Tony Bennett – Duets ll (RPM/Columbia)

With Ray Charles gone, it seems that it’s up to good ol’ Tony Bennett to crank out the celebrity duets albums. Like just about everything else the octogenarian is associated with, he carries this project off with class and enthusiasm.

The 17-song set kicks off with the album’s most intriguing coupling, Bennett trading lines with Lady Ga Ga on The Lady Is A Tramp. And, surprise, surprise, Ga Ga is up to the challenge, sounding very comfortable amid the brassy, big-band arrangement. Both Ga Ga and Bennett sound like they are having a ball and this turns out to be the album’s high point.

The other attention-getting track is Body And Soul, featuring Amy Winehouse’s final vocal. Listening to Amy’s vocal, it’s almost impossible not to compare her to late-period Billie Holiday. It’s a bit unsettling, but, for Amy, not a bad way to go out.

Among the male vocalists, easily the best is Willie Nelson’s On The Sunny Side Of The Street. Willie and Tony clearly enjoy each other’s company and Nelson throws in one of his patented guitar solos to spice things up.

The other highlight, not surprisingly, is Bennett’s duet with k.d. lang on Blue Velvet, the tune made famous by Bobby Vinton in the early 60s. The two approach the song in a dreamy, romantic haze helped out by sweeping strings, tinkling piano and lilting clarinet.

On the down side, Aretha Franklin oversings How Do You Keep The Music Playing. The Queen Of Soul seems intent on hitting every note within reach, something she’d never do back in her prime.

Josh Groban’s operatic voice is an acquired taste that I have yet to acquire, the same goes for Andrea Bocelli. Maria Carey, Sheryl Crow, Carrie Underwood and Norah Jones are OK, but any excitement generated in the duets comes from Bennett.

The core backing musicians are Lee Musiker (piano), Marshall Wood (bass), Harold Jones (drums) and Gary Sargent (guitar) with Marion Evans or Jorge Calandrelli handling the arranging and conducting chores.

The songs are mostly standards such as It Had To Be You, The Man I Love, The Way You Look Tonight and Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. Other than the Lady Ga Ga performance, the album offers few surprises, but Tony Bennett, even at age 85, is always a pleasure to hear.

Marty Duda

Click here to listen to The Lady Is A Tramp with Lady Ga Ga from Duets II