First Night: Ageless voice can still hit the heights

Tony Bennett Albert Hall, London

CLASS: YOU can't really get much closer to it than Tony Bennett. He's one of our last links with an era of momentous stardom, yet he remains soft-spoken and unassuming.

Though he knew the Las Vegas Rat Pack of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, he stood apart from it and, almost alone of the high-profile Italians of the Forties and Fifties, reached the top without pulling Mafia strings. Of course, he's not unblemished: a romeo with a bobbysox following in the Fifties, Bennett sank into drug hell in the Seventies, when rock knocked him off his perch. That he has re-emerged in the Nineties is a tribute to a voice even Sinatra envied.

Frankie relied on big bands, while Tony prefers the looser feel of a trio or quartet when he plays live, improvising all around the melody. This means his repertoire, which is classic, can still hold surprises, but this time something didn't gel. Part of Bennett's charisma is that he's in control - at 72, he's been doing this for 50 years, and is nothing if not good at it. He was flanked by the Ralph Sharon quartet - piano, drums, double bass, guitar - and that's all he needed. But a stentorian brass section did him no favours, turning what they touched into vaudeville.

The evening's high point was when he dispensed with his microphone to demonstrate the Albert Hall'sacoustics. Tony is tiny, but when he sang "Fly Me To The Moon" this way, truly unplugged, his voice soaring to the rafters, there was no doubt that here was a master who loves what he does. Perhaps, after all, it's self-effacement - he never acts like anything but one of the band - that means he'll give every member of the audience what they want ... even if that means, sometimes, brassy razzmatazz.

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