The Wife and I have been enjoying Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s new duet album, “Cheek to Cheek” over the last week. And what’s not to enjoy? While no instant classic, “Cheek to Cheek” entertains crisply and consistently for 35 minutes, leaving plenty of smiles and no bitter aftertaste.
The repertoire consists of nine tunes drawn from the uppermost drawer of The Great American Song, along with two semi-novelties: Eden Ahbez’s “Nature Boy,” done as a valse triste (and featuring a flute solo by the since-deceased Paul Horn), and Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman’s sprightly “Firefly,” an earlier hit for Mr. Bennett.
Anyone who grew up with TV variety specials would recognize the basic duet format deployed here: I sing a line, you sing a line, then we harmonize. The lyrics get updated in order for the singers to address each other by name, thus turning the whole thing into a festival of mutual admiration. With fine arrangements mostly by Jorge Calandrelli, nice jazz contributions by Joe Lovano, Brian Newman, Mike Renzi, et al. and superb high-gloss production, “Cheek to Cheek” is one really classy affair.
As for the two stars, let’s get the most obvious questions out of the way. Yes, Mr. Bennett, currently in his 89th year, remains in fine form. He can still hit the high notes, still sustain a phrase, and still swing like crazy. And yes, Ms. Germanotta can sing these songs very well. She’s got the pipes (does she ever!) the style and the musicianship. Now, one would hope that these could be said of anyone who ventures into the classic pop field. Alas, we know it cannot — as I was saying to Rod Stewart just the other day.
For the most part, Lady G. matches Tony B. note for note, word for word, all along the merry way. Where she doesn’t, it’s not so much for what she lacks. It’s because when you step into the studio with Tony Bennett, it doesn’t matter who you are and how hard you try. You will be outclassed. To anyone who would complain that an album like this should be heard as a collaboration, not a competition, I would mostly agree. But part of the fun of such music comes from the sport of two pros going at it, each spurring the other to his/her best. Besides, with the album’s seventh and eighth songs, the producers have, intentionally or not, made sure that comparisons between the singers became inevitable.
The two songs in question have much in common. Each comes from the early-to-mid thirties. Each features an angular, wide-ranging melody that soars over rich, highly chromatic harmonies. The lyrics of each delineate the plight of a lovelorn demimondaine for whom we are meant to feel some combination of empathy and disapproval. Each emerges from the world of Ellingtonia, though one does so with an asterisk. Each has been assayed by many of the greatest singers of the last 80 years. And on “Cheek to Cheek,” each is done as a solo by one of the two singers, taking turns.
First up is Lady Gaga with “Lush Life,” composed by the teenaged Billy Strayhorn a few years before he joined the Ellington entourage as composer, arranger, assistant and sometimes pianist. Clearly, the Lady gave considerable thought to her interpretative strategy, which consists primarily of coloring her voice to match the lyrical mood of the moment — here the girlish ingenue, there the world-weary chanteuse, and so on. But most people don’t do this when they talk about themselves, do they? No they don’t, but singers calling attention to themselves do. Further, Gaga’s phrasing and enunciation fall short of impeccable, especially when she ascends into her somewhat squeezed upper range. Minor flaws like these might have remained inconspicuous in less revealing repertoire, but they stick out here.
Such quibbles may seem, well, quibbling. But when you play in the big leagues, you’re going to be judged against the big leaguers. And when your solo on “Lush Life” is followed by Tony Bennett’s solo on “Sophisticated Lady,” you had better bring your best. Because Bennett’s rendition of Duke Ellington’s melody and Mitchell Parrish’s lyric, backed just by Mike Renzi’s piano, is so accomplished, so expert, such a work of art, that almost anyone by comparison will sound like a fumbling amateur.
Oh, the interpretive touches are myriad. The way that Bennett subtly elongates certain words and phrases and slightly telescopes others. How whenever a melodic phrase reappears, he gently alters it, for musical and dramatic flow. There’s his perfect enunciation — somewhere, the late great Mabel Mercer is smiling. Don’t you love the speech-song, or as the Germans call it, sprechstimme that Bennett uses after the piano interlude? Not fancy or showy, but natural. That word, natural, best describes for me the totality of Tony Bennett’s artistry here. Nothing he does is imposed on the song from the outside; everything he does naturally emerges from inside the song. He’s not acting it, he’s living it. I think I’ve listened to “Sophisticated Lady” over a dozen times already, and not only do I discern a new detail each time, I get chills each time.
I did not come here to bury Lady Gaga, but to praise Tony Bennett. If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from this blog entry, or any blog entry, is that artistry in music should never, ever, be taken for granted. At its highest, and at its rarest, it should be listened for, recognized and cherished. Bravo, Signor Benedetto!