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James Taylor has long been regarded as one of America’s foremost singer-songwriters and while he has certainly earned that distinction Taylor is something more than that.
Over the course of his career he has also proven to have an extraordinary gift for interpreting the music of other songwriters and composers, starting in 1971 with Carol King’s You’ve Got A Friend to Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.
In the ensuing years, he has applied his gift for interpretation to works as diverse as Tom Waits’ Shiver Me Timbers, Chuck Berry’s Memphis Tennessee and the Steve Cropper/Wilson Pickett song In The Midnight Hour.
While most of his covers have been pop/rock tunes, Taylor has on several occasions turned to the music he was exposed to growing up, music which included, among other things, show tunes from classic American musicals and jazz.
His love for that music has now prompted Taylor to release an entire album of material drawn from what some would call the golden age of American musicals and from the early days of radio.
American Standard sees Taylor re-imagine more than a dozen of the most beloved songs from the 20th century, classics like Almost Like Being In Love, Brigadoon's Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat, Guys and Dolls' You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught and South Pacific's The Nearness of You, which first popularized in 1940 by The Glenn Miller Orchestra.
There’s an inspired reading of the Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr. classic God Bless The Child and delightful renditions of material like Paper Moon, Pennies From Heaven and My Blue Heaven.
While virtually every one of these songs were familiar to me there was one true surprise here. Taylor included the first ever cover of As Easy As Rolling Off A Log, a song originally featured in the 1938 Merrie Melodies cartoon Katnip Kollege.
To say Taylor choosing his material well goes without saying but it’s what he did with it that truly makes American Standard a treasure.
- Growing up in a musical family, James Taylor fell in love with the exquisite melodies, impeccable phrasing and concise storytelling of the early era songwriting masters. Taylor absorbed theses qualities that would become essential to his work in popular music a few years later.
- American Standard is a reminder of the things that make James Taylor so special. His supreme dedication to his craft and an abiding appreciation for the everlasting power of the American song.
Taylor and fellow co-producers, longtime collaborator Dave O’Donnell and jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli, took a unique approach to the material. Rather than employing a full orchestra and utilizing arrangements built around the piano they opted for simple, stripped-down arrangements based on the two-guitar collaboration of Taylor and Pizzarelli.
Other players, used where needed, included Taylor regulars like drummer Steve Gadd, percussionist Luis Conte, bass players Jimmy Johnson and Viktor Krauss and keyboard player Larry Goldings, plus horn/reed players Walt Fowler and Lou Marini. He also utilized legendary Nashville session players Stuart Duncan on violin and Jerry Douglas on dobro.
Longtime back-up singers Arnold McCuller, Kate Markowitz and Andrea Zonn were among those to lend their voices.
Together they helped Taylor infuse these timeless classics with new sounds and put a fresh face on them.
The end result is that a number of these songs feel like they’d been written with Taylor’s warm, soulful baritone in mind.
Much of the material was recorded at Taylor’s home studio in Massachusetts, with additional recording in Los Angeles and Nashville.
American Standard is just an absolute treat from beginning to end.
This release is available in multiple formats.
(Rating 4 1/2 out of 5 stars)
Doug Gallant is a freelance writer and well-known connoisseur of a wide variety of music. His On Track column will appear in The Guardian every second Saturday. To comment on what he has to say or to offer suggestions for future reviews, email him at email@example.com.