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POP MUSIC WEEKEND : Tony Bennett Defies Time, Singing of Its Passage

Times Staff Writer

If they consider him at all, most people in the post-Beatles generations of music fans probably think of Tony Bennett in stereotypic terms colored by Bill Murray’s famous lounge-singer parody from “Saturday Night Live.”

Maybe they have an inkling that Bennett is a classier act than the smarmy, shallow crooners Murray ridiculed (take a bow, Wayne Newton). But it’s hard to imagine that most of rock’s children regard Bennett, 62, as anything but an outdated, irrelevant relic whose music is little more than tony decor for the better class of cocktail lounge.

Perhaps Bennett is a relic. His domain, as he told the audience Sunday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, is the “American popular song.” For Bennett, that means songs by, or in the tradition of, Ellington, Gershwin, Irving Berlin and other composers from the era when Broadway was the pinnacle of pop.

It’s doubtful that Bennett’s definition of the American popular song has room for the likes of Bob Dylan, Carole King, Smokey Robinson and Randy Newman--songwriters whose imagination was sparked by rock ‘n’ roll. Bennett’s tradition is rich and resonant, and there is no need for him to step outside it. Still, the fact is that any pop singer in the 1980s who hasn’t come to terms with the music of the rock era is, in some sense, a relic.

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Some relics are just old artifacts. Others embody enduring values. If the craftsmanship, nuance, intensity, dedication and sheer performing aplomb Bennett displayed Sunday count for anything, he is the sort of relic that deserves to be displayed prominently enough to give all generations a glimpse.

What, to the contemporary pop mind-set, could be more hackneyed than Tony Bennett singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco?”

Yet, singing to an audience that was predominantly, but not exclusively, middle-aged and older, Bennett reclaimed “San Francisco” from parody and revealed it to be an intimate reverie; not a blowzy musical postcard but a song about a cherished memory.

Throughout the concert, which ranged over more than 25 songs in an hour, Bennett and his jazzy trio (led by expert pianist Ralph Sharon, a longtime Bennett collaborator) kept redeeming oldies by throwing off the dust of nostalgia and revealing their emotional core.

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A run-through of songs by Irving Berlin, for instance, did more than touch bases with a great American composer. Songs like “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and “Shakin’ the Blues Away” spoke of meeting troubles with optimism and a zestful spirit; Bennett’s confident, darting delivery, and his trio’s brisk swing embodied what the songs had to say and made a listener realize that what they have to say remains important, even in a far more jaded and ironical era.

It was fitting that the theme of being brave, graceful and competent in the face of an uncertain future kept popping up in Bennett’s repertoire. When a man of 62 sings lines such as “Love is pure gold/And time a thief” or “The curtain descends/Everything ends too soon,” (both from “Speak Low (When You Speak, Love)”) his age lends them a poignant subtext. Bennett delivered the song beautifully in a hushed voice that rose to dynamic peaks, then let it subside in an amiable, confident coda that was full of equanimity (as a final punctuation point, Bennett tossed in a joking allusion to Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”).

Bennett can afford to sing about time’s passage with equanimity: There was hardly a hint that time is beginning to erode his ability. Bennett’s singing was adventurous and fully under control, with impressive power as well as subtlety at his immediate command. While most singers his age have been reduced to trying to sneak their pitches over the corners--if they’re even capable of reaching the plate--Bennett can still smoke the high, hard one down the middle.

Bennett even moved with a lilt, doing a couple of 360-degree whirls and high-steps that brought titters from an audience that didn’t expect such friskiness from an old saloon singer. His voice does take on a grainy texture in its lower range but that seemed more like a sign of seasoning and experience than of incipient decrepitude. The only indication that Bennett concedes anything to age was the 20-minute intermission that divided his set--strange, for a performance that lasted just 60 minutes altogether.

Bennett may have been displaying a bit of macho when he put down his microphone and sang “Fly Me to the Moon” without amplification. But if so, craftsmanship and sensitivity got the better of him: The song, which won a standing ovation, wound up being a marvel of intimacy, not a projection of brute lung power. Bennett’s set may have been short--no encore, despite the audience’s avid bid for one, and no “When Joanna Loved Me,” one of his moving songs about memory. But it ended well, with Bennett developing a doubt-filled lover’s soliloquy, “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” (with time-as-threat once more the lyrical subtext) into a concluding affirmation delivered in a glorious crescendo: “The music never ends.”

That’s a romantic falsehood, of course. But on this peak night, Bennett made it ring true.


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