Can we just say it? Tony Bennett is friggin’ amazing. He’s still Mr. Class. He’s still Mr. Soul. It’s his way with a phrase, his joie de vivre, his manner of leaping for a note, like a kid grabbing after an apple on the high branch of a tree. He’s 86, and yet when he sings “The Best is Yet to Come,” we believe him.
Singing a couple dozen classic tunes for an adoring crowd, which must have leaped to its feet a dozen times, Bennett presided Thursday over a sold-out performance presented by SFJazz at Davies Symphony Hall. Folks, it was a love fest.
The audience loved Tony, who loved it back, while loving the music and throwing thumbs-up signs at the members of his primo quartet, which swings as if it still were 1961. And, yes, there’s some gravel in his voice, which isn’t as flexible as in yesteryear, but his artistry, if anything is richer. Thursday, every song was a distillation, a poignant mini-drama, with Bennett standing there in the spotlight, teaching life lessons to his listeners:
Who cares what banks fail in Yonkers
Long as you’ve got a kiss that conquers?
Why should I care?
Life is one long jubilee,
So long as I care for you
And you care for me!
That one — the Gershwins’ “Who Cares?”– dates to 1931, Depression days. Yet it remains as relevant as ever, Bennett pointed out. Playful with banter, he recalled how Pearl Bailey discovered him on a TV amateur hour, hiring him to sing in her show in Greenwich Village. That’s where Bob Hope discovered him, setting his career in motion:
“I’ve been singing 50 years now.” Bada bing. “I’ll be honest with you; it’s 60 years.”
And then some: That TV show was in 1949. But here’s another life lesson: While Bennett masquerades as an old-timer, he keeps looking ahead. He dedicated “The Good Life” to Lady Gaga, with whom he will be recording in August.
“She’s a beautiful singer!” he exclaimed. “Wait ’til you find out.”
Bennett is one-of-a-kind; when he’s gone, who will replace him? No one. His singing recalls Louis Armstrong’s trumpet: It’s Bennett’s elegance, his pared-back sophistication, the way he holds a note — for a lo-o-o-ng time, riding it, leaping to the final note of a phrase and giving it a triumphant shake: “Swing, you sinNERS!!!”
Always the pro, he pulled back for another number, holding his microphone down low, nearly at waist level, quieting the band, quieting the hall, making you listen: “Once upon a time, the world was sweeter than we knew.”
Perhaps more than anything, Bennett exuded generosity — and something more, a sense that he feels privileged to do what he does.
He brought out his daughter, Antonia Bennett, and together they sang Stephen Sondheim’s “Old Friends,” joining in a father-daughter soft-shoe. (She also opened the show, singing several numbers with the band.) He dedicated Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life” to his wife, Susan Crow Benedetto, “a fifth generation San Franciscan.” (And, yes, he sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The place went a little nuts.)
Clearly, he regards his quartet as a family, too: pianist Lee Musiker, guitarist Gray Sargent, bassist Marshall Wood, drummer Harold Jones. Throughout the show, he thanked them, lauded them. He broke into a dance as Musiker launched a solo on “The Way You Look Tonight.”
Go, Tony Bennett! The man exudes nothing but joy.
“We love you, Tony!” someone shouted from the rafters.
Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin.