Just after Tony Bennett jaunted onstage at Ravinia in Highland Park, Illinois, on Aug. 4, he sang the Gordon Jenkins ballad “This Is All I Ask.” The piece was the title track of the singer’s 1963 album, and his version remains definitive. As Bennett sang it the night after his 91st birthday, he chuckled while delivering this lyric: “as I approach the prime of my life.” His remarkable concert proved that this description is still applicable to Bennett, just as it was 50 years ago.
Bennett’s accolades keep accumulating. In June, the Library Of Congress announced that he would receive this year’s prestigious Gershwin Prize For Popular Song. Meanwhile, Bennett has continued to bring his authoritative interpretation of the Great American Songbook to large audiences worldwide. His Ravinia concert came just after a European tour and he has announced shows in venues across the United States in August and September.
But what’s more amazing than his diligence—and the multigenerational adulation he receives—is that he remains open to taking his music in different directions. Ravinia, where he has performed more than 30 times since 1984, is the ideal venue for him to take such chances.
One of many times when Bennett reinvented his repertoire came during his version of Duke Ellington’s “(In My) Solitude.” He began in warm, conversational tones that established the song as a lament. But then he offered thrilling improvisational leaps, and for the coda, he recast the piece as a blues as guitarist Gray Sargent echoed B.B. King. Throughout all of these twists, Bennett never abandoned the mournful spirit of the song. He reaffirmed that he remains close to the spirit of the jazz instrumentalists who have long been integral to his music.
Just as Bennett expresses the content of each song with the insights of a consummate actor, he put his band through similar moves. Bassist Marshall Wood seemed to be walking alongside and away from the singer on “The Boulevard Of Broken Dreams.” Pianist Tim Ray responded with quick-thinking changes on the Gershwins’ “I Got Rhythm.”
For years, Bennett has credited his operatic bel canto training with the fact that his voice can still soar. At Ravinia, he displayed a robustness as he ascended through the climax of “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)” over drummer Harold Jones’ mallet-driven crescendo. Bennett showcased his supple vocal control when he held onto the notes of his signature hit, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.”
More astounding that Bennett’s range is his ability to create an intimate atmosphere. On the Ravinia stage in front of thousands, he made “The Way You Look Tonight” sound like it was being sung to everybody individually in a small candlelit room. He also created that mood in a sparse duet with Sargent on “But Beautiful.”
The way he slightly turned his head toward and away from the microphone on “It Amazes Me” made this concert a master class in how singers should use volume. His vocals gradually faded out to emphasize the unanswered questions inherent in “How Do You Keep The Music Playing.”
Before Bennett’s set, his daughter Antonia Bennett performed four songs with his quartet. Her coolly assertive phrasing and fluid dynamics were especially noticeable on her rendition of “The Nearness Of You.” She mentioned hearing this song on an Abbey Lincoln and Hank Jones album that Tony gave her (When There Is Love, 1992). Antonia said she learned a lot from her father. She is far from being the only one.
Bennett will perform at the Embarcadero Marina Park South in San Diego on Aug. 15, the Wilson Center in Wilmington, North Carolina, on Aug. 18 and the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on Sept. 20. For more details about his tour, visit tonybennett.com. DB