At the Santa Barbara Bowl, Sunday, September 30.
As the Bowl season stretches deep into fall this year, and the concert-going experience becomes familiar through repetition, it’s a rare artist who can draw in even the most jaded Bowl regulars and win them over completely. On Sunday, Tony Bennett made it look easy. Dressed in a traditional white dinner jacket and sounding absolutely glorious at 81, Bennett appeared with a four-piece jazz combo. Many of the songs he sang were relatively brief-just a few verses, a chorus, and out-but the sparseness of the arrangements worked wonderfully with his voice and technique, which are both nearly perfect.
The singer had fun onstage with the idea of his longevity, at one point expressing a desire to “come back sometime soon with all new songs.” Fortunately, for this show Bennett stuck to standards, offering sublime readings of “Shadow of Your Smile,” “The Best Is Yet to Come,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and the classic “For Once in My Life.” The band was terrific, and Bennett shared the spotlight with them on a medley of Duke Ellington numbers. Throughout the evening, Bennett made humorous asides, but none got a bigger laugh than his dedication of “The Good Life” to Paris Hilton.
So many things go into the magic of being a great singer; it can be hard to pick them apart and label them all. There’s tone-Bennett’s is soft, warm, and a little grainy. And there’s phrasing; that instinctive combination of timing and emphasis that brings out the sense of a song’s lyrics. Whether he’s easing into a lyric anecdotally, or taking the dynamics up or down a notch, Bennett’s phrasing is always in the service of fundamental communication. Finally, there is the ineffable quality that makes a singer truly great; that special something that awakens us to the idiosyncrasy at the core of genius. With Bennett, the idiosyncratic has been so thoroughly sublimated throughout the decades that it comes across as simple honesty: the direct expression of a unique and instantly recognizable sensibility.