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Tony Bennett: In an Ellingtonian Mood

Tony Bennett

Watching Tony Bennett work in the studio, one gets a revealing glimpse of the craft behind the man’s artistry. Smooth, always poised, ever-confident of his abilities, the 73-year-old singer exudes an uncanny naturalness and gusto in front of a microphone. It’s a quality that he has in common with such other icons in American entertainment as Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and Frank Sinatra.

Bennett is definitely part of that hallowed lineage. A quintessential one-take guy, he has an old school aura about him that carries to the back row of concert halls and touches everyone in the room. Call it magic, pizzazz, charisma, Anthony Dominick Benedetto has got IT. He hits high notes as easily as mortals breathe, phrases a lyric or punctuates accents with seasoned showbiz flair and swings as innately as an honorary member of the Count Basie rhythm section. And he delivers it all with the nonchalance of a lifetime straphanger riding the “N” train back to Queens.

A handful of press people were invited to observe that trademark Bennett magic at The Hit Factory last summer for sessions that resulted in Bennett Sings Ellington: Hot and Cool (Columbia/RPM). A decidedly jazzy outing that ranks with other critically acclaimed collaborations like Tony Bennett/Jazz featuring Stan Getz, Count Basie, Art Blakey and Herbie Hancock, The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and Hometown My Town with Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Urbie Green and Barry Galbraith, Bennett Sings Ellington: Hot and Cool is a collection of timeless melodies and jazz anthems sung by one of the greatest interpreters of American song. Backed by a quartet led by pianist Ralph Sharon, a colleague for 40 years, and further enhanced by the lush orchestral arrangements of Ralph Burns, this excursion into Ellingtonia is a fitting homage to the great composer in honor of his centennial anniversary.

Guest soloists Wynton Marsalis and trombonist Al Grey contribute some conversational exchanges on “Mood Indigo” and “She’s Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good).” The trumpeter also adds a strikingly lyrical solo on the album’s lone instrumental, “Chelsea Bridge.” Says Bennett of that riveting performance, “I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever heard Wynton do. He just showed up and played so wonderful. Very melodic and economical with feeling. To me, it communicates more than anything he’s done on record.”

Over lunch at his favorite Midtown Manhattan Italian restaurant, Bennett spoke candidly about his craft and about his boyhood idol Edward Kennedy Ellington.

JazzTimes: It was interesting to see you do two takes of “Caravan” in the studio. Your choices of phrasing were wildly different from take to take. It was a clear case of taking chances.

Yeah, that brings up a point…it’s so hard to explain to everybody but I do have a stock line for it. All interviewers ask me, “Don’t you get tired of singing ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco.'” But I say, “Do you get tired of making love?” They think I do it the same way every night but I don’t sing that way. Every performance is different. If you do it every night like I’ve done-200 dates a year for 51 years now-then you turn it into a game by improvising all the time. Spontaneous stuff is the most fun. See, if you have fun, then the audience intuitively feels that they were witnessing something that happened just for that moment. I get bored if I hear something that’s set all the time the same way. I think what I’m trying to tell you is I’m not really a jazz singer but I know how to improvise.

JazzTimes: Isn’t that what a jazz singer does?

Yeah, but the whole idea of “jazz singer” is… I don’t know, that’s so much like belonging to a club. As a kid I never joined the Elks or the Knights Of Columbus. I’ve always been a little wary of clubs and I never tried to be part of the club that’s jazz singers. I don’t sing “Satin Doll,” because everybody sings “Satin Doll.” I stay away from that, even though I may enjoy someone else singing that. I’d like to do something a little different.

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