I'll be honest: I've never cared much for the two duet albums that Tony Bennett and Bill Evans recorded in 1975 and 1976. I've always felt that Bennett's approach was way too operatic and that Evans' playing in response was frustratingly meek. The results have constantly left me wishing producer Helen Keane had played a more dominant role, imploring Bennett to lighten up while goading Evans to step up.
I revisited both albums in 1999 when Rhino reissued the material on one remastered CD with a handful of alternate takes. Back then I had much the same reaction to the material, that it was a well-intentioned but overtly mismatched affair. So last week, when I opened the Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings, a new double-CD set from Concord Records [pictured], I did so with some trepidation.
The new CD set contains all of the original masters as well as 22 alternate takes. There also are a bunch of surprises. For example, I didn't realize there was a third take of The Bad and the Beautiful, a song Evans played alone to warm up for the Together Again date. I also didn't know there was another acceptable alternate of Who Can I Turn To, a song recorded but then mysteriously not released on the second LP.
After listening to the new set's first CD of master takes, many of my original feelings about the lopsided execution surfaced again. Bennett goes full bore on songs that really needed a tamped down delivery, which would have allowed Evans to shine through. Instead, Evans often sounds crushed against the wall under Bennett's wide-open timbre. A Child Is Born perhaps best illustrates the point. You listen and find you can't wait for Bennett to finish his chorus so Evans can solo.
I adore Tony Bennett, especially in the 1960s. Back then, his hip, knowing voice was the sound of a new male sensitivity. Bennett could swing, but he also understood tenderness and passion. Which is why I've never quite understood why Bennett wasn't able to properly gauge where his voice would be best positioned up against Evans' tip-toe delicacy.
The other problem for me is the song choices. The sessions cried out for a producer with a much stronger hand. I think most listeners would have preferred a few upbeat Broadway or Bacharach-David songs mixed in than the steady diet of double-thick jazz ballads chosen. It's almost as if the two artists were trying to out-depress each other.
Yet despite all of this, I was blown away by the Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings. The magic, it turns out, is on the second CD. It's here, on these so-called "flawed" alternate takes, where the art of this merger exists. The uneven tracks are the real soul-squeezers. For example, on Young and Foolish (alternate take, 4), listen as Bennett unevenly and beautifully runs through the song. And catch Evans' rolling build on the solo break. The imperfections are gorgeous! Or dig Make Someone Happy (alternate, take 5), where Bennett is clipped, crisp and much lighter than on the master take, allowing Evans to sparkle like rain on a wet, sunny tree.
The other wonderful element about the second disc is Evans' solo introductions to each song. He never opens the same way twice, and each entrance ramp takes fascinating twists and turns before you hear the melody and Bennett.
There also is much to be said for Will Friedwald's liner notes. Will interviewed all of the remaining players and delivers a steamer trunk's worth of new information. All albums should use these liner notes as a model. Among the many revelations:
- Tony Bennett first met Bill Evans backstage at the White House in 1962. Both were attending a special jazz party thrown by President Kennedy (those were the days!)
- Annie Ross and Bill Evans dated in the mid-1950s, but according to Ross there was no chemistry.
- Bennett originally envisioned a two-piano date for the first album, with Bill Evans and John Bunch at the keyboards. John bowed out, feeling he wasn't in Evans' league, a remark that Bennett took umbrage with.
- No preparation was made for the first album. Bennett or Evans would think of a song, and the two would go over it.
- Evans called Bennett in the remaining months of his life to tell him to "Forget about everything else. Just concentrate on truth and beauty, that's it."
If this second CD has a high point (and there are many), it's You Must Believe in Spring (alternate, take 4). On this track, Bennett is virtually whispering the lyrics. Bennett by this point clearly was out of steam or just walking the song around the block. And what a precious version it is. Sadly, it's not until Bennett hit a wall that these two artists wound up exactly in the same space—where they should have been all along. This track will take your breath away.
All in all, the Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings is a highly worthwhile set for fans of the Bennett-Evans collaboration—even if you've never cared for the original recordings or you already own them. It's an important entry because it fully documents what has been up until now a highly puzzling session. What's more, you finally get to hear the alternate takes. They demonstrate just how good this pairing could have been with the right producer in the booth. To paraphrase Evans, it's on these tracks where truth met beauty.
JazzWax tracks: The new Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings can be found as an iTunes download—or on CD here.