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Oohs and Aaahs

Tony Bennett: The Complete Collection

Sony Music

More than thirty stars of contemporary or recent-vintage pop, rock, and country music sing with Tony Bennett on his two CDs of cross-generational collaborations, Duets and Duets II, the second of which was released shortly after Bennett’s eighty-fifth birthday last summer. The albums are narratives of pilgrimage. Most of the guest singers, who include Lady Gaga and Faith Hill, are young or youngish; and the oldish ones, such as Paul McCartney and Aretha Franklin, are considerably younger than the singer who brought them together. Nearly all of them traveled some distance from their comfort zones and their musical frames of reference, abandoning their categories on the Billboard charts, to work alongside Bennett. Performing songs from his repertoire of vintage popular standards (“It Had to Be You,” sung by Carrie Underwood with Bennett; “Sing, You Sinners,” done by John Legend with Bennett) in arrangements suited to Bennett’s style of jazz-inflected crooning, the junior partners adapted their approaches to Bennett’s in gestures of respect not only for his seniority, but also for the ostensible superiority of his music. For a singer of any age or musical orientation, working with Tony Bennett is an act of deference, something close to a ritual of secular devotion.

Bennett’s status in popular music today has no precedent in living memory. Frank Sinatra, who also recorded a pair of duet albums late in life (with some of the same singers who appear on Bennett’s recent CDs, including Bono, Willie Nelson, and Natalie Cole) was and is still widely revered, of course, though not with the swelling adoration—the uncritical, almost familial warmth of heart and fuzziness of mind—that Tony Bennett engenders. Sinatra is a figure who commands attention and demands admiration. At the same time, he remains—even to many of his admirers—a source of occasional exasperation; and to his detractors, he is an object of enmity, which is utterly foreign to the sphere Bennett occupies. Bing Crosby’s avuncular languor, once the mark of his cool, has come across as dozy indifference or grandfatherly cluelessness to generations raised on the high wattage of rock. Louis Armstrong, though broadly venerated throughout his lifetime (and held in even greater esteem today), might have been able to nurture a significant rock-generation audience in his last years, had he or his managers tried to do so; but they never did, notwithstanding the well-meaning rendition of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” on Armstrong’s final album. (Crosby, on one of his late-career LPs, gave a shot at Lennon and McCartney’s “Hey Jude,” without embarrassment or distinction.) Ella Fitzgerald, like Billie Holiday, was taken up in earnest by young listeners only in the years after her death helped to solidify her standing as an artist of canonical stature. Other singers have been held in awe; but Tony Bennett gets the oozing “oohs” and “aahs.”

Why Bennett? He has been asked often to account for his own success, and he has consistently offered an explanation having to do with his very consistency. I have interviewed Bennett twice since the late 1980s, when he re-emerged from creative exile, under new management overseen by his two sons (former rockers in a minor band called Quacky Duck and His Barnyard Friends), to make the album that began his repositioning, called The Art of Excellence. In the first interview, conducted more than twenty years ago for a book on pop singers to which I contributed, Bennett said: “The music I was lucky enough to grow up with, when I was just a kid in Astoria, Queens, was the greatest music ever created in this country—the music of the Kerns and the Berlins, the Arlens and the Porters. That’s the music I’ve dedicated my life to singing ... the only music I’ve ever sung. Middle of the road, I never went for that. Middle of the road means it’s neither this nor that. I’ve always taken the musical high road.”

More than fifteen years later, in our second interview, Bennett affirmed the consistency he had described by saying nearly the same thing, updated to touch on his growing youth audience. “I never went down the middle of the road,” he said. “If you pursue excellence at what you do, and that’s what I’ve always done—the best songs, the great standards of the American songbook, the best musicians, the best engineers—people will respond to you. Young people, especially, because they’re not exposed to that kind of quality in the world today. I can’t get over that young people line up to see me the way they do. They’re craving for quality music, and that’s what I’ve always been devoted to.”

Bennett has been singing professionally for more than sixty years now, and the ample documentation of his long career is evidence of more change—in fact, more growth—than he is in the habit of admitting. This month Sony Music (corporate grandchild of Columbia Records, the label that first signed Bennett in 1950) is releasing a gargantuan boxed set of seventy-three CDs collecting every recording that Tony Bennett has ever released, along with several discs of previously unissued material and three DVDs. (In the late 1940s, Bennett recorded a couple of songs for the independent Leslie Records under his first stage name, Joe Bari, before his early mentor Bob Hope persuaded him to adopt an Anglicized version of his given name, Anthony Benedetto; and even the Bari tracks are included in the new box, along with a demo of “St. James Infirmary Blues,” which the pre-Bennett Bennett made as a GI in the 314th Army Special Services Band of the European Theatre.)

Seventy-three CDs. Close to one thousand tracks. Some sixty hours of music. In its scale, its comprehensiveness, and its lavishness of presentation, the set is a thundering positioning statement, an insistent marketing argument for the historical significance of Bennett’s work. Tony Bennett: The Complete Collection has almost no parallels in popular music, outside the quirkily obsessive collections of American recordings packaged by the Bear Family company in Germany. (Available in limited numbers primarily by mail order, Bear Family sets have compiled the recordings of Gene Autry, Louis Jordan, the Carter Family, Nat Cole, and many other important acts, along with sets such as the seven-CD collection of renditions of a single song, “Lili Marlene.”) The only major American singer other than Bennett to have his entire recording output preserved in one luxuriously packaged set is Elvis, whose work for both Sun and RCA Records was compiled by RCA/ Legacy last year on The Complete Elvis Presley Masters, a thirty-CD set with more than eight hundred tracks. Tony Bennett: The Complete Collection is a box like a supermall: its claim to importance is contained in its scale. For that reason, it carries with it a challenge to Bennett’s own claims about the consistency of his standards. Could any artist really do so much of equal excellence?

IN THE GENEAOLOGY of Italian crooners—Sinatra, Bennett, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Frankie Laine, Jerry Vale, and others (there have been quite a few others) whose singing was central to the sound of American pop between the eras of Benny Goodman and Elvis—Bennett is the most Italian. That is to say, his singing style has been the most unabashedly, voluptuously emotional—at least in his early recordings, on singles such as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (his first success) and “Because of You” (his first number-one hit), which Bennett recorded in the 1950s. Hearing these songs for the first time in years (or, in many cases, for the first time) on the “Columbia Singles” CDs in The Complete Collection, I was taken aback by the cheery feverishness of Bennett’s delivery. He bellows. He gushes. He works himself up in a frenzied two minutes and ends virtually every song with a fiery show-biz finish. Today we think of Bennett as a classicist for preserving a style of music that pre-dates the contemporary era by half a century, and he was doing something parallel when he started in the 1950s, belting like a combination of Jolson and Caruso in a robustly theatrical style that essentially pre-dated the advent of recording.

Among the reasons we think of Bennett as a classicist is the fact that he swings with a keen sense of jazz time. Yet that was hardly the case in his youthful work, as the early albums in The Complete Collection show. Born eleven years after Sinatra, he came up in the years after the decline of the big-band era. Every important vocalist in the decade before him-Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee, and even Perry Como (who, for all his weaknesses, had decent time)—learned to sing in dance bands, keeping a pulse and stirring dancers, as opposed to listeners, to move. Bennett was a solo singing act and got his professional training in the studio, recording with string orchestras. He loved jazz, for sure, and was known to sit in with Barbara Carroll and her trio when she was strictly a bebop pianist, playing on 52nd Street. One of Bennett’s early albums for Columbia was with a jazz septet, called Cloud 7, and he soon followed it with a rhythm-oriented LP called The Beat of My Heart, which featured six jazz percussionists, including Jo Jones, Chico Hamilton, and Candido. Still, the time in his phrasing tended to be rigid and angular, rarely loose and flowing, even on those early albums with jazz instrumentation. The records had jazz musicians but not a jazz singer.

The standard version of Bennett’s story is an almost biblical tale of promise, exile, and redemption. After more than twenty years at Columbia Records, Bennett left the company—voluntarily, though without a fight from the label’s potentate, Clive Davis; he re-invented himself through experimentation with jazz, making a pair of celebrated duo albums with the pianist Bill Evans; and he returned to Columbia and found an MTV-jaded youth market hungry for the unpluggable excellence that it saw in Bennett. But the CDs on The Complete Collection, taken chronologically, tell a less dramatic story. Bennett never really made a sudden shift in approach; his style evolved by increments over the decades. He had tried working in the duo setting with a jazz pianist, Ralph Sharon, as early as 1961, on the album Tony Sings for Two.

The marvel of Bennett’s work is the gradually unfolding drama of its improvement over time. That is the true consistency in Bennett’s output: the reliability of his doing better and better, seemingly through force of will and a dedication to preserving musical values that he has seen as under siege. His approach to rhythm may be the best example. As rock grew to dominate pop music, swing came to be re-conceived as a classical style, and Bennett slowly and steadily came to master its principles. Working regularly with strong jazz musicians such as Ralph Sharon, Bennett learned to hang casually behind the beat, and he developed the ability to phrase in rhythmic clusters. By the time he appeared with Sharon and a punchy trio on MTV Unplugged in 1994, Bennett could swing the Burton Lane-Yip Harburg standard “Old Devil Moon” as if he had grown up on a dance bandstand.

He also learned to reduce—to apply restraint to replace (or at least to supplement) the histrionics that had once made him the object of severe criticism and ridicule. “Bennett’s singing was almost a parody of a cabaret act,” wrote the syndicated television critic Harriet Van Horne. “The style was so overwrought as to make an audience look away in polite embarrassment ... stiff-legged, wildly off-key, eye in a fine frenzy rolling. And those top notes! Pure screaming agony.” Over time, aided by the limits that age enforced on his voice, Bennett grew deft at singing quietly, conversationally. He learned to moderate his attack, reserving his strength for the showstoppers and big finishes that he still cannot resist. He has gotten good at varying the dynamics of his voice to suit his material. He knows when to give us more Tony and less Tony, even if it’s always the same Tony, more or less.

The great shortcomings of Bennett’s music, taken as a body of work, are its narrowness of range, emotionally, and its lack of depth, intellectually. Few singers in any tradition are as gifted as Bennett at expressing joy; he is an ebullient spirit, and that broad grin of his is audible when he sings bright-spirited songs such as “The Good Life” and “Exactly Like You.” Among the qualities that make the standards in his repertoire great are their complexities, their levels of subtext, their internal contradictions; but Bennett, for all his technique and seriousness of purpose, and despite his considerable improvement as a singer over the years, rarely cuts deeply into the complicated material he tackles. When Bennett does Rodgers and Hart’s mordant lament “This Funny World,” he conveys little sense of the cross-tensions of wistfulness, futility, and self-pity in the song. Or when he sings a piece of vernacular poetry such as “Moonlight in Vermont,” he gets across a suitable feeling of warmth in broad strokes, but falls short of evoking the song’s imagery vividly. (At one point he sings of “the wobbling of a meadowlark,” instead of the “warbling.”)

A meticulous vocal craftsman, Bennett applies his highly developed and well-seasoned skills to the making of exquisite surfaces—lush tones, fastidiously produced, swinging in time. He sings very much as he appears, impeccably attired and elegantly coiffed with an impressive, natural-looking hairpiece. But there would be little purpose at this point to expect to find much underneath.

I cannot help but suspect that Bennett’s genial, exacting superficiality accounts in large part for his appeal to audiences unschooled in the deeper potential of the music that he sings. He serves as a symbol of the untaxing, uncomplicated lightheartedness of the musical culture predating rock—by extension, a validation of rock’s supposedly greater capacity to say serious things. I doubt that this is quite what Tony Bennett has intended.

Bennett, a classicist with the fervor and certainty that are the privileges of the converted, strives to serve the music he treasures as an uncorrupting conduit for the work. He brings little of himself to the music, in deference to it. Unlike Sinatra or Holiday—or any of the fine lesser-known interpreters of the American songbook, such as Mark Murphy—Bennett withholds the self in his work. However noble his intentions, the effect is diminishing. Bennett seems not to have internalized the songs he sings. He presents them as musical artworks, but denies the value of interpretation as an art itself. Billie Holiday made clear her presence, her view of the world as an artist, and she employed her songs—the same songs Bennett sings, for the most part—to express her own ideas about that world. Her work was about life as she experienced it, and songs were her instruments. Bennett treats the instruments as the art. He grants no privilege to his thinking, and its absence is a hole that flaws the neat construction of his music. We know exactly where he left his heart, but what of his mind?

David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 1, 2011, issue of the magazine.