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Drawing more pop stars into memorable duets

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By James Reed
Globe Staff / September 11, 2011

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NEW YORK - In 1970, Tony Bennett released an album that was mawkish then and is even more so now. At the insistence of his label, Bennett recorded “Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!’’ That exclamation point spoke volumes, the idea being that the crooner should spruce up his sound for a hipper, younger generation. The psychedelic album cover featured an illustration of Bennett in bell bottoms.

It was a staggering misstep for a man whose sophisticated tastes skewed more toward Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, not the Beatles and Stevie Wonder. Bennett later confessed that he was so opposed to the album that he vomited just before recording it.

More than four decades later, that woeful experience makes his latest album even more of a stunning triumph. “Duets II,’’ set for release on Sept. 20, turns the tables: Instead of Bennett wading into contemporary pop music, some of the genre’s biggest stars are now coming to him to interpret the evergreen jazz and pop standards he’s been singing since the 1950s.

“My son really checked out who are the very most popular artists at this moment,’’ Bennett says last month, reclining on a sofa surrounded by his paintings in his artist studio that overlooks New York’s Central Park.

He looks good this sunny afternoon, radiating an old-world elegance in a gray blazer, his hands neatly manicured. If Bennett is aware of his advancing years - he turned 85 in August - it’s only in the context of what he’ll do next.

“At my age, I’m in very perfect health right now. It’s in top shape, but if my voice starts faltering or something, I’ll just become a painter,’’ Bennett says, and you realize he means that without a trace of sarcasm.

If his last “Duets’’ album was any indication, debuting on the Billboard 200 chart at No. 3, Bennett need not worry about his latest endeavor. Featuring everyone from Bono to the Dixie Chicks to Paul McCartney, his 2006 “Duets: An American Classic’’ reaffirmed Bennett’s broad appeal, as his Grammy-winning “MTV Unplugged’’ album had in 1994.

Partly the brainchild of Bennett’s son and manager, Danny, the “Duets’’ series is a calculated project that transcends genres and generations. On the new album, Bennett gives a masterclass to pop stars (Lady Gaga, John Mayer), country belters (Carrie Underwood, Faith Hill), popera singers (Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban), and a Spanish rocker (Alejandro Sanz). Bennett even enlists other icons for memorable collaborations, including Aretha Franklin and Willie Nelson.

Much of the album’s pre-release buzz has swirled around Bennett’s duet with Amy Winehouse on “Body and Soul,’’ reportedly the British singer’s last recording before her death in July at age 27. Even outside of that tragedy, Winehouse’s performance is poignant, ravaged and bittersweet, not unlike the way Billie Holiday was captured on one of her last studio albums, “Lady in Satin.’’

“I met her with her father six months before [recording together] when I played the Royal Albert Hall for two nights,’’ Bennett says of Winehouse. “We became good friends. Even though they told me to look out for her on the record because it’s unpredictable how she’s going to be, we had a good relationship by then.’’

Bennett says he put Winehouse at ease by mentioning he suspected she was influenced by R&B and pop singer Dinah Washington. “I said that and the whole thing changed,’’ Bennett says, adding that Winehouse was astonished that he would liken her to one of her idols. “She gained a confidence, and all of a sudden she got back into what she knew how to do, and the record came out right. That’s what did it.’’

Bennett says he has one regret: that he didn’t counsel Winehouse before her untimely demise. He, too, struggled with drugs earlier in his career and finally got his life back on track when he met Lenny Bruce’s former manager, who said the late comic had sinned against his talent.

“That sentence changed my whole life. I stopped taking drugs forever. I said that’s it,’’ Bennett says. “I respected the fact that the audience loved me that much, and I had to make sure I didn’t let them down. It really taught me that if you have a talent, really treat it with care. I wanted to tell [Winehouse] that she’s got to stop. It never happened. It just broke my heart.’’

At the very heart of “Duets II’’ is Bennett’s surprisingly playful back-and-forth with Lady Gaga. She sings, she swings, and she sounds like she’s having more fun than anyone else on the album. They picked the perfect song: “The Lady Is a Tramp,’’ which manages to poke fun at Gaga’s outsize pop-star persona and challenges Bennett to keep up with her. When Gaga ad-libs, “I love to rowboat with you and your wife in Central Park Lake,’’ it’s so kooky that it momentarily catches Bennett off-guard, and he trips over his next line.

“It was completely improvised,’’ Bennett says, adding that Gaga suddenly saw his wife in the studio and then came up with the line while they were recording. “She has a complete flair for turning everything into something contemporary and unpredictable.’’

Mostly, though, the guest artists are clearly working on Bennett’s terms, easing into the lush orchestrations and singing with a refinement that has long been Bennett’s greatest asset. Sheryl Crow is sly and a touch sedate on “The Girl I Love,’’ and k.d. lang’s vocal on “Blue Velvet’’ is as caressing as the material in question.

In some cases, the new setting draws out welcome nuances. On “The Way You Look Tonight,’’ country singer Hill sounds hushed and more introspective than she comes across on her own albums, with a touch of Streisand in her intonations, believe it or not. Likewise, keeping her powerhouse vocals in reserve, Underwood exudes a girlish softness on “It Had to Be You.’’

Where skeptics might grouse that “Duets II’’ is so all over the map that it loses direction, Bennett sees the album as yet another way to connect with his wide audience.

“I’ll be honest with you: I’ve always been anti-demographic. I didn’t like the Alan Freed philosophy that this is your music and your parents like the other kind,’’ Bennett says. “Being in show business, you want to reach as many people as possible. By blocking it off and just going with the young and forgetting their parents and their grandparents, you’re eliminating a lot of business.’’

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.