The ‘Twelve Tales’ trail brings A.J. Croce to Aspen
ASPEN – “Twelve Tales,” the current project of singer, songwriter and pianist A.J. Croce, is a long, exploratory journey that encompasses a broad range of musical ground. “Twelve Tales” has Croce recording his new songs in the home studios of various top-notch producers. Croce is releasing the music as he goes. Two songs – the first single, “Right on Time,” and “Momentary Lapse of Judgment,” put out this past week – are already available, with an additional tune coming out each month through the year. Croce envisions releasing “Twelve Tales” as a full album early in 2014.On Wednesday, the 41-year-old Croce was at home in San Diego. He had just returned from New Orleans, where he had spent several days recording with Allen Toussaint, a 75-year-old Louisiana piano icon who has produced notable albums by Aaron Neville, the Meters, Dr. John and Patti LaBelle. The sessions resulted in a pair of completed songs: “Tarnished and Shining,” and “Rollin’ On,” which Croce co-wrote with another piano legend, Leon Russell.”It was amazing, one of those great moments in life I’ll never forget,” Croce said of the sessions. “He’s sort of a Zen master – not that he practices Zen or Buddhism that I know of.”Earlier, Croce had traveled to Stamford, Conn., to work with producer Kevin Killen, whose regular collaborators have included U2, Elvis Costello and Peter Gabriel.The “Twelve Tracks” trail had begun in Nashville, at the home studio of Jack Clement. An eccentric 81-year-old who usually goes by the nickname “Cowboy,” Clement had written a string of songs for George Jones and Johnny Cash; worked at Memphis’ famed Sun Records, where he recorded tracks by Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, and, in the mid-’80s, songs for U2’s “Rattle and Hum” album.Croce expects to work in the near future with Joe Henry, who has produced music by Bonnie Raitt, Solomon Burke and Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Jerry Masters, “who has run Muscle Shoals forever,” Croce said, referencing the well-known Alabama soul music studio. He is also in talks with Todd Rundgren, and Richard Perry, who has produced Ray Charles and Rod Stewart.Croce is struck by how different the experiences have been so far. “It couldn’t have been more extreme opposite experiences,” Croce said of the time spent with Clement and Killen. From Clement, whom he has known since he was a teenager, Croce sought big-picture feedback on the songs.”I played him the songs, an hour’s worth of music. What I wanted was his idea of what songs were right for him, what he was comfortable playing,” he said. The sessions were loose – Clement would spend much of the day in a kimono, strumming Croce’s tunes on a ukulele – and remarkably spontaneous. “With Jack, everything’s off the cuff. We didn’t know what songs we’d record, what instruments we’d play, who the musicians would be. He’d listen to the songs, say, ‘OK, this would be good,’ then he’d recommend musicians and we’d see if we could get them, on a day’s notice.”With Killen, the process was tighter. Croce sent him four songs; Killen picked two and was ready to roll, with members of David Bowie’s and Rufus Wainwright’s band, when Croce arrived in Connecticut. “Kevin is an engineer first in his career, a very organized person,” Croce noted.Not surprisingly, what is coming out of those sessions covers a lot of stylistic ground. “Momentary Lapse of Judgment,” produced by Clement, is rootsy country, with loads of twangy guitar. “Right on Time,” from the sessions with Killen, is brightly melodic pop-rock. Croce said the sessions in New Orleans, thanks to Toussaint’s background and tastes, emphasized Croce’s old-school piano playing.”I wanted to get out of my element, challenge myself,” Croce said of the thinking behind “Twelve Tales.” “I produced my last three albums myself. I wanted to get another set of ears, to get a sense of their interpretations of the songs.”••••As much musical territory as “Twelve Tales” might cover, and as much of a literal and metaphoric journey it might be for Croce, it doesn’t match the ground Croce has already covered in a most interesting career.When Croce began performing, he was an anachronism – a teenager who sang in a bluesy rasp reminiscent of Louis Jordan and Louis Armstrong, and a piano style to match, influenced strongly by barrelhouse players like Fats Waller. Croce and his band dressed in crisp suits and ties, and when Croce spoke of his predecessors from the early 20th century, it was with a solemn reverence.Among the places Croce began to make his name was at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House. “For me, playing the Wheeler, it was one of the shows early in my career where I felt proud to get to play there,” he said. “Since I was young, that venue’s meant a lot to me.”Croce returns to the Wheeler Friday for an 8 p.m. show, and most everything will be different. The dress is more casual, the music looks more forward than backward, the style is more pop, rock and folk than r&b and blues. Croce will be on both piano and guitar, and instead of being backed by a full band, he will be accompanied by guitarist/bassist Michael Bizar.Most strikingly, the rasp is gone. In 1998, Croce showed up in a Memphis recording studio to record his third album, “Fit to Serve.” “I opened my mouth to sing and nothing came out. I had been touring 200, 250 days a year and I hurt my vocal cords,” he said. With a doctor’s help, he was able to finish the album, but more drastic measures were needed. Croce enlisted voice coaches, and in 2000 he took a break from singing. When he emerged from the break, he heard something markedly different coming out of him. And when, on a drive from Los Angeles to San Diego, he sang along with Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” he realized that different wasn’t necessarily bad.”It was a sort-of epiphany – I could hit all those notes,” he said.Croce restarted his career as a wholly different musician. “Adrian James Croce,” his 2004 album, found him playing guitar as well as keyboards, writing contemporary pop songs, and most noticeably, singing in a higher, brighter register. His two albums since, “Cantos,” from 2006, and “Cage of Muses,” from 2009, demonstrated a genuine feel for singer-songwriter/pop material, with influences from the Beatles, Harry Nilsson, the Kinks and XTC. Last month, he won two honors from the International Acoustic Music Awards, including the overall grand prize.”It was definitely more melodic and more pop,” Croce said. “It came totally naturally, but it was completely terrifying. Because I wanted to entertain the audience.”Croce has retrieved his old, blues-soaked voice; his concerts now include some of his early material. But the goal is to fuse the two sensibilities: the retro, piano-driven r&b, and the modern singer-songwriter fare.”Twelve Tales,” he said, “is finding this middle ground. Because my voice is in a place where I can sing all this stuff. When you hear what I did with Allen Toussaint, you might say, ‘Oh, that sounds like A.J.’s first album.’ In songs, you either have it one way or another – it’s either soulful or melodic. It’s hard to write a song that has both. It’s a goal of mine to find a balance a soulful song and a melodic song.”Croce still listens to the music he came of age with: Fats Waller, Ray Charles – “the music that made me want to be a musician,” he said. But he said the musicians he most identifies with are those who had distinct stylistic stages to their careers. He mentions Serge Gainsbourg, who moved from jazz piano to pop vocals to the avant-garde; and Scott Walker, who made his name with pop ballads before moving into experimental art rock.The musician he most identifies with is his late father, Jim Croce. “My father started doing straight folk music – traditional Irish, English and American folk,” he said. “While that remained part of him, he changed, and what became most famous was what was influenced by r&b. You listen to the first record he did, with my mom, then the first record by himself, he’s a totally different person.”Croce, too, is a different sort of person than he was. “I found my identity late,” he said. “Even though I started young, I didn’t find my identity till I was 30, with the stuff I wrote for ‘Adrian James Croce.'”The identity he has grown into is that of a younger person. Croce dresses younger, sings younger, talks younger than he did as a 20-year-old. He touches on the subject in “I’ve Been Changing,” the final track from “Cage of Muses,” a John Lennon-ish piano ballad in which he sings, “I’ve been changing from the inside out.” But Croce notes that some other songwriter might have had the definitive say on the subject of becoming younger as we age.”I think there’s a Bob Dylan line about that,” Croce said. “The Byrds sang it too.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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