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Tribute gives Taylor due as songwriter

Sketches of James
Sketches of James
By various artists

Koch Jazz: 2001

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This review first appeared in the May 28, 2001 edition of the American Reporter.

The true mark of a composer isn't necessarily how they play their songs, but how others do. Sure, Hoagy Carmichael was a pleasant enough pianist and singer (and you can rent "To Have and Have Not" if you don't believe me – that's him playing piano while Bogie and Bacall fall in love), but we remember Bing Crosby's version of "Stardust," not Carmichael's.

Which is important to remember when you think of how many really bad, bad covers of Beatles songs are out there. The high estimation that the McCartney-Lennon songwriting partnership is held in now may not hold up in another century.

On the other hand, while better known as a performer, James Taylor's compositions seem to translate quite well to other styles. A new collection of Taylor songs, "Sketches of James," presents 10 of his songs performed by a broad swath of the jazz world – and most of the songs hold up very nicely.

Tower of Power's funked-up arrangement of "Steamroller" brings out new colors not heard in Taylor's own. And while "Your Smiling Face" is performed close to the original arrangement (down to Paul Jackson Jr. flawlessly re-creating Danny Kortchmar's distinctive guitar lines), having Gerald Albright take the vocal lines on alto saxophone again makes an old warhorse sound fresh and new. And having "Only a Dream in Rio" done up as a samba with Flora Purim on vocals and Airto Moreira on percussion is not only a nice touch, but effective, too.

What might make this collection work as well as it does is the fact that most of the songs are far removed from their familiar presentation. Taylor is a wonderful performer, but oldies radio has beaten his songs into the ground to the point that most of us secretly hope we never hear "Fire and Rain" again.

Unless it's Poncho Sanchez's version.