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Tuesday Reviewsday: new music from Willie Nelson, Jimmy Greene and more

Singer Willie Nelson performs at
Singer Willie Nelson performs at "A Salute to the Troops: In Performance at the White House" on the South Lawn November 6, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

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This week on Tuesday Reviewsday, our weekly new music segment, journalist Steve Hochman joins us to talk about the latest from Willie Nelson and Jimmy Greene, as well as a new tribute album to Bessie Smith.

Steve Hochman

Artist: Willie Nelson
Album: December Day 
Songs: "What’ll I Do," "Who Will Buy My Memories"
“I Don’t Know Where I Am Today”…. “Amnesia”… “Who’ll Buy My Memories”….

Uh-oh. Is Willie Nelson trying to tell us something? One could see an ominous thread in that three-song sequence in the middle of his new album. And then there’s the title song, not so much about the upcoming month as about winding down, ending, the dimming of the light. THE dimming of the light.

Well, yes, there’s a wistfulness to all this, a sense of things lost and being lost. But worry not. Nelson’s December Days is a winter of content.

Nelson already released one album this year, last summer’s powerful Band of Brothers. This time it’s brother and sister. December Days at the core is all about the musical relationship of Nelson and his sister Bobbie, whose piano playing has been a signature piece of Nelson’s band since the early ‘70s and who, of course, was at his side in both of their formative years. Both albums are powerful, moving looks back over a remarkable lifetime, but also testimony to the formidable power Nelson has today. Both Nelsons.

The former album did it with largely new songs, his first such collection in nearly 15 years. The new one complements that with new versions of songs Nelson’s done before, split almost evenly between 20th century standards and his own compositions — a couple of those (notably “Who’ll Buy These Memories”) fitting into both categories. Much of this is just Willie and Bobbie, aged 81 and 83, respectively, with no or little accompaniment, the arrangements reflecting the way they’ve played these songs over the years in down time in hotel rooms or on the tour bus. Here and there his band members chip in, Mickey Raphael’s harmonica another key sound, and, in his last session with Nelson, the late bassist Bee Spears on “What’ll I Do.” Throughout there’s a fittingly casual air, the tenderness between the siblings evident in every note.

The overall somber trip starts with a fairly jaunty “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” Irving Berlin’s 1911 paean to what was then a new sound — jazz. Certainly it was a familiar tune in the Nelsons’ childhood, and you can easily imagine the siblings gathered around the family piano singing it (“Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!”). Same for the pensive “What’ll I Do,” a Berlin hit from 1924, performed here simply, sweetly, sentimentally but not overly so. From their, the paired Nelson compositions “Summer of Roses / December Days” affirm the reflective tone that dominates here — though with a few side trips, including an instrumental of Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages” which reminds that Willie’s guitar playing, on his battered old nylon string acoustic he calls Trigger, is as distinctively accomplished as the singing and writing for which is is generally best known.

But it’s that trifecta of songs mentioned at top that anchors this set, makes it more than a mere collection of odds and ends, despite it being billed as the first volume in a new series of vault treasures and odds and ends, Willie’s Stash. As he works his way from there he takes an easy-going ramble — Al Jolson’s “The Anniversary Song” and another Berlin number, “Always,” and his own pertinent “I Let My Mind Wander” among the key stops. And his “Sad Songs and Waltzes” would make a fine ending, but he has one more, a playful medley pairing the French chestnut “Ou-es tu, mon amour” (“Where are you, my love”) with is winking “I Never Cared For You.”


Artist: Jimmy Greene 
Album: "Beautiful Life
Songs: "Ana’s Way," "Seventh Candle"
This one’s a heartbreaker. Saxophone player Greene’s daughter, Ana, was one of the 22 children killed in the Sandy Hook school shootings two years ago. She was, as he says in his liner note essay, six years, eight months and 10 days old. Ana’s voice is heard at the end of this album’s first piece, singing the gospel song “Come Thou Almighty King” at the family’s Christmas gathering a year before, her not-much-older brother accompanying her on piano. If you don’t well up hearing that, not sure what to say.

That recording is a coda here to a version of the same song played by her father on tenor, accompanied by Pat Metheny on acoustic guitar. That Greene could play it at all is remarkable. That he played it in a way not loaded with unbearable grief, nor with maudlin sentimentality, speaks volumes of the power of this album, and the artistry involved in its highly emotional purpose. There is one spot in that, though, where the sax sound cracks a bit, as if Greene was fighting to keep it together. Well, how couldn’t he have been?

Just reading some of the song titles might be enough to choke you up, knowing the background — “Ana’s Way,” “When I Come Home,” “Little Voices,” “Seventh Candle.” That last one, of course, is Greene’s meditation on what wold have been his daughter’s next birthday. Once again, his playing is expressive, yet controlled, neither maudlin nor raging, and yet still clearly cathartic.

Also clearly, he could never have made this album without the love and support of many, prominently some of the musicians who have been friends and colleagues in his career. Besides Matheny, pianist Kenny Barron duets with Greene on the somber “Where Is the Love?” (not the Stevie Wonder piece, but rather a tune from the musical Oliver!) and “Maybe” (from Annie, an Ana favorite). Singer Kurt Elling leads “Ana’s Way,” words added to Greene’s earlier “Ana Grace,” joined by kids choir from the school in Winnipeg when the family lived there for a few years before moving to Newtown. Pianist Cyrus Chestnut anchors “Prayer,” a setting of the Lord’s Prayer sung by Greene’s former Hartt Music School friend Litany Farrell, while another Hartt classmate Javier Colon (winner of “The Voice” in 2011) sings the Greene-written “When I Come Home.” The choir appears again to close the album with “Little Voices,” following a recitation by Anika Noni Rose, star of the animated The Princess and the Frog and a high school friend of Greene’s. “Remember me,” the children sing, repeating the simple phrase as the song fades out.

Greene signs off his liner note essay with another simple two-word phrase, the powerful message that became the centerpiece of the grieving by those who lost so much at Sandy Hook. It’s something he clearly believes, holds on to strongly, and that the album affirms: “Love wins.”

Artist: Various 
Album: "The Empress of the Blues: A Tribute to Bessie Smith
Songs: "Preachin’ the Blues," "Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair"
The whole tribute album thing grew tired ages ago — artists either too slavishly reverent of the honoree’s originals (as in the new, superstar-laden Paul McCartney tribute) or too seemingly arbitrary in attempts to put their own stamp on things. Even the surface concept of this one, female artists doing songs associated with the first big female star of recorded blues and jazz, seems predictable.

Well, here’s to surprises. The indie artists gathered for this by producer Jim Sampas bring fresh perspectives to choice selections from the Smith catalog, one of the essential bodies of blues and jazz. The ones who play it relatively straight offer folkie takes not overburdened by convention, while the ones who go off road offer imaginative, and perhaps previously unimagined explorations that somehow stay true to the spirit no matter how far from the letter they roam.

Boston folkie Barbara Kessler gives a strong example of the former with her version of “Preachin’ the Blues,” no attempt to mimic the Empress in vocal style or arrangement, but also nothing too fancy in terms of revision. It feels vintage in its way, but without the patina of revival or preservation.

That approach more or less marks the first few tracks on the album (Jenny Owen Youngs’ delicate yet saucy “After You’ve Gone,” the duo Tim & Adam’s saucily saucy “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine” leading it off), which makes it all the more ear-twisting when artists start to go off-road — at first subtly, as heard in the atmospheric “St. Louis Blues” by Catherine Feeny & Daniel Dixon. But it’s still a bit of a — pardon the expression — shock when Haley Bonar launches into a very ‘lectric “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair.” The approach is clearly true to Bonar, a Minneapolis-based artist known for bringing arresting sonic textures to her wide range of music. Purists might find it too far removed from the source, might not be able to discern the nature of the inspiration. But we are far from the source, nearly 80 years since Smith died at just 43.

And purists, so-called as they may be, have often romanticized the complicated, turbulent and often-violent life Smith led, including the details of her death following a car accident as she attempted a career comeback. (A long-circulated report that she had been refused admittance to a “whites-only” hospital in Clarksdale, Miss. after the accident is now seen as apocryphal, as in the segregated south she would never have been taken to that hospital in the first place. And her injuries were likely too severe to survive regardless.) Anyway, purists in the ‘20s, when she rose to stardom, thought her bawdy, brazen, bedeviled blues was scandalous too.

If there’s a complaint, it might be that while the lineup here is strong and worthy (Tift Merritt, Holly Golightly and on a previously released bonus track Abigail Washburn with Bela Fleck being the best-known), it’s a pretty white group. It would have been nice to hear contributions not just from African-American women, but some from other cultures as well. But that doesn’t diminish what we get here, a strong tribute to the Empress, and a wonderful listen in its own right.