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[Off The Record]
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Tony Bennett

The aging tenor is 75 now, but he’s still got the gleaming attack of a belter bred on Broadway and big bands — not everyone’s idea of the blues. You can question the style, but not the musicality. The dips and fall-offs and melodic variations that Bennett learned from the likes of Billie Holiday, the uncanny phrasing that he’s shared with all the greats since Armstrong — it all contributes to his authority.

Unlike the literally phoned-in duets of Sinatra’s golden years, the cuts here are mostly live in the studio, so there’s plenty of audible give-and-take and relaxed intimacy. Bennett and Diana Krall make a game out of seeing how many ways they can sing the title lyrics of the light, medium-tempo swinger "Alright, Okay, You Win" — enacting the sexual gamesmanship the song is all about. B.B. King’s tart guitar phrasing is the perfect urbane Beale Street reply to Tony’s urbane Queens take on "Let the Good Times Roll," and when B.B. sings "don’t sit there . . . talkin’ trash," there’s a whole music lesson in that final word.

Stevie Wonder and Bonnie Raitt are equally adept, Sheryl Crow is a bit out of her element, Kay Starr’s voice is gone, Tony sings Billy Joel better than Billy does ("New York State of Mind"), k.d. lang goes for par, and Natalie Cole is . . . okay. Tony sings a few solos (including a trademark high-note finale on Johnny Mercer’s "Blues in the Night"), and we get complementary versions of soul on the old Jimmy Rushing/Count Basie number "Evenin,’ " with Ray Charles asking as the track fades out, "Okay, Uncle Tony?" Indeed.


Issue Date: December 6 - 13, 2001

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