Tony Bennett holds a rightful place as an American icon for a variety of reasons: he is essentially our last link to the other great crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Like Ray Charles, Bennett can sing virtually anything from jazz to show tunes to contemporary pop. He remains a remarkable talent for another important reason: his voice has evolved over time rather than devolved. Compare his style from the 1950s to the 1970s to his improbable 1990s comeback, and one can hear Bennett transitioning from his early full-throated technique to the subtle, at times whispery voice of today. This fact comes to mind when listening to As Time Goes By: Great American Songbook Classics, a compilation issued by Concord Records. Instead of focusing on his early career or his later resurgence, this collection examines his 1970s work. While uneven, the CD provides an affordable way to fill in gaps in a Bennett fan’s collection.
Not surprisingly, the standouts on As Time Goes By result from Bennett’s acclaimed collaborations with jazz pianist Bill Evans. The two recorded two albums together in the mid-’70s, and today they are considered essential listening for any jazz fan. Their interpretation of Henry Mancini’s “Days of Wine and Roses” is at once heartbreaking and breathtaking. Upon first listen, Bennett’s emotional vocal style anchors the song, his singing acting out the deeply haunting lyrics. Upon multiple hearings, however, Evan’s deceptively understated piano work rises to the top. They bring their interpretive gifts to both awe the audience and bring them to tears. The gorgeous ballad “Some Other Time” also benefits from their treatment, with Bennett’s voice echoing the longing evoked through the words. As Evans’s subtle playing sets a romantic mood, Bennett dramatizes the wistfulness, poeticism, and optimism in the following lines:
Just when the fun is starting,
Comes the time for parting,
But let’s be glad for what we’ve had
And what’s to come.
As with the rest of the song, these words certainly convey dewy-eyed romanticism. Yet throughout the track lies an undercurrent of wariness, a foreboding sense of time slipping away. “There’s so much more embracing, still to be done, but time is racing,” Bennett sings. The minimalist atmosphere Bennett and Evans create perfectly enhanced these delicately beautiful songs.
Bennett’s strengths did not strictly reside in ballads. His rendition of “The Lady Is A Tramp” amazes with the way he plays with the rhythms; a close hearing reveals how Bennett changes tempos and rhythms with each word, making the often-covered song his very own. Any aspiring singer should study Bennett’s technical skill on this track.
Over his career Bennett performed with big bands, but he truly excels at singing with trios or with even less accompaniment. Unfortunately As Time Goes By does not include enough of this material, instead drawing on some more overproduced tracks. Here is where the difference between his younger days and today’s reflective period is most evident. 2013’s Bennett would undoubtedly perform “Blue Moon” using a softer voice than how he unleashed his vocal chords on his 1973 cover. Other times Bennett is in fine form, but the overembelllished arrangement drowns his evocative singing. A lengthy medley of Cole Porter’s most memorable songs, extracted from Bennett’s 1975 album Life Is Beautiful, perfectly illustrates this phenomenon. The medley fluctuates between huge orchestration and quieter accompaniment, with Bennett trying to keep afloat over the fluctuating tones. Would Bennett approach this medley differently today? Undoubtedly yes.
Casual fans of Tony Bennett who only want the hits may not be the intended market for As Time Goes By; conversely, hardcore enthusiasts may already own these tracks. But those who want to fill in missing decades of their Bennett collections might want to investigate this inexpensive compilation. If nothing else, As Time Goes By: Great American Songbook Classics captures Bennett at a crossroads in his career: his lower profile in the 1970s, where he was exploring where he could fit in to the contemporary music scene.
By changing his singing technique and stripping down his arrangements to the bare minimum, he later regained his popularity with his core audience and simultaneously attracted new generations of listeners.