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Tony Bennett Slays 'Em At Gilmore Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo

John Ephland By

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Tony Bennett and His Quartet
Chenery Auditorium
Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival
Kalamazoo, MI
May 7, 2016

You could sense it. Here was an artist who was the last man standing from an era that covered anything and everyone, from Gershwin to Gaga. With an accent on George. Tony Bennett was appearing at the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. As for how a singer was headlining, that's another story. But what was most apparent from this Saturday night show at the lovely and acoustically wonderful Chenery Auditorium in downtown Kalamazoo, was the obvious fact that this man represents an era that has come and gone but still lives on with him, as long as he keeps on "steppin' out."

There isn't anyone else carrying the torch for this kind of music, who was there and is still here. And it showed, as a booming voice announced before the band, "Welcome to the Tony Bennett Show!" What followed was a fallback to a kind of theatrical Catskills rollout, with Bennett's band playing a rote number of songs, allowing each member to solo and with accompanying applause after each solo. A Duke Ellington tilt held sway with tunes like "Satin Doll," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and a strangely up-tempo version of "I Got It Bad, And That Ain't Good." A piano trio with guitar, the sound from this quartet had a definite George Shearing vibe to it, everything down pat, with a retro feel.

But that was part and parcel of the charm to this evening, an evening where Bennett finished after several near-encores with the standing-room packed house not letting him leave after singing, of all songs, "I Left My Heart In San Francisco," among others. Indeed, he went out singing "Fly Me To The Moon," but instead of a Sinatra swing to it, the impact was almost like an a cappella, with Bennett, sans mic, focusing on the lyric, "In other words ... I love you!" And, as he did with practically every song at its close, this legend held out his arms to the audience, as if to implore them to respond in kind. Which they did. Speaking of Frank Sinatra, just prior to Bennett walking on stage everyone heard a recording of Ol' Blue Eyes' voice bleating the standard line, "For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business."

This was definitely a step back in time, the only reminder that this was the 21st century being Bennett's ofttimes struggling voice. But, you had to hand it to the guy, he left notes hanging, not going for the easy middle register but instead singing to the back rows, a kind of reminder to this listener that Tony Bennett, who turns 90 in August, was always a kind of street swinger, not interested in glamor or style per se, but a regular guy. His age was obvious, as he lacked a real singer-to-audience presentation, relying on the program they all had arranged ahead of time. After all, even though it was a tie and not a tux (like Sinatra for his last three decades), this was still show-biz.

Part of what made this night special was the fact that French composer and longtime friend Michel Legrand was in attendance (as a fellow Gilmore performing artist this year). Bennett saluted the man's talents, saying, "I've loved everything he's ever written." Bennett proceeded to sing "Watch What Happens," more as a swing tune than with its usual Latin lilt. Reaching for those high notes over and over again, one might have wondered if Bennett was taking chances he might not otherwise take if he was at Carnegie Hall, almost singing as a jazz musician who's trying out different approaches, risking in new ways. "They All Laughed," "I Got Rhythm" and "Steppin' Out With My Baby" were just some of the other standards Bennett and band trotted out to the audience's delight, many of them folded into a medley and balanced by more solemn, low-key tunes like "In My Solitude" and "But Beautiful," all of them performed with great feeling despite their perfunctory delivery. Reaching back, he even performed his first big hit, "Boulevard Of Broken Dreams." Was this all just a stage act, or was he pouring his heart out to this crowd? Unless you traveled with them, or asked a band member in an unguarded moment, you'd never know.

All told, it was a strange sight to see Tony Bennett up there on stage, in this amazingly beautiful and acoustically wonderful hall. This is 2016, and this guy is still snapping his fingers, with open arms and an obviously open heart. This Kalamazoo Gilmore crowd was in the palms of the man's no doubt wrinkled but warm and generous hands.

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