Tony Bennett & Diana Krall: Streetwise, Yet Sophisticated

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Love Is Here To Stay (Verve/Columbia) is the first album-length, one-on-one collaboration that Tony Bennett has recorded with his good friend Diana Krall.

(Photo: Mark Seliger)

Breezing into his art studio on New York’s Central Park South, Tony Bennett hardly seemed fazed by the July heat. Coolly attired in an open-neck shirt and light-blue blazer, he retained, at age 91, the air of the unflappable crooner whose interpretive powers long have set a singular standard for sophistication.

Yet the scrappy Anthony Benedetto, from the outer boroughs, never was far from the surface. Gazing at an old photo of his late mother toiling in a Manhattan clothing factory, he was reminded of another July day—one in 1936 when he walked with New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia across the East River in a ceremony marking the opening of the Triborough Bridge.

“We sang from Queens, from Astoria, all the way into New York,” he recalled, his eyes growing wider. Then, in one of those surprise moments that have kept generations of fans on the edge of their seats, he unexpectedly launched into the opening of the tune he sang as a 10-year-old on that bridge:

“Marching along together, bumpada dadadada.”

The excerpt was brief, clearly offered without premeditation. But the interpretation was unmistakable—the voice at once smoky and stirring, the lines propelled by a sudden kick that infused the staid Depression-era morale-booster “Marching Along Together” with the syncopated sound of the streets.

Even as Bennett has amassed many of the nation’s highest cultural honors, the singer has retained a connection to his Queens childhood, lending his work a universal appeal. And that quality is present throughout his latest album, Love Is Here To Stay (Verve/Columbia). The disc is a tribute to another neighborhood kid who made good—George Gershwin—and, of course, his older brother, the lyricist Ira Gershwin. It represents the first album-length, one-on-one collaboration that Bennett has recorded with his good friend Diana Krall, with whom he has been singing duets for nearly 20 years.

The album, out Sept. 14, consists of 12 tunes suffused with the vernacular—from the opening track, “’S Wonderful” (which employs the kind of street-corner slang of which the Gershwins were fond), to the closer, “Who Cares?” (which supplies plenty of streetwise attitude).

The collection conjures a mood both animated and intimate. For it, Bennett has recruited another friend who knows how to weave such a spell—Bill Charlap, who played piano on his 2015 album The Silver Lining: The Songs Of Jerome Kern (Columbia), which earned the singer his 18th Grammy award.

Having done Kern—Gershwin’s senior by 13 years—Bennett’s decision to focus on Gershwin was a logical one. Gershwin, who worked for Kern as a rehearsal pianist, made a study of the older composer’s oeuvre, absorbing much of his harmonic language.

But, according to Charlap, Gershwin’s music, more than that of Kern or most of his contemporaries, possessed a key quality in abundance: “the rhythmic, strident sound of jazz.” And therein lies much of the composer’s appeal to Bennett, who was inducted into the DownBeat Hall of Fame in 2015.

“Gershwin automatically excites me,” the singer said. “He was a genius at understanding improvisation and how to put it into music.”

For all of Bennett’s commercial success—he has been hitting the charts since before “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” made him an international star in 1962—he places himself firmly in the jazz tradition. It was, in fact, the particulars of that tradition that first attracted him to singing.

As a boy in Astoria, Bennett would listen with mild curiosity to his older brother’s opera lessons. “But then he started studying jazz, and that’s when I got interested,” Bennett recalled. “I said, ‘I like that.’ I became a jazz singer because you could do a song different ways—as a ballad, a rhythm song, upbeat, as a waltz—and it would always sound good.”

Bennett pursued a singing career, interrupted only by a hitch in the Army during World War II. Returning from Europe, he attended the American Theater Wing. By 1949, having appeared onstage with Pearl Bailey and Bob Hope, he released his first record on the obscure Leslie Records label (under the stage name Joe Bari). Bennett’s choice of song? Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm.”

Fast-forward 68 years, and that tune shows up on the new album. After the ’49 release, Bennett recorded the tune twice more: in 1959, on In Person, with the Count Basie band, and on an album of his landmark Carnegie Hall concert in 1962. He also sang it on a 1982 TV special. But in recent years, the tune has not often found its way into Bennett’s performances.

Not that it is ever far from his mind. Literally fascinated by its rhythm—he repeatedly invoked “the beat” when asked what has drawn him to the tune—he and Krall negotiate its fragmented melody and rhyme scheme with only the sparest of support from Charlap, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington.

“To have that kind of space is brave in some respect,” Krall said.

Fearlessly but deftly, Bennett and Krall build a colloquy that explores the piece’s nooks and crannies, fashioning a performance that breathes—partly, Charlap suggested, because Krall, like Nat “King” Cole or Shirley Horn, enjoys the advantage of being both a singer and pianist.

“That’s another kind of trip,” Charlap said. “In a way, it informs the technical ability to make harmonic and melodic choices that are grounded.”

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On Sale Now
January 2019
Eric Dolphy
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