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Bennett shows he's best in the biz

These days, when any rock singer with half a voice might decide to cut a "standards" album, it is wonderful to hear a master at work.

Tony Bennett, at 65, has lived and breathed the repertoire of classic American song since the '40s. In fact, he's been responsible for introducing a number of standards into the pop lexicon.

On his exquisite new album, Perfectly Frank, Bennett tackles the "torch and saloon songs of Sinatra." It's a heavenly 74 minutes of romantic music, 24 tunes written by the likes of Gershwin, Porter, Cahn, Van Heusen, Rodgers, Hart, Arlen, Mercer and more. Time After Time, A Foggy Day, I Wanna Be in Love Again, Angel Eyes, Night and Day, Here's That Rainy Day, Day In, Day Out _ nothing but gems.

Perfectly Frank swings, but it swings easy. Bennett is backed by only his regular touring trio, led by pianist Ralph Sharon. While Sinatra recorded this material with abundant orchestration, Bennett's decision to leave the strings at home helps him make these tunes more his own. Yes, this is a tribute to one of his idols, but he's not interested in re-creating the Sinatra feel. He's got his own.

The sparse instrumentation gives Bennett's voice more weight, makes his performances more kinetic, intimate.

Like all the masters, Bennett immerses himself in the lyrics, lifting them above the level of the shopworn or merely quaint. It's not easy to sing, "I wished on the moon, for you," and sound like you really mean it. The key, of course, is that you really have to mean it.

The unabashed romanticism of the songs and Bennett's sincere renditions are a welcome tonic in a cynical age, where irony and angst are pop's main fodder. Some of the songs are sad _ Bennett pines for ones he can't have and laments the ones he lost _ but more often he exults in the sheer joy of love. You Go to My Head, I Thought About You, I'm Glad There is You, Call Me Irresponsible and others are monuments to lovers.

While Bennett's voice has deepened and become subtly grainy over the years, he shows absolutely no evidence of deterioration. His range is impressive. Hear him blast a high note at the end of The Lady is a Tramp. He has total control over his phrasing, wearing the tunes like a favorite flannel shirt, owning them, exacting his will over the words without ever sounding forced.

Bennett doesn't swoop and elongate a line with the swagger of Sinatra. His approach is less adorned, ultimately more direct. Bennett has a keen sense of dynamics, sometimes taking a tune from a whisper to a shout or keeping the feel consistent throughout _ whatever feels right.

More than once Sinatra called Bennett the best in the business. In light of Perfectly Frank, the Chairman is probably even more convinced.

AUDIO REVIEW

Tony Bennett

Perfectly Frank

(Columbia)

++++

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