of call-and-response way, but adds little more than renewed appreciation for advances in techno trickery.

Originally published in April 2002
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