When I first realized that Nelson Rangell’s new CD was titled My American Songbook (vol. 1), my thoughts were, "Oh, another 'songbook' CD. Do we really need another one?" But Nelson Rangell has 13 outstanding solo CDs to his credit. He definitely deserves the benefit of any doubt. So I listened to it. I’m glad I did.
There are three elements that make My American Songbook worth bringing home. The first is Rangell’s talent. He plays the flute; soprano, alto and tenor sax; piccolo; kalimba; and sings and whistles on this album. He does all of that masterfully. The second thing is the material. The selections are intriguing. There are ten songs on the CD that cover a wide range of Americana, from the traditional to Leonard Bernstein to Stevie Wonder and James Taylor to one of Rangell’s own. The third element is the thread that ties it all together – the message: that even though we are sometimes divided over political and spiritual issues, we are all Americans. And as Americans we have a rich heritage to celebrate, a rich blended culture to share, not the least of which is our music.
My American Songbook begins with Leonard Bernstein's "America." Rangell chose the flute as his vehicle to interpret this familiar West Side Story piece. Next, he picks up a very soulful alto sax for a wonderful cover of Stevie Wonder's "Don’t You Worry 'bout A Thing" and gives the whole number a Latin vibe.
An all-time favorite of mine and one of the first truly contemporary jazz hits that many of us ever heard and fell in love with is "Cast Your Fate To The Wind." Rangell's interpretation of this Vince Guaraldi classic is faithful to the spirit of the original in that it gently takes us on a wonderful sonic journey and invites us to step out and have a little faith that things will work out. Rangell is one of only a few contemporary saxmen to play the soprano with a wonderfully warm, rich, mellow tone, and it lends itself perfectly here, as does Russell Ferrante's "shades of Vince Guaraldi" piano.
We all grew up with "Billy Boy." Backed by Chip Stephens on piano, Mark Simon on bass, and Mike Marlier on drums, Rangell gives us this one a la Miles Davis in this upbeat, traditional jazz rendition. Another offering that stays true to the original is the Earth, Wind and Fire hit, "That's The Way Of The World." Upbeat and positive, this one will have you tapping your toes and bopping your head.
A favorite in Nelson's live shows, known to fans as "the whistle tune," is Hampton Hawes' "Sonora." So everyone who has wanted a recording of this… here it is! In addition to Rangell's whisting and piccolo playing, is the simply beautiful acoustic guitar-work of Chuck Loeb.
In the liner notes, Rangell quotes bluegrass songwriter and fiddler, Kenny Baker saying, "Bluegrass is nothing but a hillbilly version of jazz." Rangell pushes Baker's song, "Freda," a notch or two further down the jazz path. Certainly one of the highlights of this CD, Rangell plays some very straight-ahead jazz on the flute and piccolo, accompanied by Russell Ferrante on piano and Jimmy Hassip on bass.
Rangell's inspired plaintive tenor sax work lends itself wonderfully to his medley of the Sinatra favorite "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning" and James Taylor's classic hit "Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight."
"Cherokee" may have been written by British band leader Ray Noble, but Charlie Parker made it an American classic. Again, true to the spirit of Parker, Rangell offers us this one as a tribute to the jazz giants that came before him. Rangell's playing is incredible, and not to be missed is the awesome piano work of Chip Stephens.
Closing the album is a piece written by Nelson Rangell and Alex Nekrasocv who co-produced and arranged many of the songs on My American Songbook. "Don't Forget Those Forgotten" is a soulful reminder to share with those less fortunate the things most of us take for granted living in this country.
My American Songbook isn't just one more "songbook" CD. It's a thoughtfully put together, wonderfully performed collection of music from the variety of musical styles that weave together to make that wonderful tapestry that is our American musical heritage.
- Elizabeth Ware