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Tony Bennet and Lady Gaga make for strange but successful bedfellows
Of all Tony Bennett's many musical partners during his six-plus decade career -- including Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and k.d. lang -- it's fair to say none raised as many eyebrows as Lady Gaga.
The octogenarian crooner and pop superstar have been joined at hip -- or, if you prefer, the cheek -- since the September release of "Cheek To Cheek," a duets album covering the Great American Songbook that's been one of the past year`s biggest hits. The 11-song set debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, which allowed Bennett to break his own record as the oldest artist ever to top that chart. It's been certified gold in the U.S. and won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, and it spawned a "Great Performances" special on PBS that was subsequently released as a home video.
Not bad for a couple of strange, or at least quizzical, bedfellows.
"I never met a more talented person in my life than Lady Gaga," Bennett, who at 88 is 60 years' Gaga's senior, says by telephone from his home in New York City. "She's very, very creative and she's very, very sweet, and she's an immense talent. I've been performing with different people my whole life, and I'm telling you she's the most talented person I've ever met."
And, Bennett adds, anybody who wants to dismiss Gaga as just a pop singer -- albeit a successful one with global album sales of more than 27 million -- is sorely mistaken.
"She's always tried to tell everybody she really sings good jazz," Bennett says. "She knows how to do it, in the tradition of Ella Fitzgerald -- and that's saying something 'cause no one was ever better than Ella singing true jazz. And she (Gaga) has that same ear. She knows. She's an accomplished piano player/musician. She studied well in school and she's highly intelligent, but she sings beautifully."
The classically trained Gaga -- who was born Stefani Germanotta and is a New York native like Bennett -- tells the Associated Press that jazz is "truer to my nature. So much of what I've done has been heavily Auto-Tuned or made very electronic to fit on the radio, but this is so much easier because I'm a rebel and this is really rebellious for me to say goodbye to pop for a moment and just sing some pure jazz."
Bennett and Gaga made an immediate musical and personal connection during sessions for his Grammy-winning 2011 album "Duets II," for which they recorded the Rogers and Hart classic "The Lady is a Tramp." But the elder singer's manager and son Danny Bennett says it also became quickly apparent that there was great potential for continuing the collaboration beyond that one encounter.
"The international response to the Gaga track was unprecedented for Tony," his son says. "Someone like Lady Gag, she tweets to her 13 million people and they gravitate towards (Bennett). She's saying it's OK and they listen to him and fall in love, and when you go to a Tony Bennett show now the ages range from 12 to 90, which is uncanny and amazing."
And Tony Bennett freely acknowledges that expanding the audience for jazz and standards is an ulterior motive behind his continuing work wtih Gaga.
"I want to teach young people about Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and all the great music they created," says Bennett, whose first brush with youth culture came with his surprise hit MTV "Unplugged" episode in 2004, which won a pair of Grammy Awards.
"(Gaga) has that audience in the palm of her hand, and by doing this with her it'll go right to those little kids. They'll grow up listening to this music. It's great music, and it's never going to become dated. It's never going to become old fashioned. It's very intelligent music that everybody, and especially these young people, need to know and appreciate.
"The executives of big record companies, they're just looking to immediately sell something, and as long as it has that rock 'n' roll beat they don't care if it's a standard or not. They just swamp the communication of the young people with that stuff. But Lady Gaga knows that music and loves it. We know her fans will come and hear what we're doing and fall in love with it, too."
Gaga concurs, telling the AP that, "The point of ('Cheek To Cheek') is not only to bring Tony and me together to collaborate, but to bring jazz to an entirely new audience. This is really about us giving jazz what it deserves... This is the original pop music of America, and I've been trying to explain to my fans in the best way that I can that these songs are truly timeless."
"Cheek To Cheek's" first single, a rendition of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," certainly connected, hitting No. 1 on Billboard`s Jazz Digital Songs chart. the rest of the tracks, from the songbooks of Porter, Berlin, Kern, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and more, with arrangements by orchestra conductor Jorge Calandrellio and players from both Bennett's and Gaga's bands. "We just chose the very best songs, the great standards, the great songs that never die," Bennett says.
Taking the "Cheek To Cheek" act on the road was a no-brainer after the album's success, and Bennett gives full credit to his partner for applying her well-established performance sensibilities to the shows. "She's kind of exhausted from playing for 45,000 people a night," he explains. "She said, 'Let's just play for three to six weeks in Las Vegas.' She has the idea of just performing at Radio City for possibly two weeks with her.
"It's amazing show she's planning out, how we should perform together, and it won't be those 45,000-seat places because I work in acoustical halls all the time, or outdoor theaters sometimes. I'm not interested in playing to 45,000 people a night, so she's finding places where we could work for three or four days, or three or four weeks, in one place at a time. That's how she wants to work with me."
Meanwhile, Bennett says he and Gaga are already eyeballing a follow-up to "Cheek To Cheek" -- a recreation of Cole Porter's 1936 song cycle "Red, Hot & Blue."
"I received the music for that," Bennett says. "When I told Lady Gaga, I said, 'If ('Cheek To Cheek') goes well, we could do a follow-up with Cole Porter, 'Red, Hot & Blue.' She said, 'Why wait? Let's do it right away.' So we're gonna do two albums in a row with her.
"So we'll have to try and do that as soon as possible, just as a follow-up for a second album. I don't think we'll stop at just this one album."
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga
8 p.m. Monday, July 27.
Meadow Brook Music Festival on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester Hills.
Some tickets remain at $75-$275 pavilion, $35 lawn.
Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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