3:45 PM CDT, August 14, 2013
Singers whose careers flourish well into their 80s are rare, and those whose instruments still function at a high level rarer still.
Among them, Tony Bennett stands out, for he turned 87 earlier this month and has shown no vocal slippage. Yes, his voice has changed through the decades – deepening, darkening, gathering texture and grain – but it remains an uncommonly expressive tool. Interpretively, he still stands at the pinnacle of his art, bringing more meaning to ballads, in particular, than virtually any male singer working in the classic pop-jazz idiom. Technically, he shows as much control as ever.
Or at least he did when he was still a youthful 86 and performing at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park last summer. When he returns to Ravinia on Aug. 18 – his 32nd appearance there – he'll have a rather high standard to try to meet: his own.
"I'm just shocked and fortunate to still be in top shape," says Bennett.
"I could have retired really 17 years ago, but I love entertaining people, and I try to make them feel good. It makes me feel good when I can make them feel good."
Judging by the capacity audiences that crowd Ravinia – and practically everywhere else Bennett performs – he's making many people feel quite good whenever he steps onto a stage. Like a painter, which Bennett also happens to be, he carefully moves the microphone back and forth and around, catching certain vocal colors that suit the tone of the song he's singing.
It takes a lifetime to achieve this kind of mastery, but Bennett insists there's no mystery as to why he still can do it.
"After the second World War, under the G.I. Bill, they gave us the opportunity to choose any college or any school that we wanted to go to," says Bennett, who served in the Army during World War II, fighting on the front lines in Europe.
"And it was so fortunate that I chose the American Theatre Wing. … They really gave us the finest teachers and (taught) every aspect of theater, from legitimate theater to films. For acting, they taught us the Stanislavsky Method – the Method acting spirit."
It was then, says Bennett, that he learned not only how to comport himself on stage but how to maintain his instrument and, more than that, how to find his own voice.
"Mimi Speer was right on 52nd Street, which was the great jazz street in those days," recalls Bennett. "All the greatest artists, like Art Tatum and Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, they all played on that great jazz street.
"And she would insist with her students: 'Please don't imitate another singer, because you'll just be one of the chorus if you do that.' So if you're going to figure out a style, listen to (instrumentalists), and find how they are coming up with the attitude of performances.
"And I chose Art Tatum," adds Bennett, referring to the towering jazz-piano virtuoso, "because he changed tempos. In those days, everybody placed dance tempos, and he was the first one to kind of tell a story with a song.
"I was criticized in those days by the jazz musicians. They said: 'What are you doing? You're not keeping the dance tempo going.'
"I said, 'I'm just doing what Art Tatum does.'"
But there were other profound influences on Bennett's work, as well. The Italian operatic tradition radiated from his singing then and still does now, the long-spun lines and epic scale of his performances born in the pages of Verdi and Puccini but re-cast in the swing rhythms and improvisational freedom of all-American jazz.
Bennett says that he considers saxophonist Stan Getz a particular influence, Getz's free-flowing, irrepressibly melodic manner having served as a model for the way Bennett unfolds a phrase.
Yet even as Bennett has evolved stylistically and changed vocally through the decades, there's a remarkable consistency to his work. The latest evidence comes in the form of "Bennett/Brubeck: The White House Sessions, Live 1962," a recently released album of music that had been languishing in the Sony/Columbia archives and was discovered late last year, around the time of Brubeck's death last December at age 91.
Bennett and Brubeck were collaborating for the first time on Aug. 28, 1962 in a performance organized by the White House and staged at the base of the Washington Monument, each artist noteworthy for bringing new popularity to the art of jazz. Bennett's recording of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" had emerged on the Billboard charts 17 days earlier, according to Ted Gioia's liner notes, and Brubeck had become something of a pop star, having graced the cover of Time magazine in 1954 and sold more than a million copies of his album "Take Five" in 1960.
The "Bennett/Brubeck" performance opens with the singer performing alongside his longtime accompanist, Ralph Sharon, then switching to Brubeck's quartet. Because Bennett and Brubeck never had shared a stage, Bennett candidly tells the audience – as if he's hoping for the best – "We haven't rehearsed this, so lots of luck, folks!"
The listeners were indeed fortunate, for they heard two jazz masters crafting a performance that bristled with spontaneity. Bennett altered the lyrics of certain songs and toyed with the melody notes of others, while Brubeck invented the complex chords that were his signature.
Amid all this, however, the Tony Bennett of the 1960s sounds remarkably like the Tony Bennett of the 2010s.
"That's exactly right," says pianist Sharon, who adds that he's struck by commonalities between the singer's current work and his contributions more than half a century ago.
Stylistically, says Sharon, Bennett performing with Brubeck sounds essentially the way Bennett does today, "and he always will. … I thought they did very well. Tony is indestructible. He can sing with anybody, and that goes all the way through time."
And then there's the other phenomenon of Bennett's latter day work: his memory. Last year at Ravinia, as always, he sang approximately two dozen songs, each with the right syllable and the right note in the right place. That might not seem like such a great feat of memory until you take into account that Bennett's repertoire embraces hundreds of songs that he has been cycling through his concerts and recordings through the decades.
How does he keep it all in his head?
I once posed the question to his daughter, singer Antonia Bennett, who opens many of his shows and will do so again next week at Ravinia.
"He works on it – all the time," she told me, reaffirming the notion that the greatest artists make their work look easy, though it is not.
Tony Bennett chalks up his ability to command all that repertoire at this late date to a very different source.
"I don't sing a song I don't like," he says, meaning that the best songwriting naturally clings to memory. "I look for intelligent songs. I dislike entertainers who look at the audience like they're below them.
"I consider an audience very alert, and why not give them the best? Why not give them top quality? It's the opposite of obsolescence."
So Bennett appears to be savoring these autumnal years of his career, his touring schedule as brisk as ever, his audiences large, his desire to take and hold the stage apparently undimmed by the passage of time.
"There's not one bad review everywhere that we went," he adds, sounding a bit surprised. "So it's satisfying to know that I'm being accepted, you know?
"What I'm hoping for now, at age 87 … I'm going to try and prove that the older you get, the better you can get, by just learning more and more about what to do and what to leave out and how to keep it.
"My two heroes are Jack Benny and George Burns, who just really went through the whole thing beautifully."
Still, Bennett realizes that the pressure is always on. So he knows exactly what he's going to feel right before he steps onstage at Ravinia.
"Butterflies, right in the little tummy," he says, with a laugh. "I just say, 'I hope everything works.'"
So far, so good.
Tony Bennett performs at 8 p.m. Aug. 22 at the Ravinia Festival, near Green Bay and Lake-Cook Roads, Highland Park; $91-$101 reserved; $34-$39 lawn; 847-266-5100 or ravinia.org.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
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