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Music Review: Tony Bennett – As Time Goes By: Great American Songbook Classics

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Written by General Jabbo

One need only say the words “Great American Songbook” and many music fans will have a specific idea of what those songs represent. Standards, show tunes, theatre (specifically Broadway), and film songs — these terms all aptly describe these classics, all of which come from before the Rock and Roll era. Many of its composers can be identified by one name, from Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart (and Hammerstein), as can its singers, from Sinatra to Dean to Sammy to Bennett. Tony Bennett, that is. A man who never felt the need to “update” his sound to stay modern, Bennett remains not only one of the last of his generation, but one of the purest interpreters of the Great American Songbook. Twelve of these gems (21 actually, since one track is a medley) are represented on the new compilation, As Time Goes By: Great American Songbook Classics.

The tracks were all recorded during the 1970s, when Bennett had his own label, Improv. In fact, all but two are available on The Complete Improv Recordings, making this CD a nice sampler for that collection. Bennett formed Improv at a time when his previous label, Columbia, decided its older artists needed to appeal to newer, younger fans. Bennett didn’t feel the need to change his style so, like Frank Sinatra before him, he created his own label to give him the freedom to do what he wanted, While the label wasn’t as successful as he would have liked, his work during this period remains critically acclaimed.

The disc opens with “Blue Moon,” one of four Rodgers and Hart songs presented. Bennett offers an easy, laid-back delivery with subtle backing from The Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet. “Reflections” finds Bennett delivering an operatic vocal over a dreamy orchestral arrangement. The orchestra was arranged and conducted by Torrie Zito, who also plays piano on this Duke Ellington nugget. The same players accompany Bennett on a swinging, brassy version of “As Time Goes By.”

“Maybe September” finds Bennett teaming with the late Bill Evans on piano for a stunning vocal and piano duet. This was two masters on top of their respective games proving they did not need a full band to make a powerful musical statement as Bennett’s voice soars over Evans’ sublime accompaniment. The Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet returns for a jazzed up rendition of “The Lady Is A Tramp.” All the players are in fine form, but it’s John Giuffrida’s nimble bass lines that really propel the song from good to great.

The CD’s centerpiece is arguably the near 14-minute “Cole Porter Medley.” It combines nine different songs, beginning and ending with “What Is This Thing Called Love?” Zito’s orchestra does a fine job in making the transitions between the songs seamless, as if Porter intended them to be heard this way. Highlights include a swinging “Love For Sale” and a version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” that alternates between a breezy verse and a big band chorus.

No Bennett compilation would be complete without his signature song, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” A live rendition from 1977 is included here and it’s clear Bennett and his crack band are having a blast performing this famous number.

Now 86 years old, Bennett is showing no signs of slowing down. He remains a true gem of American music and one of the greatest interpreters of the Great American Songbook. For fans wanting a taste of the man’s musical prowess, As Time Goes By: Great American Songbook Classics is a fine place to start.

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