It was jazz singer Annie Ross who first proposed pairing the singer’s singer Tony Bennett with Bill Evans, the most emotionally evocative pianist of them all. There was just one problem: Evans almost always worked alone. In his autobiography, Bennett says he was surprised when Ross suggested the collaboration because Evans rarely recorded with singers and he was even more surprised when Bill Evans liked the idea. Bill Evans said later, as quoted in Peter Pettinger’s book, Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, “It was one of the ideas that was in the air for years. I always like Tony’s singing. To me, he is one of those guys that keep developing—digging deeper into their resources.”
As Bennett tells it in his book, The Good Life, “Bill Evans was there when I sang with Dave Brubeck at the all-star concert on the White House lawn in 1962. By the sixties, especially after his tenure with the Miles Davis Sextet and his own groundbreaking trio, Bill had become the most-listened-to jazz pianist in the world. Bill happened to be playing in London at Ronnie Scott’s, so John Bunch (Bennett’s long-time pianist) and I went down to hear Bill’s latest trio, which impressed us mightily. My original idea was to make an album with my voice and two pianos…Bill Evans and John Bunch, but John discouraged me saying it would be better with Bill Evans alone.”
Tony hadn’t recorded accompanied by just a piano in nearly two decades, and Bill was accustomed to having a bass and drummer, so both of them were working without a musical safety net. Before the recording dates, Evans suggested that Tony keep his musicians at home and he would do the same. He wanted as few distractions as possible, to ensure it was an intimate experience, so throughout the recording only one engineer, Evans and Bennett, and Evans’s manager, Helen Keane, were in the studio. It was a wise decision that resulted in this [The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, Fantasy/Concord #9489], the first of two exceptional albums.
All of the songs on this album—like almost everything Tony Bennett has sung throughout his career—are right up there on any list of his all-time favourites. Evans’s “Waltz for Debby,” written for his niece, is one of this album’s highlights. “My Foolish Heart,” “Some Other Time,” and his thrilling treatment of Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “But Beautiful” give a nostalgic new dimension to these beautiful jazz standards. Everything here lives up to the philosophy Bennett learned from Count Basie after working with the Basie band at Birdland in the 1950s: Keep it simple and swinging.
Although Tony Bennett has been regarded as a superstar pop singer for decades, he has always shown a deep reverence for jazz music, using jazz players in all of his performances and recording sessions. In Bennett’s book, The Good Life, an interviewer is quoted as asking Bill Evans whether what he and Bennett had achieved on this CD could be called a jazz sound. Evans answered, “As far as I’m concerned, it is. This is one of the prime experiences of my life. Every great jazz musician I know idolizes Tony. From Philly Joe Jones to Miles Davis, you name it. The reason is that Tony is a great musical artist. He puts music first, and has dedicated himself to it. He has great respect for music and musicians and this comes through. It’s a joy to work with somebody like that. To me, that’s music.”
I’m with him.