Willie Nelson - Summertime Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin
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Summertime Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin (Sony Legacy, 2016)

Willie Nelson

Reviewed by Greg Yost

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.

CDs by Willie Nelson

Bluegrass, 2023 Don't Know A Thing About Love, 2023 A Beautiful Time, 2022 That's Life, 2021 First Rose of Spring, 2020 Ride Me Back Home, 2019 My Way, 2018 Last Man Standing, 2018 Willie's Stash Volume 2, 2017 God's Problem Child, 2017 Summertime Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin, 2016 Band of Brothers, 2014 To All the Girls..., 2013 Let's Face the Music and Dance, 2013 Freedom, 2012 Remember Me Vol. 1, 2011 Country Music, 2010 American Classic, 2009 Lost Highway, 2009 Naked Willie, 2009 One Hell of a Ride, 2008 Moment of Forever, 2008 Songbird, 2006 Live From Austin, TX, 2006 Songs of Cindy Walker, 2006 You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker, 2006

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