By John Pitcher
Photography by Jerry Atnip
How do you introduce a living legend? For Tony Bennett’s show on Monday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, another legend was summoned – make that conjured – for the task.
“Tony’s going to come out now and he’s going to tear the seats out of the place for you,” crackled the disembodied voice of Frank Sinatra over the hall’s public address system. “He’s my man, this cat. He’s the greatest singer in the world today, this man, Tony Bennett.”
Surely, even Old Blue Eyes had no idea his words would be so prophetic. Decades after The Chairman of the Board made his ringing endorsement, Tony Bennett remains at the pinnacle of his profession, a man universally hailed as the greatest living exponent of the Great American Songbook.
His iconic status was recognized the moment he walked onstage to join his terrific Tony Bennett Quartet. For the better part of a minute, the audience in the packed concert hall gave Bennett a thunderous standing ovation. It would be the first of numerous ovations offered during a remarkable set that surveyed many of the Songbook’s greatest hits.
Bennett has been touring the country for the past few months in celebration of his 90th birthday – the singer was born Anthony Benedetto in Queens, NY on Aug. 3, 1926. You might think that the passage of time would have slowed Bennett down and greatly diminished his vocal powers.
But on Monday at the Schermerhorn, Bennett seemed simply ageless.
He was certainly indefatigable. He sauntered onstage around 8 p.m. and remained there for the next 70 minutes, singing from memory no fewer than 28 songs – give or take a medley or two. Bennett never took a break. There was no intermission.
And Bennett had no use for bar stools. He was constantly moving about the stage, interacting with his quartet, even dancing – to the delight of the audience – to such numbers as Gershwin’s “They All Laughed.” You’d think that all that singing and all that motion would parch the throat, but Bennett didn’t even seem to need water. He did lift a glass during a rendition of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “One for the Road,” but this was just a prop. At the end of the song, Bennett placed the full glass of water back on the piano and continued singing.
And that voice. Sure, Bennett’s familiar instrument may be a bit raspier than it was even a few decades ago, when he began his remarkable autumnal ascent into the pop culture stratosphere. Yet on Monday, Bennett put even harsh vocal textures to good use, adding, for instance, extra doses of earthiness and bluesy pathos to Duke Ellington’s “Solitude.”
Mostly, Bennett’s singing seemed timeless, his artistry masterful.
He showcased his range in songs such as Gordon Jenkins’ “This is All I Ask,” his deep chest notes sounding honey rich, his high notes ringing with clarity. He proved that he can still hold onto a high note for a seeming eternity in such tunes as Michel Legrand’s “How Do You Keep the Music Playing.” And in Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” he demonstrated his improvisational skills, his playful scat reeled off with easy elegance.
The show was chockfull of highlights. The Nashville crowd was especially taken with Bennett’s soulful rendition of the Hank Williams classic “Cold, Cold Heart.” His performance of Jimmy Van Heusen’s “But Beautiful,” accompanied by Gray Sargent’s solo guitar, was deeply felt.
Naturally, Bennett received his biggest ovation for his signature song, George Cory and Douglas Cross’ “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” But the concert’s most memorable moment, for my money, came at the end, in a performance of the Bart Howard and Kaye Ballard standard “Fly Me to the Moon.”Bennett put down his microphone and sang, unamplified, the song’s final stanzas, pointing to the audience as he intoned the words “I love you.” The singer’s fans returned the sentiment, lavishing the star with applause.
Monday’s program opened with the Tony Bennett Quartet – pianist Billy Stritch, guitarist Gray Sargent, bassist Marshall Wood and drummer Harold Jones – playing a pair of standards, their account of Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” being especially mellifluous.
Bennett’s daughter, Antonia Bennett, then joined the quartet for a 20-minute set. Like her father, she has a big voice and plenty of stage presence. She’s also a sensitive interpreter, singing the evergreen country hit “Always On My Mind” with immediacy and sincerity.
Bennett’s concert repeats at Schermerhorn tonight at 8 p.m. Music fans lucky enough to get tickets will surely remember the performance for the rest of their lives.