music review: a wonderful world

August 4, 2006

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It looked good. After reading a recent article in the Times praising the integrity of jazz great Tony Bennett in the face of a veritable morass of disposable pop, the “Grammy-nominated” album of duets by Bennett and k.d. lang–she prefers it written that way–entitled A Wonderful World seemed like just the thing to take myself back, back to that era of breezy romance that I never knew but that jazz singers can’t keep from rhapsodizing about. “Inspired by the legendary Louie Armstrong,” Lang and Bennett have an easy, jovial rapport right from the opening number, “Exactly Like You”, encouraging the listener to forget his cares and hum along (by someone’s estimation, these tracks are “standards”).

The most memorable tribute to Armstrong’s legacy is “What A Wonderful World”, with this version concluding with some rather amusing banter about the man himself. Lang and Bennett have likely never sounded better; at no time did I question their formidable reputations as icons in their own right. Yet while both artists are clearly in their element and having a ball together, the disc somehow manages to come of as…dull. If jazz can be criticized for all sounding alike, it’s albums like this that deserve the label. With minimalist accompaniment and unimaginative arrangements, all the tracks run together, failing to distinguish what ought to have been a brilliant collaboration from Lang and Bennett’s vast catalog of past efforts.

Sound quality is another distressingly prominent issue. The entire album seems cloaked in a thick layer of gauze, with fine detail nearly nonexistent. Unseemly crackles and pops generate precisely the wrong sort of nostalgia and are inexplicable given superproducer T Bone Burnett’s engineering prowess; in all, it pales in comparison to such phenomenal releases as Diana Krall’s Live in Paris. And it had such potential.

But I forget how easy it is to criticize. In truth, listening to Bennett, still crooning away after all these years, is a magical experience even without the exceptional packaging we might have expected. That alone is enough to ensure that I’ll be enjoying this one for a long time to come.

–D. S. W.

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