Over the past few weeks, I've spent quite a bit of time with Cheek to Cheek (Interscope), the much-heralded Songbook album by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga that's out today. For some jazz fans, I suspect it will be difficult for them to go beyond preconceived notions about Lady and even Tony. In recent days, I've fielded emails from a bunch of readers who insist they won't be listening to the recording—accusing Lady of being a fraud and Tony a doddering legend who has been duped by a media-savvy icon playing to his fatherly instincts.
Nothing could be further from the truth, though it's easy to understand the reaction. Up until now, Lady Gaga has made a career out of parlaying superficiality into a fine art—from the pop-art runway outfits and revolving door hairstyles to the self-aggrandizing media swirls and arena concerts. With this as a backdrop, many jazz fans view her as a jazz interloper hoping to gain credibility with an older demograpic by putting on the Ritz.
Jazz does tend to have more partisan fans than any other form of music. As a result, it's not easy for non-jazz artists to slip through the door without being strip-searched for motive, chops and knowledge. Hence, many jazz fans have been left in shock, as if Tony brought home a date from the other side of the tracks.
By contrast, fans of other forms of music don't normally engage in such bilious debates over who is allowed into the fold and who isn't. That's because jazz fans treat the music as a highly personal expression or a private club. To truly understand jazz, you do have to pay your dues, spending time listening to and reading about the music. It's an apprenticeship of sorts. Years are spent with books, articles, blogs and liner notes as well as listening to 10-decades worth of music before you can have anything close to a fine understanding of jazz and its soul. That's why jazz fans are among the hardest to win over. They know the difference between the real deal and a phony.
Which brings us to Cheek to Cheek. After 30 complete listens, I found the album engaging on many levels. First, Lady is far better at navigating Songbook standards than you'd imagine. She clearly understands the idiom and has the vocal technique and sensitivity to deliver convincing versions of favorite songs. Second, she knows how to improvise—you can hear it in virtually all of the album's tracks. And third, it's a fun pairing. Tony and Lady clearly have chemistry and play off each other well. You just have to find a way to listen to the album without coming all undone about why she isn't you favorite singer from the 1950s. My suggestion is to make believe you have no idea who is singing. A jazz fan who can do this will be pleasantly surprised.
You should know that Cheek to Cheek isn't a straight-up duet album. To be sure, there are plenty of duets—11 in all. But there also are solo vocals—two by Tony and two by Lady. In addition, the instrumental backup comes in three flavors—Tony's gorgeous quartet (Mike Renzi on piano, Gary Sargent on guitar, Marshall Wood on bass and Harold Jones on drums), a big band arranged and conducted by Marion Evans and an orchestra arranged and conducted by Jorge Calandrelli. So there are plenty of modes in which to judge Lady and Lady plus Tony. [Photo above of Mike Renzi]
The high point for me are two ballads—the Tony-Lady duet on But Beautiful and Lady's Lush Life. On both tracks, Lady's voice is exposed, and her interpretations are sincere and yearning. As we know, Lush Life is one of the most difficult jazz standards to sing. Frank Sinatra took a shot and passed. Is Lady's version the finest Lush Life ever to hit vinyl? She'd be the first to say that would be an impossibility. But it is credible and heartfelt and splendidly executed, showing that the singer not only knows what the lyrics mean but also has lived the Billy Strayhorn tale about loneliness and boozy grief.
On But Beautiful, Lady phrases lucidly, soaring with the strings in just the right places, swinging into her high register at several points to make a point before sliding effortlessly down into her middle register, which is as warm and soft as a woman's leather glove. Tony is an optimistic force throughout and has never met a vocal risk he didn't love.
There's plenty of mischief here on the upbeat side of the equation—particularly on Firefly, They All Laughed and It Don't Mean a Thing. Lady knows how to dance the lyrics without trying to sound like a vocalist from the past. All along the way, you have to keep reminding yourself that Lady is just 28 years old. What's remarkable to me isn't her youth but that she understands the adult pain or wit that went into crafting these songs. Put differently, she has done her homework. If this is truly just the beginning of a long romance between Lady and the Great American Songbook and jazz in general, it's a superb start and can only help the form make the leap to future genterations.
A few words about Tony, whose first hit—Because of You—soared up the charts in 1951. On Cheek to Cheek, he still sounds like the hippest guy in the room. There's a knowing, sly wisdom about his voice now, an awareness that he no longer has to prove himself with blistering technique but merely has to hit the tastiest notes in the chord with just the right amount of swing, punch and surprise. His Don't Wait Too Long and Sophisticated Lady solo tracks are cozy and autumnal, with all of the golds, oranges and reds. Every time I hear Tony I can't help but think how lucky we are to have him and all of his great recordings, not to mention his generosity and kindness. His music is a life-partner for all moods.
Is Cheek to Cheek perfect? No. I might have dropped Goody Goody, a track on which Tony sings and Lady mutters coy comments along the way, something about being a "bady." It's a novelty number that's below the rest of the material on the album. I would have swapped it for Lady singing The Man That Got Away, which seems perfect for her voice and range, or a duet on a song that was a bit more offbeat that the straight-up Songbook fare here.
But these are nitpicks. If you give the album a serious listen, I think you'll realize that Tony is no sap and Lady is no freeloader. Cheek to Cheek is a happy union of old school and the next big thing. And as you listen, please remember that it's unfair to hold Lady or anyone else today to the singing standards of 50 years ago. I'd wager to say that whatever you do for a living today, one would be hard-pressed to do it effectively if you were back in the 1950s and all you could use were the tools available then. No computer, no spell-check, no smartphone, no printer, no Wiki, no nothing. There was a different level of mastery back then based on the technology available. Today isn't yesterday, and comparing Lady to Ella, Sarah, Peggy, Dinah, Carmen or anyone else from the golden era is folly. Just listen to Cheek to Cheek as if it's the start of a new generation's love affair with the music we enjoy so much. Lady has the humor, sass, control and talent to translate a tradition for a generation tired of arena pop and are searching for music with substance. As for Tony, think of him as a master mentor, a sage guide. To paraphrase the title of his 1967 album, Tony still makes it happen. [Above, Bobby Hackett and Tony Bennett in 1965]