Tony Bennett is as timeless as the songs he sings on "Duets II," which should put him back on the charts for a remarkable seventh straight decade. His 2006 Grammy-winning "Duets: An American Classic" was weighted toward baby boomer superstars (Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Stevie Wonder), but its sequel finds him reaching out to a new generation of singers — Lady Gaga, Carrie Underwood, John Mayer and Amy Winehouse in her last studio recording — with more moments of spontaneity.
Bennett wisely doesn't treat the Great American Songbook as a museum piece, which serves him well on the opening duet with a flirtatious Gaga on the Rodgers and Hart tune "The Lady Is a Tramp," with a brassy big band swing arrangement. Bennett chuckles as a sassy Gaga alters the lyrics ("This chick is a tramp"), affects a Brooklyn accent, throws in updated references to the Yankees, and even scats briefly, but in the end she leaves no doubt about her impressive vocal chops.
The mood turns somber on "Body and Soul," a poignant ballet Winehouse recorded with Bennett in London just four months before her death. The soul revivalist reveals her roots as a jazz singer influenced by Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, her warm voice expressing pain mixed with beauty as she glides through and stretches her lines.
Michael Buble and k.d. lang are the only holdovers from the first "Duets" CD: Buble effortlessly swings though Duke Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and lang tenderly embraces "Blue Velvet." Other highlights include Mayer and Bennett playfully bantering in a version of "One For My Baby (And One More For the Road)" that's more upbeat and less melancholic than Sinatra's; Norah Jones gorgeously singing in just above a whisper on "Speak Low"; Mariah Carey showing unusual restraint on "When Do the Bells Ring For Me," and Aretha Franklin pushing Bennett to a rousing climax on "How Do You Keep the Music Playing."
Bennett, who had an early 1950s hit with Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart," also seems particularly at ease with country singers who mirror his relaxed style such as Willie Nelson, who also throws in a guitar solo in "On the Sunny Side of the Street." Underwood ("It Had to Be You") and Faith Hill ("The Way You Look Tonight") show a new side as they avoid country stylings and use their lovely voices to sing standard ballads.
The success of "Duets II" is due in part to Bennett's insistence on doing each of the 17 tracks live in the studio with his partner rather than by exchanging digital files, making the performances more intimate and spontaneous. At 85, Bennett remains a hip role model able to bring out the best in his colleagues without compromising his standards.
CHECK THIS TRACK OUT: On "Body and Soul," Winehouse delivers a heartfelt, uncompromisingly honest performance as she sings lyrics from 1930 that speak to the sadness in her life ("My life's a wreck, you're making"), a touching reminder of a gifted talent gone too soon.