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Tony Bennett’s Improv Years Revisited By Concord For Crooner’s 85th Birthday

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In 1975, Tony Bennett was without a record label and at a crossroads.  He had turned down numerous entreaties to return to Columbia Records, the label that launched him to stardom in 1950 but refused to give him the creative freedom he deserved.  (See our special feature on Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today for more on that!)  He had finished a two-album tenure at MGM Records and felt the time was right to strike out on his own.  And so Improv Records was born.  And although the label only released ten albums or so in its roughly two years of existence, don’t call it a failure when Tony Bennett is around.  “It’s ridiculous!  These guys are crazy to look at Improv as a failure,” the singer lamented to eminent jazz critic Will Friedwald.  “I had Bill Evans, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Charlie Byrd, Torrie Zito, Jimmy and Marian McPartland, all the greatest musicians.  The critics went crazy for the albums; they thought they were the greatest albums ever made.  So the company fails because I had some hooligans handling it.”  And time has proven Anthony Dominick Benedetto correct.  The music recorded by Bennett on his five albums for Improv is among the finest music he, or any other jazz vocalist, has ever recorded.  With Bennett’s 85th birthday, a new album and landmark concert engagements all coming up this year, Concord Records is celebrating with a single-disc distillation of Bennett’s Improv years.

Tony Bennett: The Best of the Improv Recordings collects 16 tracks released between 1975 and 1977 onto a single disc, Tony Bennett: The Best of the Improv Recordings. Due in stores on July 12, just three weeks prior to Bennett’s birthday, the compilation is a distillation of 2004’s lavish four-disc box The Complete Improv Recordings, which included all five Bennett albums plus numerous alternate takes, outtakes and singles.

“These tracks capture the moment in Tony Bennett’s career when he had complete artistic freedom,” says Nick Phillips, Vice President of Catalog and Jazz A&R at Concord Music Group and producer of the 2004 box.  “As the head of his own label, he was the person who was calling all the shots and running the show. He was free to record what he wanted to record — music that was really important to him and resonated with him . . . I think the results are nothing short of stellar.”

Hit the jump for a tour through Bennett’s Improv period, plus track listing with discographical information and a pre-order link!

The Best of the Improv Recordings includes a great number of songs by the team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart from the two collections of the duo’s music that were released on Improv.  These recordings were actually an impetus for the label’s formation; Bennett had performed an acclaimed all-R&H program at New York’s Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher) and recorded the material at his own expense.  He released his efforts later on Improv.  Four tracks performed with jazz legend Bill Evans appear from the joint Bennett/Evans album released in 1977 on Improv.  (Concord’s 2009 The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings collects both the Improv album and its Fantasy Records predecessor, plus numerous alternates.)  With Evans an equal partner, musically speaking, these recordings are among the most sublime and sensitive in Bennett’s entire catalogue, with no orchestral sweetening. 

Three tracks, including the title song, have been drawn from Life is Beautiful, Bennett’s collaboration with arranger and conductor Torrie Zito.  Augmenting the studio material are two live performances – Alec Wilder’s “While We’re Young” and Bennett’s signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” –  from the Improv album uniting Bennett with Marian and Jimmy McPartland, Charlie Byrd and Torrie Zitto with other jazz greats.

Will Friedwald, who also wrote the liner notes for both the complete Improv box and the 2-CD complete Evans/Bennett sessions, repeats his duties for the new compilation.  “Tony Bennett’s own recordings for his label would fall roughly into three categories,” says Friedwald. “Orchestral sessions with his regular musical director at the time, Torrie Zito; quartet sessions with the Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet; and most famously, duet sessions with pianist Bill Evans.” Each of these categories is represented.

If you’re not game to take a chance on the complete Improv box, The Best of the Improv Recordings should make a fine sampler.  It’s due in stores on July 12.  A pre-order link is below!

Tony Bennett, The Best of the Improv Recordings (Concord, 2011)

  1. This Can’t Be Love
  2. Make Someone Happy
  3. Isn’t It Romantic?
  4. Life Is Beautiful
  5. Blue Moon
  6. Thou Swell
  7. You Don’t Know What Love Is
  8. My Romance
  9. The Lady Is a Tramp
  10. You Must Believe in Spring
  11. Reflections
  12. I Could Write a Book
  13. Maybe September
  14. As Time Goes By
  15. While We’re Young [live]
  16. I Left My Heart in San Francisco [live]

Tracks 1, 3, 5, 9 & 12 from Tony Bennett Sings 10 Rodgers & Hart Songs, Improv LP 7113, 1976
Tracks 2, 7, 10 & 13 from Tony Bennett and Bill Evans: Together Again, Improv LP 7117, 1977
Tracks 4, 11 & 14 from Life is Beautiful, Improv LP 7112, 1975
Tracks 6 & 8 from Tony Bennett Sings More Great Rodgers & Hart, Improv LP 7120, 1977
Tracks 15-16 from Tony Bennett/The McPartlands and Friends Make Magnificent Music, Improv LP 7123, 1977

Written by Joe Marchese

June 8, 2011 at 10:02

6 Responses

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  1. There was a time when the Improv recordings were somewhat obscure and hard to find. Now we have had some of them reissued over and over again, in different combinations (example, the Bill Evans recordings). Meanwhile many of the classic Columbia LPs from Tony’s prime have still never been reissued. Why not?

    It would also be good to see some vintage Tony television appearances on DVD…we have many DVDs of post 80’s Tony, but virtually nothing from the 50’s and 60’s


    June 8, 2011 at 16:25

    • I couldn’t agree more, Kevin. There has never been a serious, collector-oriented reissue campaign for Tony’s extensive Columbia catalogue; an artist of his caliber deserves nothing less than the “Complete Recordings” treatment. I do know that one impediment standing in the way is that Tony is unhappy with a number of his albums (like GREAT HITS OF TODAY) but there are certainly many still unreleased on CD that would meet with his approval.

      Let’s not even get into singles and outtakes…One hopes that Tony’s management and Columbia/Legacy can eventually come to terms in releasing more new-to-CD material. (2009’s licensed reissue by BGO of FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE/I’VE GOTTA BE ME seemed like a step in the right direction, but no further titles materialized!)

      Joe Marchese

      June 8, 2011 at 16:31

  2. Despite the great quality of Tony’s singing and song selection, I sometimes wonder if Tony and his son have suppressed reissues of some of those Columbia albums from his prime years because they might be unhappy with the overall quality of the record production values. Even if you accept the arrangements, the records often had echoe/reverb or whatever applied to Tony’s voice, and his voice was often way back in the mix. The records have an overall muddy sound, and Tony’s brilliance is obscured. I blame Columbia Records for this, as they did that to virtually every singer in their roster in those years. As a result, the vocal catalogue of Columbia from that period is generally not sought after by many vocalist collectors.

    I’m afraid it is not something that can be fixed in remastering. The master tapes probably suffer the same problem. The mono versions can be better, but do not solve the problem.

    I’ll just have to live with my CD-R transfers.


    June 9, 2011 at 08:01

  3. But if Bear Family put out the complete Tony Bennett on Columbia, I’d be first in line!


    June 9, 2011 at 08:11

    • I’ll drink to that!

      Joe Marchese

      June 9, 2011 at 13:54

  4. this is a rather pointless sampler/compilation, in my opinion:

    if you are a Tony Bennett fan, the Ruby Braff-George Barnes sessions and the Bill Evans session are among the absolute pinnacles of his great career, every track a materpiece worth having, so the item to have is the COMPLETE Improv box.

    …and if you’re not a Tony Bennett fan, then there’s no point in this collection either…


    June 10, 2011 at 05:19

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