Don’t you just love serendipity? For the past few days I’ve had Tony Bennett in my head. A very specific Tony Bennett. The one who, in 1976, stood in a recording studio not far from Bill Evans at the piano and sang You Must Believe In Spring.
Why think of that now? Well, BBC Radio 3 wakes me up at 8am on Saturdays and Sundays, and it burbles in the background until I get up or until the manner of the presenter begins to irk excessively. Last Saturday – or maybe it was Sunday – in between the irksome presenter and the bits of Elgar and such, came Tony and Bill doing You Must Believe In Spring.
It might have been chosen because of the season – the song is distinctly autumnal in mood: “When lonely feelings chill/The meadows of your mind/Just think if Winter comes/Can Spring be far behind” – but in these post-Brexit, post U.S. election days it also has a deeper resonance, the glimmer of hope in its melancholy is of the right, modest luminosity to be plausible, manageable. This is not the time for jolly Macawbers but for somewhat subdued but ultimately hopeful voices, struggling with a self-inflicted “must” to believe.
You Must Believe In Spring originally appeared in the 1967 film Les Demoiselles de Rochefort as Chanson de Maxene. Look at the writing credits and it could be a song written by committee. But somehow Michel Legrand, Jacques Demy, Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman have constructed between them a song of simply truthful lyrics and exquisitely beautiful melody/harmony that, with its finely balanced emotional suggestion, achieve some kind of profundity.
At least that is how it feels to me, conveyed via the bronze larynx of Mr Bennett and via the tinkled ivories of Mr Evans.
Since the weekend it’s been rolling round my head, until this morning I retrieved my copy of The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings (Fantasy/Concord) and listened not just to the take that made the original Together Again album but also a couple of alternate takes.
I think they picked the right one for the original album but of course the critic in me does have a caveat regarding this performance, in fact all three takes, and it’s one which leads me (recklessly?) into the jazz police’s version of the lion’s den. Criticism of Bill Evans. (If I were texting this I would now insert one of these: 😱)
My point is this. Tony Bennett sings this song sublimely. It’s a subtle melody line – in the liner notes for The Complete… Bennett’s collaborator on his autobiography, Will Friedwald, describes it as “a song that’s at once complicated and tuneless in the wrong hands, and intricately magnificent in the right” – but Bennett has that supreme gift of singing not just the right note but suggesting the right chord in his voice’s overtones. It’s as perfect a reading as I’m ever likely to hear not only of the melody and the harmonic richness behind the melody, but of the lyrics and the emotional richness behind those. So, Tony, I would submit, does the perfect take. In fact he does three different but similarly perfect takes.
Bill is equally perfect in accompaniment, interpreting the original chords in his own inimicable way and conveying just the right emotions to suit Bennett. His solo, in the middle, is another matter. He goes on a thoroughly virtuosic search of every harmonic nuance in the song and dances into the light the rhythmic depths of it as well, but he kind of gets carried away with all the musical content and the perkiness of his groove to the detriment of holding the mood that Bennett has created. Of course, Tony pulls it all back into shape on his re-entry and conclusion, but if Bill had just been a bit more measured, a bit more committed to continuing what Tony had started, well that would have been even better.
In the end though, no one is going to spoil this particular performance, and hey, with a few hundred more listens I might find I can forgive Bill. He’s a hard man to hold a grudge against!
If you have a copy of this performance do take it out and listen – I think you might find it acts as a kind of balm for these times. And if you don’t know it, please seek it out.
In the meantime, please forgive a YouTube share: