Willie Nelson

Summertime Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin – 2016 (Sony Legacy)

Reviewed by Greg Yost

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Willie Nelson is arguably the greatest living interpreter of American standards. His 1978 album "Stardust," which may very well be his greatest studio recording, came out of nowhere and wowed fans and critics alike with its unique and respectful take on classic American tunes. Nelson proved the formula still worked with the 2009 album "American Classic," and his live performances for decades have been peppered with songs from the great American songbook.

It is only fitting that then that Nelson would celebrate his 2015 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song award with a new studio recording of tunes penned by George and Ira Gershwin, the award's namesake.

The old saying goes, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," and thankfully Nelson follows that credo on this collection's 11 tracks by implementing the formula that made previous standards albums so successful - simple arrangements, tasteful instrumentation, appropriate solos and vocals that are simultaneously twangy and cosmopolitan.

"Someone To Watch Over Me" is the perfect example of this formula in action. The smoky atmosphere created by the first few notes of this faithful arrangement set the mood and the acoustic guitar accents, courtesy of Nelson's trusty sidekick Trigger, add a little country touch and make everything more interesting. Also, the instantly-recognizable tone of Mickey Raphael's harmonica in the song's featured solo adds an air of quiet sophistication while also echoing the longing in Nelson's lead vocals.

From the emotional to the playful, another standout is Nelson's duet with Cyndi Lauper on "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off." This has always been one of the most enduring Gershwin tunes thanks the unique pronunciation wordplay, which makes it a perfect vehicle for the quirky Lauper. Although you feel she might be holding back a bit of her trademark vocal power, she brings the personality and charm the tune requires.

Speaking of duets, frequent Nelson collaborator Sheryl Crow makes an appearance on "Embraceable You." Crow has a proven track record of nicely complementing Nelson's unique voice, and that streak continues on this very subdued and elegant tune.

The only arrangement here that strays a bit from the original Gershwin composition is the title track, "Summertime." Nelson's dusty and minimalist approach featuring upright bass, piano, acoustic guitar and harmonica calls to mind the western movie/border town sound Nelson championed on his fantastic mid-to-late '90s albums "Spirit" and "Teatro." This is especially evident on the dual guitar and piano solos played here by Nelson and his sister, Bobbie Nelson.