It's a trick Tony Bennett has repeated at a handful of venues across the country and around the world, but once you see it, you never forget it.
Near the end of some performances, the now 86-year-old New York City native sets down his microphone, steps to the foot of the stage, and belts Fly Me to the Moon with no amplification beyond the lungs in his chest. (It's been four years since I saw Bennett do this before a rapt Bass Hall audience, and I can still recall the moment vividly.) The show-stopping finale is a testament to not only his peerless skill as a singer, but usually the superb acoustics of the halls he finds himself routinely selling out.
At an age usually reserved for slowing down or retiring, Bennett maintains a brisk pace, recording and touring, often with his daughter Antonia as an opening act (as she'll be Monday at Bass Hall). The crooner (and amateur painter) also finds time to try new things, such as Viva Duets, an unexpected installment in his occasional Duets series, due out Oct. 23, which pairs Bennett with Latin heavyweights like Marc Anthony, Juanes and Gloria Estefan.
I caught up with Bennett recently via e-mail; below is our full exchange.
You have been so active for so long -- how does recording and performing continue to stay fresh for you, year after year?
I have always loved jazz music and from early on, I have surrounded myself with jazz musicians on my recordings and in concert. I have a magnificent jazz quartet who travel with me and when you work with jazz artists you can maintain spontaneity. They never play the same song twice the same way so it keeps things very fluid and in the moment. I love to perform and have been doing it all my life -- I think its a very noble profession to entertain people and for that time that they are in the audience they forget their problems and just enjoy themselves. I take that very seriously and always want to make sure that the audience is entertained.
What inspired you to create Viva Duets?
On my first two Duets CDs, I recorded with Latin artists Juanes and Alejandro Sanz and I have always admired the respect for melody and lyric in Latin music. My son and manager, Danny, has suggested we consider doing an entire CD of duets and we reached out to some Latin artists and got such an enthusiastic reaction that we decided to move forward with it. It was good to have a chance to reconnect with Marc Anthony and Gloria Estefan who I have known for years but I met some incredible artists who I have never worked with before: Juan Luis Guerra, Maria Gadu, Romeo Santos. We had a good time making the record and we even flew to Guadalajara to record with Vicente Fernandez on his 400-acre ranch [and] who is one of the giants of Latin music.
What do you get out of painting that you don't from singing?
I have always viewed my music and painting as a yin-yang relationship. When I sing, its very gregarious and I am in front of thousands of people on stage. When I paint, I am all by myself -- just me and a blank canvas -- and it is very introspective. Four hours of painting can seem like four minutes. I love the fact that if I get burned out a bit from music, I can turn to painting and stay in the creative zone all the time.
Who are some modern singers you admire and why do you admire them?
Well, I think Louis Armstrong remains one of the most "modern" singers around -- he taught us all how to sing. I love Stevie Wonder and we keep talking about doing an album together -- he is pure genius and he has a real instinct for jazz.
Do you think you'd be able to begin and sustain a career in today's fast-paced music industry?
It's funny, when my Duets II CD went to number one on the Billboard charts, making me the oldest artist at the age of 85 to achieve this, one of my friends quipped, "That will probably never happen again." I feel very fortunate that I have had this kind of success at this point in my career as I can put it in perspective. I think it is very hard on young artists today as when they get their first success they are exposed internationally and instantaneously on the Internet and they are immediately expected to fill up stadiums when they perform. It puts a lot of pressure on an artist just starting out. There was a time when you were able to tour and have time to "be bad, before you got good."
How do you approach singing a song, such as I Got Rhythm or The Best is Yet to Come, that you've performed so many times? Do you feel the need to rearrange the song beforehand, or is it something more instinctual that you do in the moment, on stage?
From time to time, I will work with my quartet and will will change an arrangement -- take an up-tempo [song] and turn it into a ballad or add some swing to a tune. That's the beauty of working with jazz musicians as you can walk it at sound-check and say, "Let's change this around a bit," and they are ready to go.
Can you expand upon the art of intimate singing -- what that means and why it's important to you?
Once the microphone was invented, the art of intimate singing was born -- you didn't have to hit the back of the house and were able to create nuance to presenting a song. Bing Crosby kicked this kind of singing off but Frank Sinatra was the master -- when he sang you knew you were getting a glimpse of what was going on in his mind as he was performing. For me, I try to communicate as closely as possible what the composer had in mind when I perform a song and convey to the audience the meaning of a song both lyrically and melodically. I love Bass Hall and that's why I turn off the microphone when I am there to show off the wonderful acoustics -- it's a beautiful venue.
What do you hope your legacy will be as a performer? Do you feel you'll know when it's time to step away from the stage for good?
Even when I was starting out my premise has always been to have a "hit catalog" and not just have hit songs -- I battled through the years to make sure that the songs I recorded were the best possible compositions as I wanted to avoid singing novelty songs that would hit it big at first and then be forgotten in two weeks. I remember meeting with Sinatra once as I was very nervous when I had gotten my first TV series and I was worried about how it was going to go. He told me that it was good that I was nervous as it showed I cared, and that the audience would recognize that and appreciate that I cared about the performance. So even now, I always get "butterflies" when I am about to go on stage so I think if I ever lose the "butterflies" that would be the time to stop -- but I feel great and love what I do, so I hope I can keep going on for as long as possible.