I had heard of the September release of the “Cheek to Cheek” album Tony Bennett had recorded with Lady Gaga, but hadn’t paid further attention to it, thinking it was just a publicity stunt by a has-been and a would-be.
But the album started off a flurry of interviews, press conferences, and TV shows in Belgium. There even was a concert on the Brussels Grand Place.
So it came about that of an evening, I watched “The Zen of Tony Bennett on TV”. It’s a nice documentary, centered around the recording sessions for a previous album —Duets II—in which Mr. Bennett sings jazz standards with a variety of top notch artists, such as Amy Winehouse, Aretha Franklin, Michael Bublé, John Mayer, etc., to celebrate his eighty-fifth birthday. I liked the movie, mainly for the music, but I didn’t think it was all that interesting, overall. Frankly, Mr. Bennett doesn’t have very much to say, it seems to me.
The recording of “Body and Soul” with Amy Winehouse is fascinating. On one side of the studio you have a young, immensely talented artist, clearly in awe with her very senior partner and his reputation, having real trouble getting into the song, and even threatening to walk out of the session at one time. Facing her, there’s Mr. Bennett, who gently, slowly, but very surely coaxes and coaches Miss Winehouse into staying and finally delivering a stunning version of the old standard.
What really stuck out for me, though, was the recording of “The Lady is a Tramp” with Lady Gaga. For me, Lady Gaga was essentially a pop megastar, an excellent singer, showing off outrageous sartorial arrangements and behavior, making interesting music at times, with some pretty good major hits. Not my cup of tea, but professional stuff, well put together, one hundred percent deserving of the success and the brouhaha it generated, and that’s that.
So here’s Mr. Bennett in the recording studio, his usual dapper self, and in sweeps a tall, elegant, funny and witty woman in a beautiful black lace dress. Her hair is dyed a light green, but you don’t really notice, because the hairdo is fabulous, and well, somehow, the woman makes it work.
And then she starts singing. I still don’t know what hit me.
Stunned. I was stunned. I remember I was sitting there in front of the TV set, and guffawed when Lady Gaga started on the opening bars of the song. Was this a pop star? No, this was a top notch jazz singer. The way she played with the pitch, the tempo, the beat, the lyrics, it was all so natural, so right. You could see Mr. Bennett looking at her, slightly bemused maybe, but mainly amused and thrilled, and really engaging Lady Gaga after a few bars. I had recorded the broadcast, so I watched again. And decided I’d check out the album they recorded together, “Cheek to Cheek”.
You don’t buy a Tony Bennett record these days because of his wonderful singing and beautiful voice. Those have gone a while ago. You buy a Tony Bennett record because of his status as one the great jazz singers and crooners of his age, and because of all these great records he made in the past, so actually, you buy that record almost as a sort of homage to all that, to his work, and to the great artist he is. The French have this wonderful expression to say how they admire someone: “Un sacré grand Monsieur”, or “Une sacrée grande Dame”, as the case may be. It’s hard to translate, but it would come close to “One heck of a gentleman/lady”. Well, Mr. Bennett certainly qualifies for the title of “Sacré grand Monsieur”.
Coming back to “Cheek to Cheek”. It’s very simple: fabulous. Of course, Mr. Bennett is eighty-eight years old, and it shows. His voice doesn’t have the volume it once had and his pitch tends to waver a bit around the center. But you forget all that when you listen to the duets with Lady Gaga. Somehow, these two seem to bring out the best in each other. This record you buy because it’s good, so-incredibly-amazingly-stunningly-good.
But that’s not just thanks to Mr. Bennett and Lady Gaga.
It’s the songs. They picked some of the most wonderful and timeless works of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and the likes. In fact, it seems Mr. Bennett and Lady gaga wanted to draw a younger generation back to this music. Whether that will work, I don’t know. But they sure picked the winners: if these songs don’t do the trick, none will. I hope it works. For me, as a European, this music is really THE American idiom par excellence. I’ve heard the tunes sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire, seen the movies (B&W!), as a kid, as an adolescent, as an adult, I performed them myself (on the double bass, with a small jazz band) and I still love them. And that’s coming from a die-hard Rolling Stones and Foo Fighters fan, mind you. So if the album makes it to Lady Gaga’s usual audience, the strategy might just work.
One final word about the musicians. The big band is very good, the string orchestra is, well…, a string orchestra. It’s the only side of the album I’m not crazy about. I think it’s a bit overdone at times, the songs don’t need it. Fortunately, the production is outstanding (courtesy Mr. Bennett’s sons), so it’s all kept within reasonable bounds.
But. But. At the heart of the album are a set of wonderful jazz musicians who really contribute to the character of this album. If they’d gone and made the record only with MM. Renzi on piano, Jones on drums, Sargent on guitar and Wood on bass, it would still have been fantastic. These guys simply swing.
And, that, that’s what it’s all about. It don’t mean a thing…