Tony Bennett is an American music icon and one of the last of a generation of singers who came to prominence during the years following World War II. He has sold in excess of 50 million albums, won 15 Grammy Awards, and his popularity now spans several generations of music fans.
He signed with the Columbia label in 1952, and it proved to be his musical home for over 20 years. The British Invasion and the commercial dominance of rock ended his relationship with Columbia as he was resisting their overtures to change his style. He resigned with Columbia in 1986 and remains with them to the present day.
After leaving Columbia, he released albums for several labels but quickly formed his own label, Improv Records, during the mid-1970s. His albums for the label were artistically successful and critically praised. They were not to be as commercially successful as his work with Columbia, which would lead to the dissolution of the label after several years.
Improv only released 10 albums during its existence, with half being by Bennett. They were an eclectic lot featuring two albums of songs by Rodgers and Hart, standards featuring the Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet, orchestral arrangements by his music director at the time, Torrie Zito, plus a brilliant jazz duet album with Bill Evans. His entire output for the label was issued in 2004 as a four CD box set titled The Complete Improv Recordings.
The Concord Music Group has now gathered 16 tracks from his time with the label and released Tony Bennett: The Best Of The Improv Recordings, which will be released in conjunction with his upcoming 85th birthday. While all the tracks were previously released on the box set, this single CD serves to give a nice taste of one of the most artistic periods of his career.
His material during the last several decades has many times gone in a light jazz direction. He recorded two duet albums with jazz pianist Bill Evans and four tracks are taken from the second, Together Again, which was issued by his own label. “Make Someone Happy,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” “You Must Believe In Spring,” and “Maybe September” are just Evans’ piano and Bennett’s voice and it doesn’t get much better than that.
The rest of the album is standards that fit his style well. Songs such as “Isn’t It Romantic,” “Blue Moon,” “As Time Goes By,” and “The Lady Is A Tramp” all undergo a transformation courtesy of his unique interpretations. The final track was a live performance of his most famous song, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” Recorded in May of 1977, it is a nice mid-career update of this eternal classic.
Tony Bennett: The Best Of The Improv Recordings is a fine sampling of an often lost period of his career. If you own the box set, this release in not needed, but as a stand-alone album, it resurrects some of the better material of his career that you may have missed.