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LINER NOTES – Pick Up My Pieces: Gabrielle Stravelli Sings Willie Nelson
By Joe Lang
During the summer of 2017, when Gabrielle Stravelli told me that she was doing a Willie Nelson show at Birdland that coming September, my reaction was one of great enthusiasm. My reason for being so positive was based on two things; I always considered Willie a country artist who had a lot of jazz influence in his work, and my experience with hearing Gabrielle in the past convinced me that she was capable of doing any genre of material, and effectively bringing her unique vision to whatever she chose to sing.
The show at Birdland was sensational, eliciting a wildly enthusiastic response from the sold-out crowd. I immediately encouraged her to do an album Willie songs. She agreed, and the album that you are currently listening to is the result of her carefully considering the vast Willie catalog, and choosing the songs that appealed to her artistically and emotionally.
Willie is one of the greatest songwriters in any field. His tunes are wonderfully listenable, but he often takes musical paths that are uniquely individual and often a bit quirky, similar to the approach Thelonious Monk took in the world of jazz. His lyrics are well crafted, and often profound, whether he is in a story-telling mode or singing about life and love.
The career of Willie has extended from the early 1960s right up to the present day, spanning almost six decades. Gabrielle has chosen songs that touch upon the full arc of his career, from early ‘60s numbers like “Three Days” and “Blame It on the Times” to a pair of selections from his 2017 album God’s Problem Child, “Lady Luck” and “Butterfly.” She also gives a nod to Willie’s love for songs from the Great American Songbook with the Hoagy Carmichael/Mitchell Parish classic “Stardust.”
As you listen to this collection, you will hear one of the special voices on the current scene. Gabrielle has impressive range, superb control, and flexibility in her timbre that enables her to bring something a bit different to each selection. This is complemented by her imagination and musicality, assets that give her the ability to make each song that she sings sound like it was written with her in mind.
Two selections best demonstrate her creativity. Taking “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” on a bebop ride, and turning “Good Hearted Woman” into a slow ballad sung from the woman’s perspective are stunningly effective reconceptions of the ways that Willie and Waylon approached this material.
The album also benefits greatly from the imaginative arrangements by Pat O’Leary, and the amazing cast of musicians who have brought his vision to life. When given solo space, each of the players rises to the occasion, saying quickly and impressively what is on his mind.
At some point this album will surely gather the attention of Willie. There is no doubt that it will make him smile, and feel satisfied that his music has inspired such a heartfelt and impressive tribute to his genius.
Joe Lang is a Past President of the New Jersey Jazz Society, and a frequent contributor to Jersey Jazz.