Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett

The Art of Romance

RPM/Columbia

Tony Bennett has already had one of the most distinct, long-lived and successful careers in music, but what we have here is a perfectly comfy but unnecessary collection. Fans of Bennett’s style of song or Bennett himself (and I’m both) will value his latest contribution and will be glad to have it; but the curious are advised to start up with a quality collection of his best-known works (the DVD concert performance released in 2003, with kd lang joining Bennett for a few numbers, is also recommended.)

Here, he is most effective with his own small group. Gray Sargent’s guitar solo on “All For You” should particularly be mentioned; and Phil Woods’ saxophone intro on “The Best Man” is another highlight (as is the song on the album). I could have done without the strings on some songs — I assume they’re meant to cover unwanted scratches in The Master’s voice, but to me they sound more like unwanted intrusions. The intimacy of the moments Bennett creates at his best doesn’t need sweetening.

Tony Bennett, has, of course, sung many songs from the “Great American Songbook.” From his signature piece, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” to “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” to “For Once in My Life.” Trouble is, big as it is, eventually the songbook runs out of pages.

There is much to appreciate on The Art Of Romance, and the songwriting roster contains many of the right names: Hammerstein, Kern, Mercer, Arlen. But I don’t think many would argue, with all due respect, that these are unjustly overlooked classics. The closest the song catalog comes to a true great is Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” Bennett and his combo turn this famous song from Company into a rhythm number. It’s fun, and I can well believe it’d be even more so live, but it’s hardly a definitive performance.

As great living composers of standards and jazz go, Johnny Mandel (“The Shadow Of Your Smile,” “Emily,” the theme from MASH), may not have the field to himself, but he’s pretty close to it. Mandel did some of the string arrangements to which I referred earlier, but he redeems himself with his songs. Three of his are featured, of which the most successful here and arguably the most famous is “Close Enough For Love.” Mandel’s orchestral opening to “I Remember You” is also quite lovely, but again, if it had dropped out once Bennett begins to sing I would not have missed it.

The Roman-nosed vocalist’s leisurely readings are showing his age, but it works for him. I’ve written before of how I was hit with the realization that he is the last of his breed. No less an authority than Sinatra himself sung Bennett’s praises, and one likes to think “The Chairman” would be pleased at his friend’s status as the Last Man Standing.

PS: Charmingly, the musicians are shown in the CD booklet not in photographs but portraits painted by Bennett.

Tony Bennett: www.tonybennett.net

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