Tony Bennett formed his own label, Improv Records, in the mid-1970s, for which he would release five albums. Concord Music Group has issued a four-disc set, The Complete Improv Recordings, that compiles these albums along with alternate takes. For more casual fans, Concord has thoughtfully offered a single disc of sixteen highlights called The Best of the Improv Recordings. This sampler may not satisfy rabid Bennett fans, but does provide a nice overview of the vocalist’s work during this period.
To my ears, the standout tracks are the four tunes pulled from Bennett’s second collaboration with pianist Bill Evans, Together Again (1977). The unadorned arrangements enhance the beauty of both artists’ delivery. Bennett’s deeply melancholic interpretation of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is a prime example. A trio of lushly orchestrated songs were first issued on Life Is Beautiful (1975), providing contrast to the starkness of the Evans duets. Torrie Zito arranged and conducted the orchestra, as well as having played piano on these tracks.
Seven tracks are taken from two explorations of the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart catalog, both released in 1973. These delightfully swinging standards feature the backing of the Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet. Barnes, credited as the first ever recorded electric guitarist (in 1938), trades lines with cornetist Braff, anchored by the bass of John Giuffrida. Bennett sounds great backed by this small combo, with a spritely take of “The Lady is a Tramp” being a prime example.
A pair of brief live tunes, recorded in 1977 with pianist Marion McPartland, close out the compilation. The first, “While We’re Young,” is a simple duet with McPartland. The second, a truncated rendition of Bennett’s signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” features a full ensemble. These live tracks probably sound better in the context of the full album they were taken from; here, though, they seem like an afterthought. I would’ve preferred more Bill Evans duets or Braff/Barnes Quartet tunes. But that’s what the four-disc set is for, and Bennett fans should take note: the complete set is only twice the cost of the single disc.