Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Tony Bennett: The Complete Improv Recordings

While interviewing Tony Bennett a couple of years ago, I mistakenly asked him to comment, given the mercurial nature of the recording industry, on his ability to maintain a relationship with one label, Columbia, for a solid half-century. Bennett smiled tolerantly and quietly reminded me that there was a brief period in the ’70s when he’d severed ties with Columbia, recorded a pair of MGM albums for producer Mike Curb, then struck out on his own, partnering with Buffalo-based businessman Bill Hassett to found Improv Records. In terms of traditional profit/loss measurements, Improv wasn’t a success. Lacking the distribution and marketing muscle of the majors, the label struggled for a few years before proving untenable. Bennett, though, has ever since refused to dismiss Improv as a failure, noting that artistically the label’s 10 or so releases were consistently terrific. In terms of his own Improv recordings-five albums released between 1975 and 1977-Bennett is absolutely right. All of them rank, in a career defined by uncompromised quality and integrity, among his best work.

Much of the material collected in the four-disc The Complete Improv Recordings has been previously released on CD. The exquisite sets Tony Bennett Sings 10 Rodgers & Hart Songs and Tony Bennett Sings…More Great Rodgers and Hart, which placed him in the exemplary company of the Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet, were combined six years ago on a single Rhino disc. Likewise the extraordinary Tony Bennett & Bill Evans Together Again (the “answer” disc to the equally brilliant The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album that was released, as part of a quid pro quo deal with Evans’ label, Fantasy, two years prior) has appeared on both Rhino and Concord reissues, and the peppy Life Is Beautiful, complete with a previously unissued Cole Porter medley, also appeared previously on Concord. Here, though, they are augmented with all sorts of delectable treats, including Bennett’s covers of Sammy Cahn’s misty “There’s Always Tomorrow” and Marvin Hamlisch’s robust A Chorus Line anthem “One,” plus a half-dozen alternate takes from the Rodgers and Hart sessions and a previously unissued alternate take of “Who Can I Turn To?” with Evans. The balance of the 76-track set is comprised of Bennett’s live teaming in May 1977, at Buffalo’s Downtown Club in the Hassett-owned Statler Hilton Hotel, with Marian and Jimmy McPartland and assorted other classy pals (Charlie Byrd, Buddy Tate and Bennett’s then musical director Torrie Zito, who had arranged and conducted Life Is Beautiful, among them) for what would become the accurately titled Tony Bennett/The McPartlands and Friends Make Magnificent Music. Four of the nine tracks are superb McPartland-led instrumentals. Bennett steps in to deliver slam-dunk renditions of Michel Legrand’s gently passionate “Watch What Happens,” Alec Wilder’s equally romantically pensive “While We’re Young,” Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone” and the Gershwins’ “‘S Wonderful.” App-ropriately, the Buffalo date and the box set finish with a bouncy, crowd-pleasing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” that rivals the hushed grandeur of the 1962 original.

Three decades have passed since Bennett’s Improv foray and his subsequent return to Columbia, but you’d never know it listening to his latest, The Art of Romance. Produced by Phil Ramone, these 11 tracks nestle Bennett’s beautifully aged voice, dark and smooth as the rarest of vintage ports, in the soft embrace of pianist Lee Musiker (who doubles as Bennett’s music director), bassist Paul Langosch, drummer Clayton Cameron and guitarist Gray Sargent. From the anticipatory warmth of “Close Enough for Love” and naked yearning of Sondheim’s “Being Alive” (here cleverly set to a roiling Afro-Cuban beat) to the haunted dejection of “Gone With the Wind” and crushing heartbreak of “Where Do You Start” this is the master at his mature best, serving up his finest album in over a decade. Most intriguing are a couple of rarities: the softly sophisticated Oscar Hammerstein-Jerome Kern gem “All in Fun” and the delightfully sweet “Little Did I Dream” from Johnny Mandel and Dave Frishberg. All serve as timely reminders that we’re in the exalted company of the guy who Sinatra so aptly credited with “the best pipes in the business.”

Originally Published