With Tony Bennett, you know pretty much what you’re going to get each time out, a survey right through the heart of the Great American Songbook with only a smattering of relatively contemporary addenda. The 76-year-old vet was consistent to a fault in front of an eye-popping 16,660, repeating pretty much the same program that he sang in 2000 in virtually the same order, allowing for a handful of inserts and deletions.
But no, not all was quite the same as that double bill with Diana Krall. Ralph Sharon, the rocklike fixture in Bennett’s act for nearly 30 years, was not there at the grand piano. In his place was Lee Musiker, who plays in a more overly jazzy, sleekly stylish manner, as did the rest of the quartet (although guitarist Gray Sargent’s solos seemed a bit out of sync with the rhythm section). Indeed, this was one of Bennett’s most jazz-oriented backup groups.
This clearly had an effect on Bennett himself, who seemed looser, more willing to swing and toy with the phrases. With this band, he leaves more space between the notes, he allows the songs to breathe more, he gives his men lots of room to stretch out, he doesn’t aim as blatantly for the histrionic, high-pitched Big Finish. And the show’s pacing improved dramatically as a result; it didn’t sound as hurried or as slick.
Finally, without altering his agenda and with an occasional spoken nudge, Bennett managed to make parts of his collection of standards seem almost like commentaries on today’s events. The rarely heard verse of “Over the Rainbow” was interpreted as a direct response to the nightmare of 9/11. Or how about the line in “Who Cares” — “Stocks and bonds I’ve been burned with.” For once, the cliche “timeless” ran true.