Blue Notes: Tony Bennett duets

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 June, 2013, 5:52pm

Record companies like duet albums. A combination of two artists appeals to followers of both and if they come from sufficiently disparate musical areas, a pairing can theoretically double sales.

Multiple duets improve the odds still further: one artist recording with a dozen or more collaborators - no matter how incongruous the partnerships - is a standard late-career move. Frank Sinatra's 1993 Duets album provided a template, pairing the Chairman of the Board - at a time when he wasn't shifting units in his own right - with artists ranging from Luther Vandross to Kenny G.

Tony Bennett also sang with Sinatra on that album - on New York, New York - and since scoring a gold record in 2002 with A Wonderful World - for which producer T. Bone Burnett paired him with K.D. Lang - he seems to have recorded only duets.

Bennett's previous three albums, excluding a 2008 Christmas collection recorded with the Count Basie Orchestra, have all been "with various artists" projects - Duets: An American Classic (2006), Duets 11 (2011) and the latest, Viva Duets.

Bennett is one of the finest interpreters of the Great American Songbook, but for those who prefer him in a musical context with more jazz, there is scant enjoyment to be derived from his performances with the likes of Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey and Bono.

It was therefore pleasing to discover the release of a vintage recording under the title Bennett/Brubeck - The White House Sessions, Live 1962; as a duo partnership, that's more like it. The title is slightly misleading: the concert actually took place at the National Sylvan Theatre near the Washington Monument, and was recorded on August 28, 1962.

It was organised by the Kennedy White House administration, and was originally scheduled to be held in the Rose Garden; it was moved to the Sylvan to accommodate a larger crowd. The concert was intended as a "thank you" to White House interns, and Bennett and Brubeck were at the time hot attractions for a college-age audience.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet had enjoyed major hits in 1959 with their Time Out album and the single Take Five. As for Bennett, the song which became his signature tune, I Left My Heart in San Francisco, had come out in 1962, as the B-side to a single, Once Upon a Time, from a then current musical called All American. But disc jockeys around the US opted to flip it, and play San Francisco instead.

The concert comprises two distinct sets, one from Brubeck and his Quartet in their classic formation featuring saxophonist Paul Desmond, and one from Bennett and his trio comprising Ralph Sharon on piano, Hal Gaylor on bass and Billy Exiner on drums.

At the end of Bennett's set, however, his musicians leave the stage, and Brubeck returns with drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright. Bennett announces that the following tunes are unrehearsed, calls Lullaby of Broadway and gives Brubeck the key. Three more songs follow, Chicago, That Old Black Magic and There Will Never Be Another You.

It's a very fine - if brief - set and although Bennett's own group are sensitive accompanists, the voltage goes up noticeably when Brubeck and his rhythm section take over.

Brubeck and Bennett apparently played together only one more time, at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2009, where they were again recorded - and this time filmed, by Clint Eastwood - performing the one song from this mini-set that has been previously released.

That Old Black Magic came out on the 2001 Brubeck compilation Vocal Encounters, but the rest of the 1962 concert was lost for decades in a wrongly labelled tape box. A special effort to track the music down was made after Brubeck's death, aged 91, last year. Bennett, 87 in August, is still with us, and still working. It's a shame they didn't play together more.

Take Three

Three strong albums featuring Tony Bennett with jazz musicians.

  • The Beat of My Heart
  • (1957, Columbia): jazz pianist and regular Bennett associate Ralph Sharon arranges and conducts on this lively set of standards which features, among other notable sidemen Art Blakey and Jo Jones on drums, Nat Adderley on trumpet and Herbie Mann on flute.
  • Strike Up the Band
  • (1959, Columbia): the second of two albums released in 1959 featuring Bennett fronting the Count Basie Orchestra. Basie and Sharon share piano duties.
  • The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings
  • (2009, Fantasy): this compilation collects the two mid-1970s duet albums recorded by Bennett and jazz pianist Bill Evans - 1975's The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and 1977's Together Again - plus bonus tracks. Two major artists in perfect sympathy performing a well-chosen repertoire.