To watch the 96-year-old Tony Martin perform songs he recorded more than six decades ago in a voice that is surprisingly unchanged from what it was in the 1940s and 50s is to witness how popular songs and memory can work together as a kind of Proustian madeleine.
Mr. Martin, who opened a five-night engagement at Feinsteins at Loews Regency on Tuesday, is a quiet, courtly figure who, once settled onto a stool, exhibits the classic body language of a traditional crooner. With his arms extended, he gazes into space in a kind of trance while channeling his old hits, cued by his pianist and musical director Dick Parent.
Once Mr. Parent drops a name say Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Russ Columbo, dith Piaf or Nat King Cole the associations click in Mr. Martins mind, and he sings perfectly recollected versions of I Surrender, Dear (Crosby), Theres No Tomorrow (a hit song Mr. Martin recalls was given to him by Como), I Dont Know Why (Columbo), La Vie en Rose (Piaf) and Unforgettable (Cole).
Much of the timbre of a voice whose richness in an earlier era was synonymous with an image of supervirility remains intact. If most high notes are now out of reach, his middle range is secure. Prodded by spare trio arrangements for piano, bass and drums, Mr. Martin even swings a little.
But most important is the emotion he puts into performances. On Tuesday, The Very Thought of You, Begin the Beguine and his theme song, Ill See You in My Dreams, conveyed a farsighted nostalgia. As he sang the lines Lips that once were mine/Tender eyes that shine/They will light my way tonight/Ill see you in my dreams, he conjured memories of Cyd Charisse, his wife of nearly 60 years, who died in June and who was in the audience smiling when he performed at Feinsteins early last year.
Tony Martin performs through Saturday
Feinsteins at Loews Regency
540 Park Avenue, at 61st Street