James’s Liner Notes

With some encouragement from my friends at Fantasy Records, I decided to try my hand at an album of standards. These are songs I have always known. Most of them were part of my family’s record collection, the first music I heard as a kid growing up in North Carolina. We listened to the cast recordings of the great American musicals: Guys and Dolls, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, Brigadoon, Peter Pan, Show Boat, South Pacific… Before I started writing my own stuff, I learned to play these tunes, working out chord changes for my favorite melodies. And those guitar arrangements became the basis for this album.

My collaborator, John Pizzarelli, is a living encyclopedia of the best popular music that the West has ever produced. Like his father, Bucky, he is a master guitarist and a casual, matter-of-fact genius. I asked John to come out to Western Massachusetts, where I live and do my recording in a big barn in the middle of the forest, to help me put down some tracks. I’d show him what changes I had found for a handful of songs and we’d work up the arrangements. Several of them begin with what used to be called verses: a few bars, often out of time, to ramp into the tune. These introductions are often left out when people cover the standards but we kept as many as we could for the novelty of it. We had way too much fun but managed to record a couple of basic keepers each day for two weeks in the Fall of 2017. My usual MO is to show my changes to a piano player, who takes the arrangement to the band. But there was something extraordinary in the sound of just the two guitars and I was determined to keep that sound at the center of the whole project.

So it’s a collection of guitar pieces, with solos and support from my regular family of players who tour and record with me and with whom it has been my great good fortune to share a musical life: Jimmy Johnson, Steve Gadd, Luis Conte, Larry Goldings, Lou Marini, Walt Fowler, and Kate Markowitz, Caroline Taylor, Andrea Zonn, Dorian Holley and Arnold McCuller.

We spent a great week in Nashville where we added performances by three of the very best players on this (or any other) planet: Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan and Viktor Krauss.

I need to acknowledge my constant and most valued friend, Dave O’Donnell, who is named here as producer. The role of producer in the recording world can mean many things, from drug dealer to engineer to psychotherapist. The standard comparison is to a film director. He’s the responsible one, the guy who sees it through and turns in the finished product. Especially on a project like this, where two people spend the better part of a year in tight quarters together, a partnership like the one Dave and I have enjoyed, with his patience and quiet encouragement, its value can’t be overstated.

Also invaluable and constant in their efforts here have been Ellyn Kusmin, studio manager, and Jon Prince, my long-time guitar tech. We played around with a number of possible titles: “Used Music,” “Reliquary” or “Still” but, in the end, we settled on the first idea that came to me. These are American songs and Standards, for sure. Also, when we were growing up, we had a kitchen sink with that name glazed into the white porcelain between the faucets in cool blue letters: “American Standard”…

I dedicate the album to my wife, Caroline. Sine Qua Non…