I have always liked jazz. I remember listening to Frank Sinatra with my friends down the garage, as we’d sit around drinking and smoking on a Friday evening, often at the age of around sixteen. Before that, when I was around thirteen or fourteen, I remember my father sending me a disc from his distant home in Australia which contained, among various ska and contemporary rhythm & blues classics, both of Amy Winehouse’s albums, along with a Best of Sinatra. And before that, at the age of around eight—and what, looking back, may well have been one of the first records I ever owned—when I began playing the saxophone at school, my mother bought me a Charlie Parker record which I played to death.
When I rediscovered jazz properly at the age of around nineteen in my first year of university, I did it properly: started with the classics (Kind of Blue, Blue Train) and worked my way through all the others you’re supposed to have listened to: Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Sonny Stitt etc. I also listened to present jazz (I hesitate to call it ‘contemporary’) such as BADBADNOTGOOD, specifically their seminal second album BBNG2, and recently began listening to Tom Waits’ beautiful and often difficult interpretation of jazz on his first four or five albums (especially Small Change, where some tunes consist merely of Waits growling over an extended saxophone/bass/drum solo).
Two of my favourite jazz musicians by far, though, are the two referred to in the title of this piece. (In fact, as I write, I kick myself for not writing about Alone Together, the gorgeous Chet Baker/Bill Evans crossover album.) I chose to write about The Complete because it’s too difficult to pick between the two albums Evans and Bennett recorded together.
The first song I heard by Bennett, which is a cliché, but remains my favourite, is ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’. I’ve never been to San Francisco; I’ve never experienced ‘the golden sun’ shining for me, nor seen the ‘little cable cars’ climbing ‘halfway to the stars’. Nevertheless, Bennett’s voice in that song makes you feel like you have been there—and even wandering through the grey streets of London when the dawn has barely broken, looking West over the gross Thames, dense with fog, I can relate. I know when the sun begins to shine again on this country I will play that song on repeat. Most days I think I can sing like Bennett. I have been told repeatedly I cannot.
For now, though, as I recover from the loss-by-distance of a much-loved one, and sit through days of nostalgic melancholy (while, for once, actually feeling quite happy with life in general), the Evans and Bennett duo more than suffices. And nostalgic is the perfect word for this record: every track seems to remind one of being that little bit younger, that little bit freer, that little bit stupider. Though of course, I have never been freer or stupider than I am now—though younger, perhaps. Indeed, the first track on this album is ‘Young and Foolish’, and accordingly consists of Bennett wishing for bygone days, when he and the woman about whom he sings were ‘young and foolish again’. It’s hard not to get sucked in to the sentiment.
My favourite by far on this album, not only because of the personal meaning the lyrics hold for me but also because of the sombre pulse of Evans’ piano as much for Bennett’s softly moaning vocals, is ‘Some Other Time’. This track conjures up the future for me. A lost lover, being gone, is met at some point, perhaps by chance or on a whim. Of course, the time spent together was as good—better—than it was when the couple were in love and were together, before. The time is never enough: ‘There’s so much more embracing/Still to be done, but time is racing/Oh, well; we’ll catch up some other time’. The way Bennett sings this refrain vocally epitomises how I feel; his voice sounds like a man resigned to the fact that life is always going to get in the way of him spending time with the person with whom he is in love, that practicality sometimes—too often—has to take precedent. Essentially, I like this song because it reminds me of the relationship I was in which ended—Christ, was it six months ago?
Thankfully the album moves into a livelier number after ‘Some Other Time’, with ‘When in Rome’. One can imagine this tune with a full band, and it would certainly be a song which would get your foot tapping. Interestingly, my three favourites are all in a row on this album. The following ‘We’ll Be Together Again’—well, you can probably guess why I like this song so much. Not long after we broke up, I sent this tune to Megan as a joke over Facebook messenger. I received no reply. The next time we spoke, that was the last message which had been sent, and it made me laugh. I’ve always liked humour which has a certain tinge of sadness to it.
It’s unfortunate that this album essentially contains nothing but love songs, because the 4,000 words I had on the subject were exhausted last week. ‘It’s love; this time it’s love, my foolish heart’, Bennett sings as Evans improvises underneath on those slick 7s and 9s on the following song. Another sad number (it’s difficult to make songs sound optimistic when all you have to work with is a singular piano tapping out a jazz progression) ‘My Foolish Heart’ reminds me—Christ, we all know what it reminds me of.
I could go on for another two thousand words about why I like each of these songs, but to do that I’d have to figure out how to rephrase ‘I love jazz’ and ‘I miss being in love’ twenty times over. So let’s skip forward to what is perhaps the most beautiful song on this album: ‘A Child Is Born’. I can understand why this track is regarded as a Christmas song; the interpretation of Bennett singing about Jesus Christ being born is uncanny once you have the idea in your head, especially with his croons of ‘into the light’. But in reality, that’s not what Bennett is singing about; he is singing about something I can’t even nearly understand, that being, how incredible it is having your own child in your arms. A ‘work of art’, as Bennett sings—and I can only imagine how true that must feel, especially when yourself and your lover are the artists. It helps, as well, that Evans’ piano is some of the best on the record on this track. Somehow, this song still manages to make me feel sad—or nostalgic, at least—despite me not being able to relate to the lyrics at all.
All the songs on this record seem to melt into one, not least because Evans’ playing is so warm and wholesome that each track just seems to be him trying to make the listener obtain the largest erection possible. But then, that was what jazz was all about; the saxophone at the beginning of ‘I’m Old Fashioned’; Baker’s trumpet on the 1964 live version of ‘Time After Time’; that first note at the beginning of ‘Blue in Green’. All of it just sounded so good, especially the smooth stuff. Even Chet Baker’s voice—and he really was no singer—somehow sounded so good.
I have always wanted to play jazz, and I simply am not talented enough to do it. I cannot play jazz on the guitar, the bass or the piano; the closest I can play jazz on is the drums, and even then, at an extremely basic level. I don’t have the patience to stick to a genre: I could practise jazz every day but, before long, I would become bored and decide that I wanted to be Liszt rather than Thelonious Monk. A few weeks later, I might change my mind again—but by then, I’ve lost all momentum. But it doesn’t really matter; listening to The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings, I can imagine myself sitting at a bar, a glass tinkling with ice and vodka slowly warming from the grasp of my hand, the walls and ceiling peeling and the last punter finally leaving as the bartenders unscrew the taps and begin to mop the floor, and I remain, slowly sipping my drink, wondering what could have been.