Tony Bennett – The Classic Christmas Album (2011)

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Tony Bennett’s warm, inviting delivery would seem perfectly suited to seasonal music — and it is. You can hear the very best of his Christmas projects, from a seminal 1968 Yuletide release to this burst of holly-jolly projects in the 2000s, on this terrific new compilation.

Classic features five tracks from ’68’s Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album, arranged and conducted with a sensitive joy by Robert Farnon — a frequent collaborator with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams, among others. That might be highlight enough, if not for the inclusion of five more tracks from 2008’s aptly titled A Swinging Christmas, the Grammy-nominated, Bill Holman-arranged effort featuring the Count Basie Big Band.

From the first record, we have a memorable take on Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” as well as a note-perfect medley of “I Love the Winter Weather” and “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm.” As expected, the collaboration with the late Basie’s old group turns into a romp — with upbeat renditions of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Christmas Time is Here,” from the Charles Brown Christmas special. (Monty Alexander sits in, doing his best banging imitation of the Count.)

Bennett returned to work alongside Farnon for 2001’s Hallmark Presents: Christmas with Tony Bennett, an sleekly urbane project featuring the London Symphony Orchestra — and four bedrock standards appear from those sessions, including “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night.” Bennett’s longtime collaborative foil Ralph Sharon and his quartet are showcased on two cuts from 2001’s Our Favorite Things, including a duet with tenor virtuoso Placido Domingo; as well as the tune “Christmas in Herald Square” from 1998’s Playground.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Tony Bennett, at 85, saw 2011’s ‘Duets II’ hurtle to an unlikely spot atop the Billboard album chart — his first ever such honor.]

Finally, there is a brand-new, previously unreleased track, “What Child Is This,” arranged and conducted by Marion Evans. Arriving as it does alongside work from four decades before, the song can’t help but reveal the inevitable vocal fraying, but Bennett (always game, always approachable) remains the last of the great interpretive singers — and as winning as ever.

The Classic Christmas Album, issued by Columbia Legacy, includes the new ebridge/Ultimate Access technology that allows a computer user to access special offerings from the tonybennett.com Web site. The project is part of a series of 85th birthday celebration releases from Columbia, including the sprawling Tony Bennett: The Complete Collection (featuring 73 CDs and 3 DVDs) and, of course, Duets II, his charttopping sequel featuring the final recordings of Amy Winehouse.

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