Covers

James Taylor

I’m sure, that if you asked me to name a better male vocalist in popular music of the last 30 years, I couldn’t conjure anyone better then James Taylor. The guy really is a treasure; in fact, I’m not sure his voice has ever sounded better then it does on his new 12-song CD simply called Covers. With a host of musicians, featuring the incomparable Steve Gadd on drums, James Taylor basically holed up in a Massachusetts recording studio for 12 days to record Covers pretty much live, which, he says in the CD booklet, is “sadly seen in these days of the overdub.”

Covers lives up to its name by running the gambit from the Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann collaboration, “On Broadway,” to the stunning “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen (basically just Taylor on his acoustic guitar) to the Buddy Holly classic, “Not Fade Away.” Taylor even includes one of my all-time favorites, Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman,” making Covers truly a best-of best-of.

Covers gets off to a nice mellow groove with “It’s Growing,” where drummer Steve Gadd keeps that chunky deceptively perfect drumming right into “(I’m A) Round Runner,” featuring some great harmonica playing from J.T. Backing vocalists Arnold McCuller, David Lasley, and Kate Markowitz complement Taylor’s rich voice from the get-go. By the time we are into “Wichita Lineman,” we’re in warp speed. For my money you got to go far to beat Campbell on this tune — even Jimmy Webb’s version barely does it justice (and he wrote the song!). I like how Taylor doesn’t go for the obvious in his cover, avoiding the drama of the Campbell version. Instead, he simply sings the hell out of it with the lilting violin of Andrea Zonn filling in that space where that distinctive electric guitar is on the original.

There’s some spunky country flavoring in tunes like “Why Baby Why” and “Some Days You Gotta Dance.” A haunting take on “Seminole Wind” and a beautiful rendition of “Suzanne” (Yo-Yo Ma contributes cello) set up the pins for a swampy version of “Hound Dog” that really doesn’t work all that well. Fortunately, the best cover on Covers is “Not Fade Away” with its great percussion opening from Luis Conte. When the band comes in, Gadd does what only Steve Gadd can do — following the groove and contributing immensely to the overall mix.

Covers is simply a perfect collection from a true American master. As J.T. himself says in the CD’s booklet: “I’ve always thought that writing an original song and reinterpreting someone else’s were similar processes.” On Covers, you hear James Taylor take someone else’s classics and make them his own.

~ Ralph Greco, Jr.

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