GERSHWIN: There's a boat that's leavin' soon for New York. BLAKE: Watch What Happens. FAIN: Secret Love. WONDER: You and I. ARLEN: Ac-cen-tchu-ate the Positive. LOEWE: I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face. CUNNINGHAM: Can't We be Friends? CHAPLIN: Smile. GERSHWIN: They All Laughed. RODGERS: My Funny Valentine. LEGRAND: What are You Doing the Rest of Your Life? ELLINGTON: In My Solitude.
Thomas Quasthoff (baritone), various musicians.
DG B0006239-02 (F) (DDD) TT: 49:44

Who's got rhythm? I have no idea why great Lieder and opera singers get bitten with the yen to sing classic pop. After all, most of them have not really studied it or, even better, gone through the fire of making their living with it, and the style and repertoire require as much study and effort as Lieder does. You cannot just step in and let fly. One of the great camp recordings of all time -- Lauritz Melchior singing "Please Don't Say 'No,' Say 'Maybe,'" complete with high C -- often gets dragged out at parties, and even the great Heldentenor's fans have the good sense that shows love doesn't mean blind. Renée Fleming's "Over the Rainbow" is a road accident of laughably bad taste, something you would never accuse her of in her home style.

Quasthoff does better than most. He has the standard conversational style down pretty well. He has made an effort to master colloquial English and has gotten to the point where he sounds as if he lives in an ethnic enclave of Milwaukee. The Midwestern final "r" in particular gets hit pretty hard, and here and there a vowel heads back across the Atlantic. However, overall Quasthoff almost passes. He does better in slow numbers than in fast. The two best tracks are "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" and "In My Solitude." It's obvious that he loves each and every song on the program, although he gives you something personal only on these. He also communicates as a great Lieder singer should, removing the curse from such turkeys as "Secret Love" and "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life." And, of course, the voice is beautiful.

Nevertheless, the title of the CD, The Jazz Album, amounts to nothing more than false advertising. The problems, predictably, come down to rhythm and improvisational freedom. In the opening number, Gershwin's rousing "There's a boat," you have only to compare Quasthoff with the great Cab Calloway to know what's missing in both departments. It's not that Quasthoff does a terrible job. It's that he doesn't come up to the level of Robert Goulet as a jazz singer. Quasthoff is a jazz singer only if you're willing to loosen the definition. Furthermore, when you think of the singers in his weight class -- Johnny Hartman, Billy Eckstine, Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, even Steve Lawrence -- you have to admit that, sadly, this album really comes down to an indulgence. In the words of the Ellington song, "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," and Quasthoff swings fitfully, rather than easily. Furthermore, if you don't improvise on a regular basis, you either don't do it well or you fall into imitating your betters. There are times when I get the feeling that Quasthoff tries to impersonate Sinatra, phrase by phrase -- and not the good Sinatra, either; the one who tried to get by on iconic status. As a musical-comedy star who began as a band clarinetist once remarked: "If you don't keep it up, you solo and suddenly it's 1957."

The arrangements, mostly by pianist Alan Broadbent and film composer Nan Schwartz (no relation) are quite good. Schwartz takes up the orchestral charts and Broadbent the ones for small combo. The worst arrangement (and the worst track on the disc) goes to Steve Gray's ricky-tick setting of the Arlen and Mercer classic "Ac-cen-tchu-ate the Positive." It's as if neither Gray nor Quasthoff has heard of syncopation, let along swing. Fortunately, Gray confines himself to that one arrangement. The thing is, why did Quasthoff let it through? He would have done better to trust himself to Broadbent and a string bass. I think it indicates yet again his lack of experience with jazz.

Die-hard Quasthoff fans won't care, of course. The curious, I think, will be disappointed, though they might give points for Quasthoff's sincere effort. Fans of jazz and pop should probably stay away.

One small note. "Can't We be Friends?" was written not by Eric Stephen Cunningham and Christopher Paul Lang (whoever they may be), but by Kay Swift and Paul James for the 1930 show Fine and Dandy. This mistake, thanks to Deutsche Grammophon, has spread all over the Internet.

S.G.S. (November 2007)