From within a spotlight, floating out into the darkness of the room: “As I approach the prime of my life/I find I have the time of my life/Learning to enjoy at my leisure/All the simple pleasures …"
The lyrics — from Gordon Jenkins’ “This Is All I Ask” — are 60 years old, and the man singing them, standing near the foot of the stage Thursday inside the Winspear Opera House, bears the weight of even more time passed.
Tony Bennett, trim in a dark suit and sporting a dapper mustache, is 91 years old.
He does not often betray his age — a slight tremor here, a tentative step there — and routinely sings with a gusto performers many years his junior never muster. It is remarkable to behold.
His 80-minute performance Thursday, before an attentive, appreciative audience filling most of the Winspear and giving Bennett no fewer than five standing ovations, was a masterful survey of the Great American Songbook.
The legends of songcraft were lined up one after another: George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jimmy Van Heusen, Jerome Kern, Jule Styne. Bennett and his backing quartet of piano, guitar, bass and drums gave each the same reverent treatment. Tasteful instrumental runs abounded, and there was as much power in the hushed, intimate moments as the dramatic flourishes.
Bennett, making his first Dallas appearance since celebrating the reopening of the Statler Hotel, just a few blocks over, in February, breezed through nearly two dozen songs in his time onstage, including a medley incorporating snippets of “Because of You,” “Cold Cold Heart,” “Rags to Riches” and “Who Can I Turn To?”
Toggling between up-tempo jazz and pop balladry, Bennett demonstrated how he has glided through a career that has lasted for a mind-boggling half-century: maintaining an even keel and an effortless cool. While his tenor pipes may not have the singular smoothness displayed during, say, the Eisenhower administration, Bennett is still more than capable of moments that pin you to your seat.
An early highlight was his rendition of the 1958 Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh chestnut “It Amazes Me” — Bennett reared back and hit the climactic note with such force that it seemed to hang in the air like the afterimage of a Fourth of July firework.
His voice, a slight, occasional croak or thinness notwithstanding, is still quite sure-footed, wobbling occasionally upon the high wire but carrying him home more often than not.
That faith in his instrument was beautifully reflected in a gesture Bennett made repeatedly Thursday: hands clasped around the microphone, as if in prayer (or, perhaps, thanksgiving), a succinct visual reminder of his profound gratitude for and the sustainment of his near-supernatural talent. (Bennett was also visibly moved throughout by the audience’s affection. “Thank you for making this a very special night,” he said near the evening’s end.)
Before he took his leave, Bennett brought the show back to a pair of songs he has probably performed more times than he could count: “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” The first, aching with nostalgia as it has since he first crooned it in 1962, will undoubtedly be one of the many timeless works for which Bennett is remembered.
The second, however, has had me breathless every time I’ve been fortunate enough to witness Bennett perform. As he always does, Bennett laid down his microphone upon the gleaming black Steinway piano behind him and stepped forward, guitarist Gray Sargent just over his shoulder, providing the barest hint of the song's melody.
Then he opened his mouth and the sound spilled out into the dark, pin-drop-silent stillness, unamplified but bursting with life.
Perhaps songwriter Gordon Jenkins was onto something all those years ago: To hear Tony Bennett singing is to savor one of life’s simple pleasures, carried with you into the prime of your life and beyond.
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