Tony Bennett has gone through various phases in his career. That's not surprising considering the 85-year-old has been singing since the swing era. He was a young star, a pop singer trying to grow beyond silly pop repertoire, a master storyteller of song, the comeback act who played for the kids on MTV. Now, Tony Bennett is simply a legend. These days he spends more time painting than he does performing, so a chance to catch him live is not to be missed.
Bennett and his band played Friday, July 1, at the Montreal Jazz Festival. While his career has been perceived in different ways over the years, Bennett himself has changed very little. He's a classic pop singer who projects emotion. He's also an entertainer who connects with his audience with a likeable personality that balances his humble working class roots in Queens with the sophisticated persona of a romantic who left his heart in San Francisco.
The night opened with a few tunes sung by his 30-something, auburn-haired daughter Antonia Bennett. This is a classic showbiz move, leaving the band to be led by a secondary figure for the open songs of the performance. Antonia didn't embarrass her father, singing 'Too Marvelous for Words' and few other standards, but it's a tough gig opening for Tony, and the crowd was polite but not particularly supportive. Her father, on the other hand, got a standing ovation when he walked on stage. Acknowledging the crowd, Bennett waved, gave the thumbs up, and told them, Thanks for stopping by."
The 75-minute set opened with the Bennett original 'Someone Who Cares' and from there went through the pages of the great American songbook. Highlights included a lighthearted 'I Got Rhythm' with a great little scat closing from the singer. Other Bennett classics like suitably sentimental 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco' and a robust version of 'The Best Is Yet to Come' were taken out for a spin. The singer also strolled down memory lane to do 'My Cold Cold Heart,' the Hank Williams tune Bennett made one of his first big hits back in the early '50s.
Ever the consummate entertainer, the show was the epitome of pacing and dynamics. Bennett bounced from song to song, rarely stretching past the 2-to-3-minute mark with arrangements that went beyond the songs' second verse. In classic pop standards fashion, the songs were banged out one after another with adoring applause between each. He worked the stage and sometimes he'd do a little soft shoe with Antonia joining him to dance on Stephen Sondheim's 'Old Friends.' Every few songs he'd pause to chat. There were stories of growing up in Queens and getting his big break from Bob Hope (who advised him to change his name from Anthony Dominick Benedetto to Tony Bennett) and Pearl Bailey (who put the young singer in her show down in Greenwich Village).
Featuring pianist Lee Musiker, drummer Harold Jones (whom Bennett introduced as Count Basie's favorite drummer), bassist Marshall Wood and guitarist Gray Sargent, the band ably supported both Bennetts like the seasoned pros they are. The elder Bennett did a touching interpretation of 'The Way You Look Tonight' with only Sargent joining him, but the two really locked in later in the set when they tackled the ballad 'But Beautiful,' wringing a complex set of emotions from each line in the song. The singer also hooked up with Musiker for a jazzy version of 'Kiss the Good Life Goodbye' and at other points as well.
Interestingly, Bennett dedicated that song to Lady Gaga, whom he announced he was recording a duet with for the upcoming 'Duets II.' Bennett has long been a serial collaborator, recording with Count Basie in 1959, Bill Evans for a couple of duets albums in the early '70s, a 2002 album with K.D. Lang and 2006's million-selling 'Duets' with a galaxy of stars, but the Lady Gaga announcement nonetheless comes as a surprise. That said, nearly 70 years into a career, things certainly need to stay fresh.
One thing that hasn't changed is that Tony Bennett is still a master of dynamics. His husky tenor would be soft and conversational at times, hard and piercing others. He moved his microphone around, close to his mouth or as far away as his waist to create different vocal textures. Bennett's vocal technique came to the fore with his solo version of 'Fly Me to the Moon' where he set aside his microphone altogether to sing to the audience without the aid of a PA or musical accompaniment. Tony Bennett has been doing this for years but it remains his showstopper. It's proof positive that the singer still has his chops after all these years, but it also says that Bennett is the consummate entertainer willing and able to sing nakedly as it were for the sheer entertainment of his many fans.