Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet to Come (NBC-TV, aired December 20, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night NBC-TV presented a much-hyped program called Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet to Come, a rather strange title (does anyone really think even someone as seemingly ageless as Tony Bennett is going to make it to 180?) for an unusually good program in what’s become the modern-day mold for these sorts of tributes: a widely assorted batch of artists does songs written by or identified with the honoree, and the honoree gets to come out at the end for a few songs of his (or her) own. This was a better show than usual for the genre in that, with one exception, there were no singers who were outrageously unsuited for their material; though generationally they ran the gamut from the 1960’s to the 2010’s, they all had a basic understanding of Tony Bennett’s sort of music and an ability to sing it idiomatically while still projecting their own individuality. The show was interspersed with interviews with Bennett himself (mostly recent ones — Charles, who arrived home from work 15 minutes before the show was over but in time to catch Bennett’s own contributions, said that when he speaks Tony Bennett sounds like a man of 90 but when he sings he sounds about 60) and a few film clips of him at his absolute peak (notably a quite jazzy version of “I Got Rhythm” from a 1960’s TV show).

The show opened with Lady Gaga singing “The Lady Is a Tramp,” a song on which she duetted with Bennett on one of his Duets albums (Bennett, appalled by the way the Frank Sinatra duets albums had been done — with Sinatra recording his parts first and the other singers adding theirs later — insisted that his duets albums be recorded with his partners actually in the same room with him at the same time) and surprised me with her idiomatic command of the standards genre. Given that her fame was as a dance-music artist I hadn’t thought she could handle the looser, freer rhythms of a standard — but she did, though on the two songs she sang on this program (“The Lady Is a Tramp” and “La Vie en Rose,” which she sang first in the original French and then a final half-chorus in the English translation) she built to an intense climax that really didn’t feel like it belonged to the rest of the song — a bad habit she might be falling into on standards without Bennett’s presence to discipline her. After “The Lady Is a Tramp” Michael Bublé did “The Good Life” (and sang better than he had on most of his own show which preceded the Bennett tribute). Then came one of the most pointless parts of the program: Andrea Bocelli and the Voices of Haiti Choir (a children’s group) doing the Schubert “Ave Maria,” and doing it well by Bocelli’s standards even though he remains just another pretty voice with almost no emotional involvement at all. Then came Kevin Spacey — who revealed his vocal chops when he did his own singing for his biopic of Bobby Darin, Beyond the Sea — doing Ray Noble’s 1938 ballad “The Very Thought of You” and doing it almost as well as Bublé had done on his previous special. After that Diana Krall came on and did a jazz voice-and-piano version of “I’ve Got the World on a String,” and then there was a film clip from a Madison Square Garden concert given by Billy Joel, during which Bennett came on stage and joined Joel for a duet on Joel’s song “New York State of Mind.”

Then things went back to tribute-show normal with Rufus Wainwright doing “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” (I love Wainwright’s artistic courage but I’m not that enamored either of his voice or the ways he uses it) before a clip of Bennett and k. d. lang doing “Moonglow” together and lang, who’s become heavier-set than she was in her prime (she looks a bit like Elvis Costello in drag) doing yet another song originally introduced by Louis Armstrong (she and Bennett did a duet album together that was an Armstrong tribute), “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” Then came a contribution by Stevie Wonder (who, as I’ve joked in these pages before, shares Andrea Bocelli’s blindness but not his blandness!), who instead of doing the song I would have expected — “For Once in My Life,” which was a hit for Bennett well before it was a hit for Wonder — did “I’m Here Because I Love You,” which was really “I Just Called to Say I Love You” with a special lyric for the occasion, which segued into “Vision in My Mind” from his Innervisions album for a montage that showed Bennett’s association with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. Wonder also did his great song “Sir Duke,” a piece I fell in love with even before I realized it was a tribute to jazz greats like Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald “and the king of all, Sir Duke” Ellington. Then Lady Gaga did “La Vie en Rose” and after that the show — mostly held in New York City at Radio City Music Hall — cut to Las Vegas for Elton John singing his Academy Award-winning song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” Its relevance to a Tony Bennett tribute was a bit dubious but it’s still a great song and Elton John, even though his voice is only a wreck of what it was at his peak, sang it with the intense eloquence it needs. Then, after a film clip of Tony Bennett doing “Sing, You Sinners” from an early episode of the Ed Sullivan Show, Leslie Odom, Jr. from the cast of the Broadway musical sensation Hamilton did a quite good version of “Autumn Leaves” (a song Bennett undoubtedly recorded but one whose first English-language recording — it was originally a French piece whose title literally translates as “the leaves of death” — was by Nat “King” Cole as the theme song for the 1956 movie directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson).

Alas, after that came the one instance all night of a singer and a song totally mismatched for each other. They decided to include one of Bennett’s least-known records, “Once Upon a Time” (the original B-side to “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” — though actually “Once Upon a Time” was originally the A-side, but a D.J. somewhere decided to flip the record, his station got calls from listeners asking to hear it again, and it eventually became a huge hit while “Once Upon a Time” got lost in the shuffle), but the person they chose to sing it was … Bob Dylan. If they had to have Dylan on the show I would have assumed they’d have him do Hank Williams, Sr.’s “Cold, Cold Heart,” which Bennett covered in 1952 — the show quoted Williams’ call to Bennett when he heard the record, “What are you doing, ruining my song?” (the narration here treated that as a joke but it really wasn’t — Williams hated Bennett’s version of “Cold, Cold Heart” until he started getting big songwriter-royalty checks from it, whereupon he decided it wasn’t so bad after all) — and which would have been in Dylan’s normal style. Alas, in recent years Dylan has decided that what’s left of his voice is suitable for standards — he’s recorded two albums of them — and so this time around they gave him “Once Upon a Time,” and while Dylan is a conscientious enough musician he tried to phrase it, his refractory non-voice defeated him. (I happen to think Dylan is a great singer — his voice, though not pretty in a conventional sense, is just right to put over his own material — but he’s lost a lot of the sheer power he had in the 1960’s and it’s just not a voice that belongs with this type of repertoire.) Fortunately, Bennett’s own contributions came up next and helped clear the bad taste left behind by Dylan’s; after a singularly unfunny comedy routine with Alec Baldwin (who came made up to look like Tony Bennett but was obviously less inspired than he was playing Donald Trump on the debate parodies on Saturday Night Live) and Bennett himself, he sang “The Best Is Yet to Come,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” (he had to do that one!) and an astonishing version of “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” in which Bennett rose to the occasion at the end and delivered an impassioned coda, nailing the high notes at the end instead of ducking them the way one might expect from a 90-year-old singer and showing that he’s still got a formidable set of vocal chops. Then came a version of the traditional “Happy Birthday” with Stevie Wonder taking over and segueing into the “Happy Birthday” song he wrote in the 1980’s to promote making Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, taking the show out in an unusual and decidedly untraditional direction.

Bennett has had an interesting and unusual career; after scoring early hits on Columbia in the 1950’s with Mitch Miller as producer and arranger, he had the biggest hit of his career in 1962 with “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” but then quickly ran into the rock revolution. Bennett’s career in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s hit a rather odd set of doldrums: he could still pack them in at Las Vegas nightclubs and similar venues elsewhere, but his record sales plunged. He ran afoul of Clive Davis, then president of Columbia Records, who thought that the way to boost Tony Bennett’s record sales was to have him record rock material. Bennett agreed to do one album, Something, of contemporary songs but then retreated to the standards with which he felt more comfortable, and when his record sales continued to plummet he left Columbia and signed with MGM Records (then run by Mike Curb, who was moving the label back to the middle of the road and away from rock acts). Throughout the 1970’s Bennett recorded for MGM, Concord Jazz (where he made a nice series of albums with jazz pianist Bill Evans) and a label of his own called Improv — until in the 1980’s his son Danny Bennett took over the management of his career. Danny got his dad back on Columbia and had him record albums with titles like The Pursuit of Excellence and Astoria: Portrait of the Artist, essentially marketing Tony Bennett as an artist who high-mindedly refused to compromise his art and insisted on recording quality songs of lasting value instead of going for the hit-record market by following current trends. Amazingly, it worked; Bennett got on MTV (and did an Unplugged special during which he joked, “I’m always unplugged!”) and won young audiences not only to himself but to his sort of music.