By John Pitcher
Photography by Rob LindsayIt’s likely that 2018 will be remembered as the year of the farewell tour. Elton John, Ozzy Osbourne, Paul Simon and Anita Baker are among the many pop and R&B legends who have announced plans to set aside their microphones in the coming year. But what about Tony Bennett?
Bennett was cranking out gold records when little Reggie Dwight (a.k.a. Sir Elton) was just learning to peck out “The Skaker’s Waltz” on his mum’s upright piano. After an unparalleled career spanning some seven decades, Bennett has surely earned the right to retire.
Judging from the terrific concert he gave Tuesday night at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, it seems obvious that Bennett has no intention of ever retiring. Or, for that matter, of even taking a brief hiatus. Clearly, Bennett has come to understand that one of the secrets of longevity is a determination to work. Work gives him purpose. It keeps him going.
Bennett recorded his first hit record in 1951 with his recording of “Because of You” for Mitch Miller and Columbia Records. Before long, the singer, born Anthony Benedetto in Queens, NY on Aug. 3, 1926, was being hailed as the supreme interpreter of the Great American Songbook. Even Bennett’s mentor, Frank Sinatra, recognized his protégé’s singular gift.
“He’s the greatest singer in the world today,” Sinatra once said.
The qualities that prompted Sinatra’s ringing endorsement were on full display at the Ryman on Tuesday night. Bennett’s flexible phrasing, his remarkable breath control, his ability to hit every note dead center, and his keen understanding of the meaning of the words he sang, were all evident. It’s that final ingredient, his grasp of the music’s meaning, that’s most important.
At some point, Bennett came to realize, perhaps through his training but most likely through instinct, that the thing that makes the Great American Songbook so great is the intimacy of its songs. So Bennett developed a singing style that is simple, direct and conversational, a style that treats the great songs of George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington and Johnny Mercer as if they were love letters to be both spoken and sung directly to the audience.To make sure no one missed that point, Bennett on Tuesday night often wrapped his arms around his torso at the climax of such songs as Michel Legrand’s “Watch What Happens,” as if he were giving his audience a big, loving embrace. He would then remark on the wonderful treatment he and his quartet were receiving from the audience, eliciting spontaneous and rapturous cries of “we love you, Tony!” from his adoring fans. Clearly, Bennett’s epic career has been nothing less than the longest running love story in the history of music.
Tuesday’s concert was filled with highlights. Bennett showcased his improvisational skills in his performance of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” his playful scat complementing drummer Harold Jones’ intricate rhythmic patterns. His unmatched ability to caress and shape a musical phrase came through in his deeply felt rendition of Cy Coleman’s “It Amazes Me.”
Humor is another important ingredient in Bennett’s art. He resorted to it frequently, grinning slyly at the opening lines of Gordon Jenkins’ “This is All I Ask,” with its plea for beautiful girls to walk by a little more slowly.
Bennett’s voice is perhaps a little more raspy than it was in his prime. But he put this vocal quality to good use in songs like Duke Ellington’s “In My Solitude,” which he sang with earthiness and quiet urgency. This vocal texture also added an extra degree of pathos in such songs as Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” and Al Dubin’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”
Not surprisingly, Bennett seemed to get the most mileage from romantic songs, like Jerome Kerns’ “The Way You Look Tonight,” and from signature hits, like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” But the Bennett performance that always lingers longest in my ear is of Bart Howard’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” which the crooner performs simply, without benefit of a microphone, accompanied only by guitarist Gary Sargent’s heartfelt strumming.Bennett’s terrific quartet – Sargent, pianist Tom Adair, bassist Marshall Wood and drummer Harold Jones – provided the singer with color and an unfailing sense of rhythmic swing all evening. The singer’s daughter, Antonia Bennett, opened the concert for her father, singing such numbers as Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” with deep and sincere feeling.
Bennett was last in Nashville just a little over a year ago, presenting a concert to mark his 90th birthday. He seems to have changed little over the year, except that he now sports a dashing mustache. It’s the perfect embellishment for a true romantic.