Monday, October 6, 2014

A generations-leaping jazz adventure

I’ve spent the last few days listening closely to Cheek to Cheek, the ambitious new recording by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. It debuted September 23 and soared to #1 on the Billboard 200 list. It also topped the Jazz Albums and Traditional Jazz Albums charts. Cheek to Cheek sold 131,000 copies in the week ending September 28, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Bennett is 88 and Lady Gaga is 28, yet they found common ground in exploring the Great American Songbook, which has always been Bennett’s forte. Gaga has also loved it, to a larger degree than most of her fans knew or appreciated.

Bennett-Gaga duets are the heart of the session, which teams them on various tracks with Bennett’s longstanding quartet or a Gaga quintet. At times, a full orchestra with strings or a rich jazz brass section also supports them. Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano solos on “Anything Goes,” “I Won’t Dance” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” Flute player Paul Horn, who passed away in late June, soloed on “Nature Boy.”

Bennett performs solo on “Don’t Wait Too Long” and “Sophisticated Lady,” while Lady Gaga performs solo on “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” and “Lush Life.” Bennett’s take on Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” glimmers in its simplicity – with the singer backed only by pianist Mike Renzi. Lady Gaga’s version of  “Lush Life opens similarly – with just pianist Tom Ranier backing her, until subtle strings emerge. Bennett and Lady Gaga’s playful interaction highlights “Goody Goody,” on which they are backed by Tony’s quartet with Renzi, guitarist Gray Sargent, bassist Marshall Wood and drummer Harold Jones.

“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” is a most-appropriate closer for this session. The Bennett-Gaga synergy underscores the importance of this genre of music and its ability to bridge generations.

There are several takeaways here.

  •  The project is introducing many Lady Gaga fans to the Great American Songbook.
  •  It has worked like a Fountain of Youth for Bennett, who doesn’t sound like he’s anywhere close to pushing 90.
  • It was not made to be an over-the-top entertainment spectacle one normally associates with the usually flamboyant Lady Gaga and so many of today’s pop concert performers. Rather, it is a collaboration that makes music for music’s sake.

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