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Bennett croons with class

Tony Bennett was the picture of elegance at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Monday night.

In a dark suit with light blue tie and red handkerchief in his breast pocket, the agile 73-year-old singer oozed class, delighting the near-capacity crowd of more than 2,000 with his warm stage presence and a voice still raspy and rich.

Bennett, now the premiere singer of the popular songbook since his pal Frank Sinatra's death in 1998, was giving a performance billed as a tribute to Duke Ellington. But the singer broadened that tribute to other composers, including Irving Berlin and the brothers Gershwin. Bennett also did a medley of tunes made popular by "great lady singers of the United States." That included songs by Billie Holiday, Ethel Merman, Judy Garland and the Barbra Streisand hit People _ the schmaltz replaced with sincerity in Bennett's superbly restrained delivery.

Bennett's strength is in his subtlety, his ability to convey a sentiment without bombast or trickery. His singing is wonderfully nuanced _ he says he learned his phrasing by listening to Art Tatum's piano playing. That's why his whispers speak louder than most singers' screams.

Bennett knows the power of the song is in the words. So he chooses wisely, sticking with the greatest of songwriters, such as his good friend, the late Duke Ellington. Bennett's 99th album, Bennett Sings Ellington: Hot & Cool, is a Grammy nominee. Monday night, Bennett gave delightful renditions of Ellington's Caravan, and a very peppy It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing).

"What a lovely man Duke was," Bennett told the crowd. "When he wrote a love song _ fuhgettaboutit." With that, Bennett and the Ralph Sharon Quartet, his dynamite backing band, dived into Mood Indigo.

Bennett treated the crowd to signature hits such as I Left My Heart in San Francisco and Rags to Riches. During the 90-minute performance, he also sang Autumn Leaves, The Best Is Yet to Come and When Joanna Loved Me, which, Bennett said, inspired his daughter's name.

For all Bennett's vocal subtlety, the old pipes really do pack a wallop. Bennett tossed his mike onto Sharon's piano and belted out Fly Me to the Moon (In Other Words), using his own bluster to make himself heard throughout the hall. Later Bennett dazzled the crowd, holding an impossibly long note at the end of Old Devil Moon during a portion of the show dedicated to Fred Astaire. During those songs, Bennett twirled around, shuffling and dancing, boyishly dipping his free hand in his trouser pocket. Bennett dedicated Steppin' Out to "the MTV crowd." (But, take it from me, few of us have Bennett's vigor.)

Ralph Sharon has been playing piano with Bennett since the 1950s. Their mutual fondness is evident. Sharon picks and pokes at his keys, hunched over like the seasoned jazz great he is, all the while Bennett watches, bobbing his head, proudly gesturing with his hand toward his partner.

Drummer Clayton Cameron, many decades younger, made jaws drop with a solo that had him holding two sticks in each hand, bashing at his kit, producing chaotic rhythms that chugged like a train.

That solo prompted one of the evening's many standing ovations. Bennett beamed with pride at Cameron, telling the crowd that baseball great Yogi Berra saw the band on television and gushed to Bennett, "That's the best drummer since Gene Krupa."

It's Bennett's warmth and enthusiasm that make his performances so enjoyable. His stories, the pride in his band, the way he shoves the mike under his arm and applauds the audience as they applaud him, all of it, makes fans feel a connection with this class act who started out long ago, but continues to teach the world about living life with zest.