Tony Bennett Is A Wonder

I’m not an expert on the subject. However, if someone asked me to name the 20th century’s best singers of the so-called Great American Songbook, I’d reel off names such as Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong and Fred Astaire. My list is hardly complete or definitive. But it contains excellent talent without a doubt.

All the entertainers on my list were contemporaries, their careers overlapping one another’s during various decades. A sad note is that only one member of the list is still with us, Tony Bennett, whose professional musical life took hold in 1949 (1949!). Sixty-six years later he continues to go strong. The man is 89 years old now and in good voice. He records regularly and likewise tours the world. He, to me, is a phenomenon. A wonder.

Tony Bennett (left) and Bill Charlap. (Photo by RPM/Columbia Records)
Tony Bennett (left) and Bill Charlap. (Photo by RPM/Columbia Records)

A few weeks ago I caught a track on the radio from one of his albums. It was a melancholy song, beautifully sung. His accompaniment was only one instrument, a piano. I thought that the selection probably came from The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, a 1975 release pairing Bennett with the esteemed jazz pianist. That album has achieved iconic status over the years. But I was wrong. The song — and I can’t remember which one I heard — was a brand new recording from the lovely album by Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap titled The Silver Lining: The Songs Of Jerome Kern.

Recently I listened twice to The Silver Lining in its entirety. And I listened to a few cuts from the Bennett/Evans duet album too. These albums are separated by 40 years. And you know what? Tony’s voice is nearly as good now as it was then. It has lost a little power, strains a bit occasionally. But it remains quite great. I find this most incredible. Has there ever been another gifted vocalist whose pipes have held up so well in his or her very advanced years? I can’t think of anyone. Please let me know if you can.

Jerome Kern was a top composer during the first half of the 1900s. He wrote with a host of smart and classy lyricists, Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Fields and Ira Gershwin among them. The Silver Lining presents some of Kern’s best-known, and best, compositions. For example, The Last Time I Saw Paris, All The Things You Are, I Won’t Dance.  There are 14 tracks on the record. Bennett sings on all of them. Bill Charlap, a refined and tasteful jazz piano player, is Tony’s sole partner on three. Charlap’s jazz pianist wife, Renee Rosnes, adds a second piano on four songs. On the remaining tracks, Charlap is joined by his longtime collaborators, Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington (no relation) on drums.

Overall I find this album to be sublime. The instrumentation is understated. Bennett’s vocalizing is poignant and incisive. He plumbs the depths of the tunes’ lyrics and adds some explosive high notes at the conclusions of a few songs to show that he still has it. If you’re a Tony fan, you should own The Silver Lining.

So, what’s the deal with Tony Bennett? How has he managed not only to survive, but to thrive? Well, genetics more than anything probably accounts for Tony’s long life. As for thriving, we all might learn from his outlook on and approach to life. Tony Bennett always has seemed to me to be a down-to-earth and nice guy, and also in possession of wisdom. There is a fine article about him in the December 2015 issue of DOWNBEAT magazine (the article is not online, so I can’t provide a link). Two quotes from the piece are very telling.  In one he says: “I can’t believe that I’m 89. I stay in shape. I take good care of myself. I got rid of all bad habits. When I was younger, I was pretty wild, doing a lot of foolish stuff. I stopped all of that and I got back to how to sing properly.” And in another he says: “I think life is a magnificent gift. We should all enjoy the fact that we’re living on an unbelievable planet that’s loaded with education and love and beauty.”

It’s not coincidental that the song Look For The Silver Lining concludes the Bennett/Charlap album. George “Buddy” DeSylva’s lyrics are fully in tune with Tony Bennett’s take on the human situation. Give a listen:

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