Almost Peas in a Pod

Sarah Vaughan and Tony Bennett Fight for the Right

Tony Bennett is a pop singer who records extensively with jazz musicians but always comes off as a pop singer with a keen appreciation of jazz. Sarah Vaughan was a jazz singer who made dozens of pop records but always came off as a jazz singer who could never quite take pop machinations seriously. I don't mean to use the terms qualitatively, not here anyway, because Bennett and Vaughan are among my favorite singers and I'm less inclined to endorse their separate pigeonholes than recognize their many similarities. Although Vaughan's career is associated with the obstetrics of modern jazz (1944) and Bennett with the post-noir hit parade (1951), she was only two years his senior; both came of age with the big bands and the seminal trinity of Armstrong, Crosby, and Holiday. They sang the same songs and shared the same arrangers and musicians, recorded for Columbia in the period of novelties and schmaltz, worked with Basie on Roulette. They came from solid New York-area working-class backgrounds (he Astoria, she Newark) and never lost an innate skepticism for the romance of stardom—she protecting herself with wicked irony, he with ingenuous geniality. Both walked away from major record companies when they could no longer abide the compromises; both subsequently triumphed on their own terms.

Above all, they are the most operatic singers of their generation. It's less a matter of technical range—many others have multiple octaves—than of dramatic attack, dynamic disposition, a purple passion for song. They concentrate on interpreting lyrics, but the listener gets something more, not unlike the opera-goer who may know the story but not the language yet is moved to elation. The power of Bennett's perfect verse-and-single-chorus on "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" is derived not from an image of little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars, but from the uninterrupted emotional arc that builds gradually from a conventional melody (stroked by a hooky piano obbligato) to an ascension so juiced with its own fervor that when it's over you feel as though you've been on a trip, and it wasn't to San Francisco.

Still, Bennett believes in—or makes us believe that he believes in—those little cable cars, while one suspects Vaughan would only pretend; since I've never heard her sing the song, I'm speculating that she would catch the word "little" and lighten her voice to suggest cute widdle cars. She would go full throttle for the big finish, but the effect would be less overt. For her, the arc is almost always a melodical/rhythmical construction that involves recomposition. It doesn't matter whether she is besieged with strings, as on "What Kind of Fool Am I?", in which her bold sideways attack is spookily inventive, or liberated with a guitar and bass on an open medium-tempo romp like "Just in Time," which begins straightforward. Then, having drawn a breath after "I found you just in time," she refrains from taking another until she has completely reconstructed the next phrase: "Before you came my time was run-ninnnnnng low-o-o-ooooo[no break]I was lost" [breath]—at which point Barney Kessel's crisp big-band-style chords drive her anywhere she wants to go. Bennett sounds rehearsed even when taking chances; Vaughan sounds spontaneous even when she's not. Bennett sings "The Best Is Yet to Come" as if he knows it for a fact; Vaughan picks her "plu-um" and grows more convinced as she proceeds. On an earlier take of that song, she rewired the melody from bar one—no wonder they made her do it again.

All these records are available on two new reissues. The Essential Tony Bennett is a two-disc compilation covering familiar ground from his association with Columbia, 1951 to 2001, absenting his years (1971-85) in the wilderness when he started his own boutique label. The bulk of the selections were singles, and many were huge hits.

A few ringers and omissions notwithstanding, it's an irresistible survey. The husky, emphatic emoting of "Because of You" and "Rags to Riches" ages well, and the best of his early recordings are decisive and well-made, if sometimes frustratingly short. Microgroove had just come along to liberate musicians from the three-minute limit, but Bennett often produced deft showpieces that were two minutes and change, if that; "Firefly" is 97 seconds and sustains an outlandish high-energy roar, but one wishes it would go on. There is no more baffling side than "I Wanna Be Around"—Bennett at his peak, making the most of Johnny Mercer's sadistic lyric, building to a promising trombone solo that you expect to roar and trigger a hair-raising vocal reprise. Instead it fades suddenly at 2:10, an agonizing instance of cantus interruptus.

When rock commandeered the charts, his label grew desperate, adding more reverb, often atop knowing arrangements (for example, "Once Upon a Time," note the opening measures), instead of accepting the fact that Tony, like Frank and Ella, was essentially an LP artist. The stubbornness paid off with "San Francisco" and other hits through 1963, at which point the money men began to lose interest. But Bennett was no Eddie Fisher or Johnny Ray; for him the best really was to come. What age cost him in power and range, he made up in economy and time, swinging with imperturbable ease and enjoying one of the longest last laughs in show business history. (Essential's last track is a blues duet with k.d. lang.) The recent passing of Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee leaves him the last one standing, the sole thriving remnant of a generation of pop singers who came of age with classic songs that were not yet classic and jazz principles that applied across the board.

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