Pianist Bill Evans, left, and singer Tony Bennett collaborated on a pair of albums in the '70s that have become jazz classics, and were recently reissued as The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings. ((Concord Music Group))

Jazz lovers are a fractious lot. If you want proof, just ask a singer. Vocalists are both adored and despised by the jazz community, and the wider culture in general. Indeed, the barbs about singers predate Will Ferrell-inspired humour targets like the jazz flutist or the free improviser.

The recent reissue of The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings offers a reminder of how vital, even revelatory, jazz singing can be.

While some of these jibes can degenerate into sexism – All About Jazz, a prominent online forum, posted a long list of "chick singer" jokes – others come with a degree of seriousness. Many instrumentalists have watched with quiet agony as retro vocalists like Diana Krall and Sophie Milman have become the genre's flagship artists. Sure, the economics of instrumental jazz is daunting – a CD that sells 10,000 is considered a substantial success, while Quiet Nights, Krall's recent return, sold more 100,000 in its first week. But when jazz is less about art than conspicuous consumption – which often seems the case given Krall's penchant for cross-promotion — the purists shudder.

Does it have to be this way? The recent reissue of The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings offers a reminder of how vital, and even revelatory, jazz singing can be. While these sessions may be more than 30 years old, they've become much more than just a series of duets between the fabled singer and the late pianist. They're a cornerstone in the American art-song tradition.

Originally released on small labels with little hoopla, The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (1975) and Together Again (1976) were always meant as bookends of a single vision. Remastered with a full disc's worth of alternate takes and 19 pages of newly commissioned liner notes, the 41 performances appear today as a lesson about the possibilities of American popular music — and the superficial state of the art today.


(Concord Music Group)

"Like many instrumentalists," Evans admitted in an interview before the original sessions, "I never was a great vocal fan." For years, however, Evans and Bennett maintained a mutual admiration. When they first recorded together – five years before Evans's death in 1980 – the pianist's cocaine addiction was raging and his musical output increasingly erratic. He was 45, still most famous for his first great trio (1959-61) and his role in the sessions for Miles Davis's Kind of Blue (1959).

Bennett's career was also unravelling. Two decades removed from his first series of popular hits (Because of You, Blue Velvet, Cold, Cold Heart) and more than a decade after his signature number (I Left My Heart in San Francisco), Bennett was 48 and without a record label. By decade's end, his second marriage had dissolved, his drug habits had overtaken him and he was on the verge of bankruptcy.

The larger context also conspired against them. Throughout most of the 1970s, jazz was in an economic and artistic crevasse, perhaps equalling today's troubles. While fusion was soaring, old-time crooners were having trouble finding even lounge work. Rather than try to pander, to jump headlong into the day's fashion, Bennett and Evans created something that would transcend the moment — it was accessible and honest and rooted in the songs they grew up listening to.

Between the first session (June 1975) and the second (September 1976), Bennett and Evans played together regularly. Before the first date, however, there was very little preparation. As Bennett told Will Friedwald, who wrote the reissue's liner notes, "I would name a tune, and Bill would say, 'That's good, let's do that.' We'd find a key and then the two of us would work it out." They'd often try out arrangements on the spot.

Their song choices were personal favourites (including Young and Foolish and The Touch of Your Lips), but hardly commonplace in 1975 and '76. The sessions were Bennett and Evans's take on Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, mid-century jazz and movie music. A pair of Evans classics, Waltz for Debby and The Two Lonely People, were included as well.

The result was two soaring yet equal voices: Bennett's unique style in full force alongside Evans's sometimes dreamy, sometimes hardboiled colours. Here, for the first time, perhaps, were all of the elements of Bennett's art — that combination of a jazz and swing sensibility, show-tune vernacular and bel canto power. "The way that voice and keyboard interact here seems to have no antecedent in the whole history of jazz," Friedwald writes in the notes. "This is more like an American ideal of lieder." Instead of Franz Schubert, think Cole Porter, instead of Gustav Mahler, think Rodgers and Hart.


Bennett, right, and Evans perform on the opening night of the 1976 Newport Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall in New York. ((Associated Press))

While it's hard to set aside Bennett's current status as supreme entertainer and elder statesman, it's worth remembering that he always looked to elite jazzmen like Duke Ellington, Count Basie or Evans as models.

Bennett's recent resurgence has run parallel with the vogue for jazz singers in the past two decades – an era that may have begun with Harry Connick Jr.'s arrival and continued in the late '90s with Krall's rise. Bennett's own renaissance peaked in October 2006, when he landed at No. 3 on the Billboard charts with Duets: An American Classic. The antithesis of the Evans dates, the album featured syrupy strings, banal big-band arrangements and included appearances by the Dixie Chicks, Barbra Streisand and Bono, as well as Canadians like Krall, Michael Bublé, k.d. lang and Céline Dion.

If the Evans recordings were produced during one of the dips in Bennett's career, you wonder if our current crop of vocal stars could use the freedom of their success to create something equally unexpected and lasting. Connick's early small groups were based around some of New York's strongest rhythm sections. Krall's touring bands, large and small, are among the smartest, sharpest units in mainstream jazz, and for her latest disc, she once again hired legendary arranger Claus Ogerman.

But the lure of fame – which has drawn in people like Milman, Jane Monheit and Nikki Yanofsky – has resulted in singers leaning almost exclusively on the soft and familiar end of the jazz spectrum. There are exceptions, but too often, the Great American Songbook serves as the soundtrack to a marketing team's idea of the good life.

The spare, shimmering wonder of The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings is something altogether different. To view its model as a way into the future might make the entire jazz community see eye to eye.

The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings is in stores now.

Greg Buium is a writer based in Vancouver.