Tony Bennett is the last of the golden age of jazz vocalists.
At 92, Tony Bennett is the last of the golden age of jazz vocalists. His career stretches so far back it predates the album format, something he subsequently went on to master over the course of some nearly 60 studio albums ranging from big band arrangements to the landmark 1970s recordings he made with pianist Bill Evans. That he still remains an active performer showing no signs of slowing down is a testament to not only his unrelenting work ethic, but also his virtually peerless skill as a singer and interpreter of songs. His approach is so effortless as to feel almost more conversational than musical, making for an instantly intimate listening experience, regardless of the setting.
Vocalist and pianist Diana Krall released her first album 25 years ago, making her part of the second or third generation to follow Bennett and company. Yet her approach has always been one of a throwback nature in her respectfully understated interpretation of the Great American Songbook and jazz standards alike. So natural a fit, the pair toured together briefly in 2000 on a 20-city run. The ensuing years saw them teaming up again from time to time, always classy, always well-matched. In essence, theirs is a partnership that has existed off and on for the past several decades, finally coming to fruition in the form of a full-length release in Love Is Here to Stay.
Designed as a tribute to the brothers Gershwin, Love Is Here to Stay finds the pair hitting the expected high points of the Gershwin songbook, treating each with a delicately reverential respect that rarely strays from the original melody. Opening with “’S Wonderful,” they, with the help of the Bill Charlap trio, immediately draw the listener into a candle-lit cabaret atmosphere in which they share an easy rapport. Both are understated stylists who know their way around a song inside and out, making for a more logical pairing than, say, Bennett’s 2014 outing with Lady Gaga (no vocal slouch herself, of course).
But the problem with the Bennett/Krall pairing lies in this laidback musical understatement. Rather than harmonizing on phrases, they sing unison lines that cause their vocals become muddled and lost within each other. They are at their best when trading verses and engaging in a sort of melodic call-and-response, an approach that, to be fair, makes up the majority of the album. Yet it’s these times when they forgo harmonizing in favor of unison vocals that things threaten to fall off the rails, particularly on “I’ve Got a Crush on You” as they attempt a unison rubato that feels shaky at best.
On the title track, Krall’s vocals are pitched so that she more often than not sounds like Julie London at her most reserved, and thus a sharp contrast to Bennett’s more exuberant, rollercoaster read. It’s an often sleepy contrast that doesn’t always mesh quite as well as it could, yet it never feels forced on the part of either artist. Unlike his recording with Gaga, Krall offers Bennett a series of performances in which they sound like musical and lyrical peers, operating within a style that they both feel infinitely comfortable.
A clear highlight is their imaginative reworking of “I Got Rhythm” in which the melody races around a gently fluttering snare pattern that plays with the beat, teasing something more rhythmically deliberate and driving than what is actually present on the recording. It’s a playful read that allows the Charlap trio to show off their respective chops as the singers gamely stand back after a single read of the verse and chorus. Similarly, their take on “Fascinating Rhythm” is a thrill. It’s a fitting choice, too, as it was Bennett’s debut single in 1949. And while nearly 70 years separate the recordings, Bennett has lost none of his showmanship and mastery of a good song.
There is nothing on Love Is Here to Stay that will rewrite the legacy of either artist – they’ve both been better before and Bennett’s range isn’t quite what it once was (but whose is after some 70 years in the business?) But it’s nonetheless an enjoyable pairing of two of the classiest jazz vocalists still working and, more importantly, still clearly enjoying themselves in the process. We should all hope to be so active should we find ourselves becoming nonagenarians.