By DAVID ALSTON
Just occasionally, an album comes round that almost defies criticism. At first glance, a musical meeting of singers Tony Bennett and Diana Krall, accompanied by the relatively ‘modern’ Bill Charlap Trio, might not seem the ideal recipe for success. Sure, at 92, Tony has been around the block a few times. Diana, at 54, has paid her dues both as a pianist and singer, and Bill’s bassist and drummer have been with him for well over a decade, but would it all come together when the ‘record’ button was pressed?
Add 12 of George Gershwin’s best tunes however, with ten of them containing brother Ira’s incomparable lyrics, and the magic is soon evident in every number. George, whose tragic death from a brain tumour in 1937, when he was only 38, robbed the world of the hundreds of other great tunes he said he had in his head (modesty was never his strong suit), was almost incapable of writing a mediocre melody, and with Ira’s lyrics, combined to produce his best work, just a few of which has been carefully crafted by Tony and Diana and their three accomplices – with considerable back-up from other members of the Bennett family – on this collection.
The rapport between singers and musicians is obvious from the get-go, with Tony sounding completely relaxed (he doesn’t attempt to go for the high notes but easily phrases his way around them), and Diana at times simply laying out and letting him have the limelight. “I don’t have the ability to stretch out notes,” she explains in an interview with Lee Merger of Jazz Times. “So what I did is, I physically took a step back and in my mind, let Tony be himself. He is who he is and nobody can step into his dream. Nobody can touch him.” And of Diana, Tony says simply: “She’s a natural.”
As for the trio, Bill’s piano playing is delightfully sparse and economical on this outing, with each solo perfectly suiting the mood. Bassist Peter Washington keeps a steady pulse throughout and drummer Kenny Washington (no relation) shows masterly brushwork, (including a delightfully restrained eight-bar solo on I Got Rhythm) with an occasional foray to sticks on a couple of numbers. As Diana puts it: “You have a musical director [Bill] who understands singers, who understands tune arrangements, who understands the history [of jazz], who understands Gershwin, who understands when to not be too into what Gershwin intended, [and] to make sure that what we do is natural.”
“I like a Gershwin tune.”
This line from How About You? (made famous by Frank Sinatra) probably says it all about the material chosen. Tony has a solo outing on Who Cares? and Diana on But Not For Me, but it is their duos on the remainder of the album – Swonderful, My One And Only, Nice Work If You Can Get It, Love Is Here To Stay, I Got Rhythm, Somebody Loves Me, Do It Again, I’ve Got A Crush On You, Fascinating Rhythm, and They Can’t Take That Away From Me – that are the most enjoyable because of the uncanny understanding between the two of them. ”[And] it’s not all about nostalgia,” points out Diana. “You’ve got Tony Bennett singing those lyrics and they sound like they were written last week.”
It says much for the longevity of Gershwin’s music that his songs are just as popular today – both among jazz and ‘straight’ singers – as when they were written all those years ago, and his fondness for jazz is evident even in his ‘classical’ works like Rhapsody In Blue and his only piano concerto. “Gershwin is at the very centre of American popular music, and also of jazz,” says Bill succinctly. “He said that jazz is the sound of America’s soul. His songs and his writing always reflected the sound of swing and the blues and the other things that are all about American characteristics.”
My personal favourite is They Can’t Take That Away From Me (written for the 1937 film Funny Face, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) with a great solo from Bill and Tony and Diana sounding as though they could actually meet again ‘…on that bumpy road to love’. But every track is to be savoured, and Tony demonstrates what Clint Eastwood means when (at 88) he inspired Toby Keith to write Don’t Let The Old Man In, which is used at the end of Eastwood’s film The Mule. My only beef: the album is too short at 38 minutes. But at 92, I guess Tony can be given a break…