James Taylor knows a few things about American standards. He's written a few of them after all, at least from his generation. Here he goes back a few decades, presenting some of the songs he grew up with, his early inspirations. We've seen this before of course, from Ronstadt to Buble to Rod Stewart, but Taylor's take is completely his own, and puts his stamp on all of it.
When Taylor does a cover version, he takes over that song. It's been that way with his pop hits. His versions of "Mockingbird" and "How Sweet It Is" could be considered the definitive ones, coming to mind ahead of the originals by Charles and Inez Foxx and Marvin Gaye, respectively. That's the case with everything here, even the most familiar of standards, as he makes them unmistakably James Taylor songs. Much of it is his voice of course, that leisurely, laid-back style he's always used, truly now a trusted old friend to all of us. But he also bravely adapts each piece, turning them all into something surprising and new. Even a piece of theatre fluff such as "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top" from Oklahoma becomes mellow and thoughtful in his hands.
If he was going to do standards (and let's face facts, it's one of the few things record companies think they can sell from heritage acts), he was going to make a real effort at it. Instead of the usual chestnuts, done with orchestra or big band arrangements, Taylor picked the songs that played in his house growing up, largely show tunes. They include "Moon River," "My Blue Heaven," "Pennies From Heaven," "God Bless The Child" and "Ol' Man River," very interesting choices. For the arrangements, he went back to the way he learned to play them on guitar, then worked out new treatments with his co-producer, the fine jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli. So each one has that Taylor-style acoustic at its core, those kinda blue notes he loves to hit. Then his core touring band added to them. There's a unique vocal arrangement on "Almost Like Being In Love" which features his exceptional touring backup singers. "Sit Down, You're Rockin' The Boat" gets another fantastic arrangment, a weave between the singers and the band. His gentle take on "God Bless The Child" features stirring dobro lines from the Nashville great Jerry Douglas.
Taylor is about to embark on a major cross-Canada tour in April and May, and after seeing his last local show a couple of years back, I heartily recommend it. He puts on one of the most positive, affirming shows, showering the people with warmth and appreciation from the stage. Ohh, and Bonnie Raitt. It's a must.