"Teach me tonight," Antonia Bennett sings in her opening number at the Café Carlyle. We get the sense that it's a tune she knows well. Bennett has been learning the art of cabaret her whole life, having been raised around such greats as Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, and, of course, her father, Tony Bennett (who was present on opening night). She shares the results of a lifetime of study in this respectable debut, a throwback to the kind of music one expects to hear at the Carlyle.
Bennett's program is heavy on Gershwin: Her second number is a mellow and dynamically refined rendition of "Fascinating Rhythm," followed by a flirtatious take on Johnston and Burke's "Pennies From Heaven." Her "Embraceable You" (Gershwin) is slow and heartfelt, chased by a delightfully syncopated and latinized version of "Nice Work If You Can Get It" (also Gershwin). These are stylish arrangements from a group of musicians who really know their way around the Great American Songbook.
The night's sophisticated jazz sound is courtesy of an A-plus band led by pianist Spike Wilner, whose ivory-tickling is simultaneously gentle and deliberate. Bennett gives him a solo in the middle of the show, a riff on "Tea for Two" that explores the complex possibilities in that seemingly simple song. Bassist Paul Newinsky has the fastest pizzicato in the west, but his pitch-perfect bowing on the upper strata of his instrument is where he really dazzles us. Drummer Anthony Pinciotti gives his brushes a workout in this consistently classy set-list, but he also offers little percussive surprises along the way. These seasoned pros bring the fireworks, so much so that the vocalist occasionally fades into the murals surrounding the dining room.
It's not that Bennett is a mediocre singer: Her style is unfailingly proficient and consistently demure. There is a timidity in her audience banter (an anecdote about Rosemary Clooney turns into an observation about how good Rosemary Clooney was at selling witty anecdotes) that carries over to her singing. Her clipped phrasing and restrained dynamics make it seems as though she is sharing a musical secret with us. When she occasionally does go for that glory note in her upper register, it comes off as harsh — on pitch, but rusty just the same.
Bennett is best on songs that suit her bashfulness, like the Rodgers and Hart number, "It Never Entered My Mind." With lyrics like, " Once I laughed when I heard you saying/ That I'd be playing solitaire/ Uneasy in my easy chair/ It never entered my mind," the song could easily be interpreted with operatic self-pity. Refreshingly, Bennett delivers these lines with genuine coyness, the kind one might have when making a very painful confession.
That's not the only number Bennett takes from the Ella Fitzgerald catalogue. She delivers an upbeat medley of Fitzgerald numbers including "Hooray for Love" and, in a quick turnaround, "I'm Thru With Love." This leads into a mischievous rendition of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," which feels like a nice resolution to this bipolar love story.
She closes out with a Gershwin ("Our Love Is Here to Stay") sandwiched by two Cole Porters ("Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" and "From This Moment On"). Bennett's interpretations are smart, simple, and unpretentious, which is a great way to enjoy these songs. While we wish Bennett were less guarded in her stage presence, we cannot fault her for making the night all about the music.
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