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Review: Tony Bennett, “Isn’t It Romantic?”

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Isn’t it romantic?

The titular phrase from a song by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart could apply to much of Tony Bennett’s musical career, now in roughly its 65th year.  It’s also the title of a new compilation aimed at the casual Bennett fan from Concord Music Group.  Isn’t It Romantic? (CRE-33463-02) repackages 15 prime cuts from the singer’s work at his own short-lived Improv label, with a smattering of tracks from a Fantasy Records LP thrown in for good measure.  Though Bennett’s artistic accomplishments at Improv were numerous, its output was small; the label only released ten or so albums.  Indeed, every track on this new set was released in a less-than-two-year period between 1975 and 1977.  Following the demise of Improv, Bennett took a break from recording, recharged his batteries, and emerged in 1986 back at his old home Columbia Records.  Revitalized with the aptly-named album The Art of Excellence, Bennett hasn’t stopped striving for excellence since.

The small body of work made by Bennett at Improv has been mined numerous times by Concord in the past, most notably on 2004’s The Complete Improv Recordings, a box set (Concord CCD4-2255) chockablock with alternate takes and unreleased material, all of which proved manna for collectors.  More casual fans could content themselves with releases like last year’s The Best of the Improv Recordings (CRE-32955).  As for Isn’t It Romantic? , it follows Tony Bennett Sings for Lovers (Concord CCD-6023, 2009) as another set of amorous tunes from this short if fertile period.  Hit the jump to explore this latest collection!

More than one-third of the tracks here originated on 1975’s Fantasy release The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, the first collaboration between Bennett and the jazz pianist, known for his sensitive work as a pioneer of the modal jazz style. Three more tracks came from the duo’s 1977 follow-up on the Improv label, Together Again.  Bennett and Evans made for incredibly sympathetic partners, and their work together is mood music of the highest order.  With Evans at the keys, Bennett tapped into the deep soul of Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s “Make Someone Happy.”  It’s hard not to read into Bennett’s forceful questioning, “Where’s the real stuff in life to cling to?  Love is the answer…someone to love is the answer!”  Bennett and Evans recorded the song in an era where both men were fighting their own demons; the former made it to the other side while the latter did not.  They transform “Make Someone Happy,” a quintessential showtune, into an art song about the redemptive power of love.  We’re all the richer for it.  And that’s just the very first track here.  Another open-hearted Comden and Green lyric, “Lucky to Be Me,” features a gorgeous Leonard Bernstein melody that Evans caresses.  Cole Porter’s “Dream Dancing” is the famous tunesmith’s only appearance on the disc, and what it lacks in Porter’s famously saucy approach, it makes up in pure heart.  Bennett is touching on Albert Hague and Arnold Horwitt’s wistful “Young and Foolish” with his simple declaration, “I wish we were young and foolish again…” as Evans musically expresses the sentiment in a fetching solo.

Though nothing is present from the freewheeling Tony Bennett/The McPartlands and Friends Make Magnificent Music, each one of Bennett’s other three Improv albums is represented.  The tracks on Isn’t It Romantic? can basically be divided into three distinct styles: piano-and-voice (the two Evans albums), voice-with-jazz-quartet (Sings 10 Rodgers and Hart Songs and Sings More Great Rodgers and Hart, with the Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet) and orchestral jazz (Life is Beautiful, with pianist/arranger Torrie Zito augmenting a core trio with orchestra).

In the orchestral portion, Bennett makes some of the greatest love songs ever written his own, including Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By.”  The song was introduced in the 1931 Broadway musical Everybody’s Welcome but gained its immortality on the silver screen in 1942’s Casablanca; the swinging Bennett/Zito recording stands as one of the song’s finest.  The pleasing pop of “Life is Beautiful” was co-written by none other than Fred Astaire, who proved that his skills weren’t solely limited to dancing!  Indeed, a thread of optimism permeates this “romantic” selection.

From the sessions with the Braff-Barnes Quartet (Ruby Braff on cornet, George Barnes and Wayne Wright on guitars, John Guiffrida on bass) comes four Rodgers and Hart songs including the track which gives this compilation its title.  As a jazz vocalist perhaps first and foremost, Bennett has long felt an affinity with the early part of Richard Rodgers’ career.  Before teaming with Oscar Hammerstein II and revolutionizing the American musical with Oklahoma! and Carousel, Rodgers was already a theatre legend, setting Lorenz Hart’s witty, often tart lyrics to insouciant, spirited melodies.  The songs of Rodgers and Hart still fill chapters of the Great American Songbook, and some of the team’s finest songs are here: “My Romance,” “I Could Write a Book,” “Lover.”  Bennett employs hushed tones for the last-named song, a far cry from the full-voiced approach of his early Columbia years.

Beautiful though it unquestionably is, “The Days of Wine and Roses” might be the oddest choice for inclusion here.  Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s theme to Blake Edwards’ harrowing film about a couple’s descent into alcoholism isn’t typical “romantic” song fare by any stretch.  Bennett traverses every kind of love, though, from that of hazy memory (“Days of Wine and Roses”) to poetically expressed physical attraction (“The Touch of Your Lips”).

Unfortunately the simple package is no-frills, with the insert including only basic discographical information and no liner notes of any kind.  Those with a serious interest in Bennett should be directed to Concord’s Complete Improv package (retailing for a very affordable less-than-$25 at the time of this writing) plus a copy of the Fantasy Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album; with those five discs, the entire Improv period will be covered.  If you’re the kind of fan who already owns “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “I Wanna Be Around” but wishes to dig just a little bit deeper into the Bennett ouevre, Isn’t It Romantic? might be for you, though you’d be equally well-served by either of the Bennett/Evans albums (both of which are currently in print from Concord).  But certainly any hour spent with Tony Bennett is an hour well-spent.

Written by Joe Marchese

February 24, 2012 at 09:34

Posted in Features, News, Reissues, Reviews, Tony Bennett

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