A leisurely swim in the vast ocean of popular American song.
Michael Quinn 2009
Living legend Willie Nelson 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.
At 76, Nelson is a musical force of nature and American Classic, marking his debut on Blue Note, comes a full 31 years after the agenda-setting survey of popular standards, Stardust, gave his standing and credibility outside country music circles a considerable boost.
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.
Nelson himself is noticeably more laidback here. With (very) few exceptions – the jaunty take on Lerner and Loewe's On the Street Where You Live from My Fair Lady most noticeably – the pacing is relaxed (for which, read 'slow'), the tone mellow, the overall effect a touch too plastic and precise to merit the description of intimacy.
But while Nelson is always worth listening to, Stardust this ain't. Bart Howard's deliciously gravity-free Fly Me to the Moon sounds earthbound, the honky-tonk-edged Come Rain or Come Shine crawls along with a pedestrian plodding slouch, and all the flirtatious fancy of Ain't Misbehavin' is crooned out of it, becoming an insipidly light lullaby.
Two duets – Irving King's 1928 ballad If I Had You, with Diana Krall all slightly unsettling schmooze, and nu-jazz alumni Norah Jones virginally coquettish amidst the crackling-fire seduction of Frank Loesser's Baby, it’s Cold Outside – add marginal interest but at least urge Nelson on to greater definition on both occasions.
A classic Nelson unquestionably is and these songs may well be, but this is not an album that, regrettably, comes anywhere near to achieving that status.