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Tony Bennett

A self-proclaimed "tenor who sings like a baritone," Tony Bennett greeted a capacity aud at the historic Apollo Theater and whipped through a familiar repertoire at the very top of his game.

A self-proclaimed “tenor who sings like a baritone,” Tony Bennett greeted a capacity aud at the historic Apollo Theater and whipped through a familiar repertoire at the very top of his game. With a confident and breezy air that belies his 82 years, and fueled by the generous bounce of the Count Basie band, the seasoned singer once again displayed a great awareness of nuance, intelligent phrasing and how to tell a story in song.

A jazz vocalist at heart, Bennett revealed the essence of swing singing with tunes like Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and the classic groove setter “In a Mellow Tone.”

He gave the sidemen generous time to open up, and they framed him with a mood-setting pulse-beat.

Bennett never quite sings a song the same way twice, and there remains an expectancy in his performance that keeps him fresh and his audience raptly attentive.

The singer offered the prophetic Gershwin brothers song “Who Cares?,” which includes the phrases “let a million firms go under” and “who cares what banks fail in Yonkers?” The tune was given a flavorful accent by Gray Sargent, the New England guitarist who has been a dominant voice in the Bennett rhythm section for the past decade.

Bennett makes no apologies for singing the old songs but offered timely wit when singing “The Good Life” with a tongue-in-cheek dedication to Britney Spears. With fond recall of his roots in Astoria, he sang “A Little Street Where Old Friends Meet,” a wistful look homeward.

Pianist Monty Alexander sat in for a holiday grouping that marked the release of Bennett’s new wintry CD, “A Swingin’ Christmas,” packaged with a family gathering cover pic inspired by a Norman Rockwell painting. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” served with a gentle jump beat, and a playfully brisk “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” set the mood for a joyous noel, but reading from the sheet music, Bennett seemed a tad uncomfortable with the dizzying word game Oscar Hammerstein designed for “My Favorite Things.”

A feature in most every Bennett performance is the acknowledgment of the theater in which he is appearing by performing a song unmiked to demonstrate the wonderful acoustics. With a salute to the Apollo Theater and its long history of notable performing artists, Bennett crooned “Fly Me to the Moon” to the sole accompaniment of Sargent’s tastefully supportive guitar. The intimacy of the moment was decidedly accomplished.

And of course there were those Bennett trademark hits “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which he has sung more than 10,000 times, plus “For Once in My Life” and the first song he ever recorded, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

For the opening set, the legendary Basie band, under the direction of vet sideman Phil Hughes, romped vigorously through some old charts that still manage to take flight with tight, unified precision. Frank Foster’s classic “Shiny Stockings” and Ernie Wilkens’ flag-waver “Basie” retained their former punch as driven by timekeeper Al Jones. Neal Hefti’s “Cute” brought Marshall McDonald forward for a dancing flute turn.

Tony Bennett

Apollo Theater, New York; 1,415 capacity; $129.50 top

Production: An AEG Live presentation featuring the Count Basie Orchestra under the direction of Phil Hughes. Reviewed Dec. 16, 2008.

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