The phoenix of popular music, Tony Bennett, rises again with Here’s to the Ladies, one of the finest achievements of his half-century career. This 18-track CD salutes 17 celebrated female singers (Margaret Whiting receives two dedications), representing a broad spectrum of musical traditions—Broadway and Hollywood (Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Ethel Merman), mainstream pop (Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee), jazz (Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae), and cabaret (Mabel Mercer, Blossom Dearie). Intelligently conceived and meticulously executed, with accompaniments ranging from solo piano and jazz trio to big band and string orchestra, Here’s to the Ladies constitutes a one-volume encyclopedia of pre-rock American popular song.

The 69-year-old Bennett has traveled a long, bumpy road to arrive at this artistic pinnacle. After scoring with schlocky chart-topping ’50s singles like “Because of You” and “Rags to Riches,” he cashed the blank check of commercial success to risk increasingly ambitious projects—collaborating with the most distinguished instrumentalists and arrangers to reinterpret the classic jazz and popular repertoire and uncover new songs by gifted emerging composers. His 25-year association with Columbia Records, which yielded 52 albums and compilations, ended in 1975, when the tidal wave of rock swept away the careers of several generations of mainstream musicians. For the next decade, Bennett recorded sporadically—most memorably with Bill Evans for two voice-and-piano albums—until he returned to Columbia in 1986. Since then, shrewdly managed by his son Danny, he has come back stronger than ever, a resurrection capped by this year’s Grammy-winning Unplugged.

Unfortunately, Bennett’s creativity has not kept pace with his popular resurgence. His recent CDs—tributes to Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, and the MTV Unplugged session—have offered perfunctory run-throughs of over-familiar stand ards, uncomfortably reminiscent of cabaret night at an upscale senior citizens’ center. The singer’s vaunted popularity with young audiences strikes me as highly improbable, a triumph of cunning public relations. How could kids raised on Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses regard Bennett’s mechanical recyclings of George Gershwin and Irving Berlin chestnuts as anything but geriatric camp?

But Here’s to the Ladies‘ handsome cover, depicting the heavily airbrushed vocalist sporting an ascot and spiffy new rug, with a rose-brandishing blonde model draped over his shoulder, announces an artistically recharged Bennett. His singing has more depth and sensitivity than anything he has attempted since the 1975 duets with Evans. His vocal range remains undiminished—those early bel canto lessons have really paid off—but his instrument has grown disarmingly distressed, like a favorite pair of jeans one keeps patching rather than throwing away. An appealing mixture of authority and vulnerability, Bennett’s voice has never been more endearing, and his casually artful phrasing breathes new life into even the most familiar lyrics. Unlike his surviving peers—Sinatra, Lee, Clooney—he need make no apologies for his present-day performances.

Bennett and his arrangers have come up with ingenious strategies to refurbish songs you hoped never to hear again. The syrupy “People” sparkles in Bill Holman’s brassy, butt-kicking, big band chart. After a rubato reading of the verse, “Over the Rainbow” springs into a supple medium-swing tempo, and “Sentimental Journey,” recast as a jaunty jazz waltz, is stripped of sentimentality. Even “I Got Rhythm” has a new edge, from the opening voice-and-bass chorus to several terse, tasty Clayton Cameron drum solos. The less familiar tunes, which do not require renovation, are even more satisfying. “Cloudy Morning,” dedicated to Carmen McRae, is a shameless plagiarism of the Gershwins’ “A Foggy Day,” but Bennett’s warm, relaxed delivery, cushioned by subdued strings, makes this rip-off sound newly minted. “Daybreak,” an uncharacteristically lyrical souvenir of Dinah Washington, is as refreshing as a sunrise stroll. And the understated “My Ideal,” a 16-bar ballad composed by Whiting’s father Richard 65 years ago, ends the collection on a note of exquisite simplicity—just a voice, a piano, and a flawlessly crafted song.

Work of such peerless quality makes nitpicking, the critic’s professional obligation, awfully difficult. Holman’s arrangement of “Down in the Depths,” hitherto Mabel Mercer’s personal property, begins intriguingly with acacophonous brass blast, then careens along at an overly frenzied tempo, forcing Bennett to spit out Cole Porter’s intricate rhymes. And at the end of the verse of “Poor Butterfly,” the singer pushes agonizingly hard to reach a truss-busting high note. But the album’s only consistent liability is Bennett’s longtime accompanist and musical director, Ralph Sharon. He’s an adequate but hackneyed pianist, whose vanilla harmonies, treble tinklings, and corny block chording do not merit the considerable solo space he’s allotted. Like the only stale oyster in a delicious stew, his contributions are too innocuous to spoil this otherwise savory recording.

Several of the ladies Bennett celebrates are featured on new CD releases. Carmen McRae’s For Lady Day: Volume 2 is the second half of a Billie Holiday tribute recorded at Manhattan’s Blue Note jazz club in 1983. The first volume, released earlier this year, found McRae and her trio, headed by pianist Marshall Otwell, saddled with some of the least challenging material in the Holiday songbook—“Them There Eyes,” “I Hear Music,” and “I Cried for You.” The new volume contains less-frequently revived Holiday tunes, notably the ballads “If You Were Mine,” “It’s Like Reaching for the Moon,” “No More,” and “You’ve Changed.” Holiday befriended the teen-age McRae in the late 1930s and even recorded a song that her young admirer composed, “Dream of Life.” Subsequently, McRae repaid Lady’s benevolence by always including songs associated with her in club and concert appearances. No jazz singer since Holiday has so seamlessly combined Billie’s gift for melodic improvisation with her unaffected expression of profound emotion. On several tracks, McRae is joined by tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, playing Lester Young to Carmen’s Lady Day. Even in her least inspired moments, McRae was a compelling artist, and she’s in top form on this previously unissued live session.

Bethlehem has just reissued Carmen McRae, a collection of McRae’s earliest recordings, cut in the early ’50s. Backed by two quartets headed by accordionist Mat Mathews and clarinetist-pianist Tony Scott, she sings eight tunes, mostly lightweight originals, in a sweet, pristine style that contrasts greatly with the earthiness and harmonic adventurousness of her mature work. These singles, less than 20 minutes of music, are supplemented by five inconsequential alternate takes of the same material. Scarcely a bargain, though nonetheless a lovely memento, this is a high-school yearbook picture of someone destined for greatness. The Best of Carmen McRae, a new Blue Note release, collates 11 tracks from studio and live albums recorded for that label in the mid-’70s. The anthology contains several McRae classics, including two remarkable ballads, “Would You Believe?” and “I Have the Feeling I’ve Been Here Before,” the latter composed for the singer, who often asserted her belief in reincarnation. Let’s hope she was right, because the world has been diminished by the absence of her voice.

McRae herself is the subject of a tribute album, Carol Sloane’s The Songs Carmen Sang. A close friend and devotee of McRae—the smiling pair appear together in a 1986 snapshot featured on the CD’s cover—satin-voiced Sloane is an accomplished vocalist with rock-steady time and an instrumentalist’s flair for melodic invention. Disappointingly, the tribute fails to do justice to its subject. Part of the problem stems from the selection of repertoire. Only a few of the songs are strongly associated with Carmen. Four of the selections were made famous by Billie Holiday; others were popularized by Nat Cole (“I’m an Errand Boy for Rhythm”) and Peggy Lee (“The Folks Who Live on the Hill”); and there’s even a ringer, “Just You, Just Me,” that was never recorded by McRae. Although the sincerity of her intentions is unquestionable, Sloane has invested too little thought in choosing the material—where are McRae’s hits “Alfie” and “Skyliner”?—and overlooks any number of tunes definitively etched by Carmen. Her interpretations, though technically impeccable, are superficial and oddly disengaged. The quartet backing, featuring the talented young pianist Bill Charlap, with guest appearances by Phil Woods on alto sax and clarinet, is polished but similarly unemphatic. Pleasant listening, but a project that fails to mirror the urgency of McRae’s art.

None of Rosemary Clooney’s numerous recordings since her mid-’70s comeback has impressed me; her singing has been consistently professional, yet tentative and rather dull. But the new Reprise reissue Love, arguably her finest (though one of her least-known) efforts, is an unqualified masterpiece. As James Gavin reveals in his informative liner notes, Clooney and arranger Nelson Riddle, both married to others at the time and, between them, the parents of 11 children, were lovers when this collection was recorded in 1961. It must have been an intense romance, for their collaboration on this ambitious program of ballads yielded Clooney’s most expressive singing and orchestral charts by Riddle that equal, and often surpass, his celebrated work with Sinatra. Love contains some beautifully performed standards—“More Than You Know” and “It Never Entered My Mind”—but its highlights are complex compositions that might be more accurately categorized as art songs—Bronislau Kaper’s daunting movie theme “Invitation,” Walter Gross’ tender “How Will I Remember You?,” and Marc Blitzstein’s pensive “I Wish It So.” This uncompromising album passed virtually unnoticed when furtively released in 1963. Shortly afterwards, Clooney and Riddle’s relationship ended, followed by the singer’s harrowing professional and personal breakdown, which left her institutionalized. Love captures two outstanding artists at the height of their creative powers, and justifies the invention of the compact disc, which has spurred the revival of so much overlooked but invaluable music.

Peggy Lee’s Carnegie Hall appearance at last June’s JVC Jazz Festival was more like a séance than a concert. A corpulent moon goddess draped in voluminous white satin, she hobbled across the stage, seated herself, and, in a faint, ghostly voice, whispered lunar echoes of her illustrious past. Time may be cruel, but memory is benign. I’ll never forget seeing her at Hollywood’s Coconut Grove in the early ’60s—one of the most electrifying evenings of my life. A sleek, motionless siren in a gold lamé gown, she made the world twirl faster with her rhythm tunes and then stopped it dead with her breathy ballads. For those who never had a chance to witness Lee in her prime, Basin Street East Proudly Presents Miss Peggy Lee preserves a representative 1961 nightclub performance. (Because she was suffering from a cold the night of the taping, some of the selections were subsequently recorded in a New York studio and spliced in to augment the live tracks.) Backed by a precision-drilled 12-piece band, Lee takes possession of an assortment of swingers and love songs, culminating in a Ray Charles medley that articulates the bitter heartache of “Just for a Thrill” before rising to the revivalist fervor of “Yes Indeed.” This splendid CD is a time machine, transporting listeners back to the low-tech days before stadiums, synthesizers, television monitors, elaborate lighting systems, and banks of amplifiers transformed live popular music from an intimate experience into a spectator sport.