In the mid-1970s, singer Tony Bennett and jazz pianist Bill Evans, two legends in their respective fields, joined together for Bay Area recording sessions that spawned The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album in 1975 and its sequel Together Again the following year. Over the years record companies have been known to get in the way of such musical unions due to contractual issues. In this instance, with Evans being committed to Fantasy Records and Bennett founding Improv Records each label garnered its own release, to the benefit of all.
In 2009, Fantasy/Concord has released the two-disc set The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings. Aside from featuring both albums, there are two bonus tracks from the Together sessions and a number of alternate takes, all of which have either appeared on subsequent album reissues or the boxed set Tony Bennett: The Complete Improv Recordings.
Both men are very expressive in their emotion and phrasing as they present many aspects of love. They could easily have performed solo, as Evans did on “The Bad and the Beautiful,” and still delivered evocative pieces, but together they gel into an impressive duo, driving and inspiring each other. It’s not surprising to read in the liner notes by Will Friedwald, co-author of Bennett’s autobiography, they recorded simultaneously sharing space together in the studio.
Opening with “Young and Foolish” from Plain and Fancy, you hear both men express the regret of a relationship where the participants are aware “We haven’t long to be.” Not because the couple’s love has dissipated but because of outside forces, punctuated by both men soaring on the line “the bluebird has to fly.” One of the lovers could have sung “We’ll Be Together Again,” assuring “that some day some way” their reunion will happen. Evans’ playing underlies the sadness but doesn’t dwell in it. While parted, “You’re Nearer” is a song for the lovers as the narrator reveals they are still as close as they can be because “I love you so.”
The duo reveals the powerful spell a simple kiss can cast. Bennett calls forth the passion of lovers from “The Touch of Your Lips,” which bring solace and comfort, much like Evans’ melodies. Later, Bennett tries to warn himself on “My Foolish Heart” about the “line between love and fascination/ That’s hard to see on an evening such as this” because he knows when “eager lips combine” that thinking will go out the window.
When in love, time appears to standstill though the moments are actually finite. A reminder is offered in “Some Other Time” from On The Town as both men tug at the heartstrings about not being able to say or get “done half the things I want to.” Later, they revisit the musical with “Lucky To Be Me,” about how a man sees his fortunes change “now that I’ve found you.” Evans creates a warm tone, exemplifying the narrator’s happiness.
Bennett turns the cad on “When in Rome.” He’s a Continental playboy who admits “taking a brief detour with somebody new,” offering the excuse that “when in Rome/ I do as the Romans do” yet Evans’ jaunty accompaniment makes it hard to stay mad.
“Waltz for Debby,” written by Evans and Gene Lees, is a very touching song looking toward that day when Daddy’s little girl will one day grow up and leave more than her toys behind. On the bridge, Evans’ piano sounds like the accompaniment to a spinning ballerina in a young girl’s jewelry box. They also honor sons with “A Child Is Born.”
Love is also filled with longing and loss. “Make Someone Happy” is one of those “wish I had someone” songs but it offers good advice to find happiness. Evans’ piano sounds somber and serious, cognizant of the guy’s loneliness who is being talked to, but then on the bridge his playing foreshadows the joy to be found.
Another Evans original, “The Two Lonely People,” is a heartbreaker featuring a couple sitting beside each other yet very far apart emotionally, the reverse sentiment of “You’re Nearer.” “You Don’t Know What Love Is” until you’ve lost it, echoing Tennyson’s famous quote.
However, they don’t dwell on the heartache long. The narrator casts his hopes “Love will come again” looking toward “Maybe September,” and if not then, “You Must Believe in Spring.” The latter is the longest track of the set and allows Evans the most time to stretch out, which is always a good thing.
Disc One concludes with the bonus tracks. “Who Can I Turn To?” from The Roar Of the Greasepaint – The Smell Of the Crowd, which became a Broadway hit after Bennett first recorded the song. Bennett really gives it a big finish. At the conclusion of “Dream Dancing,” you can hear the men laugh at the joy of their accomplishment, and rightly so.
Disc Two presents alternate takes from the two sessions and runs almost as long as the two albums combined. There are five from the first and 15 from the second. You can hear changes in the alternate takes, some subtle and some pronounced. Would have liked to have known the reasoning behind what they were both looking for or weren’t satisfied with, especially on “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” where they did at least 18 takes.
Much like a brief love affair, The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings makes you sorry there wasn’t more, but so glad to have gotten what you did.