James Taylor Releases American Songbook Cover Album

I suppose if you’re a cynic you could point out that when an artist releases a cover album of American standards or Christmas tunes for that matter, it’s a sign they’ve run out of ideas and may consider retirement, or they simply are trying make a quick buck. While in some cases this notion may not be unfounded, I feel differently when it comes to James Taylor. To me, his just-released new album American Standard is a legitimate undertaking by an artist who wants to highlight songs that have played an important role in his musical journey.

I’ve admired James Taylor for many years for his warm and soothing vocals and his impressive acoustic guitar chops. I wish I could play like that! His cover of Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend is one of my all-time favorite tunes. And, yes, Taylor has also written beautiful songs like Carolina in My Mind, Sweet Baby James and of course the amazing Fire and Rain. I realize this may make me a bit biased when it comes to his latest release.

So why come out with a cover album of American standards? Do we really need another version of Moon River and God Bless the Child? Here’s what the album’s liner notes say, as reported by American Songwriter: “These are songs I have always known. Most of them were part of my family’s record collection, the first music I heard as a kid growing up in North Carolina…Before I started writing my own stuff, I learned to play these tunes, working out chord changes for my favorite melodies. And those guitar arrangements became the basis for this album.”

James Taylor in this studio
James Taylor in his barn studio in Western Mass.

“My collaborator, John Pizzarelli, is a living encyclopedia of the best popular music that the West has ever produced. Like his father, Bucky, he is a master guitarist and a casual, matter-of-fact genius. I asked John to come out to Western Massachusetts, where I live and do my recording in a big barn in the middle of the forest, to help me put down some tracks. I’d show him what changes I had found for a handful of songs and we’d work up the arrangements.”

Call me naive, but to me Taylor doesn’t sound like some artist who is just out there to cash in on his big name late in his recording career. I won’t pretend I’m an expert on the American songbook. I’m not. It’s simply not the kind of music I typically listen to. I also doubt this will change all for a sudden. What I do know is that I love how Taylor and Pizzarelli arranged these tunes. I think it’s time to let the music do some of the talking or writing.

Teach Me Tonight was written in 1953 by pianist Gene De Paul with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. This jazz standard has been covered by Dinah Washington, Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr., Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau and Stevie Wonder, among other countless artists. I dig the beautiful arrangement, including the trumpet solo and percussion played by Walt Fowler and Luis Conte, respectively. Here’s the official video.

Another beautiful tune is Almost Like Being in Love. The music and the lyrics were written by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, respectively, for the score of their 1947 musical Brigadoon. The song was first performed on Broadway by David Brooks. Gene Kelly sang the 1954 film version. The tune was also recorded by Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Shirley Bassey. As a fan of old James Bond movies, she entered my radar screen with Goldfinger, perhaps the best 007 tune.

My Heart Stood Still was composed by Richard Rodgers in 1927, with lyrics by Lorenz Hart. It was written for a British musical revue by Charles Cochran, which opened in London in May 1927. It was also featured later that same year in the American Broadway musical A Connecticut Yankee. Like with most other tracks on the album, it’s a tune that was recorded by many artists over the decades, including Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. The lovely violin part is played by Stuart Duncan.

The last tune I’d like to call out is It’s Only a Paper Moon, which I previously only knew from the 1973 motion picture Paper Moon. But the song’s origin dates all the way back to 1932, when it was titled If You Believed in Me and first performed by Claire Carleton during a Broadway play called The Great Magoo. The music was composed by Harold Arlen, with lyrics by Yip Harburg and Billy Rose. According to Wikipedia, the song’s lasting fame stems from its revival by popular artists during the last years of World War II, with hit recordings being made by Nat King ColeElla Fitzgerald, and Benny Goodman.

American Standard, which was released yesterday (Feb 28), is Taylor’s 20th studio album. It was co-produced by Dave O’Donnell, Taylor and Pizzarelli. O’Donnell has worked in different capacities (engineering, mixing, producing) with an impressive array of artists, who in addition to Taylor include Sheryl Crow, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and John Mayer, among others. Pizzarelli, a jazz guitarist and vocalist, isn’t exactly obscure either. According to Wikipedia, apart from recording more than 20 solo albums, he has appeared on more than 40 albums, including Paul McCartney, Rickie Lee Jones and Natalie Cole.

Taylor will be touring Canada and the U.S., starting in mid-April and featuring special guests. In Canada, it is going to be Bonnie Raitt, while for most U.S. gigs Jackson Browne will be his special guest. This surely does sound tempting to me. If Raitt would be the special guest in the U.S., I’d probably get a ticket right away. Don’t get me wrong, I dig Jackson Browne as well but saw him relatively recently in May 2018. My previous and so far only Bonnie Raitt show, on the other hand, dates back to August 2016. And, yes, I admit it, I do have a weak spot for her – she’s just an amazing lady!

Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; James Taylor website; Dave O’Donnell website; YouTube

Debate Over Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Selection Process Likely To Continue With 2019 Inductees

Radiohead, Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks, Def Leppard, The Cure, Roxy Music and The Zombies make up class of 2019

By now it’s an all too familiar annual ritual in the music world, at least in America. On Thursday, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame revealed its new inductees. The 2019 class includes Radiohead, Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks, Def Leppard, The Cure, Roxy Music and The Zombies. While a good deal of music fans stopped paying attention long ago, others still care about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a music nerd, so I count myself as being part of the latter group.

I’ve no doubt that among those who follow the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the debate about the selection process and who should be in is going to continue. While I don’t want to be overly judgmental and I’m luckily not a music critic and don’t aspire to become one, I have to say I’m a bit surprised about some of the inductees. Of course, I can’t claim this would be the first time.

Radiohead Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 2019

Let’s start with Radiohead. In June 2017, guitarist Ed O’Brien told Rolling Stone, “I don’t want to be rude about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because for a lot of people it means something, but culturally I don’t understand it. I think it might be a quintessential American thing. Brits are not very good at slapping ourselves on the back…It just feels non-authentic to us.” Most of the band’s other members expressed reservations as well. That’s totally fine with me. What I don’t get is why the Rock Hall has inducted them anyway. Presumably, they won’t show for the induction ceremony, and I just feel sorry for their fans – unless of course they don’t care either!

Janet Jackson Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Janet Jackson. I hate to say this, but the thought her selection at least in part reflects political correctness can’t escape my mind. Don’t get me wrong, it’s dreadful that the Rock Hall mostly remains a white boys club, and there’s no question women are underrepresented, especially women of color. But should Janet Jackson really have been the choice here? How about Ella Fitzgerald? Sure, you can say as a jazz singer, she wouldn’t be a perfect fit for an institution that has ‘rock and roll’ in its name. But they inducted Nina Simone last year. Or how about Mavis Staples, an amazing African American female artist? Yes, she’s already in the Rock Hall as part of The Staple Singers, who were inducted in 1999. Still, there are numerous examples of artists who have been inducted more than once – as part of a band and solo. Just look at 2019 inductee Stevie Nicks!

The Cure_Def Leppard Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

I never paid much attention to The Cure. Boys Don’t Cry was kind of nice at the time but completely over-exposed. Ironically, it might actually make me cry if I have to listen to the song one more time! Def Leppard, who won the fan ballot and got in the first time they had become eligible, may also trigger some debate. A British band that became hugely popular in the ’80s by mixing hard rock with pop elements, Leppard were oftentimes dismissed by the critics. In this context, I think The New York Times rightly called them the equivalent to Bon Jovi, who were inducted last year. While I wouldn’t have considered them, I don’t have any particular problem with Leppard or Bon Jovi for that matter – in fact, I generally like the latter.

Steve Nicks_The Zombies_Roxy Music Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

I’m happy about Stevie Nicks, a great singer-songwriter who like Leppard made it in the first she had become eligible. Additionally, I’ve always liked Time Of The Season and She’s Not There, so I find it nice to see The Zombies among the 2019 inductees. I also generally like Roxy Music, though I have to add I don’t know them particularly well beyond their big hits.

This year, the induction festivities will happen at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. on March 29. HBO and SiriusXM will broadcast an edited version of the event sometime thereafter. Last year, the broadcast happened in early May.

What do you think about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the 2019 inductees? Feel free to leave comments. My only request is let’s keep any discussion civil, please.

Sources: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website, Rolling Stone, New York Times

Ladies Singing The Blues And Killing It

A playlist of five outstanding female artists who may not be top of mind when you think of the blues

If somebody asked you who comes to mind when thinking of the blues, you might mention artists like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton – all terrific choices! What else do they have in common? They are all men! Sure, if you dig the genre, you’ve probably also listened to Etta James, Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt, and perhaps even to early trailblazers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Mama Thornton. But I bet you likely wouldn’t have included them in your answer to the above question. At least I can safely say that for myself!

Just like in so many other professions, music is yet another field where women oftentimes don’t get the credit they deserve. And it seems to me this is even more so the case for the blues compared to some other genres like jazz where you’d probably name Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, or soul where you’d likely include Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner when asked the above question.

The idea behind this playlist is fairly simple: Celebrate five female artists who shine at singing the blues. And to make this more interesting, I’m excluding some of the obvious choices like Etta James or Janis Joplin. All of the songs appear on the artists’ most recent albums from this year.

I’d like to give credit where credit is due. All of the artists highlighted in this post were included in an Apple Music blues playlist that was served up to me as a listening suggestion. When some of their names rang a bill, I decided to check the site of blues aficionado and fellow music blogger Music Enthusiast – BTW, a blog I can recommend to any music fan and guitarist! And, yep, he previously included four of the five artists on his blog. So kudos to Apple Music and Music Enthusiast!

I still think this doesn’t change the premise of this post, which is that female blues artists oftentimes don’t get the recognition they deserve. And while I’m under no illusion that this post isn’t coming anywhere close to making up for this unfortunate state of affairs, I guess it’s one post at a time. So with that, let’s finally get to it, shall we?

Kicking off the list is Lindsay Beaver with Too Cold To Cry. She doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. Maybe somebody should change that. Luckily, she has a website, and according to the bio there, Beaver is a drummer, songwriter and bandleader from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. To date, she has self-released five albums with her band The 24th Street Wailers, of which she produced three. BTW, how many female record producers can you name? Just saying. This could be a good topic for another post. Written by Beaver, Too Cold To Cry appears on her new album Tough As Love, which was only released two weeks ago. As this clip suggests, Beaver seems to be one hell of a firecracker!

Next up: Shemekia Copeland and Ain’t Got Time For Hate. This blues vocalist, who was born in Harlem, New York is the daughter of Texas blues guitarist and singer Johnny Copeland. The tune is from an album called America’s Child, which came out in August. In addition to Copeland’s powerful voice, I dig the timely lyrics: Black and white/Gran or ten/Every woman/Child and man/Rich or poor/Gay or straight/We ain’t got time for hate… Well said!

Another gem is Shine Bright by Marcia Ball. This blues singer and kickass pianist from Vinton, La. has been around for a very long time. How long? How about 1970! Since 1972 she’s released 18 records. Shine Bright is the title track of her most recent album, which appeared in April. Check out this clip, which is actually a stripped back live take of the studio version. I can highly recommend the latter as well. I know this may sound a bit silly, but if you’d meet this lady in the street, unless you knew her, would you ever guess what a smoking hot artist she is – damn!

Danielle Nicole is a blues and soul musician from Kansas City, Mo. Prior to releasing her solo debut Wolf Den in 2015, Nicole co-founded Kansas City soul and blues rock band Trampled Under Foot in 2000 (a nod to Led Zeppelin?) and was their lead vocalist. The band recorded five albums before it dissolved in 2015. Here’s Crawl, a nice blues rocker from Nicole’s third solo record Cry No More from February.

The last outstanding artist I’d like to highlight in this post is Bettye LaVette. This singer-songwriter from Muskegon, Mich. also has been around for a long time. In fact, she recorded her first single My Man – He’s A Lovin’ Man as a 16-year-old in 1962. Things Have Changed is the title track of LaVette’s last studio album from January – a collection of tunes written and originally sung by Bob Dylan. In this case, Dylan first released the song as a single in May 2000. It was part of a soundtrack from a motion picture called Wonder Boys.

Admittedly, I still don’t know much about the above artists. But based on the songs in this post and a few other tunes I’ve sampled from the corresponding albums, it’s obvious to me how top-notch each of them is. You can bet I’m going to further explore them.

Sources: Wikipedia, Lindsay Beaver website, YouTube