Album Review: James Taylor Takes a Nostalgic Turn with ‘American Standard’

From the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Greg Cahill

In turbulent times, the mellow tones of James Taylorare a soothing balm. On American Standard, the popular singer, songwriter, and guitarist teams up with ace jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli to explore the Great American Songbook, including the rich repertoire found in such vintage musical theater hits as the Broadway blockbusters Oklahoma and Show Boat, among others. These are beautiful, melodic songs that get stuck in your head, while lyrically evoking dreamlike worlds filled with romance and wonder and whimsy. 

The album, overall, is a collection of guitar pieces recorded in Nashville and featuring small combos composed of an assortment of musicians with whom Taylor has performed over the years in the studio and on the road. Additional guests include dobro great Jerry Douglas, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and upright bassist Viktor Krauss. The songs perfectly complement Taylor’s own introspective songwriting (none of which is featured on this album)—at times playful but always sentimental. 

Taylor sets the tone with the opener, “My Blue Heaven,” a jaunty rendition of Walter Donaldson and George A. Whiting’s intoxicating homage to marital bliss, first heard on Broadway in the 1927 Ziegfeld Follies revue. The lyrics capture the carefree abandon of the Jazz Age two years before the world slid into the Great Depression. The arrangement is sparse, Taylor’s vocals are characteristically smooth, the mood is breezy. 

Of course, Taylor is no stranger to other people’s songs. One of his biggest hits, “You’ve Got a Friend,” was composed by his longtime associate Carole King, and in 2008, Taylor released his first album of covers, appropriately titled Covers, which leaned heavily on country and rockabilly. In a recent interview, Taylor said he was “interested in doing something new, bringing something new” to these standards. The middle-of-the-road arrangements aren’t especially innovative, but the combination of Taylor’s melodic readings and calming vocals, coupled with Pizzarelli’s tasteful rhythmic comping, has a decidedly palliative effect. 

Indeed, with a high-caliber jazz cat like Pizzarelli on board, you know there’s going to be instrumental magic, albeit subtle. You hear it on Taylor’s dreamy take on “Moon River,” composed by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, and first performed by Audrey Hepburn, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Taylor gently embraces the vocal melody, while he and Pizzarelli softly strum and fingerpick their guitars; the solo is played on a chromatic harmonica. It’s a simple and effective formula repeated throughout American Standard. You hear it over and again: The 1947 Lerner and Loewe classic “Almost Like Being in Love” strolls lazily as a short sax solo plays over a bed of lush acoustic guitar chords; and it’s easy to imagine Taylor picking his cedar-top Olson and contemplating life on the grassy banks of the Mississippi as he plays the Show Boat classic “Ol’ Man River,” which trails off with a short whistling refrain. 

Not all of these songs are associated with film or stage, however—the obscure “Easy as Rollin’ Off a Log” comes from a 1938 Merry Melodies cartoon called “Katnip Kollege,” and “Teach Me Tonight,” co-written in 1953 by Gene De Paul and Sammy Cahn, is a jazz standard that has been covered by everybody from Count Basie to Al Jarreau and Phoebe Snow to Frank Sinatra. The popular love ballad fits so comfortably into Taylor’s wheelhouse that you might assume he’d composed it. But then, isn’t that the point of a good cover?

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.