Have you ever listened to a song and could not remember where you first heard it?
I don’t mean recalling the exact time and circumstances of the initial hearing, but the song’s origin.
Was it a deep cut on a favorite rock album? A country music juke box favorite from back in the day? The one hit from a one-hit wonder? Maybe a Broadway favorite or a jazz standard?
I recently had that experience when James Taylor previewed a song from his new album,”American Standard.” When I scanned the track list, I recognized most of the 14 songs as from what is called the Great American Songbook.
Taylor’s new album presents songs previously recorded by artists including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Tony Bennett and many others.
Along with the usual suspects, such as “Almost Like Being in Love” and “The Nearness of You,” there were songs I didn’t immediately recognize — including one called “As Easy As Rolling Off A Log.” Oh well; I figured I might not know every single song in the Great American Songbook. Many of them had been unfairly shunned by rock ‘n’ rollers in the 1950s, 1960s and most of the 1970s.
That began to turn around when Willie Nelson released his landmark album “Stardust.”
That started me to search out albums by Sinatra, Armstrong, Holiday, Fitzgerald, Bennett and others, which led to me becoming a true believer in the genre— consisting mainly of songs written in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, bookended with some from the 1920s and even the ‘60s. I came to know many of those songs well.
That’s why I felt puzzled when I heard “As Easy As Rolling Off A Log” on Taylor’s new album. From the opening notes, the mystery deepened. I knew I’d heard the song before, but where? I just couldn’t place it — until I came across an interview with Taylor relating how he came to record the song.
Of course! It didn’t come from deep in the Great American Songbook. It wasn’t an obscure jazz standard or a little-know track from a Broadway musical.
Nope. It went back to Taylor’s childhood and a cartoon in the Merrie Melodies series produced in 1938 in the suspiciously-titled “Katnip Kollege” — about Johnny Cat, an aspiring jazz musician who can’t get into the swing of things in his “Swingology” class and has to stay after school.
While sitting on the corner, Johnny Cat suddenly picks up the beat from a pendulum on a cuckoo clock, starts to swing and rushes outside to a jam session — where all the musicians are cats. He leaps on a log next to Kitty Bright and begins singing “As Easy As Rolling Off A Log.” He even throws in a trumpet solo. How else could it conclude, except with Johnny Cat and Kitty Bright rolling off the log as the song ends?
“As easy as rolling off a log, I find it easy baby, to fall in love with you,” Taylor sings. The second verse might be a little questionable for a kid’s cartoon these days, but nobody thought about it back then. “It was easy as rolling cigarettes, if that ain’t easy baby, maybe there’s simpler things to do.”
Unlike many of the artists who have tackled the Great American Songbook, Taylor doesn’t sing behind an orchestra or big band. He sticks with the small combo feel — punctuated by his own excellent acoustic guitar playing, with an assist from jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli.
JT tailors each song on “American Standard” to his own style. Rather than trying to emulate Sinatra or Bennett, he shines each song through his own unique prism.
He opens with an almost-Western swing version of “My Blue Heaven. The band falls into the pocket on the first track, staying there for the rest of the album.
His mellow take on “Moon River,” the Johnny Mercer-Henry Mancini collaboration from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” is another winner. After that,I’m ready to go around the bend with that huckleberry friend, JT, for the rest of the album.
He does a sprightly take on “Teach Me Tonight,” with lyrics by Sammy Cahn — one of Sinatra’s favorites — and music by Gene DePaul. It fits Taylor’s acoustic style well.
“Almost Like Being in Love” almost sounds like a James Taylor song, instead of the classic first sang by Gene Kelly in the musical “Brigadoon.”
“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” is my least favorite. The song my have worked well in the musical “Guys and Dolls,” but to me it breaks the new album’s mood.
The mood returns with “The Nearness of You,” a Hoagy Carmichael chestnut I first heard by Sinatra.
One of the best things about Taylor’s takes on these songs is almost every track offers something special — a clarinet solo here, a well-placed jazz guitar run from Pizzarelli there — even some colorful bits on the melodica, the instrument resembling a cross between a harmonica and keyboard.
Other highlights include Taylor’s version of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” and the Depression-era Bing Crosby hit, “Pennies From Heaven.”
Taylor offers a low, lonesome take on “Ol’ Man River,” the fabled song about the Mississippi that, like the river, just keeps rolling along.
He closes the album with a winning rendition of “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” and “Surrey With A Fringe On Top,” from that great play named for a great state — “Oklahoma.”
JT’s takes on “American Standard” leaves me wanting more. I’m guessing we might someday see an “American Standard II.”
If he looks to Merrie Melodies for another entry, here’s a suggestion: “I Love To Singa.”
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com