By Mike Zwerin
9 October 2003 - It is good to be reminded that record companies are still
sometimes willing to recycle some of the profits they make from marketing
over-priced garbage back into real music.
Elvis Costello's new album
"North" (Deutsche Grammophone) will put an end to that faux post-modern
cliche about nobody writing good pop songs any more. These are all love songs,
and the reader should know that he is famously in love with a famous singer to
understand lines like:
"Let me tell you about her
The way that she
makes me feel
Then draw a curtain on this scene I can't reveal"
Sitting in a leased limo in front of an office building on Faubourg St
Antoine earlier this month, Costello avoided referring to the object of his
affection except indirectly with some groans about "the tabloids." Costello is
one of those rare figures in pop music (Frank Sinatra was another) whose work
there is no reason to dislike no matter who you are or where you are coming
from. He has written lyrics to Charles Mingus compositions and his
collaborators have included Paul McCartney, Gunther Schuller, Bert Bachrach,
Chet Baker and Johnny Cash.
songs on "North" are somewhere between Schubert, Kurt Weil, John Lennon
and Costello's favorite standards such as "Here's That Rainy Day." He said
that, while keeping "some semblance of the music I started with," he would like
to "expand the definition of an art song;" and that being on a respected
classical music record label is helpful to the upgrade.
"power ballads" with one-syllable words, moronic chords, tinny beats, overblown
crescendos and muscle-bound modulations created by slick technology are a la
mode. Costello's songs are the anti-power ballad. Harmonically, structurally
and melodically subtle, they are performed by human beings and include upper
partials and odd intervals not easily heard by everybody. Arguably, they are
more interesting musically than verbally; a rarity in pop music. When it was
suggested to him that these songs are not exactly easily hummable - it was
meant as a compliment - he seemed genuinely surprised: "Really? By who? I have
no trouble humming them."
Costello spent over a year writing the songs
for "North" and he has taken the time and made the effort to learn how
to write the arrangements ("with a pencil") for the chamber orchestra backing
him up (Lee Konitz and Lew Soloff solo).
He conducts the orchestra, and his piano accompaniment is better than it needs
to be. A good bet for a Grammy.
"Universal Syncopations" (ECM)
featuring an all-star band under the leadership of the Czech bassist
Miroslav Vitous, co-founder of Weather Report, is to be released on October
14th. Listening to the still adventurous veterans
Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette and Jan
Garbarek improvise collectively, you think - my goodness; real
intentions notwithstanding, the mad search to release every note Miles Davis
ever recorded is beginning to reach the bottom of the barrel. "The Complete
Jack Johnson Sessions" (Sony), out on October 20th , is a maxed-out version
of Davis's underrated ground-breaking 1970 album featuring John McLaughlin. Who really needs
five-count-em-five CDs with six alternate takes of "Willie Nelson" and five of
"Right Off" and so on? The original single album remains the best way to go.
On the other hand, we could easily use double the 4 CDs of
"Miles Davis, Friday and Saturday Night at the Blackhawk, San Francisco"
(Sony). Recorded in 1961, some of it was released previously, most not. Davis,
Hank Mobley, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb were all having two
career nights. These are the four to buy if you are buying only four jazz
records this year.
- Producer Michael Cuscuna had the good idea to
re-master Count Basie's 1958 "Chairman of the Board" (Roulette). The
album wasted the fiction that black big bands could not swing and play
dynamically and in tune at the same time.
Funk LP Series" is a collection of early 1970s rhythm and blues LPs by
people like Roy Ayers, Mandrill, Bar-Kays and Kool And The Gang released on CD
for the first time. At that time, along with Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye,
lesser known R&B musicians also began to record albums rather than just
string together their singles. The technology was still relatively primitive
and there was by necessity a welcome minimalism in the mixes. Available in
Europe and Japan but not yet in the US.
It is interesting to be reminded
how influential these classic R&B bands - particularly The Gap Band - were
on the instrumental style of Steely Dan, whose new album, "Everything Must
Go" (Reprise), is about cultural bankruptcy. Steely Dan's melodies may tend
to sound like one another but the words are about as poetic and timely as
lyrics get today. The title song is an ode to the American road not
"High time for a walk on the real side
Let's admit the
bastards beat us
I move to dissolve the corporation In a pool of
'Cause we're goin' out of business
Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic
for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the
European correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a
book entitled "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the
jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.