The list of pop stars who fall back on the American songbook when they reach a certain age fills its own page in the book of clichés. Add to that list Gloria Estefan, who has some stellar collaborators — violinist Joshua Bell, saxophonist Dave Koz — on The Standards.
The collection of jazz and cabaret classics, including Good Morning Heartache, Embraceable You, What a Wonderful World and The Way You Look Tonight, was produced by Estefan. Shelly Berg, dean of the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and a veteran of this genre, did the orchestrations and arrangements and co-produced with Emilio Estefan, the singer’s husband and business partner.
But pedigree doesn’t add up to artistry here. Gloria Estefan brings nothing new or memorable to material immortalized by greats like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and other more accomplished singers (including Miami’s Nicole Henry, who sings the hell out of this material).
Estefan’s bright, direct energy worked on the pop songs that made her a star. But she doesn’t have the vocal ability or rhythmic acuity for songs that depend on richness of tone and subtle phrasing. In fact, she often sounds strained or nasal. The smooth, expertly orchestrated accompaniment is Nelson Riddle-esque swoony, but Estefan’s monotonous phrasing makes the album feel sluggish rather than lush.
Estefan adds some original translations: from Portuguese to English on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar, Spanish to English on the definitive Carlos Gardel song El Dia Que Me Quieras and English to Spanish on Smile ( Sonrie here), a duet with Italian pop singer-songwriter Laura Pausini.
The accompanying press materials say she was aiming for an intimate atmosphere. But there’s no sense of fresh understanding or even emotion underlying the understatement, whether on the quietly gut-rending Good Morning Heartbreaker or the joyful What a Wonderful World.
Dramatically as well as musically, the songs sound the same. The Standards is, unfortunately, standard.