Some more comfortable than others on stage

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

Judging by his appearance on the Jazz Aspen June Festival stage Friday night, Tony Bennett might be the happiest guy in the world. And why not?Beaming throughout his set, fit and tan, and with a voice that has given up virtually nothing to his 76 years, Bennett was the picture of vibrancy and showmanship. The crowd was adoring, eating up every theatrical gesture and story from his past. Bennett had the pleasure of sharing the spotlight with his daughter, Antonia, who sang a duet with her father and did several tunes on her own.Bennett’s set was heavy on upbeat songs deep from his past; he didn’t perform a single tune from his recent album “A Wonderful World,” a collaboration with k.d. lang. But Bennett did show that his repertoire wasn’t limited to the Great American Songbook, singing Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” in tribute to “the greatest city in the world.”While he didn’t miss an opportunity to raise his arms or point his fingers in celebration, Bennett didn’t get flashy with his voice, preferring a direct delivery. But if there was any question whether his lungs were capable of a “wow” moment, even at 8,000 feet, Bennett put it to rest by nailing and holding the final phrase of “How Do You Keep the Music Playing,” delivered in tribute to Frank Sinatra. “With any luck I suppose/The music never ends,” sang Bennett to a delighted crowd. The way Bennett is going, the music may be playing a long, long time.As a singer of standards, Boz Scaggs has just a few months under his belt, compared to Bennett’s 60 years. Making one of his first concert appearances since the release of “But Beautiful,” his first album of standards, the 59-year-old Scaggs looked slightly uncomfortable at first. A singer and guitarist whose past was spent playing blues, r&b and pop, Scaggs didn’t quite know what to do with his hands, how to stand without an instrument.So he wisely let his voice take over. After starting the Saturday night show with a pair of jazz standards – “It Could Happen to You” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” Scaggs dipped into his own songbook, a jazzy, r&b-touched version of “Lowdown,” with himself on guitar.That seemed to kick things into gear; from there, Scaggs connected better and the audience accepted him in his new guise. Scaggs’ set was well thought out, as he mixed blues tunes and another of his own songs, the lovely “Sierra,” with the standards. Having a second singer, Monet, was also a plus. It certainly didn’t seem to be in the plans, but when the crowd refused to leave, the appreciative Scaggs came back to play a pair of encores.India.Arie, opening for Scaggs, didn’t connect quite so well. After starting off well, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing folky soul music, the Denver-born singer lost her momentum. She repeatedly asked the audience to sing along, but the crowd seemed unfamiliar with her songs, and the gimmick backfired. Her frequent talks to the audience occasionally worked: especially good was when she told about her mother painting her guitar and making her outfit, and two of her bandmates chimed in that their clothes, too, had been made by Arie’s mom. Less effective was prompting the audience to focus on her lyrics by reciting her artistic mission statement.Arie showed a fine voice, singing her own material and covers like “Summertime” and “A Change is Gonna Come,” but she didn’t do much with her seven-piece band.Jazz Aspen’s first venture into downtown Aspen seemed to work fine. An unexpected benefit was moving two quasi-headliners into the Hotel Jerome ballroom for late-night sets, instead of opening slots on the main stage. (This was a response to concerns by the Aspen Music Festival about overlapping concerts.)Thus, acoustic jazz players Patricia Barber and Brad Mehldau were heard by enthusiastic jazz fans in a small room, rather than in the huge tent to mostly empty seats. Both gave memorable performances. With her quartet, Barber sang and played eccentric music that was nonetheless roundly applauded.Mehldau, appearing as a solo pianist, showed remarkable imagination, turning tunes like the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” and Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” into lengthy explorations of melody and harmony.With the sun shining on Saturday, the free stage near Wagner Park showed promise for future concerts. As Kermit Ruffins & the BBQ Swingers played New Orleans brass band sounds, a good-sized crowd gathered on the Cooper Avenue mall. With reports – from police, Jazz Aspen producers and fans – of a successful downtown debut, there stands a good chance of more such gatherings in the future.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is