Various Artists: Sketches of James: Selections from the James Taylor Songbook
Various Artists tributes to noteworthy musicians, both living and deceased, seem to have grown in popularity in recent years. This one, feting the songs of James Taylor, was spearheaded by Tim Weston, who also brought us the Brian Wilson tribute Wouldn't It Be Lovely a couple years back. This collection is probably the most stylistically diverse of any I've heard. One might be hard-pressed to see much of a connection between the soft folk-rock style of Taylor and any of the performers here, but as Weston asserts in the liner notes, Taylor's compositions are rooted in the blues, and so is much of the jazz tradition, so the blues offers sort of a common denominator here. The artists were given a lot of latitude in the songs they chose and how they chose to interpret them, hence the smorgasbord of styles contained herein.
The most jazz-oriented numbers, "Something in the Way She Moves" and "Secret O' Life," feature the piano trios of Mitchel Forman and Shirley Horn, respectively. Horn's vocal, relaxed and friendly, dispenses the wisdom of the lyrics as friendly advice from one who has gained that wisdom through years of personal experience. New York Voices, practically a fixture on every tribute album, are also supported by a piano trio, and offer a typically top-quality vocal arrangement which swings nicely on their jazz waltz treatment of "Long Ago and Far Away." On the R&B side, Gerald Albright serves up funky alto and cooking rhythms on his lead-off feature, "Your Smiling Face." Les McCann delivers a gospel-flavored, bluesy, laid-back vocal on "Nobody But You," which also includes a blue guitar solo by Robben Ford. Ford reunites with his old Yellowjackets buddies Russell Ferrante and Jimmy Haslip on "You Make It Easy." Tower of Power lends its famous punchy horns and tight-knit rhythm section to "Steamroller;" Brent Carter gets down on vocals, but otherwise, this is just slightly out of TOP's element, and they don't deliver quite the impact that they do on their own material.
Some of the most far-reaching interpretations are provided by the Brazilian and Cuban contributors. Flora and Airto meld their firey approach with several L.A. studio pros and Gerald Albright on the Don Grusin arrangement of "Only a Dream in Rio." Oscar Castro-Neves performs in a completely different context; he's backed by a lush background provided by an octet of strings, a harp, and Alex Acuna's percussion on "New Tune" - he shares the lead with Glen Garrett's mellow clarinet. Finally, Poncho Sanchez' Latin Jazz Band really puts the fire in the originally mellow "Fire and Rain."
There are some top-quality performers here, and some fine moments to enjoy. As a whole, though, the program is perhaps a bit too disjointed and some of the stylistic jumps may be a bit too wide. As a result, this effort doesn't achieve quite the same measure of success as many other current tributes ( A Love Affair: The Music of Ivan Lins , for example). I'm not sure whether James Taylor fans will really get into some of the interpretations presented here. Likewise, devotees of the particular artists who appear here may not find these works to be among their favorites of those artists. But for those who will listen with open ears, this might stretch some boundaries and introduce a few new artists. (Koch Jazz CD-8580)
Track Listing: Unfortunately, the song order on the CD bears no resemblance to the sequence listed on the booklet and back card - that's quite annoying. Here is the correct song sequence: Your Smiling Face (Gerald Albright); New Tune (Oscar Castro-Neves); Something in the Way She Moves (Mitchel Forman Trio); Nobody But You (Les McCann); Secret O'Life (Shirley Horn); Only a Dream in Rio (Flora Purim and Airto Moreira); Fire and Rain (Poncho Sanchez' Latin Jazz Band); You Make It Easy (Robben Ford); Steamroller (Tower of Power); Long Ago and Far Away (New York Voices). (48:46)
Personnel: "Your Smiling Face": Gerald Albright - alto saxophone; Patrice Rushen - keyboards; Abraham Laboriel, Sr. - bass; Land Richards - drums; Paul Jackson, Jr. - guitar; Alex Acuna - percussion. "New Tune": Oscar Castro-Neves - acoustic guitar; Ralph Morrison - concert master; Karen Jones - violin; Carole Mukogawa, Denyse Buffom - viola; Larry Corbett, Steve Richards - cello; Dave Carpenter - bass; Gayle Levant - harp; Alex Acuna - percussion. "Something in the Way She Moves": Mitchel Forman - piano; Dave Carpenter - bass; Bob Leatherbarrow - drums. "Nobody But You": Les McCann - vocal; Don Grusin - keyboards; Abraham Laboriel, Sr. - bass; Land Richards - drums; David T. Walker, Robben Ford - guitar; Walt Fowler - trumpet; Bob Shepherd - tenor sax, bass clarinet; Alex Acuna - percussion. "Secret O'Life": Shirley Horn - vocal and piano; Al McKibbon - bass; Steve Williams - drums and percussion. "Only a Dream in Rio": Flora Purim -vocal; Airto Moreira - drums and percussion; Don Grusin - keyboards; Abraham Laboriel, Sr. - bass; Oscar Castro-Neves - guitar; Gerald Albright - soprano sax; Shelby Flint, Carmen Twilly, Mary Hylan - background vocals. "Fire and Rain": Poncho Sanchez - congas; Tony Banda - bass; Ramon Banda - timbales; Jose "Papo" Rodriguez - bongos; Sal Cracchiolo - trumpet; Scott Martin - sax; Alex Henderson - trombone. "You Make It Easy": Robben Ford - guitar and vocal; Russ Ferrante - keyboards; Jimmy Haslip - bass; Gary Novak - drums; Alex Acuna - percussion. "Steamroller": Tower of Power: Brent Carter - lead and background vocals; Emilio Castillo - tenor sax and background vocals; Bill Churchville, Jesse McGuire - trumpet; David Garibaldi - drums; Stephen "Doc" Kupka - baritone sax; Nico Milo - Hammond B-3 organ; Francis Rocco Prestia - bass; Norbert Stachel - tenor sax; Jeff Tamalier - guitar and background vocals; Nick Lane - trombone. "Long Ago and Far Away": New York Voices: Peter Eldridge, Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meador, Kim Nazarian - vocals; Darmon Meador - tenor sax; Andy Ezrin - piano; Paul Nowinski - bass; Terry Clarke - drums.