It is an odd but explicable reality of the music business that most Christmas recordings are made during the hottest months of the year, thereby allowing adequate time to get them to market for the festive season. In his memoirs, Mel Tormé, who crafted the music for “The Christmas Song” in 1945, recalls that lyricist Bob Wells concocted chilly lines like “Jack Frost nipping at your nose” and “folks dressed up like Eskimos” simply to combat a scorching Los Angeles heat wave. The following August, Nat “King” Cole’s definitive version of the song was recorded on a sweltering Manhattan afternoon. A decade and a half later, Ella Fitzgerald was sweating through another blistering New York summer as she sang the praises of red-nosed reindeer for her landmark Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas.
And so it went when JazzTimes visited the leafy burg of Englewood, N.J., on a warm, sunny Wednesday this past June. Precisely four decades after Tony Bennett’s first yuletide album, Snowfall, was recorded with a massive orchestra conducted by Robert Farnon, Bennett had at last decided to deliver a second platter of Christmas tunes. The decision was, he says, largely pragmatic. “I owe Sony/Columbia one album and then we have to renegotiate, so it’s a very critical time business-wise. I was so satisfied with Robert Farnon’s great work on Snowfall that, over the years, I had to bob and weave a lot with label executives, saying, ‘If you want my Christmas album, this is it.’ So they’ve just continued to reissue it with different covers. But my son Dan, who manages me, figured since the holiday season is the biggest push for new product, I should give them another Christmas album.” Bennett wanted a big, brassy sound, this time courtesy of his all-time favorite outfit, the Count Basie Orchestra.
From the heart of Englewood, the town Bennett called home during the late ’50s and 1960s, I follow overgrown tracks north a few hundred feet to what looks like a lovingly refurbished train station, which is precisely what it is. But to paraphrase Tennessee Williams, the milk train-or any other locomotive-doesn’t stop there anymore. Eight years ago, the abandoned depot was transformed into Bennett Studios, under the supervision of Tony’s younger son, recording engineer Daegal. It is now ranked among the finest facilities in the country, attracting such A-list talent as Mariah Carey, Freddie Hubbard, Bill Charlap, Earl Klugh, Randy Brecker, Celia Cruz and Dianne Reeves, who recorded her own seasonal disc, Christmas Time Is Here, at the space in 2004.
I spot a lone figure standing aside the building, looking like a commuter waiting for the 11:45 to Hackensack. It turns out to be Phil Ramone, onsite to produce what will become A Swingin’ Christmas featuring the Count Basie Big Band, his fifth collaboration with Bennett since 1997. Ramone escorts me inside where, separated by hallways lined with black-and-white photographs of such jazz luminaries as Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Miles Davis and Billie Holiday, there are two studios. But Tony is only recording a portion of the album here. A unique attribute of Bennett Studios is its underground audio and video links, via fiber-optic cable, to the 1,400-seat John Harms Theater, inside the neighboring Bergen Performing Arts Center, allowing the option of recording in a concert setting.
Of Phil Ramone, Bennett says, “He creates freedom. He allows you to do anything you want. The first time I worked with him he said, ‘Just walk wherever you want to walk. If you want to walk over to the bass or the trumpet player, just take the wireless mike and go wherever you want in the studio.’ A lot of people put you in a box and the sound doesn’t bleed. But he creates real freedom, leaving you alone to be yourself. He knows if you’re yourself, it’s going to come out on the record.” For much of A Swingin’ Christmas, such freedom was maximized, with Bennett and the Basie Band onstage at Bergen PAC and Daegal stationed down the block, capturing it all.
Call time for Wednesday, the last of three days scheduled for the Swingin’ Christmas sessions, is 1 p.m., but by noon the theater’s lobby is filled with the Basie Band’s 13 members plus bassist Paul Langosch, drummer Harold Jones, guitarist Gray Sargent and Monty Alexander, Bennett’s inspired choice to fill Basie’s spot at the piano. Some of the bandmates are young enough to have been in diapers when Basie died in 1984. Among the baker’s dozen, only two, saxophonist John Williams and trombonist Clarence Banks, actually worked with the Count. Williams explains that Bennett, exhibiting his trademark professionalism, managed to record the entire album during the previous two days.
But rather than waste this third day, Tony and Dan-who has been his manager for nearly three decades, is widely credited as the principal architect of his dad’s late-career renaissance, and serves as executive producer for A Swingin’ Christmas-decided to hire a camera crew and recreate the album on film for inclusion in a deluxe CD/DVD package. The afternoon has been set aside for a full, taped dress rehearsal. Come evening, a fortunate assortment of local fans will be ushered into the theater, serving as the audience for a second taping. With the air conditioning churning away, an enormous Christmas wreath is raised into position above the bandstand. As the musicians take their places onstage, pianist Lee Musiker-Bennett’s music director and the fourth member of Tony’s touring quartet-runs down the playlist with conductor Bill Holman. Bennett’s song choices reflect his desire to “stay away from anything religious and just do a bunch of happy tunes so that people can have fun at Christmastime. When they put on the album, I want it to be cheerful and pleasant.”
Entering from stage right, Bennett is, as always, the epitome of understated sartorial elegance, sporting an impeccably tailored navy suit, white shirt, pale-green tie and, adding a subtle touch of festive flair, a bright red pocket square. Launching into “My Favorite Things,” he rides the crashing wave of horns with ease, defying that he’s just two months shy of his 82nd birthday. Sure, he has lost some of the power and range that, back when he first left his heart in San Francisco, prompted no less an authority than Sinatra to name him “the best in the business.” Yet his voice has grown richer, more sumptuous. Where once there was thunder, there is now the sort of hazy, after-the-rain aura that makes everything glisten. Bennett has always been captivating; now he is spellbinding.
He steps to the mic, and back-to-back takes of “Favorite Things” are note-perfect, but there are technical issues. The unflappable Bennett takes it all in stride, sitting and chatting with Alexander as the camera crew races about, unfazed by the hurry-up-and-wait that is inherent to the filming process. Once everyone’s ready to roll, he stands and delivers a third flawless take. The next 90-minutes proceed so smoothly-with Vince Guaraldi’s cashmere-soft “Christmastime Is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas, a boisterous treatment of the usually solemn “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Tormé and Wells’ “The Christmas Song,” a glittering “Winter Wonderland” and a lovely, mid-tempo “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” each nailed in a single take-that crew and band members nod and smile in appreciation of Bennett’s inimitably polished showmanship. Only once does he interrupt the proceedings. Midway through what may be the jazziest “Little Drummer Boy” ever captured on film, he stops, turns to Musiker and respectfully poses the rather logical question, “Shouldn’t there be a drum solo in there?” Harold Jones, whom Bennett credits as “Count Basie’s favorite drummer,” is consulted, the solo is added, and tape rolls.
By 3 p.m., with the dress rehearsal completed well ahead of schedule, the Basie bandmates are given an extended break. Langosch, Sargent and Jones remain onstage. Alexander vacates the Steinway, replaced by Musiker. Of his quartet, Bennett enthuses, “They’re such great people personally, and God almighty they play beautifully for me every night. Each night it’s a different show. It might be the same tunes, but the show is entirely different because they’re improvising like crazy. They’re all wonderful and, as a musician and orchestrator, Lee is dynamite.” Together, they romp through “Jingle Bells” then, supported solely by Musiker, Bennett gently, reverentially explores the delicate folds of “O Christmas Tree.” The afternoon wraps with Alexander back at the ivories, as they ease into Musiker’s bouncy arrangement of “Silver Bells.”
The session has included three tunes-“The Christmas Song,” “Jingle Bells” and “The Little Drummer Boy”-that aren’t on the CD, and has omitted two that are, presumably because the tracks’ respective guest stars aren’t onsite. On the finished disc, Toots Thielemans adds a gorgeous harmonica solo to Johnny Mandel and Marilyn and Alan Bergman’s sweet, tender “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” And on “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” Bennett introduces an aspiring jazz singer who’s very close to his heart. Her name is also Bennett-34-year-old Antonia, the youngest of his four children. Their voices blend with precisely the delightfully warm results you’d expect from a proud papa showing off his charming daughter.
Come 6:15, the invited guests file in and the entire process is repeated with the same remarkable efficiency. There’s just one problem. The audience, cautioned that each song is being recorded, is asked to resist clapping until there’s an all-clear signal from Dan. But each time Bennett finishes a number, the enraptured crowd instinctively applauds.
All day long, Bennett has been busily snapping pictures of Musiker, Holman and the various musicians. It’s a long-standing habit. As is widely known, Bennett is as fine a landscape, still life and portrait artist as he is a singer. With the photos for reference, he’ll add to the hundreds of portraits he’s crafted over the past decades, a who’s-who gallery that extends from Sinatra, Ellington, Armstrong, Fitzgerald and Clooney to Scott Hamilton, Bill Charlap and Ramone. Has he ever painted Basie? “Oh, many times,” he responds. Indeed, Bennett’s original intent was to incorporate one of his Basie portraits into the CD’s artwork. Instead, he’s opted for a clever homage to Norman Rockwell’s celebrated 1943 Thanksgiving painting “Freedom From Want,” with all 13 members of the Basie band seated at a festively decorated dinner table. Bennett and Alexander are the cozy scene’s jovial patriarchs, proffering an enormous roast turkey.
A lifelong Count Basie fan, Bennett says he’s always held the Basie sound in high esteem “because it’s based on the blues and it’s very modern. The Basie philosophy was one of great time, great harmony and great melody.”
Bennett’s appreciation for Basie grew even deeper after World War II when, fresh from impromptu jam sessions with GI buddies and a stint with the 314th Army Special Services Band in occupied Germany, he returned to New York determined to try and build a professional singing career. Among his earliest coaches was Mimi Spear, whose studio overlooked the jazz joints that lined 52nd Street. Spear, he recalls, said, “Don’t imitate other singers, or you’ll just be like one of a chorus who sounds like someone who’s very popular.” Instead, she instructed him, “Find the musicians you like and phrase like them. Well, I liked Stan Getz’s honey sound-very melodic, wide and beautiful. And Tatum. In those days, you had to sing a long line because everyone was dancing the fox trot, and singers never stepped off the curb in any way. But Tatum did. He’d dramatize a pop song. He’d play some instrumental to set up the verse, and then he’d go into a good tempo, then go out of tempo for the release, then back into tempo. When I started singing like that, musicians said to me, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Well, this is what I’m doing.’ It was a little ahead of its time.”
But Basie, says Bennett, “was always my favorite. What I admired about him-and also Freddie Green-was that I never heard him play a wrong tempo. It made me intensely aware of the incredible care you have to put into a song. You can move it over half an inch sometimes, but it’s got to be the perfect tempo. Every piece of music has a certain tempo, and if you find it intuitively it couldn’t be better. Basie was a master of knowing how to do that. When you listen to it, you say, ‘Yep, that’s precisely the right tempo.’ He also taught me about nuance. Change the pace. Play something soft and then, when no one expects it-bam! Like the way he did “All of Me”-gentle, gentle and then, all of a sudden, wham!”
Bennett’s opportunity to record with Basie finally arrived in late 1958, when he became the first white singer invited to sing with the band. At the time, Basie was on the Roulette label. Bennett was nearing the end of his first decade with Columbia. So they agreed to do two albums. The Roulette disc, Bennett & Basie-Strike Up the Band (reissued on CD as simply Basie Swings/Bennett Sings) was scheduled second. Recorded at New York’s Capitol Studios on Jan. 5, 1959, it was, says Bennett, “absolutely great. We started at midnight because they were on a one-nighter. We did the entire album between 12 and 6 a.m., and then they all got on a bus and traveled another 150 miles to play somewhere. Ralph Sharon [the brilliant pianist who served as Bennett’s principal accompanist throughout much of his career] did most of the charts, but Basie himself played the piano on that.”
For the Columbia album, the plan was to record live. “We were at the Latin Casino in Philadelphia [in December ’58],” Bennett remembers, “and the spirit on that recording was unbelievable. But of all the tragic things, this producer came in and said, ‘There’s this new thing called stereo.’ We’d recorded everything monaurally, so he said we had to go into the studio, record the sides again and loop in the applause from the Latin Casino. And it was a disaster, a fiasco. It just didn’t sound right. So, to this day I hide that album [In Person!]. But the one on Roulette, that I like.”
Bennett and Basie quickly became great pals, playing and touring together extensively for more than two decades, though never again recording. “He was so spirited and funny and human,” says Bennett, “and he was wonderful to me. I had so many amazing experiences with him. I’ll never forget one time we played the Philadelphia Concert Hall with the great Joe Williams, and we greased up the walls. There were about seven standing ovations. The audience just went crazy. Afterward we were standing outside, taking a break next to the parking lot and some white guy came up to him and said, ‘Get my car!’ And Basie turned to him and said, ‘I’ve been parking cars all night, you’ll have to get your own car.’ When the Beatles came around and music changed so much, I asked him, ‘What should I do? How should I deal with this whole new scene?’ He looked at me with those wise eyes of his and said, ‘Why try to change an apple? Just keep doing what you’re doing.'”
Asked why it has taken nearly a quarter-century since the Count’s passing to invite the Basie band to again record with him, Bennett says, “I like the feel of Basie, but without Basie himself it was a bit of a challenge. That’s why I chose to bring in Monty Alexander. I don’t like to tell a musician how to play, but I said, ‘You could really help me out.’ Now, he loves Basie as much as I do, and completely understands the Basie sound. So when I said, ‘Could you make it sound like Basie is playing?’ he managed to both eulogize the Basie sound and made it completely believable.”