Tony Bennett’s Wonderful World Live in San Francisco

Tony Bennett’s Wonderful World Live in San Francisco

Directed by Lawrence Jordan

Columbia Music Video

Tony Bennett is like a statue to American music.

On Monday, September 16, 2002, Bennett recorded a performance at the fabulous Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. The evening collected Bennett’s best-known songs, including, of course, his signature piece, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

Bennett, 76 at the time of this recording, still sings with stunning verve, more so in this writer’s opinion than Frank Sinatra did at the same age. I’m no expert, but in many ways I prefer the wizened yet undeniably vital instrument Bennett’s voice has become in his 70s to the more “comfortable” vocals of his 30s. In addition, Bennett pulled off the hard-to-believe trick of scoring a hit with “the MTV crowd” a few years ago without compromising his musical principles. This is more than Sinatra did — compare Bennett’s “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” included here, to the unfortunate twosome of Sinatra and Bono croaking “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

The Roman-nosed vocalist gives his leisurely readings from the “Great American Songbook,” and one is hit with the realization that he is the last of his breed. No less an authority than Sinatra himself sung Bennett’s praises, and one likes to think “The Chairman” would be pleased at his friend’s status as the Last Man Standing.

For all this, Bennett’s onstage persona is humble yet exuberant, he accepts the crowd’s applause as though it is for his musicians and his material as much as for himself.

And some of it is. His accompanists, The Sprezzatura Quartet (that word, a note on the DVD jacket informs us, means the Art of Effortless Mastery), rightfully earn their share of the applause. Under the direction of pianist Lee Musiker, who contributes a near-classical solo to “For Once in My Life,” they feature drummer Clayton Cameron, guitarist Gray Sargent, and Paul Langosch on bass. Cameron shines with an amazing solo on “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing.” Sargent’s streamlined playing sets the pace in a beautiful duet with Bennett on “Fly Me to the Moon” and takes flight itself in a solo on “The Good Life.”

Midway through the set k.d. lang, one of the most delightful of the musicians following in Bennett and Sinatra’s footsteps, joins Bennett onstage. The apparent affection between the two and the blending of their voices live makes this an inspired pairing. They duet on three songs from their recently released album, a tribute to Louis Armstrong. Quite aside from the inarguable quality of her voice, lang is adorable here. Kvelling to be singing with Bennett, she treats him with the respect due a beloved father, and in turn, he sings with her like a proud poppa.

At least three-quarters of the songs performed should be familiar to those who are at all knowledgeable about American music, many of them intimately so. But a great thing about such masters as Gershwin, Hammerstein and Coleman, all represented here, is that unless you’ve made a serious, longtime study of their work there are always surprises to be discovered. For me, this set, it was the Gershwin’s “Who Cares,” a song from Of Thee I Sing I had somehow missed.

Tony Bennett has already had one of the most distinct, long-lived and successful careers in music, and this DVD shows him to still be in there pushing. It is eminently worthwhile for anyone interested in the art of singing or American songwriting. Not to end this review on a morbid note, but it is also the kind of thing we will be even gladder to have around when Tony Bennett is not — far may that day be.

PS: Besides the concert, this DVD features a gallery of Bennett’s charming paintings of San Francisco, a brief interview with he and lang, and footage of a recent appearance at Candlestick Park.

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