Willie Nelson can do no wrong for most country (and pop) fans, but his latest offering of pop-jazz renderings falls fairly flat. A kind of sequel to the well-acclaimed Stardust, American Classic revisits some old favorite standards, covered previously by Nelson and otherwise. Elevator jazz mixes with a classical shadow of strings for a fairly corny set of songs. Sure, the man has had public money problems, but must he really release thrown-together albums like this to garner public interest (and perhaps make a few more bucks for the IRS)?
The backing band might as well be playing at a fine retirement party, with the constant, soft brushing of the drum kit and softly peppered keys. Nelson chose a stellar cast of backing musicians, including jazz bassist Christian McBride and pianist Joe Sample. The skilled musicians cannot save the arrangements from being boring. Ballads fall flat and the swing numbers put the listener to sleep. “Fly Me to the Moon” is a prime example of this, as the feigned passion echoes the light and dull piano parts. Only when Sample breaks out the organ does the song pick up some speed, but it is shortly lived. Clearly, no one’s flying anywhere. The drummer, Lewis Nash, allows the song to fade into its ending with some gentle cymbal action. The cheesy touches happen left and right. The involvement of producer Tony LiPuma, who has worked with Michael Buble and Barbra Streisand, suddenly makes a little more sense. If adult contemporary jazz is still a genre, this fits right in nicely.
While noted jazz vocalists Norah Jones and Diana Krall contribute their talents on two separate tracks, the hackneyed cheerful “jazz” sounds more like a “Jazz for Those (Terrible) Moments”. Crooner jazz this may be, but even with the bar set low, the songs sound empty. Nelson’s duet with Jones (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”) seems so “classic” that listening to it gives a strange sort of déjà vu. Are we sure he hasn’t recorded this with her before now? Sure, Willie plays the part well as the dirty old man, and Norah aces her lines. However, do we really need another version of that hackneyed song, especially in August?
Nelson’s signature phrasing has become a vehicle for his laziness, as his words sound hollow and forced. Even taking into consideration his relentless tour schedule, which may be taking its toll on the 76-year-old’s vocals, certain performances sound like a man going through the motions. The sluggish tempo of “Angel Eyes” combined with Nelson’s lackluster vocals put the listener to sleep. He murmurs the verses, and seemingly wakes up for a few seconds to sing the louder chorus. Then he goes back to his nodding-out rumblings. While LiPuma and Nelson bonded over Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Django Reinhardt, and tried to incorporate those sounds into the arrangements, the sweeping, cinematic string sections do not resemble the Playboys’ fiddle or Reinhardt’s distinct gypsy sound. If such a record surfaces, pass it this way.
But for now, pass me the Stardust record, please.