When one thinks of jazz musicians, the stereotypically sweet romancer comes to mind: effortless, natural musicality, classic style. Lady Gaga probably does not. Whether she is wearing a meat dress or hundreds of plastic bubbles, Gaga has never been afraid to make a spectacle of herself. Her pop persona—which has garnered millions of fans—is a showy one—it’s theatrical and ostentatious in a way that jazz just isn’t.
What we learn from her newest project, though, is that Gaga is so much more than that one-dimensional stage persona. Behind the electronic beats and autotune, Gaga can be a raw, talented musician. She was so respected by jazz legend Tony Bennett that he worked on not one, but two projects with her. After a successful collaboration on “The Lady is a Tramp,” which was featured on his album Duets II, Bennett and Gaga decided they weren’t done with each other just yet.
Cheek to Cheek is an incredible example of two drastically different artists coming together to make a cohesive album. These songs are all unquestionably jazz—there are virtually no pop influences in the entirety of the collaboration. Instead, Gaga shows how absolutely she can separate herself from one genre and launch into another (although the cover art is eccentric in a way one has come to expect from Gaga). The album’s title track, “Cheek to Cheek,” begins unrecognizably. Lady Gaga’s vocals here are stunning, and she wastes no time in showing her chops as a genuinely gifted jazz musician. As the song progresses, Tony Bennett’s voice joins Gaga’s, and it becomes clear why this album is such a success. The two have different vocal qualities, to be sure—Gaga’s is full and far-reaching, while Bennett’s is more natural and smooth—but there is a uniformity in their style. Whether sassily singing the song’s chorus, or later scatting together, Bennett and Gaga play off each other with ease.
This same musical togetherness is present throughout various songs on the record, in which the differences in their vocal styles are overshadowed by the similarities in their soulfulness. “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” is a single the duo released before Cheek to Cheek’s debut, probably because it shows off the playful chemistry that defines the rest of the album. Amid some retro instrumentation and bluesy interpretation, this song perfectly showcases the collaboration’s strengths. Gaga and Bennett sing with the same soul, and their songs read like fluid conversations between the two of them.
“Firefly,” too, becomes a narrative for the relationship of Gaga and Bennett, as he introduces her with a playful verse, and she responds. A short song, “Firefly” is entirely about the woman it describes—in this case, Gaga. The song introduces Gaga’s jazz persona, and here, she truly shines. Bennett sings that it is she who “radiates moonglow,” and Gaga, in turn, sings and shouts with a soulful spirit throughout the track.
Although Cheek to Cheek is primarily comprised of upbeat jazz standards, there also are some deeper, more longing tunes that show off the pair’s serious side. In the slow, smooth performance of “Nature Boy,” Gaga displays how she can hold her own alongside a musical legend in a way that few other pop stars can. “But Beautiful” is another soft, romantic standard on which Bennett and Gaga enchant with powerful, emotional vocals. The song feels glamorous, soft, and acts to balance out the excitement of all the other tunes.
It would be ignorant, though, to review this album only talking about the vocals. The instrumentation in Cheek to Cheek is phenomenal. Bennett’s band here is the same he works with on all his major projects, and it stands as an impressive backdrop for the stong vocal tunes. Talented instrumental soloists also enhance a great many of the songs (“Nature Boy” has an unreal jazz flute solo, and there is a magical, Latin-inspired solo in “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”) Ultimately, these songs bring back an appreciation for Big Band music, and they also bring out the dual nature of this Bennett-Gaga collaboration: timeless musicality and modern appeal. Cheek to Cheek makes it cool to love jazz again. Just as much as the record is about the powerful vocals, it stands as a display of might in the instrumental department. The band’s flawless interpretation of these classics makes it that much better, and it provides the record with uniformity and cohesion.
Cheek to Cheek serves as a glowing sample of Gaga’s musical worth and speaks to her staying power as a performer. It shows that her talent extends far beyond the realm of rather tacky, vapid pop music. “Little Monsters” and Tony Bennett fans alike will relish in the soulful appeal of this collaboration—the jazz legend strikes a playful balance with the eccentric popstar.
Featured Image Courtesy of Columbia Records