The pairing of Tony Bennett and Bill Evans in the mid-’70s has been hailed as one of the greatest jazz duets of all time. The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (1975) was their first recording, followed by Together Again (1976). At the time, the combination may have seemed unusual. Bennett was considered a pop singer, and Evans was pure jazz. Yet the music they created is timeless, as evidenced by the beautiful four-LP box set from Fantasy, The Complete Bill Evans/Tony Bennett Recordings.
“Young and Foolish” opens The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, and sets the tone. At the time, fusion was all the rage in jazz, and singers such as Bennett seemed to belong to a different era. By ignoring the trends of the time and trusting their instincts, the talents of both men shine brightly. One listen to “Young and Foolish” puts the lie to the idea that this was a Bennett album with accompaniment from Evans. The ways in which the piano of Evans circles around the melody is simply magic. Their partnership’s off to a grand start.
According to the extensive liner notes by Will Friedwald, the sessions went very quickly. Either Bennett or Evans would suggest a tune, they would hammer out an arrangement, and then record it. The results are spontaneous, yet perfect. The artists were seasoned enough to trust in the strengths of the songs, and they chose well, primarily from the Great American Songbook.
The nine tracks on the first collaboration have a back and forth feeling to them. Bennett’s voice is (as always) in top form, but what I find even more intriguing are the piano interludes of Evans. The things he does during “Some Other Time” and “My Foolish Heart” (to name just two) are somehow both intricate and concise. To hear the two do the Evans standard “Waltz for Debby” is a real treat. The abbreviated (yet again perfectly realized) “The Days of Wine and Roses” closes the Album, and leaves listeners wanting more.
Thankfully there would be one more, Together Again. As if to prove how equal a partner Evans was, the opening track is a solo piano piece of his entitled “The Bad and the Beautiful.” Bennett returns on “Lucky to Be Me,” and it is clear that the spark between the two has not dimmed in any way. Together Again is a 10-song affair and feels like the continuation of the Album that it is. Bennett’s voice is marvelous, and the mastery of Evans’ playing is entrancing. A couple of personal highlights from this one are “You’re Nearer” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” but every track is special.
The third album contains a whopping 13 bonus tracks and alternate takes. The first two are extras from the Together Again sessions, where there was just not enough room on the vinyl format to include “Who Can I Turn To” or “Dream Dancing.” Both are fully realized and would have fit in perfectly. The remaining 11 cuts are alternate takes from the first album, including two apiece of “The Bad and the Beautiful,” and “A Child Is Born.” There is no denying the talent of Bennett, but my ear is always drawn to Evans. Perhaps it is the fact that his is the only instrument on the album, but he is in top form every time.
The fourth LP features nine alternate takes of songs from Together Again. “The Two Lonely People” is followed by two additional versions of both “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “Maybe September.” The second side is just as strong, with an outstanding “Lonely Girl,” two “You Must Believe in Spring,” and it closes with “Who Can I Turn To?”
Fans may be aware that this set was previously released on CD, but listening to this music on vinyl is much more than just a fashionable way to hear it. For my money, it is the only way. I happen to agree with the argument that analog (vinyl) has a fuller, richer sound than digital does, but I do not notice it all that much when there is a full band playing. Hearing Bennett’s voice accompanied only by Evans’ piano is musical intimacy defined, however. There are a lot of open spaces in these songs by design. There are times when being a great musician comes down to knowing what not to play, as opposed to what to play. In these instances, the overall ambiance is a key factor, and this is the main reason I so prefer to hear the Bennett/Evans sessions on vinyl.
The 88-year-old Tony Bennett has enjoyed an amazing career renaissance in the 21st century, which is a marvelous thing. The troubled Bill Evans passed away in 1980 at the age of 51. The music these two men made together is timeless, and The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings truly does it justice. Besides the four 180-gram vinyl albums, there is a 12-page booklet with all of the liner notes and a striking 12” x 12” candid shot of the two in the studio. For fans, this one is a must.
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