Picks and Pans Review: Bennett/berlin

updated 01/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Tony Bennett

Bennett's second walk in the sunshine of a rejuvenated recording career is a marvel of vitality, clarity, intimacy—in short, of Berlinity—and swing. Credit should go to Bennett's son and manager Danny for encouraging his father to step away from the lush orchestral sound of his acclaimed 1986 comeback, The Art of Excellence, and record this tribute to Irving Berlin with just a trio and selected jazz soloists. Even if the intimate setting betrays an occasional hint of strain in the upper reaches of Bennett's voice (e.g., in the words "the great love story..." in Now It Can Be Told), most of the time it highlights his crispness and unforced affability. Little known outside the music business, Bennett's longtime pianist-arranger, Ralph Sharon, is an ideal accompanist—a master of understatement who can swing the whole house. As guest artists, George Benson, Dizzy Gillespie and Dexter Gordon provide a rare confluence of marquee and musical value. In his landmark study, American Popular Song, the composer-scholar Alec Wilder wrote, "It is conceivable that the absurd legend to the effect that there was a mysterious ghostwriter tucked away uptown who wrote Berlin's better songs came into being because it didn't seem possible that one man could write on so many levels." The songs here represent the "uptown" Berlin. They are sequenced with unusual intelligence. From the innocence and froth of They Say It's Wonderful to the premonition of The Song Is Ended, the album reaches a turning point at the end of its first side with When I Lost You (which Berlin wrote in 1912 for his first wife, who died just after their honeymoon, and which Bennett sings a cappella). The second side is sophisticated revelry, consolation after the loss of innocence: Cheek to Cheek, Let Yourself Go, Let's Face the Music and Dance, Shakin' the Blues Away, a swinging Russian Lullaby and finally, like a benediction, a soothing White Christmas backed by Gordon's sad and savvy saxophone. The album feels like it's over much too soon, yet the 12 songs span almost 45 minutes. Berlin's melodies, like Bennett's singing, are so pleasing and natural they take wing. (Columbia)

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