In a little more than a week, Tony Bennett will turn 92.
On Tuesday night, he regaled a sold-out crowd at Atlanta Symphony Hall with 70 minutes of masterworks from Gershwin (“Love is Here to Stay”) to Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer (“I’m Old-Fashioned”) to Irving Berlin (“Steppin’ Out with My Baby”).
He extended his arms toward the crowd, smiling joyfully like everyone’s favorite Italian uncle. He rounded the stage a few times to spotlight the members of his terrific quartet. He even closed the show with a stirring rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon,” sans microphone, and his voice still sailed into the upper decks.
And what did you do with your evening?
That Bennett is out there performing numerous shows per year is nothing short of miraculous. That he still sounds solid – yes, there were a few awkward notes and maybe a muffed lyric or two, but c’mon – is testament to the type of stamina and dedication rarely seen anymore.
Clad in an elegant suit, a hint of mustache on his upper lip, Bennett clasped the microphone with both hands and scrunched his eyes closed during another Gershwin classic, “They All Laughed.” He elicited a knowing chuckle from the crowd when he recited the opening line of “This is All I Ask” – “As I approach the prime of my life…” and capped the sprightly “I Got Rhythm” with a vocal flourish and thumbs up.
Bennett isn’t much of a talker onstage, instead plowing straight through his set. While the show could have benefitted from some storytelling about these chosen songs, we must remember that Bennett IS still showcasing stories – just in musical form.
His delivery is peppered with trademark Bennett inflections (the kind that Alec Baldwin has mastered with affection) – a burst of a syllable, an expertly placed pause in a phrase; during his read of Duke Ellington’s melancholy ballad, “(In My) Solitude,” Bennett delivered the final line, “send me BACK my love” so emphatically, it was almost startling.
Throughout much of the show, Bennett planted himself in front of the curve of Tom Ranier’s piano. But even if he leaned against the instrument for a moment of support, he managed to make it look effortlessly cool with a hand in pocket or foot crossed over ankle.
That fabulous quartet – Ranier, guitarist Gray Sargent, drummer Harold Jones and bassist Marshall Wood – received plenty of notice. Perhaps the extended instrumentals are meant to take some pressure off of Bennett, but they also work seamlessly in the context of these classic songs. Of note was the sparse version of “The Way You Look Tonight” that evolved into a striking musical journey by the band.
Several times during Bennett’s set, the house lights would spring on and the audience would pop to its feet in a thunderous ovation.
With some singers, that might seem like shameless manipulation. But watching Bennett hug himself after hitting a big note at the end of “Just in Time” and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?,” the authentic emotion on both sides of the stage was obvious.
Most singers also would have saved their signature song – “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in the case of this Queens, N.Y., native – until the waning minutes of the show.
But not Bennett.
He unveiled it with deliberate pacing and another triumphant finale and segued into another Gershwin favorite, “Who Cares (So Long As You Care for Me),” before ending with that resounding rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon,” with Sargent’s clean, quiet guitar lines his only accompaniment.
So that’s what Tony Bennett did with his evening on Tuesday in Atlanta - provided a theater full of people with the definition of class.