Tony Bennett & Diana Krall: They Like a Gershwin Tune

On their first album together, the two superstar singers pay tribute to George and Ira

Tony Bennett and Diana Krall

Above: Tony Bennett and Diana Krall during the recording sessions for Love Is Here to Stay at Avatar Studios in New York. Photo: Mark Seliger.

1. THE SINGER

This story begins in 1948. A young man just a few years out of Army duty in the European theater of WWII went into Decca’s New York recording studio and cut a version of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm.” Born with a name seemingly both too long and too ethnic for show business, the young singer had been using the shorter moniker Joe Bari for his professional appearances. According to Dick Golden—jazz radio host, historian, and author, as well as friend of the singer—it was Bob Hope who invited Bari to perform with him at the Paramount. The story goes that Hope asked the young man, “Again, what’s your name?” and he replied, “My professional name is Joe Bari but my real name is Anthony Dominick Benedetto.” Hope said, “Oh my, that’s too long for the marquee … why don’t we call you Tony Bennett?”

A colleague of mine in the publishing world has a saying for people who feel the need to embellish an anecdote or exaggerate their own importance. She says, “Hey, it’s your story, make it great.” In the case of Tony Bennett, his story truly is great. And he made it great not with exaggeration, but rather with talent, perseverance, and perhaps a little luck along the way.

Seventy years later, the iconic singer may seem to be in the final chapter of that story. However, 92-year-old singers aren’t supposed to be able to belt out songs for 90 minutes without a break or a teleprompter or even a stool. Watching Bennett perform in front of a sold-out crowd this past summer at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., you couldn’t help but be impressed not only by his unique stage presence but also by his vocal chops and, yes, range. He was performing for an adoring audience of all ages and he embraced it, often using the “you” in his songs to mean his listeners, rather than some lover.

With the release of Love Is Here to Stay, an exquisite duet album with Diana Krall, Bennett has further cemented his legacy as one of the greatest singers in American music. Dedicated to the songs of the Gershwins, the album brings Bennett full-circle to that first 1948 Decca session—yes, “Fascinating Rhythm” is on the track list—backed by one of the great jazz piano trios of the last two decades, the Bill Charlap Trio with Peter Washington and Kenny Washington. The music has a timeless quality that holds up to the gold standard of duet recordings: the 1956 Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong sessions that produced the beloved Ella and Louis. No surprise that that album also had a stellar backing band, the Oscar Peterson Quartet.

Tony Bennett at a mere 72, Radio City Music Hall, October 17, 1998
Tony Bennett at a mere 72, Radio City Music Hall, October 17, 1998 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

2. THE PARTNER

Diana Krall’s story isn’t nearly as long as Bennett’s, but it’s pretty great too. Initially more of a pianist than a singer, she made her first recording when she was just 16 at Little John Studio on a small island in British Columbia. But it would be another dozen or so years before she recorded her debut album for the Montreal-based label Justin Time in 1993. Shortly thereafter, she was signed to GRP and produced by Tommy LiPuma, who helped craft Krall’s lush sound on record and who was instrumental in her winning numerous Grammy Awards. She is now one of the most popular vocalists of her time, topping sales charts with every release and selling out large venues all over the world, one of a handful of jazz artists who can tour like a pop star, doing dozens of dates over a 30- to 40-day period. Yet as a dedicated mother to twin boys and wife of singer/songwriter Elvis Costello, she works hard to balance her professional life with her personal one.

Because Krall has been so successful for so long, you can easily forget that she wasn’t an overnight success and that she apprenticed with several jazz veterans in the ’80s and early ’90s whose advice still resonates with her today: Monty Alexander, John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton, Oscar Peterson, Jimmy Rowles, Ray Brown. The influence of Rosemary Clooney, in particular, loomed large for Krall with the recording of Love Is Here to Stay. “I feel Rosemary around me sort of helping me,” she explains. “She was a huge influence on me and she’s someone I don’t talk about enough. I thought about her every day when I was doing this record. Every day.”

Krall was one of the many artists who recorded with Bennett on his 2006 Duets album—she sang “The Best Is Yet to Come” with him—and she’s long admired his musicianship and vocal gifts, going all the way back to his recordings with Bill Evans. The rapport they have musically and personally is much like that of a niece with a beloved uncle. She speaks of Bennett in nearly rhapsodic terms. “I think Tony sounds so amazing on this record that it’s mind-blowing,” she says. “I just think he sounds as good as he’s ever sounded, and I can’t believe that I got to do more than one song. A whole record is quite a significant work, you know?”

In turn, Bennett says about Krall, “She’s a natural.” Indeed, her vocal style has a relaxed, almost languorous quality that enhances the blend of their two voices. Krall says that she was very conscious of how to phrase—or not to phrase—when singing with Bennett. “I don’t have the ability technically to stretch out notes,” she explains. “So what I did is, I physically took a step back and, in my mind, let Tony be himself. There are some endings where I just decided he should have those endings—I don’t have to sing every ending with him. Why [should I]? He’s got it. And it doesn’t have to be [a situation where] he sings one line, I sing one line, and then we finish the ending together.”

If you view the videos from the Love Is Here to Stay recording sessions that have been circulating online, you can see for yourself how Krall is watching Bennett and reveling in his gifts, something she readily confirms. “There were times when I dropped out because I was just so mesmerized by what he was doing that I didn’t feel I needed to come in,” she says. “But I think it was relaxed. I consciously took a big breath in and went, ‘You just sing the way you sing—just relax. And if you don’t have anything more to say, don’t say it!’ He is who he is and nobody can step into his dream. Nobody can touch him. He’s Tony Bennett.”

Diana Krall at the Newport Jazz Festival, August 14, 1999
Diana Krall at the Newport Jazz Festival, August 14, 1999 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

3. THE FAMILY

If you hang around with Bennett for any length of time, you soon see that his professional life is a family affair. He travels with his wife Susan and their dog Happy. One son, Danny, is his personal manager; his other son, Dae, has been recording his music for many years. His daughter, the singer Antonia, often opens his shows with a short set of jazz and cabaret standards. Everyone else in his sphere feels like family, too—from his current working band of Lee Musiker, Gray Sargent, Marshall Wood, and Harold Jones to his longtime publicist Sylvia Weiner.

Both Bennett sons played major roles on Love Is Here to Stay: Danny as executive producer and Dae as engineer and co-producer (with Bill Charlap). The latter Bennett has had a long career running a studio, recording artists from nearly every genre. But it was only after hearing from Grover Washington, Jr. in the early 2000s about how great an engineer he was that his father asked him to join “Team Bennett.”

If the album sounds like five people playing together, that’s because it is—no overdubs. “With a record like this, the way my father records is all live, with everybody in the room,” Dae Bennett explains. “There are actually vocal monitors in the room, so nobody’s wearing headphones.” He records multiple takes and then edits them together for the final version, using a system that’s part analog, part digital. “As the songs are going down, I have a notebook with all the lyrics written out, and then I have a grid next to that that I write the take numbers on,” he says. “Then I just have my own little shorthand that I take as things are going down. It saves me a lot of time when I get to the editing process. But, essentially, to compile a good vocal track, I have to cut the whole band”—in other words, any edits he makes to the vocals are also, unavoidably, edits to the instrumental tracks underneath them. “So it can get interesting.”

One of the most interesting parts about this album in particular was dealing with the basic challenge of the male/female duet: differences in vocal range. Dae credits his co-producer Charlap with solving that problem. “Believe me, it’s the hardest thing to do, because of the keys—finding a place that’s comfortable for everybody,” he says. “The way Bill arranged things, the modulations are very subtle. I hate hearing stuff modulate back and forth. It’s kind of like tambourine: Once you bring it in[to a track], how do you get it out, to stop it without sounding like the track is dropping? It’s a similar thing with modulations—you just can’t go there sometimes. But he does such a fantastic job, you don’t even think about it. Even when I was mixing and editing it, it just feels natural.”

 

Krall on Bennett: “He is who he is and nobody can step into his dream. Nobody can touch him.”

 

4. THE SUPPORT TEAM

Bennett and Krall both acknowledge that Love Is Here to Stay succeeds artistically in large part because of the contributions of Charlap and the two Washingtons. Besides providing sensitive backing for the two singers, Charlap helped with song choices, arrangements, and production. As Krall puts it, “You have a musical director who has worked with Sandy Stewart, who happens to be his mom, for years and who understands singers, who understands tune arrangements, who understands the history, who understands Gershwin, who understands when to not be too into what Gershwin intended, to make sure that what we’re doing is natural and not get too focused on that.”

A pianist herself, Krall was able to concentrate on singing for these sessions and to appreciate the talents of a trio that Dae Bennett compares to a flock of birds flying in V-formation, shifting in and out of the lead seamlessly. “It was pretty mind-blowing to be in that kind of intimate setting with Bill, Peter, and Kenny, and just us singing,” she explains. “You sit back and listen. That’s what I think is most important—you listen to everybody around you, and not focus so much on yourself. I would say that I’m more aware of space these days than I ever have been before. Not trying to fill every space, just sort of let[ting] it happen.”

For his part, Charlap throws credit back at the two vocalists. “Diana is a singer and she’s also a jazz musician,” he notes. “She understands what it is to sit in a rhythm section, to play a solo, to play from behind the piano, and to play in front of the piano. This music is of course at the essence of our repertoire. Gershwin is right at the center, and it’s perfect for Diana in that sense. With Tony, well, Tony Bennett has over 70 years of experience phrasing this music. And not only that, he is the history of this music, in the sense that this was all being created around him. The fact that he has lived as long as he has and been as vital for as long as he has puts him in a very unique place in terms of the deepest authenticity of phrasing.”

It doesn’t hurt that Bennett, Krall, and the trio are playing the music of one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. “It’s absolutely natural musically for both of them, and natural in terms of creating a conversation,” Charlap says. “A conversation for the entire group—after all, there are five musicians on this album, and they [i.e., Bennett and Krall] are connected with the rhythm section as I am connected with Kenny Washington and Peter Washington. We’re all connected with each other in the way that we’re rhythmically phrasing and listening to each other all the time.”

Charlap says it wasn’t a particularly difficult adjustment for the trio to support two singers. “It’s simply a matter of listening, and experience,” he explains. “We’re all very long on experience, and both Kenny and Peter listen to the rhythm section and the lyrics, the aesthetic of song. They also have the entire history of the most important singers and jazz musicians at their fingertips [and] in their psyche.” That intimate knowledge is readily apparent on cuts such as “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “S’Wonderful,” and the title tune. It’s nearly impossible to imagine the album not being nominated for a Grammy.

 

Bennett on Krall: “She’s a natural.”

 

5. THE SONGS

The connection between Bennett and the Gershwins’ music goes far beyond the bookends of his first and most recent recordings. He’s had a long affinity for the composer and has always included Gershwin compositions in his book. In 2017 he received the prestigious Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, which “celebrates the work of an artist whose career reflects lifetime achievement in promoting song as a vehicle of musical expression and cultural understanding,” according to the Library’s website. So it was fitting that the day before Bennett’s performance at Wolf Trap, Raymond White—who curates the Gershwin collection at the Library of Congress—gave the singer a private and personalized look at various documents (lead sheets, correspondence, playbills, etc.), as well as an exhibit featuring George Gershwin’s piano, writing desk, and artwork. Interestingly, Gershwin shared a love of drawing with Bennett, and his personal notes would frequently be illustrated with clever caricatures. Walking quietly and respectfully through two rooms filled with all things Gershwin, Bennett seemed to be soaking in the legacy of the great composer and his lyricist brother.

Asked why he chose George Gershwin’s music for the album’s theme, Bennett says that Gershwin represented a uniquely American story. Charlap elaborates on that aspect: “Gershwin is at the very center of American popular music, and also of jazz. Gershwin said that jazz is the sound of the American soul, and Gershwin understood that the sound of our music is the sound of jazz and that his songs and his writing always reflected the sound of swing and the blues and the other things that are all about American characteristics. In fact, anything that he wrote was bridging the European aesthetic with the true American aesthetic—actually the other way around, American first. If you think about his classical works, starting with Rhapsody in Blue, of course, which is already not Rhapsody in B-flat, it’s …in Blue—think about Porgy and Bess. The very first aria in Porgy is ‘Summertime,’ which is in essence, at least in terms of its form, a minor blues. So all of that is at the essence of Gershwin’s music.”

Krall is quick to dismiss the idea that the new album represents some sort of nostalgia, citing the timely quality of Ira Gershwin’s lyrics. “You’ve got Tony Bennett singing those lyrics and they sound like they were written last week,” she says. “If you hear Tony singing, ‘The more I read the papers/The less I comprehend/The world and all its capers/And how it all will end,’ that really matters to him. That verse is very significant for him to sing, right now. He’s able to take something like that and find the story that people relate to right now without being nostalgic or sentimental. He’s like Sonny Rollins, where he lived the creative part of this, he introduced most of these songs that he’s singing and saw something in the rhythm, but he still knows the meaning of them, like a great actor would be interpreting anything else … [I]t’s not all about nostalgia.”

The intimacy and magic of the Love Is Here to Stay sessions were immediately apparent to Krall when she revisited the recording months later. “When I put the needle on the record and all of a sudden ‘S’Wonderful’ came on”–she sings the first few notes—“I went, ‘Oh, wow. Okay. This is us,’” she says. “I’m thankful that we did it like that.”

There are no definite plans for the two singers to tour together; as of now, the album is all of this collaboration that we, and they, have to enjoy. “Let’s see what’s going to happen [next],” Krall says. “As Tony would say: ‘What’s next?’ Just be thankful that we get to do what we get to do. That’s what John [Clayton] and Monty [Alexander] would say to me: ‘We get to do this, Diana. We get to do it.’”

See our list of 10 classic jazz vocal duets. 

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