Talking Jazz

Even before he reached retirement age, Frank Sinatra was joking that there were no more "saloon" singers, his term for someone who could shrink an auditorium down to the size of a bar to tell a story to an audience as though it were 2am, and the only comfort left was to be found in a bottle of bourbon. "Apart from drunky Dean and Tony Bennett, there's just me," he would say. Now, there's just Tony.

At 78, Bennett's still sure to pack out the Royal Festival Hall, where he's performing on Monday. Backed by a rhythm section, and sometimes an orchestra, Bennett can bring an intimacy to any of the many songs he's made his own - "Rags to Riches", "The Shadow of Your Smile", "I Left My Heart in San Francisco".

He's not a jazz singer, but he's always had an even greater affinity with jazz musicians than Sinatra did. Both modelled their phrasing on instrumentalists - Sinatra on Tommy Dorsey, in whose band he sang, Bennett on the great pianist Art Tatum - and both recorded with the big bands of Basie, Herman and Ellington.

One can't imagine, though, Sinatra making a recording like The Beat of My Heart, the 1957 album that paired Bennett with a host of drummers, including Jo Jones, Art Blakey, Candido and Sabu. The horn players took third place to what was essentially a duet between the singer and a percussion section. Ralph Sharon, Bennett's longtime pianist and musical director, thought it risky, and potentially suicidal in commercial terms, but it marked Bennett down as someone who wasn't just interested in the hits.

Likewise, it takes someone with great vocal control and sensitivity to make the two albums that Bennett did in 1975 and 1976 with Bill Evans. Just piano and voice, the pair take their time, opening the first record with one of the slowest and most perfectly elegiac versions of "Young and Foolish" ever to be heard. It's Bennett at his most glorious, that rich sound hinting at the operatic style the young Anthony Benedetto employed when he started off as a singing waiter in New York.

The early Eighties were a dry spell for Bennett, and he didn't record for seven years. It took the new MTV generation to bring him back again, duetting with kd lang and Elvis Costello.

Perhaps, in the popular imagination, he may seem a little cheesy. He's had his moments. One live recording, on which he shouts "music" in "My Favourite Things" just before an instrumental break, slightly implying that what went before was not covered by the term, comes to mind. But I defy anyone of that view not to be moved on Monday when Bennett points to the audience, as he surely will, and declares: "You are beaud-iful!" Bennett's never cared whether anyone thought he was hip or not - which is precisely why he is.

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