Jazzman Elvis Costello

“What we play is life.” – Louis Armstrong.

Elvis Costello returned to Vienna last month for a career-spanning solo show at the Konzerthaus. Reaching into his back catalogue, this modern troubadour enthralled his audience for two and a half hours. He hit town with a commendable lack of fanfare, or so it seemed, with seats still free in the  nearly sold-out hall for an informal evening with a man and six guitars (and a Bösendorfer stage left).

You may scratch your head: Is this the punk rocker, fronting The Attractions, who burst on to the scene just as that “other” Elvis left for the last time? The Buddy Holly horn-rimmed lad best known for his ability to deliver sharp, strangled tongue-twisters in the space of two jangling, retro guitar-flavoured minutes?

Well yes, and maybe it’s a stretch to link Costello to jazz, but bear with me. That, after all, was then. This is now.

Costello has evolved. Working with everyone from Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney to Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, he’s worked the jazz side of the aisle with guitarist Bill Frisell, The Charles Mingus Orchestra, and record producers and songwriters such as T-Bone Burnett and Allen Toussaint.

What Costello has done is produce a body of work resonating with a great variety of artists: George Jones, Chet Baker, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Dusty Springfield, Robert Wyatt, Charles Brown, Solomon Burke, June Tabor, Howard Tate, the gospel group The Fairfield Four and the viol consort Fretwork have all recorded Elvis Costello songs.

In 2003 Costello released North, an album of piano ballads he composed, orchestrated and conducted. It stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard Traditional Jazz chart for five weeks. He also began a songwriting partnership with his wife, jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, producing six songs for The Girl in the Other Room.

Costello then worked with jazz pianist Alan Broadbent, conducting the Sydney Symphony at the celebrated Sydney Opera House. There it all came together with a program of his songs arranged by Sy Johnson, Bill Frisell, Vince Mendoza, Steve Nieve and Costello himself, with tunes by Charles Mingus and Billy Strayhorn. Many of these re-worked tunes and arrangements were included on My Flame Burns Blue, the recording of Costello’s performance with the Metropole Orkest at the 2004 North Sea Jazz Festival. The title tune, a sensitive lyrical treatment of Strayhorn’s “Blood Count”, demonstrated Costello’s daring, and mastery of the jazz idiom, taking on a classic.

Given his expansive repetoire, he can’t be faulted for quoting himself in Vienna. Gliding skillfully from familiar territory to his influences and partners like a musical toboggan, he revisited early ballad “Alison”. Without batting an eye, he segued into a rumbling line from “The Wind Cries Mary”, moving to “Over The Rainbow”, and quoting “Somewhere” seamlessly. Costello delivers the musical equivalent of a Dennis Miller “rant”, challenging the listener with the breadth of his allusions.

Along with vintage rockers, he delivered tender, nostalgia-tinged studies such as “A Voice in the Dark” and “Jimmie Standing in the Rain”, with the Depression-era gloom of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” as an addendum. Costello then “unplugged”, morphing into a ragtime jazzer with “A Slow Drag with Josephine”, introduced as “rock and roll like it used to be in 1924”.

Elvis Costello proved his musical literacy, spontaneously linking his 30-year-old “New Amsterdam” into the John Lennon-esque blues of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”. Later, it was “a quarter to three … with no one in the place”, as on piano he crooned “Almost Blue” which, in a nod to Chet Baker, led into the jazz standard “My Funny Valentine”.

As the evening closed, Louis Armstrong’s words came back to me: What we heard was life.

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