October 26, 1992 12:00 PM

Tony Bennett

Bennett’s late flowering, which began with his return to recording in 1986 after a 10-year absence, keeps unfolding, inching the creative fulcrum of his career remarkably toward the present. In this golden autumn, Bennett, 66, has paid tribute to the looming and illuminating presence of Sinatra, 10 years his senior, who has often publicly honored Bennett, calling him “the best singer in the business” and his favorite.

With his uncannily relaxed and openhearted singing here, Bennett repays the compliments by proving again that the master’s confidence was not misplaced. Selecting 24 choice tunes from Sinatra’s big-band zenith in the ’50s, Bennett and Ralph Sharon, his consummate accompanist for the last quarter-century, reduce the scale to an intimate conversation: Sharon on piano, Paul Langosch on bass, Joe LaBarbera on drums.

Everything about the album seems inspired. The sequence: a trip from “Time After Time” (“The passing years will show/ You’ve kept my love so young, so new”) to “I’ll Be Seeing You.” The tempos: Bennett slows “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “I Wished on the Moon” (a bouquet to Billie as well as to Frank), “You Go to My Head” and “Call Me Irresponsible,” richly opening them. The phrasing and expression: a shatteringly dramatic “Here’s That Rainy Day,” followed by a delicate, spine-tingling “Last Night When We Were Young.”

Tributes can be competitive, sour with one-upmanship, obscuring the honoree. There’s no envy here. The spirit is gentle, generous, joyous. By being Totally Tony on Perfectly Frank, Bennett has shown how well he understands the lessons of Sinatra’s artistry. (Columbia)

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