When people ask me, "What is jazz all about?" I tell them to run, not walk,
to the record store (or nowadays wait three or four days for Amazon.com to
deliver by post) and buy Tony Bennett's The Art of Excellence.
"Who the hell is he to title an album like that? is the question asked
by so many people not exposed to the album.
It wasn't Tony, but his son (and producer) Danny Bennett who
named the album.
This is the seminal example of delightful tunes, old and new, executed
perfectly by Bennett, combo and the occasional orchestral eruption.
In 1986, Bennett had returned to Columbia records after fourteen years. He'd
spent a little time playing around with drugs and a fast life, keeping him out
of the recording studio for the better part of a decade. Columbia's website lies
and explains his absence from the studio as being a period of "developing new
His son, Danny, but more important, his music director and pianist Ralph
Sharon knew it was time to tap into the talent that only Bennett possessed.
They used a U.K. studio orchestra to back up the tunes, some new, some old.
Suffice it to say that when a jazz singer asks me "who should I listen to, what
should I listen to?" I answer that The Art of Excellence is where they
Perhaps the finest example of how Bennett could take a very good tune and
make it fabulous is "How do You Keep The Music Playing?" with lyrics by
Marilyn Bergman and a thrilling, moving tune by Michel LeGrand. Just when one
assumes that Bennett's done the song justice, the finale, reaching from
mid-scale to the upper registers of a crooner's ability, will send shivers down
the back of even the most jaded listener.
So what is this opus that I encourage even lovers of much more modern music
to listen to? Essentially, Bennett took some great songs, some old, some new, had music
director Sharon arrange them for piano/bass/drums combo and orchestral
background, and sang them from the bottom of his heart. The arrangements are
delightful and even the engineering is impeccable (it's so well recorded that on
good equipment one can hear the distinctive timbre of Ralph Sharon's
A Personal Anecdote
I found out about this album at the tender age of thirty. At the time I
worked for Ford Motor Company, and with each car that was equipped with a
"premium" sound system, Ford gave the owner a "sampler" covering genres from
rock and roll to country and western and everything in-between. Plenty of these
"samplers" were made available for demonstrating cars (equipped with standard
or premium sound systems). This was a great promotional move on the part of
Ford because the customers couldn't talk over the music playing in the car. This
had the effect of causing a whole lot of nit-picks which were forgettable during
the test drive to get, well, forgotten.
I couldn't stand the rock hits, pop schmaltz nor the country and western
dreck that was included in Ford's demonstration tape. However, one tune
struck my fancy to the point that I'd sit in a car and press the automatic
rewind button to hear the wonderful tune over and over.
Bennett's version of the fabulous "I Got Lost In Her Arms' by Irving Berlin
was included in the `87 cassette. After just a few plays, I sought the album
from which this fabulous music originated. The man who sold me the disc was
taken aback that I not only had an artist in mind but a particular album
(remember that in 1987 compact discs cost about $30 and were quite the
nouveau medium). I looked young for my age at that time, and he thought I
was going to snap up the latest pop offerings displayed generously in the front
of the store.
About the Material
Like any really great album, the choice and order of songs tells a story. The
joy of listening to this album is that there's not one single "throw-away" tune.
They all work and work magnificently at that. These are songs that are for
grown-ups. They also exploit Bennett's voice at the top of his game, with a bit
of age showing but to his benefit.
If anything, the first cut, "Why Do People Fall In Love?" is so lush and
grandiose it evokes a Barbra Streisand splash. Then we come back down to earth
with an obscure tune by Burton Lane called "Moments Like This." "Moments" is one
of those tunes that has the singer asking a potential partner "let's have a go
at it but in the most eloquent, delightful way. A bit of trivia: Lane's
original lyric begins "Here is my cigarette smoke, playing its part, keeping the
two of us good friends..." Bennett, perhaps making a non-smoking statement,
changes the first few words to "Here is my casual smile, playing its part..."
"What are you afraid of?" is yet another overt plea for action, suggesting
the couple toss a few pillows on the floor. The lyric also pays homage to Frank
Sinatra, suggesting that some of his records be put on as a background for
"When Love Was All We Had" and "So Many Stars" are sumptuous, meaningful love
songs in the same adult vein, and then, all of a sudden Bennett pulls a surprise
out of his hat.
Any fan of James Taylor must know the song "Everybody has the Blues." He
included it on his smash album In the Pocket back in the '70s. Here it's
a duet featuring none other than a delightfully joyous and "having-fun-at-it"
Ray Charles playing the piano. A few lyrical changes were made here, too. The
tune is a recording of two mature men having child-like fun with a fabulous
piece of music. Charles allows Bennett to shine; Charles speaks many of his
lyrics and leaves the singing up to his partner. I'd buy this album just to have
this single tune; it's that good.
"How Do You Keep the Music Playing" from the movie Best Friends is
probably the most familiar song on the album. Patti Austin and James Ingraham
had already hit with it in the '70s. Bennett thrills us with this delightful,
metaphoric tune which is an emotional roller-coaster. Now, Shirley Bassey,
Streisand and others have taken this tune way too far over the top. Bennett uses
restraint and perfect diction no so much to tug at our heart strings but pluck
them, as one would pluck the strings of a double bass. The incredible riff at
the finale of the song is a testimony to how well arranger Ralph Sharon and
Bennett work together. Bennett's basically executing a vocalisation that reaches
for the stratosphere. Sharon takes us back down to earth with a piano crescendo.
"City of the Angels" is a lovely bagatelle; an ode to Los Angeles.
Co-producer Ettore Stratta wrote "Forget the Woman," arguably the least
interesting of all the tunes on the album. "A Rainy Day" reprises the almost
cloying simplicity of "City of the Angels."
"I Got Lost In Her Arms," as mentioned above, is worth buying the album for.
Written by Irving Berlin it doesn't sound like most of Berlin's Tin Pan
Alley-esque offerings. It's modern and very mature. The listener indeed gets
lost, feeling as if floating in space. Sharon arranges plenty of musical
metaphor into this piece to great emotional effect.
The song ends with a Cy Coleman gem which matches the rest of this very adult
Now, I'm aware that many who'll read this will say to themselves "that's
nice" and return to their rock and roll or pop collection without giving it a
second thought. However, if you know someone who's, let's say, a Sinatra or
Streisand fan, this record is the perfect gift. Columbia has re-issued it on its
own and also as a two-fer paired with Bennett's earlier smash hit "I Left My
Heart In San Francisco."
The Ralph Sharon Trio (Ralph Sharon, piano; Joe LaBarbera, drums; Paul
The U.K. Orchestra Ltd. orchestrated and conducted by Jorge Calandrelli
Ray Charles, vocals and piano on "Everybody Has The Blues"
1."Why Do People Fall in Love?" Dennis Lambert, Brian Potter 4:05
2. "Moments Like This"
Burton Lane, Frank Loesser 2:47
3. "What Are You Afraid Of?"
Jack Segal, Robert Wells 3:01
4. "When Love Was All We Had"
Jorge Calandrelli, Sergio Mihanovich 5:08
5. "So Many Stars"
Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman, Sergio Mendes 3:44
6. "Everybody Has the Blues"
James Taylor 3:37
7. "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?"
Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman, Michel Legrand 4:20
8. "City of the Angels"
Fred Astaire, Tommy Wolf 2:24
9. "Forget the Woman"
Ettore Stratta 3:16
10. "A Rainy Day" Howard Dietz,
Arthur Schwartz 2:59
11. "I Got Lost in Her Arms" Irving Berlin 4:27
12. "The Day You Leave Me"
Cy Coleman, C. Gore 2:46
- Official Website sponsored by Columbia Records:
- All Music Guide: www.allmusic.com
- Liner notes: "The Art of Excellence" Columbia CD 040344 (Re-Issue 1990,
(originally released May 3, 1986; original no longer available)