Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Little Willies

Country and jazz. Sounds like the ultimate in paradoxes, right? How could the more rigid and often campy country genre – especially in its bastardized mainstream variety mesh with the free-flowing and erudite jazz? But, like chicken and waffles – when placed in the right hands – they can strike the perfect balance between surprise and satisfaction. Such is the case with the New York City-based, genre-spanning quintet The Little Willies and their sophomore release, For the Good Times, out on January 6 on Jones' Milking Bull records.

Pairing first-rate country pickers with Norah Jones' top-shelf jazz piano and vocals across a sampling of  country and R&B covers – along with a couple of originals, the record's dozen tracks capably match country's earnest authenticity with jazz's intentional cool and experimentation. Although it's neither the epicenter of jazz nor country, the City makes eminent sense as the place where such disparate styles come together, as so many other aspects of culture have done over the past few centuries. As Jones and her co-lead vocalist Richard Julian explained to Paste Magazine, the group had originally scheduled its first session together for the morning of September 11, 2001. While the events of that day delayed those plans, the collective ultimately used the tragedy as a reason to press on and record their self-titled debut in 2006.

A la the New Pornographers (NMT), Jones plays Neko Case to Julian's A.C. Newman, with Jones' sultry and smoky jazz providing the garnish while Julian's straight-forward, untwangy county serves as the steady foundation. As a nod to that dichotomy, the opening choice of Dr. Ralph Stanley's "I Worship You" is a perfect introduction to the group's bidirectional influences. The belt-it-out soul of the verses brilliantly clashes with the chorus rattlesnake gallop, punctuated by lead guitarist Jim Campilongo's crisp front lines. Stanley is best known for his "O, Death" from the O, Brother, Where Art Thou? soundrack, and the band's selection here demonstrates the breadth of his songwriting talent.

A little less bipolar and more jazzy is the following "Remember Me," with Jones gliding across the 1939 ballad penned by Scotty Wiseman – which he performed with his wife Lulu Belle – her piano and pining vocals anchoring the track, as Julian and his acoustic guitar standing in as a gentle sparring partner for Jones. The lightly brushed snare of drummer Dan Rieser and stand-up bass from Lee Alexander recall the impossibly easy jazz of the Vince Guaraldi Trio, and Campilongo's lead part adds color, not distraction. Its countrified counterpart is the Julian-fronted "Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves," the 1952 trucker tale by Cal Martin, later recorded by Gene Autry and Burl Ives. Julian smartly lets Martin's fast-paced lyrics steal the attention, with Campilongo once again the instrumental highlight; his Mexicali blues riffs tracing the storyline through winding western mountain passes, the trucker's focus increasingly diverted by his racy visions of the "dangerous curves" of ladies along the journey. For your blogger, it would only be better if the lyrics were referencing a railroad engineer.

The collection hits its stride with "Lovesick Blues," the squirrelly 1922 Tin Pan Alley product by Cliff Friend and Irving Mills later popularized by Hank Williams (Sr) in the 1940s. Jones and Julian smooth out the warbly edges patterned by Williams and down-shift the number into slower, jazzier territory. The band's take is its best work in blurring the boundaries between country and jazz, as if they had always been the most natural of bedfellows.

Following Campilongo's original and largely instrumental roadhouse romp, "Tommy Rockwood" – for which the song's title character are the only lyrics voiced by Jones and Julian – Jones returns with her boastful version of Loretta Lynn's brawling "Fist City." Lynn's rambunctious and heavily syncopated offering from 1968 aligns well with the group's strengths: expert performance of their instruments and star-turn vocals from Jones. More importantly, its evident the five-piece enjoys rambling through the cut's brisk 2:59, essential for a composition with so much inherent hubris.

On "Permanently Lowly," Julian presents a decidedly Jackson Browne-style rendition of Willie Nelson's 1982 original, substituting a lighter and easier jazz figure for Nelson's drier southwest vibe. Just as interestingly, the group transforms the initially comedic "Fowl Owl on the Prowl" – which was somehow and inexplicably written by Quincy Jones for the 1967 film, In the Heat of the Night – into a slower, darker and more haunting jazz concept, although it becomes a bit redundant after a few passes.

Not surprisingly, Jullian's "Wide Open Road" – composed by Johnny Cash in 1954 during his Sun Records days – is properly speedy, reflecting both the song's title and it's author's legacy, a healthy road anthem, while "For the Good Times" makes the counter argument. Kris Kristofferson's well-covered ballad from 1970 urges restraint and reflection that seem far removed from Cash's call to adventure. Closing things up are the familiar Hank Williams hit "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time" – probably better known as the Honky Tonking song, originally written by Lefty Frizzell and Jim Beck – which is again reflected in the inverse by Dolly Parton's 1973 narrative, "Joline," accounting the fears of a nervous housewife faced with what she perceives as a threat to her husband's love. Jones doesn't aim far afield if Parton's distinctive vocal delivery, and is one of the few contemporary singers capable of hitting her mark.

Come for: "Lovesick Blues"
Stay for: "Fist City"
You'll be surprised by: "Permanently Lowly" 

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