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Duets II ()

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Tony Bennett's first album of celebrity duets (2006's Duets: An American Classic) featured an impressive cast of superstars answering the call from the dean of pop vocalists, but the arrangements were overly safe -- virtually all of them ballads with soft strings or brassy finger-snappers. Duets II follows the first by five years and features, surprisingly, a cast just as star-laden, but also arrangements that are much more dynamic, and suitable for each song and its participants. (Marion Evans, a veteran whose career goes back nearly as far as Bennett's, handles the charts for a few of the best here.) Bennett, as ever in splendid voice and impeccable groove, laughs and trades lines with stars half his age (like John Mayer), or in the case of Lady Gaga, six decades younger, and clearly makes them so comfortable in this setting that it would be easy to believe that jazz vocals were their home. Standard fare yields standard results for the likes of Michael Bublé and Josh Groban, but all of these songs have something to contribute. Bennett is especially tender and expressive with k.d. lang on "Blue Velvet" (the two had already collaborated on a full album), and he clearly enjoys his pairing with Willie Nelson for "On the Sunny Side of the Street." (Nelson takes a guitar solo, and shows some of the vocal shadings that during the '60s made him as expressive a vocalist as Bennett.) The album wisely covers all bases, including stars of country music (Carrie Underwood, Faith Hill), R&B (Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse), and one-shots for rock & roll (Sheryl Crow), Latin music (Alejandro Sanz), and classical (Andrea Bocelli). Celebrity musical pairings rarely lead to innovation or excitement, but Duets II is an enjoyable celebration of what Tony Bennett has meant to pop music, and what he can bring out in any star vocalist he steps up to the microphone with. ~ John Bush, Rovi Hide synopsis

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