Jeff Goldblum Enlists Miley Cyrus, Fiona Apple, Sharon Van Etten for Rendered Jazz Standards
The perennially quirky Jeff Goldblum has played piano longer than he has played characters on screen. For years, he has maintained a revue residency at L.A.’s Rockwell Table and Stage with his band, the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, performing a variety show, centered around a jazz band of the most loungy variety. It wasn’t until last year that Goldblum first tried his hand at recording an album, “The Capitol Studio Sessions,” and the critical acclaim proved it well worth the wait. While that record cast Goldblum as a master of ceremonies, stepping in for short comedic interludes in between songs, and engaging in banter with the likes of Sarah Silverman, the followup, “I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This,” expresses the same humor less overtly, through nothing more than the stylings of the music. With an impressive roster of featured singers, including Miley Cyrus, Sharon Van Etten, and Fiona Apple, the album is a camp, colorful listen.
A cover of Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” sets the mood effectively, beginning with a lone low-register piano riff, soon to be joined by the voice of Sharon Van Etten. At first, it’s hard to believe it’s her, as there’s no indie edge or angst. In what alternate universe would Van Etten be a nightclub singer from an earlier era, recorded in the crispest audio? Surely, it seems, one envisioned by Jeff Goldblum. Thrillingly, Van Etten couldn’t have played the role better, and as the song goes on, her particular personality does start to show, albeit only subtly, channeled masterfully into the stylings of the aforementioned character. Midway, the full band erupts, and it sounds like the musicians are having plenty of fun, jamming away in a riotous frenzy, and ultimately zippining into an infectious, minimal outro of trombone and shuffling toms.
Even with music so playfully effervescent, there are, of course, different shades, and moments of Van Etten’s idiosyncrasies over minor chords place the intro slightly on the darker end. Come the following song, a mash up of trumpeter Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” and Sonny & Cher’s “The Beat Goes On,” however, all things have shifted to full farcical festivity. The horn bits are joyful and swingin’ and guest vocalist Inara George sings as if she hasn’t a care in the world. Her rendition is light and giddy, consistent with the spirit of the original, although markedly different from Cher’s characteristic, low delivery. The band goes to town, taking a number steeped in jazz proclivities, and seeing these through to their full ends.
Herbie Hancock’s “Driftin’” finds the band playing with verve, delving into the funkier side of things, with cascading lines that interlock and release, under plenty of gloss. It brings the focus back to the band, allowing space in between the vocal-heavy takes, to enjoy the freeness at the center of the whole undertaking. “The Thrill Is Gone / Django” is a standout, from the charged opening chords and rolling crashes. The tense romance suddenly evaporates, in line with the title of the first song, best known for B.B. King’s rendition. The expected smooth, loungey fare takes over, except with the cool taken to a whole new avenue by the illustrious Myley Cyrus. Cyrus has some serious stylistic range to her singing, as she reminded us on her last album, “She Is Coming,” and this song finds her at her most elegantly restrained, full of cool composure, a perfect match for Goldblum’s designs. She leaves her melodies clean and sleek, avoiding histrionics, and keeping melismatic outpourings to brief indulgences. Like Van Etten, she lets her trademark touches make their way into the melody here and there, in this case with occasional words bearing a slight Southern tinge. A third in, she bursts into howling on the level of the “Wrecking Ball” chorus, then returns in a flash to easily hushed utterances. The band build on the momentum, with a series of soaring solos, drifting into bits from John Lewis’ “Django,” a tribute to iconic Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. The Eastern-tinged melodies mesh brilliantly with those of “The Thrill Is Gone,” making for a particularly seamless medley.
The band’s take on Joe Henderson’s “The Kicker” slows down the tempo, and transforms a rather frenetic tune into an easy, breezy cut that somehow still retains the spirit of the original. The drummer plays with especial vigor and technical prowess, and horns and organs play intricate solos with passion, but also with a subdued attitude fitting with the album’s overall mood. The Fiona Apple-featuring “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” a cover of Frank Sinatra’s 1954 hit, falls just about between Fiona Apple’s usual aesthetic and Goldblum’s. The song starts with a single syllable of Apple’s voice, and she instantly sounds light and crisp like the other featured singers, except with an extra edge added by her characteristic, slight smokiness. Over trampling drums, Apple rides the waves, bleats and bellows, and eventually comes to center, chirpily repeating the titular line. Apple’s music has long been informed by jazz, and this song recalls her jazzy excursions on songs such as 1999’s “Fast As You Can.”
Goldblum and crew proceed to take on Jimmy Smith’s 1964 classic “The Cat,” which treated an organ-centered composition to big band arrangements. It finds the band venturing into the jazzier side of early soul / R&B — think Booker T & the MG’s “Green Onions.” Near the end, all the frenzy comes to a halt, and the slickest, minimal piano riff ever, carried by handclaps, brings the song to an infectious end. The next song begins with a rather faithful rendition of jazz guitar pioneer Wes Anderson’s most famous original composition, “Four on Six,” until some tremolo chords and organ mist announce the arrival of Anna Calvi for the second tune of the mash up, Marianne Faithful’s 1979 hit “Broken English.” Unlike the preceding standards tackled, this is a tune with no ostensible jazzy qualities. Calvi and the band transform the tune, turning the austere stomp of the original into a number totally consistent with the rest of the album. Calvi reimagines Faithful’s designedly crude vocalizations as mellow outpourings with a dramatic edge. When she sings, “It’s just an old war / Not even a cold war,” you can hear her curling up her lips upon certain syllables, delivering them in a pouty, flirtatious manner that immediately amplifies all the camp of the whole affair. Calvi is a particularly theatrical character, and when she turns up the intensity to bellow, “What are you fighting for?” the song reaches an apex.
Next, we reach further back in time, for a take on Dick Jurgens and Eddy Howard’s 1939 hit “If I Knew Then.” Featured on vocals is GIna Saputo, who unlike anyone on the mic until now, is first and foremost a jazz singer, and her contribution reflects this — so much so that she ditches the vocals entirely, with the whole band accompanying her melodically in real time, making for a dense, robust sound. Then, “Make Someone Happy,” from the 1960 Broadway Musical “Do Re Mi,” begins with organ and especially expressive horns over swinging, swaying drums, and Gregory Porter’s voice enters the mix, instantly setting the song apart, as the only male singer on the album. There’s a bit of Porter’s idol Nat King Cole to the raspiness of his voice, but just remotely enough to conjure a vague sense of the associated sentiment. He sounds more like if Cole went to conservatory, and came to show off, with almost operatic vibrato flourishes and hushed vocals at just the right moments. Some of the most charming bits are the when the band stops and starts, with all the band members to chime in together in between the broken bits. They’ve paid attention to detail, ostensibly going so far as to ensure their accents sound typical of the era when music like this commonplace.
Closer “Little Man You’ve Had a Busy Day,” first recorded by Elsie Carlisle in 1934, here begins with gorgeous guitar and bass interplay, the intricate guitar work recalling the characteristic stylings of accurately self-professed virtuoso Joe Pass. As a final surprise, the singer turns out to be none other than Goldblum himself. Unlike the other singers on the record, Goldblum sounds, from his first breaths, strikingly like an actor — and one cast in a role that only Jeff Goldblum could really play. He’s at his goofiest here, going from rasps to overly rhotic, folky pronunciations, and close up breaths that might be a bit creepy if they weren’t so obviously affected in a committed, wry comic gesture of the most peculiar sort. Goldblum sings, “Come on soldier / Put away your gun / The war is over for tonight,” echoing Calvi’s sentiments on “Broken English.” The silliness reaches unprecedented heights when Goldblum sings, “Can’t you hear the bugle softly say,” and continues to make the most buffoonish bugle noise with his mouth. Essentially a lullaby, the song brings the album to a graceful end.
One thing that stands out about “I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This” is how fearlessly unique it is. A whole album of lounge jazz, recorded in 2019 fidelity, is an undertaking few other than Goldblum could pull off. The selection of standards is itself a delight, spanning a time range that allows the band to tap into bygone musical instincts, and reimagine them, with consummate musicianship, for a modern world, in a designedly retro style that falls somewhere in between ages, making a case for the timeless potential of music. As on the album’s predecessor, Goldblum sits unassumingly alongside his band, never reaching for the spotlight, until the final track, thereby making for a rewarding finale. The singers are one of the most thrilling aspect altogether, as they treat us to the experience of hearing such disparate, distinctive voices as Sharon Van Ettern, Miley Cyrus, and Fiona Apple take on jazz, each falling naturally into character, and fashioning the music with individual flair. Overall, “I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This” is a natural next step for Goldblum & the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, and a delightful listen altogether.
“I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This” is available Nov. 1 on Apple Music.