In 1989, the soundtrack to a little movie called “When Harry Met Sally” turned a generation that was tuned into U2 and Bon Jovi onto standards from the American songbook. All it took was a charming guy named Harry Connick Jr. delivering straight ahead renditions of songs like “It Had to be You” making them seem as relevant to us as they were to our parents or grandparents. And the messenger was one of us, a 20-something whose tastes veered in a different direction when he sat down at the piano.
And no, Connick’s brand of standard time didn’t knock Paula Abdul, New Kids on the Block or (sadly) Milli Vanilli off the top of the pop charts. But Connick became a mainstream star and a new generation heard some music that really deserves to endure.
It’s easy to recall that album listening to “Cheek to Cheek” the new album of standards by the head-turning pairing of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.
Gaga’s vocal chops are already well established, particularly if you have bothered to venture beyond her chart-toppers to songs such as “Brown Eyes.” But she has never collaborated with a gentleman like Bennett, 60 years her senior. And while this project originated with him, Bennett gives Gaga plenty of room on this album to show a completely different side of her voice and style. If you really listen to her music, you know she can do smoky and torchy.
But this is an album that calls on her to relax and puts the focus on interpreting the lyric, the true art of masters of this style like Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney. “Lush Life” is Gaga’s tour de force, sitting beautifully in her lower range, finding her easy and reflective, singing Billy Strayhorn’s lyrics like she lives them. In short, what we want from a standards singer.
And in Bennett, 88, she has a partner who has been at the top of this game for decades. Their collaborations on standards like “But Beautiful” are sublime and “Anything Goes” are pure delights — the latter being amusing because it’s a Cole Porter scandal song that if rewritten today would probably include a reference to Gaga’s pop-star persona, for whom the title applies.
Fortunately that includes singing standards with one of the masters of the form. Is it a great album? No. There’s nothing particularly imaginative or surprising about the arrangements or performances. Bennett is as reliable as ever. As game as Gaga is, she is sometimes shrill or sounds like she’s singing through. But she also has plenty of great moments, and frankly, she is the reason people em masse will pay attention to this record. Certainly, there are practitioners of this form such as Pink Martini, Michael Buble and Connick putting out albums on a regular basis. And watching groups such as the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra’s Jazz Arts Orchestra, it is obvious there is a lot of enduring appeal in this music.
What something like a hit movie soundtrack or a current pop star taking on this music brings to the table is exposure to a wider audience than regularly listens. And that makes it worth tuning in.