Tony Bennett

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Tony Bennett

Fifty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett (Columbia/Legacy)

As Tony Bennett sings here, it's a long, long way from May to December. Listening to this 5-CD retrospective gives one a keen appreciation of just how long Anthony Benedetto has been swingin' in front of the mic. He begins as a dewy-voiced Italian balladeer belting Fifties pop melodramas and over a stunning 110 tracks evolves into the sonorous senior statesman of the Great American Songbook, shepherding it into the 21st century with inimitable style. Funny thing, though: When Bennett sings those words from "September Song," that old man's saga of autumn romance, he's still a kid, all of 33 – still three years away from his signature hit, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." His voice is pitched high, a sterling silver in vivid contrast to the burnished gold of his second career, the one launched in 1986 when he was "rediscovered" by the MTV lounge generation. Jump from that to any cut on disc five, all made after 1991, and you'll hear a singer who's deepened in voice and character, who's more relaxed, more assured, more himself. He's lived "September Song." Much of that change was charted previously on 1991's Forty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett, a solid 4-CD overview of the singer's career through 1975, covering all the string-soaked hits that made him a favorite with the easy-listening set, plus plenty of the jazz that earned him the admiration of that genre's artists, with a meager nod to his later work (eight cuts from Bennett's late-Eighties albums). Fifty Years offers no changes to the original set's sequencing or packaging, making it a pricey addition for completists. Still, the update boasts a full disc drawn from 1992-2002, and what a disc! Unlike some of his aging peers, whose waning voices and waxing egos turned them into parodies of themselves (Sinatra, anyone?), Bennett – well into his Medicare years, mind you – sounds like he's just hitting his stride. The brightness in his voice, the unfettered enthusiasm for his material, those big, big finishes, that swing (especially when he's cooking with musical director/stylish jazz pianist Ralph Sharon) are all as vital as when he recorded "Because of You" in 1952. It's the difference between Beaujolais and fine aged Cabernet, which brings us back to "September Song": "And the wine dwindles down to a precious brew. September, November." These precious days, Tony, I'll gladly spend with you.

****

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