Tony Bennett, with guitarist Gray Sargent and pianist Tom Ranier (Photo credit: Carl Scheffel/MSG)
As Tony Bennett did his star-studded 90th birthday celebration show at Radio City Music Hall a year ago, therefore he must be 91 years old now.
Take note and forget, for age is just a three-letter word when it comes to the Great American Singer, as he proved once again Friday night, again at Radio City. Only this time there wasn’t a lot of doting contemporary stars to get in the way of an artist who needs no help, who has no peer.
Accompanied only by longtime guitarist Gray Sargent and “Count Basie’s favorite drummer” Harold Jones along with relative newcomers Marshall Wood on bass and Tom Ranier on piano, Bennett followed a brief but engaging set from his regular touring partner, daughter Antonia Bennett, who’s clearly learned from the best. He opened, typically, with Michel Legrand’s “Watch What Happens,” and while he’s done this and many of the set’s other songs for years, he always makes them sound like the first time.
Indeed, Bennett, who next month will become the first interpretive singer to be awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song (given to a composer or performer for their lifetime contributions to popular music) still invests everything he has into every song while retaining the sense of spontaneity that makes his every concert special. At Radio City, each song took on its own character, Bennett discovering new nuance in vocal phrasing and volume, facial expression and even hand gesture.
He found new meaning in Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” for example, taking it from a pensive piano tune at the beginning to a full-out blues shout at the end. He punctuated Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh’s “It Amazes Me” by folding his arms in contemplation, at other times reaching out with his hand as if to pull something invisible to all but him into the song.
Still remarkably spry, Bennett threw in a little soft shoe for the Fred Astaire standard “They All Laughed,” opening his arms wide in triumph at the end. He frequently walked around the stage to interact with and showcase his musicians, especially Sargent, who sometimes came around from behind the piano to softly accompany him solo while cleverly inserting quotes from surprising sources like Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”
Midway into the set Bennett offered a verse from his million-selling hits “Because of You,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Rags to Riches” and “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me),” and full versions of Al Dubin/Harry Warren’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” the 1950 demo of which landed him his first recording contract. Always a dramatic showstopper, “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” (Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman) brought one of many standing ovations, and maybe the longest until his signature “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which also brought out plenty of cell phone cinematographers.
Bennett’s pairing of Charlie Chaplain’s “Smile” with “When You’re Smiling” ended the show on a high, what with his exultant—and timely--shout-out “Let’s all be happy again!” He capped it with his always breathtaking verse of “Fly Me to the Moon,” sung without amplification to Sargent’s own unamplified guitar strums. The entire band the joined the SRO crowd in applauding Bennett through two curtain calls.
But maybe the show’s most impressive moment came early on, when he sang the first line of Gordon Jenkins’ “This Is All I Ask” and took a long, poignant pause between “As I approach…” and “…the prime of my life,” and then cracked up laughing at the lyric’s implication. But there was no laughter after the closing lines “And let the music play as long as there's a song to sing/And I will stay younger than Spring.”
In fact, the only thing Bennett left out was his usual mention that he’s been performing now for over 60 years, and if the audience will allow him, he’ll do it another 60-plus. Most likely, though, he was merely being considerate for those who can’t plan that far ahead. At the ripe young age of 91, Tony Bennett, at least, shows no reason to think he won’t be there.