Opposites attract, or at least that’s the old saying. Pairing an oft-restrained jazz veteran in Tony Bennett with an over-the-top dance-pop star in Lady Gaga seems crazy. Strike the “seems”, it is crazy. That said, the jazz album that results from the partnership, Cheek to Cheek, works for the most part. Audiences were first given a preview of the “chemmie” between Bennett and Gaga on standard “The Lady Is a Tramp” from Bennett’s duets album, Duets II. Interestingly enough, it was one of the brighter, most elite moments of that album, giving a potential duets album between the two a legitimate shot. Cheek to Cheek isn’t perfect — at times it’s a bit blasé — but certainly has its moments.
Opener Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” ranks among the strongest moments of Cheek to Cheek, kick starting the set energetically. As is the case throughout the album, Lady Gaga has the tendency to ‘cut’ more vocally than Bennett, at times overpowering him. That said, Bennett rises soundly to the occasion enough here, with Gaga’s dynamic voice suiting the given record. Follow up Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” is pleasant, swinging hard if a smidge less compelling than the triumphant opener. “Nature Boy” slackens the tempo, with Gaga taking charge initially. While Gaga lacks the smoothness of many jazz singers, her ability to show tenderness, reining herself in is admirable. Bennett’s subtlety is best suited here, but the blend between the two is harmonious. Musically, the flute solo is incredibly tasteful, representing the refined nature of the style.
Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields’ “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” proves to be the crown jewel of the set. Perhaps it’s the bluesy organ comping, the mean instrumental solos, or even Gaga’s growling. Regardless, it’s a special record. Again, Bennett contrasts Gaga with his reserved, selective vocal touches. Like “Anything Goes”, here the opposites thing works once more. “I Won’t Dance” keeps things swinging, intact with its tight backing big band, and Bennett striking first. As fun as “not dancing” is, the quicker paced “Firefly” is more alluring. Definitely ranking among the more challenging songs tackled by the duo given the tempo and the angularity of the song itself, the upper register of Gaga’s voice, not to mention her power is a pro here. Though it’s brief at just under two minutes, “Firefly” packs a knockout punch.
The duo takes a break from one another, giving Gaga a solo spot on “Lush Life”. An incredibly ambitious choice for anyone, Gaga performs the Billy Strayhorn classic relatively well. Don’t crown it as the go-to interpretation, but considering the complex harmonic progression and melody, Gaga deserves her props. The performance is a bit indulgent, but would anyone expect any less from Gaga? Bennett opts for the stripped interpretation of “Sophisticated Lady”, accompanied only by piano.
After two ballads, Bennett and Gaga reconvene for a lightening quick take on Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, another brief number clocking at just over two minutes. It could be argued that slowing the classic might’ve given it more character and perhaps left more of a lasting impression. Penultimate ballad “But Beautiful” certainly gives off that lush, heartwarming vibe, with strings accentuating. If a bit too slow, Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” closes as excitingly as the album opened. Bennett and Gaga even manage to take some ‘liberties’ at the end. The deluxe edition of the album adds four more songs, incorporated throughout: “Don’t Wait Too Long”, “Goody Goody”, “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”, and “They All Laughed”.
Ultimately, Cheek to Cheek is pleasant through and through. It’s not the greatest standards duets album ever recorded, but nor is it a dud. Ultimately it falls somewhere in the middle. It’s quite admirable that Gaga tackles jazz given its requirement of immense vocal skill to nail. Additionally, given his advanced age, it’s also admirable that Bennett sounds as strong vocally as he does here. Cheek to Cheek, hence, has enough enjoyable moments to make it worthwhile.