Sunday, September 2, 2018

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga - 2014

With a new album pairing Tony Bennett and Diana Krall, along with Bill Charlap and his trio in support, it seems a good time to post this review, of Tony's work with Lady Gaga, which was released four years to the day before the upcoming album. 

Nothing short of thrilling

I’m a big Tony Bennett fan and I’ve really admired the way he’s reinvented himself on an almost continuous basis, starting with the epic MTV Unplugged CD in the early ‘90’s. Of course, the duets albums have also been an incredible sensation, to the point where even other singers will compose laments to not doing a duet with Mr. Bennett (Kevin Mahogany Old New Borrowed and the Blues). My awareness of Lady Gaga and her work was, until this recording, limited to a picture of her in a meat dress and the song “Poker Face”, which I think I heard once. And until the Wall Street Journal wrote about this recording, as much as I like Tony Bennett, I had no intention of purchasing this. But, if the Wall Street Journal tells you a pop star you have no interest in has serious jazz chops when singing with a jazz legend like Tony Bennett, you pay attention and buy the recording.

And am I ever glad I did. I absolutely love what Tony and Lady have done with this collection of standards. They’ve literally made the songs their own, sung their hearts out, and ended up with what is arguably one of the best vocal jazz albums to come out in years, if not decades. The arrangements are all swinging and most use a commanding big band format that is positively scintillating. On top of that, they’ve chosen a great selection of songs that encompasses all the highlights of the American songbook: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, a couple by Duke Ellington,  and a healthy sampling of the Gershwins, among others. Tony and Lady each take two solos, allowing them to sort of put their individual stamp on the recording, with Lady’s soulful rendering of Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life narrowly edging out Tony’s Sophisticated Lady for top solo honors. But honestly, the duets are what this is all about. Tony sings everything pretty straight while solidly swinging, with his usual panache at lyrical timing and thoughtful song rendering, and Lady uses her voice to accent each piece. Whether she needs a thumping vibrato or a soft, still tone, she delivers when and where needed, and the songs’ meaning and feel just jump from the speakers. Even when she’s only speaking a playful line, as in Goody Goody: “I told you, I’m not a goody, I’m a baddy,” you can almost see her smile and wink as Tony proceeds to call her “rascal, you”. I could go on about the other songs that I found impressive, from the understated elegance of “Nature Boy” to the rousing sendoff of “It Don’t Mean a Thing”, but I’ll just go with the old cliché and say: there isn’t a bad track on this recording. The mixing and sound is flawless, and the CD comes with a generous fold out photo montage on one side and song-by-song musicians’ rosters on the other. (Jazz aficionados – like me – will appreciate being able to look up some of the other performers.)

I can’t say enough about this recording. It excites me, inspires me, calms me and soothes me, thrills me, kills me. It makes my love for jazz grow and what do you know? It made me a Lady Gaga fan. According to the Wall Street Journal, Lady is going to release one jazz album a year “forever”. I for one can’t wait, but I hope this isn’t the end of the collaboration between these two superlative artists. I’ll be even happier if Lady shows up as a special unannounced guest performer at the Tony Bennett concert in Nashville in December (that I already have tickets for), but even if she doesn’t, I still have this stunningly excellent CD to keep my heart pounding. It’s just phenomenal and a complete five star no brainer.

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