Written by General Jabbo
As the 1960s wore on and rock ‘n’ roll became more ingrained into American popular culture, artists such as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett faced a career crossroads. Rock music had replaced The Great American Songbook as the soundtrack for young people and the crooners were forced to adapt, which Sinatra did with mixed results, or face being outdated. Bennett was in the latter position as his longtime label Columbia’s new brain trust decided its legacy artists needed to record music to appeal to young people.
Bennett’s music had survived during the rock era and he felt no need to change. After finishing his contract with Columbia and a brief stint with Mike Curb and Polygram, Bennett decided to follow in the footsteps of Sinatra and form his own label, Improv. While the label was not commercially successful, Bennett’s music for the label was critically acclaimed. The best of this music is featured on Tony Bennett: The Best Of The Improv Recordings.
The CD leads off with a bouncy take on the Rodgers & Hart classic, “This Can’t be Love.” Recorded in 1973 with the Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet, Bennett revels in the material with an infectious vocal matched by Braff’s tasteful coronet. “Make Someone Happy” finds Bennett teamed up with the late Bill Evans on piano. The song features two virtuosos on top of their respective games with Evans’ lightning-fast runs nicely contrasting Bennett’s powerful, confident vocal.
The saloon song, “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” perfectly teams Bennett’s longing vocals with Evans’ understated piano while Bennett and the Ruby Braff/George Barns Quartet offer up a jazzy, up-tempo “The Lady Is A Tramp.” “Reflections” pairs Bennett with an orchestra (conducted by Torrie Zito, who also plays piano). The song is traditional standards fair, with Bennett’s operatic vocals drenched in reverb and backed by lush strings.
The CD closes with a live rendition of Bennett’s signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Bennett gives a vibrant performance and he and the band are in fine form on this jubilant recording.
Bennett’s Improv years mark an important point in his career. One in which he followed his own muse instead of catering to the latest trends. Bennett would, of course, be vindicated as he experienced a career resurgence, particularly among young people who were often hearing these classics for the first time, which began in the 1980s and continues to this day. The material and musicians on The Best Of The Improv Recordings are top notch throughout, making the CD a welcome addition to any Bennett fan’s collection or a good introduction to this great artist’s career.