You can’t fault Annie Lennox if she gives the impression Nostalgia is her first swipe at a “serious” jazz record. It’s an album of jazz standards and its released by Blue Note records. Back in the 90’s she entered the scene as the gender-bending vocalist of the Eurythmics turning out perfect synth pop. Lennox turned 60 this year and along with her closely cropped grey hair, she displays the full maturity of a veteran artist.
However, the results here are bit muddled with peaks and valleys along the musical journey through the well-worn territory of the Great American Songbook, fast becoming the favorite vacation spot for aging rock stars.
In no way, shape, or form is Lennox a jazz singer. That is not to say she can’t sing or has no soul. She can and she does, but in comparison with Nina Simone, Ray Charles or Billie Holiday, she is emphatically not a jazz singer. In fairness it’s a heavy lift for anyone to be compared favorably to a trio like Simone, Charles and Holiday and while Lennox gamely tries, she all too often face plants when she tackles material she clearly has no feel for.
Things start promisingly enough as Lennox turns in a credible performance on “Memphis In June,” previously popularized by Simone. Seek out her version and contrast if with Lennox and the differences are dramatically stark. Whether the world really needed another take on “Georgia On My Mind” is subject to debate, but what isn’t is Sweet Baby Ray’s has nothing to fear from Lennox’s stab at it (neither does Willie Nelson).
Where the album stumbles badly are on the fourth and sixth tracks, “Summertime” and “Strange Fruit.” The former is stripped down to a stark piano-and-vocal dirge with Lennox carefully enunciating every word as she strives to be poignant, but merely comes off as stiff.
“Strange Fruit” is a hot mess. Lennox comes off as utterly clueless and as a dabbling dilettante. By most objective standards Lennox is a technically superior vocalist to Holiday with a pretty voice, but “Strange Fruit” is not a pretty song and it does not need pretty vocalizing to get its bleak point across. Holiday presented “Strange Fruit” as a damning indictment of Jim Crow lynch law, but Lady Day‘s scathing indictment of Southern racism is absent from Lennox’s sanitized and bloodless interpretation and the completeness of the failure nearly sinks Nostalgia. A singer must choose material which suits them and an English White woman attempting to a song about the lynching of Black folks in the South is completely unsuitable for her.
Lennox takes another shot at a Holiday with “God Bless the Child” which isn’t terrible, but its nothing special either. Memo to Annie Lennox: You are a great singer, but you do not “get” Billie Holiday. After the double Lady Day debacle Nostalgia gets a lift from three short songs. “You Belong To Me” has been covered by artists as diverse as Patti Page, Bing Crosby, Homer and Jethro, Rosemary Clooney, Ringo Starr and Michael Buble and Lennox gets back on track with a tune which plays to her strengths of perfect phrasing accompanied by a stylish presentation. “September In the Rain,” “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” and “The Nearness of You” are all well within Lennox’s comfort zone.
The purest “jazz” moment should be the closer, “Mood Indigo” but it’s spoiled by a silly middle and end section where Lennox starts freestyling and the band starts goofing around, so its left to John Green and Edward Heyman’s “I Cover the Waterfront” to give Nostalgia, previously covered by Sarah Vaughn, John Lee Hooker and (surprise!) Billie Holiday, what little jazz credibility it has.
As more and more pop artists turn to the Great American Songbook, some have hit and others have whiffed. Nostalgia hit with landing at Number One on Billboard’s Jazz Albums and as of this writing holding steady at #3. Lennox told Billboard, “I was drawn towards exploring and recording in the classic jazz genres interpreting 12 songs from the legendary American songbook —the fact that many of the compositions were written almost eighty years ago stands as testimony to the caliber of their legacy.”
Lennox’s sentiment’s are doubtlessly sincere, but unfortunately Nostalgia falls short of delivering an auspicious homage to that legacy. I’m wary when the Great American Songbook is raided by older pop artists looking for a quick and easy fix to the musical doldrums. Rod Stewart has cashed in on this for a while now. I hate to think Lennox followed suit, but it sure sounds like it.
Track Listing: Memphis In June, Georgia On My Mind, I Put A Spell On You, Summertime, I Cover the Waterfront, Strange Fruit, God Bless the Child, You Belong To Me, September In the Rain, I Can Dream, Can’t I?, The Nearness of You, Mood Indigo
Personnel: Annie Lennox: vocals, piano, fender rhodes, flute, percussion; Mike Stevens: guitar, Hammond organ, accordion, harmonica, vibraphone, keyboards, programming; Neal Wilkerson: drums; Chris Hill: double bass, bass guitar; Nichol Thomson: trombone; Simon Finch: trumpet; Richard Brook: percussion; Stephen Hussey: violin, viola, orchestration; Ivan Hussey: cello
Record Label: Blue Note Records