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American Classic (2009)

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Norah Jones

When Willie Nelson took the unexpected step of releasing Stardust in 1978, many predicted that the album of popular standards would severely derail the outlaw country singer's career. Confounding the critics, the disc became Nelson's best-selling effort, and spawned a whole subgenre of modern singers covering the classics. Nelson revisited the format with 1994's orchestral Healing Hands of Time and to varying degrees on several other records, but it wasn't until 2009's American Classic that the red-headed stranger delivered an album billed as the true follow-up to Stardust. Released on the venerable Blue Note label, the disc features guest appearances by superstar jazz singers Norah Jones and Diana Krall, but the focus is always placed squarely on Nelson's famously idiosyncratic vocals. American Classic does not feature Nelson's veteran band, but rather a core group of first-call studio jazz cats including Christian McBride on bass, Joe Sample on piano, and Lewis Nash on drums. The resultant sound is smooth, classy, and subtle -- a sonic horse of a different color from the exquisitely ramshackle earthiness that made Stardust so appealing and unusual. On tunes such as the jaunty, gently swinging "On the Street Where You Live" and "Since I Fell for You," which features longtime Nelson cohort Mickey Raphael on bluesy harmonica, Nelson sounds comfortable and in command, gliding effortlessly and soulfully over a great set of tunes played by top-notch pros. ~ Pemberton Roach