Various Artists

Sketches of James: Selection from the James Taylor Songbook

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Jazz tributes to pop and rock giants continue to crop up, and they always walk an uncomfortable tightrope between artistic exploration and commercial palatability. Sure enough, that tension plays itself out on producer Tim Weston's polyglot tribute to James Taylor. (In 1997 Weston similarly took on the work of Brian Wilson, much as Bob Belden has addressed Prince and Carole King.) Here the smooth jazz saxophonist Gerald Albright ("Your Smiling Face") weighs in alongside Flora Purim and Airto Moreira ("Only a Dream in Rio"), Les McCann ("Nobody But You"), and Tower of Power ("Steamroller"), to name only a few. Despite expert musicianship from a host of big names, much of the music comes off as ear candy. But there are some interesting surprises, such as guitarist/singer Robben Ford's reunion with his erstwhile colleagues from the Yellowjackets, Russell Ferrante and Jimmy Haslip, on "You Make It Easy." (Of all the album's featured vocalists, Ford's voice is closest to Taylor's.) Mitchel Forman, known for his fusion synth work, takes a turn with an acoustic piano trio rendition of "Something in the Way She Moves," one of Taylor's finest melodies. The harmonic sophistication and blues feeling of much of Taylor's work is brought out in these treatments, but attention to lyrical content seems absent from Poncho Sanchez's "Fire and Rain," where the peppy Latin dance feel makes a trifle of one of the most devastatingly sad songs ever written.

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