A.J. Croce brings fine new album to World Café Live
It's one thing to make a good or even great album. But, as A.J. Croce, who plays World Cafe Live on Tuesday, has learned in more than two decades in the music business, if you're not as famous as, say, your father, "it takes a lot of work to get it recognized."
So for his new album, the son of the late Jim Croce decided to do something different to gain attention. After producing his three previous albums himself, he set out to work with not just one producer but six. And not just any producers. He managed to recruit two legends - Allen Toussaint and "Cowboy" Jack Clement - as well as heavy hitters Mitchell Froom, Tony Berg, Kevin Killen, and Greg Cohen, whose resumés include work with David Bowie, Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, and Tom Waits, among many others.
As the 42-year-old Croce remembers from his home in San Diego, it was a scary and nerve-wracking adventure that took him to nine studios in five cities. Each producer supplied the musicians and got to pick two songs to record out of 15 to 20 demos Croce provided. In some cases, he didn't know which songs he'd be doing until he arrived.
"And because of my budget, I didn't have more than a day or two with each producer," he says.
The challenge certainly seems to have inspired him. Twelve Tales (Compass ***1/2) is the best album of a career that has produced a lot of sterling if underrecognized work. It brings together the various styles Croce has explored, from his early, Ray Charles-inspired R&B to guitar-oriented pop. It also has a warm, live-in-the-studio feel, and for all the different producers and musicians involved, it holds together remarkably well - as Croce sees it, it's "a cohesive collection of 45s."
His years as a piano player on Nashville recording sessions made him comfortable in the studio, he says, so working with many different musicians was less daunting than it could have been. The process also had other benefits: "The less prepared you are, the more you have the ability to think outside the box, because you haven't been practicing something just one way."
His Nashville session with Clement was one of the last by the Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash producer before his death in August. Croce went way back with him: "He had invited me to his house when I was 17. He recorded me for hours one day."
This time, they turned out the twang-fueled "Momentary Lapse of Judgment" and "Easy Money," an infectious piano tune inspired by Charlie Rich's "Mohair Sam."
The Toussaint session in New Orleans was one of the most intimidating, Croce says, because the Crescent City titan had long been one of his idols. Croce had opened for Toussaint once, and they even played four-handed piano in the encore. But he still had to audition for the master. He obviously passed, because Toussaint was later quoted: "In such a crowded music universe, it is a pleasure to witness triple uniqueness: pianist, songwriter, singer, and at such a level. And who does he sound like? The answer is himself - A.J. Croce."
For the album, they collaborated on "Rollin' On," a Croce co-write with Leon Russell that sounds like a slab of quintessential New Orleans R&B, and Croce's favorite moment on the set, the majestic soul ballad "Tarnished and Shining."
With Froom, Croce shared an infatuation with vintage instruments. And he found the producer inspiring in the way he always strove to find new ways to record such instruments. That's what he did with the Mighty Wurlitzer and celesta, helping to give "Venus & Adonis" its ethereal vibe.
He learned something from all the producers, especially involving preproduction, Croce says, and he would be happy to work with any of them again: "All of them are really genuinely nice people. They continue to find unique tonal qualities in whatever they're producing."
A.J. (it stands for Adrian James) was born at Bryn Mawr Hospital. He was just days from his second birthday when his father was killed in a plane crash in September 1973, and though there is a physical resemblance, the son has never sounded like the singer-songwriter of such hits as "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" and "Time in a Bottle." The main thing he learned from his father's career, he says, is: "Write a good song, tell a good story, be honest with the music."
Now that he's proficient enough on guitar, Croce usually plays one of Jim's songs in concert. Given his father's ties to the Philadelphia area - he grew up in Drexel Hill and graduated from Villanova, and his widow, Ingrid, is also from here - he will play more of them at World Cafe Live:
"That wasn't part of my influence, but I like that music. If people come to hear that, I'm happy to do it."
8 p.m. Tuesday at World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St. Tickets: $18-$20. Information: 215-222-1400 or www.worldcafelive.com