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IN PERFORMANCE

Tony Bennett in peak form at 86

Overflow crowd at Ravinia hears a master of song interpretation

Howard Reich

9:57 AM CDT, August 19, 2012

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If you didn't already know that singer Tony Bennett also happens to be a painter, you probably would have guessed it Saturday night at the Ravinia Festival, in Highland Park.

But the colors that Bennett produced were vocal, the singer continuously moving his microphone to and fro as if it were a brush, the better to capture the textures and tones he was creating in sound.

Even if Bennett weren't 86, the sweeping, intermissionless performance he gave – covering more than two dozen tunes – would have stood as a significant achievement in the art of song interpretation. That he plumbed so deeply into the meaning of ballads and so persuasively into pulsing swing rhythm at such an exalted age very nearly defied belief.

At this late date, how does Bennett manage to maintain such impeccable pitch (with only one slightly errant note amid an avalanche of them)? How does he continuously find new thoughts to express in repertoire he has been performing for decades?

In short, to quote a Michel Legrand song Bennett often performs but didn't this time around, how does he keep the music playing?

The mystery remains with Bennett but the pleasures of this evening belonged to an overflow crowd that packed the pavilion and covered practically every inch of the lawn. By many standards, this was a historic night.

Bennett recorded "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" more than six decades ago, after all, yet his performance at Ravinia captured the intensity of old while refreshing the piece, as well. He began softly and slowly, accompanied only by a walking bass line, the intimacy of this work remarkable in a wide-open, outdoor setting. His voice naturally sounded darker, grainier and lower in pitch than in the 1950 recording, but this only intensified the impact of one of the most tragic works in the Bennett songbook.

By the time he reached the conclusion, Bennett was unfolding phrases with operatic grandeur, attaining in a jazz-pop setting an epic scale one sooner associates with "I Pagliacci." Yes, Bennett's singing long has conveyed undertones of Italian opera, but to hear the heroic climax he brought to "Boulevard" and other songs was to realize anew how much of this sensibility he always has applied to jazz-tinged pop singing.

Yet when it came to all-American swing, Bennett also reminded listeners how distinctively he addresses jazz rhythm. If Frank Sinatra brought unmatched tension and drive to up-tempo pieces, Bennett offered a somewhat lighter touch that was no less effective. His phrases seemed to bound – airborne – from one offbeat to the next in "I Got Rhythm," making his switch to half-time at the finish all the more striking. The energy and exuberance he expressed in "Sing You Sinners," the coy syncopation he articulated in "Steppin' Out with My Baby" and the upbeat swing with which he reinvented "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" attested to the breadth of his rhythmic vocabulary.

In ballads, Bennett stayed true to his tendency to take audaciously slow tempos and to invest each syllable with interpretive weight. "The Way You Look Tonight" rarely has opened more tenderly than in Bennett's reading, the singer accompanied only by guitar and suspending any sense of time or forward motion. The absence of a backbeat enabled Bennett to stretch phrases to extraordinary lengths, his lines soaring freely.

There were lighter moments, too, as in Bennett's duet with his daughter, Antonia Bennett, who opened the evening. But this familial performance of Stephen Sondheim's "Old Friends" amounted to something of a respite – a chance for the audience to catch its breath amid the vast emotional terrain Bennett was exploring.

The jazz quartet that pianist Lee Musiker led served Bennett quite well, and Musiker mostly restrained his penchant for overblown solos, though his cadenza in "Maybe This Time" bordered on faux-Rachmaninoff.

Bennett closed the evening with a confiding, introspective version of "Fly Me to the Moon," many in the audience erupting when he reached the line, "Let me sing forever more."

On this night, he sounded as if he could.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich