Rather than lament the state of the music business, Tony Bennett sang the praises of a new generation of artists after his knock-out live performance as part of a PBS presentation Thursday night in Pasadena. “They were all so prepared and professional – they’d had the right teachers, the kind that eliminate years out of learning how to perform,” said the 85-year-old Bennett, referring to his singing partners on his recent Columbia collection “Duets II.” He was particularly taken with Lady Gaga, who joins him on the disc for “The Lady Is A Tramp.” “She has a touch of genius,” said Bennett. “She’s highly intelligent, highly creative, and knows so much about performing.”
On his own, Bennett wowed journalists assembled for the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour with powerful vocals and some flash dance moves, including finger-snapping and spins, during passionate performances of American songcraft classics like “Maybe This Time” and “Watch What Happens,” on which he was backed by a first-rate jazz ensemble including Lee Musiker on piano and Harold Jones on drums, plus Gray Sargent on guitar and Marshall Wood on stand-up bass.
The disc – the making of which will be showcased in a PBS “Great Performances” special premiering Jan. 27 – includes a duet on “Body and Soul” that he recorded with Amy Winehouse two months before her death. Bennett had presented Winehouse with a 2008 Grammy Award and said the singer later sought him out backstage after his performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall to say that meeting him mattered more to her than the win. “It surprised me because she was so young,” said Bennett. “But she had the gift – she was influenced by singers like Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, and it was her dream to become very famous doing that music.” His “Body and Soul” duet with Winehouse became her final recording and has also been Grammy-nominated for 2012.
From the perspective of six decades in music, Bennett also made pleas for preserving arts education, which he cited as key to the skills of his younger duet partners, and for greater tolerance and inclusion on the national scene. “This is the only country that has every religion and every nationality. Our country is still an experiment, and we could teach the world,” he said.
The singer’s son Danny Bennett – his manager and producer – said future recording projects may include a Latin version of the “Duets” album and a separate collaboration with musician Stevie Wonder.
Thursday events at the PBS portion of the press tour, which continues through Jan. 15, also included a live performance by Anna Deveare Smith of four characters from her theater piece “Let Me Down Easy,” in which real-life interview subjects express life experiences connected to the troubled American health care system. The televised version of the play, taped at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., has been culled to 19 characters – all performed by Smith – from hundreds of interviews originally commissioned by the Yale School of Medicine. Its run so far has included a New York premiere at the Second Stage Theatre and performances last July at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
“What I’m looking for is projects where I only have to ask one question and then people begin to verbally display themselves – I call it singing – in these beautifully true ways,” Smith said at the press tour Thursday. “I’m a student of expression. The people included in this play are extraordinary expressers – what they say, how they say it, how they move. They are saying something that I didn’t understand when I began this process, and that I’m still struggling to understand – some beautiful things, and some hard things.”
Smith, who’s also a performer in movies and television, is currently a regular on Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie.” She cautioned against viewing the medical establishment as an opponent of the people in America’s health care funding crisis. “We’re all in this struggle together,” said Smith. “Because nobody in power has been completely successful in creating a way for people to be taken care of in this country. So here we are in a crisis – that, if it’s not taken care of, affects other parts of the economy.”