Tony Bennett was simply mesmerizing when he appeared at the Detroit Opera House two years ago. Fronting a suave and swinging quartet, he delivered the glories of the great American songbook with an irresistibly relaxed rhythmic gait, a storyteller’s ear for drama and a voice in remarkably solid shape as he entered his ninth decade. The ballads, especially, seemed to stop time dead in its tracks.
Long ago, Frank Sinatra called Bennett, 82, the best in the business, and the assessment still passes muster. Bennett spoke recently from his New York home overlooking Central Park.
Q: When people would ask Duke Ellington late in his career when he was going to retire, his response was always, “Retire to what?!” You feel the same way, don’t you?
A: Exactly. I have a very strong passion to sing and paint. I’m really a student. No matter how much you know, there’s always that much more to learn. Right now, for instance, I’m doing something very difficult, which is studying anatomy, so that my figures, when I paint, don’t look like stick figures. That’s a long study, but it’s worth it.
Q: Are you still learning as a singer?
A: Absolutely. I always feel the audience is my best teacher. There’s always something every night that I learn from reacting to what the audience is reacting to. You learn what to leave out, what to put in, if you need a little more comedy or more drama.
Q: Do you still do the daily vocal exercises that you were taught at the American Theater Wing when you got out of the Army after World War II?
A: Yes, the bel canto warm-ups. I don’t do them like an opera singer, but I just kind of hum through them 10 or 15 minutes and I feel this center in the voice. Once that center is there, you know that you’ll be able to sing without wobbling or doing something nasty.
Q: How do you develop an interpretation of a song?
A: First, I don’t disrespect the audience. I only sing very well-written, intelligent songs. I don’t look down to an audience. I look up to them. They respond to quality.
What I really search for is something that I really love hearing, something that’s my own private game: If I find a song I really like, I try to do a definitive version. Like Sinatra with “One for My Baby” or Nat Cole with “Lush Life.” Billie Holiday had songs like that - songs that were strictly hers just by the way she did them. I like that search.
Q: Are you an actor in a role? Are you playing yourself?
A: I was trained with Stanislavsky’s secretary at the American Theater Wing. I consider myself a method singer, not a method actor. I applied method acting to singing. I try to tell the story about the song with the believability that I’ve lived it myself and I understand what it’s all about.
Sometimes the teacher would tell me that if you’re singing a love song and you just don’t feel it with a person or something you’ve experienced, just think of a dog or cat that you love.
Q: Who are your favorite jazz musicians with whom you performed?
A: I loved Count Basie, but the best I’ve ever performed with was Bill Evans. I never heard anyone who matched him. He was so artistic and creative. What he did as a pianist was just at the highest level of musicianship. It was astounding.
Q: What’s next?
A: I’ve got 179 recordings of songs with all kinds of people, Stan Getz, symphonies, great arrangers. I’m going to leave those for my kids so they can put them out. I still have ambitions to do a piano album with all the best players like Herbie Hancock, Hank Jones and others. I’m going to do an album with K.D. Lang of all Harry Warren songs.
Q: Anybody that you didn’t get a chance to sing or record with that you really regret?
A: (Pianist) Teddy Wilson and Louis Armstrong. And then I have one other real regret.
There was one night in the ‘50s with Billie Holiday at the Basin Street East nightclub. Duke Ellington had the band, and we were listening. Billie came by my table and said, ‘C’mon, let’s go uptown and have a jam session.’ And of all things, I had company that I was sitting with, and she gave me a look like: ‘Don’t go up to Harlem; it’s not safe.’ What a great regret it is to say that we didn’t have a jam session with Billie Holiday.