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    The Little Willies:

    Little Willies

    Fri, 10 Mar 2006 10:04:03

    Album Reviews: Little Willies by The Little Willies

    The story goes that The Little Willies formed out of a mutual love of Willie Nelson tunes and a desire to get together and jam. The five friends and fellow musicians booked a gig together at a little club called the Living Room in New York's Lower East Side -- and the rest, as they say, is history. They enjoyed playing together, the audiences enjoyed hearing them, and eventually someone decided to put them in a studio and have them cut an album.

    None of this would be big news, except that one of the Little Willies is Norah Jones. The jazz-pop chanteuse plays piano and shares vocal duties with Richard Julian, a very talented but relatively unknown New York singer-songwriter; the other Willies are Jones' longtime bassist and songwriting partner Lee Alexander, guitarist Jim Campilongo, and drummer Dan Rieser. Though Jones shines throughout, it's clear from the album's start that this isn't her band or anyone else's, but a partnership of five musical equals with a rare ability to reinterpret old country standards with jazzy, honky-tonk flair.

    Wisely, the Willies don't give Jones the vocal spotlight until track three, a Leiber-Stoller tune popularized by Elvis Presley, "Love Me." Jones obviously relishes the opportunity, here and elsewhere, to tear into music with a little more guts and sass than the easy listening material that dominates her solo albums. The opening tracks establish Richard Julian and his elegant tenor, giving him a romp of a duet with Jones on Fred Rose's classic "Roly Poly" and letting him shine in the lead on a great New Orleans stride version of Hank Williams Jr.'s "I'll Never Get Out," which also showcases Campilongo's nimble, bluesy guitar work.

    Elsewhere, the Willies tear through songs by Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, and their namesake, Willie Nelson; they even dust off Jimmie Driftwood's old C&W chestnut, "Tennessee Stud," buffing off the twangy, rough edges and giving the song a breezy, California country-rock sheen that belies the band's New York origins. Four original tunes also sit well among these old classics, even the Alexander-penned tune "Roll On," the one moment when The Little Willies sounds like a Norah Jones album.

    It's refreshing to hear a group of musicians this talented having so much fun performing songs this good. Here's hoping the Little Willies are successful enough to garner the underrated Julian more attention, and to inspire Jones to continue stretching her prodigious vocal and piano talents in new and interesting directions. Maybe they'll even tour together -- in the meantime, if you're ever in New York, you might be able to catch them jamming in the Living Room. -- Andy Hermann

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