Tony Bennett Appears in Top Form at Ravinia
One of the annual certainties of the Ravinia Park summer schedule over the last decade or so has been Tony Bennett—who first appeared at this popular outdoor concert venue in Highland Park, Ill., in 1984 and clearly has yet to wear out his welcome. For his Aug. 22 show, not even the unforgiving $100-a-seat price barrier could produce any appreciable empty space in the 3,300-seat pavilion. Toss in another 10,000 or so fans picnicking on the lawn, and you get the picture.
If anyone expected a farewell performance, Bennett, whose first DownBeat cover was in 1952 and who had ambled casually into his 88th year only three weeks prior, was having none of that. Dressed in a pale yellow jacket, blue shirt and dark blue tie, he looked and sang at the top of his form, this singer who grew up listening to the likes of Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong.
After a friendly 20-minute warm-up set by Bennett’s 39-year-old daughter, Antonia, the recorded voice of Frank Sinatra delivered an introduction laced with a little ring-a-ding-ding hyperbole. “He’s going to tear the seats out of the place for you,” Sinatra promised, “because he’s my man, this cat.” At this point in his career, it would seem Bennett has little left to prove. But he still wants to make sure we know that the great Sinatra once called him the “greatest singer in the world.” In case anyone doubted it, there it is in the introduction.
Seventy minutes and 23 songs later, the seats were still in place, but no one seemed shorted or let down. The program skipped along at a tight pace, this time with few pauses for patter or anecdotes. Each tune practically segued into the next.
The exception was “This Time.” The familiar arrangement, which is also a showcase for pianist Lee Musiker, is an elaborately crafted showstopper in three movements, each a case study in the strategies of emotional escalation. It began in almost a whisper, which Bennett quickly managed to build into a booming bit of bel canto pyrotechnics by the end. As the applause died down, Musiker repeated the cycle. His hands seemed to sprout extra fingers as the piano swelled into a cascade of ascending, concerto-like boulders. (His chops are equally formidable in less thunderous moments, too.) More applause, and Bennett came back to carry the final part to an almost operatic climax. It crested with such well-plotted pacing that one got the feeling that it should have been the closer. But it was only the third song of the night.
Most singers of a certain age tend to slowly retire such muscular exhibits of virtuosity. But Bennett seemed eager to let us know that he has no fear of higher, longer or louder notes. And for good reason. He still can ride them confidently with no strain and hit them dead-on without a flutter or wobble. No wonder the world wants to duet with him. At one point he mentioned a forthcoming CD with Lady Gaga, but offered no details.
Bennett likes to project spontaneity but works from a relatively unchanging repertoire of standards. For the record, he opened this show with “Watch What Happens” and “They All Laughed.” After “This Time,” he whipped through “I Got Rhythm,” “As Time Goes By,” and “Sing You Sinners.”
He then brought back Antonia for Steven Sondheim’s “Old Friend,” their standard duet number. Then came “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” “But Beautiful,” “The Way You Look Tonight” (with guitarist Gray Sargent finding a way to quote “Chicago” in his solo), “Just In Time,” “Broken Dreams,” “The Good Life,” “Once Upon A Time,” “The Shadow Of Your Smile,” “One For My Baby” (done less as a torchy lament than a punchy celebration ), “For Once In My Life,” “That Old Black Magic” and a single chorus of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” Most were from the Bennett canon, which is exactly what the folks wanted to hear. The encores included “Smile,” “When You’re Smilin’” (another bel canto finish) and “Chicago.”
The final curtain call found Bennett cradling a small white puppy, though not quite looking like Xavier Cugat. No explanation, but it planted a big, wet smacker on his face just before the house lights came up.
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