An adoring capacity crowd greeted the artist formerly known as Anthony Dominick Benedetto on Monday as the ageless, 91-year-old vocalist confidently strode onstage at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts’ Dreyfoos Hall in West Palm Beach.
And why not? As Tony Bennett, the singer has earned 20 Grammy Awards, the most recent for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album for Tony Bennett Celebrates 90; charted a career of astonishing longevity from the 1950s through today, and in the process blurred the supposed lines between the musical genres and subgenres of jazz, easy listening, pop, and adult contemporary.
The Queens, N.Y., native’s seasoned quartet of guitarist Gray Sargent, pianist Tom Adair, bassist Marshall Wood and drummer Harold Jones helped blur those lines over the show’s first 20 minutes by backing daughter Antonia Bennett, a talented singer and actress in her own right. The 43-year-old overcame Sargent’s early sound difficulties to deliver a solid rendition of the Sammy Cahn/Gene De Paul standard “Teach Me Tonight;” dedicated the Billie Holiday staple “You’re a Lucky Guy” to her father, and highlighted the abbreviated set with an impassioned delivery of the Gershwin chestnut “Someone To Watch Over Me.”
Looking a full 20 years younger than his actual age, Bennett took the stage immediately thereafter, and proved that whatever he’s lost in vocal range is made up for by his veteran microphone techniques. On another Gershwin standard, “The Last Laugh,” Bennett expertly shifted his hand-held mic a foot away whenever he attempted high notes — which don’t come as easily as they once did. Still, the man with one of the preeminent voices of the 20th century sings better than most professional vocalists a third his age.
Bennett’s voice warmed up and improved as the evening went on, and he seemed inspired by his accompanists. A former Count Basie Orchestra drummer, Jones impressed all night by constantly shifting between brushes, drumsticks and mallets, often within the same song. Those shifts stood out on some of Bennett’s best early moments, from the dramatic Duke Ellington ballad “(In My) Solitude” to another Gershwin gem, the ebullient “Our Love Is Here To Stay.”
Sargent’s playing stood out during solos and duet intros with Bennett on the timeless ballad “But Beautiful” and the Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern composition “The Way You Look Tonight.” The 1936 Best Original Song Oscar winner from the film Swing Time (in which it was sung by Fred Astaire) shifted from its pensive vocal-and-guitar intro to an accelerated swing tempo by Adair, Wood and Jones that showcased Bennett’s ample jazz influence and technique.
“I had quite a few hit songs over the years,” Bennett said afterward in a major understatement. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to sing a few of them.”
With most audience members old enough to remember hearing them on the radio, no one minded hearing a medley that included Rodgers and Hart’s “My Romance,” Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart,” and the Richard Adler/Jerry Ross composition “Rags to Riches.”
Following a bouquet of flowers being delivered to Bennett onstage, the hits kept coming. Bennett danced around to Sargent’s solo on a Latin-tinged version of “The Shadow of Your Smile,” and delivered some of his best vocal performances on the Frank Sinatra staple “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” and the Stevie Wonder hit “For Once in My Life.” On the Jerome Kern/Johnny Mathis standard “I’m Old Fashioned,” Bennett turned things over to Sargent, Adair, Wood and Jones, all of whom turned in compelling solos.
“These fellas play with me all over the world,” Bennett said afterward, “and I can’t think of a better place to be than in this beautiful theater with you on this night. Thank you for being so good to us.”
The obligatory reading of Bennett’s signature 1962 hit, the George Cory/Douglass Cross tune “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” featured impressive long notes and breath control by the creative singer, who was able to craft new audiences in his 60s by appearing on MTV and late-night talk shows, and in his 80s by singing duets with the likes of Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga.
Finally, Bennett crafted a late medley of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” and the Louis Armstrong hit “When You’re Smiling,” coaxing the audience to clap along to the latter, before his last trick during a tidy 80-minute performance. On Bart Howard’s 1954 standard “Fly Me To the Moon,” Bennett went from a duet intro with Sargent to singing the verses without using his microphone. The hushed crowd hung on every word before the quartet’s final flourish, during which Bennett walked off before running back on — yes, and long may he run — to wave goodbye to the crowd once more.