Even at age 60, Tony Bennett is a pop singer with such marvelous tone and phrasing that he can hold his own with top jazz musicians. Wednesday night at Wolf Trap, he sang with both the Ralph Sharon Trio and the Count Basie horn section, two bands that Bennett made his best records with in the '50s and early '60s. With the trio, Bennett sang several medleys of movie songs while clips from the films showed on a backdrop screen; the best was a crisply swinging medley of mostly Gershwin songs sung to a montage of Fred Astaire spins. With the 13 horns, Bennett resurrected his pop hits and belted out several Ellington standards.
Bennett not only showed a sure sense of rhythm and dynamics, but every note he sang also had an obvious purposefulness. Every word was carefully shaped to fit a larger picture. Unfortunately, his taste in post-Beatles songwriters was as awful as his taste in pre-Beatles songwriters was impeccable. Moreover, he never seemed to dig under his sunny persona to touch the irony and darkness of a Frank Sinatra or Ray Charles.
The Count Basie Orchestra, which played the opening set by itself, was in remarkably good shape three years after its namesake's death. Twelve of the 19 musicians actually played with Basie, and Basie vet Frank Foster exerted the same high standards as the new director. Washington's Tee Carson, who had often substituted when Basie was ill, was the perfect replacement on piano; his playing was spare but effective and his stage presence was spontaneously funny. The best solos were Foster's bluesy tenor intro to "Centerpiece" and Sonny Cohn's muted trumpet reverie on "Little Darling."