By Don Heckman
Any night one hears Tony Bennett in action is a night to remember. And his performance Friday night at the Hollywood Bowl was no exception, made even more memorable by the fact that it was taking place the day before his 87th birthday.
Hearing mature artists in performance at the Bowl is not unusual. But hearing an artist approaching 90, in complete mastery of his skills, doesn’t happen often. And Bennett’s performance, lasting nearly an hour and a half, singing more than two dozen hits – most of them tracing to his extraordinary, multi-Grammy winning career – was an event for the memory books of the packed house, enthusiastic audience.
In fact the songs, as always in a Bennett performance, were the heart of the program. No distractions, no complicated stage settings, no orchestra. Only Bennett, backed superbly by the sterling accompaniment of pianist/music director Lee Musiker, guitarist Gray Sargent, bassist Marshall Wood and drummer Harold Jones, singing a collection of great song classics magnificently.
Bennett, like Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat “King” Cole and others, came to maturity as a musical artist at a time when popular music meant the classics – from Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Kern and other song-writing giants – of the Great American Songbook.
But the key aspect of any Bennett appearance, including this one, traces to his remarkable ability to combine the warmth and intimacy of his rich, baritone voice with his utterly convincing musical storytelling. Whether he was singing upbeat songs such as “Watch What Happens” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” or darker musical tales such as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” or “Who Can I Turn To,” Bennett displayed his masterful capacity to reach into the deepest heart of a song. And that quality was present whether he was singing such unlikely tunes as Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” or such familiar Bennett hits as “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” or “The Good Life.”
The musical pleasures of the evening wound up with anther familiar song, “Happy Birthday,” offered by the audience in an all-join-in interpretation led by Bennett’s daughter, Antonia Bennett. A jazz oriented singer in her own right, she had thoroughly revealed her excellent musical legacy by opening the evening with her versions of Songbook classics ranging from “Too Marvelous” to “From This Moment On.”
Call the evening a memorable performance by a veteran musical artist still very much at the peak of his powers. Whatever elixir – or vitamins — Tony Bennett is taking these days should be made universally available.
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Photos by Faith Frenz.