It seems safe to say that there aren't a lot of 88-year-olds who listen to Lady Gaga. And only one who records with her.
That would be Tony Bennett, who celebrated his most recent birthday on Sunday, brings his apparently inextinguishable art to the Ravinia Festival on Aug. 16 and releases his duet album with Lady Gaga on Sept. 23.
I can't vouch for how Bennett sounds as an 88-year-old, but last summer, when he was only 87, he was in remarkable condition for a vocalist of any age. Performing an ambitious program at Ravinia without intermission, without cue cards and without a hitch, Bennett simply did what he has been doing since I first heard him live in 1975 in Orchestra Hall (and decades before then, as well): He delivered singular interpretations of the greatest songs ever written.
Some might find his voice raspier than they prefer — definitely rougher than it once was. But Bennett never was a dulcet-voiced performer along the lines of early Frank Sinatra or Nat "King" Cole or Johnny Hartman or any of his other long-gone colleagues. More important, the grain and texture of Bennett's instrument only makes him more interesting as a vocalist, not less. Just like Billie Holiday's craggy, late-in-life recordings and Sinatra's autumnal releases, Bennett's recent work shows that much more character, maturity and grit — the results of a life fully lived.
Even so, Bennett's decision to partner with Lady Gaga seems bound to raise eyebrows. Is this a real artistic collaboration or an attempt to extend Bennett's brand to Lady Gaga's millions of followers around the world?
"I'll tell you my little secret about it," says Bennett, who first met the pop diva backstage at a Robin Hood Foundation gala in New York in 2011 and invited her to sing "The Lady Is a Tramp" with him on his "Duets II" album that year.
"I knew that Lady Gaga and I hit it off real good. She's really a great jazz singer. And the reason that we put this album together, called 'Cheek to Cheek,' the reason we did it (was) to get the very young people that adore Lady Gaga and show them those songs," adds Bennett, referring to standards such as the Irving Berlin title cut, Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life."
"The album will be exploited all over the world, and the young people for the first time will hear (George) Gershwin and Cole Porter and all the great ones. Irving Berlin. And they'll fall in love with those great songs, because those songs are never going to die.
"When you hear a real great Louis Armstrong (recording) or Nat 'King' Cole or Ella Fitzgerald and Sinatra and, hopefully, myself, you realize that the record was made maybe 40 or 50 years ago, and it doesn't sound dated. It sounds like I'm recording right now. They never really get old-fashioned because they're well-written songs."
Certainly the durability of tunes by Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, Ellington and others is beyond dispute, and it's true that many of Lady Gaga's younger followers may not know them. Or at least they may not fully realize that this music has been in the backdrop of their lives all along, the classic recordings playing on the soundtracks of movies by Martin Scorsese and others and on sound systems in restaurants and bars everywhere.
But can Lady Gaga really handle this material?
"She is one great singer," avows Bennett. "She is a true jazz artist. She plays piano. She's very well schooled musically. She's very intelligent and intuitively knows how to treat the audience. She's a lot of fun."
A promotional YouTube clip of Bennett and Lady Gaga singing Porter's "Anything Goes" shows the pop diva in good voice and Bennett in classic form. But in our era of electronic wizardry, when pitch and other matters can be perfected with the turn of a dial, only a concert reveals the truth (or something close to it). Along these lines, Bennett says that the duo will be touring jazz festivals next year, which clearly would be the biggest attraction on the jazz circuit by far.
What's in it for Lady Gaga?
"'Cheek to Cheek' came out of a very organic friendship and relationship that Tony and I have built over the years, and it truly was a collaborative effort," says Lady Gaga in a statement. "It was important to Tony that this was a jazz record. I've been singing jazz since I was a child and really wanted to show the authentic side of the genre. We made an album of jazz classics, but it has a modern twist."
Though Bennett might be regarded by many as a crooner of standards rather than as a bona fide jazz singer, his jazz credentials are not easily matched. "The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album" and "Together Again" illuminated Bennett's superior vocal phrasing alongside Evans' ultra-sophisticated jazz pianism; and Bennett's collaborations with Duke Ellington, Count Basie and other giants say a great deal about what those jazz masters thought about him.
Does Bennett consider himself a jazz singer?
"Well, yeah," he says, as if to say: you need to ask?
"What I love about jazz is it's spontaneous. You're being honest. You could sing the same songs every night, but as a jazz artist, like Lady Gaga is, we sing different every night. It may be the same repertoire, but each night because of the atmosphere that we're in and the moment — each moment is different, and each night it feels like it's a brand new song."
Jazz, adds Bennett, "is really America's greatest music."
Considering Bennett's stature and the sweep of his career, one has to wonder if some kind of grand, global 90th birthday celebration is in the works.
"I can't plan the future — I can only hope for the best. I hope I could keep my health," says Bennett.
But when I press him on the subject, toward the end of the conversation, he concedes he has a dream for what he'd like to do.
"For the 90th, I'd like — I did it once, and I didn't know what to expect," he says, winding up to discuss a performance he gave three years ago at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, home to legends such as Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo.
"And my being a jazz singer, I just said, 'What am I doing here?"
In other words, there was anxiety.
"The manager of the theater, I'll never forget it — you know, I always feel apprehensive just before (I) hit the stage," says Bennett. "You hope that everything works and all. And the manager came back and he said, 'You know, you're in Pavarotti's dressing room,'" which did not do much to calm Bennett's nerves.
"I said: 'Are you a wise guy or something?'"
But "President Clinton came out and announced me … and I came out and sang, and the reaction was so fantastic that I've never gotten over it — to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. I could not believe the reaction of the audience. I would like to do something like that for my 90th."
If Bennett gets his wish, maybe next time someone will tell Placido Domingo he's sitting in Tony Bennett's dressing room.
Tony Bennett plays at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 16at the Ravinia Festival, near Green Bay and Lake-Cook Roads, Highland Park; $91-$101 pavilion, $34-$39 lawn at 847-266-5100 and ravinia.org.
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