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Two Great Tony Bennett Albums That Heavily Feature Guitar 



The great singer Tony Bennett died last Friday, July 21, 2023. JGT contributor Joe Barth pays tribute to the late Tony Bennett.

Tony Bennett was born in Queens, New York on August 3, 1926.  He was known for his rich, powerful voice, master stylist, and jazz-like phrasing.  Tony also liked featuring the guitar in his performances.  In 1954 jazz guitarist Chuck Wayne became Tony’s musical director and continued until he was replaced by pianist Ralph Sharon who would stay with Bennett until almost the end of Bennett’s career.  Bennett was the first male singer to record with Count Basie’s Orchestra which featured rhythm master guitarist Freddie Green.  For his famous 1962 Carnegie Hall concert he employed the great Kenny Burrell.  For years at the end of his career the great Bostonian, Gray Sargent, held down the guitar chair in the combo.  In this article, I’d like to talk about two Tony Bennett recordings in which the guitar plays a dominant role in the ensemble.

Tony Bennett: The Complete Improv Recordings: Disc 2: Tony Bennett & The Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet; Concord Records 2004

From the beginning of his career in the early 1950s, Bennett’s record label Columbia wanted rich popular recordings that Tony and his arranger/producer Mitch Miller superbly produced.  In the mid-1970s, Tony wanted to make some more jazz-orientated albums. This led him to work with the great pianist Bill Evans as well as pianist Torrie Zito.  This also led him to record two albums with the Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet.  This group featured cornetist Ruby Braff, guitarist George Barnes plus rhythm guitarist Wayne Wright, and bassist John Giuffrida.  These albums were entitled Tony Bennett Sings 10 Rogers and Hart Songs (1976) and Tony Bennett Sings More Rogers and Hart (1977).

Born on the southside of Chicago in 1921 George Barnes learned guitar first from his guitarist father.  By age seventeen Barnes was working as a staff guitarist, arranger, and conductor at the NBC Studios in Chicago.  George Barnes held this position for five years until he was drafted into the army.  In 1951 Barnes moved to New York to work as a session musician for such artists as Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and others. In 1961 Barnes formed a guitar duet with Carl Kress where Kress would comp and George would play these flowery melodic lines. From 1973 to 1976 Barnes formed his quartet with cornetist Ruby Braff.  Braff had the reputation of being an “Ivy League Louis Armstrong.” For the last few years of his life, George lived in Concord, California where he died in 1977.

In these recordings with Tony Bennett, George Barnes displays his impeccable technique through his flowery, sometimes “over the top” improvised meandering lines.

Rhythm guitarist Wayne Wright (1932-2008) was born in Cincinnati, Ohio but grew up in Detroit, Michigan. In 1961 he moved to New York to replace Kenny Burrell in the Broadway musical “How to Succeed in Business.” The Barnes/Braff group was very successful and Wright gained international recognition for his excellent rhythm work in the combo.

In these two Rogers and Hart albums the playing is lean and to the point. Rhythm section Wayne Wright and bassist John Giuffrida always swing hard with a strong leaning toward playing in a Gypsy-Jazz style. The high point on the album is an artfully interpreted “Have You Met Miss Jones.”

Tony Bennett: Playin’ with My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues:  Columbia Records 2001

 In the late 1990s, Tony Bennett started having themes in his albums. On this recording, he invited ten performers to interpret bluesy songs with him.  His combo led by pianist Ralph Sharon includes guitarist Gray Sargent who performed with Bennett from 1997 to 2021 including his final concert with Lady Gaga.  Performing with Tony Bennett has brought the name of Gray Sargent into wider recognition. Born in Attleboro, Massachusetts in 1953 he studied at the Berklee College of Music from 1972 to 74, and in 1979 began playing with pianist Dave McKenna which brought him into the Concord Record family. He toured regularly with saxophonist Scott Hamilton.  From 1988 to 89 Gray was Artist in Residence at Harvard University. 

In this recording, Diana Krall, k.d. lang, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, and five others all seem happy to share the microphone with Bennett. On all the songs Gray’s tasteful, subtle, and lightly swinging style works wonderfully! High points on the album are the duets with B.B. King on “Let the Good Times Roll” where B.B. solos and “Evenin’” with Ray Charles. On the remainder of the album, there are a number of “greasy, gritty solos from Gray. Sargent’s comping is tasteful and bluesy.

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