Tony Bennett has compared Lady Gaga to Ella Fitzgerald, but he has also compared her to Picasso — so let’s just say she winds him up in a way that’s not to be fully trusted. The two met at a benefit in 2011, and the subsequent Gaga track on Bennett’s Duets II sparked a love match that bridged the six decades separating these two Italian-Americans with New York roots. But on Cheek to Cheek, this much is clear: She sings like a real musician, crawling inside melodies and finding new ways to bring unexpected flashes of light and drama to this set of familiar tunes. Many pop stars fake their way through standards; few have her facility, and fewer still her smarts. That she’s a little more Broadway than Birdland would hardly matter were she not spending 45 minutes of this improbable duets album alongside one of America’s greatest living vocalists.
The settings vary from strings to lonely piano, with each singer taking solo strolls that threaten to outshine their duets. At 88, Bennett and his gift are essentially unchanged: a bit of grit on the bottom, surprising power on the top and in between a soft command that’s a not-so-minor miracle of human indomitability. He’s always been a laid-back master of phrasing, sliding so gracefully through every performance that he seems to inhabit songs rather than interpret them. But his genius has never been more evident than when his 28-year-old counterpart works hard to keep up with him as he seems to do nothing at all, just breathe and smile.
As for Gaga, she goes for gags occasionally, getting all Miss Adelaide on “I Won’t Dance.” And she can be brassy when smoke is called for. But on “Lush Life,” the effect is startling — Gaga’s in control of a world not of her own making, neither refashioning herself nor what’s around her, but rather rewarding every bit of attention you pay her.
Cheek to Cheek is an act of devotion for both Gaga and Bennett, with each bestowing on the other a different kind of approbation, and each deserving of it.