Throughout her storied career, Gloria Estefan has remained true to both her roots and artistic vision. On The Standards, her 27th album, both aspects come into play.
“It’s been on my back-burner for a long time,” says Estefan of the ambitious project, which she co-produced with Grammy-winning pianist, producer/arranger Shelly Berg, and husband Emilio, a 19-time Grammy-winning producer.“I grew up listening to Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Henry Mancini and great romance recording artists in Mexico and Cuba,” she continues, “so this genre is right up my alley.”
Indeed, the Havana-born Estefan had already recorded classic pop songs from the American Songbook, and with two of its greatest exponents: She sang “Come Rain Or Come Shine” opposite Sinatra on his 1993 Duets album, and just last year performed “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)” with Tony Bennett on his Viva Duets disc. Throughout her career, Estefan has also had the distinct honor to collaborate on classic recordings with musical icons including Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, BB King and Jose Carreras. Now with her latest project, this musical chameleon takes on THE STANDARDS in classic style.
Estefan waited until now to do a standards album in order to get “enough life under my belt,” she says, since the repertoire includes torch songs like “Good Morning Heartache” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” that require life experience to give them credibility.
Life experience, of course, is what Estefan has plenty of, and aside from listening to the standards since childhood, The Standards does in fact take her all the way back to the origins of her singular career as an international artist.
Dinah Washington’s classic 1959 pop hit “What A Difference A Day Makes” was the very first song Estefan sang with Miami Latin Boys, the group that became the legendary Miami Sound Machine. It is now among the unforgettable pop standards included on The Standards. “I sang it on October 25, 1975, at my first official gig,” she recalls. “But we did it in disco form and it was a big hit in disco at that time. I chose it for that reason. Here it’s a slow version as originally intended.”
She invokes Miami Sound Machine again in citing “Good Morning Heartache,” the torch song so associated with Billie Holiday. “It’s the first song we recorded for the album, and I did it purposely because it represents coming around full circle for me: I sang it 30 years ago when Miami Sound Machine was on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show—when we sang [the group’s 1983 breakthrough hit] ‘Conga.’ He was so complimentary! It’s a torch song I love singing because there’s so much pain in it, but at the same time you’re resigning yourself to the way things are going to be.”
“What A Difference A Day Makes,” which Estefan also covered with Miami Sound Machine, gave impetus to The Standards when she performed last year with Berg - who has produced and arranged for artists including Patti Austin, Elliot Smith and Arturo Sandoval - at a trustee dinner at the University of Miami Frost School of Music, where Berg serves as dean.
“We sat at the piano just for fun and he asked me to sing it,” she recalls. “Then a few months later, I brought him a list of 50 standards that spoke to me personally that I loved, that I chose by my heart and what I feel. We did a session and I would have released a few of them right then and there!”
They ended up recording 16 songs live in the studio in four days, rarely needing more than two vocal takes. “Every step just unfolded the way it should be when the cosmos help you make it happen,” she continues. “We went through the summer sending demos back and forth, and then I told him I wanted to do them live in the studio—old style: Something magical happens with musicians when you record together live. The sound waves, the physical energy of players in the room. That can’t happen when you’re alone in a booth when everyone else is gone.”
Some of Estefan’s favorite takes, then, were first ones. “The first couple takes you’re not thinking, and it’s just emotion coming out and you’re singing from the heart,” she says.
The process also made for an album with its own identifiable character. “We wanted the album to have an intimate feel. A couple songs have very beautiful orchestral arrangements, which were recorded the following day, but I told Shelly I wanted to do an album without an extraneous note, with an economy of music so it would be really intimate. He did that and then some!”
Besides the intimate production, The Standards stands out for Estefan’s duet partners. The duet with Italian pop singer-songwriter Laura Pausini on Charlie Chaplain’s “Smile” is especially noteworthy. “This song always made me cry,” she says. “Charlie Chaplain spent his life making people smile and laugh and it’s one of the songs that breaks your heart. Recording it was daunting because Michael Jackson did a phenomenal version, so did Natalie Cole. There are so many versions. I wanted to bring my own sensitivity to it because it means so much to me—and Laura Pausini is amazing.”
Minding her worldwide fan base, Estefan actually composed “Smile” in Spanish (“Sonríe”) and sings in both Spanish and Italian (Sorridi). Reversing the feat, she wrote English lyrics for a first-ever English version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Brazilian classic “Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar” (the English version titled “It’s You I’ll Always Love”) and also sang it in French (“Tu Sais Je Vais T’Aimer”), having studied French in school.
On all the selections, she brought along fresh ideas in presenting the much-covered standards. “On ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me,’ for instance, we did it completely different from what anybody’s done - kind of a 6/8, almost Afro-Cuban bass feel,” she says. Her interpretations further reflected the distinct personality that infuses all of Estefan’s music.
Holding up another Fred Astaire gem “The Way You Look Tonight” as another example, she notes that great love songs were picked to establish a “sexy, romantic feeling” and mood running through the entire album. “What a Wonderful World,” which she calls “one of the most beautiful songs ever written,” also offers “such a wonderful way of looking at life: Regardless of how it gets, it’s a beautiful world we live in.”
So does “Young At Heart,” another much-covered standard most associated with Sinatra. “It’s my mantra!” she says. “But a lot of songs are my mantra, like ‘Smile’ expresses the way I look at everything: Your perspective in life is how you create your reality around you. Quincy Jones is almost 80 and still has excitement about life. My husband is still the 22-year-old kid he was when I met him, and I respect that. He’s still the love of my life and continues to feel like a kid every day. It’s never gotten old for him: He doesn’t take anything for granted and works hard and continues every day in great humor and mood and gets out there and fights the fight.”
And speaking of husband Emilio, who also co-produced The Standards, Argentinean idol Carlos Gardel’s “El Dia Que Me Quieras,” for which Estefan wrote a first-ever English translation (“The Day You Say You Love Me”), has very special significance. “It was the wedding song that my husband and I danced to!” she relates. “I wanted to record it. It was never done in English. Before we started doing the record, I was so inspired that I wrote the translation, which I wanted it to be as close to the author as possible. It’s always nice when you can write a standard!”
With The Standards album, Estefan comes full circle. “I’m not a jazz singer, though I love the genre,” she notes. “But in the end, we produced an intimate kind of album that rides a fine line between a jazz record and a pop record. My pop following may not know all the songs, but they will still enjoy such good music!”
For more information, please visit www.gloriaestefan.com