When J.D. Souther returned to recording in 2008 with If the World Was You after a 24-year break, he allowed his lifelong love of jazz and pop standards a prominent place in his songwriting. As a singer he regularly worked with jazz artists, but had seldom allowed that side of himself to show too readily on records. He also applied those traits to 2011's Natural History, a dynamite collection of his tunes that were (mostly) associated with other artists. Tenderness, Souther's Sony Masterworks debut, teams him with producer Larry Klein and a studio band that includes guitarist Dean Parks, bassist David Pilch, drummer Jay Bellerose, keyboardist Patrick Warren, and trumpeter Till Brönner. Pianist Billy Childs contributes string arrangements to three songs and plays on one. As a singer, Souther's tenor voice is undiminished by the passage of time. As a songwriter, his ballads here, including opener "Come What May," the sensual "Dance Real Slow," and the vulnerable "Need Somebody," reflect the influence of the standards book, while the melodies display the distinct hallmarks of his craft. The song selection here goes wider and deeper, however. "Something in the Dark" reflects the Southern California scene of the 1970s that Souther was such an integral part of. Its stinging bluesy guitars, Lizz Wright's backing vocal, dramatic strings, trumpet, electric piano, and hypnotic percussion take the listener back to his writing for the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. "Let's Take a Walk" is irresistible with its breezy, nearly Caribbean-tinged groove -- and a fine soprano sax contribution from Jeff Coffin. Childs' string chart on "This House" textures one of Souther's most searing ballads. His delivery makes the poignant lyric visible. The melancholic Americana lullaby "Horses in Blue," with beautiful, smoky, muted trumpet fills by Brönner and a lonesome cello woven in for balance, also offers unique phrasing and emotional control. Closer "Downtown (Before the War)" features Childs' crystalline piano, Brönner's grooving muted horn, and a stellar upright walking bassline. Despite the fingerpopping tempo, it's haunting; the music encompasses vintage cool jazz, singer/songwriter pop, and L.A. R&B inside a nearly cinematic narrative. Souther's command of both his music and his voice on Tenderness is total; he makes it all sound easy. But that's deceptive: it takes a lifetime of commitment and hard work to deliver a gem like this.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek