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)

For Krall, being relieved of keyboard duties and facing the elegantly appointed Bennett eye-to-eye—the singers and instrumentalists set up in the big room of Manhattan’s storied Avatar Studios, sans headphones, during the August 2017 recording session—generated complicated emotions.

On the one hand, she said, the experience was playful and, to an extent, liberating: “It was a very fun thing for me to stand next to Tony and just sing together like that. It was a very natural process.” On the other hand, it tempted her to add too much information to the mix: “Sometimes, I think that because I’m not playing piano, I feel like I have to sing more.”

But, she added, any tendency to “oversing” was mitigated by Bennett’s slightly disorienting, if eminently pleasurable, unpredictability. Without warning, he will alter dynamics, change keys and stretch or abbreviate note values in such a way that no two takes—indeed, no two bars—ever yield quite the same feel.

“You just have to follow him and use your judgment as you’re going, because he’ll do these unbelievable notes,” Krall said. “I sort of step back and watch him go and not worry whether I’m going to finish that ending with him.”

Bennett, asked to deconstruct his style—one that is admittedly intuitive—described a process of creating suspense through contrast: “You say, ‘This needs a shot here.’ And all of a sudden it’s there. And you say, ‘Because I really belted it, let’s do something soft,’ and you do something soft. Then you do something fast and then something that slows down. Before you know it, all together it becomes a work of performance.”

Given both Bennett’s and Krall’s long discographies, it’s somewhat surprising that two of the duet tracks on the new album are tunes that neither artist previously had recorded: “My One And Only” and “I’ve Got A Crush On You.”

Even if Bennett hadn’t performed Gershwin so often—he previously has recorded at least seven of the tunes on the new album, some of them (“Fascinating Rhythm,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and the title track) multiple times—he naturally would be the senior member of any musical partnership.

But to Bennett, who somehow seems inured to the esteem in which he is held, he and Krall constitute a partnership of equals. Praising her as an artist and a person, he hailed her qualifications for the matter at hand: “She’s a natural. She starts singing and you hear Gershwin the way it’s supposed to be done.”

All of which, Krall said, was aided immeasurably by “the magic of Bill Charlap.”

Charged with arranging the tunes, Charlap worked his magic methodically. First, he said, he determined what tempos the singers were envisioning and how they related to the emotions they were trying to put across. Then he clarified the harmony and transitions with his bandmates without handcuffing them from being themselves.

Charlap also had to reconcile singing ranges that were complementary, but sometimes different—and sometimes different enough that there was no way they were going to be in the same key on the same song. That, Charlap said, entailed determining “how we were going to make a modulation that didn’t compromise the structure of the piece, that didn’t shoehorn them into anything.” The upshot: “It should sound like they just walked in and threw down, which they did.”

Charlap looked at both sheet music and the famous folio Gershwin at the Keyboard: 18 Song Hits Arranged by The Composer for Piano, which, when compared with other Gershwin sources, revealed flexibility in his thinking about his own music. As part of his research for the project, Charlap checked out how pianists from Teddy Wilson to Herbie Hancock had approached Gershwin.

Charlap also studied numerous vocalists’ versions of Gershwin tunes: “You have magnificent interpreters of the melodies and the lyrics, distinctive original American phrasings informed by Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong—who are in my mind the central figures in vocal American music—and that’s what ultimately we end up with in our Gershwin production.”

The process played out well on “Do It Again,” which was taken at a pace that allowed for some of Charlap’s most impressive pianism. “The tempo the singers were singing it at was a little bit more of a loping, slightly dance tempo instead of a torchy-type tempo,” he said, “so I could draw on some of the stride type of feeling—but not overly strident, maybe a little more Ellis Larkins than Fats Waller.

“At the same time, there’s Gershwin’s beautiful harmony that comes from the folio in that. I wanted the trio to be themselves, Tony and Diana to feel comfortable. The arrangement had a lot of things going on, a lot of different positions I didn’t worry anybody about. I just did them, and none of them call attention to themselves.”

Between culling the lists of possible tunes the principals had generated and meeting each of the singers alone, Charlap said he spent about a week in preparation. And while adjustments in keys, tempos and the like needed to be made in the studio—no rehearsals were held—all the artists had extensive resources to draw on.

“Ultimately,” Charlap said, “you have some very experienced musicians here—all five—each with a deep history to bring to this and a very deep individuality.”

None, of course, boasted a history as deep as Bennett’s, whose decades-long reign at the top of the heap weighed most heavily on the proceedings: “Having come up through the history of the music,” Charlap said, “[he] is the history of the music.”

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July 2022
Sean Jones
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