The thought of Tony Bennett conveys a certain formality, and perhaps that's inevitable. He is 85 years old after all, and, for the past six decades, one of the greatest singers America has produced. His forte is the Great American Songbook, a body of work distinguished by its elegance, literacy and high sophistication.
But in person Bennett comes across much as his singing does: accessible, direct and honest. He chooses material that he deeply believes in, convinced that, properly rendered, such songs will say all that needs to be said, no histrionics required.
He has been blessed with an extraordinary voice, of course; he has taken proper care of it, and it has held up extremely well. With a gift like that, what's the point of sharing the stage with other singers? But Bennett's modesty and generosity of spirit have extended to other vocalists with great success. His 2006 album, Duets: An American Classic, is among the most noteworthy of his career. Now, Duets II, to be released Sept. 20, sets out to carry that standard forward.
On his new collection, Bennett shares his love for the Great American Songbook with a new generation of artists, including Carrie Underwood, Norah Jones, Josh Groban and Faith Hill. He finds surprising depths in performances with Lady Gaga and, most poignantly, Amy Winehouse, who died in July at age 27. A "duet" these days often means two singers adding their parts to a prerecorded track on different days, often thousands of miles apart. Not on this album. Bennett and his collaborators all sang face-to-face in the same room, with Bennett traveling to wherever they happened to be, so his musical guests would be as comfortable as possible.
Bennett looks entirely comfortable himself as he strolls into his art studio overlooking Central Park. He's an accomplished painter, whose work has found a home as part of the Smithsonian Museum's permanent collection, as well as other prestigious collections. On an easel behind him stands a drawing of his mother inspired by a photograph of her, the beginning of another portrait.
As the afternoon sun streams through the windows and the sounds of the city create their own summer music, Bennett discusses Duets II, his upcoming Los Angeles concert to benefit AARP's Drive to End Hunger, the art of collaboration, and the tragic mix of drugs and art. The interview will run in two parts; the second part will appear Thursday.
Q: On Duets II, you collaborate with a range of singers, from Willie Nelson to Andrea Bocelli. Willie's singing is so bare bones. It's almost as if he's just speaking to you.
A: He does it right, though. You know, the real lesson to any singer about interpreting on a song is, do what the composer had in mind. And that's the big accent about him. Mr. Nelson gets it right down to just the way the song was written. He doesn't really improvise on it. It's the right feeling, the right tempo and it always works for him. It's a great talent to arrive at that.
Q: Talk about working with Aretha Franklin, who is obviously one of the great singers of all time. What was that session like?
A: She was an ultimate professional, and she had such an understanding of the music. Originally I wanted to do "Lost in the Stars," the Kurt Weill song, with her. She said, "No, I want to do 'How Do You Keep the Music Playing.'" Years ago, I went to see Sinatra in concert one night, and he shocked me. I was in the audience and he said, "Tony, you gotta record this song, 'How Do You Keep the Music Playing.'" So I've always loved it! I was thrilled that she chose that song. She came right in and knocked the song right out. She understood every note musically, and it was quite effortless.