Tony Bennett and Bill Evans – The Complete Recordings
(Fantasy FAN-36453-01. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)
We have the British singer Annie Ross to thank for these milestones of vocal jazz. She recommended to Tony Bennett that he should record with Bill Evans and the suggestion took. After an initial meeting and discussion in London, an historic series of sessions proceeded on June 10-13, 1975 at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California. No other musicians were involved, just the pianist and singer. “It was my idea that we make it only piano, though it kind of scared me,” said Evans. “It seemed to be the best way to get that intimate communication going.”
Indeed, an agreeable intimacy is one of the hallmarks of these flawless, lustrous recordings. Singer and pianist shared the same room instead of performing in separate booths, which made a subtle but profound difference to everything that ensued. Some sources describe the performances as being virtually improvised. This is perhaps understandable given the utterly relaxed and natural quality of the songs, but it’s a long way from the truth. The mere fact of the existence of a track entitled ‘Take 18’ of You Don't Know What Love Is indicates that these sessions weren’t entirely ruled by off-the-cuff spontaneity. And Bennett recalls how Evans would “work for three or four hours on each song we did.”
But despite the rigorous preparation and striving for perfection that provided the bedrock for this music, simplicity really was a keynote. Mirroring the fact that it was just Bennett and Evans performing, the only other people in the studio were Helen Keane (Evans’s fiercely loyal long-time agent, here also acting as producer) and recording engineer Don Cody. The fruits of these first sessions were released on the Fantasy label simply as The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album and were so successful that a follow up was immediately on the cards.
The second album Together Again was recorded for Bennett’s own label Improv, at the Columbia Studios in San Francisco on September 27-30, 1976. Don Cody was again the recording engineer and now also the co-producer with Helen Keane. Both of these records have been long out of print on vinyl and are scarce and sought after. Releases on CD have been sporadic and less than optimal. Certainly, considering the importance of this work, a definite revisiting has been long overdue.
But here it is, in a magnificent, definitive boxed set, which recaps both the original albums and adds an amazingly generous selection of bonus tracks and alternate takes. Released by Fantasy, which is now part of the Concord Music Group, this is a very stylishly package. Presented in new, simple, boldly graphic sleeves, two of the records replicate the original releases, and two more entire LPs contain the wealth of extra tracks. There is also a nice LP sized photo of Bennett and Evans and a twelve page illustrated booklet featuring detailed notes by Will Friedwald who co-wrote Bennett’s autobiography. Along with the recent Wes Montgomery set, this wonderful collection seems to signal that we are entering a golden age of vinyl revivals.
Young and Foolish makes the magic of the relaxed simplicity of these recordings immediately evident. Technically speaking, the 180 gram vinyl has a great sound, open clear and powerful. As for the music, it’s hard to repress clichés about the raw silk quality of Bennett’s voice, and maybe we shouldn’t even try. This really is a case of taking the rough with the smooth, and in a way the listener will love. Evans builds simple structures around Bennett, as if protecting a small campfire from the wind, allowing the first tentative small flames to arise, the twigs to catch, and the fierce warm blaze to begin.
Cy Coleman’s delightful composition When In Rome paints such an insouciant portrait of Playboy Club jet-set philandering that it’s always a little surprising to remember that the lyric was written by a woman, Carolyn Leigh. Here Evans combines minimalism and jollity, while My Foolish Heart is oddly moving. On The Days Of Wine And Roses Bennett manages the neat trick of belting out the lyric, but with restraint. Evans is always at his shoulder, offering sensitive accompaniment, adding highlights as well as support. Make Someone Happy is memorable for Evans’s soft and delicate touch on the bass and The Touch Of Your Lips (Take 1) is an exercise in chiaroscuro with Bennett’s bright, bold voice set in bold contrast against the rich dark tones of Evans’s piano. For precision, prodigious fireworks from Evans check out Make Someone Happy (Take 5).
This sumptuous release is a dream come true for anyone who, like this reviewer, has longed for a properly complete and suitably respectful treatment of these crucial recordings. One couldn’t wish for a better embodiment of this great music.