There is something about singing with Tony Bennett, celebrating his 85th birthday this year, that seems to inspire every performer to bring his or her artistry to its highest, most sincere level.
Bennett, like so many singers of Italian-American descent -- from Russ Columbo to Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Vic Damone and Bobby Darin -- possesses a certain kind of cool, a certain kind of smoothness and ease in his singing. He sings with a passion that nevertheless appears casual and easy.
Bennett's seeming effortlessness reminds me of an old Italian saying -- "never let them see you sweat." He embodies the Italian ideal of "la sprezzatura" -- making hard work appear easy. La sprezzatura was the concept of the 14th-century Italian writer Baldassare Castiglione, who, in his book "Il Cortegiano," or "The Book of the Courtier," explained how courtiers -- those who attend the court or homes of royalty -- should appear to their rulers. (Or, in the case of entertainers, their audience.) Originally meaning to exude nonchalance, the term has come to mean staying cool.
Last week, Bennett released "Duets II," and it immediately soared to the top of the Billboard album charts. It's Bennett's first appearance at No. 1 in 60 years of charting -- and he's also the oldest living artist to hit the top spot. Of course, the young stars who duet with Bennett had something to do with that. But when you watch YouTube clips of Bennett and artists like Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse and John Mayer, what you see is a master teaching the popular kids how to be cool.
John Mayer, who joins Bennett on "One for My Baby," appears in a video wearing a suit and tie. He's slightly awkward at first, almost like a teenage boy hoping to make a good impression on his girlfriend's father -- but with Bennett's encouragement ("loosen that tie, that's OK") he quickly gets down to the business of making performance appear easy.
With Lady Gaga, Bennett sings a jaunty and fun "Lady Is a Tramp"-- they improvise, and Lady Gaga's crispness ("I Love the Yankees") blends magically with Bennett's raspy voice ("Jeter's just fine"), highlighting the beauty of each singer's style. Lady Gaga even lets loose her signature growl as she sings "I hate California -- it's crowded and damp." But in Bennett's presence, the good lady becomes positively regal.
Photos on YouTube show Lady Gaga performing with Bennett in a lacy black dress with light-blue hair. According to Bennett, though, bless his heart, Gaga "is a sweet little Italian-American girl who studied at NYU."
But to me, the biggest revelation is his performance of "Body and Soul" with Amy Winehouse. Bennett shows us a side of her that makes her early death seem that much more tragic. Winehouse's swinging jazz style, timing and confidence are nothing short of revelatory, especially as she sings the line "my life a wreck you're making." At age 27, she more than holds her own next to this veteran artist and entertainer.
Bennett has always pushed his own artistry, whether it was teaming up with Count Basie, Bill Evans or the other greats he has appeared with over the years. He always rises to the challenge with style and with grace. Luckily, for this next generation of singers to appear with him, his sprezzatura is contagious.
Mark Rotella is the author of "Amore: The Story of Italian American Song," now in paperback.