Christopher Loudon reviews Tony Bennett's #1 album, 'Duets II'
Sinatra did it badly, twice. Vocal deterioration aside, the trouble with his two volumes of Duets was that they weren’t duets, neither physically—Sinatra and his illustrious playmates never met during the recording process—nor artistically. It seemed more a case of the great and near-great genuflecting before a crumbling idol.
Tony Bennett, now three volumes into his own musical mating ritual (Duets: An American Classic plus 2001’s Playin’ With My Friends), has gotten it right all along. First, he insists on being in the studio with his guests. More important, he is, with typical humility, a tremendously gracious host. Where Sinatra’s albums suggested a series of champagne toasts to his eminence, Bennett seems a wise and welcoming bartender chatting over a beer. The most successful of these 17 tracks find his collaborators responding in kind, opting for a collegial tête-à-tête. It’s hardly surprising that k.d. lang, who has recorded and toured extensively with Bennett, scores highest marks, helping to shape a seamlessly gorgeous “Blue Velvet.” Near-equally good is his ramble through “On the Sunny Side of the Street” opposite Willie Nelson, two grizzled showmen thoroughly enjoying one another’s company.
The much-ballyhooed union of Bennett and Amy Winehouse at first seems mannered, her desire to emulate Billie Holiday a bit too obvious, but ends in a blaze of fused glory. But the truly delightful surprise is Bennett’s playful bantering with Lady Gaga on “The Lady Is a Tramp.” Not since Crosby met Clooney have two pros demonstrated such effortlessly joyous chemistry.