BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
(Originally posted June 1, 2013)
The first thing you notice when Tony Bennett comes onstage is how happy everyone looks.
Bennett blows kisses, salutes the crowd and holds his arms in an outstretched pose like the warm Italian that he is.
His quartet, a tremendous team who shades his songs perfectly, also grin spontaneously, thrilled to have another crowd of thousands eagerly absorbing their finely tuned jazz-pop.
Bennett is a wonder at 86 (he turns 87 in August), still a suave, laid-back performer with a natural gift for storytelling. “Rosemary Clooney and I were the first ‘American Idols,’” he noted before sharing the anecdote about how Bob Hope trimmed his name from Anthony Dominick Benedetto to the Bennett that would go on to have a 60-plus-year career as a singer.
Throughout his 75-minute set Friday night (preceded by the awesomely talented Jackie Evancho, who joined Bennett for “When You Wish Upon a Star”), Bennett charmed his fans at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Alpharetta as he strolled through “Watch What Happens” and “I Got Rhythm.”
Bennett has always been a classy, laid-back performer, and, decked out in a blue and yellow suit, he played and looked the part perfectly.
But superficialities aside, what makes Bennett so special is his subtle manipulation of a song, his unique phrasing and tempo and his ability to tell you a story through the words he’s singing.
You heard it in “They All Laughed,” punctuated by a little spin that made the crowd roar with delight, and in his rendition of “Maybe This Time,” Liza Minnelli’s somber reflection from “Cabaret” which featured pianist Lee Musiker and an impressive round of belting from Bennett at song’s end.
Bennett’s voice resonated through the evening air with notable vigor as he added runs to songs, dipped to a whisper during the jaunty “Steppin’ Out” – highlighted by Marshall Wood’s standup bass – and injected a pleasant rasp into “The Good Life,” which he dedicated to Lady Gaga.
The audience laughed, many thinking he was being sarcastic. But Bennett is indeed working on a swing album with the pop star (which he discussed in our recent interview) – further proof that he isn’t finished creating just yet.
If anyone knows how to tinker with a song, it’s Mr. Benedetto, and his decision to recast “The Way You Look Tonight” as a soft ballad and flip “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)”into a jazzy swinger succeeded.
And while, naturally, an audible sigh of happiness whooshed through the crowd at the first notes of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” it wasn’t the show’s highlight. That honor is a toss-up between Bennett’s cheeky read of Gershwin’s “Who Cares?” which included a rhythmic jazz jam to spotlight drummer Harold Jones and guitarist Gray Sargent, and his hushed, emotional take on Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” – something that Bennett aims to produce on every audience member’s face…and readily accomplishes.
Before Bennett’s set, the golden-throated prodigy, 13-year-old Evancho, performed a short set with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
Looking like a Disney princess in her mounds of aquamarine taffeta and sequins, Evancho left a few jaws on the floor when she opened her mouth and that stunning voice emerged.
Alternating between opera songs and familiar movie soundtrack fare – “Pure Imagination,” “My Heart Will Go On,” “Reflection,” from “Mulan,” which she sweetly dedicated to her mom – Evancho sounded technically flawless.
As she’s still just a kid – albeit one who performed for millions of viewers as the 2010 runner-up on “America’s Got Talent” – Evancho has time to learn how to be more comfortable in the spaces between the songs (Bennett would be a great mentor) and share a little more than mannered thank-yous and smiles.
But her future is unlimited, evidenced by a striking version of “The Music of the Night” (“Phantom of the Opera” is her favorite soundtrack).
Millions of young girls stand in front of the bedroom mirror singing along with their favorite show tunes. But only one in a gazillion sounds like Evancho.