Of all those rubbish ideas dreamt up by major-label record honchos frantically trying to balance their ailing books, the pop star – often fading, but not necessarily – sings jazz standards album feels the most desperate. Like sitcom writers who think sending their much-loved characters to Torremolinos for a feature-length “special” is the best way to re-oxygenate a programme whose days are numbered, the success rate of popster jazz is virtually nil.
Anything doesn’t go … Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga perform together on BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing. Photograph: Guy Levy/BBC/PA
Jazz is a serious and noble pursuit, with a culture and history of its own, fed by a pool of nuts-and-bolts techniques that can to outsiders feel as obscure and nebulous as the formula for Coca-Cola. And however keenly Rod Stewart, Robbie Williams, Paul McCartney, and now Lady Gaga and Annie Lennox, think kicking it with a zooty big band can varnish their careers in the mystique and musical sophistication of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra or Sarah Vaughan, they are deluding themselves. The context is all wrong; take Mrs Slocombe’s pussy away from Grace Brothers and the joke is lost.
Lady Gaga’s duet album with Tony Bennett, Cheek to Cheek, which appeared last month, and Annie Lennox’s Nostalgia, which is released this week, are both salient reminders of the pitfalls. Gaga’s gallop through evergreens such as Anything Goes, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love and Let’s Face the Music and Dance deserves a merit badge for trying. She’s head-over-heels in love with this music clearly; but her rhythmically square, shouty delivery is more generic Broadway than anything convincingly to do with jazz. Bennett’s supple games with rhythm – strong beats displaced, keynote harmonies momentarily lent on to give them new and unexpected meanings – is the real jazz deal. The close juxtaposition with Gaga does her few favours.
Riding the rhythm is a requisite requirement. Robbie Williams’ 2013 homage to Sinatra might have been called Swings Both Ways but Williams demonstrates that he couldn’t swing if he was in a playground, while Paul McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom – standards by Tin Pan Alley songsmith masters like Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer and Irving Berlin – feels laboriously and painfully schooled. Macca wants to get it right – and good on him. But you can’t learn an authentic swing feel in the weeks leading up to a recording session any more than you can suddenly speak Chinese.
One thing is clear. Jazz and the rock-star ego tend to prove incompatible. Williams deploys his trademark celeb swagger in an attempt to persuade us to suspend our disbelief. His hired big band holler and snarl. He puts on a show – a good one, but he’s an actor playing the part; McCartney’s album, with its cheeky title and smiley arrangements, confirms my image of him as a man who desperately needs to be liked.
Jazz can shine revealing lights where you least expect and Annie Lennox’s record gets sunk by another strain of rock-star ego altogether. Nostalgia is a curiously cheerless, dour album that wants you to know how seriously she is taking the project. Strange Fruit, inexorably linked to Billie Holiday, with its vivid imagery of Ku Klux Klan lynchings – bodies hanging from trees, the strange and terrible fruit of deep south racism – appeals to that side of Lennox happy to describe herself as a “singer and activist”. But this feels uncomfortably like opportunistic freeloading – pushing emotional buttons by invoking Billie Holiday. And musically the album fails to find a credible jazz groove. Each number is under-ridden by a heavy-handed pianist’s dogmatically spelling out of each fundamental chord. The jazz musician’s instinct is to bolster such basic chords with sexed-up harmonic alternatives. Lennox dodges the swing issue by noticeably avoiding up-tempo swing numbers where either you have good jazz time or you don’t.
Nostalgia’s final track is Mood Indigo which, in its final moments, has real jazz musicians improvising over Duke Ellington’s original theme. But then disaster – as their improvisation hits its peak, someone took the unwise decision to fade their hot jazz towards bland ambient reverb, which about says it all.
My unsolicited advice for future pop singers who fancy their chances with a jazz record? Check out the ever-admirable Debbie Harry whose work with The Jazz Passengers, a crunchy downtown NYC jazz group known for the noisy frenzy of its reinvented bebop, finds her immersed in vocal improvisation, her voice stretched in ways antithetical to the demands of fans who want to hear hits sung as they already know them. If the persona she created for Blondie was in part a whimsical fantasy, is this, perhaps, the real Debbie Harry? Jazz always was about finding yourself – and not Frank Sinatra – there in the music.