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Tony Bennett makes time stand still

Playing to huge Ravina crowd, he traces the arc of his career

Howard Reich

August 24, 2013

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Forget Tony Bennett's age. Forget that he turned 87 earlier this month.

Doesn't matter.

All that counted Thursday night at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park was the timeless nature of Bennett's work – and its interpretive depth.

Playing to a huge pavilion and lawn crowd, Bennett in effect traced the arc of his career, from his earliest hits to later fare, but the element of nostalgia never really entered the equation. To Bennett, these were newly minted songs worthy of deep consideration, which is precisely what he gave them.

No one sings a ballad like Bennett, and he offered several from his enormous repertory, taking daringly slow tempos that test the voice and stretch the phrase. Here, above all, was where Bennett showed why – from the start of his career – he has ranked among the most knowing interpreters of American song.

Consider "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," which introduced Bennett to the record-buying public in 1950. Dark, brooding, tragic, the piece carries operatic dimension, transcending the presumed limitations of the standard pop song.

Or perhaps it only seemed that way in Bennett's reading, which wrung tense, taut drama – but not pathos – from every syllable. All the more because Bennett sang the tune's opening bars accompanied only by walking bass line, leaving his voice (and his heart) exposed for all to behold.

When he reached the final pages, building to a devastating climax, Bennett unfurled long-spun lines of a sort one might sooner expect from Placido Domingo, albeit in jazz-pop syntax. Only a few tragedians of American singing – most notably Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Billie Holiday – have been able to convey this degree of psychic pain in a brief vignette, and only Bennett is still here to show us how it's done.

Or take "But Beautiful," one of the most unconventional love songs in the canon, its phrases asymmetrical, its melodic leaps unusual, its lyric expressing romantic yearning in the most poetic terms imaginable. Bennett opened at something close to a whisper, a cheeky thing to do in an outdoor venue before thousands of listeners.

But the crowd piped down, enabling Bennett to keep the atmosphere intimate, as if he were communing with a single person: the object of his desire. No histrionics, no big finish – just a reverie, delivered as if in a bar in the small hours of the morning.

Of course, Bennett presented up-tempo swingers, too, but even here he seemed to relish sabotaging expectations with abrupt changes in tempo and mood.

He opened "The Way You Look Tonight" with dreamy, unmetered phrases, avoiding any sense of downbeat and singing alternate melody notes along the way. The jazz quartet that accompanied him then launched into a hard-driving section before Bennett returned to duet softly with guitarist Gray Sargent, the singer humming the penultimate line before intoning the word "tonight" several times. Bennett fans have heard him perform this piece often through the decades, but never quite like this.

The singer cannot exit any stage without taking on "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," but he kept it fresh by casting it as the ultimate jazz nocturne: slow, soft, introspective. Here, too, the audience fell to a hush, allowing Bennett to produce the kinds of tonal shadings you don't expect to encounter outdoors.

Lee Musiker's quartet stayed close to Bennett throughout, but this excellent jazz pianist really should save the thundering double octaves for his next performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto. Bennett's daughter, Antonia Bennett, opened the concert.

But the night was about her father, whose renderings – like Sinatra's all the way to the end of his career – proved consistently modern, concise, unsentimental.

What a privilege to watch him work.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich