CLEARWATER — Just in the nick of time, in the nerve-fraying thicket of political disdain and baseball battles and economic kersplats, there he was, Tony Bennett, the ambassador of cool, calm, class. Just when we needed him most.
On Thursday, the 82-year-old Bennett kicked off the '08 edition of the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, the free, four-day fest at Coachman Park. The capacity crowd of 15,000-plus lifted to its collective feet as soon as the legend sauntered onto the stage, the first of umpteen standing ovations (two in the first song!) the throngs would bestow.
They were up for But Beautiful, for Fly Me to the Moon, for The Best Is Yet to Come, Bennett working his way through the Great American Songbook like Moses giving a tour of the Bible. They welled up during For Once in My Life, which Bennett prefaced by saying he'd be making an album next year with Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones. Huzzah to that, too.
They responded with praise, relief, reverent bows. It felt good to be in Bennett's presence, as he stood there, in his butter-cream jacket, one hand casually in his pants pocket, the coolest move around.
Backed by a crack quartet — including dazzling pianist Lee Musiker and guitarist Gray Sargent — Bennett's voice was appropriately weathered, cracked, weary at the end of words, which is not to besmirch the transcendent power of those peerless pipes, once dubbed "the very best" by Frank Sinatra.
Bennett's raspy, hepcat readings are still smart, still smooth, still exactly what you want to hear in a dimly lit Italian joint as you slowly reach across the table for [insert dream date here]. During the 90-minute set, he hit and held the big notes when he had to — when he "had" to — like on Maybe This Time from Cabaret, during which he unloaded a full-throated plaintive wail that would have been a spectacular achievement for a singer 30 years younger.
The key to Bennett's voice is that he is an interpreter of songs, not just a blower of notes, like the octave-spanning pop wannabes today. The lyrics mean something. For George and Ira Gershwin's I Got Rhythm, he paced the song at a rapid clip, the randy protagonist ecstatic at his good, but certainly fleeting, fortune. For The Way You Look Tonight, by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, he was wistful, careful, desperately, hopelessly romantic.
It's safe to say that hearing Bennett sing his signature I Left My Heart in San Francisco should be on everyone's list of 100 Things to Do Before You Croak. At this point, he'd be forgiven for phoning in the zillionth rendition of that classic. But again, that would be a disservice to songwriters George Cory and Douglass Cross. So Tony gave that love letter all the swingin' gravitas he could muster. How about that for a life lesson?
Toward the end of the set, Bennett dusted off the Gershwins' 1929 song Who Cares? with its lyrics about economic devastation and tough times. "Love's the only thing that matters," Bennett said, throwing his fist into the air for defiant punctuation. The crowd stood for that, too, willing to believe, wanting to believe anything the man told them. And on this night, why not?
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.