American Classic, a title befitting the artist himself, finds Willie Nelson returning to the Great American Songbook in a sequel to his best-selling crossover album 1978’s Stardust. This return may be influenced by his recent outstanding work of jazz and blues standards with Wynton Marsalis. Here, producer Tommy LiPuma gathered pianist Joe Sample, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Lewis Nash to accompany Nelson, whose cohort Mickey Raphael shows up playing harmonica on a few tracks.
Opening with Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You,” Nelson is enveloped in a smooth string arrangement as he offers gentle proclamations of love. While the sentiment is the same, the Hammond organ on Bart Howard’s “Fly Me to the Moon” is a fantastic addition.
On Arlen & Mercer’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” the band evokes the options as Sample’s piano creates bright notes while Nash’s brushwork evokes the rain. McBride’s bass keeps a smooth rhythm as the whole piece gliding along. Much like when Fats Waller sang “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Willie’s rendition brings a slight smile because how can anyone believe the rascal would be on good behavior. The Hammond briefly returns on the song's bridge. On Hammerstein & Wilkinson’s “Because of You” a saxophone joins into the mix.
The album features duets with two of the biggest female jazz vocalists. Diana Krall’s silk, sultry voice is so bewitching on “If I Had You” all she needs to do is ask and the man will be there. On the bridge an electric guitar solos and then the piano follows in the same pattern. As much as I love her voice, Norah Jones on “Baby, It's Cold Outside” doesn’t entirely work because of the age difference, similar to the problem with Woody Allen romancing young leading ladies in his later movies. There’s even a brief moment of creepiness as Nelson keeps trying to get Jones to stay against her wishes, plying her with drink which causes her to wonder, “Say, what's in this drink.” While it makes perfect sense to include the women from a marketing standpoint, their talents as singers are so impressive they make Willie seem like some guy pulled off the street.
Willie revisits two of his own songs: “Angel Eyes” from the 1984 album of the same name and his classic “Always On My Mind,” the latter of which I think works better with the standards arrangement its given here, fully aware I may be committing country-music sacrilege.
While American Classic probably won’t match the success of Stardust, it is a very pleasant album of love songs that finds Nelson doing his part to keep the past alive and reminding how relevant it still remains.