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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Tony Bennett's art of excellence

"How Do You Keep the Music Playing?"

His hero Frank Sinatra called himself a saloon singer, but how to categorize Tony Bennett?

After last night's televised Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best is Yet to Come, there's just no other way to put it: Tony Bennett is in a class by himself.

Surely he stands apart from Lady Gaga, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and all the other vocal superstars honoring him in song at the Radio City celebration, and you could sense why from the brief interview snippets sprinkled in throughout the program. His softly spoken, thoughtful comments about his life were keenly perceptive and full of insight, the key being understatement, and especially sensitivity--to song, songwriters, and above all, the people who listen to the music and words that he gives so much of himself to.

Sinatra the saloon singer had that, but at Radio City it ended with the birthday boy.

Before the show closed with all the guest artists serenading him with "Happy Birthday to You," Bennett himself performed "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?," pretty much answering the question posed by the Michel Legrand/Alan and Marilyn Bergman pop classic. To wit, commitment: His commitment to keeping the music playing is evident in every subtle head movement and hand gesture, all enacted with purpose. Even the way he cupped the microphone with both hands, or one-handed it with his left to let his right extend out to his listeners seemed a means of gifting them with the song's meaning.

And you could see it in his eyes, the way they seemed to search into space for some one--and all--to communicate to and connect with while living out the lyrics with full investment--and always in the present: He just cannot sing anything the same way twice, not that he would want to. Every time is the first time, every time is now.

Indeed, every time Tony Bennett opens his mouth he dives all the way into himself, headfirst, each note deliberate, yet natural, too. Each crease and furrow in his 90-year-old face comes into play, deepened with age as his voice perhaps, but neither at all weakened. As he delivers the last line of "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?"—"The music…the music…the music…never…never…never ends!"—his arms are raised as the audience jumps to its feet, with youthful vigor he right-fists the air twice and bows in triumph.

It's the triumph, to borrow his 1986 album title, of the art of excellence, which he embodies. He remains truly incomparable.



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