Most of the album, unusually for you, is devoted to standards. Why have they lasted so well and stood the test of time?
I guess a great song, no matter what era it’s from or no matter where it comes from, is honest and touches on the human condition that everyone knows. Everyone’s been in love, everyone’s had their heart broken and the ones that have lasted, they’re written so bloody well: you know Jerome Kern and the Gershwins. They were geniuses.
How much of a challenge is it to take on a jazz standard given the people that have performed it and its history?
Well, it’s a little frightening. I’ve stayed away from a lot of them in my career because so many of them, the great ones, have been done by iconic singers; they’ve had iconic versions of them done already so the idea of doing ‘Love Is Here to Stay’ by the Gershwins is something that I never would have considered but I guess, you know, I’m almost fifty and I feel like I’ve gotten to a certain point where I feel I can stand up to the test. It’s been long enough since that song was written: it’s nearly a hundred years old now and so it just felt like it was time. The main thing was, I was just looking for great love songs and that’s what I found. I found that the ones that really knocked me out. Some of them were old warhorses, like ‘You Make Me Feel So Young,’ and I’ve really worked hard to stay away from tunes that Sinatra made famous, but I couldn’t help it. I love this song and it just seemed like such a great song for this record in particular and especially as a duet with Cyrille (Aimeé).
How did you find her? I’ve not heard of her before.
Oh, she’s such a great singer: really amazing, a wonderfully talented singer and delightful. She walked in backstage. I had done a show with a group of gypsy jazz musicians – French gypsy, sort of Django Reinhardt devotees and I’d done a Django jazz festival in New York City. I just sat in with them for a few tunes. None of them spoke any English and I don’t speak any French and we were sitting there after we’d come off-stage and not communicating and then the door opened to the dressing room and in walked this beautiful, blue-eyed woman with a French accent. She walked up to me and said (puts on a French accent): “I love you!” (Laughs). You know, when a beautiful young French girl says she loves you, you say “well, thank you, who are you?” Anyway, she was very cool and very smart. She said she was a singer so I checked her out on the Internet after I got home and found out that she was a really nice singer and so I’ve been buying her records and staying in touch by e-mail a little bit and when this came up it seemed the perfect thing. She did a wonderful job. I see it as a 1940s romantic comedy with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn; the younger woman with the old curmudgeonly man and her making fun of me for being old in the track. She was so funny. I thought she acted it very, very well. It was very charming.
As well as some standards you recorded a more recent song for the album, Steve Earle’s ‘Valentine’s Day.’ What attracted you to that song?
I love Steve Earle’s writing. I think he’s able to write songs that are terribly romantic and yet they always have an edge. Often the narrator, the singer or whatever, is a bit broken, a bit flawed, and as usual, the character is a mess. He’s forgotten Valentine’s Day and he’s trying to talk her into not being upset. It feels like an old-fashioned song. As a matter of fact, his version of it sounds like an old Patsy Cline track. I just thought this is great: a similar era but a different geographic area, Nashville instead of New York City. I’ve always felt that country songs make great modern standards. They are similar in structure: first verse, bridge, verse, it works really well.
And the storylines I suppose?
Yeah, they’re old-fashioned and they’re romantic and again, it goes back to that universal experience where everyone can relate to that sort of a thing I think.