James Taylor: October Road

James Taylor
October Road

“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.”
— James Taylor

These words from a song of long ago (1977, a quarter century for the record) seem almost prescient now, considering the lengthy flourishing career of JT, a man whose musical successes operate outside of time, trends and the fickle whims of the popular music industry. Over time, Mr. Taylor has not only developed and kept a loyal following; he has become a prized American natural resource.

There is that unmistakable voice, the one that’s like coming inside on a cold day, the warmth still vibrant and smooth and comforting, much as it was when first heard those many years ago, the same that has garnered him more than 40 awards over the years and continues to do so. His prior studio release, 1997’s Hourglass won the Grammy for that year’s Best Pop Album. In 2000, Taylor was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. In February of this year, he won a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance (for his new version of “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” on Michael Brecker’s Nearness of You: The Ballad Book) — so the powers that be still agree.

Then there is that clean and distinctive acoustic folk guitar style, to me just as unmistakably Taylor’s as his voice. I recall with fondness how I (and a small army of kindred spirits) tried to emulate that style way back when I played coffeehouses (some even managed a passable likeness). His wonderful melodies and well placed harmonies won me over from the get-go, even at times when perhaps it was considered rather unfashionable to like such sweetly delectable music (as opposed to weightier or alleged self-important offerings from other “issue-based” artists).

Now after a busy five-year hiatus from recording, during which time he got married and fathered twin boys (Henry and Rufus), the singer/songwriter troubadour extraordinaire returns to disc. How does one go about critiquing an American institution? The self-deprecating Taylor, who has traveled a long way from the troubled days of his youth, claims he’s been writing the same song throughout his career. In some sense, it is true that any of these new songs could fit comfortably among his earlier works. Yet now there is an even more polished grace to the undertakings, as if age and experience have refined and further honed what already was smooth.

Taylor’s enduring musical career has elevated him to icon status as the “maestro of mellow”, and deservingly so. Boomers have grown up with Taylor and his music; there is a shared history. His many hits serve as backdrops to events through the years, social and political, global and personal, from wars and presidential resignations to college years and marriages and weddings and births.

At the age of 54, Mudslide Slim has grown older, lost his hair (all the liner photos are cropped short of the top of the head or feature James wearing a hat), but continues to lead a happy life. That begs the question that has often been raised throughout his career: is the work of the happy artist as compelling as that of the younger troubled one?

While perhaps no “Fire and Rain” (or choose any of the many early mega-hits) is likely to grace a new collection, the years’ experience serves him well. This is a solid effort with much to commend it precisely because he is older and wiser, and likely his best work in several decades.

The reasons for this are many. For one, October Road reunites Taylor with producer Russ Titelman, who last worked with him on 1976’s In the Pocket. Russ and James invite along a number of reliable friends to the title track, a “Country Road” or “Walking Man” revisited and updated these many years later, still proclaiming the merits of the “sweet call of the countryside” and therapeutic perambulation. Ry Cooder contributes his signature sound to the lead and Michael Brecker offers subtly understated sax accents to the percussion, while Stuart Duncan lends some nice violin as well.

Taylor has assembled a nice backbone for most of these autumnal songs, Jimmy Johnson on bass and Steve Gadd on drums, plus his usual formidable gang of harmonizing backing vocalists, helmed by David Lasley, Kate Markowitz and Arnold McCuller.

Perhaps the most likely song candidate to stand over time among the greatest hits canon is the current single “On the 4th of July”. This valentine to new wife Caroline tells the tale of how they met and grew to love, set against the patriotic backdrop of an Independence Day celebration. It is disarmingly personal and starts with a variant of the guitar lead-in to “Mexico” and even serves up a whistling refrain — what more could one want?

“September Grass” is one of two non-original selections here, though you wouldn’t know by listening. Taylor takes this lovely John Sheldon composition about love and the changing seasons and makes it very much his own (with that inimitable voice and guitar).

The horns of Walt Fowler and Lou Marini preside over the slightly jazzy funk that is called “Whenever You’re Ready”. This is standard lyrical optimistic philosophy fare for JT: “Whenever you’re ready / You could see a dream come true / Whenever you’re ready / I’m just saying it’s up to you”.

However, not all is predictable here. “Belfast to Boston” finds Taylor uncharacteristically addressing the long-standing strife in Ireland with a truly poignant musical prayer for forgiveness and peace made even more so by additional penny whistle and synthetic bagpipe contributions from Rob Mounsey.

Taylor’s exposure to other musicians and other musical styles makes this a very different CD than those from early in his career. For example, take the string arrangements from Dave Grusin and the wonderful cabaret piano stylings of Larry Goldings that make “Mean Old Man” into a new lounge classic. This is Taylor reflecting on the grumpy one’s happy transformation into a bouncy puppy dog: “Who gets a second chance / who gets to have some fun / who gets to learn to dance before his race is run”.

Grusin also arranges the strings on the gorgeous and spare “My Traveling Star”, yet another ode to the road: “Shame on me for sure / for one more highway song”. On this one, James harmonizes sweetly with daughter Sally Taylor.

This is more than mere musical fancywork; these are tales of men and family that come out of Taylor’s own personal Americana. In “Baby Buffalo”, Taylor manages to cite Cotton Eyed Joe, Ninety-Six Tears and One Thousand Clowns. Taylor serves up a little soul along with a musical nod to the theme from Gilligan’s Island (really) on “Raised Up Family”, which also provides a nice platform for Michael Landau’s singing guitar.

Landau also offers up a more classical feel to his solo on the somber “Carry Me on My Way”, which is moved along by Jimmy Johnson’s expressive bass lines. This marvelous tune (sounding like something from Joni Mitchell circa Hejira offers lyrical reflection from a man blessed through the years, yet concerned for the coming troubles of the future.

Another treat here is the closing cover of the classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, a call for future comfort in friendship and family even in troubled times. This distinctive arrangement features Larry Goldings on piano, John Pizzarelli on guitar, Harry Allen on tenor sax and a fine string section.

If anything, this world of easy listening might be just a little too easy for our time-honored and deeply contented storyteller. While the jazz and cabaret and political accents keep this from being too vanilla, the overwhelming feeling conveyed by October Road remains that of comfort, plain and simple. This is musical analgesic of the highest order — intricately beautiful arrangements serving to complement the above-mentioned voice and guitar (the Clifford Carter piano and strings intro to the delightful love song “Caroline I See You” is nearly trance inducing).

To sum up, Taylor again is the happy family man while the world knows unrest and discord. Yet he has never been in better voice, his tenor confident and assured and his vocal phrasings precise (and he makes it all sound so easy). With the twelve songs on October Road, he manages to soothe while spinning musical gold from these personal reflections, rallying us to contemplate the goodness of our lives, while we fight to protect our very freedoms.

Titelman does a great job of marrying JT’s honesty and talents with a fine supporting cast of veteran musicians (well engineered by the expert Dave O’Donnell). This is a balm of comfort and musical healing from a professional at the top of his game, and as such October Road should expand what already is a tremendously devoted fan base, as more come of age and discover the magic charms of that voice and guitar.