Marvin Gaye went to Motown hoping to establish himself as a jazz singer and, despite his success as an R&B stylist, never abandoned that ambition. Maybe that’s why Vulnerable, his last (and until now unreleased) collection of jazz ballads had him publicly enthusing ”I love this one the most.”
Casual fans might not feel the same way. Despite some astonishing singing, the ultralush orchestral arrangements so lack the fire of Gaye’s pop work that listeners may wonder, ”What’s going on?”
The short answer is that Gaye wanted to put his own soulful spin on the sort of heart-worn balladry perfected by Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. Working with swing-style backing tracks, Gaye extended the idiosyncratic vocal approach of What’s Going On to seven standards, using jazz-soul ornamentation to reshape each song’s melodic flow.
Trouble is, Gaye so completely personalized these performances that he sometimes lost sight of the songs themselves. ”I Wish I Didn’t Love You So” is offered in two versions, with vocal takes so different it barely seems the same song. Granted, Gaye’s strategy can add emotional resonance — ”Funny, Not Much” is a stunner — but more often stresses the singer, not the song. And that’s hardly the standard way to sing standards. B-