Gabrielle Stravelli: Pick Up My Pieces: Gabrielle Stravelli Sings Willie Nelson

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Gabrielle Stravelli

Pick Up My Pieces: Gabrielle Stravelli Sings Willie Nelson

Birdland Theater, NYC, January 1, 2019 

Reviewed by Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes

Gabrielle Stravelli

Gabrielle Stravelli serendipitously found Willie Nelson in high school when she went to see him on a whim. “I wasn’t enamored until his band left the stage.

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He accompanied himself on ‘Always on My Mind’ and I fell in love.” Her show of Nelson songs and covers is peppered with well-chosen history and anecdotes gleaned from the honoree’s autobiography. The performer is warm and earnest.

“Nelson made his 78th album in 2018, and people say stoners can’t get anything done,” she affectionately quips.

Most of us think of Stravelli as one of our preeminent jazz singers, yet cowboy inflection and swaying lilt seems to roll off her tongue. The vocalist especially delivers ballads and blues with conviction and sinew, showcasing her acting chops.

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“Butterfly” (Mark Sherrill/Sonny Throckmorton) arrives as a velvety foxtrot with long, low vibrato. Sympathy and tenderness pervade. Flute flitters rather too much. An iconic “Stardust”—Nelson went against record-company wishes to create albums of favorite standards—traditionally arranged, is beautifully executed. Stravelli transitions between notes—even octaves—seamlessly, and can shift from light to dark without a ripple. The sax is abrasive, out of emotional sync.

Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson’s “Goodhearted Woman” is “in love with a good timin’ man/And she loves him in spite of his ways” was purportedly written after an article describing Tina Turner (and Ike). Stravelli conjectures that despite his mother having left home when Nelson was very young, he took after her “restless spirit with a drink in one hand and an easy joke, making people feel at ease.” The ballad is persuasive, filled with heart.

Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City” is a hard-edged, mid-tempo blues with able scat. Eyes closed, Stravelli plays the air—grasping, pointing, punching. The keyboard swings, the bass has a cool conversation with the percussion. Smiling, the two musicians lean in with appreciation. “Little Old-Fashioned Karma” surfaces as jitterbug comeuppance. The vocalist can’t help but dance in place. “You can tell there’s someone very specific I’m picturing when I sing that song.”

For my money, tonight’s highlight is a tandem “Pick Up My Pieces” and “Crazy,” which begins with just skillful bass accompaniment, then keyboard chords, moody piano, circling brushes. In the first song, Stravelli appeals to us “Somebody pick up my pieces/I’m scattered everywhere/And put me back together/Put me way over there.” The lyrics seem to rise out of pain—from her gut, not her head.

Jazz and gospel mate as “Crazy” comes in organically, segues back to the first selection, then reemerges with a full-blooded gospel whomp! Musical and emotional journey are well mapped. Stravelli opens her throat with appealing rasp, rippling vibrato, and palpable inhale.

“Three Days,” “Three days that I hate to see arrive/ Three days that I hate to be alive/Three days filled with tears and sorrow” can’t by any interpretation be construed as a happy song, yet not only is the arrangement upbeat, but Stravelli performs with a big grin and grooving demeanor. Explain this to me.

I also take issue with “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” (Ed and Patsy Bruce) which pits the vocalist’s apt cadence against a fast, strident jazz arrangement intent on contradicting its meaning. The only bright spot in the number is an example of Stravelli’s phenomenal scat, which might be better employed.

We close with an expressive “You Were Always on My Mind” (Jimmy Christopher/Mark James/Wayne Carson). Phrasing engages, arrangement respects. Beautiful.

Musicians include Joshua Richman (piano), Art Hirahara (keyboard), Eric Halvorson (drums), Scott Robinson (tenor sax and flute), and Pat O’Leary (MD/bass).

Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen’s writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts, including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of cabaret, she’s also a theater aficionado, a voting member of Drama Desk, The Drama League and of The NY Press Club in addition to MAC. Currently, Alix writes for Cabaret Scenes, Theater Pizzazz and Woman Around Town. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine and Times Square Chronicles. Alix is the recipient of six New York Press Club Awards.