First the dry and amazing facts. On the Mann Auditorium stage on Sunday night stood 88-year-old Tony Bennett (and even danced the bossa nova and executed a perfect twirl), who has been performing the good old American songbook (Gershwin, Berlin and their wonderful peers) on various stages for over 60 years, since he first sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” In Tel Aviv of 2014 he admitted, by means of the lyrics in a song, that he’s “old-fashioned” and invited the audience to be old-fashioned with him. And the spectators-listeners – some of whom were born after he had already made it to the top, responded to him warmly – loved him, and more than once gave him a standing ovation.
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They say Bennett’s a “jazz singer” and that is true, but he’s much more than that. The years have taken a toll on his voice, but the musicality, the perfect phrasing, the heart and the soul are still there – in abundance. And he doesn’t “sing” per se; he delivers a series of monologues set to music, with words and a beat. He and his excellent quartet have performed this “set” dozens if not hundreds of times in recent years, but every song-monologue, even when the words are banal (and especially when they are) sounds as though it is being performed at this moment, on this stage, for the very first time.
All the songs are familiar, as are his renditions. I’ve heard them dozens of times – “Maybe This Time” from “Cabaret,” “Just In Time,” “The Good Life” (which he dedicated to Lady Gaga; their joint disc is coming out at the end of the month and he asked the audience to buy it because “she needs the money”), and “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (the first song he recorded).
Bennett hits all the right words, notes and rhythm – even when, like an instrumentalist, he takes liberties with the music – and you can never guess when exactly he will “come in” after the beat, which he manages to do without losing the song and the moment in which it is taking place, between him and his accompanists and the audience.
The most beautiful moments to my eyes and ears were when he sang-spoke ballads with the pianist or the guitarist, as though he were simply talking and yet taking his time and letting his heart sing, saying that he loves “the way she looks tonight,” or asking – in the song that concluded this outstanding evening in Old Tel Aviv – “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”
Sometimes his voice rises to a shout, sometimes he mouths the words, but he can also just simply sing with boundless delicacy Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile," which Bennett brought back to life and injected into the bloodstream of popular music. And when he gets to “Fly Me to the Moon,” he places the microphone on the piano and sings in the Mann Auditorium without amplification, without straining his voice (and he’s not afraid to do that, when he feels like it), and the audience was attentive and heard him.
Bennett's quartet is excellent: Harold Jones, “Count Basie’s favorite drummer”; bassist Marshall Wood; outstanding guitarist Gray Sargent (who twice in his riffs quoted “Hava Nagila”); and pianist and musical director Michael Renzi, who added a magnificent cadenza to “Maybe This Time.”
I knew I would be seeing a legend of American musical entertainment; I recently saw performances of his on the Internet and knew what to expect. But this was above and beyond my expectations. The kind of thing you don’t believe you’re hearing and seeing. And anyone who wasn’t there missed out.
But all is not lost; Bennett is going on from here to performances in Europe, and the way he looks, moves and sings, it’s quite possible that we’ll see and hear him again a few years from now. I hope so.
In the tumult of our lives this is music that really should keep playing.