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COMMENTARY

Jeff Simon: Brand new kind of fandom for singers in 80s and 90s

Jeff Simon

They're mad at Willie.

But then these days everybody's mad at everybody so what else is new? What's riling up the current wavelet of anger at Willie Nelson is that later this month he'll be performing at a rally in Texas for Democratic candidate Beto O'Rourke, who hopes to up the charm quotient of the U.S. Senate by unseating Ted Cruz.

A sizable chunk of Willie's fans are conservatives and they'd rather not signify Willie's way. You wouldn't think the politics of the most ardent and veteran marijuana proponent in America this side of Snoop Dogg would have been hard to read all these years, but his conservative fans want what fans always want -- that their favorite celebrities are as much fans of theirs as they are fans of them.

Says Willie's son Lukas to answer them, "My father has always led with his heart."

Indeed he has. It's how he sings, too. Which is one reason why we are seeing something truly astounding in American music these days never seen before -- great singers whose greatest years now include what they're doing in their 80s and 90s.

Willie is 85. Tony Bennett is 92 for pity's sake. The individual amounts of love each is able to call up at this moment just about exceeds those accorded everyone else.

Until Willie decided to wear his political heart on his scruffy sleeve, it was virtually impossible to hear a discouraging word about him from anyone but the IRS. These are both fellows whom younger musical generations have not only discovered, but have adopted wholeheartedly, adding juicy duets or two or at least publicity selfies to post everywhere.

Both senior singers just came out with new records -- not because they're under the delusion records are the favorite format of music's song-addicted pop generation, but because records are -- yes, still -- the way great American singers put new '"product" out there. You still can't beat 40 to 60 minutes of songs arrayed on an album that shows your fans you still love what you do.

The records are Bennett's especially fine Gershwin tribute duets with Diana Krall on "Our Love Is Here To Stay" and Willie Nelson's Frank Sinatra tribute "My Way." Bennett and Krall took their audience-charming act to Jimmy Fallon's show on Tuesday night:

The idea American singers can still croon and then some two decades after they became AARP eligible is delightful.

Bennett, especially, is a historic triumph of American marketing over premature obsolescence. It was his sons who figured out more than 15 years ago the Great American Songbook was roaring back, so why on earth should one of its greatest apostles be wasting his time at home?

What Linda Ronstadt started in the '80s with her Nelson Riddle collaborations became quickly an act everyone wanted to get into -- even Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Once upon a time, it was a moronic sign of a fan's musical acuity to claim that Frank Sinatra's ring-a-ding "chairman of the bored" image forever disqualified him for anything but embarrassing anachronism.

Except for one small thing: musicians and critics didn't think so. They'd all grown up listening to Sinatra's "It was a Very Good Year," "All the Way," "One More for My Baby," "Young at Heart" and "My Way." More than 50 more years of such stuff remained to be investigated.

When critics call Sinatra the greatest popular singer of the 20th century, they weren't trying to argue. Singers, after all, would rather do duets with him, even if they had to mail their parts in from recording studios on another side of the continent.

I was never lucky enough to review Sinatra in his prime, but I was lucky enough to review him twice in his old age. He couldn't hit every note with vintage purity. There were occasional scrapes and bumps to his sound in concert, but he kept on doing it right up to the end and I always thought I understood why when I wrote about him.

Sinatra was always open about those who influenced his technique -- Billie Holiday and Tommy Dorsey, especially. It was the latter whose trombone playing taught Sinatra how to breathe while singing. That, I began to feel, was the secret. Once you've learned how to do that and carry off some of the most difficult things in the Great American Songbook (listen to "My Boy Bill" from "Carousel"), why would you stop? You'd keep on doing it as long as your lungs and audiences both held out.

Despite all those decades of smoking, Sinatra's lungs held out. His concerts, like Ella Fitzgerald's, became triumphs of art over vocal sheen. The tonal beauty that was missing was made up for with heart and dramatic urgency. He still understood what he was singing and still loved dramatizing it.

Nelson was no Sinatra and never will be. "Heart," not sound, has always been his thing. Anyone looking for songbook classics without some wobbly pitch and errant phrases is not going to find them on Willie's "My Way."

Sinatra's "It Was a Very Good Year" was classic American musical autobiography. Willie's is a heartfelt tribute to another man's autobiography. Same with "My Way" and "One for My Baby." A successful tribute record, but not a great one. Three stars.

Totally different is Bennett and Krall's "Our Love is Here to Stay," a tribute to Gershwin's 120th birthday next Wednesday. (The BPO is playing a birthday tribute this weekend.)

Heart, not vocal sheen, has always been Bennett's stock-in-trade, too, but his sound has its own beauties way beyond Willie's and has proved amazingly impervious to time. His vocal art, at 92, is as advanced and cunning as Sinatra's in old age. When Bennett sings with Krall, another singer who's neither a songbird or a gymnast, he's in the company of a musician, whose piano is sketchy, but smart as can be. She's the center of the album's accompaniment and it's the intimacy of it all that is stunning.

What I especially love about listening to Bennett sing at 92 is his wisdom about knowing how to use the few high notes he's got left, as well as those he doesn't. Sometimes, he'll just speak-sing a note as if he were Rex Harrison in "My Fair Lady." But then sometimes, he'll sail right into stormy melodic waters and come up with a high note way up on the mast with real muscle power.

You're hearing on this album a priceless musical gift -- a performer who knows exactly what still remains to him and how to use every inch of it to the max. We've never had a Tony Bennett before in American music -- a great vocal artist in his 90s. No wonder half the singers alive want to sing duets with him. Three and half stars.

In the world of jazz song, Krall, more than anyone, is the one whose beauty, homey sound and unambitious repertoire brought jazz song into its current primacy over everything else in that venerable music. As good a singer as Krall is, she's never been a match for the truly great jazz vocal artists. She's never needed to be.

Two truly great jazz voices have new records out: Karrin Allyson's terrific "Some of That Sunshine" and Cecile McLorin Salvant's "The Window."

Allyson remains, I think, the greatest vocal artist ever featured in The Buffalo News' Summer Jazz series on the steps of the Albright-Knox Gallery.

On "Some of that Sunshine," she glories in the fact that at this stage of her career, she has absolutely everything a jazz singer could want: vocal beauty, enough rhythmic panache to swing the house down, great wit, and so much verve and musical taste that she can sing all kinds of unfamiliar songs in the confidence we're happy to hear every one of them -- more than once. Allyson, in 2018 is, I think, the representative jazz singer. Three and a half stars.

Cecile McLorin Salvant is the most praised young singer in jazz -- the one whose vocal beauty and virtuosic musicality was accompanied by the kind of prizes that never existed in the early years when Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald depended on the vagaries of commerce (Fitzgerald's whole career, sadly, was predicated on her commercial savvy in writing "A Tisket a Tasket").

I still think for all her musical intelligence, McLorin Salvant's closer to a cabaret singer with all the preciousness at its worst that implies. On the other hand, any young singer who expects to get away with singing Norma Winstone's lyrics to Jimmy Rowles' "The Peacocks" -- one of the most beautiful composition of the past 60 years -- is a singer who'll always deserve her props. Two and a half stars.

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