Over the past three decades, A.J. Croce has established his reputation as a piano player and serious vocal stylist who pulls from a host of musical traditions and anti-heroes — part New Orleans, part juke joint, part soul. While his last album, JUST LIKE MEDICINE, paired him with soul legend Dan Penn and an all-star cast of players, his new album was born of memories — of favorite artists and shows, but mostly, of late-night gatherings with groups of friends, many of them fellow musicians, with Croce at the piano taking requests. Croce revisits these musical evenings on BY REQUEST, 12 personally curated covers that traverse decades and genres, propelled by his spirited, loose-and-easy piano mastery and emotive vocals.
It’s a tribute to Croce the music fan as well as Croce the musician that both the variety and execution is inspired, aided by a full band and horns. BY REQUEST is the first album Croce has released since losing his wife of 24 years, Marlo Croce, after a sudden heart ailment. It’s also the first album by Croce to feature his full touring band: Gary Mallaber on drums (Van Morrison, Steve Miller band), GRAMMY®-winning bassist David Barard (Allen Toussaint, Dr. John), and up-and-coming guitarist Garrett Stoner. AJ Croce opened for many artists including Carlos Santana, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, B.B. King or Ray Charles to name a few.
The album opens with piano-driven, jazzy-fused Nothing from Nothing. That kind of composition that won't let you sit still. Almost feel like a live recording where you hear AJ saying to his band in the middle of the track "take it away". As close to a real show as you can get while listening to a recording.
Only Love Can Break Your Heart is beautiful piano-driven taken on Neil Young's song of the same name. In Croce's hands, the song builds up a dark aura about it, starting with the opening lines "when you were young and on your own, how did it feel to be alone". It makes you run over and give the singer a hug. That's the aim of this kind of songs, to provoke emotion. And AJ Croce with his decades of experience surely knows his weapons inside and out.
Ooh Child is a sweet song resembling a lullaby, as if the singer was indeed consoling a child, trying to tell them there's a brighter future ahead. There's even the sing-along part a child could join in.
The dynamic changes from one song to the next, there are lively ones (Have You Seen My Baby, Better Day) and slower numbers (Nothing Can Change This Love), mixed perfectly not to interrupt or slow down the flow of the album. Stay with me is a hard core rock number with electric guitars leading the way and Croce's vocal putting all energy out that he possibly can.
On a well-balanced album such as this one, it is a heroic task to try to evaluate the tracks in order to pick something that stands out. Every single track has something the others lack. Yet San Diego Serenade is truly something else. it gets you lyrically from the first word. It breaks your heart, the sadness and regret in the singer's voice is palpable.
Lyrics such as " never saw my hometown till I stayed away too long", "never heard the melody till I needed the song" or never spoke I love you till I cursed you in vain" will make you feel for the singer. You'd have to have a heart made of stone if not.
As Croce explains, "BY REQUEST is my way of inviting you over for a private gathering at my place,” Croce says of the collection. “We listen to great music, laugh, make great food and after a few drinks and maybe a few more we end up in my music room and I start taking requests of every genre and era. The music is always fun and completely diverse. We’ll play and sing all kinds of music. Some of my friends are professional musicians, some do it for fun and many friends are just serious music fans. So you’ll fit right in."
By Request is an ideal soundtrack to the late night when you want to put some good music on and get lost in it. Look no further. An album with a touring band can't get much better. The next level would be a live gig itself. As with fine wine, the years of experience only add to the quality of the final product here.