"HANGING OUT with good songs is the secret," Tony Bennett once explained, reviewing the success of his now 35-year-old recording career. Judging by the singer's new album, that still holds true.

"The Art of Excellence" is loaded with good songs -- songs which, like the best of Bennett's recordings, display versatility in a wide variety of contexts.

Several of the romantic ballads, always Bennett's forte, are particularly convincing. They often reach an almost operatic intensity, yet somehow the bravura touches never seem heavy-handed or forced. Even "How Do You Keep the Music Playing," with its melismatic flourishes, and Irving Berlin's "I Got Lost in Her Arms," in which the singer breaks tempo to exclaim "but look what I've found," have a disarmingly honest emotional quality.

Then there are the more subtle pleasures, songs like "City of Angels" and "A Rainy Day," both of which find Bennett's voice gracefully engaging the softest of jazz rhythms. Add to that a number of smartly tailored arrangements, the inspired support of several jazz musicians, and a chummy duet with Ray Charles, and you have an album that more than justifies its lofty title. TONY BENNETT -- "The Art of Excellence" (CBS 40344); appearing Friday and Saturday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.