Saturday, November 24, 2007

Bennett/Benedetto in the Studio

Tony Bennett in the Studio
By Tony Bennett with Robert Sullivan
Sterling Publishing

There is actually quite a body of museum quality fine art produced by jazz musicians, including Miles Davis and Pee Wee Russell. Perhaps the best known jazz artist-visual artist double threat is the unflaggingly popular vocalist Tony Bennett. His second collection of drawings and paintings, Tony Bennett in the Studio, has been recently published in time for the Christmas shopping hordes.

For an art book, Studio has a surprising amount of text, mostly written by Robert Sullivan giving the highlights of Bennett’s career. Many of these episodes will be familiar to the legions of Bennett’s fans. However, his early 1970’s years in London are rightly identified as an underappreciated point in his career. His Verve/MGM records from this period, working with the likes of Robert Farnon and Don Costa, are some of the finest of his career and ought to be available alongside the better known Columbia releases. Also, Sullivan quotes Bennett remembering this as the period he took his natural talent for painting to a higher level:

“I’d been painting whenever I could, but it was this year in London that I really started to get serious about it. I found a wonderful professor of art, John Barnicoat, who gave me private instruction. . . I became more serious about painting than I’d ever been, and I’ve never looked back.” (p. 120)

While Bennett might be a pop-jazz crossover artist, his affection for jazz is well established, and can be seen in the pages of Studio. In addition to the illustrious figures of jazz history, like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald, Bennett also depicts some of the musicians’ musicians of jazz, like Scott Hamilton, Ted Curson, and his longtime musical director Ralph Sharon. You can also hear some of Bennett’s favorite jazz artists on the sampler disk packaged with Studio. “The Very Thought of You” features lovely trumpet obbligatos from Bobby Hackett and “But Beautiful” is one of his sublime duets with Bill Evans. (A Bennett portrait of Evans used as the cover of the pianist’s Blue in Green record is also included in Studio.)

While Sullivan’s text is informative, its hero-worshipping tone can be a bit distracting, repeatedly telling us that despite his undeniable talent, Bennett is just plain folk around his adoring public. Fortunately, this is not the sort of book you get for the text, but for the art, which is quite good, much of it reflecting an acknowledged influence from the Impressionists. It is interesting to note Bennett sings under his stage name, but signs his work by his given name Bennedetto (this observation from someone who blogs under his initials).

For those who own Bennett’s previous mid-1990’s collection, What My Heart Has Seen, there is some overlap in the painting each volume collects. In general, Studio includes many more sketches and drawings, as well as more subject matter drawn from music and from European trips. Logically, it also includes newer works, like Christo’s Gates in Central Park and Bill Charlap with the Washingtons at Jazz Standard.

Heart is shorter and is more New York City centered, but its introduction by Ralph Sharon is actually preferable to the celebrity prefaces to Studio from the likes of Mitch Albom and Mario Cuomo (I’m sure they really are famous friends of his, but would you turn to either for insight into art or music?). In Studio, Bennett explains to Sullivan how Sharon’s advice to the young newly signed singer was crucial helping him find his identity:

“‘[Columbia Record’s Mitch] Miller wanted me to do one ballad after another,’ he say. ‘Ralph Sharon said, ‘Make sure you do some jazz.’ Ralph knew how much I loved jazz. He knew that, really, I’m a jazz singer. In this commercial world they put me in the traditional pop category, because, well, I’m white and Italian.” (p. 45)

Studio also lists the various recordings Bennett cut and the awards and honors he has received, including the 2006 NEA Jazz Master title. Recently, he won another coveted jazz prize, well after Studio would have gone to press—the Downbeat Readers Poll for best male vocalist. Packaged with a short sampler CD and priced at $29.95, it really is a decent value as a Christmas gift item, handsomely presenting Bennett’s art for his loyal fans.