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Why do pop singers keep releasing jazz albums? The upsides are tremendous

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga teamed up for the album “Cheek to Cheek.”
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga teamed up for the album “Cheek to Cheek.” ANSA via AP

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 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 re-establish 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 one-way 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. So why do so many artists take this route? Well, 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, Enh … 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.

Legitimate

Lady Gaga: Lady Gaga benefited from the imprimatur of Tony Bennett, who has basically fashioned his own cottage industry from recording songs with pop artists who fancy themselves jazz vocalists, if only for one track. Indeed, that’s how his relationship with Gaga began; they recorded “The Lady Is a Tramp” together for Bennett’s “Duets II” album. But he took a shine to Gaga and they became close friends. Annie Leibovitz even shot Bennett sketching a nude Gaga for the January 2012 issue of Vanity Fair. (The sketch later sold on eBay for $30,000.)

They teased fans with surprise appearances at the Montreal Jazz Festival and the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts before releasing their joint album “Cheek to Cheek” in September 2014. Their “Great American Songbook” concert, taped at New York’s Lincoln Center, aired on the PBS series “Great Performances” in October. The popularity of “Cheek to Cheek” made Bennett, now 88, the oldest act to reach No. 1 on the Billboard chart.

Bob Dylan: Dylan’s 36th album, “Shadows in the Night,” earned the grudging respect of unrepentant jazz snob Geoff Dwyer, author of “But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz.”

But Dwyer’s endorsement wasn’t rooted in “Shadows in the Night” alone. It was mostly because Dylan had long established his chops as a skilled improvisationalist before he ever thought about releasing an album of Frank Sinatra songs. Just listen to his many iterations of “Tangled Up In Blue” or the nearly 12-minute meditation that takes place on “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

Queen Latifah/Dana Owens: Those who remember that Queen Latifah began her entertainment career as a rapper will always associate her with 1993’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” And while Latifah was recently nominated for an Emmy for her performance as the empress of the blues in “Bessie,” a project she’d been nursing for 20 years, her interest in jazz and the blues didn’t come at the end of her career. If anything, her Oscar-nominated turn playing Mama Morton in the 2002 movie-musical “Chicago,” or the 2004 release of “The Dana Owens Album” (which, titled after her birth name, received a Grammy nod for best jazz vocal album) likely boosted her credibility for “Bessie.”

Enh … Passable

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 remaining familiar to most. This was not the route Mitchell 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 Charlie Mingus 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: Like Mitchell before her, Ronstadt 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’m not 100 percent sure I’d call them jazz renditions.”

This Is Not Your Best Work

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.”

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 from “The First Cut Is the Deepest” and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” as one can get, and the world’s relatively tiny contingent of jazz snobs aren’t rushing to hand over their money, so who is it?

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 by Manilow – it was clear he wanted to insulate himself from some of the pitfalls and cliches of his peers. He enlisted the help of respected musicians such as baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and drummer Shelly Manne. He recorded duets with Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme. 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.

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