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The Boston Phoenix Bennett's Blues

Tony sings Ellington

By Richard C. Walls

OCTOBER 25, 1999:  How can one not like Tony Bennett? He's amiable, he's talented, he's been around since the Punic Wars, and during our millennial season he's managed to cultivate a fresh young crop of admirers who are responding to him not in the spirit of neo-lounge-lizard irony but with a genuine appreciation for his old-school masculine grace. He's 73 years old and he's cool.

He's also a prodigious recording artist, and his CD of the moment, Tony Bennett Sings Ellington Hot & Cool (RPM/Columbia), is typical of his late-period output -- though there may be a few signs of strain now and then, he's enough of an artist to put his limitations at the service of poignancy. Mostly he sounds happy to be singing -- this conveyed pleasure is perhaps his most singular and appealing trait -- and so we're happy to listen.

There is, however, a fly in the ointment, that being our old nemesis the uninspired and obtrusive orchestra, not present on every cut but when there detracting from Bennett's interpretive subtleties. On "Do Nothin' till You Here From Me," for example, the strings start out behaving themselves but then decide to essay a countermelody; they cluster together at an annoyingly bright pitch and then, as if that weren't enough inane goosing, bring in flutes and harps for further cornball augmentation. On "She Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," the orchestra looms with more restraint, and though the waterfall flutes are back for a brief appearance, the glissando harps seem to have gone out for a smoke.

But damned if the harps don't come back to muck up an otherwise engaging version of "Day Dreams," one of the "rarer" Ellington tunes here, which means rarely recorded by big-time singers. I realize not everyone shares my sensitivity about this but, I'm sorry, certain cliché'd sounds make my skin crawl. Sometimes it doesn't matter, as on "Mood Indigo," where one can savor the supple coyness of Bennett's "no no no" and the off-the-cuff "uh-huh" that comes just after "I'm so lonesome I could cry" and ignore the peripheral Mantovani homage (but just barely).

Okay, one more beef before I start heaping on the praise, a complaint that could be summed up with the words Wynton Marsalis, whose presence on an Ellington tribute (on three of the CD's 14 cuts) carries with it a starchy, pedantic subtext. Marsalis plays in two styles here, one being a sort of Bubber Miley/wah-wah approximation, the kind of gratuitous simulacrum that conjures up images of a pointer and a blackboard. The other style is an anonymously straightforward one that I assume is his own.

Anyway, there are a lot of cuts here that carry no baggage at all, especially those featuring Bennett's long-time collaborator Ralph Sharon and the guitarist (and Boston-area stalwart) Gray Sargent, who turns out to be the CD's secret weapon -- every time he steps forward, no matter how brief it may be, it's a witty and graceful interlude.

And there's Bennett, tackling a more challenging songbook than usual. Ellington's compositions can be very demanding of singers. "In a Sentimental Mood" is almost an aria, requiring the vocalist to climb to an emphatic height in its opening phrase, and Bennett, though sounding a bit raspy and unsure during the first ascent, builds in strength with each repeat. "Sophisticated Lady" also has a rangy melodic sweep, but this time the singer, backed by just guitar and bass, keeps the tone cool and quiet, even slipping into the conversational on lines like "Dancing, dining with some man in a restaurant/ [chuckle] Is that all you really want?"

Sometimes the challenge is less in the melody and more in finding a proper approach to the lyrics, which can be rich and strange. "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" is a gentle rebuke intended to make an ex-girlfriend feel guilty, and Bennett hits just the right note of chiding resignation. "Prelude to a Kiss," so often heard as an instrumental, has some of the best lyrics in the Ellington canon (credited to Irving Gordon and Ellington manager Irving Mills), including "If you hear a song that grows/From my tender, sentimental woes/That was my heart trying to compose/A prelude to a kiss." Again backed by a stripped-down accompaniment, the singer nails it with a gentle touch. An added attraction here -- and on "Sophisticated Lady" -- is Joel Smirnoff, first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, a player very comfortable in the jazz idiom.

But my vote for best match of song and singer is "I'm Just a Lucky So-and-So," with a melody and lyric perfectly suited to the singer's glad-to-be-here persona. This is what's at the heart of his cross-generational appeal -- not just sophistication but an unforced joie de vivre, always in short supply, always welcome. I repeat, how can you not like the guy?

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