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Tony Bennett’s Greatest Jazz Collaborations
I pick a dozen favorite tracks—each showcasing the vocalist in tandem with a jazz legend
In my tribute to Tony Bennett yesterday, I mentioned that you could fill an article with stories of his generosity and kindness. And, true enough, those stories started showing up on social media yesterday almost immediately after news of Bennett’s death went public—I read dozens of them.
Most of them are from people who had little or no influence in the entertainment business. Many of them were just fans who had crossed paths with a famous singer. But Bennett went out of his way to treat each one with respect and generosity of heart.
For example, read this or this or this or this or this or this or this or this. Few of the stories are dramatic—just simple acts of human decency. But they are rare in any sphere of society nowadays, and especially among show business superstars.
But today I want to focus on Tony Bennett’s music, and just a small part of—namely, his collaborations with leading jazz artists.
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12 OF MY FAVORITE TONY BENNETT JAZZ TRACKS
If you want to appreciate the artistry of singer Tony Bennett, where do you even begin? There are so many places to drop your needle in this haystack of barnburning albums.
But it’s a great problem to have.
The numbers alone are dazzling. According to discographers, Tony Bennett released 61 studio albums, 83 singles, 11 live recordings, and more than 30 compilation albums. Bennett was nominated for a Grammy on 41 occasions, and walked away with the prize almost half the time—with 19 of those statuettes sitting on his shelf. He had 24 songs reach the top 40 on the charts.
I note that most of this happened during an era when his manner of singing, rooted in old songs and a distinctive jazz sensibility, was considered out-of-style and out-of-touch with contemporary trends. In fact, his biggest successes happened during the period in which rock music was the dominant force in commercial music.
Bennett’s career straddled genres, and he could genuinely sing in any context. Over the years, he laid down tracks with a ridiculous range of stars—performing with Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Sting, Bono, and dozens of other legends and near-legends.
I won’t even try to assess that work today. Maybe I will revisit it on another occasion. But I will make one observation here: No matter what setting he was in, Bennett not only delivered the goods but he also demonstrated tremendous skill in bringing out the best in others.
His jazz-oriented recordings are more manageable. I actually wish there were more of these—because, for most of his career, record label execs preferred showcasing Bennett in more commercial projects. But the jazz tracks that did get recorded are glorious. Those two albums with Bill Evans are exquisite, and are especially well known. But there are other examples that deserve more attention from fans.
Let’s take a look at this music.
Tony Bennett with Stan Getz and Herbie Hancock, “Out of This World”
Something amazing happened on May 25, 1964, at least if you’re a jazz fan. On that day, Tony Bennett walked into a New York studio with Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones. Just thinking about it makes my heart palpitate.
But here’s the rub: they only recorded one track. Later that year, that same ensemble returned to the studio, and recorded three more songs.
In other words, they never had enough music to release an entire album—which makes me moan and groan, because this would have been one of the classic jazz vocal albums of the century. At least we have a taste of this music to savor.
Tony Bennett and Duke Ellington: “Love Scene/Solitude”
Why didn’t they make a studio album together? It’s a crying shame—because Duke Ellington and Tony Bennett were on the same wave length and seemed to have a strong personal connection. Ellington even became friends with Bennett’s mother, and would frequently send Tony new songs along with a dozen roses.
“A bunch of flowers arrived at my house, and I would say ‘Duke is at it again,’” the singer later recalled. They appeared together on TV on multiple occasions, and even did a 25-city tour on the same program (with Bennett insisting that Ellington get top billing—just as he had done with Count Basie when he sang with that band). But all we have are some short video clips. This one is choice.
Tony Bennett and Bill Evans, “But Beautiful”
Both Tony Bennett and Bill Evans shared the unfortunate distinction of getting dropped by Columbia Records in the early 1970s. That label made many lamentable decisions back then—in their wisdom, the Columbia honchos also dumped Keith Jarrett, Ornette Coleman, and Charles Mingus. In this instance, Bennett and Evans joined forces in the mid-1970s for two of the most moving duet albums in the history of jazz singing. That’s more than my opinion—this music is cherished by almost everybody who has heard it.
Tony Bennett and Bill Evans, “You Must Believe in Spring”
A year after recording The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, released by Fantasy in 1975. the two artists returned to the studio to record Together Again for Bennett’s own Improv Records label. The album was subsequently released on Concord, and the Bennett/Evans duets here are just as magical as the first time around. My hunch is that this collaboration helped lay the foundation for Bennett’s career revival—where he focused more on jazz standards and sought out accompanying musicians of the highest caliber. Evans, for his part, never made a subsequent album with a vocalist.
Honestly, this was not an obvious pairing back in the day, and both players had to stretch and adapt in this uncharacteristic setting. But the results speak for themselves. This is music for the ages.
Tony Bennett with Dave Brubeck, “That Old Black Magic”
More than a decade before the Bennett-Evans project, the singer engaged in another unexpected meeting-of-minds with a famous jazz pianist. On August 28, 1962, both Bennett and Dave Brubeck were booked to play the Sylvan Theater on the grounds of the Washington Monument. Each artist performed separately and then they decided to attempt some songs together—without any rehearsal or much planning.
Tapes of the concert were long believed lost until an archivist tracked them down a half-century later. These musicians were at peak levels of fame back then—Brubeck was still riding high on the gold record (and eventually double platinum) success of Time Out, and Bennett was climbing the charts with “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” I even have a hunch that Brubeck tossed in a quote from “The Trolley Song” during “That Old Black Magic” as humorous nod to that other Bay Area song.
Tony Bennett with Count Basie, “Lullaby of Broadway”
Whoever set up this project is a savvy matchmaker. Both Basie and Bennett were specialists in relaxed swing, knowing when to push and when to lay back. They could have made a dozen albums together, and fans would still clamor for more. A lot of credit goes to Columbia honcho Mitch Miller, who brought these musicians into a studio in 1958 after an attempt to record them in concert failed due to technical difficulties. By the way, Bennett returned the favor by appearing with Basie on the latter’s label Roulette a few months after. But they never joined forces live in the studio again.
Tony Bennett with Dexter Gordon, “All of My Life”
We are fortunate that both Tony Bennett and Dexter Gordon were under contract to the Columbia label in the mid-1980s. Gordon had just achieved a career milestone with his Oscar nomination for his performance in the film Round Midnight. Bennett, for his part, had only recently resigned with Columbia, after more than a decade separation, and was about to enjoy a second act to his career that few singers will ever match. They only collaborated on two tracks, but this was a star-crossed pairing by any measure.
Tony Bennett and Dizzy Gillespie, “Russian Lullaby”
You probably don’t think of Tony Bennett as a bebop singer, but here he floats effortlessly in a fast tempo alongside Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy is famous for his speed and high notes, but Bennett delivers on both those counts too—check out his bravura coda. Once again, I wish this duo had made an entire album together with more flashy songs of this sort. The two did enjoy an onstage reunion for Dizzy’s 75th birthday performances at the Blue Note—maybe somebody will track down and release recordings of those proceedings.
Tony Bennett and Wynton Marsalis, “Mood Indigo”
People partied for many reasons in 1999, but for jazz fans it was also the centenary of Duke Ellington, the most beloved big band leader of them all. Tony Bennett used this as an excuse to release Bennett Sings Ellington: Hot & Cool, and invited Wynton Marsalis to share in the festivities. On this particular track, Bennett takes it cool, while Marsalis opts for the hot, moaning and growling on trumpet in exactly the way Ellington liked it.
Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse, “Body and Soul”
I’ve gone on record claiming that Amy Winehouse was one of the finest jazz singers of her generation, and this track offers irrefutable evidence. Her phrasing is straight out of the Billie Holiday playbook. But Bennett is just as persuasive here, and he shows that he can shine without distracting in the slightest from his vocal partner. The fact that they achieve all this on a song that has been performed and recorded thousands of times before makes this achievement all the more impressive.
Tony Bennett with Phil Woods, “Being Alive”
Jazz altoist Phil Woods shows up on five tracks from Tony Bennett’s 2004 album The Art of Romance, which won a Grammy for traditional pop vocal album. This track also boasts an arrangement by Johnny Mandel and a song by Stephen Sondheim. In my world, that’s as good a roster as the 1998 Yankees. Woods is so charged up, he even takes two solos.
Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap, “The Way You Look Tonight”
Tony Bennett returned to the jazz piano format for his 2015 album The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern, drawing on the considerable talents of Bill Charlap. The resulting album is one of my favorite late career offerings in the Bennett’s discography—this was the music I was listening to the night before Bennett’s death. The singer was almost 90 years old when he recorded this, but his interpretive skill shines on every phrase. Grammy voters apparently agreed, giving The Silver Lining an award for Traditional Pop Vocal Album.