It seems like Tony Bennett has always been with us. A singing star since the 1950s, he has contributed to the American musical soundtrack for a very long time.

The now 93-year-old performer has been playing Portland every two to three years in recent times. On Thursday night, his I Left My Heart Tour set up at Merrill Auditorium before a large and welcoming crowd.

Though he’s now abandoned the casual dance moves of previous visits and did need to scat-sing over a couple of forgotten lines, the man can still easily produce the unique sound of a great song sung, as if just for you, by Tony Bennett.

From softly delivered refrains to most emphatic shouts, the singer has long known where the dramatic heart and soul of a good song is to be found and, backed by a nimble and supportive jazz quartet, he led a trip through a repertoire of classics that he’s been personalizing for decades.

The performance featured songs by George Gershwin, Jimmy Van Heusen, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Michel Legrand and others. Some were given just a brief run through while others got a fuller treatment. A couple were unexpectedly reprised, leading one to wonder if Bennett may have temporarily lost his place in the setlist. The band handled it all so smoothly, though, that it was hard to be sure that it wasn’t planned. Regardless, it all made for captivating fare.

Songs particularly associated with the singer’s award-winning career – “Rags to Riches,” Steppin’ Out with My Baby,” “Who Can I Turn To,” “The Good Life” and, of course, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” – had many in the crowd swaying in their seats. Toe-tappers like “I Got Rhythm” and “Just in Time” also energized the hall.

His excellent band included longtime members Gray Sargent on guitar, Marshall Wood on bass and Harold Jones on drums, along with relative newcomer Tim Ray on piano. Sargent was featured on an intimate “In My Solitude,” a Duke Ellington favorite, and “The Shadow of Your Smile,” giving the latter a catchy samba snap. Wood led off a darkly melancholy “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” while Ray and Jones added just the right flourishes throughout.

The 90-minute show began with a few songs from Bennett’s daughter Antonia. She worked the middle of her vocal range to good effect on “Someone to Watch Over Me” and brought out the swing, undoubtedly under her father’s influence, in “From This Moment On.”

A prolonged standing ovation had Bennett returning from the wings for final bows after another fine performance. It’s hard not to think that he’ll be back around in a couple of years.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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