Tony Bennett

Bennett's late flowering, which began with his return to recording in 1986 after a 10-year absence, keeps unfolding, inching the creative fulcrum of his career remarkably toward the present. In this golden autumn, Bennett, 66, has paid tribute to the looming and illuminating presence of Sinatra, 10 years his senior, who has often publicly honored Bennett, calling him "the best singer in the business" and his favorite.

With his uncannily relaxed and openhearted singing here, Bennett repays the compliments by proving again that the master's confidence was not misplaced. Selecting 24 choice tunes from Sinatra's big-band zenith in the '50s, Bennett and Ralph Sharon, his consummate accompanist for the last quarter-century, reduce the scale to an intimate conversation: Sharon on piano, Paul Langosch on bass, Joe LaBarbera on drums.

Everything about the album seems inspired. The sequence: a trip from "Time After Time" ("The passing years will show/ You've kept my love so young, so new") to "I'll Be Seeing You." The tempos: Bennett slows "I've Got the World on a String," "I Wished on the Moon" (a bouquet to Billie as well as to Frank), "You Go to My Head" and "Call Me Irresponsible," richly opening them. The phrasing and expression: a shatteringly dramatic "Here's That Rainy Day," followed by a delicate, spine-tingling "Last Night When We Were Young."

Tributes can be competitive, sour with one-upmanship, obscuring the honoree. There's no envy here. The spirit is gentle, generous, joyous. By being Totally Tony on Perfectly Frank, Bennett has shown how well he understands the lessons of Sinatra's artistry. (Columbia)

Rosemary Clooney

There's a short way to review a new Clooney collection: Buy! For those who insist on specifics, here goes: In these 10 songs associated with Lady Day—including "God Bless the Child" and "I Cover the Waterfront"—Clooney avoids imitation. Holiday in her later years always put the full measure of her anguished life on display. The sad songs are threaded with pain and bitterness; even the more upbeat never quite suggest that our love is here to stay. Clooney gives this material a sunnier gloss. In "Good Morning Heartache" she's done in by love but not done with it. She lends a special buoyancy to "He's Funny That Way" and "Come Love," a verge-of-laughter joy to "Them There Eyes." While her "Don't Explain" and "Lover Man" don't quite possess Holiday's wrenching soulful-ness, she imbues both with a quiet dignity.

To comment on Clooney's skillful phrasing in the rueful "Everything Happens to Me" or the adroitly placed pauses in "Good Morning Heartache" or her sheer musicianship seems unnecessary, like noting that Everest is high. (Concord)

Mudhoney

From the racing heart of Seattle's grunge-rock scene comes Mud-honey's fourth album, their first for a major label. In 1988 their legendary underground hit single, the misanthropic "Touch Me I'm Sick," kicked open the recording-studio doors that dozens of other alienated, flannel-shirted suburban youths—including, eventually, Nirvana—would romp through, wielding guitars, big amps and wawa pedals.

Though Mudhoney is less polished than Nirvana, Reprise let the band work with its regular producer in his Seattle basement studio. There the guys spewed out their usual alcohol-glorying sludge-metal with fuzz, feedback and friendly get-out-of-my-face attitude intact.

Ever perverse, the band refuses to open Cake with the customary radio-seeking single, playing a practical joke instead: "Techno," a one-minute spoof of the thumpingly mindless techno dance craze. They also distance themselves from the commercialism of the scene they helped found, satirizing in "Ritzville" the long-haired grunge wannabes who have descended on Seattle with dollar signs in their eyes ("They say you return to the scene of your crime/ I'm digging the scene, but I'm not sure if it's mine").

But Cake is mostly straightforward explosions driven by noisy guitars and Mark Arms's edgy, acidic vocals. Masters of the modern garage sound, Mud-honey has perfected the angry three-minute aural ambush. Cake continues the band's dead-on chronicling of the disillusioned and disaffected generation to which they belong. (Reprise)

Travis Tritt

Tritt's third album is so moany-whiny and self-pitying that he counteracts the affection and admiration he earlier won. Consider the titles: "Looking Out for Number One," "I Wish I Could Go Back Home," "Leave My Girl Alone." Not even the clever, jaunty title tune can relieve the oppressive tone. And while "Lord Have Mercy on the Working Man" is less self-absorbed, Tritt can't take that populist territory from Merle Haggard.

The album also suffers from obtrusive backup playing, especially by Hargus "Pig" Robbins, who pounds hard enough to break Jerry Lee Lewis's records for keyboard demolition. More of backup singer Dana McVicker and less Pig would have helped. On the insert, Tritt poses as a bicep-flexing, leather-jacketed hard case. His singing is sometimes overstated and gruff, yet his energy can be winning in his more playful mode. (Warner Bros.)

>"DON'T EVER DO CHEAP SONGS"

BACKSTAGE AT RADIO CITY MUSIC Hall, Tony Bennett was nervous. "This was 1982, the Night of 100 Stars," Bennett says, leaning back on a big white sofa in his apartment above the Astro Diner in midtown Manhattan. "I was about to make my entrance in this horse-drawn carriage, and I was afraid it would fall into the audience. Orson Welles was next to me. I had never met him, so I said hello. He said, I go to all Frank Sinatra's parties, and he doesn't play anybody else's records but yours.' At that moment the announcer said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, Tony Bennett!' I went out there feeling fantastic."

Just an offbeat entry in Bennett's 40-year mental log of gratitude to the singer he regards as "the Al Jolson of our time—he conquered every aspect of the entertainment world." With Perfectly Frank, Bennett hopes to repay Sinatra for years of private encouragement and public praise. Bennett first saw Sinatra perform with Tommy Dorsey at the Paramount Theater on Broadway during World War II (admission, with movie: 75 cents). By the time they first met in 1956, Bennett had already placed six songs in the Top 10. Yet when he was offered Perry Como's NBC variety show for the summer, butterflies hit.

"I told people I wanted to ask Sinatra's advice, and they said. "He can be tough. Better look out.' He was at the Paramount again, and I went backstage, and he was just the opposite—very interested, very caring. I said, 'I'm falling apart, I'm overwhelmed, I don't know what to do.' And he gave me a wonderful solution. He said, 'Don't let that bother you. The audience only dislikes you when you're not nervous.' He also said, 'Don't ever do cheap songs,' and that became a battle I waged with producers my whole life." Bennett credits Sinatra with having pioneered the charity benefit concert in the '50s. "He's a complex character. It's like the way Olivier played Hamlet—he's everybody rolled into one. With Sinatra you never know what's going to happen next." As for Bennett, "In painting [his lifelong avocation] and music, if you keep your wits about you, the older you get, the better it gets. If I'm lucky, maybe I'll be able to show future singers that they can do that."

  • Contributors:
  • Eric Levin,
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Rob Spillman,
  • Ralph Novak.