Go­ing Gaga for jazz: cross­over artists (both good and bad)

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY SO­RAYA MCDON­ALD so­raya.mcdon­ald@wash­post.com MARK MAINZ/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PAUL MO­RIGI/GETTY IM­AGES

There’s a les­son to be learned from the bevy of out­siders, usu­ally pop mu­si­cians, who have tried their hands at re­leas­ing jazz records, and it’s a sim­ple one: Not ev­ery­one is Lady Gaga.

In fact, if you ask jazz his­to­rian Ted Gioia, au­thor of “Jazz Stan­dards: A Guide to the Reper­toire,” Lady Gaga is a uni­corn. She’s the rare pop artist who can not only com­fort­ably sing jazz, but who ex­cels at it.

“There is a cyn­i­cal feel­ing in the jazz com­mu­nity that when a ma­jor star in pop­u­lar mu­sic em­braces jazz, it’s be­cause they’re on the down­side of their ca­reer and they’re reach­ing for some gim­mick to reestab­lish them­selves,” Gioia said. “That’s def­i­nitely not true with this Lady Gaga al­bum, and it’s def­i­nitely not true with the Bob Dy­lan al­bum [“Shad­ows in the Night”]. Those are great artis­tic works. But prob­a­bly more of­ten than not, when you see a pop star em­brac­ing jazz, you should run for the hills.”

It’s not as though the con­duit be­tween pop and jazz is a oneway street; John Coltrane and Miles Davis recorded takes on “My Fa­vorite Things” and “Bye Bye Black­bird,” re­spec­tively.

Still, some­thing about leav­ing their mark — via the stan­dards or the 12-bar blues — keeps draw­ing in jazz neo­phytes who’ve be­come house­hold names by re­leas­ing rock, pop, folk and even rap al­bums. Why do so many artists take this route? It al­lows them to re­assert their mu­si­cal bona fides — and even when crit­ics find said bona fides want­ing, these ef­forts tend to net tremen­dous com­mer­cial suc­cess. These al­bums tend to fall into three ba­sic cat­e­gories: Le­git­i­mate, Eh . . . pass­able, and — how to put it? — This is not your best work.

Let’s start with the bright­est be­fore we be­gin our de­scent into sec­ond­hand em­bar­rass­ment, shall we?

Tony Ben­nett and Lady Gaga July 31 and Aug. 1 at the Kennedy Cen­ter Con­cert Hall, 2700 F St. NW. 202467-4600. www.kennedy-cen­ter.org. Both shows are sold out.

Joni Mitchell

Usu­ally, non-jazz artists will ease them­selves and their fans into the genre with stan­dards — songs that carry with them an aura of the high­brow while still re­main­ing fa­mil­iar to most. This was not the route JoniMitchell took, and she paid for it. Be­fore she re­leased “Min­gus” in 1979, Mitchell was known as a folk singer-song­writer. She be­gan dab­bling a bit with jazz, and then col­lab­o­rated with Char­lieMin­gus to cre­ate some­thing that just wasn’t “Em­brace­able You.”

“If you look back at her history, you’ll find she never had another huge hit record af­ter that. Be­fore she em­braced jazz, her al­bums were all . . . to­ward the top of the Bill­board charts. Af­ter she did this switch to jazz, her al­bums never had quite the same sales,” Gioia said. “Is there cause and ef­fect? I fear that by em­brac­ing the artistry of jazz, Joni Mitchell may have alien­ated some of her core fans.”

Linda Ron­stadt

LikeMitchell be­fore her, Linda Rond­stadt marked her foray into jazz with some help from an es­tab­lished and re­spected name, Nel­son Rid­dle. She never quite veered com­pletely into the genre, and in­stead es­tab­lished a rep­u­ta­tion as a solid cabaret singer.

“I al­most don’t want to pass ver­dict on that,” Gioia said. “She’s in be­tween cabaret and jazz. I think she did a cred­i­ble job of per­form­ing those songs. I’mnot 100 per­cent sure I’d call them jazz ren­di­tions.”

But Ron­stadt clearly found it ap­peal­ing; she recorded a tril­ogy of jazz al­bums, all ar­ranged by Rid­dle: “What’s New,” “Lush Life” and “For Sen­ti­men­tal Rea­sons.”

Rod Stewart

One of the ways to cap­ture some of the gravitas of jazz with­out tread­ing full bore into the shark-in­fested depths of im­pro­vi­sa­tion is to record an al­bum of cuts that amount to “Jazz Lite.”

“Jazz purists would dis­tin­guish be­tween ‘real jazz’ and for­mu­laic de­liv­ery of an old jazz song,” Gioia said. “And a lot of the old pop mu­si­cians who are try­ing to rein­vent them­selves — they’re able to sing the song. They’re able to pull it off and it even sounds good, but it doesn’t cap­ture that kind of risk-tak­ing that jazz fans want to see in their mu­sic.”

Rod Stewart has found tremen­dous suc­cess with this model by plumb­ing the great Amer­i­can song­book for five discs of stan­dards. His first ef­fort, “It Had to Be You: The Great Amer­i­can Song­book” went multi-plat­inum. The big ques­tion is who ex­actly is lis­ten­ing to this stuff? It’s about as far away as you can get from “The First Cut is the Deep­est” and “Do Ya Think I’mSexy,” and the world’s rel­a­tively tiny con­tin­gent of jazz snobs aren’t rush­ing to hand over their money, so who is it?

RobbieWil­liams

One of the com­mend­able as­pects of “Shad­ows in the Night” was that even though the al­bum was a clear homage to Si­na­tra, Dy­lan man­aged to re­tain his own style in­stead of ap­ing Ol’ Blue Eyes. Not so for Rob­bie Wil­liams, for­merly of the pop group “Take That.”

“Al­most any­one … who would try to tackle a Si­na­tra song would find them­selves draw­ing on the man­ner­isms or phrase­ol­ogy of Si­na­tra,” Gioia said.

But the com­mer­cial re­cep­tion to “Swing When You’re Win­ning” was en­thu­si­as­tic enough that Wil­liams fol­lowed it with “Swing Both­Ways,” which is half stan­dards and half orig­i­nal com­po­si­tions. Both topped the U.K. charts.

Barry Manilow

Manilow’s 1985 dal­liance with jazz was a full-bore de­par­ture from his reper­toire. All the songs on “2:00 AM Par­adise Cafe” were orig­i­nal and penned byManilow — it was clear he wanted to in­su­late him­self from some of the pit­falls and clichés of his peers. He en­listed the help of re­spected mu­si­cians such as bari­tone sax­o­phon­ist Ger­ryMul­li­gan and drum­mer ShellyManne. He recorded duets with Sarah Vaughan andMel Tormé. It wasn’t a hit with jazz afi­ciona­dos or crit­ics, but it went plat­inum, and reached No. 28 on the Bill­board chart.

Never un­der­es­ti­mate the pur­chas­ing power of the Fanilows.

MARC DU­CREST/FFJM VIA REUTERS

When she wanted to tran­si­tion to jazz, Lady Gaga ben­e­fited from work­ing with leg­endary singer Tony Ben­nett. They recorded “The Lady Is a Tramp” to­gether for his “Duets II” al­bum, but he took a shine to Gaga and they be­came close friends.

LUCY NI­CHOL­SON/REUTERS

his “Duets II” al­bum, but he took a shine to Gaga and they be­came close friends.

PAUL A. HE­BERT/INVISION/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Queen Lat­i­fah was re­cently nom­i­nated for an Emmy for her per­for­mance as the em­press of the blues in HBO’s “Bessie.”

LAU­RENT GIL­LIERON/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The re­cep­tion to “Swing When You’re Win­ning” was en­thu­si­as­tic enough that Rob­bie Wil­liams fol­lowed it with “Swing Both­Ways.”

ROBB D. CO­HEN/INVISION/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Rod Stewart’s first ef­fort went multi-plat­inum.

KEVIN MARTIN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Linda Ron­stadt en­tered the jazz world with Nel­son Rid­dle’s help.

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