MUSIC: Tony Bennett: Class is in session

Last night it seemed, by the play it was getting on the New York Times website, that this review of a Tony Bennett Concert at the Apollo Theater in Harlem might be slotted for Page 1. It would be an idiosyncratic call, though not unprecedented. In the end, it’s only on Page 1 of the inside Arts section. No matter; it captures some of what makes Bennett such a fascinating figure in American music.

The reviewer is Ben Ratliff, whose book about John Coltrane caught my eye earlier this year for its intelligence and independent thinking. In his review of the Bennett show, Ratliff spends a lot of time looking at the singer’s hands. It’s synecdoche, is what it is, for Ratliff is trying to tell us that every part of a Bennett performance contributes toward his role as a “delicate, almost scholarly guide to strong emotions.” Scholarly is an important word. When he talks about musicians, Bennett almost always refers to their qualities as musicians — song choices, stylistic approach — rather than to their personalities offstage. One of the pleasures of his CD Here’s to the Ladies, a tribute to assorted female singers that seems already to be out of print, is reading Bennett’s consistently perceptive liner notes about his colleagues. His decision earlier in the decade to perform regularly with Diana Krall and even more regularly with kd lang is the only rebuttal I need against anyone who would care to dismiss the abilities of either Canadian singer.

He is best when he is thrown a bit off balance, as he must have been in this concert with the Count Basie ghost band, because he cannot fall back on shtick and must draw on his own peerless knowledge of the American songbook and the possibilities of good sidemen. One of his best recorded performances of the past decade is a guest-starring role, an astonishing  take on “I Get Along Without You Very Well” on pianist Bill Charlap’s 2002 album Stardust. One of the great musical experiences of my life was a concert at the Montreal International Jazz Festival one night when Bennett’s formidable drummer, Clayton Cameron, was unavailable; Bennett called Lewis Nash to sub in and Nash, one of the  finest  drummers to arrive in jazz since 1980, had to rely on eyes, ears and cues from the now-famous Bennett hands to hold the set together. The level of musical communication between the two men was ferocious.

Anyway. Here’s a column I wrote for this magazine after another Bennett concert a few years ago. It’s my best attempt to explain Bennett’s evolution from an ersatz bel canto belter to a singer immersed in the African-American vernacular, one who must not have seemed at all out of place fronting a mostly-black band in Harlem on Tuesday night. Here he is with Ralph and the boys, playing more blues than you thought they were going to:

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