Monday, December 16, 2013

Stardust - Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson
Columbia JC 35305

Over the summer I finally caught Willie Nelson live when he played a show at the Hollywood Bowl.  He performed this album in its entirety backed up by his band and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.  I would have been happier if he was performing "Shotgun Willie" or "Red Headed Stranger" as I have never been a fan of this album.  When it came out I was a teenager with no appreciation for the classic pop standards and I regarded it as Nelson selling out to the mainstream.  I eventually picked up a used copy because I was a fan of the man, but I didn't play it much.  As I matured I came to like the standards, but even then when I wanted to hear them I was more likely to put on Sinatra, Tony Bennett or Ella Fitzgerald.  However at the Bowl I found myself thoroughly enjoying Nelson's performances of these venerable tunes.  He's not a great crooner, but he humanizes the songs and sings them with considerable grace and feeling.  So I've started playing this album again and I have to admit I was completely wrong about it.  The album opens with "Stardust" by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish which introduces Nelson's style on the album, an intimate and understated performance of the song that focuses on the words of the song rather than the virtuoso technique of the singer.  Aside from "Moonlight in Vermont" I've heard these songs countless times starting with my father's own record collection, yet for the most part Nelson's performances are the first time I've ever really listened to them and connected to them.  Nelson's humble and respectful approach emphasizes the casual lyrical brilliance of these songs and their enchanting melodies are brought out by excellent arrangements from Booker T. Jones who also plays keyboards on the record.  Unlike the full blown orchestral arrangements at Nelson's Bowl concert, Jones used a small number of musicians playing quietly in the background only emerging to fill the empty spaces in the song and to deliver compelling and tasteful solos that enhance the emotional appeal of the songs.  On "Stardust" (and nearly all of the rest of the album) it is a tasteful harmonica and delicate guitar runs that provide the color to the song.  Jones deserves a lot of credit for the success of Nelson's approach.  This is particularly evident in Nelson's versions of Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell's "Georgia On My Mind" and Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies."  I can't hear the former without thinking of Ray Charles' classic performance and the latter is inextricably linked to Al Jolson in my mind.  Jones' minimalist arrangements and Nelson's radically different interpretation of the songs, quiet and wistful as opposed to Charles' passion and Jolson's exuberance, get me to listen to the songs as if I had never heard them before.  This is also true of Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons' "All of Me" which I associate with Sinatra's swinging version and Alex North and Hy Zaret's "Unchained Melody" which I've heard a gazillion times via the Righteous Brothers' melodramatic Phil Spectorized recording.  Nelson gets me to listen freshly to songs I've heard too many times.  The exception to this is the opening song on side two, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's "September Song" which is a song I've long loved and never grown tired of.  I'm a big admirer of Weill and this is easily my favorite song on the record.  I'm not all that crazy about Nelson's relaxed performance of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields' "On the Sunny Side of the Street" which I prefer in Louis Armstrong's classic recording from the 1930s.  John Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf's "Moonlight in Vermont" I only know from jazz instrumentals.  My father had it on one of his Sinatra albums, but I never paid attention to it.  Nelson's tender vocal opened up the song to me and it really sends me, such a great song.  Duke Ellington and Bob Russell's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" is a song I know mostly from Ella Fitzgerald's classic cover.  This song features a more sprightly vocal from Nelson than the rest of the record, but I don't think it is quite sprite enough.  The song needs more energy.  George and Ira Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me" is another song I've loved since the first time I heard it.  Ella Fitzgerald has my favorite cover of it, but I like Nelson's take on the song nearly as much.  It is the most emotionally compelling track on the album.  I think the secret to the appeal of this album is its mixture of genres.  The songs are indisputably sophisticated pop, but Nelson's vocals are country-flavored and the instrumentation is that of soft rock, folk and quiet soul.  I could play this record after listening to a Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen album and it would not sound out of place.  It is all covers but it sounds personal and heartfelt and that's what I'm usually looking for in a good album.  Recommended to fans of Patsy Cline, another country singer who knew how to make a pop standard her own.

No comments:

Post a Comment