‘Pick Up My Pieces: Gabrielle Stravelli Sings Willie Nelson’ Review: Jazz That Heads Down Home
The late, great jazz writer Nat Hentoff was much enamored of a certain anecdote about Charlie Parker, the legendary saxophonist and modern jazz innovator. The story goes that Bird and his band were relaxing and he kept playing country-and-western records on a jukebox. The musicians, who regarded country music as hopelessly square, asked their boss just what he found so appealing in those tracks, and he answered: “Listen to the stories.” (Hentoff even used that as the title of one of his books.)
Hentoff would have loved “Pick Up My Pieces: Gabrielle Stravelli Sings Willie Nelson” (Big Modern Music), out now, in which the New York-based jazz singer addresses the music of one of country’s most iconoclastic singer-songwriters. Country music is, on the whole, an underutilized wellspring for jazz musicians and singers, who in recent decades have been looking as far afield as the Beatles and Björk for inspiration while largely ignoring a massive genre of great homegrown American songs.
Not that Ms. Stravelli takes Mr. Nelson’s music and merely “jazzes” it up in the most obvious way. She’s giving these songs the same kind of thoughtful interpretation that, for instance, Cyrille Aimée, Melissa Errico and Cheryl Bentyne all brought to the music of Stephen Sondheim in their recent albums. As famously sung by the duo of Mr. Nelson and Waylon Jennings, “Good Hearted Woman” is compassionate but undeniably macho; Ms. Stravelli and her musical director, Pat O’Leary, not only recast it as a gentle waltz but retell the tale from the viewpoint of the woman herself. Ms. Stravelli has, in effect, transformed “Good Hearted Woman” into a whole new song, one that I like as much as the original.
Yet here and elsewhere in the album she never messes with the message or gets in the way of Mr. Nelson’s humor—“Three Days,” which now opens with a scatted intro and is set in a swinging 4/4, remains as funny and poignant as Mr. Nelson’s own versions. It now climaxes in an exciting sequence of horn battles between trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and trombonist Jon Allred, then between Evan Arntzen on alto saxophone and Scott Robinson on tenor. (Spoiler alert, to the few who don’t know the song, originally a hit for Faron Young in 1962: The “three days” are yesterday, today and tomorrow.) Another Willie-Waylon classic, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” is relentlessly bebopped in a way that replaces the irony of the original with a whole new set of ironic underpinnings and subtexts.
Ms. Stravelli’s treatment of “Nightlife” is significantly more celebratory than the original, leaving out the regret and recriminations of Mr. Nelson’s many versions. “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” has always been something of a dirge and a cautionary tale; Ms. Stravelli and Mr. O’Leary add a string quartet and move it over to the realm of the love song.
Along the way, Ms. Stravelli also incorporates several songs identified with Mr. Nelson that he didn’t write, notably the jazz standard “Stardust” and the country classic “Always on My Mind.”
Surprisingly, Ms. Stravelli never dives straightforwardly into Mr. Nelson’s “Crazy,” best known through its interpretations by other artists, though she alludes to that 1961 song instrumentally in “Good Hearted Woman” and she also interpolates about four lines of “Crazy” into the middle of “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces.” That last number, from which the album draws its title, may be her most remarkable transformation here; Mr. Nelson’s own treatment is highly confessional, but Ms. Stravelli’s is not only that. It’s like a sprawling blues testimonial, in the manner of Charlie Parker’s “Parker’s Mood,” not to mention part spiritual, part sermon and part eulogy. “What I thought was heaven / Was just falling debris.”
My guess is that not only would Nat and Bird have loved it, but so will Willie.
—Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for the Journal.