An ageless artist
Tony Bennett, like no other singer I know, delays the phrase and lets the silence speak and the tension build. Imagine that you’re seeing off a friend and the train starts to move. He stands there and stands there, waving and smiling, until you’re sure he’ll miss his ride. Then, just when you’re sure he’s too late, a skillful, effortless hop to a moving stairway, and it’s all aboard and wow how did he do that?
Well, that was Tony Bennett hopping back onto the train of meter and harmony Tuesday night, on a Marcus Center Presents concert at Uihlein Hall. He played that delay trick often, most notably in I Left My Heart in San Francisco (make that train a little cable car). It’s a marker of his style. Sometimes, he barged back in with bracing power. Sometimes, he slipped in stealthily. But he always did it gracefully.
Such subtleties, rather than virtuosic scat-singing, have made Bennett one of the greatest jazz singers. And this was jazz. Bennett gave pianist Lee Musiker, guitarist Gray Sargent, drummer Harold Jones, and bassist Marshall Wood plenty of room to stretch. All of them are masters, not only in brilliant or poignant solos, but also in alertly responding to Bennett’s every move.
Bennett’s delays and anticipations fazed them not; one or another of them, usually Sargent, would improvise a little lick to fill the gap and draw us to Bennett’s entrance. They tuned in also to his expressive eccentricities of accent and his way of clipping tones off shorter or holding them much longer than they’re written on the page. They framed and complemented his voice at every turn.
Bennett’s outstanding diction and microphone technique make every word legible, and that means everything. He commits himself entirely to the meanings of the songs. When Bennett sings them, these old songs shed their treacly encrustations of sentiment and become sincere and urgent. He often strips much of the pitch from ballads the first time through and makes them nearly recitations. After a round of instrumental improvisations build momentum, he returns to reprise them in full voice. So the whole ensemble participates in taking a song from the most intimate of private declarations to public outcry. Bennett’s deeply moving account of Maybe This Time, a Kander and Ebb number from the Appendix of The Great American Songbook, stood out among several examples of this structure.
Bennett commits to the feelings without wallowing in them. He portrays sentiments unsentimentally, with a disarming honesty that goes straight to the heart of the song and to your heart.
In the course of plumbing the feelings in the words and music, Bennett employs the very fragility of his voice to telling effect. On several occasions, as he ascended and ascended toward a climactic high note, his voice turned tighter and more raspy and I feared he wouldn’t make it. Often he did make it, with power and control that surprised and gratified. But sometimes, he paused dramatically and then dropped to a comfortable range. That was touching, too. Some songs are about not getting what you want.
Even with all that emotion, fun played a big role in this concert. Bennett told some priceless stories, including the one about how Bob Hope gave Anthony Dominick Benedetto his stage name. At 85, Bennett’s voice, mind and body are very much intact. He danced and sang one number with his daughter, Antonia, who opened for him, and their joy was our joy. Tony danced a lively and surprisingly authentic samba during the bossa nova guitar solo to The Shadow of Your Smile. The man is having a ball, and it’s fun to be in the same room with him.
I heard Bennett live in 1983. He was great then, but he was better Tuesday. This is no nostalgia tour. Tony Bennett is at the peak of his artistic power.