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Picking Up the Pieces: The Songs of Willie Nelson

Gabrielle Stravelli

 Gabrielle Stravelli. Photo by Kevin Alvey
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

You hear it at once in the music of Willie Nelson. The gritty voice is identifiable, infused with a bracing cognition targeting country, jazz, the blues and standards.

Gabrielle Stravelli, in a Birdland 2019 celebration show of her upcoming CD, Picking Up the Pieces - The Songs of Willie Nelson, presents the diverse Nelson songbook laced with her own acclaimed musical artistry, vocal brilliance, and artistic sensitivity. With her commanding audience connection and inspirational vibes, she navigates the 50-plus years of Nelson music-making and wraps the timeline in a brand new package.

Stravelli is backed by a quintet of class-A jazzmen including pianist Joshua Richman, Art Hirahara on keyboard, Pat O'Leary on bass, drummer Eric Halvorson, and Scott Robinson (tenor sax and flute). This is a wrapped tight group, each musician in rapport with Stravelli, tracing her musical clues, adding individual instrumental spirit as well as top big band accompaniment. As is a musician who loves the lyrics, Stravelli finds the point of the song and what it means to her, what it means to Nelson, and what new she can bring to her audience.

She delivers a Stravelli-style elastic interpretation with swing, jazz and passion to songs as country as "Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys" (Ed and Patsy Bruce) and as sophisticated as the timeless Hoagy Carmichael/Mitchell Parish, "Stardust." Yes, this is from the CD that turned the corner for Willie Nelson, sending him to crossover country.

Like Willie Nelson, Stravelli grew up surrounded by a variety of music, including standards. Stravelli handles the pop-rock-jazz landscape with a natural fluidity and lines as long, smooth and easy as a Montblanc fountain pen.
In the show's opener, Nelson, pondering life and death in, "Lady Luck," and acknowledging that the "Red Headed Stranger" is the last of his posse still standing. With wry optimism, Nelson bets he will beat the odds and remain standing, "'Cause sweet Lady Luck likes me a lot more than you/And I'm bettin' she'll come when I call." Because Stravelli enjoys the challenge of pushing the interpretation by pairing it with another song, she follows "Lady Luck" with Frizzel and Beck's honky-tonk classic, "If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time."

She follows this with "Three Days," Nelson's country song written in 1962, that Stravelli now interprets with a vibrant jazz rhythm and a band that shows its fire and force. Stravelli then moves into a gentle blues ballad, "Butterfly" (Sherrill/Throckmorton) accompanied Robinson's touching obligato on flute, with a fluttery ending of fragile butterfly wings.

With big sound and big intensity letting loose with crazy rhythm and fierce scat, the show nears its end. "Pick Up My Pieces" ("Put me way over there"), is a full-throated cry of blues and despair by Stravelli, paired with a throaty "Crazy" - as great a pairing as you can get. "Night Life" keeps up the driving blues passion ("Oh the night life ain't no good life but it's my life") and brings the audience to their feet.

For her encore, she chose "Always On My Mind," a song Willie Nelson recorded in 1982 as a cover for the original Elvis Presley hit. It turned out to be a #1 hit for Nelson as well.

This show has a place in any venue, an intimate jazz bistro, a posh nightclub, any important space that will only become more important with Gabrielle Stravelli who masters all genres of music with her own jazz ingenuity. That 85-year old "Red Headed Stranger," who lives in many musical worlds himself, would surely appreciate how this warm gregarious fiercely talented singer found new ways to look at his songs.

Gabrielle Stravelli
Picking Up the Pieces: The Songs of Willie Nelson
315 - West 44th Street, NYC
70 minutes.
Jan. 1, 2, 2019. Two performances each night.
Accompanying Musicians: Joshua Richman (piano), Art Hirahara (keyboard), Pat O'Leary (bass), drummer Eric Halvorson (drums), Scott Robinson (tenor sax and flute)

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
January 2019