The music of George Gershwin has a special place in Tony Bennett’s heart. The New York-born singer’s first ever commercially-released recording – which he cut in 1949 at the age of 23, under the short-lived stage name Joe Bari, for the small indie label Leslie – was a version of Gershwin’s enduringly popular celebration of syncopation, ‘Fascinating Rhythm’. The significance of debuting with a song by one of America’s greatest composers, who had died 12 years earlier, wasn’t lost on Bennett. In his 1998 memoir, The Good Life, the singer wrote, “I’m proud that I sang a Gershwin song at the very start of my recording career – for me, that really was beginning at the top!” Now he revisits the song on an entire album of tunes by the much-venerated composer, Love Is Here To Stay, recorded alongside Diana Krall.
With their collaboration, the 92-year-old Italian-American singer originally born Anthony Dominick Benedetti, and the multiple-Grammy-winning Canadian jazz chanteuse, not only reaffirm the timelessness of Gershwin’s music in the 21st Century, but celebrate what would have been the great composer’s 120th birthday, on 28 September.
Despite the 38 years that separate them, Krall and Bennett are old friends. They first toured together in 2000, when the Vancouver singer, whose career was then in the ascendant, was 36, and Bennett 75. A year later, they combined their voices in the studio for the first time on the frisky standard ‘Alright, Okay, You Win’, the opening cut from Bennett’s star-studded duets album, Playin’ With My Friends: Bennett Sings The Blues. While promoting that album, Tony Bennett was effusive in his praise for his young co-star, telling this writer, “She’s a natural. She’s just got ‘it’. Her singing is wonderfully intimate and she plays beautiful piano. The minute she starts performing she acquires permanent fans.”
To have the pair reunite in the studio after a 17-year hiatus is a cause for celebration, and for once, Krall, who’s a gifted jazz pianist, just gets to sing, leaving keyboard duties to the capable New Yorker Bill Charlap, whose trio (Peter Washington on bass, Kenny Washington on drums) accompanies the two singers. (Bennett fans will recall that Charlap’s trio appeared on the singer’s 2015 LP, The Silver Lining: The Songs Of Jerome Kern).
Love Is Here To Stay begins with ‘’S Wonderful’, one of many tunes authored by George Gershwin with his younger lyrist brother, Ira (ten of Love Is Here To Stay’s 12 songs are collaborations between the Gershwin siblings). The song first appeared in the 1927 musical Funny Face, starring dancer extraordinaire Fred Astaire, and here it begins with a glistening melodic line from Charlap’s piano before the trio eases into a swinging groove. Krall previously cut the track as a smouldering bossa nova in 2001 for her album The Look Of Love, but here the performance is livelier, with the two singers trading complimentary phrases over an effervescent rhythm track.
There’s a similar conversational aspect to Bennett’s and Krall’s exchanges on ‘My One And Only’, ‘Somebody Loves Me’ (one of only two duets where Krall takes the first vocal) and the exquisite ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’, arguably the album’s standout cut.
The tempo increases for ‘Fascinating Rhythm’, which has been a staple of Tony Bennett’s repertoire since his inaugural recording of it in 1949 (he also waxed it in a 1959 live collaboration with Count Basie called In Person!). Here, he revisits the song with gusto, trading phrases with Krall in a playful manner, before climaxing with a rousing, bluesy coda.
In acute contrast is the easy-strolling gait of ‘Do It Again’. Co-written in 1922 by George Gershwin with George “Buddy” DeSylva, a co-founder of Capitol Records, it proves to be another highlight, featuring some tasteful piano from Bill Charlap. Evidently, both singers are in their comfort zones, doing what they do best and playing to their strengths. The contrast between Krall’s honeyed, smooth-contoured tone and Bennett’s weathered baritone is a marked but, nonetheless, enjoyable one. Though Bennett’s voice is a huskier instrument these days, time has not diminished his abilities as a storyteller.
Two of the songs on Love Is Here To Stay are solo vehicles. Krall takes the spotlight on the reflective ‘But Not For Me’, showcasing her maturity as a ballad singer, while Bennett, alone, closes the album with ‘Who Cares’, which he had previously recorded on his 1993 album, Steppin’ Out. An eloquent paean to the all-consuming effect of love, this 1931 tune is configured as a concise, effervescent swinger on which Bill Charlap’s piano sparkles like freshly opened champagne. But these two solo spots don’t detract from the collaborative essence of an album that represents a contemporary apotheosis of the jazz duet.
Though Love Is Here To Stay pays tribute to the songwriting genius of George Gershwin, whose music is as meaningful and relevant today as it was when it was first written, it’s also a celebration of the enduring artistry of Tony Bennett, who, eight years shy of his 100th birthday, continues to amaze with his energy, joie d’vivre and, of course, singing voice.
“I want to sing forever,” he once told an interviewer in 1979. That may have seemed like wishful thinking back then, but the fact that he’s still performing and showing no sign of slowing down means that Tony Bennett is actually living that dream. Evidently, he’s here to stay.
Love Is Here To Stay is out now and can be bought here.