"It's funny," said Tony Bennett. "My ears gravitate toward the musicality of something. 'Speak Low' (a song by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash that shows up on Bennett's latest album, "Astoria: Portrait of the Artist" (on Columbia)) was around when I was growing up, but it never was a very popular song. Yet I'm drawn to it because of its makeup. It's something you don't get tired of, so I recorded it. That kind of attitude has made me pass up a lot of bucks in my life.
"It's almost like I'm playing a different game than the whole record biz because instead of being a Top 40 guy, I'm trying to make my catalogue the Top 40."
In fact, Bennett, who plays the Orange County Performing Arts Center Saturday night, has helped usher more than a few tunes into the revered realm of standards. It's a talent the 63-year-old says he is quite proud of, one that's as close to his heart as his singing.
"One part of my craft is interpretation, and Ralph (Sharon, his pianist) and I look for songs all the time. It's a great celebration when one makes it into the American songbook," Bennett said on the phone this week from his home in Manhattan. "I've had about 35 tunes that have done it: 'For Once in My Life,' 'Who Can I Turn to,' 'Rags to Riches,' 'The Good Life.' That's why I never liked it when the labels tried to get me to cover everybody else's hits; I felt like they were taking my game away from me."
But then, "I learned a long time ago to stay away from what everybody else is doing," he added with a sigh. "In this business, a ring goes through the nose and everybody follows. I like to experiment, have some fun."
Experimentation has brought him into a dazzling variety of contexts over the last four decades, from swinging on the bandstand with Count Basie (a recording date that's about to be released on CD) to a stark give-and-take session with pianist Bill Evans. "Challenging myself is what it really comes down to," Bennett said, "sometimes singing with a solo guitar, sometimes with a whole symphony.
"You start out being frightened and amateurish. My first hit had a Percy Faith kind of string sound. The producers jumped on it--that kind of tapestry was behind me for the next 12 records. These days I've got a contract that lets me call the shots. Finally, whatever I'm into, they trust me. Certain artists should be allowed to do their work. Ella or Bobby McFerrin, they know what's best for themselves."
Whatever the approach, he said, "the whole idea is to make it look easy. You have to make it appear effortless. You're not supposed to show any struggle." Of course, he noted, that facade of ease requires hours of behind-the-scenes sweat.
"Working in the studio, we cut several takes of any given track. They're all quite different. I'm a spontaneous singer, and I hope my intuition will lead me to wherever that one clear moment is. It takes awhile to find it, usually. All the elements have to be there: the band, the energy. Sometimes I'll sketch my way around it, do something far out, and it might break down. But in the end we'll get a complete take, one that's very melodic and creative."
Bennett's setup of choice is the piano trio, which allows greater room for the nuances that his conceptions ultimately are all about. "I like understatement, trying to get across a feeling of intimacy, allowing yourself to say how you feel at the moment."
He deals in finesse; rarely will he give in to the seductive lure of the grandiose. He knows how to bring a listener out to the edge of his seat, but the drama is seldom mawkish or contrived, like that of so many other singers who try to straddle the thin line between saloon pop and jazz vocalizing (Bennett is one of the few whose voice is both well known to mainstream audiences and respected by listeners of jazz).
"When I first started out, I was told by my teacher to imitate instrumentalists rather than other singers," he recalls, "because you didn't want to be accused of sounding like Sinatra or Dick Haymes or whomever. To me, Art Tatum was the greatest piano player that ever lived, and I wound up paying attention to him.
"In those days it was very fashionable to sing a long, sweet line . . . 'Marieeeeeeeeeee, the dawn is breaaaaaaaaaking. . . .' But I took after the way Tatum did it: take a simple song like 'Embraceable You' and dramatize it. He gave songs hills and dales, little tricks that would make 32 bars into a full production. That's what I tried to get across as well. All around me there were raised eyebrows." But on "Berlin" (Columbia), he traded lines with Dizzy Gillespie and the late Dexter Gordon and kept up with them phrase for phrase.
Options for singers, Bennett says, are limitless. "The human voice was the first instrument in the world; all the really magnificent musicians are really singing through their instruments. Herb Ellis, Stan Getz, Dizzy, Miles . . . absolutely. Sometimes literally so: Errol Garner was accused of grunting, but he was just singing along with the lines he was creating. Pablo Casals insisted his students sing, give it the full passion.
"With the voice there's the subtlety of feeling. It changes day by day. It's not like an instrument, where the note is on the page and you just hit it. Every day it's different emotions for a singer."
Bennett has been discovering just how many emotions he's gone through over the years: He's currently helping CBS put together an immense reissue package that will span the many phases of his career. It's been an eye-opening process, he said.
"I'd forgotten about some things, like how I felt perplexed when rock was first becoming popular. I went to Count Basie, who was a bit of a philosopher, and asked him what I should do. I'll never forget his response. He just looked at me and shrugged. 'Why change an apple?' he laughed."
Tony Bennett sings with the Ralph Sharon Trio Saturday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. The program begins at 8 with a performance by the Master Chorale of Orange County. Tickets: $13.50 to $37.50. Information: (714) 556-2787.