Notes on A Scale

Home from teaching, I turn on the TV and walk into a nightclub, with the show already underway: American Masters is doing a documentary on Tony Bennett. Like its subject, it's smart, stylish and surprising in its phrasing, in where it lands on the beat (the credits reveal some smooth talent behind the scenes, too-- producer and jazz fan Clint Eastwood, and co-writer Nick Tosches, who wrote the best book on Dean Martin several years ago). Just a few notes that jump out like Bennett's voice bopping across a jazz guitar riff:

--An old Tonight Show from 1975, Bennett appearing with Bill Evans to plug their album (Tony Bennett and Bill Evans did an album together?? Off to I-Tunes!). No one snaps his fingers like Bennett-- what's normally an annoying affectation to me feels infectious when done by Bennett, and I find my shoulders rolling and bopping along with his as I watch. He's singing "When In Rome," and when he sings Carolyn Leigh's lyric, "When in Spain, for reasons I can't explain/I remain, enjoying a brew," he makes a sudden aside off-camera: "Right, Ed?" With anyone else, this reference to sidekick Ed McMahon's drinking might seem crass, obvious or offensive; Bennett is so gossamer light and lightning fast that it just seems like a brilliant aside, a sideways improvisation threaded into the lyric with a big smile. He makes the in-joke classy.

-- A riff on influence: Bennett as Judy Garland. We see them singing "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" on her television show in 1963, and hear someone discussing in voice-over how much he admired her. Once you hear it, it won't leave your head: the vibrato, the reaching for high notes, the flood of passion that threads opera to percussive, dance-round-the-beat jazz: all these things that seem quintessentially "Bennett" are actually "Judy," her outfit that he puts on, a musical drag that allows him to express his own heart. But it's not derivative, not Connick doing Sinatra in the late '80s: it's a continuum, a tradition, an honoring. And it's fabulous to see them together, Garland leaning into Bennett's shoulder like he's a kind uncle, Bennett clearly jazzed to be singing with an idol.

--Intertexts: Some stylish, inventive editing takes this notion of influence further, intercutting Bennett singing songs onstage with old footage from Hollywood movies and television, that shows the songs done by their original performers. Bennett to Astaire ("They Can't Take That Away From Me"), Bennett to The Gold Diggers of 1935 ("Lullaby of Broadway"), the latter particularly effective because Bennett is dancing and twirling onstage as he sings, and the sharp editor managed to cut it in with the Berkeley choruses moving in similar manner. A reminder that jazz is, in part, about flowing, picking up a melody left by someone else.

--Coming into the show midway, I didn't realize it had a narrator: most of the program has been carried by talking heads and performance, when suddenly the booming voice of Anthony Hopkins comes on and talks about bel canto. Well, sure: this is a jam, after all-- why not add another great voice?

--Producer Eastwood interviews Bennett on-camera periodically. At one point, they're sitting in a garden, and Eastwood mentions Bennett's wide range: Hank Williams songs, show tunes, jazz. Bennett is sketching in a small notebook, and responds to him without looking up: so cool, you even make Clint Eastwood seem overly eager.


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