Preview: “Great Performances — Tony Bennett: Duets II,” PBS-TV, 1/27/12, 9:00 P.M.
Set your DVRs, Seattle-area folks, or better yet, snuggle up with your sweetie in front of the warm glow of your TV set with a glass of your favorite libation this Friday night, January 27th, because there will be a real treat waiting for you at 9PM PST on KCTS9. The PBS series “Great Performances” has produced in “Tony Bennett: Duets II” a delightful behind-the-scenes look at the recording of the iconic 85-year-old singer’s chart-topping Grammy-nominated album of 2011, entertaining and inspirational for all viewers.
The 90-minute program is beautifully filmed from recording locations all over the world, and is something of a “video jukebox,” with full live studio performance clips of every song on the “Duets II” album. Commentary from Bennett, the modern-day megawatt artists who were clearly thrilled to be working with him on the project, and producer Phil Ramone perfectly complements the musical segments. The gracious and warm ultimate pro Bennett remains in top voice, and watching him work with such a wide range of artists is fascinating. He seems to be effortlessly able to relax the often-nervous collaborators while simultaneously inspiring them to a new and often surprising level of performance on some of the greatest songs from the standards catalogue. Star egos were completely dropped at the door, and we are able to witness the natural joy of musical expression.
All the songs on “Duets II” were performed live with the artists gathered in the same room rather than isolating each musician or “phoning in” the tracks, as it was done in the “old days” of recording. The understated, elegant backing of Bennett’s superb jazz quartet provides a perfect foundation for the vocalists to launch from, and as the program goes on you are drawn in more and more, curious to see the differences and interactions between Bennett and his duet picks. Here are my mini-reviews of each performance:
–“One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” (John Mayer): I’ve never heard Mayer sing better. There’s no doubt that he came in wanting to do his best, and his jitters are rather charming (and productive), too.
–“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (Michael Bublé): Bublé has the standards feel down pat, and his smooth, Sinatra-tinged style plays well against Bennett’s grittier tone.
Michael Bublé & Tony Bennett
–“Blue Velvet” (k.d. lang): An excellent vocalist, lang also at times tends towards bombast. Taking cues from Bennett, she ends up delivering an emotional, subdued performance.
— “The Girl I Love” (Sheryl Crow): Former backup singer Crow knows a thing or two about how to play nice with other vocalists, and easily makes a great match with Bennett.
–“On the Sunny Side of the Street” (Willie Nelson): What a treat to see two consummate pros together, and Nelson plays a signature guitar solo, too.
–“Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)” (Queen Latifah): Arguably the best of the duets, as Queen Latifah channels the spirit of jazz great Sarah Vaughn with sweetness and quiet confidence, blending beautifully with Bennett.
–“Speak Low” (Norah Jones): Jones’ sexy-cool jazz-flavored voice was a superb choice to include on “Duets II.”
Tony Bennett & Norah Jones
–“This Is All I Ask” (Josh Groban): As with k.d. lang, Groban’s voice is naturally made for projection, and although not quite as successful as lang in getting dynamics controlled, when he does he and Bennett sound fabulous together.
–“Watch What Happens” (Natalie Cole): One of Cole’s great talents is her ability to match so well in duets, and she brings a sassy swagger that inspires Bennett to a similar playfulness in phrasing.
–“Stranger in Paradise” (Andrea Bocelli): Bocelli and Bennett recorded their duet in Bocelli’s home studio in Italy, and the respect both men have for each other is evident here.
–“The Way You Look Tonight” (Faith Hill): Country girl Hill, in a little black dress, surprisingly transforms into a jazz chanteuse, earning a dance with Bennett and lots of smiles.
–“Yesterday I Heard the Rain” (Alejandro Sanz): Sanz and Bennett trade lyrics in both English and Spanish for a very heartfelt rendition of a beautiful song.
–“It Had to Be You” (Carrie Underwood): Underwood sticks to a clean, pure melody line, letting Bennett shine with his peerless style.
–“Body and Soul” (Amy Winehouse): This is Winehouse’s final recording before her death in July 2011, and it is the most unique and compelling of the duets. Standing right next to Bennett, she fidgets, grins over at Bennett, and seems to be coming from some different place than all of the other artists. She seems fearless, in that moment.
Amy Winehouse & Tony Bennett
–“The Lady Is a Tramp” (Lady Gaga): Although I’m not a fan, I’ll be the first to admit that Gaga brings the most lively, fun, and spontaneous performance to “Duets II,” and sings very, very well. Tony totally digs it and goes right along with her.
Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga
–“How Do You Keep the Music Playing” (Aretha Franklin): The musical segments end with the pairing of Lady Soul and Bennett, and the differences in styles are most evident here. Does Franklin oversing at times, throwing in unnecessary runs, stepping on Bennett’s lines? Yes. However, a stunning payoff comes at the end in the last ascending succession of notes, as 69-year-old Franklin and 85-year-old Bennett seem to do the vocally impossible; you expect the sky to crack open. Watch the close-up of Tony’s face then; his emotional response is breathtaking.
“Great Performances – Tony Bennett: Duets II” is, in the end, a love letter to not only one of the finest American vocalists ever, but his remarkable attitude and spirit, which is something each one of us, musician or not, can learn from. Don’t miss this endearing look at Bennett and his wonderful way of creating music, which is, as he notes, “made for everyone.”