Because of the very nature of singing, it is sometimes difficult to find words to define the art of the singer. We can talk technically: pitch, tempo, keys and these elements of technique are important to the singer, as they are the tools that the singer uses. But to find words to express the artistry of a song are sometimes hard to find.
Jonathan Schwartz has observed that Tony Bennett started out as short story writer, as a singer whose music was released as singles, and evolved to a novelist, with the release of some of his early concept albums, such as Cloud 7, Beat of My Heart, and Hometown, My Town. And that is certainly true: with those albums, Tony Bennett exhibited a complex and thorough understanding of the arc of an album and these three albums, even fifty years later, stand as exceptionally well-thought out albums.
I’m also reminded of Eileen Stritch’s observation from her one woman show of singing Stephen Sondheim’s three-act play, The Ladies Who Lunch.
This past Sunday morning, as I do almost every Sunday morning, I listened to Weekend Edition Sunday on National Public Radio. One of the guests on the program was the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, author of A Thousand Mornings. Ms. Oliver writes mostly about nature. As the interview progressed, she said several things that I found quite interesting:
I did understand that any artistic venture requires a lot of discipline.
The woods that most recently I walked in, they’re not gone but they’re full of bicycle trails and – I grew up in a town that was 3,500 people in Ohio, very pastoral and there were woods to go to. That town is now over 250,000 people. And this is happening to the world and I think it is very, very dangerous for our future generations, those of us who believe that the world is not only necessary to us in its pristine state but it is in itself an act of some kind of spiritual thing. I said once, and I think this is true, the world did not have to be beautiful to work, but it is.
When questioned by the interviewer on how she finds new words to describe what she sees, after decades of writing poetry:
I suppose by paying very close, close, close attention to things and seeing new details. I love words. I love the mechanics of poetry. I often speak of the choreography of the poem on the page. And to find a new word that is accurate and different, you have to be alert for it. It’s wonderful. It’s fun.
All of this began to remind me of how the singer begins to approach the song, especially a singer who, like Tony Bennett, is a heart a jazz musician. I recently had the good fortune to hear Mr. Bennett perform live three times in three weeks. And even though the set lists for all three performances were essentially the same, the songs varied in ways both subtle and profound over those three concerts. A pause here. A small change in tempo there. Inverting the notes to the top notes of the chord. But these small changes made all the difference in the emotional message of the performance. There may be musical theory explanations of these things, but to this listener, they are a purity of artistic intent that makes Mr. Bennett’s performances very close to perfection on many levels.
But Mary Oliver said one additional thing that I found very important:
One thing I do know is that poetry, to be understood, must be clear. It mustn’t be fancy. I have the feeling that a lot of poets writing now are, they sort of tap dance through it. I always feel that whatever isn’t necessary shouldn’t be in a poem.
This seems to me to be exactly what Tony Bennett does as a singer. Even with the amazingly beautiful sound of his voice (which I love), what really comes through is him communicating the meaning of the lyrics. He has said:
My ambition is to actually sound better as I get older. It’s all about meaning it more, giving it more depth. Being genuine.
We know that Tony Bennett is an artist of the highest order, both as painter and a singer. But I believe that he is also a poet. This quote of his completely mirrors Ms. Oliver’s statement:
The business of knowing what to leave out. That happens with age. Less is more. And it becomes more of a performance. It tugs the listeners’ heart by knowing that it’s just in the right pocket, right in the right groove.
Or, as Bill Evans said to Tony Bennett:
I want to tell you one thing: just think truth and beauty. Forget about everything else. Just concentrate on truth and beauty, that’s all.
And if all that doesn’t mean that Tony Bennett is a poet, I don’t know what does.
The NPR interview with Mary Oliver can be heard here.