Boy, was I wrong! This is exactly what the song and the album are. Not just Joni Mitchell (although she gets two song credits in the track list) but Bob Dylan (twice) and Paul Simon, Judy Collins, and Stephen Stills, along with other songs that were to be heard on everyone’s radios in the 1960s and beyond.
Is this a departure from Judy Wexler’s Jazz roots? Not in the least, as Judy continues her Jazz stylings with songs that are well-suited to her vocals. She knows how to pick ‘em.
She also knows how to pick the musicians. First is pianist and longtime pal Jeff Colella. Then there’s the amazing guitarist Larry Koonse, bass player Gabe Davis, and drummer Steve Hass, more old pals with whom Wexler has performed and recorded often and well. Along with this core band are Bob Thiele, Jr. on electric and baritone guitars, Danny Janklow on alto sax, Jay Jennings on trumpet, and harmonica handler Hendrik Meurkens. Violinist Sara Caswell is featured on one song, and a string section comprising violinists Joel Pargman and Carrie Kennedy, viola player Rodney Wirtz, and cellist Stefanie Fife make appearances on three tracks.
The Youngbloods’ hit Get Together by Chet Powers (stage name Dino Valenti from Quicksilver Messenger Service) leads off the album. If you’re looking for a song that could be an anthem of our own time, this is it. That gets followed by the optimistic hit from the Drifters, Up on the Roof. It is a fine follow-up to Get Together with its visions of hope.
Paul Simon’s American Tune follows and then on to Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi. By now you realize that Judy is painting a picture of our era, using the brushes of a half-century ago.
Stephen Stills’ For What It’s Worth (originally performed by the Buffalo Springfield) is and always has been a clarion call to awareness and action. It is excellently arranged and Collela’s piano is just menacing enough alongside the strident drumming of Hass’ drums. Nice touch with Koonse’s cool guitar.
Then come the Dylan tunes The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Forever Young. As a Bob Dylan fan and a Judy Wexler fan, nothing could have pleased me more than to hear one musical icon sing the music of another musical icon. Again, it is optimism and hope of our collective hearts that conquers the despair and despondency of the forces of oppression. I was listening to Judy sing The Times They Are A-Changin’ when she sent me a message announcing that President Biden had signed the bill making Juneteenth a National Holiday. The times they are, indeed, a-changin’.
Judy closes the album with Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes. It is a sweet and sad reflection on the all-too-quick passage of time. Weren’t we just protesting this or that? And here we are still raising our voices against injustice. Our loves and our passions may remain, but time goes by so very rapidly. Still, we persevere.
Judy Wexler’s Back to the Garden proves the power of endurance. Music endures and our struggles for justice and mercy endures. The same songs, sung by different voices, are just as important as they ever were.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl