There's little doubt that Tony Bennett is the greatest living pop singer--Frank Sinatra may still be alive, but he's not much of a singer anymore. As a few superb thematic albums have recently demonstrated, Bennett's voice still possesses dazzling flexibility. While it's novel that Bennett has had his very own MTV special, singing duets with Elvis Costello and K.D. Lang--which subsequently bolstered both his record sales and his hipster cachet--the show was ultimately a cutesy stunt that allowed inferior vocalists a chance to bask in the shadow of a master; Bennett's last three albums with the ever-tasteful Ralph Sharon, his long-standing musical director/pianist, have testified to his art with much more clarity and effectiveness. Bennett's recent albums--collections of songs associated with Sinatra and Fred Astaire--and his latest, Here's to the Ladies (Columbia), reaffirm that Bennett's never been the master of phrasing that Sinatra was, but his singing's subtle resonance, sophistication, and jazzy inflections are at a peak even if his range and fluidity have diminished with age. On the new album Bennett interprets 18 tunes once sung by some of his favorite female vocalists. The variety of singers covered asserts how Bennett has carefully blended numerous styles and quirks into a distinctive, original voice. While he admires sweet band yawpers like Margaret Whiting and Helen O'Connell and wholesome crooners like Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney, his appreciation for jazz singers like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington largely separates him from a dying breed of interpreters of popular song. Free of crowd-pleasing histrionics, Bennett truly inhabits the songs he sings; that doesn't mean he gets lost inside them, just that he knows how to get around. Saturday, 9 PM, Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Road, Rosemont; 559-1212 or 847-671-5100. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bobby Talamine.