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Tony Bennett’s 10 Essential Songs


Bennett considered Count Basie and Duke Ellington the two greatest bandleaders he’d ever heard, and with the great Milt Hinton on bass and the Basie regular Joe Newman on trumpet, he swings effortlessly and joyfully on this Ellington jazz standard. Bennett had something close to awe for great jazz musicians, which may be why he never claimed to be part of that tradition. “I’m not a jazz singer,” he often said. “I’m a singer who likes jazz.”

Between 1951 and 1963, Bennett released 19 songs that reached the Top 20 of the Billboard singles chart. Then the Beatles came along and the hits stopped. The Columbia Records honcho Clive Davis pushed Bennett to cover modern pop hits, and on the day he began a new record a new record that included Beatles and Stevie Wonder songs, Bennett vomited, Davis recalled. The singer was a trouper, though; the “woo!” he interjects in the middle of George Harrison’s “Something” is almost convincing.

Bennett had an affinity for pianists: Art Tatum was an enduring influence, he had a long partnership with Ralph Sharon, and he made one of his best albums with Bill Evans. Though he wasn’t a master of urban ennui on the level of Sinatra, Bennett does wring all the bittersweet rue out of this song, written by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green for the musical “On the Town,” by singing in parallel with Evans’s lyrical, prudent piano.

For much of the ’70s, the toll of drugs, divorce, tax problems and depression wore Bennett down. Then his son Danny took over as his manager and engineered a return to Columbia Records. Maybe more significantly, Bennett reunited with Sharon and recorded his acclaimed comeback with just piano, bass, drums and an orchestra. His voice was now rougher, but especially on his version of Irving Berlin’s “I Got Lost in Her Arms,” he adjusted by infusing his lower register with savvy understatement.

Bennett loved the Great American Songbook, but eventually, a prolific singer runs out of pre-rock standards and needs to find slightly younger material. So Bennett was delighted when, in a restaurant one night, he heard the piano bar stalwart Charles DeForest perform a song he’d written, “When Do the Bells Ring for Me.” It became a concert showcase for Bennett, thanks to its climactic high notes, and when he sang it at the Grammys in 1991, he got a standing ovation.

Biographically, Bennett couldn’t have had less in common with Cole Porter, a Midwesterner born to substantial privilege. But Porter’s giddy use of double and triple rhymes was perfect for Bennett’s rubato trickery, so his second album with Lady Gaga was a Porter-only affair, released five years after Bennett was given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. And let’s be honest, it’s a kick to hear a 95-year-old master sing, “Some, they may go for cocaine.”

Content Source: www.nytimes.com


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