Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

Although the new Birdland Theater is not known for magic acts, something magical happened on January 1st, when Gabrielle Stravelli previewed her soon-to-be-released album Pick Up My Pieces: Gabrielle Stravelli Sings Willie Nelson.

Making a very strong case for the Nelson cannon to be wholly adopted into the Great American Songbook, Stravelli and her band (Joshua Richman on piano; Art Hirahara on organ; Pat O’Leary Music Director, on bass; Eric Halvorson on drums, and Scott Robinson on saxophone/flute) reinvented some of Willie Nelson’s most famous tunes, including Always On My Mind, and Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys, into nearly unrecognizable jazz gems, complete with multi-syllabic scat and rousing instrumental solos for all on stage.

In complete control of her surroundings, Stravelli gestured musical changes and cut-offs to the band with great confidence, giving the evening an improvisational feel, while illustrating her own innate understanding of Nelson’s traditions in country music, and her re-imagining of these songs as jazz standards. Butterfly (Mark Sherrill/Sonny Throckmorton) was transformed in this new fusion of Jazz & Country, which is a credit to both Nelson and Stravelli. And, during Time of the Preacher, coupled with I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone, the audience became so enraptured with both this singer, and the trans-morphing of the song(s), that one could hear a pin drop.

An acapella start to Stardust (From Nelson’s Album of the same name) revealed a completely different use of voice for Stravelli, a long-line legato, and vocal color reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald, and also solidified Nelson’s performance connection to the Great American Songbook. The song was beautifully arranged and simply stunning.

The evening also included some welcomed, and hitherto unknown, information about Willie Nelson, including his commitment to bringing the Great American Songbook to a larger audience, his fan base, and his often unconventional/combative relationship with his record label, in order to do so.

Perhaps the most astonishing selection of the evening, of which there were many, was Stravelli’s redesigning of the Nelson classic Mamas, Don’t Let Your babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys. Here, in a hard-swing version, with full-on, multi-syllabic scat, Stravelli transported us to another world.

Somewhere between Nashville and New Orleans, at the intersection of Stravelli and Nelson, (by way of Birdland) there is unexpected magic.  Pick Up My Pieces: Gabrielle Stravelli Sings Willie Nelson is set to drop this spring, mid April. Mark your calendars. You’ll be glad you did.