What does it mean for an actor to put out a vanity project? How far do they have to go for the worth and the validity of the work to be undone by the fact that an actor probably only made it for attention? How much of themselves do them need to give in to the music (or art) they’re making for it to be something that can be taken seriously? For every Steve Martin – who has largely abandoned comedy to immerse himself in bluegrass – there’s something like The Return of Bruno, the laughably bad covers album by Bruce Willis, or even William Shatner’s Transformed Man (though his 2004 Has Been is shockingly good).
Which brings us to Jeff Goldblum and his newest album of standards, I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This – his second with the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra. Though he’s the internet and Hollywood’s most beloved and chaotic problematic fave/silver fox/zaddy this side of our lord and savior Keanu Reeves, Goldblum – of The Fly, Jurassic Park, and Independence Day – seems like exactly the type of personality that could conceivably make a slapdash, phoned-in cash-grab to drum up between-pictures publicity, it turns out this couldn’t be farther from the truth. NPR has been reporting on his near-weekly Los Angeles jazz bar performances for half a decade, wherein he showcases his prowess as a world-class jazz pianist. For those who were unaware of all of this, just for one more bit of shock: here’s him playing the Jurassic Park theme at Glastonbury in June. In short: this couldn’t be farther away from a vanity project – this guy eats, sleeps, and breathes jazz, it turns out.
And so, I Shouldn’t Be Telling You this is a capital-J Jazz album, characterizable as the work of Goldblum only to those who know what they’re listening to. To an outsider, this could pass for a finer-quality version of something that you might hear in a Portillo’s, a lush and inviting wave of hot jazz that sits comfortably in the background of whatever posh cocktail/New Year’s party you’ve wandered into. He’s only noticeable at the very end, where he takes the mic for the too-sweet “Little Man You’ve Had a Busy Day,” the classic Mabel Wayne standard tackled by (among others) Perry Como and Bing Crosby. Outside of this, he’s just another part of the band, which helps the listener sink into it.
What separates I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This from the pack is that Goldblum’s stature as a movie star and a respected jazz pianist means he pulls some fucking names. The album kicks off with Sharon Van Etten singing “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” her sultry vibrato blending in flawlessly, while Inara George of The Bird & the Bee gives a tantalizing rendition of “The Beat Goes On.” Elsewhere, fellow jazz acolyte Fiona Apple – currently in the process of her cicada-like warm up to public life again in advance of her forthcoming fifth LP – comes in like a chameleon on “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” bringing her profound jazz influences to the forefront while also serving as a reminder of how incredible her voice is – Van Etten only wishes she could wail like that. We also get a jaw-dropping performance of “The Thrill Is Gone” by none other than Miley Cyrus, her delivery strong enough to make a legitimate case for Cyrus establishing her own career in jazz.
It’s not all just mainstream stars, either – the sole male non-Goldblum, non-backing voice we hear is Gregory Porter, his fantastic baritone breathing new life into Perry Como’s “Make Someone Happy” elegantly enough that it feels like you’re in the presence of a Sinatra-like megastar. And that’s one song after LA jazz singer Gina Saputo (who also helped arrange these songs) scats her way through “If I Knew Then,” one of the most enjoyable instances of scatting you’ll hear this year. There’s even a small handful of instrumentals that just serve as crisp, enjoyable interludes in between tracks, which don’t add much to the record, but work wonders in keeping the album’s atmosphere going while Goldblum and the Orchestra noodle around – “Drifin’” is the best of them, coming in clutch with the best tenor sax solo this side of Duke Silver performing on “5,000 Candles in the Wind.”
I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This presents us with the template for what a vanity project should look like – if you could even call it one, considering how successful it is. It isn’t going to shift anybody’s outlooks on jazz or reinvent the form, but it does something entirely surprising: it presents jazz as an accessible art form that even those who vehemently hate it can enjoy, filled with loving renditions of timeless songs by dynamite singers and equally amazing musicians. It turns out to be one of 2019’s most surprising releases: one that feels destined to help quash the doldrums of winter, perfectly executed by one of the most unlikely sources you could imagine.