ALL YOU NEED FOR CHRISTMAS
On December 6 at the Royal Festival Hall, Santa sounded a lot like Tony Bennett
– and Tony Bennett never sounded better
by Bernhard Vogel (Fürth, Germany)
„I remember how I first met Bob Hope“, the singer told his London audience, reminiscing about his early days and his first shake-hands with one of America’s foremost legends. „He came to me after the performance and asked me what my name was. I said, ‚Joe Bari‘. He insisted ‚No no, what’s your real name?‘ I told him it was ‚Antonio Dominic Benedetto‘. He said ‚Well that’s a bit too long‘, and so, the English name ‚Tony Bennett‘ was conceived... Seems like he wasn’t expecting a singer by the name of Engelbert Humperdinck!“ A priceless moment during a priceless concert, greeted with chuckles and laughs from the audience.
If anyone needs audible proof that Tony Bennett still is on top of his game at age 78, just go to your record shop and get yourself a copy of his recent album, recorded in spring 2004 – and rush to get a concert ticket as soon as you can. The album is titled „The Art of Romance“ and contains some timelessly grand renditions, while a sell-out crowd at the Royal Festival Hall was luckily experiencing last Monday (December 6) that the romance between the singer’s art and his live audience’s affection is still going, and growing, strong. In fact, the last surviving real swinging troubadour and wistful balladeer from the old times may have never sounded better than he does now, both on record and in concert, after sixty years on stage and in the recording studio.
His London concert was a one-nighter this time, while Bennett had arrived as early as December 1 to do some TV and Radio appearances promoting his new album (which was released in Britain on the very day of his Royal Festival Hall concert) and from London traveled on to Norway for a benefit concert appearance. The more so, his mutual love affair with his London audience was to be sensed throughout the performance, with Tony being in a gala mood and the crowd cheering him with a standing ovation as soon as he stept on stage, even before he had sung a note.
As usual with his recent concert programmes, two standards opened the show, the trademark „Watch What Happens“ and the equally irresistably-well-swung „The Best Is Yet To Come“, which could as well have been introduced as the theme song for the whole evening. Tony’s voice was there, dominant as ever, and as it seems, unchanged for years, and the same applied to the personal marks he leaves on these two ditties. Dressed-up in one of his elegant Italian suits, white shirt and tie, grey-haired Bennett ruled the stage from start to finish, performing a grand total of 25 songs in roughly 90 minutes.
The pristine vocal shape he remains in, from incredibly soft ballad-singing to trademark towering notes, enables Tony to still rely on just a Jazzy quartet of piano, guitar, bass and drums as accompaniment – and the four instrumentalists are genuine stars of their own. The third song of the concert, „Maybe This Time“, featured an extended solo by Lee Musiker on piano, who succeeded Ralph Sharon a few years ago as Tony’s regular companion.
True, Sharon is among the kind that cannot be ‚replaced‘, but Musiker’s way of handling Bennett’s score and adding new approaches during the solos is quite impeccable. Throughout the show, the interaction between piano and vocal was first rate, and appeared to be more shaped than when Rosemary Clooney’s pianist John Oddo accompanied Tony on his Britain concerts in summer 2003. And Musiker, naturally, added a poignant note to Bennett’s concert staple „I Love A Piano“, which was fourth on the programme. A ‚fine way on Steinway‘ indeed!
Guitarist Gray Sargent played a prominent part on the following two selections, while especially „Cold Cold Heart“, a Hank Williams song, featured a sensational ballad vocal by Tony Bennett that amounted to one of the absolute highlights of the show. „Hank called me and said: ‚You’ve ruined my song for me!‘“ quipped twinkle-eyed-Tony before embarking on his version, which was followed by the well-known „All Of Me“ and two more standards from the Great American Songbook, „Speak Low“ and the Gershwins‘ „I Got Rhythm“. The latter, done extremely up-tempo, showcasts fine solos by each quartet member.
Without mentioning the fact, Bennett then presented a ballad from his new album. Johnny Mercer’s „I Remember You“, which on the CD features a rich background by a large string section, was done in a stunning, very poignant rendition with the small group here, and with a poignant, melancholic ending that would almost naturally make you shiver. It’s already a gem of a song in itself (no surprise of course given Mercer’s unique lyrical and melodic talent), yet Bennett adds yet some more sparkles to it, reflecting the words and metaphors with stage lights dimmed.
„Luck Be A Lady“, the Frank Loesser showtune from ‚Guys and Dolls‘, has been a world-famous Frank Sinatra staple for decades, but the way in which Tony Bennett managed to sing it this night, never evoking the slightest feeling of „where’s the Big Band orchestra and where is Frank“, perhaps illustrates the best how unique his vocal approach and concert act sounds today. It’s done up-tempo to a glorious combo arrangement, it sounds authentical (of course, Tony Bennett has his own Vegas history to build upon), and the grabbing swinger doesn’t fail him: With Sinatra and Sammy Davis jr. gone, this might be the best version still „available“ for live audition. A well-deserved ovation by the audience for Tony after the grand finish. And I’m sure Frank would have agreed with the crowd.
Ovations continued through the next segment of the concert, as Tony was embarking on five of his best-known trademark songs, which also are among the best in the American Songbook, one after another:
A most powerful rendition of „If I Ruled The World“, the Leslie Bricusse staple.
A most poignant reading of „Smile (When You’re Heart Is Aching)“, a song Tony has made partly his own by now without ever touching the area of becoming a Nat-Cole-copycat, and still doing the great melody (written by Charlie Chaplin) proud.
„I Wanna Be Around“, the Johnny Mercer-Sadie Vimmerstadt song he introduced in 1959 and still owns by 2004.
Everything has been written already about „I Left My Heart In San Francisco“: It still evokes a screaming standing ovation by the audience.
And „Steppin’Out (With My Baby)“, the old Irving Berlin chestnut, still features Tony at age 78 doing just that on stage, including a pirouette done exactly on the beat that might have some younger performers blush. More than ten years ago, it was the song that launched his success with the MTV generation through the „Unplugged“ project. Watch and hear him doing it now – it’s even better. The same goes for the other 4 songs as well. They well define the ‚heart‘ of Tony Bennett, and that heart is younger than ever. As always, most newspaper critics are completely missing the point when writing something like „oh, ok, he did those familiar songs again“. It proves that they won’t listen before writing. Tony Bennett, by now, has shaped his live versions of these familiar songs to an extent that simply requires listening. Do so, and you’ll experience what „age can do“ to a performer still in command of his pipes.
A second selection from the new album was „All For You“, based on a melody written by legendary gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-1953). „The melody grabbed me upon first listen“, Bennett told his audience. „So I sat down and wrote some lyrics to it“. The contemporary beat of the arrangement especially works nice with the quartet accompaniment, highlighting the clever riffs of Reinhardts musical composition, and the reasons why Reinhardt has become such an idol for many Jazz musicians over the world.
A double Gershwin segment: „Who Cares (As Long As You Care For Me)“, the charming song that once was an up-tempo-staple for the great Judy Garland, is swung by Tony at a similarly racing pace, that shows that he has Garland in mind while he manages never to evoke shades of Garland, the same effect as achieved earlier with his ‚Luck Be A Lady‘ not evoking Sinatra, hence, another example of his own uniqueness. And the equally grand „They Can’t Take That Away From Me“, performed as a poignant, slow, wistful piano ballad, has a similar touch of underlining one of the most beautiful songs ever written, through an understated, quiet, at times almost whispering rendition of the timeless lyrics.
„Old Devil Moon“ has been part of Tony Bennett concerts for a long time now, providing his quartet with lots of opportunities for individual solos, much the same way that „I Got Rhythm“ has it in the first half of the concert. Happily, the Duke Ellington segment that Tony included in his concert programmes last year is still there as well, and again, he left the impression that he is singing it even better now than in 2003, be it „In A Mellow Tone“, the rendition of which was *really* done that way (and superbly so), or the swing-era-anthem „It Don’t Mean A Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing)“, which amounts to another extended instrumental interlude by the quartet soloists. Clayton Cameron’s drum solo on this selection is outstanding. „He plays a different solo every night!“, quips Tony. Of course he does – he is among the best Jazz drummers alive („the best since Gene Krupa“, said Tony). As always, when playing the drums Cameron puts his shoes off and just wears black sox. While the way he swirls with the drums for sure puts everyone’s shoes off in the audience.
„Could we turn off the microphone, please?“ has become another Tony Bennett trademark introduction near the end of his concerts, whenever he is about to perform „Fly Me To The Moon“ as an almost a-capella ballad and without amplification. This night in London, it became another moment of the listener marveling at the vocal power this man still possesses while approaching 79, and witnessing what sophisticated a lyrical insight sixty years of performing live he is now able to put into a rendition of a song such as this. Being seated in the third row just about 5 meters away from the stage, I could also witness the expressions on his face during this performance, the gestures and the all-involved face of a man still doing what he had wanted to do more than half a century ago, just step up and sing a good song and make people liking it. The following standing ovation was a thunder, to which Tony disappeared from stage.
The unamplified song also highlighted the prime acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall, which was built in the late 1940s in an area badly hit by German bomb raids during World War II, and will now soon be closed for at least one year to undergo a complete renovation. Tony Bennett, earlier in the programme, was wondering about the reasons for it, saying something like „This hall is one of the greatest in the world... I’m told they are about to renovate it to make it better. I wonder why? It is perfect the way it is“.
Indeed, the present structure of the concert hall has remained largely unchanged ever since its erection, and it still has the same looks as in the many triumphant concerts performed there, e.g., among others, by Frank Sinatra in June 1962, November 1970 and September 1978. The wooden parquet of the stage visibly wears the ‚carves‘ of such nights, and so after the concert was over, for a moment I lingered a bit in front of the stage, with my hand on the the parquet. There probably is no reason for worry, the „new“ Royal Festival Hall will also become a prime concert theatre – yet, it won’t be the „the old one“...
Pure sentimentalism? Yes, of course. But nothing to be ashamed of, I think.
Before that moment came along, however, there had been three more very emotional musical treats by Tony Bennett, since the concert (naturally) wasn’t over yet after „Fly Me To The Moon“. Soon re-appearing and taking several bows, he started his encores with another wonderful ballad: „You Can Depend On Me“ once more carried the message in a capsule of how supreme a ballad singer Bennett is, especially in recent years. Pure magic.
Someone from the audience yelled the title of his signature song as Tony annouced that the next song would be a piece written by Alan & Marilyn Bergman, but still, that one wasn’t yet to come. Instead, Bennett performed „a song for the Christmas season“, the beautiful „Christmas Love Song“ (written by the Bergmans and Johnny Mandel) as recorded by, among others, Rosemary Clooney in the 90s. „I still have to learn that song“ he quipped, putting on his glasses and grabbing the sheet music with one hand, holding the microphone in the other. Which by the way, with no music stand on stage to place the sheet music, isn’t the easiest thing to do!
Ironically, this was the only moment throughout the concert that Tony would mention his new album („This is from the new album called ‚The Art of Romance‘, so this is a promo and I need the money!“ he quipped), while the song in fact is not featured on the new album. Still, his rendition of this marvelous ‚contemporary‘ Christmas ballad was impeccable and moving, and seeing him standing on stage with glasses on, mike in right hand, sheet music in left hand added to the magic of the moment. Santa Claus couldn’t have done it more to the point. What a gift: An artist who still does sincere live work on a concert stage, no false promps, no playback, no fuss. A performer who still follows the once ‚iron‘ rule to never cheat the audience, never pretend to be and to do what you can’t. Who could ask for anything more? The crowd was doing their collective Christmas dreaming this night, if ‚a little early this year‘ to quote a lyric.
And then, of course, his signature song would close the show.
Ever since Frank Sinatra died, Tony Bennett uses his spoken introduction for „How Do You Keep The Music Playing“ to pay tribute to Sinatra, telling audiences that he was „the best friend I ever had“, and how Sinatra once, when performing the song, had pointed from the stage to Tony in the audience and remarked that it was Tony whom the song belonged to. Earlier during the London show, Bennett had already mentioned Sinatra once before, remembering himself being in the audience at Royal Festival Hall when Frank was performing there (Tony didn’t mention the year, so he could have been referring to either the November 1970 Gala or one of the September 1978 concerts, since he was present on both occasions).
It is a well-known quote today that Sinatra himself referred to Tony Bennett as his „favourite singer“, and Bennett has paid back his dues both through his marvelous Columbia album „To Be Perfectly Frank“ (recorded in the early Nineties) and, perhaps more importantly in a Sinatra-legacy-sense, through his being the spirit behind the New-York-City-based „Frank Sinatra School of Arts“, which today enables talented youngsters to get proper education and lessons in a broad variety of musical fields and topics. There cannot be any doubt that Sinatra, who donated to many education projects, schools and university funds over the decades, would have loved this effort. And Tony Bennett must be applauded unanimously for taking such care to preserve, outside his own ongoing singing career, the true legacy of the Sinatra spirit this way.
„How do you keep the music playing / how do you make it last“ sang Tony, and he had each and everyone in the audience on a string with it. Having performed for almost one-and-a-half-hour, for some short moments here (and for the first time during the entire show), he seemed to be a bit tired, not vocally, but by slightly fumbling one line of the lyric in the first chorus. Yet, the testimony came across as strong as ever, including the trademark vocal climax at the end.
The Hall was at their feet, and the applause had Tony to take five more ‚curtain‘ rounds of bows after he had finished. A well-deserved ovation for an extraordinary performance, which, from my own point of view (and hearing), was even better than the great show he put on at the Royal Albert Hall in summer 2003, when I had already written that „he never sounded better“... still, it’s no overdoing to say that again he did so now. Happily, it won’t be long until fabulous Tony will be in Europe again, touring England (including two shows at the Royal Albert Hall) and Glasgow next April.
As he is approaching 79 in 2005, one has to add that that ‚ain’t necessarily so‘. But it seems that the singer who once called himself Joe Bari is still ready to pick some more tasty plums out of his tree of life... and it’s a safe bet, indeed:
It’s the Art of Excellence.
After the show, the four of us – Michael Dörffler (who also is the guru behind our German FS Society website), Michael‘s mother (whom her son has turned into a Sinatra and Bennett fan), Jörg Nierenz (who was our society president 2001-2003) and me – retreated to the hotel bar of the nearby Travel Inn (County Hall) for some drinks and, as it soon turned out to be, some raving reminiscences of the concert we had just been treated to. At the bar, there was a large TV set which blasted, unfortunately, lots of pop dreck and noisy commercials all the time.
But then, suddenly, the channel played the new Music Video (from the UK DVD release which comes along with the recent „Christmas Album“ CD) of Sinatra’s „Silent Night“ (1991 vocal), showing footage from the March 2004 recording session for the new Johnny Mandel orchestration conducted by Frank Sinatra jr., including shots of veterans Bill Miller and Al Viola. Sinatra’s aging yet so poignant voice filled the crowded room – and you could notice how the talk quickly calmed down, people turning their heads and listening to Sinatra. As we did as well, of course. Just moments before we had been talking about Frank and how Tony remembers him during his shows. And now, The Man himself was on. A magic moment.
Coincidentally so? Leave me alone – there are no such coincidences. It might as well have been a sign ‚from above‘. At least, once more it added proof to the fact that „Sinatra is everywhere“. And it added a surprise „i-dot“ to an evening that had been filled with musical magic and concert memories neither of us shall ever forget as long as we live. Cent’anni.
„An Evening with Tony Bennett“
London/England, The Royal Festival Hall, December 6, 2004
Duration: 85 mins. (8.05-9.30 pm)
Lee Musiker (piano); Gray Sargent (guitar); Paul Langosch (bass); Clayton Cameron (drums).
1 – Watch What Happens
2 – The Best Is Yet To Come
3 – Maybe This Time
4 – I Love A Piano
5 – Cold Cold Heart
6 – All Of Me
7 – Speak Low
8 – I Got Rhythm
9 – I Remember You
10 – Luck Be A Lady
11 -. If I Ruled The World
12 – Smile
13 – I Wanna Be Around
14 – I Left My Heart In San Francisco
15 – Steppin’Out
16 – All For You
17 – Who Cares
18 – They Can’t Take That Away From Me
19 – Old Devil Moon
20 – In A Mellow Tone
21 – It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)
22 – Fly Me To The Moon (w/o microphone)
23 – You Can Depend On Me
24 – A Christmas Love Song
25 – How Do You Keep The Music Playing?