Radio stations these days are replete with basic, ill-written lyrics about dating or makin’ whoopee. Should we expect more from modern songs? Sadly, probably not: the beginning stages of dating are akin to puppy love—sweet, not deep—and sex sells.
Where do we look for true love songs, then, especially on this Valentine’s Day? There are a lot of songs out there claiming to be the perfect love song, but I daresay no genre does the day of love better than jazz (and that’s the beginning of an entire thesis here).
After a healthy dose of romantic listening to twenty reimagined jazz tunes, read through to the end for tips on recreating sultry jazz standards in your own image.
What is a standard?
A song referred to as a “standard” or a “jazz standard” is one that the greater community of musicians considers standard literature for an accomplished jazz musician to know. They’re also songs that most people are familiar with (although some of these tunes are not as well-known as they used to be as we move further away from the halcyon days of ubiquitous jazz).
Fake books (which are published collections of lead sheets) usually contain an impressive amount of standards. Some were written for movies and then re-interpreted by jazz musicians, others were from Broadway, and still more came from the radio. A few blues and a handful of folk songs fall into the category of standards.
What to listen for in a romantic song
In this article, we’re talking romance, and not as in Chopin, Tchaikovsky, or Liszt. Think romantic in terms of candlelight, a cozy meal, and the great, great love of your life.
What makes these songs sound more romantic than others?
All of the songs contained in the list below are not only jazz standards, but also standards that express a particular longing or desire of the heart, so we have to go beyond the lyrics themselves to find the romance (after all, this isn’t a list of the most romantic poems!). Here, we’re looking for renditions that stood apart from the others.
You could, in theory, apply the following characteristics to any song and make it sound more romantic, more sensuous, and more lovely than it already was. When possible and available, I included tracks of standards that included:
1. A lack of overproduction. When it comes to romance, you want natural, authentic, and thoughtful. Too much added synthesizer, faux strings, and the like can take a solid song and turn it into elevator music. It’s like comparing between a fresh burger and one from McDonald’s—there’s definitely a difference!
2. Slower tempos. Sure, there are times for high speeds and kickin’ beats, but those are better reserved for driving down the highway or heading out to the dancefloor – not setting the mood for love.
3. Convincing interpretations. This might be subjective, of course, but I went about looking for songs that sounded authentic. I wanted the singer to make me believe that he or she really meant the lyrics they sang.
With these criteria in mind, let’s see what lovestruck crooners made the cut.
The Romantic Rendition Winners
Aaaaand the awards for “Most Romantic Songs” go to…
1. Fly Me to the Moon
Most romantic rendition goes to: Olivia Ong.
There are some keyboards mixed with piano and guitars at the beginning of this song, almost in juxtaposition against Ong’s pure, light, and simple vocals. Although Ong keeps the tempo at a relaxed place, the maracas and beat lend a delightful Latin-inspired influence to her take on the jazz standard:
2. The Very Thought of You
Most romantic rendition goes to: Nancy Wilson.
The way Wilson sings makes you think she wrote the words herself—a mix of purposeful pauses and hushed tones combined with some belted vocals here and there both reflect and capture the range and depth of feelings found in romance:
3. The Nearness of You
Most romantic rendition goes to: Norah Jones.
The simple accompaniment to Jones’ distinct and stirring vocals help drive these lyrics home. The passion especially shows up on the following lyric: “I need no soft lights/to entrance me.” Listen and you’ll see what I mean:
4. What A Wonderful World
Most romantic rendition goes to: Eva Cassidy.
It’s hard to top the splendor of how Louis Armstrong eternalized this song, but Eva Cassidy brings this song in another direction. Her folksy, bluesy vocals and slowed down tempo bring this song into the realm of love songs:
5. When I Fall in Love
Most romantic rendition goes to: Brad Mehldau.
Most people are familiar with this song thanks to the Celine Dion/Clive Griffin version of it that appeared on the Sleepless in Seattle soundtrack. While that tune might be a standard in the world of adult contemporary radio these days, it’s so poppy and processed that it doesn’t even resemble its origins in the world of jazz (kind of like how Velveeta doesn’t resemble real cheese).
Brad Mehldau’s version, while lyric-less, is nonetheless romantic and filled with emotion. At fourteen minutes, this instrumental take is a bit long, but it’s perfect for curling up with a glass of wine and staring out the window, looking out into the rain (okay, I don’t know anyone who actually does that and I’ve only seen it in film, but this song conjures up the desire to do just that):
6. Blue in Green
Most romantic rendition goes to: Bill Evans Trio.
Most jazz listeners probably know this as the fourth track on Miles Davis’ epic record, Kind of Blue, but Evans and his group make this song more sultry than sullen. Maybe it’s the movement of the piano over the cry of the horn? You decide:
7. In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning
Most romantic rendition goes to: John Mayer & Chris Botti.
I always knew that the man who sang “Your Body is a Wonderland” would have more to his vocal chops than radio-friendly pop tunes—just listen to the smooth wistfulness of his voice on this song and you’ll hope he puts out a jazz record sometime soon:
8. You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To
Most romantic rendition goes to: Chet Baker.
No vocals needed: the trumpet may never have ever sounded as sexy as it does when Chet Baker plays it here, where he takes his time completing the phrases, which is totally A-OK when it comes to romance:
9. As Time Goes By
Most romantic rendition goes to: Jane Monheit.
A sad violin opens the song, which is unusual, but Monheit, as only she can do, manages to create a provocative rendition of an otherwise feel-good, sentimental song:
10. La Vie En Rose
Most romantic rendition goes to: Daniela Andrade.
Andrade’s voice hearkens back to another era—the era the song was originally written in. Her sweet vocals atop the clean strum of an acoustic guitar make for a charming version of the original:
11. Dream a Little Dream of Me/Le Yeux Ouverts
Most romantic rendition goes to: The Beautiful South.
This song comes right from the French Kiss soundtrack—hello, romance. And what could be more romantic than hearing “Dream a Little Dream of Me” in French, the language of love?
12. My Foolish Heart
Most romantic rendition goes to: Kurt Elling.
Quiet percussion and Kurt Elling’s solo voice capture your ears and heart in the lusty intro, and ethereal piano notes lead into the verse. Elling picks up the tempo as the song goes on, but his voice is smoother than a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and a box of Godiva truffles, both of which I want to feast on while listening to this song in a bubble bath:
13. The Way You Look Tonight
Most romantic rendition goes to: Tony Bennett.
Bennett takes his time to put this Fields/Kern song over; his thoughtful articulation is accompanied by subtle bass, soft drum brushes, and a piano that both accompanies and responds. In Bennett’s hands, this song becomes a ballad and an ode, departing from the original interpretation by Fred Astaire in the movie Swing Time:
14. Come Rain or Come Shine
Most romantic rendition goes to: Don Henley.
Who knew that the singer of The Eagles and Boys of Summer had this much soul in him? Henley’s unplugged version is bluesy as all get out and has a lilting, anticipating tempo:
15. For Sentimental Reasons
Most romantic rendition goes to: Nat King Cole Trio.
The song was released in 1945 by Watson’s quartet with Joe King as lead vocalist on the Manor Records label. Since then, a handful of artists have come out with their own interpretations of the tune—Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, and Sam Cooke have all had their vocals on this one. Still, Nat King Cole remains as king of this song. His buttery voice, the thoughtful pacing and phrasing, and not an ounce of overproduction come together to make one beautiful love song:
16. Moonlight in Vermont
Most romantic rendition goes to: Josh Turner and Carson McKee.
This little-known version of the ode to the Green Mountain State features McKee’s voice and Turner’s creative guitar licks, which combine to produce one charming and tender love song:
17. All or Nothing At All
Most romantic version goes to: Diana Krall.
Intricate bass lines, Krall’s sensuous voice, responsive guitars, and piano licks make for a seriously lush version of this standard:
Most romantic version goes to: Harry Connick Jr.
Stardust is one of the most recorded jazz songs of all time, and as you may imagine, there are scores of different approaches to this tune. One could argue that it’s one of the most romantic songs of all time: the terms “stardust”, “fairytale”, “paradise where roses grew”, and “in my heart it will remain” are just total romance all over the place.
Take one of the most romantic tunes ever and pair it with one of the sexiest male vocalists ever and you get magic. Most of Harry’s songs have horns and fun big band arrangements; this one, though, is just the man and his piano. Bonus: the vibrato on the word “night” is goosebump-inducing:
19. They Can’t Take That Away From Me
Most romantic version goes to: Diana Krall.
Krall sings about the way you wear your hat and the way you sip your tea in a breathy and almost-out-of-breath voice, and then reminisces about “the memory of all that” in a playful, flirtatious way. Add to that the piano, bass, and guitar, and you’ve got a trio of enchantment playing around in this song:
20. Body and Soul
Most romantic rendition goes to: it’s tied!
First, this is one of the most covered songs of all time. It seems like everyone has their own version. There’s a huge camp of folks out there who are especially partial to the Bennett/Winehouse version (which was Amy Winehouse’s final recording). It took a lot of listening to narrow it down, and the most romantic versions out there are…
Female artist: Mishka Adams
The tempo allows the listener to focus on the words and the message behind them. The instrumentation holds interest while allowing the spotlight to shine on Adams’ voice, oozing with longing:
Male artist: Jose James
James’ voice is equal parts luxurious and expressive, and he certainly uses his instrument to convey the depth of the lyrics. The song also takes an interesting turn halfway through—it stays in the realm of jazz, but the arrangement switches up enough to engage the listener even more, right before the final push home:
Leaning in Closer…
Now it’s time for you to strap on your instrument or warm up your vocal cords. Explore the wonderful world of reimagined jazz standards further in your own way:
1. Listen closely to the songs as a collection. Could you hear some similarities in these tunes, apart from the lyrics? What did you note?
2. Post-Modern Jukebox is famous for turning any non-jazz song into something that sounds like a standard. I was sort of looking for the opposite here – as you’ll see below, I’m not a fan of Celine Dion’s “When I Fall In Love”. (Lady’s got pipes, that’s for sure, but that rendition doesn’t inspire anything in my system – no warm fuzzies, no hygge-ness, no-winin’-no-dinin’.) With that group – and the twenty previous tunes – in mind, what non-jazz-standard love song could you re-interpret? It might not be a true jazz standard, but could you make it sound like one?
3.There are seemingly hundreds of them, so look for a jazz standard whose lyrics resonate with you – you’re sure to find one! Find the lead sheet for the song, learn the chords, and if you’re a pianist or vocalist and can accompany yourself on the piano or the guitar, create your own romantic rendition of the tune. If you’re learning another instrument, work through the song with a musical buddy to work out your own interpretation of the song.
4. If you can already handle the above exercises, why not try to fully arrange a jazz standard with the intention of making it sound more romantic?
Perhaps the world of romantic jazz standards will help you with your love life, but we make no guarantees. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Looking to write your own jazz standards? By developing your ear training skills and learning about intervals, chords, and chord progressions, you can learn to identify elements that make jazz, jazz, and use them to create your own masterpieces!
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