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Tony Bennett Does It Wrong, but It's Just Right in Amphitheater Date With the Pacific Symphony

August 24, 1987|DON HECKMAN

Tony Bennett does it all wrong. His high notes sometimes have a honk that could mislead a flock of geese, and his low notes can be as fuzzy as a foghorn in (appropriately) San Francisco Bay.

He wears suits that make him look like a refrigerator, and his stage moves are reminiscent of the Sunday-morning blessings in St. Peter's Square.

Like the bumblebee, Bennett has no business trying to fly. But, also like that aerodynamically impossible creature, he simply ignores the rules of logic and goes soaring all over the place.

Bennett's annual summer appearance in the Los Angeles area this year took him to the deepest reaches of Orange County on Saturday night for a program at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre. Accompanied by the full power and glory of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, he sang a virtually nonstop 90-minute program that offered conclusive proof that all the parts don't have to be in all the right places for a performer to become a legend.

Approaching his 40th anniversary in the business, the 60-year-old Bennett has matured with all his skills intact--and then some. Always a consummate mood maker, he spent a good portion of his performance stroking a series of ballads ranging from reworked Gershwin ("The Girl I Love") and Disney (Larry Morey and Frank Churchill's "Someday Her Prince Will Come") to the mega-hit versions of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" and "Who Can I Turn To?"

A Fred Astaire medley was even better. Like the great hoofer, Bennett sings with an easy swing that honors the lyrics at the same time that it liberates them. His solid vocal technique was in full command of the wide intervals of "Easy to Love." "Fascinatin' Rhythm" and "Lady Be Good" received out-and-out jazz readings, and "Foggy Day" and "Dancing in the Dark" moved with a grace and elegance very much like Astaire's own interpretations.

Bennett was at his very best, however, when he sang without the lush but restrictive cushioning of the Pacific Symphony. His versions--with the warmly supportive Ralph Sharon Trio--of "There'll Be Some Changes Made," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and (especially) "Sophisticated Lady" were masterpieces of popular song performance, from the intense but precise rhythmic groove of the first to the soaring lyricism (no honks or fuzz here) of the last.

His final number--a characteristic choice for the low-key, but longtime civil rights activist (he was with Martin Luther King Jr. on his historic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery)--was a brief, telling, deeply felt interpretation of Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars."

The only sour note was a foul-up of the film-clip projections planned as an accompaniment to the Astaire film tribute.

But it was no problem for Bennett. After all, what are a few backstage glitches to a performer who can float like a bumblebee and soar like a bird? Too bad more singers can't do it all as wrongly as Tony Bennett does.

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