Willie Nelson is among the few surviving elders from country’s rebellious pantheon of artists who blazed a trail out of the saccharine stupefaction of 1960s Nashville and laid down the spirit of rugged individualism that has inspired the alt country/Americana revival of the past decade.
Over the decades, Willie has become an expert in the fine art of song-catching - virtually the whole of the American song book can be found rolling around in his oeuvre. ˝When you hear a great song you know it˝, he says simply, of his talent. ˝You can’t explain why they’re great, but you know they are and you want to sing them˝.
He is first and foremost a great songwriter: he wrote ˝Crazy˝ - immortalised by Patsy Cline - and ˝Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away˝.
The formula of 1978 hit ˝Stardust˝, pop classics and standards, has been cleverly re-thought, re-formatted and resumed on Willie Nelson’s debut for the jazz label Blue Note.
On ˝American Classic˝, the country and western iconic crooner ˝takes another leisurely swim in the vast ocean of popular American song only to find himself becalmed in the sleepy lagoon of smooth (and smoothed-out) jazz classics, 31 years after the agenda-setting survey of popular standards, ˝Stardust˝, gave his standing and credibility outside country music circles a considerable boost˝. BBC
This banishes the traditional image of Willie Nelson, in outlaw bandana, spliff dangling from weathered lip, just one step ahead of the tax man.
The 73-year old Verve Music Group chairman and commercial producer Tony LiPuma and engineer Al Schmitt have mapped out a selection of suppertime classics, wrapped in elegantly supple jazz arrangements, and Willie has evidently popped into the studio, possibly in a tuxedo, and given them his best shot.
If you need a polished, carefree, easy-on-the-ear, relaxed take on ˝Fly Me to the Moon˝ or ˝Ain’t Misbehaving˝, this album is for you.
Unlike Johnny Cash, who garlanded his late recordings with audacious covers, Willie has chosen - or forced to choose - the safest road.
This time around, the formula abandons Nelson’s usual backing band in favour of silky-smooth late-night jazz re-workings (stealthily fronted by pianist Joe Sample, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash) and perfectly manicured orchestral arrangements courtesy of the Grammy Award-winning Johnny Mandel, who can boast collaborations with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Count Basie and Peggy Lee on his CV.
To make the album more enjoyable, the venerable LiPuma - only few months after an almost disastrous work with Diana Krall on Quiet Nights - has called up the most famous late-nite, smoothest operators/syrens on the market, the aforementioned, ubiquitous whispering Canadian star and the sweetly perky Norah Jones on the two tracks, ˝If I Had You˝ and ˝Baby, it’s Cold Outside˝, with very little added value.
Overall, this is a good and very pleasant listening.
Willie’s interpretations are mellow and laidback, like the sounds of Starbucks, it’s a delight to listen to them, they are honest and clear, but they don’t show particular emotions or intimacy.
Certainly it is not an album which will impact your world, nor will hand Willie Nelson over to the American Songbook’s History.
My highlights: ˝The Nearness of You˝, ˝On the Street Where You Live˝ and ˝Angel Eyes˝.