Appearances may be deceiving in show business, but who could deny that Tony Bennett seemed to be having the time of his life at the Bowl Wednesday night? He looked relaxed, confident, genuinely ebullient — and it showed in his performance.
Perhaps it was due to the massive wave of recognition that Bennett has been receiving in the past few years, coming after a long, bitter period of no recording activity. The 1991 four-CD box “Forty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett” (Columbia) gave many a revelatory look at Bennett’s long-term achievements, and his “Perfectly Frank” CD (Columbia) won a Grammy this year.
Also, Bennett was undoubtedly charged up by the chance to sing with that least ghostly of ghost bands, the Count Basie Orchestra, with whom he recorded memorably in the late ’50s.
Bennett is a different singer with a good big band; he’s looser, less pushy, letting himself be carried along with the swing on tunes like “Old Devil Moon” and “Watch What Happens.”
With these ingredients in place, Bennett was mostly magnificent, both with the Basie band and with his trio, anchored as ever by rock-solid pianist Ralph Sharon. At the tender age of 67, Bennett sounds better than he did a decade ago, phrasing with masterful assurance, conserving the top end of his range more carefully.
He chose his material as a wine connoisseur might, and he was not afraid to re-interpret. He took the audience back to early hit-parade stuff like “Rags to Riches” and “Cold, Cold Heart,” completely transforming them with mature, relaxed, jazzy treatments. One could even forgive a radically re-chorded, punched-out “One For My Baby” near the end amidst all of the gems.
In its own set, the Basie band was hampered by some diffuse ensemble work and a definite slide in the quality of the soloing. Only in Neal Hefti’s “Splanky” did the band rev up something resembling its old wall-blasting power.
Shirley Horn, whose “Light Out of Darkness” CD will be released by Verve Sept. 19, turned in an uncompromisingly languid set, taking her time. It was typical of the manner that has turned her into an icon in the ’90s — lots of space between tightly packed, almost spoken vocals, capable jazz piano — but it was tailored more for a cozy nitery than a vast amphitheater.