Tony Bennett Boldly Delivers Imaginative Set at Ravinia

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Tony Bennett performs Friday, June 21 at Ravinia. It was the singer’s 40th performance at the Highland Park, Illinois, venue.

(Photo: Ravinia Festival/Patrick Gipson)

Tony Bennett continues to find new ways to make time abide by his rules: After decades of concerts, he still declares precisely where his voice should fall in the beat.

Throughout his career, the singer has stood fast in declaring that the Great American Songbook and jazz classics remain equally ageless. And just a few months before turning 93, Bennett’s 40th performance at Ravinia in Highland Park, Illinois, on Friday was an announcement that life is to be enjoyed throughout all of its phases.

Trotting on stage at the beginning of a 75-minute set with an indefatigable smile, Bennett’s outstretched arms regularly folded in to embrace himself, a self-assured gesture that also was a signature of the equally transcendent Ray Charles; Bennett’s delivery, especially during musical exchanges with his group, wrapped the entire audience in that hug. His resolutely optimistic tone shaped the upbeat tunes, while his sharply controlled pitch and flowing timbre exemplified his enduring artistry during a performance that comprised decades of hits.

Since his earliest recordings 70 years ago, Bennett’s trademark has been a bravura finish. It still is, but how he gets to that coda continues to change. From the opening “Watch What Happens” to “They All Laughed,” Bennett’s impeccable timing came through in how he used pauses, mostly amid unexpected lines. This became especially tricky as he played with the tempo of “I Got Rhythm,” jogging behind and ahead of the beat, emphasizing the possessive promise of the song’s title. Similarly, his command of dynamics on “Our Love Is Here To Stay” and “Just In Time” declared as much about his own musical staying power as the lyrics explained about romance.

Alongside these big passages, Bennett’s quieter delivery boldly came across at Ravinia’s sizable outdoor stage, making the park seem as intimate as one of his myriad long-ago club gigs, especially during a rendition of “This Is All I Ask.” Bennett also brought out new inflections in his brave reworking of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” marked by his gradually intense turns of phrase. The vocalist employed silence to continually build and release tension on “How Do You Keep The Music Playing,” and he concluded “It Amazes Me” with a soaring gospel-inflected moan. Even with all that Bennett has experienced, he continues singing “Fly Me To The Moon” with an open sense of wonder.

But Bennett’s unflagging interpretative imagination also transformed downhearted ballads into defiant shouts. These could be declarations or conversations, and both approaches connected with the audience. “For Once In My Life” became a statement of determination and its faint spots added to its brazenness; his reinterpretation of “One For My Baby” always has represented something wholly different than takes by his friend, Frank Sinatra.

The bandleader’s veteran quartet added the ideal colors and frames for all of these movements. Bassist Marshall Wood’s single-note lines that introduced “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” enhanced the noirish ominous tone. And Bennett also played off of guitarist Gray Sargent’s bent notes on “But Beautiful” as enthusiastically as he filled in the spaces that pianist Tom Ranier provided on “The Way You Look Tonight.” Throughout the evening, drummer Harold Jones’ cymbal accents and finesse of the mallets seemed to infuse the singer with additional energy.

Antonia Bennett’s brisk four-song opening set saluted her father and conveyed his resolutely positive spirit without attempting to duplicate his inimitable style. Her cool delivery included sly lifts on “Old Black Magic” and a warm fade that heightened the longing in “Someone To Watch Over Me.” She also benefitted from her family’s supporting team, as Ranier’s quietly lyrical lines served as an ideal complement.

Bennett’s tour spans the summer and the Atlantic; for more information about live dates, visit the singer’s website. DB



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