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CD Reviews

Tony Bennett

The Art of Romance (RPM/Columbia); Fifty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett (Columbia/Legacy, five discs) and The Complete Improv Recordings (Concord, four discs).

A sudden new spate of discs from the acknowledged master of the Great American Songbook.

Suddenly, Tony Bennett is everywhere -- and not just on disc either.

And not just Tony Bennett but, ahem, "The Artistry of Tony Bennett," as the five-disc career retrospective puts it -- not just a saloon-singing balladeer and superannuated pop idol, but the great living exemplar of the Art of Pop Singing in America.

And now a brief and, to many, no doubt shocking word, from the hidden cultural history of Buffalo: It is to the cultural life of Buffalo that Tony Bennett owes his current eminence as the undisputed pope of the Great American Songbook.

The three newest products from the rampaging Bennett discography tell the tale: The engaging if entirely unexceptional new disc "Art of Romance" is distinguished by his lifelong penchant for rummaging through the attic of American popular song for worthy specimens neglected by everyone else. (Johnny Mandel's "Close Enough for Love" might have its partisans, but his "Little Did I Dream" and Harold Arlen's "Don't Like Goodbyes"?)

"Fifty Years" is the definitive five-decade retrospective, which means, of necessity, a progressive, bad news, good news joke. For all the pop princeliness and monarchy of later decades, believe me, there is a reason why, in the '50s and '60s, he was one of the most devastatingly parodied singers alive. In his very early days, you see, he couldn't always disguise that he had a bit of a lisp, which made his 1953 recording of "Stranger in Paradise" -- with its merciless cataract of "S" sounds raining down on his troubled tongue -- fodder for every comic Borscht Belt Jack or Jackie who needed an easy laugh to feed a routine. A great five-disc anthology, of course, but, of necessity, all over the quality map.

The buried treasure, though, is "The Complete Improv Recordings," the best recordings of Tony Bennett's entire life, on four discs that sound even more astonishing today than they sounded in season three decades ago. And they were entirely dependent on the cultural ambitions and remarkable achievements of a jazz-loving Buffalo businessman and Bennett devotee with whom Bennett had the singular look to hook up with in 1972.

W.D. "Bill" Hassett was a singular man of singular ambition and just as singular achievement. By his mid-30s, he was a local real estate tycoon whose most prized property was one of the great real estate prizes in Buffalo -- the Statler Hilton Hotel. Lean, impeccably dressed and with the well-scrubbed face of an aging choirboy and prematurely silver hair, he even had a look of destiny about him.

He was also a lifelong jazz fan, both steeped in Buffalo's great East Side jazz clubs as a young man and familiar, as an older one, with jazz doings all over Manhattan. The Downtown Room, which Hassett opened in the Statler Hilton, remains one of the greatest jewels of jazz performance in the history of this city. (That it coexisted, for a time, with the original Tralfamadore Cafe of Hassett's exact opposite -- scruffy, funky, ever-counter-cultural Ed Lawson -- as well as Bemo Crockett's Revilot Club made the era a miracle era for jazz in Buffalo.)

Not only did the Downtown Room book artists for a remarkable two weeks at a time but, in its best and most community-supportive era, WBFO and its music director John Hunt even wangled a national NPR series of live broadcasts from the room.

The Downtown Room's financial successes and failures were equally astonishing for the quality of music played: Marian McPartland and Jackie and Roy, who developed ardent local followings, Milt Jackson, Zoot Sims, Phil Woods, Earl Hines, Vic Dickenson, the Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet, John Lewis. Bill Hassett was that rare and infinitely precious jazz impresario who not only knew the music he was presenting but also its context. He fully intended to keep an oasis of Manhattan sophistication going in Niagara Square.

In 1972, a bereft Tony Bennett -- dropped by his increasingly bottom-lined and rockophilic label, Columbia -- found himself being driven around after a pops concert appearance with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra by a typically dynamic and ambitious W.D. Hassett.

Why not team up to begin Bennett's own record label a la Sinatra's Reprise? Bennett would be the marquee name and Hassett the businessman in the back. Like Bill Hassett himself (who died of cancer at 63 in 2000), his label with Tony Bennett would be short-lived, much-underrated and, we can now see, of astonishingly memorable value.

Which is to say that the music on Tony Bennett's "The Complete Improv Recordings" may be some of the finest music of his entire recording life. Surely, it is the music that paved the way for his son Danny's successful crusade for the homage within his profession that is his lot today.

Improv was an early artist-run label whose lack of bell-ringing commercial success was every bit as predictable as the amazing durability of its excellence was not. Detached from the top-down heavy breathing of corporate bottom-liners, Bennett fully became the great neoclassicist of American song people like Alec Wilder and the New Yorker's Whitney Balliett had long proclaimed. His delivery on so much of these Improv records borders on outright art song, and yet there is nothing the slightest bit pretentious or comically inappropriate about it.

And the settings are sublime. One disc finds Bennett in the company of that Downtown Room favorite, the drummerless Braff-Barnes Quartet. A disc and a half presents what may be the high point of Bennett's entire recorded history -- the duets with great jazz pianist Bill Evans. These are some of the greatest singer/pianist recordings ever made. Bennett knew that suddenly, with only himself and his remarkable business partner to answer to, he had hooked up with one of the truly sublime musicians of his time. He fully understood what fate and a legendary player's admiration and willingness had handed to him on a silver platter, and he was equal to every minute of it.

This -- Tony Bennett and Bill Evans -- was a collaboration for the ages and, as liner notater Will Friedwald says, the best of it wasn't on Evans' home label, Fantasy, but on Bennett's, Improv.

And then, for a finale, a half-disc of a session much-coveted by frustrated fans and collectors -- Bennett at a Downtown Room 1977 jam with Marian and Jimmy McPartland, Dickenson, Buddy Tate and Charlie Byrd. It is no wonder that despite their considerable commercial failure (the demise of the label left Bennett a quarter of a million in debt and out of sight for a long time), Bennett, to this day, considers these discs a huge success.

And why wouldn't he? They are. The cost -- in money, soul and career frustration -- may have been prohibitively high for all concerned, but the artistic triumph is so extraordinary that it transformed Bennett totally from the Sinatraesque stalwart and cafe favorite he had once been to a primal master of the precious musical place where jazz and pop music meet.

Even if you subtract their influence on Bennett's future, the Improv recordings are, without question, some of the greatest music of Bennett's long and prodigiously active life.

Notater Friedwald -- who is co-writing Bennett's memoirs -- is hard on Hassett's lack of record-distribution skills in the notes. It is probably true that Improv might have prolonged its life if Columbia had been allowed to distribute the label. It may also be true that Hassett's most passionate agenda may have been promoting jazz in Buffalo every bit as much as promoting Tony Bennett.

Let others fault him. As a constant reviewer of the Downtown Room attractions and chronicler of Improv's ongoing life, I can only marvel listening to this music that it has attained, I think, the classic status it aspired to.

There aren't many hotel owners and New York State commerce commissioners who can lay claim to such legacies.

In fact, only one name comes to mind.