Talk about a ring-a-ding-dinging endorsement. Frank Sinatra - his recorded voice, that is - introduced Tony Bennett at the Borgata Event Center in Atlantic City on Friday.
"Tony's going to come out now and he's going to tear the seats out of the place for you," said The Voice from beyond the grave. "He's my man, this cat. . . . He's the greatest singer in the world today, this man, Mr. Tony Bennett!"
Sinatra's admiration stood Bennett in good stead while Ol' Blue Eyes was alive, and since the Chairman's death in 1998, the singer born Anthony Benedetto has had Great American Songbook elder-statesman status to himself.
And, as for maintaining excellence into his silver-haired years, Bennett is a rarity. He cut his first demo in 1950 with "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," which he sang with feeling Friday, and at 88, he's just released a chart-topping album of duets, Cheek to Cheek, with a "wonderful friend" 60 years his junior. "Please buy it," he implored. "Lady Gaga needs the money."
Eighty-eight! With as many years under the belt of his blue suit as there are keys on bandleader Mike Renzi's piano, you might think his vocal power would be significantly diminished or his range seriously compromised. Or that he'd need a bar stool to lean on to get through his 70-minute set or be unable to execute the spin-move dance steps he did while singing "Old Friend" with his daughter Antonia, who opened for him with a competent 20-minute set of standards.
Sure, the voice is a little raspier than in his prime, or even when his now-decades-old canny career revival began positioning him as the embodiment of old-fashioned class to the MTV generation. And he did refrain from going for knockout high notes as songs like "The Way You Look Tonight" built to a crescendo. But playing before a holiday weekend crowd - no signs of a cratering local economy on a busy night at the healthiest of Atlantic City casinos - Bennett appeared ageless when it came to command of his craft.
Backed by a swinging quartet that included Renzi, former Count Basie drummer Harold Jones, bassist Harold Wood, and guitarist Gray Sargent, Bennett took the stage to Michael Legrand and Norman Gimbel's "Watch What Happens," and from the start was upbeat, energetic and conversational.
Introducing George and Ira Gershwin's 1931 "Who Cares?" ("Who cares what banks fail in Yonkers / Long as you've got a kiss that conquers?"), he said his label gives him grief for recording old songs "because I like them!" The multigenerational crowd applauded in agreement.
He paid tribute to Sinatra, whose centennial looms in 2015. In addition to "The Way You Look," he performed three songs closely associated with Sinatra - a characteristically optimistic "The Best is Yet to Come" plus soul-searching saloon songs "In the Wee Small Hours" and "One For My Baby."
Bennett never delivers the depth of despair or cocky swagger that was his paisan's stock in trade. His confident interpretations are all his own, his phrasings always assured and intelligent. At nearly 90, he's a marvel, most notably for his knack of making the art of jazz singing seem so authentically human, and natural.