No matter how close you sit to the stage at the Hollywood Bowl, the serious limitations of the iPhone camera, along with tricky lighting issues, ensure that photos rarely capture the transcendent experience you’re witnessing. Thrilled, over the moon, tickled pink, and every other goose pimply cliché about seeing the legendary, practically immortal Tony Bennett live for the first time on July 10, I posted a pic on Facebook anyway. I facetiously labeled it “Blurry Tony Bennett.” The responses I got from friends were priceless and speak to the enduring popularity and reverence shown to this American icon. One said, “I also have blurry Tony Bennett pictures from two weeks ago! He’s great!” Another: “At 93…He is AMAZING!!!!!” And: “He sounds great blurry.” “93 and still kicking!” Only to be topped by “Blurry Tony Bennett. I gotta say that when I play a song of his on my Sunday jazz show.”
The “blur” concept could apply to just how fast his just-over-an-hour show with his intimate swinging jazz quartet went – and the wild non-stop pace at which they breezed and romped through nearly 25 tunes (peppered with a few snippets of classics like “Rags to Riches” and “Because of You”). Bennett paused a few times to introduce his brilliant cohorts and soloists Tom Ranier (music director, piano), Marshall Wood (upright bass), Gray Sargent (guitar) and Harold Jones. He also acknowledged the cheerful crowd and told us how delighted he was to be there (the feeling was mutual).
Yet for the most part, the singer was all business, all bright, employing alternately exuberant and melancholy (with a twinkle) storytelling, applying his colorful, sometimes quirky and unexpected phrasing to one sharp, crisp arrangement after another. The one quality you couldn’t help but notice throughout was just how powerful an instrument his voice still is, and how well he works with dynamics, building from gentle, subtle beginnings to dramatic vocal flourishes that practically shout out to the Universe, “I’m still here and I’m not leaving anytime soon!” And with all that power, it was amazing that Bennett never once paused for even a sip of water – or even to catch his breath. His band artfully gave him a vocal break here and there with some wonderful improvisational soloing, but never for long. The split second the applause from one tune died down, the next song kicked in in a heartbeat.
Bennett’s early choice of material seemed thematically designed to prepare us for a brilliant performance (“Watch What Happens”) and remind us that despite his chronological age, he’s just approaching the prime of his life and will defiantly stay as young as spring (“This Is All I Ask”). He reminded us that he originates from another time “I’m Old Fashioned” and that “It Amazes Me” that we’re still out here cheering, begging for more.
Then, of course, there were the Great American Songbook classics, “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” “Our Love is Here To Stay,” “Just in Time,” “Cold Cold Heart” – and Bennett trademark songs that he can effortlessly still make sound fresh and relevant like “The Good Life,” “How Do You Keep The Music Playing?” and the still heartbreaking and dramatic “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Bennett had the audience so enraptured that even when he missed a line in “The Way You Look Tonight,” his quick and charming fill in scat created one of the highlights of the evening. Other highlights were a quick zip through and some spoken word action on “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road)” and a rapturous, seemingly never-ending swirl through “Fly Me To the Moon,” which Bennett and Sargent launched as a simple, unadorned duet with quiet power but whose several-minute instrumental portion allowed Bennett to exit stage left and return to wave to the crowd again and again and again till the lights went up. When that happened, my first musing was that there’d be a spirited encore with his daughter Antonia Bennett, who started the lively evening with a short set of compelling tunes that reminded us that swing sometimes runs in the family. OK, maybe next time – after all he’s not going anywhere so he’ll be back!