Viva Tony Bennett: The Singer on His New Duets Album, Taking Lady Gaga’s Call and His Dream Collaborator

The legendary crooner, whose album is released today, would love a chance to record with Sting

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Steve Jennings / WireImage

Tony Bennett performs on Oct. 23, 2011

Following on the heels of two wildly successful albums of duets (2006’s Duets: An American Classic and 2011’s Duets II), legendary crooner Tony Bennett will release a third duets-themed album on Oct. 23. The record, Viva Duets, features bilingual songs Bennett recorded around the world with some of the most popular names in the world of Latin music, from Marc Anthony to Vicente Fernández. A documentary about the artist, The Zen of Bennett, will also be released in select cities on Oct. 24. The 86-year-old singer, painter and artist spoke to TIME about the new album, what makes a great duet and which other artist he’d like to sing with.

TIME: How did you end up with the Latin theme for your upcoming album?

Tony Bennett: My son Dan came up with the whole idea of the duets album—the other two albums I made with the different contemporary singers. They ended up selling millions and millions of albums, so we tried the Latin thing. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Spanish. It’s difficult for me to communicate. But [the musicians] are so honored that I’m helping them out and showing the world their music, that they have been treating me so beautifully.

Did your Spanish improve at all?

Not at all. It’s just unfortunate. I’m not a linguist. I’m still learning how to speak English!

(MORE: TIME on Tony Bennett’s Duets)

How much do you and a duet partner rehearse before you record?

We go where they live, so each record took a couple of days of getting to know them, meeting their managers and their friends, and they became great relationships.

Were you familiar with the artists before you started making the record?

Not really but, boy, I was the minute I heard their records. They’re really tremendous artists, each one of them. The only person I knew very well was Marc Anthony. For years I’ve been a friend of his.

How do you know each other?

We met years and years ago, in Puerto Rico, when I performed there. Since then he’s become very popular and very successful, and he’s a great performer.

Which was your favorite place to travel to during the recording?

Mexico. It’s beautiful. I’m a painter also and I want to tell you that as far as I’m concerned, I can’t believe what they’re doing in the art world. It’s better than anything in America or in Europe. It’s the most potent art world right now.

Did you have enough time to go to museums and galleries while you were there?

I saw quite a bit of it, ancient paintings and contemporary painting and sculpture. They’re all big and immense and beautiful colors. It’s really quite wonderful.

(MOREWatch Amy Winehouse’s Last Music Video, a Duet with Tony Bennett)

How did you decide whom to sing with?

That was up to my son. He just chose the most successful Latino artists in the world, who are loved everywhere in the world. I wasn’t sure whether it was going to work, since I had to do everything phonetically, but it worked out beautifully.

How do you decide who gets to sing what?

We gave them a choice of three different songs and they chose one they liked, so they felt comfortable doing it.

I know this album isn’t even out yet, but do you think there’s another duets album in your future?

No, I have a couple albums I’ve done already, the complete works of Jerome Kern. We’ve done it but it’s waiting. And one I’m excited about is that Lady Gaga called me from Australia and she said, “I want to do a jazz album with you.” So we’re going to doing it with Marion Evans, the great orchestrator. We’re going to have a big swinging album.

Speaking of Lady Gaga, what do you think of today’s pop music?

I don’t know about pop music, but I’m a big admirer of Lady Gaga. I call her the Musical Picasso. She’s so creative and she changes every two minutes. A very creative person and a very nice person too.

So is part of the hope that you’ll introducing the American songbook to younger listeners?

I think it’s happened already. The duets albums, with all contemporary singers, are very successful albums with very steady sales. There are still steady sales coming in on it, and way over 6 million records. It’s surprising the heck out of me.I didn’t think it would be that strong a reaction.

(MORE: TIME’s 1964 take on Tony Bennett)

Is there anyone out there with whom you haven’t performed yet but would really like to?

I like Sting a lot. It might be nice to do something with him someday.

What makes a great duet partner?

It has to be a contrast. Lady singers are always good because then you can hear who’s singing. It can’t be someone who sounds just like you, because then you don’t know who’s singing. That’s a failure of a duet.

And does it work for any song?

No, just certain songs—but I never do a bad song. I stay away from anything that’s going to be a hit for about two weeks and then forgotten.

How do you know?

I just stay with top quality. If it’s very well written, if the words are beautiful and the music is beautiful, then I just say this is a good song, let’s do it. It never becomes old-fashioned.

Does that knowledge come from experience?

No, I learned it in school. In the Second World War, when I came out of the infantry as a soldier, the GI Bill gave us permission to choose a school. I was lucky enough to join the American Theater Wing. They were so wonderful to us, because it was a good war and we won, and they gave us the best teachers. They taught us to never compromise and only sing quality. The public deserves nothing but the best so don’t give them any junk, don’t give them anything that’s going to make a quick buck and be forgotten, don’t do anything unless it’s top quality.

Does that mean that, in your whole career, you’ve never recorded anything you regret?

I haven’t.