Tony Bennett: The Great Life

Tony Bennett PR shot 1The last time Tony Bennett performed in Glasgow, two years ago, he was already well into his eighties but, over the course of a non-stop 75 minute performance, he positively romped through a programme of no fewer than 26 songs, without pausing for anything more than the briefest chat and acknowledgement of the massive outpouring of affection for him from the packed Concert Hall. The longer he was onstage, and the more he sang, the more animated he became – and it seemed that the enthusiastic response from the audience was fuelling his staggeringly lively performance.

But it seems that there is more to it than that. Bennett, who is now 88 and set to return to the Concert Hall next week, is not so much driven by the need for applause as he is by the desire to entertain, and by his own enormous pleasure in singing. He explains: “I love doing it, and I like to try to make people feel good. It’s always very enjoyable to me leaving the theatre knowing that I made people feel good.”

And it’s not just to his audience that Bennett feels a sense of responsibility; as the oldest popular singer on the block – and the one whose career stretches back over an incredible six decades – he regards himself as a custodian of the Great American Songbook. After all, there can only be a handful of singers still around who have direct links with the original contributors to that body of work, and such original exponents of it as Bennett’s hero, Fred Astaire. Does Bennett feel a sense of responsibility to these songs?

“Yes, I do because the United States in the 1930s had a renaissance period very similar to what happened in France with Impressionism, with Monet, and musically with Ravel and Debussy. It was the beginning of talkies in films so they grabbed Fred Astaire off the stage and put him in films and they hired George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and Cole Porter to write the songs. These songs are gorgeous, they never become dated because they’re so well-written. I travel the world and wherever I go, people start to sing them back at me – they’re known internationally.”

Bennett first heard many of them – including the one he cites as his personal favourite, Jerome Kern’s All The Things You Are (“I just adore that song”) – as a youngster growing up in the Queens borough of New York. Before he discovered this homegrown American music, however, it was his father’s Caruso records which introduced him to the art of singing, and in particular to the “bel canto” style, which explains his graceful way with a song and his elegant phrasing.

“My father adored opera and had a reputation himself as a singer. I was told that he would sing on the top of a mountain in Calabria and the whole valley would hear him. This inspired my older brother and myself – and we both became singers. My brother was very successful – at age 14 he was hired by the Metropolitan Opera House. So he was called Little Caruso. Of course I became a bit envious so I just became interested in jazz and started improvising.”

Asked who his first inspiration as a singer was, Bennett instantly names Louis Armstrong who, like him, enjoyed success as both a jazz and a popular artist and who effectively invented jazz singing. That the pair became great friends is perhaps no surprise given that they seem to share the same outlook about entertaining an audience and living life to the full. Bennett says: “His whole life he just wanted to make people feel good and have fun. He loved what he was doing so much that it never became old-fashioned. Just listen to him playing on a Hot 5 record. If you listen to the musicians playing behind him, it does sound a little dated but when Louis comes in on trumpet or singing it sounds like right now.”

Speaking to Tony Bennett, it’s impossible not to be struck by his delight in discussing jazz – his first musical love – and its characters. On Duke Ellington: “He was a complete genius, unbelievable. He just performed every night. I knew him at least the last 30 years of his life and there wasn’t a day that he didn’t compose some music – even when they were on tour doing one-nighters and he was travelling 150 miles a day, he would have the orchestra try something that he might want to put into his composition.”

On John Bunch, the much-loved pianist, and former music director to Bennett, who was a regular visitor to Scotland’s jazz festivals until his death in 2010 : “Gentleman John Bunch. I loved him so much. He was the most wonderful person. In fact, I’ll tell you a cute story .. He asked me one time when we were in London: ‘Did you ever play tennis?’ I said ‘no.’ He said: ‘Would you like me to give you a lesson?’ I said ‘okay.’ So he took me out to a stadium to play at the net and he showed me how to hit the ball over the net and all that sort of thing. Later on I found out that we had been playing at Wimbledon! I’ve been working down ever since then…”

Billie Holiday (“a sweet, beautiful, sophisticated lady”) was a particular favourite – and Bennett, who first topped the charts in 1950, was lucky enough to meet her. “Duke Ellington had a show at a nightclub in New York and I went to see it. Billie Holiday was there too. It was the days when there was an awful lot of prejudice. She said: ‘C’mon Tony, let’s go uptown and have a jam session.’ The people I was with kind of indicated to me ‘don’t go up there – it’s dangerous,’ you know? I regret it to this day.”

Bennett may be embarrassed about that episode but it was exceptional, since he was an active supporter of and participant in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, responding to the call to arms from his friends Martin Luther King and Harry Belafonte. His own life hadn’t been without struggle, and the other overwhelmingly striking thing about a conversation with him is how lucky he feels to have had the life he’s had, making a living doing something he loves, and how – even now, nearly 60 years after his initial success – he still counts his blessings.

“After my father died [when he was ten years old], my Italian family would come over every Sunday and my brother, sister and I would entertain them. They told me that I sang very well and that they liked my paintings of flowers. They created a passion in my life to just sing and paint, and I’ve gotten away with it – I’ve never really worked a day in my life. I just enjoy what I do.”

Asked if he escaped into his music when times were tough, Bennett explains that it wasn’t merely a form of distraction; it was a practical escape route out of poverty. “I went into showbusiness to stop my mother from working – she was making a penny a dress sewing in a sweat shop to put food on the table for her children. I was able to accomplish that with my first couple of hit records – I was able to send my mom out into the suburbs into beautiful nature.”

Tony Bennett - Concert Hall steps

Tony Bennett on the steps of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 1995 (c) Herald & Times Group

The adult Bennett has had his fair share of professional frustrations and personal problems – and for a while he was, to paraphrase one of his early signature songs, “lost, his losing dice was tossed, his bridges all were crossed, nowhere to go.” A period out of the pop limelight in the 1970s produced some jazz albums – notably of duets with pianist Bill Evans and, most sublimely, his two volumes of the
Rodgers & Hart Songbook with the Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet; intimate, cult recordings which are among the very best vocal works in all jazz and which highlight Bennett’s admiration and respect for the some of the most eloquent lyrics in the Great American Songbook..

Relaunching his career in the late 1980s, performing on MTV, and duetting with young pop stars – most recently Lady Gaga – has brought him to new audiences. But best of all, his later success has allowed him to be exactly the kind of singer he wants to be – singing jazz with his quartet and creating an intimate atmosphere even in the largest venue. “I like working that way,” he says. “To clarify my whole premise: I don’t want to be the biggest. I’d rather be one of the best.” Mission accomplished, I reckon.

* Tony Bennett performs at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Tuesday, September 9th.

* First published in The Herald, Saturday August 30th

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Edinburgh Fringe 2014: Joe Stilgoe – Songs on Film

Joe Stilgoe: Songs on Film, Assembly Checkpoint, until August 22nd *****

Singer-pianist Joe Stilgoe’s Songs on Film show can be summed up in a two-word review: “sheer joy”. Why? Because it lifts the spirits, puts a smile on the face and sends you out with one of your favourite film melodies ringing in your ears. I’d say it would make you forget the frightful weather outside if you should see it during an Edinburgh monsoon, but the opposite is actually true since the first section of the hour-long show celebrates rain on film – whether in one of Stilgoe’s entertaining monologues or musically, with his trio’s lovely, gently swinging take on Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.

When Stilgoe came to Edinburgh for the first time with his own show, three years ago, it was a solo performance – but even then he had props. Back then, those amounted to a white board with a series of diagrams and pie charts clipped to them. Now, for his Fringe version of the Songs on Film concert which he brought to the Fife Jazz Festival earlier this year, he has all manner of props, from the black umbrellas which are lowered to just above the heads of the (hopefully not superstitious) trio to the Pixar-inspired lamp which appears on the piano for Stilgoe’s touching homage to that studio’s musical output later in the show.

And this is indeed a show rather than a concert. Stilgoe is more than a singer-pianist with a witty repartee; he is a showman and one with terrific, natural, rapport with all age groups in the audience. The stylish props and lighting enhance what would otherwise still be a hugely enjoyable class act. Among the musical highlights are the seldom performed Arthur’s Theme, an exuberant Almost Like Being in Love, a spontaneously composed (if not combusted) medley of themes suggested by the audience, the bittersweet waltz from Up and an unforgettable It Had To Be You, performed sans piano, with harmonies sung by bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Ben Reynolds as the latter plays his brushes on the side of the double bass.

First published in The Scotsman on Friday August 15th

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Edinburgh Fringe 2014: Little Jazz Bird

Little Jazz Bird, The Jazz Bar (until August 24th) **

Nerves and whisky may have got the better of Victoria Bennett at her opening performance on this year’s Fringe, but luckily, the local singer has an endearing personality, a swinging band and a voice which is often quite lovely. The problem is that in most songs, it sounds as if there is more than one voice in there trying to get out: one with a transatlantic accent, one with a thick Scottish one (especially on the last word in many of the lines of songs), one whose deep, throaty sound evokes Marlene Dietrich and another which is more girlish. Confused? You will be.

* First published in The Scotsman, Monday August 11th

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Jazz @ the Edinburgh Fringe 2014

Here’s my pick of five jazz gigs to catch during this year’s Fringe…

* Colin Steele & Brian Kellock: My Fair Lady, The Jazz Bar, August 9th & 23rd. My Fair LadyThe wonderful songs written by Lerner & Loewe for the 1956 Broadway musical version of Pygmalion have long been favourites of discriminating jazz musicians – especially trumpeters, from Chet Baker to Ruby Braff. Now, for the first time, it’s the turn of the lyrical Colin Steele and his dynamic pianistic partner in crime, Brian Kellock, to serve up their take on such loverly melodies as The Street Where You Live, Show Me and I Could Have Danced All Night. With a little bit of luck, they’ll invite the audience to shout out the key line on The Ascot Gavotte. ..

Remembering Chet, The Jazz Bar, August 16th & 18th. Scottish vocalist Iain Ewing’s must-see homage to the great Chet Baker was a winner at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival and last year’s Fringe … Accompanied by the Baker-inspired trumpet of Colin Steele and  Euan Stevenson’s classy piano, he sings and swings with a Chet-like simplicity and elegance, while putting his own stamp on a string of classic Baker songs. No need to bring the hankies in readiness for Baker’s tragic life story; Ewing’s patter is witty as well as informative. A funny – and stylish – valentine.

* Joe Stilgoe – Songs on Film, Assembly Checkpoint, August 4th-22nd. Songs on FilmMr Stilgoe’s love of film shone through on his fab solo show a couple of years ago, when he seduced the Fringe audience with a bittersweet ballad inspired by the masterful, bittersweet Billy Wilder movie The Apartment – (That’s The Way It Crumbles) Cookie-Wise. Now he’s back with a trio gig entirely themed around songs from the movies, including (if the CD of his London Jazz Festival Songs on Film concert is anything to go by) a mixture of more of his original tunes as well as favourites from his formative years in film buffery.

* The Cabinet of Caligari, The Jazz Bar,  August 13th-15th; 18th & 19th. And speaking of film, if you like your silent movies to be screened with atmospheric original music, check out the screenings of the Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) which will be accompanied by a performance by guitarist Graeme Stephen of his new, specially written score.

* Jazz Rite of Spring, The Jazz Bar, August 20th-24th. Pianist David Patrick’s reimagining of Stravinsky’s groundbreaking and riot-inducing masterpiece has been critically acclaimed; my Herald colleague Rob Adams describing it as “highly credible and genuinely exciting”. I haven’t heard it yet but am intrigued by the “12” certificate. Maybe they’re expecting Paris-style trouble; let’s hope The Jazz Bar has the riot police on speed dial..

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2014: Niki King – The Songs of Duke Ellington

Niki King – The Songs of Duke Ellington, 3 Bristo Place, Friday July 25th ***

Singer Niki King brought her stylish Ellington show back to Edinburgh (it was part of the British Vocal Jazz Festival during last year’s Fringe) on Friday night. The local singer can clearly do no wrong as far as her many loyal followers are concerned but this concert was very much a game of two halves – and for the first half (and on the iconic Mood Indigo later on), it looked as if Ellington, and devotees of the Duke, were the losers. Why? Because she avoided singing – even just once in each song – the melody that the legendary composer wrote. And not only that, but she killed the mood of such ballads as I Got It Bad and I Didn’t Know About You with shouty climaxes; a total contrast to the sensitive accompaniment from her band, notably the elegant Euan Stevenson on piano.

The Duke was accorded more respect by King on a couple of second half ballads which compensated significantly for the earlier trauma: Something to Live For and, especially, Sophisticated Lady – a powerful, simply sung, duet with Stevenson – were stand-outs, as was a thrilling Caravan, introduced by a dynamic drum solo by Alyn Cosker.

* First published in The Scotsman, Monday July 28th

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2014: Conal Fowkes – Woody Allen & Jazz

Conal Fowkes – Woody Allen & Jazz, Tron Kirk, Thursday July 24th ****

It was a sign of how elegantly thought-through his main solo jazz festival concert was that Conal Fowkes kicked off proceedings in his Woody Allen-themed evening with the tune I’ve Heard That Song Before, one of the numbers that open Allen’s 1986 masterpiece Hannah and Her Sisters – and a title that summed up the fact that we were going to hear a programme of music familiar from its association with the great New York filmmaker.

So, over the course of Thursday’s concert, Fowkes  – who has a lovely, easygoing, swinging piano style with a clear Fats Waller influence (along with some dashes of Teddy Wilson) – dished up tunes that many of us first heard in such iconic films as Annie Hall. Particularly delightful was a medley from Manhattan, which had an all Gershwin soundtrack; Fowkes’s tender and dreamy Someone To Watch Over Me was a knockout, as was his interpretation of Si tu vois ma mere, the opening theme of Midnight in Paris.

For that film, Fowkes had sung and played piano, but he is – by his own admission – not as accomplished a singer as he is a pianist, and certainly his instrumental numbers were far superior to the ones he also sang. Including numbers which Allen plays on clarinet with his band – of which Fowkes is a member – meant that the already varied programme could also feature such rarely played jazz gems as Jelly Roll Morton’s Good Old New York, with which Allen apparently likes to end his gigs when he’s on tour.

First published in The Scotsman, Saturday July 26th

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2014: Zara McFarlane

Zara McFarlane, Palazzo Speigeltent, Monday July 21st *****

Not since American sensation Cecile McLorin Salvant took to the same stage three years ago has such a formidable new singing talent been launched on the Edinburgh Jazz Festival. Hearing Zara McFarlane on Monday night at the Speigeltent, it was impossible not to feel that you were in the presence of a future great; the next big thing.

McFarlane has a commanding, stately stage presence. At the Speiegeltent, the young British singer gently swivelled on the spot to draw in the attention of – and effortlessly seduce – an audience that very quickly fell under her spell thank to her beautiful, clear and soulful voice, wide vocal range, and unfussy, unshowy style.

She may only be 30 years of age, but McFarlane exuded the air of an older spirit, someone who has lived, loved and lost – and her songwriting skills (most of the songs were her own compositions) made the most of that. Simple, catchy melodies combined with extraordinarily eloquent lyrics are her signature, and she has a beguiling way of painting a portrait, and evoking a situation or feelings – notably on the sultry Woman in the Olive Groves, You’ll Get Me In Trouble and the gorgeous ballad, Love.

Her very personable patter between numbers further endeared her to the enthusiastic crowd, and provided the background to her songs. More Than Mine, which was by turns funny, nightmarish and bitchy, was inspired by bumping into her ex with his new flame, and drawing comparisons. Safe to say McFarlane would have been the winner in the singing stakes …

First published in The Scotsman, Saturday July 26th

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