Think of the happiest day of your life. Think of how you must have looked on that day.
Well, I’m pretty sure you didn’t look any happier than Tony Bennett looked Thursday night at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, at the first of his two shows there this week. (He also performs tonight). More than seven decades into his career — be began working as a singer waiter at 13, and is now 89 — he still radiates pure joy onstage.
Bennett performed with a four-piece backing band as part of the fourth annual TD James Moody Jazz Festival, which continues through Sunday. He’s got a new, well-received album out, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern, and though he did perform some of those songs (“The Way You Look Tonight,” “I’m Old Fashioned”), it was pretty much a business-as-usual (but never stale) show, featuring “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “For Once in My Life,” “Watch What Happens” and many other longtime staples of his setlists.
His daughter Antonia Bennett, who performed a brief opening set, joined him to duet on Stephen Sondheim’s “Old Friends.” His final encore was a mic-less “Fly Me to the Moon.”
Whether crooning or swinging, his phrasing was impeccable and his tone slightly weathered, but full of warmth. He built to big finales on songs such as “I Got Rhythm,” “(In My) Solitude” and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” Occasionally he punctuated a lyric with a quick dance step, or even a spin.
He beamed with pride as he spoke about just being named Male Vocalist of the Year in Downbeat magazine’s annual reader’s poll. He is also receiving Downbeat’s Hall of Fame award this year.
After mentioning the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth (which will take place on Dec. 12), he masterfully stepped into saloon song mode for “One More for My Baby (and One More for the Road).” The show had started, incidentally, with a tape of Sinatra introducing him as “the greatest singer in the world.”
I’m not sure exactly when Sinatra said that, but it was obviously decades ago. The remarkable thing is, that assessment may still be true.
For information on all shows in the TD James Moody Jazz Festival, visit njpac.org.