Tony Bennett was born 73 years ago today. We should all feel as young as he sounds. At Wolf Trap Sunday night, the singer quickly warmed up to a capacity crowd that mingled pop generations. Some folks were old enough to remember Bennett's seminal hits debuting on the radio, while others were young enough to view him as purely an MTV-groomed celebrity.
The singer was careful not to shortchange either constituency, and, after rounding off a few raspy notes on the opening ballad, "Watch What Happens," and getting acclimated to the stifling humidity, he was fully in command of his material, no matter the vintage.
A series of recent Grammy-winning albums provided a template for the concert. With the superb backing of a trio led by his longtime pianist, Ralph Sharon, Bennett paid alternately swinging and subdued tributes to Billie Holiday, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland and other female vocalists. More impressive, though, were his centennial salutes to Fred Astaire (a delightfully nonchalant arrangement of "Steppin' Out With My Baby") and Kurt Weill ( a warm recital of "Speak Low").
Yet nothing quite rivaled Bennett doing Bennett. As inevitable as they were, the reprises of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," "Who Can I Turn To?" "I Wanna Be Around" and other favorites sounded fresh and vibrant--reminders that Bennett is still performing at an artistic height few pop singers have ever attained.
Diana Krall and her new trio--guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist David Gill and drummer Joe Farnsworth--opened with an agreeable collection of pop and jazz tunes, highlighted by Dave Frishberg's "Peel Me a Grape," a song that seemed perfectly suited to the evening's sultry atmosphere.
Because he was working with scaled-down instrumentation, jazz vocalist Jeffery Smith refrained from promoting his latest album, "Down Here Below," a stylistically varied collection of wounded-love songs, when he made his Washington debut Sunday night at Blues Alley. Although he was very talkative with the audience, he didn't even mention the record. Fortunately, Smith's authoritative baritone and supple quartet delighted the sparse crowd with a shimmering set.
A former protege of Shirley Horn, Smith is perhaps better known in Paris than in the United States through his collaborations with pianist and band leader Claude Bolling. With only two solo records, he's yet to attain the fame of such contemporaries as Kevin Mahogany and Andy Bey. But his stirring interpretations of "Lazy Afternoon," "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise" and "Love for Sale" clearly show that he's well on his way.
Smith has a brawny, swaggering tone and impeccable articulation that betrays his many years as a theater singer, which came in handy when he had to grapple with technical problems with the microphone and monitor. Like a true stage performer, Smith overcame the mishaps with flawless poise. He didn't howl the vocalise excess that many stage singers seem helplessly drawn to. But he did exhibit a knack for intriguing experimentation on "Love for Sale," which he and the band enlivened with shifting tempos, and the deep muscle massage on "Lazy Afternoon," where Smith stretched the lyrics over an excruciatingly slow, yet sultry, vamp. Only on the blistering reading of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' " did Smith's vocals approach drama camp. Luckily, his jolly personality, which sparked an instant rapport with the crowd, made it easily forgivable.
Dave Matthews Band
Maybe the heat got to these guys, because the Dave Matthews Band looked awfully relaxed Sunday night at Nissan Pavilion. Many of the band's jam sessions unwound at an uncharacteristically gentle pace, some of the music was quiet enough to be drowned out by the crowd noise, the musicians were downright pokey between songs--it was as if the gang were playing Blues Alley instead of the biggest shed around town.
"The Dreaming Tree" epitomized this low-gear, low-key approach; after meandering through the bulk of the ballad, the band embarked on a long, slow instrumental excursion, led by drummer Carter Beauford's minimalist work. Saxophonist LeRoi Moore chimed in with a winding, unstructured solo, and a good seven minutes of hushed, jazzy tinkering resulted. Unfortunately the crummy, bass-heavy sound mix washed out many of the finer points of this digression (this selective amplification also rendered most of Matthews's between-songs comments into unintelligible mush).
The band brought things to a boil on a few up-tempo items--violinist Boyd Tinsley turned in a typically combustive solo on "Lie in Our Graves." A few songs later, he helped kick off a stupendous version of "Two Step," which burst from its meditative intro into frenzied choruses, then tapered off into a hammering drum solo at the end.
Next to that furious intensity, the quieter, slower stuff sounded a bit off. Considered on its own, though, it made for some interesting explorations, and it was heartening to see this band try different things, even when that meant not giving the fans what they might want--a risk the group seems prepared to run, considering that it left its signature tune, "Ants Marching," off Sunday's set list.