Thoughts on Tony Bennett. My post last week on the Bill Evans/Tony Bennett sessions of the mid-1970s drew e-mails from fans and non-fans alike. Fans insisted that Bennett's bel canto style on the two albums was invigorating and powerful. I tend to disagree, probably because I'm a huge Tony Bennett fan.
Tony Bennett matters for many reasons. Like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole before him, Bennett changed the sound and style of male pop vocals in the 1950s and 1960s, introducing a jazz-smart intimacy that didn't exist previously on a mass-market level.
Back in the 1930s, Crosby's relaxed baritone was a welcome relief from the wooden, classically trained male pop singers of the day. In the 1940s, Sinatra's vulnerability won female hearts while his swinging swagger in the 1950s nailed the male mid-life crisis. And Cole's grace in the 1950s transcended race and perfectly captured a newly emerging male maturity.
But by the early 1960s, the country's definition of masculinity was shifting yet again. The more youthful culture emerging allowed for a new male sensitivity that Bennett's honest vocal encapsulated. His unadorned, passionate approach marks the start of a younger, more expressive swing. You can hear this openness on Put on a Happy Face (1960), Young and Foolish (1963), If I Ruled the World (1965), When Joanna Loved Me (1963), The Moment of Truth (1964), The Shadow of Your Smile (1965) and Make It Easy on Yourself (1970) to name but a handful. Bennett's approach was confident, concerned and gentle—which is why he touched so many and still does. He always gave it up.
And like the blockbuster singers before him, Bennett came up through jazz and jazz delivery, not just pop and Broadway. If you know Bennett's discography, you know that he recorded a number of superb albums and tracks with jazz heavyweights before his Evans summits. So when I'm puzzled by Bennett's heavy-handed approach on the Evans dates, it's because I am comparing his attack to much more enjoyable jazz executions of earlier years. To illustrate (and to keep the Evans comparison fair), here are a handful of more exciting Tony Bennett small-group jazz recordings:
The Beat of My Heart (1957)—Nat Adderley (trumpet), Al Cohn (tenor sax), John Pisano (guitar), Ralph Sharon (piano), Milt Hinton and James Bond (bass), Art Blakey and Chico Hamilton (drums), plus others on different dates.
You'll Never Get Away From Me (1959)—Ralph Sharon (piano), Dick Hixson (trumpet), Willie Dennis, Frank Rehak, Kai Winding (trombones), Mundell Lowe (guitar), George Duvivier (bass) and Don Lamond (drums).
Tony Sings for Two (1959)—with Ralph Sharon on piano.
The Very Thought of You (1966)—Though this track from the A Time for Love LP features a full orchestra conducted by Johnny Keating, it's really a duet between Tony and Bobby Hackett's wandering trumpet.
Charles Mingus. WKCR-FM in New York presents its annual Charles Mingus Birthday Broadcast, playing his music around the clock on Wednesday April 22nd. Go here to listen live.
Dupree Bolton and Rudy Van Gelder. Last week Jazz.com featured two superb posts: Editor Ted Gioia wrote a beautiful and remarkable two-parter on phantom trumpeter Dupree Bolton. Next, Andy Karp managed to score an interview with elusive engineer Rudy Van Gelder. Bravo!
CD discovery of the week: Every so often I hear a new album that hits me just right. To do so, it needs to either build on 1950s sensibilities or intelligently leverage Latin-jazz or jazz-rock fusion. Trumpeter Derrick Gardner and the Jazz Prophets +2's Echoes of Ethnicity manages to do both beautifully. I can't stop listening to this one, and Gardner is one sweet player and leader.
The Jazz Prophets has been around since 1989. Originally modeled on the Jazz Messengers, Gardner's group has successfully built on Art Blakey's small-group vision. The Jazz Prophets + 2 is primarily a hard-bop ensemble that adds flecks of Freddie Hubbard, the funk of the Brecker Brothers and the musicianship of Steps Ahead. The group features Gardner [pictured] on trumpet and flugelhorn, brother Vincent Gardner on trombone, Rob Dixon on tenor sax, Rick Roe on piano, Gerald Cannon on bass and Donald Edwards on drums. The "+2" are Brad Leali on alto sax and Jason Marshall on baritone sax. Two more are aboard on this album: Kevin Kaiser on percussion and Brandon Meeks on bass.
The large reed presence here keeps the album firmly in jazz territory and out of the fusion swamp that most contemporary jazz groups still slide into. Derrick's trumpet playing is richly round and strong, without disintegrating into migraine-inducing bolts of sound. Echoes of Ethnicity is a surprisingly sophisticated album that carefully quilts jazz, funk, fusion and Latin. Sounds like a messy mix, but each flavor comes together perfectly. Vincent Gardner's [pictured] Mercury Blvd. is a perfect example. There's no drifting or padding here. Every measure has meaning. And drummer Donald Edwards is indispensable throughout the album.
But ultimately, Derrick Gardner is to be commended for offering something new here that works. My guess is that Gardner's five years in Count Basie's band taught him valuable lessons about cohesion and resolution. While the sound is new, Gardner has placed a jazz cop on every corner, and the result is truly fresh and remarkable.
You'll find The Jazz Prophets + 2's Echoes of Ethnicity as an iTunes download or on CD here. Sample Crystal Stair and see what I mean.
Shorty Rogers. In response to last Sunday's "Oddball Album Cover of the Week" (Shorty Rogers' Chances Are It Swings), I received the following e-mail from reader Guy Kopelowicz:
"The cover of the version I own is credited to Garrett Howard. Garrett Howard is also credited with taking care of the covers of several of Martin Denny albums and several of Julie London albums (including Swing Me an Old Song and London by Night)."
Oddball album cover of the week: The "whatever" expression on Lionel Hampton's face says it all. Being tricked out as a clownish 1920s aviator or crop-duster is comical, to say the least. This 12-inch LP for Clef Records in 1956 featured Hamp, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Buddy Rich and Buddy DeFranco. While the art director gets a D for creativity, I was struck by the photo and its composition, which actually are quite good. So I did a little research and found out why: It was taken by Herman Leonard. Based on the literal approach, it's a good thing the album wasn't called Midnight Sun.