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Tony Bennett inspires the ‘Idol’ finalists

It was easy to see why Tony Bennett is so beloved in the recording industry after seeing him serve as the designated “American Idol” mentor on Tuesday. Not only is he a singing legend, he acted like everyone’s grandfather when he coached the nine remaining finalists. From Melinda to Sanjaya and everyone in between, Bennett had a kind word or a benign compliment for all of them.

Bennett said Jordin Sparks sang “very much in tune, which is rare these days,” sounding like every grandfather despairing of that noise that’s coming out of his grandkid’s car stereo.  

Sanjaya, meanwhile, “Shows up. He comes up with something every week. He’s very interesting. He’s got a sense of humor, and he sings very well.” Uh-huh. The judges can only hope that the “great sense of humor” thing is as much of a kiss of death on “Idol” as it is on blind dates.

“After watching ‘American Idol’ … they’re all very competent,” Bennett said. Though that may seem like damning them with faint praise, he meant the words sincerely. All nine were at least competent this week, with the usual suspects (Melinda Doolittle and Jordin Sparks) once again trending more toward the outstanding end of the spectrum.

Phil Stacey, 29, Jacksonville , Fla.: Tony Bennett, for one, was impressed by the baldest of the male finalists. “He’s one of the better singers I’ve heard, not just today but in a long time. He’s a real good singer,” Bennett said. Maybe he was better in rehearsal. He gave a fine effort on “Night and Day,” and Paula likened it to a young Frank Sinatra, but Randy and Simon said it lacked joyousness. Also, they would like the voters to send Stacey home. But the criticism may have backfired, as Stacey got a round of “Awws” when he said he was trying to focus on his wife.Grade: B-Stay or go? Stacey’s on the bubble.

Chris Richardson, 22, Chesapeake , Va.: Richardson decided not to memorize the lyrics to “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” before meeting with Bennett, so his compliments were slightly less effusive. Nevertheless, he came back and gave a performance that’s become the Chris Richardson special: looking like a pop star, but not really sounding like one. It was a lot better than last week, but didn’t do much to get record producers lining up outside his door. Grade: BStay or go? Richardson was in the bottom two a couple of weeks ago, so nothing is certain, but he should be safe this week.

Jordin Sparks, 17, Glendale , Ariz.: If ever a week was not set up for a teenager to do well, this would be the one. It was tough for Sparks to pull off “On a Clear Day” without looking like she was taking part in the high school musical, but she pulled it off, showing the big voice that makes her a dark horse to make it to the finale. “I’m just so frickin’ proud of you, I don’t even know what to say,” Paula said. Simon liked it less, perhaps feeling the strain of having to be positive for so much of the night. Grade: A-Stay or go? Sparks should be safe.

Gina Glocksen, 22, Naperville , Ill.: Apart from the general shock at seeing and hearing the erstwhile rocker singing an unfamiliar style, Glocksen came off rather well in her performance of “Smile,” showing the confidence to hit the big notes. Paula called it flawless, Simon said the previous two girls (Doolittle and Sparks) outsang her. Both judges were correct. “This song gives you hope in your darkest moment,” Bennett said, adding a prayer that the soldiers in Iraq come home. Grade: BStay or go? Glocksen wasn’t so great that she’s out of danger, but isn’t an obvious candidate for elimination either.

Sanjaya Malakar, 17, Federal Way, Wash.: Malakar is the anti-Doolittle at this point, in the sense that he knows that a lot of people will hate him regardless of what he does. His performance of “Cheek to Cheek” wasn’t anything to write home about, and he’s the worst of the vocalists left in the competition, but that was true last week as well. “Incredible!” Simon said facetiously, hoping that the reverse psychology would send him home. Grade:C-Stay or go? Malakar should go, but undoubtedly won’t.

Haley Scarnato, 24, San Antonio , Texas: Simon said it all with Scarnato: “I think you have great legs.” Scarnato looked the part of pop icon while singing “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” but sounded more like she was fronting a band at the Cowell-Abdul wedding that will likely be the season nine finale in 2010. It wasn’t a bad performance, but like Glocksen’s it suffered in comparison to the rest of the women. Grade: B-Stay or go? Scarnato was fine, but not outstanding. She’s not the most obvious choice to go, but she’s still in trouble.

LaKisha Jones, 27, Fort Meade , Md.: Jones closed the show with a powerful rendition of “Stormy Weather.” Randy called it the bomb, Paula said she looked fabulous, and Simon called it “sassy great.” But while it was good, it also showed what separates her from Doolittle. Jones has enough vocal strength to match anyone on “Idol,” but doesn’t seem to have Doolittle’s ability to truly own the song. Grade: A-Stay or go? Jones should be back next week.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.