Article by Greg Cutler
Photos by Jon Bauer
Antonia Bennett was the first act of the night. As the daughter of Tony Bennett, Ms. Bennett’s stage presence is captivating. The way she moves to whatever song she is singing draws you in like a fish towards a shiny lure. There is that Bennett influence to be sure, but she has her own swagger and style that is more sultry and alluring. Before you know it, you’re hooked, and then she hits you with a long, smooth, powerful note. It was a special treat to see her perform before her father.
She got things moving right off the bat with “Teach Me Tonight”, an upbeat, happy song. Some heartfelt emotions sprang to the surface when she said a few words about how much her father has influenced her, and she dedicated her next song to him, “You’re A Lucky Guy”. Her rendition of “From This Moment On” was the most memorable part of her performance. She is a serious performer who breathes emotion into her music with grace and power.
Next up was Tony Bennett. He strode onto stage and the place went wild… I mean, berserk. His arms outstretched, his hair perfect, his gleaming suit with the red pocket square; immaculate. It was Tony Bennett! He hadn’t even started singing yet, but we all knew, this is a star. The grand scale of the Davies Symphony Hall seemed to shrink down to the size of a small jazz club in North Beach back in the day. The whole stage was lit up, but Mr. Bennett shone like a beacon, dimming the rest of the room.
I have to admit that I’m fairly easily moved by good art, but by the 3rd song, there were definitely tears in my eyes. This guy was giving it everything he’s got. Every note was perfect, because Tony Bennett was singing it. There was a force behind the music emanating from his body that was like watching a prize fighter in the ring. It wasn’t physical power. It was artist power. All those years of training, all of the previous performances swirling around in his head were intuitively informing his every move. He is truly a master.
It was familiar and inviting, but simultaneously new and exhilarating. He treads new ground with every performance. Standards? These are not your standard standards. He was like a visiting ambassador of jazz from New York showing us how it’s done. We were humbled. We welcomed him with open arms. He is the real deal.
His iconic smile is infectious. He doesn’t even need to sing. He started out almost every song as if he was starting a conversation with one of his band members. He kept sneaking in little nuances, little improvisations, that flickered and disappeared. In the middle of “I’ve Got Rhythm”, he broke into a little scat. During “One for My Baby” he yells, “Band, take it!” He just has the tools at his disposal. He kept looking up into the balconies sharing his love with the audience and showing his appreciation like everyone in the hall was an old friend.
He is the king of sad songs. “Solitude” is a heartbreaker, but he turned that frown upside down. He somehow transformed it, and by the end, was emanating feelings of intense joy. His phrasing is impeccable. He rearranged his own songs in ways we’ve never heard them. “It Amazes Me” amazed me. He re-told the story of “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” like it was not even the same song.
The quartet is an essential part of the magic of Tony Bennett. There were times when he and his quartet acted as one. They communicated like a hive mind, moving and thinking together. Several times, Mr. Bennett left the lime-light to stand next to each band member in turn as they performed their solos. Billy Stritch on piano, Gray Sargent on guitar, Marshall Wood on bass, Harold Jones on drums are each incredible musicians in their own right and it was a thrill to hear them perform.
Then, Mr. Bennett broke away from the pack in a single bound. It was as if he was up there on stage all alone. Even though the music continued, he was by himself. He was able to convey incredible vulnerability. It was as if he would physically shrink. During the same song, he suddenly burst forth with unbridled power, in joy and laughter, seeming to grow in stature. He was able to penetrate right into our hearts with those golden vocals.
Of course he sang “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”.
But that was not the end of the show. When he put down the microphone and sang “Fly Me to the Moon”, it was a very special moment. He doesn’t need the band or the microphone to connect with the audience.
He received no less than five standing ovations during his performance. He never stopped to take a break. He seemed like he could keep going all night and we all felt like he really wanted to. Performing for a packed theater of a couple thousand people must be stressful for some, but he acts like it’s a walk in the park. Tony Bennett gets the last laugh.