CD Review of The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings by Tony Bennett & Bill Evans
Tony Bennett & Bill Evans: The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings
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Tony Bennett, Bill Evans, Billie Holiday
Tony Bennett & Bill Evans:
The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings

Reviewed by Michael Fortes


n a way, it’s sort of miraculous that Tony Bennett and Bill Evans recorded anything together. By the time the idea presented itself in the 1970s, acoustic jazz was simply not selling in America. Niche labels like Concord made it through the drought, but even a major superstar like Herbie Hancock had to hawk his non-fusion releases exclusively in Japan.

But on the flip side, putting together the Bennett/Evans duet albums – 1977’s The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, and 1978’s Together Again – was relatively cheap. Two guys, one producer, one engineer, and that was it. And over time, these albums have become both artists’ most acclaimed releases of that decade.

For Evans, the sessions that make up The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings are notable not just for their quality – there’s little about Evans’ playing that truly warrants any verbal daggers – but for their historical significance. He had rarely worked with singers, and Bennett was by and large the biggest name singer with whom he had recorded. For Bennett, it was as fine an excuse as any to indulge in his love of jazz and standards. Fortunately for everyone, Bennett tends to be at his absolute best when steppin’ out with jazz cats. And in Evans, Bennett had one of the finest jazz pianists in the world as his partner.

Bennett perhaps exhibits a bit less swingin’ energy here than he did on records like his classic jazz drumming homage The Beat of My Heart (in which he collaborated with some of the genre’s best, including Art Blakey and Chico Hamilton), but then again, this is exactly Evans’ style. It works to greatest effect on "You Don’t Know What Love Is" and "But Beautiful," a pair of tunes that Billie Holiday had hauntingly interpreted almost 20 years earlier. Evans always did melancholy especially well, and while Bennett never comes across as depressed when he sings, he comes as close as he ever did to channeling the kind of despair that Holiday expressed so naturally with Evans at his side.

While disc one of the set presents the original albums in their entirety, plus a couple of extras, disc two is devoted entirely to alternate takes. It’s here where Bennett’s jazz credentials come into sharper relief, hearing him approach each take in slightly different ways, making subtle changes in his phrasing and note choices as he searches for the best expression. "Best," of course, is totally subjective. While the master take of "You Don’t Know What Love Is" is just fine, Take 18 on disc 2, with Bennett’s softer and subtler delivery, is arguably an even better expression of quiet heartbreak. Which is to say, any of these alternates could have been "masters." And for all intents and purposes, they are now.

While not even the alternate takes are newly discovered – all the extras here were included either on a previous reissue of Together Again or the four-disc Bennett box The Complete Improv Recordings – having all extant Bennett/Evans sessions together makes for a satisfying package. Even if you argue with the overlap, you can’t argue with the music. Especially since, with Evans’ death in 1982, these two will never be together again.

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