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Tony Bennett celebrates 85th birthday with album, Ravinia show

Life couldn’t get much better for Tony Bennett who is celebrating his seventh decade making music with release new album

Life couldn’t get much better for Tony Bennett who is celebrating his seventh decade of making music with the release of a new album and a series of high-profile concerts. | AP

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 8:30 p.m. Aug. 26

Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook roads, Highland Park

 Tickets, $34-$91

 (847) 266-5100;

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:33AM

Ask Tony Bennett what it’s like to be 85 and you can almost hear the smile in his voice.

“I just love it,” he says beaming. “I have very good health and everybody keeps saying I’m in top shape and that they’ve never heard me singing better. I’ll take that.”

At an age when most octogenarians would be taking life just a wee bit easier, Bennett, who celebrated the milestone birthday on Aug. 3, is moving forward at breakneck speed. In addition to his regular tour schedule — including a “birthday celebration concert” at Ravinia on Aug. 26 — he’ll be feted at the opening ceremonies of the U.S. Open on Aug. 29 (Bennett’s an avid tennis fan), making his concert debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House on Sept. 18, and headlining a benefit concert to end hunger on Sept. 24 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Along with Carrie Underwood, Bennett guest stars on the second-season premiere of the CBS television series “Blue Bloods,” where the pair will perform “It Had to Be You.” And then there’s the Sept. 20 release of “Duets II” (Columbia Records), his second collaborative album effort in five years, with a who’s-who of singers. A behind-the-scenes “making of” documentary for the new album, filmed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe, is due out this fall.

None of it is work to Bennett, who looks at his career as a singer and museum-caliber painter as a labor of love.

“My whole life is a study of painting and singing,” says the Grammy-winning singer, “about finding truth and beauty in both, and learning, always learning.”

What’s the greatest thing he’s learned about making music after all these years?

“Less is more,” Bennett says without hesitation. “I’ve had such great collaborations with great musicians. They’re all there on my records. The greatest was probably my album with Bill Evans [1975] because it was just piano and voice. It was the most amazing experience of my life on an album, I think. He was just a genius on piano. Just the two of us. Less is more.”

But sometimes, more can be just as satisfying.

Bennett’s “Duets: An American Classic” with collaborators that included Paul McCartney, Celine Dion, John Legend and Elvis Costello, among others, hit the No. 3 spot on the Billboard charts in 2008, and wound up selling more than 3 million copies. “Duets II” boasts, among others, Mariah Carey (on “When Do the Bells Ring for Me”), John Mayer (on “One for My Baby, and One More for the Road”), Queen Latifah (on “Who Can I Turn To, When Nobody Needs Me”) Lady Gaga (on “The Lady is a Tramp”), and in what would be her final recording session, Amy Winehouse (on “Body and Soul”).

There is definite emotion in Bennett’s voice when he talks of Winehouse, who was found dead four months after their collaboration at London’s Abbey Road studios. (Proceeds from the release of that single will go to the newly established Amy Winehouse Foundation.)

“It was just tragic what happened,” Bennett says. “You can’t believe how wonderful she was during the recording. We have it all on film so it will be part of the documentary. I think it will surprise a lot of people. She started singing and I remember I said to her, ‘You must be influenced by Dinah Washington.’ And she said how do you know that? She’s my idol.’ It just changed everything between us when she knew that I knew where she was coming from musically.”

Bennett will lead a special tribute to Winehouse at the MTV Video Music Awards on Aug. 28, which will feature video of their studio session.

Bennett’s mood is again sunny when asked about working with Gaga, whom he says showed up for the recording session with her parents and boyfriend in tow.

“Lady Gaga is the best performer I’ve ever run into,” Bennett says. “She’s completely creative and a bright, bright girl. She plays piano beautifully. The most professional, intuitive and spontaneous performer I’ve ever met. [Laughs] When she takes all her makeup off and wigs she’s just this sweet little Italian-American girl. But I think she’s going to become bigger than Elvis Presley.”

Bennett doled out praises for other collaborators calling Queen Latifah “a young Ella Fitzgerald”; Faith Hill “the female Frank Sinatra”; Willie Nelson “the master of simplicity who sings a song the way the composer had it in mind”; and Natalie Cole “a great jazz singer and a class act like her dad.”

“What I’ve learned from this second group of artists is that they’re coming out of schools like Berkeley and NYU and Juilliard as extremely competent musicians and singers,” Bennett said.

“What took Rosemary Clooney and I nine or 10 years to develop and become consummate performers, these singers and musicians are learning what it takes while they’re in school. That is such a wonderful thing.”

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