A musical duet is no less susceptible to power dynamics than any other intimate collaboration between two partners. In creative terms, someone is usually on top. Even when figures of virtually equal standing join up, as Kanye West and Jay-Z did recently with their extravagantly produced and even more extravagantly hyped match-up, Watch the Throne, it’s usually clear that one—in this case, Kanye—exerted more influence, if not quite dominance, over the other. The further apart the artists in age and musical sensibility, the more volatile the power dynamics, as the pop audience will be reminded next week, when Sony releases Duets II by Tony Bennett and a list of names that read like the labels on an aisle bin of the Walmart CD section: Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Faith Hill, Lady Gaga, John Mayer, Carrie Underwood, the late Amy Winehouse, and ten others.
Bennett, who turned 85 early last month, relies on still-toned muscle memory to do breathy, unaffected readings of songs he has been performing for longer than most of his new collaborators have been breathing at all—most of them pop standards such as Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ “The Way You Look Tonight” (done with Faith Hill) and Kurt Weill and Ogdon Nash’s “Speak Low” (with Norah Jones). Bennett has, over the decades, built his repertoire with fastidious attention; and he has always tried to honor the sophistication of his material with all the creative intelligence he can bring to bear. Bennett has never been the most penetrating interpreter of the American songbook; Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, and Sylvia Syms all drew more levels of meaning from the same body of work. Still, none had better intentions than Bennett. His heart, never really in Northern California, has always been in the right place.
Bennett’s sensibility of earnest traditionalism dominates both Duets II and the first Duets album, released in 2006. His duo companions adjust their styles to suit Bennett, and the results are more homage than collaboration. No harm. Bennett has done enough to earn the reverence that infuses these recordings. Besides, there have been worse albums of duets with crooners of the Ike age—and there will probably be more worse ones. After all, the CD Forever Cool, which presents the voice of Dean Martin with the likes of Charles Aznavour, Kevin Spacey, Shelby Lynne, and Joss Stone, was made in 2007, twelve years after Martin died, by extracting Martin’s voice from vintage tracks and mixing them with new arrangements and recordings by the other singers. How long will it be till we get the posthumous Sammy Davis, Jr. album of duets, I've Gotta Be You?