This collection of "Duets II" to celebrate Bennett's 85th birthday is so far better than the original "Duets" album of five years ago that it is difficult to believe that five years have actually passed and that this album isn't actually taken from undiscovered recordings of Bennett during his comeback years of the late eighties and nineties. It isn't, of course, having been recorded earlier this year. I suspect the reasons this album works so well are two. First, the selection of singers to team up with Bennett seems to have been done less with star power in mind and more with careful consideration of the kinds of singers who work well with his voice. Second, the songs themselves are no longer (for the most part) the "greatest hits" seen to poor effect on "Duets". Rather they are songs carefully chosen to show off Bennett's ageing, but still emotive and powerful, voice. It can be no coincidence that many of these songs are the staples that make up his present day concerts. There is no question that Bennett has sounded better in his career - it would be ridiculous if an 85 year old man sounded as good as he did at 45. The amazing thing is that he still sounds great. Not just great for 85, but great.
Some particular highlights on this album include:
- The Lady Is A Tramp (Bennett and Lady Gaga both swing masterfully, and it's on this track that Bennett sounds youngest and most carefree)
- Don't Get Around Much Anymore (Bennett and Michael Bublé clearly appreciate each other's style, and push each other along - again Bennett sounds vibrant and fresh)
- Blue Velvet (an inspired idea to bring back k.d. lang for her fifth appearance on one of Bennett's albums, as her voice blends perfectly with Bennett's)
- Who Can I Turn To (sung with Queen Latifah, it is amazing that Bennett still has the power to sing this in the same style if not quite in the same key as he first sang it in 1964)
There are also a few surprises - not being a big fan of "popera", it was surprising to me that the duets on This Is All I Ask (with Josh Groban) and Stranger In Paradise (with Andrea Bocelli) work so well. Both singers seem to have toned it down just enough to meld harmoniously with Bennett's rougher tones. Not as much as Mariah Carey has toned it down though, in what is a duet of taste and style on When Do The Bells Ring For Me.
The album isn't perfect. How Do You Keep The Music Playing is an embarassment, as Aretha Franklin fights Bennett all the way with an infuriating caterwaul that completely wipes him out at the climax of the song. Nor is Body And Soul with Amy Winehouse the posthumous towering classic that everyone seems determined to make it, although it is a perfectly pleasant rendering, and it is poignant to hear Winehouse apparently back on the way to health and performance.
All in all, an enjoyable album that has moments of real and lasting beauty, and for the rest of the time provides a glimpse of one of the best remaining interpreters of popular song, who is, although not quite at the top of his game, certainly still playing the game very well indeed.