Original release: August 25, 2009
After the success of his Two Men with the Blues collaboration with Branford Marsalis last year, Willie Nelson ambled into a studio to clasp a fistful of American standards to his bosom. The result is 12 most agreeable tracks that highlight the legend’s way with a lyric. He caresses every syllable like an old lover come to call, his mesquite-cured lilt pouring just one more glass, for old time’s sake.
Musically, Willie’s surrounded by some of the finest jazzmen to ever handle a melody. Pianist Joe Sample drives most of American Classic, an able accompanist and foil. Christian McBride keeps a steady hand on bass, and Anthony Wilson’s guitar burbles sweetly when called. Even old pal Mickey Raphael drops in to saw through a few numbers on harmonica.
To his credit, producer Tommy LiPuma keeps an orchestral urge to swell in check; when strings do surface, they’re unobtrusive — supporting, not overwhelming. This is especially evident on a pop evergreen Willie long ago made his own, “Always on My Mind,” here refreshingly spare and reflective, with that bombastic yearning left in the distance.
Willie’s covered this ground before, most famously on 1978’s Stardust, yet he remains revelatory in this setting, forever as depicted on Classic‘s back sleeve: a laid-back, long-haired interloper in a tuxedo. He will always be the party-crasher, a hell-raiser among the swells.
And there is a rascally flavor to his voice, even on the straightest interpretations. It’s hard not to hear a devilish rake when he swears, “I’m gonna be true — if you let me” on “Come Rain or Shine.” He locks smoky horns with Diana Krall on “If I Had You,” singing to her as if she’s already sitting in his lap. His other duet partner, Norah Jones, doesn’t stand a chance against the elements in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”; wily Willie sounds as if he’s delivering the most practical advice (“Look out the window at that storm”), even though we know his true intent.
But there’s no denying the love and reverence he has for this material, how carefully he carries the collected works of some of the last century’s greatest tunesmiths. While American Classic may not match the historic status of Stardust, it sits up there in those very same heavens, a gentle beacon shining down.