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Willie Nelson

American Classic

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Label: Blue Note Records

On the surface, country music and jazz seem an unnatural mixture, like a bourbon and blue cheese cocktail, a peanut butter and pickle sandwich or Bob Dylan and lingerie models. Jazz, after all, isn’t just another musical style: it’s an entirely different pastime, inhabited by trumpets, horns and guys with nicknames like Cannonball, Birdman and Peanut, while country music is cluttered with twangy guitars and guys with names like Garth and Toby. On his Blue Note debut, American Classic, Willie Nelson proves that these genres don’t have to clash and can actually converge into a cohesive and enjoyable production that’s part sleek jazz and part provocative blues, with a shade of rebel country and a hint of cowboy soul.

Criticizing Nelson’s choice of musical direction is a fool’s task (well, except for that reggae thing a few years back), like questioning Zeus’ choice of thunderbolt or the Maharishi’s posture. Fortunately, American Classic, Nelson’s first standards album since 1978’s career-defining Stardust, leaves only a little room for complaint. The record is loaded with outstanding contributors, which should come as no surprise, since Nelson could probably summon Pan to play flute and Apollo to lend a hand on golden lyre if he thought they could improve a record’s sound. Though his trusty backing band sits this one out, pianist Joe Sample, guitarist Anthony Wilson, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash, all venerable jazzmen, are a nice change of pace. Mickey Raphael’s blues harmonica propels “Angel Eyes” and “Since I Fell For You,” while Diana Krall’s sensuous vocals lend an additional air of intimacy to the moving and tender “If I Had You.” A second duet, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” featuring Norah Jones, is perhaps the album’s most illuminating rendition, a cheery and amorous track that brings out the best in both artists.

Traditional Nelson fans have long since ceased freaking out and spilling their water bongs every time the iconic Highwayman dabbles in new musical realms, and for good reason; regardless of the genre, Nelson’s vocals never fail to intrigue. On American Classic, he again demonstrates the ability to deliver his words with a merry sort of blue-collar ease without ever attempting to wander beyond his limited vocal range. The songs chosen to fill his latest Great American Songbook – including ageless classics “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Ain’t Misbehaving” and “On the Street Where You Live” – suit Nelson’s laid back vocal approach perfectly, while album closer “You Were Always on My Mind” sounds more reflective and heartfelt than ever.

Trying to modernize a songbook so firmly rooted in the American consciousness is a daunting, if not impossible, task and for the most part, Nelson and producer Tommy LiPuma don’t even attempt. A true standards album, American Classic emulates rather than improvises; fans expecting to hear radically different interpretations of these revered melodies might be disappointed. Though Nelson’s unique voice adds a distinctive element, none of the arrangements stray drastically from their origins, giving American Classic a timeless – though markedly unprogressive – quality, as though it could have been released in 1989 instead of 2009. Younger generations may not see the appeal of an album whose melodies were conceived around five decades ago, while others may be underwhelmed to discover that such an esteemed elder spokesman would not have a more poignant and personal statement to make.

Comparisons are inevitable and Nelson’s latest will be judged, perhaps unfairly, by how it stacks up to the incomparable Stardust. American Classic certainly isn’t as risky as this 1978 masterpiece and it probably won’t sell as many copies either. Nevertheless, Nelson’s newest endeavor is an intriguing, albeit excessively nostalgic, effort that further cements his legacy as an American classic in his own right.

by Marcus David

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