Nu-progressive types beware! At first blush, Tony Bennett can seem to be a crotchety old traditionalist, harshly critical of any popular music trend that flirts outside the pages of the Great American Songbook. During his appearance on Elvis Costello’s weekly Spectacle show (Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel), Bennett faults contemporary music for its emphasis on banging and clanging (there’s “too many drums…instead of harmony and melody,” he explains, adding, “and they’re all screaming!”), recalls a time when “the audience was so with the music,” and deems Porter, Gershwin, Ellington, Mercer, and Arlen as “America’s greatest ambassadors.” He even performs Kern and Mercer’s “I’m Old Fashioned” to underscore his position, for anyone still unsure on where Bennett stands.
OK, so first of all, dude’s got a point — seriously, who today is writing songs as intellectually and emotionally complex as Cole Porter? Is there a modern-day composer who can challenge Duke Ellington’s prolific and eclectic output? Are songs still capable of transcending music to become cultural clichés in our very lexicon? (And no, I don’t think “Drop it like it’s hot” is a worthy challenger.)
Furthermore, Bennett is more a disciple of good music than he is a harbinger of music’s graduating waywardness. We see it in how he crosses genre lines for a quality tune — take his 1951 interpretation of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart”, for instance. (Costello opens the episode with a cover of the song; accompanied only by Tony Garnier on stand-up bass, his vocal is surprisingly restrained and choked-up, perhaps the most nuanced he’s delivered on the program thus far. In introducing Bennett, Costello opines that the Great American Songbook is big enough for both Hank Williams and Tony Bennett, defeating the idea of old-music elitism — and, perhaps, of Bennett as the crotchety traditionalist.) Bennett recalls receiving a phone call from Williams after his version went to number one: “What’s the idea, ruining my song?” Williams reportedly joked.
Bennett’s got pockets full of great quotes and quips and stories like this, anecdotes involving Hank Williams and Ella Fitzgerald and Martin Luther King, Jr. He’s a quick wit, too, constantly deflating Costello’s “serious” intellectualizing with a funny retort. (When Costello declares, “My father [singer and trumpeter Ross MacManus] is still a better singer than I,” Bennett quickly responds, “I know!”) So it’s fitting when he spontaneously drags Costello’s wife, jazz singer Diana Krall, from the audience to accompany him on Harold Arlen’s “I’ve Got the World on a String”. Krall, who has been shown sitting in the audience on virtually episode of the show, seems genuinely surprised and humbled, which makes the moment all the more enjoyable — two lovers of standards jumping headfirst into it, making something new out of something old.