Five stars for the music but reduced to one star for content and value.
At around $135 this box set to mark Tony Bennett's 80th birthday year is obviously aimed at the hardcore Bennett fan / collector, rather than at the casual buyer. With that in mind one is left wondering what exactly it was that Sony/Columbia thought they were giving to us that was so special?
What we have ended up with is a frustratingly mixed bag.
Firstly, the packaging.
The picture on Amazon seems to be an early mock up of the set, as the finished product is more elaborate. The box is a cube covered in black velour with Bennett's signature embossed into the top. The front of the box has a perspex panel with a pencil portrait of the singer. Behind this is a montage of miniature album covers and photos, set slightly back from the panel to give a 3D effect. Above this on the top front surface of the box is a small silver metallic plate with Bennett's signature.
In the base of the box is a ribbon tag which when pulled reveals a small, hard backed book of approximately 60 pages, again covered in black velour with another small silver metallic plate featuring the singer's signature. Contents of the book are a collection of charcoal and pencil sketches by the singer and a collection of brief (and I do mean brief) hand-written personal comments on the albums included in the set. All very nice, but as a fan of the music I would have prefered recording information, anectdotes about the original album releases, session details, etc.
At approximately 7.5" x 7.5" x 7.5", the box will be an awkward if not impossible fit on the shelf beside the rest of your CDs.
OK - so what about what we really came here for, namely, the music? This is where the above mentioned frustration comes in. Let's take it album by album.
First of all there are several already available CDs, but in digitally remastered form, some with and some without bonus tracks. These are:
I Left My Heart In San Francisco - No bonus cuts but significantly improved sound quality over the previous release.
The Art of Excellence - No bonus cuts but significantly improved sound quality over the previous release.
Perfectly Frank - No bonus cuts but significantly improved sound quality over the previous release.
MTV Unplugged - Two bonus cuts ("Just a Little Street Where Old Friends Meet" / "When Will the Bells Ring for Me?") and slightly improved sound quality over the previous release.
The Movie Songs - Two bonus cuts ("A Time for Love" / "The Shining Sea") and slightly improved sound quality over the previous release.
Then we have a selection of albums that come under the banner of "pointless" as they have already been available for some time, already previously remastered:
Cloud Seven - Same as the previous release with no noticeable difference in sound quality.
The Beat of My Heart - Same as the previous release with no noticeable difference in sound quality.
If I Ruled the World: Songs for the Jet Set - Same as the previous release with no noticeable difference in sound quality.
The Tony Bennett / Bill Evans Album - An even more puzzling inclusion. Not a Columbia release, but recorded for the Fantasy label in the '70s. This is the original Fantasy CD release, not even repackaged for the box set by Columbia. It's just as if they bought a bunch of these from Fantasy and popped them into this collection. However, and again frustratingly, this is NOT the 20 Bit remastered edition of this CD that has been available for several years but the non-remastered, sonically inferior release from the late '90s. Perhaps Fantasy had a few thousand of these that they couldn't get rid of because they had been superseded by the remastered edition and unloaded them on Sony/Columbia? Whatever the reason this is a slipshod inclusion in the set, to say the least.
Next is one album already previously released and remastered, but here in a slightly amended form.
I Wanna Be Around - No noticeable difference in sound quality, but with different bonus cuts from the previous release. The previous CD release of this album included as a bonus, seven tracks from the "This Is All I Ask" album, a somewhat bizzarre and half-baked addition, as all of the tracks from "This Is All I Ask" would have fitted on to the disc making a two-on-one release. For the box set release we have three different bonus tracks "If I Love Again" (alternate take) / "Someone To Love" (alternate take) / "Indian Summer". So - if you want all of the bonus material you have to hold on to your (now deleted) previous CD release of this album.
The next album again comes under the heading of totally pointless:
The Singles Collection - considering this box set is aimed at the hardcore Bennett fan and not the casual buyer (casual buyers don't drop $135 on a whim), another "Greatest Hits" variant is completely pointless. Something tells me that the people likely to be forking over their hard-earned moolah for this box will already have everything on this disc, probably several times over. Heaven forbid Sony/Columbia should have given the fans something so outrageous as a disc of rare and unreleased tracks instead of this, their umpteenth hits compilation.
Finally, two albums that finally deliver the goods for the fans.
Tony Bennett Sings for Two - Briefly available on CD many years ago but rapidly withdrawn for some reason. This remastered version offers significant improvement in sound quality over the previous release.
When Lights are Low - first time ever relese anywhere in the world on CD (so far as I can ascertain). An absolute gem. More of this type of album -i.e. never before available on CD- is what this collection needed.
So - what do we have at the end of the day for the Bennett faithful? One previously unavaiable on CD release and one long unavailable on CD album, three albums in exactly the same form they are already avaiable in, one album in an inferior version to what is already available, one album with different bonus cuts to its previous release, five albums with remastered sound (two with bonus cuts) and, finally, one totally pointless "hits" collection.
Considering that approximately thirty Tony Bennett albums have never had a CD release, many more are long deleted on the format and bearing in mind the considerable amount of unreleased material in the vaults, this collection is a completely botched undertaking, a missed opportunity and a pretty shoddy commemoration of the man's 80th birthday.
Just exactly who executive producer Danny Bennett and Sony/Columbia are aiming this box set at is a bit of a mystery. If it is the dedicated fan, then I have to tell all parties involved in this release that we expect a lot more than two unavailable albums, a collection of already avaialble cleaned up recordings and seven -count'em folks- previously unavailable tracks for our $135.
Just what are the chances, I wonder, of Tony Bennett's back catalogue making it to CD before his original fanbase -or for that matter his newer devotees- are all in their graves?
This is a sorry monument to a great artist's 80th year.
(AFTERTHOUGHT: I'm still puzzled over the unusual number of discs in the set, namely, thirteen. Not a dozen, not twenty. but thirteen. Go figure. You know what they say about the number 13 - "...unlucky for some...". In this case the unlucky ones are Mr Bennett's fans.)