Going Gaga for jazz: crossover artists (both good and bad)
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.
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.”
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
his “Duets II” album, but he took a shine to Gaga and they became close friends.
Queen Latifah was recently nominated for an Emmy for her performance as the empress of the blues in HBO’s “Bessie.”
The reception to “Swing When You’re Winning” was enthusiastic enough that Robbie Williams followed it with “Swing BothWays.”
Rod Stewart’s first effort went multi-platinum.
Linda Ronstadt entered the jazz world with Nelson Riddle’s help.