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These reissues should be revelations for people unimpressed by the MTV Tony Bennett, a grinning, bewigged lounge singer rasping a stale repertoire with cocktail-piano backing. Earlier in his career, Bennett was a venturesome artist who cashed the blank check afforded by his Hit Parade popularity on risk-taking albums featuring challenging material and adventurous accompaniments. The Beat of My Heart (1957) showcases Bennett’s then-vibrant voice and a battery of outstanding jazz percussionists, including Count Basie veteran Jo Jones, cool school drummer Chico Hamilton, hard-bopper Art Blakey, and Afro-Cuban conga/bongo player Candido. Arranged by Bennett’s pianist Ralph Sharon, the album mixes imaginative revampings of standards (“Lullaby of Broadway,” “Love for Sale,” “Just One of Those Things”) with revivals of obscure tunes containing lyrics that allude to pulsation (“Crazy Rhythm,” “So Beats My Heart for You,” and the title song). The welcome reappearance of these classic Bennett sessions is supplemented by seven previously unreleased tracks, including a version of “I Only Have Eyes for You” filled with dark harmonies, unexpected dissonances, and rumbling percussive effects that, even 40 years later, sound remarkably daring.
Tony Bennett at Carnegie Hall: The Complete Concert captures the singer’s June 9, 1962, debut at that august Manhattan venue. Originally released as a double LP and subsequently as a single CD, this twin-disc set adds 18 hitherto unreleased tracks from Bennett’s marathon 46-song performance. A Sharon-arranged big band, featuring brass and reed sections and a string quartet, contains some stellar jazz players, among them tenor saxophonist Al Cohn, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and vibraphonist Eddie Costa. Bennett is in magnificent voice, belting without a trace of strain and effortlessly producing translucent high notes that reveal his bel canto training. His encyclopedic program includes three Kurt Weill compositions, four sprightly Cy Coleman-Carolyn Leigh songs, and five standards by Harold Arlen, who cheered the singer’s concert from a front row-center seat. The evening’s highlights are ballads (“Love Look Away,” “It Amazes Me”) sung with uncommon sensitivity and tenderness; its nadir is the bombastic nine-minute finale “De Glory Road,” a bogus spiritual punctuated by Candido’s grandstanding conga drum solo.
1965’s If I Ruled the World: Songs for the Jet Set, arranged by Don Costa, was released shortly before the rock revolution set Bennett’s career into a tailspin. Its repertoire draws from the period’s most gifted mainstream composerstwo lilting Antonio Carlos Jobim bossa novas, two Richard Rodgers-Stephen Sondheim collaborations, and freshly minted songs by Coleman, Michel Legrand, and Duke Ellingtonalong with a few standards, notably the previously unreleased “Falling in Love With Love” and an exquisite “Sweet Lorraine” backed by clarinetist Joe Marsala and Bobby Hackett (playing ukulele instead of his customary trumpet). All three reissues, part of Columbia’s continuing Tony Bennett Master Series, are essential listening for those who care about the art of American popular song.
Joel E. Siegel