july 2009

Willie Nelson and Norah Jones, shown here onstage at Radio City Music Hall on October 25, 2008, will reunite on disc next month, performing a duet of 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' on Willie's new American Classic standards album

'American Classic' By An American Classic

Willie Nelson's New Standards Album Due Next Month

Duets with Diana Krall, Norah Jones; Joe Sample Leads Band

Mark August 25 on the calendar as the release date for Willie Nelson's new American Classic album. Recording for Blue Note (helmed by Bruce Lundvall, who as a CBS Records executive signed Nelson to the label in the '70s and was most vocal in encouraging Willie to record Stardust, his now legendary album of standards from the Great American Songbook), American Classic returns him to that rich, timeless catalogue, this time with multiple Grammy winning producer Tommy LiPuma behind the board. Sonically, Nelson will embrace a milieu that appears to fall somewhere between the classy pop of Stardust and the cool, lilting jazz and hot swing of his underrated followup, 1981's Somewhere Over the Rainbow. For arrangements, Nelson turned to another legend, composer Johnny Mandel.

The project began when Lundvall suggested LiPuma cut another, long overdue standards album with Willie. According to a news release, LiPuma's response was immediate and enthusiastic. "I said, 'Man, are you kidding?' I love Willie and, on top of that, Stardust is my favorite album. Joe Sample and I work a lot together, so I thought I would use Joe to do the rhythm charts and set things up. Joe lives in Houston, and it's just a drive to Austin for him. We both visited Willie and went over numerous songs with him, maybe 30 to 40 songs."

That American Classic might bear some resemblance to Somewhere Over the Rainbow is indicated by LiPuma's statement as to how it was a mutual love of Bob Wills and the great gypsy jazz guitarist Django Rheinhardt that sealed the deal for them to collaborate on a new project. "We all realized how much we loved Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. That brought us all together," LiPuma says. "I was a big fan of Wills, as was Joe; Willie, of course, was a huge fan, as well as a huge fan of Django Reinhardt. So after we chose the songs and got the keys and all that stuff, we left a day or so to figure out what made the most sense as far as Willie was concerned, what Willie felt the most comfortable with. We ended up with a Django/Bob Wills feel to the arrangements and Willie fell right into it. 'The Nearness of You' was one of the first things that jumped right out, and from there we ended up doing about 16 or 17 tracks, then knocking it down to the ones we put on the album."

According to Willie, most of the tunes were selected by LiPuma and Sample. "They came to the house and we sat around and talked about songs, like 'The Nearness of You' and 'Angel Eyes,' which is one of my favorite jazz standards. We talked about a lot of great standards." The vintage tunes they chose, says Nelson, "are of the same quality as Stardust, but we did them a little differently. Tommy put together the band, with guys like Joe, who's an incredible musician and arranger. Stardust was recorded with my band, but this was done with musicians who were coming, musically, from another place. You can't beat the players you have on this one, they're as good as they get."

thumbnailSome of those "as good as they get" musicians include, in addition to pianist Sample, bassist Christian McBride, Krall guitarist Anthony Wilson, and drummer Lewis Nash; of course, Willie is completed by his longtime sidekick, virtuoso harmonica man Mickey Raphael, who adds his distinctive cry to "Angel Eyes" and "Since I Fell For You."

In addition, Willie engages in a couple of engaging duets on the album, one a cozy affair with Diana Krall on the yearning "If I Had You" ("It came off so well—she's so smooth and her piano playing is the best," says Willie) and another feisty tête-à-tête with Norah Jones on Frank Loesser's "Baby It's Cold Outside."

American Classic was cut over four days this past December at Legacy Studios in Manhattan, with the Krall session convening in February at the famed Capital Studio A in Los Angeles, where Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole cut many of their best-known sides. Other songs on the album include "On the Street Where You Live" and a revisit to "You Were Always On My Mind," originally cut by Elvis Presley and certified gold in 1972, then in grand fashion by Willie 10 years later, in 1982, when it went to #1 on the country chart and ascended to Top Five on the pop chart.

Asked how the sessions went, LiPuma says it was all smooth. "Willie is just the best to work with. He's a very sweet cat. You just go in there and if you get something and it feels right, it's right. You don't belabor it. That's the way I like to work, too. And that's basically how it was—we went into Legacy and within four days we got all 17 tracks. We did the Diana Krall duet in L.A. One take and boom, we were finished. Twenty minutes. That was it. The rhythm section really had a sense as to what Willie was all about. All these guys were just so respectful of the guy and what he did. They're great musicians in their own right but they all had huge respect for him and gave him all the room in the world."

For his part, Willie believes his growth as an artist in the years since Stardust is borne out by the performances on American Classic. "Hopefully, I'm a better singer," he says. "Hopefully, I'm a better guitar player—you're either going to get better or worse, you can't stay in one spot. I like to think that the band and I have progressed a lot and learned a lot from doing these songs. There is truth in the statement that you learn by doing, so the more you do 'em, the better you get."

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Willie Nelson performs 'Always On My Mind,' his #1 country hit in 1982 that will be reprised on American Classic

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The King at his best, recording the original hit version of 'Always On My Mind'

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Willie Nelson and Norah Jones, performing 'The Wurlitzer Prize,' from the DVD, Willie Nelson & Friends: Live and Kickin', recorded at Willie's 70th birthday party at the Beacon Theater, New York City. Nelson and Jones reunite on American Classic.

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