When James Taylor released his brilliant 2015 album Before This World he said it would probably be his final album of new songs. But as we all know, the marketplace demands product, so here we are five years later with a new James Taylor album. That 2015 comment holds true, though, because this latest offering contains no new Taylor compositions. Instead, as the title suggests, American Standard contains covers of classic tunes from the Great American Songbook.
In putting together this new project, Taylor enlisted the help of fellow singer and master of the 7-string jazz guitar, John Pizzarelli. It was a good decision, since Pizzarelli has built his career on performing the Great American Songbook. What’s more, he is also familiar with Taylor’s music, having previously recorded his own renditions of several of Taylor’s songs, including “Mean Old Man”, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” and “Traffic Jam”. As it happens, Pizzarelli has done this kind of gig before, having played on Sir Paul McCartney’s 2012 album of jazz standards, Kisses On The Bottom.
Taylor and Pizzarelli holed up together for a couple of weeks in the studio that Taylor has built in a barn on his West Massachusetts property. There they recorded 14 songs with just their two guitars and Taylor’s voice. While Taylor explains that he grew up with these songs – which for the most part come from Broadway and Hollywood musicals such as Show Boat, Oklahoma!, South Pacific and Guys and Dolls – one can also detect Pizzarelli’s influence on the choice of repertoire, since a couple of the tunes have previously appeared on Pizzarelli’s own albums. “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” was on Pizzarelli’s 2008 album With A Song In My Heart, and “It’s Only a Paper Moon” was not only on his 1994 album Dear Mr Cole, but also appeared on the aforementioned McCartney album. For his part, Taylor had previously covered “The Nearness of You” when guesting on saxophonist Michael Brecker’s 2001 album The Ballad Book.
Armed with the guitar and voice recordings from that Massachusetts barn, Taylor and his producer/engineer Dave O’Donnell set about fleshing out the tracks by overdubbing various other musicians, including the members of Taylor’s touring band. While some songs got a lot of additional production – including percussion, horns and backing vocals – my favourite tracks on American Standard are those in which the original barn recordings have been left mostly alone. For instance, on “Moon River” we hear the original two guitars and Taylor’s voice, joined only by a melodica solo from Larry Goldings. The stripped back performance feels gentle and organic, making it a standout track on the album.
While most of the songs will be well-known to jazz and music theatre enthusiasts, one which will be a new discovery for most is “As Easy As Rolling Off a Log”. Originally appearing in a 1938 Merrie Melodies animated short film called “Katnip Kollege”, the song is so obscure that it really stretches the definition of a “standard”. It’s a cute little ditty, featuring a short but melodic clarinet solo by Lou Marini. Hopefully, now that Taylor has shone a light on this fun tune, more singers will discover it and record their own versions.
Marini also makes an appearance on “Almost Like Being in Love”, this time playing soprano saxophone. While “Blue Lou” is probably most famous to many as the sax-slinging kitchen hand from the Blues Brothers, Marini has been a mainstay of Taylor’s band for the past two decades, as has trumpeter Walt Fowler who adds a gorgeous flugelhorn solo to “The Nearness of You”.
Dobro star Jerry Douglas has a wonderful guest spot on “Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat”. His bluegrass slide licks add a country twang to the song’s original Gospel feel. Another Nashville studio legend, violinist Stuart Duncan, sprinkles his magic on “My Heart Stood Still”, which has a lovely bossa nova groove, propelled by Luis Conte’s congas and maracas.
For the most part, the added instruments add variety and colour to what could have been a monochromatic album. The one aspect of the album which I don’t love are the harmony vocals which appear on “It’s Only a Paper Moon”, “Surrey With the Fringe On Top” and “Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat”. While the harmony vocals are expertly performed, they are just a little… well… cheesy. They take these tracks over the edge from charming to corny. My feeling is that the songs would’ve been better without them.
There has been a trend in recent years of pop stars covering the classic songs of Tin Pan Alley. Celebrities ranging from Robbie Williams to Rod Stewart have tried their hand at the classic tunes of Broadway and Hollywood. In most cases the results are forgettable. In some instances, they’re downright cringe-inducing. They usually leave me questioning whether the world really needs yet another rendition of “My Blue Heaven” or “Ol’ Man River”.
Unlike some of those other celebrities, however, James Taylor doesn’t seem like a fish out of water performing this repertoire. Maybe it’s because he’s known these songs his whole life, that this doesn’t feel like the vanity project of an aging pop star. As Dave O’Donnell points out, “When James covers a song it sounds like he wrote it.” That’s very true. American Standard is an album of songs that Taylor didn’t write, and yet it sounds very much like a James Taylor album.
I guess, that alone is justification for its existence.