Tony Bennett stays true to his heart

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously quipped that there are no second acts in American life, but he didn’t count on Tony Bennett. In a twist worthy of one of the Jazz Age writer’s masterly short stories, it’s the music from Fitzgerald’s own era that has sustained and fueled Bennett’s resurgence as a major force in American music. While waves of pop music have washed across the landscape and often disappeared into the sand, Bennett built his career on the bedrock of the American Songbook. Still sounding hale and hearty at 81, he performs in San Francisco tonight at Davies Hall, backed by jazz pianist Bruce Barth’s trio.

Over the years, his voice has taken on a wonderfully husky, burnished quality that adds a tinge of rue to his deep-seated optimism.

But maintaining that optimistic sensibility wasn’t always easy. In the years following the British Invasion, it seemed that he had been remanded by the music industry. Under pressure from producers to record the latest pop tunes, he stuck to his ideals.

Besides the occasional masterpiece, like his 1975 duo session on Fantasy with the legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans, Bennett spent less and less time in the recording studio. But his appearance on MTV’s “Unplugged” series and the resulting 1994 album brought him to the attention of a new generation at the same time he was making some of the best recordings of his career, albums like “Perfectly Frank” “Steppin’ Out” and “Here’s to the Ladies.”

Staying true to his artistic vision hasn’t meant closing himself off from contemporary music. In recent years he’s toured with post-modern chanteuse k.d. lang, and released “Playin’ With My Friends,” a program of blues featuring guests such as Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt. It’s a project reminiscent of Frank Sinatra’s swan song “Duets,” except that Bennett and his collaborators actually recorded together live in the studio.

He attributes his creative longevity to his knack for finding the right mentors. After mustering out of the Army in the mid-1940s, he went to drama school under the GI Bill, studying bel canto, acting and singing with a music coach, Mimi Spear, whose house overlooked New York’s fabled jazz crossroad, on 52nd Street.

“Billie Holiday, Art Tatum, Errol Garner and Stan Getz were right across the street,” Bennett recalled. “Mimi told me if you imitate another singer you’ll always be limited. She said imitate the musicians that you like, study what they’re doing.” It’s an approach that has served him well for more than 50 years.

Tony Bennett

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. today

Tickets: $75 to $125

Contact: (415) 421-8497; www.ticketmaster.com

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