Tony Bennett has long been as much a jazz singer as a pop singer, though I readily acknowledge that the distinction between the two has always been fuzzy. This has been particularly true throughout the second coming of his career—his rise again to popular and critical acclaim over the past two decades. The onetime crooner and belter of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” can’t quite hold those long notes like he used to or glissando up and down the scale without an occasional unintended bump. The marvel is, he’s still a great singer at age 88, in no small part by jazzing his singing even more than he used to.
Bennett’s new album with Lady Gaga, Cheek to Cheek, is an exhilarating textbook, if such a thing may be, of jazz singing, in which Gaga, prodded by Bennett’s foxy grandpa, discovers her inner Ella Fitzgerald. Jazz singers don’t usually rise to the top of the charts, but Cheek to Cheek topped Billboard’s list of best-sellers in the week after its release, and a concert version of same aired Friday, October 24, on PBS's Great Performances series.
Cheek to Cheek provides a brisk, brief survey of 11 songbook or jazz standards. (The entire album clocks in at a mere 34 minutes.) On most of the numbers, voiceless instrumentals from either Bennett’s usual combo or a swinging big band take up nearly half the performing time, as they would in a jazz club. Bennett’s vocals still highlight his exuberant flights well above the melodic line, but as he’s aged, he’s become more staccato in his delivery. Quarter notes may become eighths, which affords him more leeway to sing just behind or before the beat, to morph himself more into a jazz instrumental. Like Placido Domingo, whose voice has gone from tenor to baritone as he’s aged, Bennett has adjusted to time’s physiological impositions with effective, and affecting, vocal modifications.
Lady Gaga—like Bennett, a New York-born Italian American (her given name is Angelina Germanotta, his is Anthony Benedetto) —is a full 60 years younger than Bennett, with a voice that demonstrably can soar. On Cheek to Cheek, it not only soars but scats, runs and sings off the beat in an Ella-inflected mode. To keep up with Bennett, it has to. On Cheek to Cheek, “Firefly,” by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, comes off as a 50-yard-dash of a number, Bennett and Gaga providing rapid-fire pyrotechnics and then, bam! It’s done.
Cheek to Cheek’s song selection ranges from Irving Berlin (two numbers), Cole Porter, and Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields—the songbook side—to Duke Ellington (also two numbers). Bennett’s affinity for Ellington may confirm his jazz orientation. (Sinatra, by contrast, stuck more to the songbook, didn’t do much Ellington, and didn’t go in for scat singing as much Bennett does.) But songbook and jazz don’t really constitute a dichotomy. There’s no clear line between the two, as both Bennett and Sinatra consistently demonstrate.
To be sure, the theater song classics have incomparably better lyrics than the jazz song classics, as two numbers on Cheek to Cheek (Porter’s “Anything Goes” and the Ellington-Mitchell Parrish “Sophisticated Lady”) demonstrate. (The closing couplet of the latter—“When evening is nigh/You cry”—is painfully clunky: nigh? Sigh.) But the rhythmic sophistication of the best theater songs matches nearly anything in jazz, and even when the composer wasn’t known for his rhythmic sensibility—and Kern surely wasn’t—he would rise to the occasion when he wrote for Fred Astaire. Three of the songs on Cheek to Cheek were written explicitly for Astaire: The album’s title number and “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” (both by Berlin) and Kern and Fields’s “I Won’t Dance.”
Astaire is a key figure in the evolution of American song. Indeed, more song classics were written for Astaire than for anyone else. The list includes not just the three on this album, but “A Fine Romance,” “A Foggy Day,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” “Night and Day,” “One for My Baby,” “Pick Yourself Up,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Top Hat”… I could go on, but you get the point. George and Ira Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Kern, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer—every top theater composer of the '20s, '30s, and '40s except Richard Rodgers; every top lyricist except Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein (who wrote with Rodgers) and Yip Harburg—wrote for Astaire. The dance numbers remain indelibly his; the ballads were later claimed by far greater singers (as Sinatra did with “One For My Baby”).
Why Astaire? For one, his rhythmic precision and non-melodramatic singing that made the lyrics uncommonly clear lent itself to the new kind of song that the Gershwins were trying out in the first half of the '20s. In the '30s, the RKO musicals Astaire made with Ginger Rogers gave Berlin, Porter, and Kern the same opportunity, as Astaire’s later films did for Arlen and Mercer. No one ever had a better sense of timing than Astaire, who was an accomplished jazz drummer. When his 1936 film Swingtime was playing at the Radio City Music Hall, Astaire slipped in to watch a few minutes, and quickly emerged to place an emergency call to RKO. The soundtrack on one of the reels, he said, was running three frames ahead of the image. Three frames—that is, three twenty-fourths of a second—not two, not four. The studio checked. Astaire was right.
In short, Astaire afforded a greater rhythmic sophistication and precision to the great songbook composers and lyricists. Actually, he demanded it of them, and from the ‘20s through the ‘40s, the rhythms of the better theater and film songs grew more complex, at the same time that jazz was a popular medium as well. Two distinct art forms connected and built on each other in countless ways. You can hear them connect throughout the nearly 70-year career of Tony Bennett, up to and including Cheek to Cheek.