There are some articles of clothing -- wool jackets, blue jeans, certain types of shirts made from heavy cotton -- that actually begin to look better as they age and the frays start to show. They never have the crispness that turned your head when you saw them on the rack. But aging gives them an easy familiarity, an inviting warmth. The frays are starting to show in Tony Bennett's voice, and the wear is very becoming on him.
Listening to "On Holiday," Bennett's tribute to Billie Holiday and the latest of the theme albums he's recorded in the past few years, you're aware that there are notes he can no longer hit. There's a roughness -- at times, almost a hoarseness -- that wasn't present in his voice even five years ago. On Duke Ellington's "Solitude," he can't quite reach the note he's going for at the end, and parts of "If I Could Be With You" approach talk-singing.
But throughout "On Holiday," Bennett does things I've never before heard him try (and one thing I wish I'd never heard him do: a "duet" with Holiday on "God Bless the Child," a creepy, necrophilous effect). In "Solitude," he draws out the notes in a gorgeous hush; it sweeps over you with the richness of velvet smoke. He lets the notes die away in a vibrato in his version of "Laughing at Life." Bennett must be aware of the new limitations of his voice. He rarely goes for the big flourish that has always been his trademark at the end of songs, and that's a good thing. He had a tendency to over-rely on that, even when it was inappropriate to the song. (He gives just a taste of that grand flourish in the way he punches the word "love" on the line "But I love him so" in "When a Woman Loves a Man.")
There's a charming casualness to these interpretations, which are always aided by the delicate restraint of Ralph Sharon's piano, and the way the occasional string arrangements by Jorge Calandrelli are held beautifully in check. And there are wonderful touches, like the tossed-off laugh on the line "I'm a coward at best" on "She's Funny That Way."
That laugh is the key to Tony Bennett. It's self-deprecating, and there isn't a trace of bitterness or reproach in it. Bennett is an odd choice to cover Billie Holiday, because his is essentially a sunny disposition. The feeling he gives off in live performance, that of a man doing exactly what he wants to do and radiating the pleasure he takes in it, carries over to his interpretations. There's a rich, wounded longing in his classic "When Joanna Loved Me," and in his version (perhaps the best of any version) of Hoagy Carmichael's and Johnny Mercer's "Skylark."
But it's nearly impossible to imagine him doing something as dark and devastating as the haunted quality Frank Sinatra brings to "Cottage for Sale," let alone the masochistic groove that Billie Holiday specialized in. Even though Bennett has stuck to more upbeat Holiday numbers (mostly from her `30s work), you can hear the difference by playing her "Me, Myself, and I" back-to-back with Bennett's. Billie's is upbeat, but that slugged quality that overtook her is already lurking in her voice. Bennett isn't trying to "do" Holiday (the way Diana Ross did in "Lady Sings the Blues"). He knows his sensibility. The deep and relaxed delight he takes in these interpretations could only come from a man who's lived with the music he's covering for many years. If you had to explain to someone who'd never heard of Billie Holiday why people found such joy in the voice of a woman who treasured and milked every bit of heartache she had in her, the pleasure in Bennett's voice wouldn't be a bad place to start.