SOUND OFF: Lady Gaga & Tony Bennett's CHEEK TO CHEEK Is Not Merely Just Cheeky

By: Sep. 23, 2014
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Today we are listening to the hotly anticipated new jazz album by Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett titled CHEEK TO CHEEK.

Bang Bang

Lady Gaga is a music superstar known around the world for thumping techno pop, outrageously outlandish costumes, wild stage shows and her outspokenness. Tony Bennett is an old school crooner celebrated for his 60-year-plus career as one of the most respected concert performers and recording artists of all time. The pairing of these divergent performers was always destined to be spectacular given the respective copious gifts and commanding presence of each of the artists singularly, but a spectacular success or a spectacular failure seemed equally likely since one would be hard-pressed to imagine a more unlikely combination. Yet, as we further analyze the worlds in which each inhabits as well as their biographical histories it becomes more than merely plain to see that the musical marriage of Stefani Germonotta from Manhattan and Anthony Benedetto from Astoria as represented on their new duets album CHEEK TO CHEEK makes much more sense than at first may appear - and produces results sure to shock even the most virulent and dismayed naysayer. CHEEK TO CHEEK is, in a word, cheeky... but, it is also much, much more.

Kicking off with a musical theatre classic familiar to any Broadway baby worth their weight in sequins, Cole Porter's timeless "Anything Goes" is infused with fresh verve and spunky playfulness by the duo, establishing that this will be a daring, juicy and joyous teaming - with copious jazz-tastic riffing and some risky musical reworkings to enjoy, too. Following up with a movie musical standard penned by Golden Age tunesmith Irving Berlin for 1935's TOP HAT, the title track is cheekily imbued with affability and cute interplay by the pair - with some truly sensational belting by Gaga, to boot. After that, the rest of the play order for CHEEK TO CHEEK will primarily depend on which particular edition of the album one chooses to purchase, but for the sake of comprehensiveness we will be focusing exclusively on the Deluxe Edition that contains several extra tracks.

Bennett goes solo for the next selection in the incredibly rich set, sending Sunny Skylar's lesser-known "Don't Wait Too Long" sailing smoothly along - the only 21st century song on the album, as a matter of fact, having originally appeared on Madeline Peyroux's album CARELESS LOVE in 2004. Then, Gaga returns to the mix for the plucky Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields standard "I Can't Give You Anything But Love". The moody and ruminative "Nature Boy" by eden abhez is given a worthwhile new take next, while earworm Matty Malneck/Johnny Mercer frippery "Goody Goody" is just that - the latter accented with some cute and quirky ad-libbed interplay. Gaga takes the soundstage solo for a moving, gritty and passionate "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" that Cole Porter himself would undoubtedly appreciate in an album highlight - she seemingly lives and dies with each and every sound and sibilance of it. Clearly, Bennett's winsome and winning way with the words he conveys through song has worn off on the pop diva - well, that and her self-professed obsession with jazz and the great interpreters of it (Ella Fitzgerald being first and foremost; with an appreciably apparent dash of Liza Minnelli to go along with it as heard here, natch).

Next, Bennett and Gaga romance and entrance with the brassy Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields classic "Firefly" before launching into a full-throttle showstopper byway of "I Won't Dance" (Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein/Otto Harbach), originally written for the flop West End musical THREE SISTERS and later re-purposed for ROBERTA. Another Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie musical classic - this one taken from the George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin SHALL WE DANCE - is given a cute and funny airing next, with the hilarious and charming "They All Laughed". On that note, seeing - and hearing - that three Fred & Ginger canonical classics have been taken on by the terrific twosome of Gaga and Bennett is a delight, indeed - specifically, "Cheek To Cheek", "They All Laughed" and "Let's Face The Music And Dance".

The impetus for the entire album experience as it now exists resides in the Gaga solo spotlight number "Lush Life", which is stunning. Repeatedly, Gaga has expressed in interviews and on social media that performing this song with her high school vocal group was an elemental moment in her early life and career and a major factor in her deciding to pursue a life in the arts as a musical performer - and that deep passion is plain to witness in the track as heard on CHEEK TO CHEEK. Soulful and poignant. Bennett returns to the fold after that with his own solo showpiece - no less than Duke Ellington's iconic "Sophisticated Lady". Without question, it was an especially smart and savvy move to present the dynamic duo of Gaga and Bennett in solos as well as duets to not only add variety to the affair but also give the respective artists a chance to explore even more personal and meaningful material than the largely light and carefree collection of tunes chosen for the vast majority of the duet cuts.

The final trio of tracks begins with the aforementioned Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers offering - a propulsive, driving, white-hot "Let's Face The Music And Dance" - which sonically conjures up the very idea of the pair singing the song itself: although Bennett's incomparably unforgettable instrument is still remarkably resilient given his advanced age, the silvery vocals he presents are oftentimes padded out by the excellent musicians under the direction of Bennett's longtime music director and associate Lee Musiker in the mostly sparkling orchestrations, as well as incalculably abetted by subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) flourishes and vocal patina added by Gaga throughout. Nonetheless, Bennett sounds simply spectacular for any age, let alone 88, with basically only the rare sustained high note showing any wear and tear (with the exception of the finale, not to spoil anything), and he never once flags - at all - or appears to be falling behind Gaga and company in any way - nor at any point does the pop chanteuse seem out of her league batting with the big boys of 21st century jazz as she is here. It's a rapturous rapport that they share and their affection for each other as artists, duet PARTNERS and people is amply evident to hear and feel.

Following suit, "But Beautiful" is a touching and unexpected 11 o'clock number, ideally placed in the running order of the album, while a more rousing and resplendent final showstopper in the form of "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" would be difficult to uncover - it is a welcome and deserving capper to an effervescently enjoyable, emotionally satisfying and musically ebullient sonic experience. Plus, a bonus track of Gaga breathing some 21st century attitude and energy into the Sonny Bono pop standard originally made famous by Cher, "Bang Bang", supplants the exceptionally worthwhile studio experiment with a coda that could fit right in on radio today, more or less. And, after all, isn't that sort of the point - introducing the Great American Songbook and fantastic jazz performance to a whole new generation? If that was the purpose, a panoramic view of a night sky full of gold stars is due all concerned with CHEEK TO CHEEK - Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett first and foremost. Who's got the last laugh now?

Of special note, especially to theatre enthusiasts: the Target Deluxe Edition of CHEEK TO CHEEK contains a cover of the title song from ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER performed by Bennett along with "Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered" from PAL JOEY performed by Gaga. Additionally, an HSN Deluxe Edition of the album includes Frank Loesser/Burton Lane's pop gem "The Lady's In Love With You" performed by Bennett along with the BABES IN ARMS standout "The Lady Is A Tramp" as originally heard on Bennett's DUETS II.

Photo Credits: PBS, Columbia, etc.