TONY BENNETT FEATURE
The crooner the better
Tony Bennett used to be so moved by music, he could taste it. Now, after years in the Vegas wilderness, the old crooner has reinvented himself as an MTV hipster, discovers Alastair Mabbott.
hen Tony Bennett ﬁrst heard Charlie Parker play. he vomited. Bennett. that is. not Bird. It was the young Anthony Dominick Benedetto‘s lirst visit to a jazz club. and he‘d been given a seat down the front. right by the sax legend.
‘1 didn‘t know who he was.’ he remembers. ‘but his saxophone was so intense that i went into the street and threw up. I couldn‘t believe it. ‘Cause I had a seat right next to him and his saxophone was right up my nose and it was so strong and I had never heard anything with so much feeling and intensity in my life. It really affected me physically.‘ Not simply slipped a bad pint. then. Tone? ‘Oh. no. it was just the music. I’m very in tune with it.’
So that’s the secret. Sixty—eight-years young and 45 years into a career that has suddenly blossomed again. and the simple reason for his longevity is that Tony Bennett lives. cats and breathes music. His swingin‘. good~time croon — rough around the edges but still a technical marvel — and cosy avuncularity have been embraced by a new generation. who have. so it‘s being said. deserted soulless rock and dance for music with more heart and warmth.
Bennett‘s MTV Unplugged set was his apotheosis — terrific stuff: his srnoochfest of a duet with k.d. lang is worth the price of the video all by itself- and the CD has sold well in excess of 600.000 copies since its release last August. making it the best-selling jazz album of the year (‘in history‘. Bennett claims) as well as winner of this year’s Best Album Grammy.
Things have been on the up-and-up for Bennett since l986. when he ended his ten- year hiatus from recording and began a consistent run of quality records beginning with the aptly-titled The Art Of lircellence. Then. with shrewd and inspired guidance by his manager son. Danny. Bennett was propelled towards alternative rock stations.
So. the old crooner of ‘Fly Me To The Moon‘. ‘lt Had To Be You’ and ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco‘ found himself playing on the same bills as Billy Idol. Porno For Pyros and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Surely. for a man who loves Gershwin and Berlin so much. that can’t have been an entirely pleasurable experience. But whatever it is that diplomats have. Tony Bennett has his share of it too.
‘We have something in common.’ he figures. ‘I noticed with all the rock groups. all they’re trying to do is make everybody have some fun. My real fans understand what I’m doing: I do songs that uplift the human spirit. I don’t do sad songs. I don’t do tragic songs. I don’t say the world is ending tomorrow. I sing songs of hope and uplifting the human spirit. And therein lies the similarity that we have: we like to make people feel good. So. all of a sudden. I run into Sting. I run into Billy Joel. I run into all these wonderful guys that hit very big and
they‘re all big fans. Billy Joel is writing a song for me just now.‘
That‘s as may be. but Sting and Billy Joel are hardly Perry Farrell or the Chili Peppers; and it‘s from that alternative rock generation that Bennett is said to be picking up many of his new followers.
The Generation Formerly Known As X could wish for no stouter nor more vocal champion than Tony Bennett. He‘s not worried. for instance. that they‘ll turn out to be a tickle bunch who‘ll drift back to Pearl Jam once Unplugged has dropped out of the charts.
‘They‘re not tickle at all. no. In fact. they’re very misunderstood. I think they’re smarter than their elders. tnore aware of everything. And I think the media has treated them very
‘My real fans understand what I’m doing. I do songs that uplift the human spirit. I don’t do sad songs. I don’t do tragic
songs. I don’t say the world is ending tomorrow.’
wrong. saying they‘re upstarts and Teddy Boys’ — yes. he did say ‘Teddy Boys’. got a problem with that? — ‘and all this. They’re just having fun. But they are very. very aware of everything that’s going on in the world. They‘re a lot nicer than the way the mass media shows that they are. They wanna learn. they wanna be good. they wanna learn their crafts.
‘They don’t like their older brothers and sisters.‘ he adds. darkly. ‘They don’t like a lot of things that they have done.’
But doesn‘t he think that a proportion of the young fans are attracted not by the class and craftsmanship but by the kitsch factor? It can’t be ignored. for instance. that one of London’s top New Wave Of Easy Listening clubs is blatantly named. er . . . Cheese.
Now this is just going too far.
'No! The kitsch was in the yuppies. heh-heh. That was complete kitsch. You can’t take it serious. If you took that serious. you‘re in
trouble. I mean. compared to Ray Noble [British bandleader and songwriter from the 305]. anything after that was kitsch. That’s where it’s at. The kitsch is putting the money before the integrity. and. God knows, they did that. They forgot the talent. They thought Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole were yucky, heh-heh-heh — now that’s the ultimate kitsch. ’Cause that means they haven’t got any ears.’
‘The minute I started singing.‘ he says. later on. reminiscing about the ‘army of talent’ that filled the clubs in the bebop days. ‘I said. I don’t care ifl ever make it or don’t make it. The rest of my life I’m just going to make a living singing. even if it’s just for a few dollars.’ ironically. he’s one of those souls who doesn’t even need to. For Anthony Benedetto is also a painter who can command tens of thousands of pounds for his canvases. spends Christmas with David Hockney and can boast that one of his recent commissions. Brotherhood. hangs in the United Nations building.
But he could never stop singing. He’s learned many valuable lessons in his life. and one of those is not to trust the ‘myth’ that grew in the wake of the big rock groups:
‘The idea that, oh, we’ll just work for a few years and then we’ll never have to work again. It was a bad lesson for the youth of the world. because there’s nothing nicer than having the integrity ofdoing work well. with a lot of great care. and doing it for life. My heroes are Picasso and Pablo Casals and Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby and Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Woody Herman, and right to the day they died they were working.
‘I just saw an interview on the television with Bette Davis. and she was saying that the only salvation she had in her life was when she went back to work. because the moment she went back to work she said, this - this — is who I am.’
Take a sick-bag to a Tony Bennett gig if you must. but be sure to let cynical friends know that it’s not for any reason they might think. D Tony Bennett plays Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Sun 9 as part of the Glasgow International Jazz Festival.
Okay, so Tony Bennett Is currently Mr Ilip with the MTV generation, and continues to clean up In concert halls throughout the land. This Is a jazz festival, though, so what are Mr B.’s genuine credentials when it comes to singing the music?
lie comes out at a rich era for mainstream popular song, and that is undoubtedly where he belongs. Some would say he can’t hold a candle to the likes of Frank Sinatra or Mel Torme, either in terms of voice or Jazz feel, but the tonner slnglng waiter has always had a big loliowlng, Impressed by his power (still Impressive even at 68) and emotional delivery.
His trio, led by long-term accompanist Ralph Sharon, are a swinging enough-hand, and Bennett
likes to get into that groove, but without pushing his own time or phrasing In a very overtly Ian direction. That said, the man can also lay claim to a decent Ian pedigree, and has worked with Ian musicians throughout his career, with a couple at outstanding landmarks along the way.
In 1959, tor example, he went Into the strrdlo with the Count Basie Orchestra tor a hard-swinging session which pushed hIm turther than many at the sweeter orchestral arrangements he was working with around that time.
Perhaps the most Intriguing sessions at all, however, came a quarter-century later, when he out two albums with solo piano accompaniment from pianist Bill Evans In 1975-78, an Inspirational coupling which definiter stands among his very tinest moments In the studio. 0n the basis at these alone, the jazz police would surely let him pass. (Kenny Mathleson)
The List 30 Jun-I3 Jul I99515