Tony Bennett isn’t very well known for whispering. He’s a big singer—not in the sense that he over sings, but he certainly is known for the power to belt it out above muscular backing bands, and through his career he’s done plenty of that, and to good effect. And even in the plethora of latter day albums he made with the Ralph Sharon Trio, there’s a sense of grandeur to the backing that belies the actual simplicity of piano, bass and drums, and Tony often sings on those albums as if in front of a big orchestra. And that’s something in itself. But for true flat-out intimacy, there’s nothing he’s ever done that exceeds the Rodgers and Hart Songbook..
In 1973, Bennett saw trumpeter Ruby Braff and guitarist George Barnes leading a quartet in New York, with Wayne Wright on another guitar and John Giuffrida on bass. He sat in with them live, it went well, and one thing led to another. They went into the studio and over the course of a few days recorded twenty songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
The combination of musicians, material and singer proved fortuitous if not magical. The end result, and a gift for posterity, is an album of supremely tasteful and truly adult popular music.
The greatest Rodgers and Hart songs are remarkable concoctions of wit, melody, insouciance and poignancy. Richard Rodgers is always rated as one of the greatest melodists of American popular song. Although he is probably better known today for his later and grander-sounding work with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, his melodies on the songs he wrote with Hart possess intimacy, beauty and playfulness in keeping with the lyrics. Larry Hart was, we are led to believe, a rather tortured and lonely soul (who died aged 48 shortly after one of his not uncommon alcohol binges) but his mastery of rhyme and his ability to mix sly and urbane humor with soul-baring sensitivity make him one of the very finest wordsmiths of the past century of popular music.
Who else has ever written as delightfully disrespectful a discourse on love as “I Wish I Were In Love Again” (from the 1937 show “Babes In Arms”)?
When love congeals
it soon reveals
the faint aroma
of performing seals
of a pair of heels
I wish I were in love again
And who else has ever written as romantic a dismissal of romantic cliché as the beguiling “My Romance” (from the 1935 show “Jumbo”)?
doesn’t have to have a moon
in the sky
doesn’t need a blue lagoon
No month of May,
no twinkling stars
no soft guitars
I can make my most fantastic dreams come true
My romance doesn’t need a thing but you
On this album, the voice of Tony Bennett, the cornet of Ruby Braff and the guitar of George Barnes do not simply play through the songs, but rather engage with each other in a friendly, bantering and often sensual trialogue, illuminating the textures of music and words with exquisite nuance.
Tony Bennett was far from experiencing a commercial peak at this stage of his career, but there’s no reaching for the pop-charts here; the singer and the musicians seem to be doing just exactly what they want to do, their approach dictated solely by their own taste and ability. I suspect this happens even more rarely than one might think.
It makes for a timeless masterpiece, and, in my belief, a quite singular monument to the art of American popular song. All it took was three days in 1973, a set of great songs, a singer and a few musicians who understood and loved the material and comprehended the way in which their own talents could best shine alongside it. Nice work, guys.