Tony Bennett/Lady Gaga at Umbria Jazz


I just want to say before I begin that Tony Bennett is important.  He's important to me, and to so many other people in the world.  He's a "pop" singer who stylizes a melody and varies it whenever he sings it, so as far as I'm concerned: jazz.  He had a late-career renaissance (several actually) that should be the envy of any artist, from MTV Unplugged until now.   I didn't get to meet him, but I have heard anecdotes that he is basically a great guy, often makes time to talk to fans, to other musicians.  My friend Travis Sullivan bumped into him on the street in NY a few years ago and wound up going with Tony (thanks to a comp ticket Tony provided) to see a JALC concert featuring Joe Temperley.   In interviews and documentaries and books he is a giver of sage advice and a beacon of positivity.

So, even though Tony can be a bit over-the-top, I think of him as a true jazz artist, a great lyric deliverer.  His records with Bill Evans are among my favorite of all time.  Others, like the Movie Song Album, are high on my list as well.  He's made duet records before, and even did a whole duet record and tour with kd lang, which was pretty special.  She is one of the finest vocalists of all time, to me, for her endless chops and interpretive ability and taste, as well.  When it was announced that Tony and Lady Gaga would do a duet record, I thought, "well, that kinda makes sense." She sounds nice on the Tony Duets II record, and in the video faux documentary that accompanied that album, Tony seemed to cut through her bullshit in a nice interview segment.  Gaga said something like "Tony puts up with my craziness!" and Tony said to the interviewer "She wants people to think she's crazy, but she isn't.  She's a hard worker and a serious artist.  The craziness is just her image.  Isn't that right, Gaga?"  Or something like that, and then the interview proceeded normally.  It was like he neutralized her.  

And Lady Gaga has always managed, despite what I feel is the unevenness of her work, to both exist in a genre (usually dance pop) and also lampoon it as well.  Her sexuality is part of her act, but she also makes fun of the Diva-ness and overt sexuality of most women in her genre.  Madonna did that to some degree, but Gaga takes it further.  When Rihanna or Britney are portrayed as sexy, it is literal.  When Gaga does it she is winking at the same time.  It's like that tune "Hot Hot Hot" by Buster Poindexter.  It is a parody of calypso while still instigating millions of cruise-goers to start a conga line the second they hear it.  Spinal Tap, Flight of the Conchords, Tenacious D, Weird Al all traffic in solid music, but they are definitely parody acts.  Weezer's "Island in the Sun," Blondie's "The Tide is High," Beck's "Midnight Vultures" all are similar to Gaga, to me, in that they are parodying or offering an homage to an idiom, but then actually succeeding as a stellar example of that genre.  Lady Gaga can dance, but a lot of her dance moves are exaggerated and awkward, in solidarity with her fans, her "monsters" as she calls them.  She is definitely a LGBT ally.  She has rallied behind progressive political causes.  She has hung out with the Muppets.  

She is not a random pop artist only looking to jazz for respectability and marketability in her old age.  I was never a Rod Stewart fan.  I do like him when Jeff Beck is in the room with him.  His "Great American Songbook" records were at best silly and at worst offensive... canned-sounding (the strings might have been real but they didn't sound it most of the time).... his vocal quality sounded like Grover (the muppet) auditioning to play the role of Cher in a drag show of some kind.  Even Michael Bolton took care of business more on his standards record.  Hell, even FRANK STALLONE did.  And there are some pop singers who bring a fresh perspective to jazz standards when they attempt them, like (to me) Billy Joel, Art Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt, and especially James Taylor.  I have a bit that I do sometimes for friends, when I'm feeling in the mood, where I pretend that Tony Bennett is mad at Rod Stewart for trying to steal his career, and so Tony does a record of Rod Stewart tunes, which I begin to sing in Tony's voice.  Try it.  It's fun.  Especially the first line of "Maggie May" or "Tonight's the Night"... "DA YA Think I'm sexy" works as a bluesy shuffle...  
This essay is going on FOREVER, because I just want to be clear about my impressions of this Bennett/Gaga pairing.   It is not hilariously bad or cynical as one might initially think.  Check out the videos of Gaga playing her original tunes on the piano before she was Gaga.   Check out that clip of her singing the Sound of Music medley on the Oscars.  I know many women singers are very protective of Julie Andrews' definitive version, but Gaga did some nice head-voice singing and to my ears pretty much nailed it.   Also, check out some her live or studio work in the normal Gaga genre and hear her belting the crap out of her own dance material.  As an artist I think of her more like Bette Midler or even Liza Minnelli or Carol Burnett (I wonder if she will start an acting career at some point, come to think of it), than as simply a dance pop singer.

And, by the way, does she NEED to even DO THIS?  Why would she do it if she wasn't somewhat serious about it?  It's not helping her gain young fans by singing with an 89 year old man when she is 29.  She has a lot to lose and relatively little to gain, fame-wise, from this, unless she's looking at a VERY LONG GAME (she's trying to lock in millenials who will be her fans when they are all in their 60's together?).  She has a lot to gain, artistically, from this association, which I will explore later.  But one reason I want so desperately for this project to be good, for people to take it seriously, is that I feel, more than with that Rod Stewart business, that it can really introduce jazz to Gaga's audience.  She didn't just use some cheese bucket producer  to make a "jazz crossover record."  Joe Lovano is on the Gaga/Bennett CD.   Paul Horn, Dave Mann, Lou Marini, and a whole host of jazz session pros and a huge string section.

So I guess the best way to continue might be to go down the list of the participants.

Harold Jones: Drums.  "Basie's Favorite Drummer", Tony said.  So swinging; the time felt so relaxed yet kept moving forward, such a great accompanist.  He got a nice solo in one feature, but I wish there had been more.  So tasteful.  I have a bit of a peeve about the way they've been miking the drums at Arena Santa Giuliana, where you can't really hear the cymbals loud enough compared to the rest of the kit, and this was still the case, but what a spectacular player.

Marshall Wood:  Bass.  I am a bit biased here because Marshall is from New England.  I met him when he used to come up to UNH with various artists to play on the Trad Jazz series and do clinics and things.  He's always been one of the best bassists I've ever heard or played with, great sound, time, feel, knows the RIGHT changes to about a billion tunes.  He's also been a kind dispenser of advice to me about my playing and the music world and just an overall generous, positive person.   He nailed this gig, and I'm glad to see him in a gig where he gets to make a buck or two and have people outside of New England hear him (he's done other international gigs, but I think it would be fair to say this is his biggest).

Gray Sargent: Also biased because I've heard him all my life and played with him a little bit.  Still to my ears he is one of the most unique guitarists ever to play the instrument.  Stylistically he often sounds like a "throwback" to players like Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel, even a bit of Django sometimes, but his time feel and often his note-choices can be timeless and modern.  His sense of humor is always on display, as he is constantly quoting other tunes, shout choruses to classic arrangements, classic solos by jazz greats.  Matt Glaser has a theory that EVERYTHING Gray plays is a quote of something else.  It's on the level of someone like Dexter Gordon or Sonny Rollins... Bird used to do it too apparently, and that is how fluid Gray is with this... A French woman would walk in the room and Bird would play "the Last Time I Saw Paris..." Gray is able to access these references seemingly without thinking, so they are integrated into the flow of the improvisation.  Even if he didn't engage in this device though, he is a sensitive accompanist, rubato or in tempo, always there with a perfect little fill in between Tony's melodies.  Tony has said that if he didn't have Gray Sargent in the band he wouldn't use a guitarist, and it's tough to think of someone who could do the gig the way Gray does.  I've recently played a bit with John Wheatley and he has some similar qualities, though he is his own man stylistically as well.

Mike Renzi:  Here we are talking about one of the finest "singer's pianists" and vocal accompanists of all time.  There is a spaciousness and relaxedness to the way he accompanies both Tony and Gaga that is really special.  You feel like they could do anything with their phrasing and he'd be there for them.  There is little of the gratuitous arpeggiations in which too many rubato players indulge.  Occasionally I would feel like Mike would come charging out of the gate too much on his solos and they'd get a little chops-laden (only a couple times I thought this) but then I thought "Hey, Mark, how would you feel if you got maybe 2-3 times during a two hour set to take maybe a 16 bar solo?  You'd play a few notes too, right?"  Anyway, overall just masterful.

The Other Cats who played behind Gaga:  Yes that's right, Gaga had her own cats backing her up sometimes, and I know what you're thinking:  WHY?!  What the hell for?  They could have saved a little bread, spent some more on the people who WERE on the band.   Why would you want your own cats when you are getting to drive that Cadillac of a Rhythm section (or a Saab... the Saab is the Cadillac of Cars... extra points for those of you who get that reference)?  I had heard something that Gaga and one of the band members were bartenders together years ago and vowed they'd eventually help each other if the other got famous, so maybe it's a nice gesture on her part, but aside from the pianist who could actually play pretty well and accompanied her well I felt like the rest of the "2nd band" was completely unnecessary.  You could make something of a case for them on a couple of the straight 8th tunes, but not much of one.  The trumpeter was basically spraying fast, high 8th notes everywhere, sometimes without regard for the chord changes;  the Tenor player had some Tenor player cliché chops but not much more, and of course the other rhythm section sounded like little children after the solid groove that Tony's band was laying down.  Anyway... it's nice that musicians are getting paid well to play jazz music in public because of this tour, but I could have helped her pick some better ones if she had to have a 2nd band, like, in Boston alone there are 10-20 players on each instrument that would have done a better job.
Tony Bennett:  He was his classic self.  The tunes that he did with the basic quartet were my favorites.  He went right on from tune to tune.  Yes there was a little more gravel in his voice and there were more than occasional drifts in pitch, but his phrasing and lyric delivery and swing were right on.  And when he did nail something (which was actually pretty often) like he used to it was breathtaking.  When he did frack a note (the end of "San Francisco" was strong until the very last "MEEEE" which was something other than the tonic) he just moved on and kept in the emotion of the moment.  After most tunes he flashed his genuine smile and put one or sometimes two thumbs up.   Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" was simply transcendent; I definitely teared up after that one.
Lady Gaga:  I think she has a great voice.  Some of the jazz singing wasn't actual jazz singing but more of a theatre/jazz/R&B combination.  I think she has trouble dealing with genuine emotion, which was a land that Tony was inhabiting all night, so sometimes Gaga would sing a phrase or two and be really affecting or swinging, and then kind of mock what she had just achieved with a comic line reading or a weird change of vocal timbre.  "Lush Life" was mostly accurate but marred by this sudden decision-making.  "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" was super all the way through; the sentiment fit her persona and she made great vocal choices.  Late in the show (though her mood seemed sillier and sillier as the show progressed... she was given to giggling and suddenly speaking tiny bits of Italian to the audience) she performed a gorgeous "Every time We Say Goodbye" with her pianist that was perfectly in tune, lots of thought about phrasing and placement, lots of dynamics.
However, I'd have to say most of the "jazz" part of Gaga's set was all over the map in quality from phrase to phrase.  Some of the keys are too high for her and she winds up belting the crap out of melodies like "I can't give you anything but love," and there was really no such thing as an actual unison between Tony and Gaga when they would sing together.  They would just vocally stumble through the last notes of a song, each of them with a different ending and pitch concept.  They were usually embracing or holding hands or Gaga was posing in some ridiculous outfit at these moments, so I don't think it mattered much.   Gaga had trouble being anything but the center of attention on stage.  One time, during a particularly good Gray Sargent solo, the entire audience began screaming about half way through.  I thought, "Gee, those Italians really like the 9th bar of a Gray Sargent solo," because it came out of nowhere.  What had happened, upon closer inspection, was that Gaga had finished her phrase a few bars before and lifted her arms above her head while wearing some kind of cape, then had begun slowly rotating during the guitar solo, so that 9 bars in she completely had her back to the audience.  Well, her outfit, from behind, in the spotlight, was diaphanous, so basically the audience suddenly saw her naked back, part of a g-string, and most of her naked ass, and this was what the crowd had responded to.   I think I am going to try such a pivot the next time Eric Byers takes a guitar solo on my band and see if it has a similar effect.


So... I'm a little confused at the inconsistencies, given the money and time that went into this project.  They probably just need a few rehearsals with a vocal coach.  Tony's vocal gaffes didn't seem to come from old age as much as just not preparing well enough for a long phrase.  He still had some of those magical endings to ballads, like "How Do You Keep the Music Playing"  ("the music neeeeeeeever......eeeeeevverr.......eevvvvverrr.......never ever ever EEEEVVVERR (big high note).... ENDS") that were largely intact.   And if Gaga can handle all that crazy choreography she does she can definitely remember to go into mix voice on some of her unison high notes.  So, do you see why this review had to be so LOOONGG?   It's not enough to simply offer blanket criticism of Gaga.  I think she could eventually be truly amazing in a genre similar to this.  I find a lot of the outrage I hear coming from, guess who, other women jazz singers who feel some ownership of the genre after working in it for most of their careers, and while I understand that (I found it pretty hilarious when Dave Grusin made that straight-ahead Ellington tribute record for GRP a few years ago, on a break from his Film scoring/Smooth Jazz career), I think that Gaga has something to offer statistically the least popular genre of music (that would be jazz).  At worst her presence could help boost the bottom line a little bit, and at best I think she could eventually have something to say.

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