James Taylor redefines himself with Boston Pops
by Seth Rogovoy

(LENOX, Mass., July 18, 2002) – In an evening of Americana worthy of an Independence Day festival, three American icons familiar to Tanglewood audiences joined forces on Wednesday to entertain a record-setting crowd of 24,470, breaking the previous record held by the Tanglewood on Parade celebration in 1999.

The combined draw of John Williams, the Boston Pops Orchestra and James Taylor filled the shed, the lawn and the surrounding woods and parking lots with concertgoers, who were treated to a one-of-a-kind show that drew lines connecting the American spirit and the ongoing struggle for freedom to the musical heritage celebrating that spirited struggle.

The tone was set in the first half of the program, when Taylor joined the Pops to narrate an excerpt from Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait.” It was a brilliant choice, underlining what indeed is a Lincolnesque quality in the pop-folk singer-songwriter, seen in public for perhaps the first time in suit and tie. It also connected Lincoln’s brilliant, poetic oratory – read in Taylor’s typically understated delivery but with no little impact – to Taylor’s own political-minded work, bringing to mind songs like “Shed a Little Light,” his tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., and even “Line ‘Em Up,” his semi-comic look at Richard Nixon’s resignation.

The Lincoln piece was part of an America-themed Pops program that included a peppy ride through Richard Rodgers’s “Carousel Waltz” from “Carousel” and Williams’s “Call of the Champions,” which kicked off the evening with a brass fanfare. The meat, however, was in the Lincoln piece and Williams’s own portrait of that other much-loved, assassinated president, John F. Kennedy.

Written for the Oliver Stone film, “J.F.K.,” Williams’s suite ranged from a lyrical, Irish-tinged theme full of hope – quintessential Williams in its Coplandesque optimism -- to a representation of Kennedy’s assassination full of sharp edges and harsh dissonance – more Stravinsky than Copland. The curtain came down on the first half with a strut through a Yankee Doodle-like march composed by Williams for Steven Spielberg’s World War II comedy, “1941.”

Still be-suited but without the tie, Taylor returned after intermission with a “Hi, how ya doin’?,” instantly giving the evening a more relaxed feel. It also helped when in his folksy manner – wasn’t Lincoln folksy, too? – he teased the audience that he would play three new songs. “I know you hate new material,” he said, “but these songs sound just like the old ones,” before launching into “On the 4th of July,” a ballad off his terrific upcoming album, “October Road,” that was indeed vintage James Taylor.

“Mean Old Man” was of a whole other vintage, an original but old-fashioned, jazz-style pop tune that in addition to offering showcases for the two bona fide jazz players in his band, guitarist John Pizzarelli and pianist Larry Goldings, proved that Taylor himself has jazz chops as a vocalist. The tune swung harder and with more personality than anything Linda Ronstadt assayed at her all-standards-with-orchestra show on the fourth of July at Tanglewood.

The Pops mostly stayed out of Taylor’s way on the tunes they accompanied. They provided stirring backup, however, on his version of the folk song, “The Water Is Wide,” another showcase for Taylor’s considerable vocal talent, during which you got to hear him ring long notes that built with vibrato. (Is this guy taking voice lessons? He never sounded so good.) His typically dry wit threatened to turn into all-out standup comedy in a riotously funny spoken introduction to “The Frozen Man,” and “Carolina In My Mind” was a mellow highlight of a mellow concert.

The closest Taylor came to rocking out fully was on “Country Road,” which opened with a duet jam between Taylor on acoustic guitar and bassist Jimmy Johnson. Even with drummer Gregg Bissonette playing brushes, the song’s inner dynamic of tension and release threatened fully to explode several times. Williams, sitting behind Taylor on the number, got so caught up in the tune that he began clapping out the rhythm.

The orchestra backed Taylor on the set-closing version of “Fire and Rain,” which taken at a slower pace than the original and with some additional orchestral swells and flourishes and an added crescendo at the end, took on the aspect of a Williams composition. Do I hear a full album’s worth of James Taylor songs as orchestrated by John Williams in the future? Do I hear a full album’s worth of pop standards sung by Taylor with the Boston Pops in the future? This concert suggested yes to both.

The Pops played some music from the score to the “Harry Potter” movie – more of which will be heard at Tanglewood on Parade later this month – while Taylor took a breather before officially bringing down the curtain backed by the orchestra on a chilling version of “America the Beautiful.”

With the orchestra released from its official duties as the clock struck 11, Taylor then regrouped informally, and generously entertained his fans with an impromptu solo set of favorites including “You’ve Got a Friend,” “The Secret of Life,” and, of course, the obligatory “Sweet Baby James,” with its invocation of the Berkshires and “the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston.”

It was a truly magical and memorable night.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 19, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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