COUNTRY MEETS JAZZ IN A CROSSOVER HYBRID
by John Gaddis
Willie Nelson, That’s Life (Legacy, 2020)
On this day, Frank Sinatra would have been 105 years old. What a perfect way to swing in the celebration. Willie Nelson honors his friend and fellow iconic musician in a brand-new recording titled That’s Life. No strange to Sinatra’s songbook as exhibited in his exploration of his 2018 recording, My Way, which earned Willie the GRAMMY for Best Traditional Pop Solo Album.
That’s Life once again unearthing gems from the Great American Songbook, paying tribute to one of Nelson’s life-long musical heroes. The album features 11 new studio performances, coming alive in a musical landscape animated by lush string and vibrant horn arrangements on an album mixed by recording industry legend Al Schmitt (who’s recorded and mixed more than 150 gold and platinum albums and won more Grammy Awards than any other engineer or mixer).
Nelson asserts, “I learned a lot about phrasing listening to Frank,” Willie said in an AARP magazine interview (June/July 2018). “He didn’t worry about behind the beat or in front of the beat, or whatever – he could sing it either way, and that’s the feel you have to have.” The album will be available on February 26 On Legacy Recordings. Until then, the first single, “A Cottage For Sale” is available for your enjoyment.
Nelson has an acute ability to convey lyrics in an honest and organic delivery. He sincerely connects with the listener as every note drips with sincerity. It’s certainly a testament to his lasting imprint as an American treasure. “A Cottage For Sale,” is adorned with beautiful strings, and Nelson’s voice is front and center as he caresses each word with loving regard. The strings play a reverent part in building each section with an attractive remuneration of joy. Just in time for the holidays, this single will enthrall any listener, young or old. Who better to lend a tribute to an enduring friendship with Frank Sinatra than the indelible Willie Nelson.
Staci Griesbach, My Shania Twain Songbook (Self-Released, 2020)
Country and jazz continue to intersect and on Staci Griesbach’s follow up to her 2019 release of My Patsy Cline Songbook. Griesbach takes on the Shania Twain Songbook, with the release of My Shania Twain Songbook set to release on December 18th, 2020, also just in time for the holiday season.
The album delves into Twain’s hits, making a stop at a jazz standard “God Bless The Child.” The first cut, “No One Needs to Know,” is reminiscent of Asleep of the Wheel’s jazz treatments with a massive helping of Texas Swing, whereas “The Woman in Me (Needs the Man in You) ,” is given a ballad treatment. The smash-hit for Twain, “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under,” is given a jaunty swing arrangement. Each arrangement features expert playing by some of the top names in jazz, pop, country, and classical there is no doubt the prowess of each player is on display. Sadly, Griesbach does not have the same depth.
Equally, she falls flat in her delivery of these well-known tunes. Unfortunately, there is not much sustain in her voice, and her voice tends to stay in one range, often making for a limited sonic soundscape. This is a common pitfall when vocalists attempt to revitalize tunes so distinctly identified in modern music. It draws attention to their needed growth, even when attempting new arrangements. Though being billed as a jazz album, there is no jazz phrasing in view. It feels more like a Church singer reading of a country aesthetic. In general, this is a novel idea. Unfortunately, Griesbach needs a bit more time in the saddle to pull off such lofty ideals.
Deborah Silver, Glitter & Grits (NLT Records, 2020)
Partnering with the master of Texas swing, Ray Benson of Asleep of the Wheel and his cast of immensely talented 10x-GRAMMY-winning swingers, jazz vocalist Deborah Silver steps forth an authentic country-jazz offering titled Glitter & Grits. On the heels of her chart-topping album, The Gold Standards. Produced by Steve Tyrell with arrangements by Alan Broadbent, the album reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Traditional Jazz Albums chart while also sitting at No. 1 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart and in the No. 2 slot on the Jazz Albums chart.
So, what does Glitter & Grits offer, “I’ve Got Rhythm” is given a barrelhouse feel with an authentic 20s swing feel. The first form is taken with reverence to the original melody, the second form, Silver adds in her own phrasing adding a lilt to the arrangement, guest vocalist Katie Shore and Elizabeth McQueen add backing vocals that meld together seamlessly. The horn sections add backgrounds that complement Silver’s phrasing adding up to a fun kick-up your heels tune.
The classic tune “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” is a well-worn standard Silver adds a je ne sais quoi of seduction with a loping pace that savors her thoroughly imbued vocal quality. An additive of harmonica adds to the sass of her delivery, provided by longtime Willie Nelson collaborator Mickey Raphael.
The album traverses a wide range of Texas swing, a not to be missed “Ballin the Jack,” which features producer Benson. The two have an evident camaraderie in their reading. As Benson calls it, jazz with a cowboy hat, “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” is a befitting ending to a fun frolicking album. Once again, Mickey Raphael lends his mastery to the tune. Not to be missed is the fiddle solo provided by Wheel’s, Dennis Ludiker, who also plays mandolin on the cut. A definitive win throughout, a hybrid of jazz with Texas swing in its heart.