Friday, January 16, 2009

Tony Winner

On Wednesday night, we made the trek to the Upper East Side to feast on overcooked filet mignon and the chance to see the last of the Hollywood crooners, Tony Martin, performing at Feinstein's at the Regency.

Tony Martin, in case you don't know, is 96 years old. That in and of itself deserves respect; the fact that he still performs, and impressively so, deserves some kind of medal. It was remarkable to watch his physical transformation before he took the spotlight, and after he left the stage. Both times, Mr. Martin's physical frailty required both an assistant and a nurse to aid his walking. He looked, to be blunt, exactly like a 96year old man would look -- albeit a very snazzily-dressed, healthily trim and fit 96 year old. In the spotlight, however, an almost eerie change occured: he lost 20 years, grew several inches, eased into the familiar Tony Martin pose (arms outstretched in song, fingers snapping to the beat), and gave a poignant, praise-worthy performance.

Lest you think that we are merely showering praise upon someone in deference to their age and past laurels, let us assure you that Mr. Martin's voice is still wonderfully rich and warm; and, delightfully, what he's lost in range and power, he compensates with clever phrasing. Ironically, early in the show, Mr. Martin made an off-hand remark about how he likes jazz, but never could sing jazz. Indeed, Martin's trademark, glossy style in the 1940's and 1950's was the studied antithesis of the improvisatory nature of jazz. But in the autumn of his years, Mr. Martin, if he hasn't exactly become Mel Torme, has grasped the jazz concept of the bending, twisting, shortening, and breathing of certain phrases to fit his narrowed range. Dare we say, in some ways, we prefer this economical, utterly musicianly Tony Martin to his sometimes hammy, overripe heyday?

But when Tony Martin still wants to belt, he can, and he did; at the climax of his closing number, "Moon River" (dedicated to Henry Mancini's widow, in the audience), Mr. Martin let loose with a robust, sustained finish which belied his years. More indicative of his age was Martin's between-song patter, which was fairly brief, unrevealing, and betrayed some memory lapses; his conductor often had to prompt Mr. Martin with names, dates, and trivia. His recall of his songs' lyrics, however, was total. And one exchange with the audience needed no prompting; a brief, yet heartfelt tribute to his late wife, Cyd Charisse, who passed away earlier in 2008, and who had been sitting ringside when Mr. Martin opened at Feinstein's this time last year.

"I miss her," Mr. Martin concluded simply, and without a trace of self-pity.

And then he went into the next number, and sang his heart out.

Read a marvelous interview with Mr. Martin
here, and view the latest New York Times review of his Feinstein's appearance here.


  1. Thanks for the review TJB! As always I am living vicariously though you!

  2. WOW! I'm so glad you went - and that he's still performing.

  3. Dammit, why do I live one the other side of the earth in the middle of nowhere?

    I've seen the kind of transformation you describe twice before: in very late period Ella Fitzgerald, during her last stint at Radio City, and with Peggy Lee, at the Ballroom. Both seemed very, very frail - until the moment the music started.