Merle Haggard is, as the great Duke Ellington used to say, "beyond category." Like the best, he is a genre-defying artist. There is a strong influence of both jazz and blues in Haggard's work, though it's usually labeled as country and western. For example, he phrases like a jazz singer and he features horns in his exceptional band, The Strangersand, unlike almost all other country singers, he actually gives the band a chorus. Perhaps most importantly, he and the band swing. Like full-fledged jazz singers, Haggard phrases with the assurance of a singer who knows where the pulse is all the time.
Only now, however, as he approaches 68, has he decided to record a full set of standards from the Great American Songbook. Whereas jazz singers often search these old songs for a phrase or a melody they can elaborate and transform, Haggard lets the song do all the work; all he has to do is use his expressive voice to bring out the bruised tenderness present in most old songs, including "Stardust." In addition, he includes "As Time Goes By," and "I Can't Get Started," which are often selected by jazz-oriented singers. Haggard also swings gently through "Pennies From Heaven" (graced by Clint Strong's superb country-jazz guitar) and he brings new life to "Cry Me A River," exhibiting a world-weariness light years from Julie London's sultry original version. Haggard is not, of course, the first country artist to make this leap into standards. Willie Nelson, another C&W artist (and jazz fan), noted for his jazz phrasing, came out with his classic Stardust LP back in 1978; more recently, in 1998, country artist Lorrie Morgan, with her husky jazz timbre, released a CD titled Secret Love.
Unforgettable contains no surprises. Haggard is not stretching any envelopes, but this recording is filled with low-key piano-driven arrangements suited for a late-night smoky bar. Haggard's smooth and effortless voice, uncomplicated phrasing, and warm timbre give the lyrics a clear-headed beauty that is the hallmark of a performer with few pretensions. There are more technically gifted singers than Haggard, of course, but he does something that a lot of those technical singers cannot do, which is convey a helluva lot of truth and emotion. The key to anything touched by Haggard is honestywhether he's explaining his sinful past in one of his own drinking and cheating songs, or breathing life into an old standard like "I'll Get By."
Track Listing: 1. As Time Goes By;
5. I Can't Get Started;
6. Still Missing You;
7. Pennies from Heaven;
8. Cry Me a River;
9. I'll Get By;
10. You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You ;
11. What Love Can Do;
12. Goin' Away Party.
Personnel: Joe Manuel: electric and acoustic guitar; Freddy Powers: drums, acoustic guitar; Kevin Price: cello; Joe
Reed: bass; Clint Strong: electric guitar; Catherine Styron: piano; Redd Volkaert, acoustic guitar; Tony
Savage: conductor, string arrangements; Terry Domingue, drums; Rose Katai, violin; Soo Kyong Kim,
viola; Don Markum: saxophone, trumpet; Bruce McBeth, violin; B.B. Morse, bass; Bobby Wood, piano;
Biff Adam, drums; Gary Church: trombone; Merle Haggard: electric guitar and vocals; other personnel.
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already. SOOOO... he started me off LP's by Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Errol Garner, Bill Evans, Monty Alexander, Charlie Byrd, and Dave Brubeck... does it get any better than that? ...No, it doesn't. I was hooked!!
I met and had a master class with the late music giant John Lewis, leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet! This was at CCNY in 1977. I was blessed! It was an incredible class... how could it have been anything else?!?!
The first jazz record I bought was...I bought numerous records from my friend at the record store, as mentioned above. He introduced me to nothing but music giants/legends! I think The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Greatest Hits, was actually the first one.
My advice to new listeners... study first--understand the rudiments--solfeggio, keys, scales, and basic chords. Read a book or take a class that includes the study of chord progressions, especially in jazz. It should ideally be a piano class so you can play multiple notes together. Have a good EAR or else it's not really worth it in my view...to become a musician, a good EAR for music is about as fundamental as breathing! Learn to read chord charts--i.e., lead sheets - wherein you play various voicings of the chords--major, minor, dominant 7th (alterations of these, you can learn over time - the basic chords are most important for starters), plus the melody, on the piano or keyboard. If you have to read the exact notes, then it's not the same as actually internalizing it & getting it all into your head. If you can do this, I think you're ready not only for listening to jazz, but understanding many concepts of it! Of course...anyone can listen to jazz... but I think it's so good to also have a grasp of it.