Tony Bennett – The Best of the Improv Recordings (review)

Tony Bennett – The Best of the Improv Recordings (Concord) CD review

The Best of the Improv Recordings marks an interesting, if brief, part in Tony Bennett’s 60+ years in the music business.  The singer had spent his entire career, beginning in 1950, with the Columbia record label, enjoying success, first as a hit singles artist, then with LPs.  But, by the late Sixties, the label began pressuring Bennett to record music that was more “hip” and aimed at the teen market (which, in itself, seems completely absurd).

So, what you ended up with were horrendous offerings like Bennett’s take on “Eleanor Rigby,” and “MacArthur Park” – music ill-suited for such a fine vocalist.  Eventually, Bennett reached a breaking point and left the label, briefly signing with MGM records.  In 1975, armed with the financial backing of a real estate mogul, Bennett decided to form his own label, Improv Records.  Over the course of two years, Bennett would release five albums with the label (as well as albums by several of his friends).

Unfortunately, Improv failed to sign a distribution contract with any major label, which made it impossible to sufficiently circulate his records into the stores and radio stations, eventually leading to the label’s end just a few years after beginning.

The music he recorded for his own label returned him to familiar territory; two of those albums focused entirely on compositions by the great Rodgers and Hart songwriting team.  From these sessions, “This Can’t Be Love,” backed by just an acoustic and electric guitar, and flugelhorn, gives Bennett plenty of empty space to weave his magic, singing behind the beat, grooving along.  He also turns in a smoky, after-hours rendition of “Blue Moon,” complete with the seldom-heard vocal prelude.  Chosen from the Life is Beautiful album, “As Time Goes By” ranks as one of the all-time great renditions of that song – Bennett really knows how to bend a blue note when he sings “a kiss is still a kiss.”  He would also pair again with jazz legend Bill Evans – and the pianist’s uncanny melodic ability is a perfect accompaniment for such a talented vocalist.

It’s interesting to hear Bennett’s voice here, at a midpoint – somewhere between the operatic crooner of his younger days and the raspy, yet smooth elder statesman that he would become.  The sad part of this collection is that it marks the final sessions before Bennett sunk into a haze of drugs and self-doubt – completely losing faith in his abilities.  Eventually, he would reach out to his son, who would help resurrect his career during the mid 80’s and help him get back on top where he’s never left since.  I saw Bennett in 2010 at a small school in Kentucky and was completely blown away.  You can read the review here.  The fact is, amazingly he hasn’t lost any of his tremendous talent.  The Improv Recordings represent a tiny blip in his career, but an interesting one nonetheless.  –Tony Peters