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Bill Evans & Tony Bennett perform “A Child Is Born”

I’ve been ruminating about bel canto all week—not just the sometimes thrilling, sometimes mediocre Donizetti operas the term usually implies, but the larger meaning of “beautiful singing.” Maria Callas and Ella Fitzgerald are bel canto singers in their very different ways. So is Tony Bennett, with his expansive delivery of the melody, his connection to the core of his body when he sings, his melding of tune and lyric into a broad river of sound. Bel canto isn’t only swoony (Joan Sutherland) or chatteringly virtuosic (Cecilia Bartoli). It can also have the sustained, dark colors of a cello, the ecstasy of new fatherhood.

So today I offer Tony Bennett and Bill Evans’ 1977 performance of “A Child Is Born,” by Thad Jones and Alec Wilder. The melody bears the imprint of Italian opera, slowly flowering into a gentle, climactic high note. Tony builds the song like a master, and he offers a crazy vocal effect at the very end: he begins the last note full voice, diminuendos it, crescendos it, and diminuendos it again to end softly. I don’t know what possessed him—it sounds as if he didn’t quite know what he wanted to do, planning to fix it in the next take of the song. And maybe they went into the booth and decided they liked it this way. I certainly do.      

Bill Evans is one of my household gods. I love him for his harmonic palette, the musical equivalent of a five-star gelato shop. The double-CD set called The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings is my favorite voice-and-piano album, and has been the touchstone for my own work in popular song. Soprano Mikaela Bennett once gave me the greatest compliment I could ever receive when she told me, “Wow…you sound like Bill Evans!” I’ve been living off that ever since.

Leonard Bernstein: Some Other Time

From Charles Cermele, Lincoln Center’s Producer of Contemporary Programming
(American Songbook):

The universal appeal of these lyrics and the musical sophistication of this composition attract singers and musicians from many musical genres. The blues-inflected chord changes make it a favorite of jazz musicians, and vocalists are drawn to the emotional truth underlying the clever word play. “Some Other Time” was written for the 1944 musical On the Town by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Three sailors on 24-hour shore leave in New York City meet three women before returning to their ship to leave for war. Omitted from the film version, the song is shared by four characters in the stage musical, knowing they may never see each other again, but hoping to catch up some other time.

It was the late 1980s when I first heard this performance by Tony Bennett and Bill Evans. I was a performer in my late 20s and the story of young people faced with their possible final goodbyes rang terribly true to me as I lost friends and lovers to AIDS. I began using “Some Other Time” as the encore for my solo concerts, unsure how long we had to enjoy this beautiful song. In this recording, Bill Evans communicates so much in the very last moments of his performance. Tony Bennett sings the final notes. The piano goes softer and higher up on the scale until it disappears completely in the middle of the melody. And then a final, isolated chord.

Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Bill Evans plays ‘Danny Boy’

These days I find myself more on the vulnerable side of my reality, not the intellectual one, so I give you this week’s selections desiring little more than for you to listen. Listening with an open mind, much less an open heart, too often runs contrary to my noise-filled existence. This first song, “Danny Boy,” appears on Time Remembered, a compilation album of songs that remained unreleased for some time. It marks Evans’ return to the recording studio after a year spent grieving the death of Scott LaFaro, his trio bassist, who was killed in a car accident. Evans showed up to the studio alone, played four tunes, and walked out – or so the story goes.

I share the notion with many of you that time is money, but the 11-minute price tag on this song seems like nothing if you’re willing to sit with him as he musically figures out how to breathe again. The space, sparseness, and tender hesitation of every note he plays in the beginning unravel the knots of my heart every time, and in doing so, remind me of why I do what I do.

For a man whose fingers could fly across the keyboard in a desperate attempt to keep up with his creative genius, Evans doesn’t even start embellishing the melody until after four and a half minutes in.

Michel Legrand: You Must Believe in Spring

It’s been a Bach week, but I’m departing from my faith-based musical life for today. I’m feeling melancholy since spring is finally here. The Norwegians, after months of non-stop darkness and no sunshine, view the first day of spring as the saddest day of the year, since they can already sense the end of it, and the oncoming winter. But we (and they) still yearn for spring every year. Now that the buds are budding, we are here, staring it in the pistils and stamens. And to celebrate it, and its departure, here is Bill Evans and Tony Bennett. “You Must Believe in Spring”, composed by Michel Legrand with lyrics by the Bergmans. It must be time for me to have another look at The Umbrellas of Cherburg. Michel Legrand really has an amazing compositional voice. He’s all heart.

Michel Legrand: You Must Believe in Spring (Tony Bennet and Bill Evans)

Today is definitively the first day of autumn. I cannot ignore the fact that the days are shorter, that deadlines are growing tighter, and that I never seem to have enough time to get everything done. My mood must have something to do with this endless election, which is like a 29-month pregnancy—at the end of which you might be giving birth to a monster. On days like this I need a re-set button. Bill Evans and Tony Bennett come to the rescue with a song I find very reassuring at this time of year: “You Must Believe in Spring.” The music is by Michel Legrand, the English lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. It comes from the 1967 French movie-musical Les jeunes filles de Rochefort. The original French words are fairly generic—your typical sailor looking for an elusive love all over the world. The Bergmans transformed the treacle into something resembling gold, and Legrand’s tune is sensual, laconic, and comforting.

Listening to Bill Evans collaborate with Tony Bennett, I am reminded of the power of simplicity. As Evans said, “Truth and beauty, that’s all. Just keep going after truth and beauty.”

You Must Believe in Spring:

For a treat, if you have the time, a 30-minute medley from mid-70s television. It begins with my favorite Bill Evans clip of all time, the theme from :The Bad and the Beautiful”:

And if you’re curious, here is the song as heard in the original movie:

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