[This serves as the inaugural post of Sunday Jazz, a weekly jazz column that will feature reviews of jazz albums from the last two years or so, with the occasional older entry. I picked this the GaGa/Bennett album as I thought it was an effective way to bridge the rest of the popular music world to the jazz world.]
Has Tony Bennett gone gaga? Surely this question must have been on the minds of millions of jazz aficionados after Bennett announced Cheek to Cheek, his collaborative album with pop diva Lady GaGa. Bennett is no stranger to bringing the pop world to jazz—his two duets albums saw him working with voices as tonally diverse as the Dixie Chicks, Bono, and Carrie Underwood—so it is unsurprising that he taps such a central figure in today’s pop landscape as GaGa. What is surprising is how well, at times, GaGa’s voice flows through the songs as if she’s been singing jazz all of her life.
What allows GaGa to step into the role of the jazz singer so smoothly is the huskiness and deep tonality of her voice. Other singers participating in Bennett’s duet projects, such as the aforementioned Ms. Underwood, often fall short due to their higher register voices; there is a distinct lack of warmth and depth that the deeper range provides. While there are truly sublime moments across the LP where GaGa matches the fullness of expression and control of voice that the greatest female jazz singers possess—Billie, Ella, and Ivie, among others—she cannot sustain such prowess for long before sliding into less stable, often shrill, vocal territory.
How long GaGa’s sustains her vocal control correlates to the tempo of a given piece; in her case, the more up-tempo numbers provide the least stability. On the truly swinging numbers like “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” or songs that feature a great shift in tempo and tone like the latter half of the title track, GaGa’s tonal mastery gets swept off by the flood of notes and beats surrounding her. GaGa is not unique in having her vocal performances suffer across the more up-tempo numbers; Bennett also loses a lot of flair on these. At 88, Bennett tends to show his age more often than not on this record. His enunciation at the end of lines tends to waver, as if he is either out of breath or just plain tired, and the strength of his voice is particularly thin when it stands alongside GaGa’s.
Cheek to Cheek’s most disappointing moments, perhaps ironically, occur when Bennett and GaGa have left each other’s cheeks and strike out for solo numbers. Bennett brings the right amount of world-women-and-whiskey weariness to the Duke’s “Sophisticated Lady” but the effects of that weariness linger for too long in his voice. Again, Bennett sounds a little too tired for the full effects of his voice to coalesce fully. In a moment of only the most ironic cosmic alignment, GaGa then tries her hand at the greatest composition of Duke’s alter ego: Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” As pleasing as it is to hear Sweet Pea’s words worm their way once more into the popular soundscape, both GaGa and the arrangement suffer from an extreme case of overstatement. The brilliance of the definitive recording of this sublime testament to the jazz life, recorded by Johnny Hartman and the John Coltrane quartet, is in its understatement and simplicity. Hartman’s warm, lush baritone and masterful phrasing are the ideal vehicles for lines of such depth and meaning, while Coltrane and his quartet place just the right amount of notes for the background texture. “Lush Life” life starts well but then meanders into the familiar, painful territory of being an over-the-top, belting, orchestral sweep of a ballad.
As low a point as these numbers are on the album, GaGa and Bennett do give very well-met performances that serve to both highlight their individual vocal talents, their combined vocals, and the orchestral talents of their backing group. The song that stands out the most for original arrangement is the McHugh and Field’s standard “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” Ushered in by a tiki bar organ—sounding refreshing rather than junky here—GaGa and Bennett turn the ballad into an enchanting, smooth lounge number. GaGa makes the once remorseful love song into a playful, vibrant piece that synchronizes quite well with her vocal style, further complimented by a sharp, punctuating trumpet solo from GaGa collaborator Brian Newman.
As fine a showcase of talent as this song is, it is the preceding track where everything finally, and unfortunately, only, meshes perfectly: eden ahbez and Nat King Cole’s definitive “Nature Boy.” GaGa and Bennett deliver the kind of performances on “Nature Boy” that their solo numbers needed, but at least they demonstrate that delicate and precise touch here. GaGa’s voice captivates within its first four bars and brings out the full spectrum of emotions possible from ahbez’s music and lyrics; if there is ever one verse to prove GaGa’s potential to become a Lady of jazz, it is her first verse of “Nature Boy.” Bennett makes his only return to top form here, showing how he still can plum a song for its emotional depth and how his duets and vocal play can still be true gems.
“Nature Boy” is also where Bennett and GaGa’s orchestrators and arrangers deserve the highest praise possible for the accompaniment, which blends perfectly against the vocal melodies. Pianist Tom Lanier provides sublimely placed chords to punctuate the vocal pauses, the strings are lush and evocative without being overpowering, and flautist Paul Horn delivers not only divine counter melodies throughout, but also one of the most introspective and evocative solos to be delivered by that instrument on record.
Cheek to Cheek may not be the most stellar portrait of both Lady GaGa’s and Tony Bennett’s indisputable artistic abilities, but it is an overall pleasing record nonetheless. Bennett shows that, while it may be fading, his voice still has pockets of his vocal magic left. On the other hand, GaGa demonstrates her continually expanding artistic repertoire and showcases her definite potential as a jazz singer. While unnecessary listening for most serious vocal fans, younger generations will find this an accessible introduction to vocal jazz and the great American songbook.
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