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Review of concert from 2001-11-07: with Charles Mingus Orchestra; NYC, Beacon Hall
Billboard, 2001-11-08
- Barry A. Jeckell


November 08, 2001

Elvis Costello & The Charles Mingus Orchestra / Nov. 7, 2001 / New York (Beacon Theatre)

Although the marquee outside the New York's Beacon Theatre last night (Nov. 7) boasted "Elvis Costello" in huge letters, inside, the Charles Mingus Orchestra (CMO) was the star, and Costello just another member of the group, using his voice as his instrument.

Apologizing for having played two shows at UCLA with the CMO before coming to New York ("We wanted to get it just right"), Costello placed himself in a precarious place -- adding lyrics to the already expressive music of a late jazz great, bassist/composer Charles Mingus. And while the night can be accurately described as a resounding success, it's evident that this collaboration is a work in progress.

After encouraging remarks by Charles' widow, Sue Mingus, the show opened with a pair of instrumentals that displayed the prowess with which the night's material was going to be presented. "Noon Night," notably, showcased CMO bandleader Alex Foster on saxophone, as well as the entire horn section.

Although well received, the audience saved its resounding welcome for Costello's entrance, as he bowed politely prior to launching the group into Mingus' "This Subdues My Passion," his vocal neatly and happily finding a home within the melange of horns.

However, the opposite was true on some selections, including the next song, "Jelly Roll." Costello's vocals and the horns seemed to be competing, each fighting the other in a crowded arrangement. This could be due in part to Costello's often aggressive lyrical approach of long lines and racing delivery, as well as the band's relative unfamiliarity of working with a vocalist on the songs they've been performing for years.

Explaining that the "incredible titles" Mingus came up with for his works evoked a stream of ideas for lyrics, Costello added his touch to such tunes as "Self Portrait in Three Colors" (which included a marvelous and imaginative piano solo by David Kikosi), "Invisible Lady," "Weird Nightmare," and the spookily reassuring "Don't Be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid, Too," with each collaboration feeling more comfortable as the night wore on.

Elvis' songs were not left out of the mix either, and all were treated to new arrangements. The first, a bossanova-inflected version of "Clubland," came five songs into the first set. With its upbeat verses and plodding, circus-like chorus stanza, the new spin thrilled the crowd, while the appearance of EC material satiated some audience members who had obviously misinterpreted the intent of the evening's program.

A run through Joni Mitchell's "Edith and the Kingpin" joined several Costello gems repotted in new soil, including "Long Honeymoon," "Stalin Malone," and "Watching the Detectives." The latter, arranged for the 11-piece orchestra by Costello himself, had the feel of a '70s James Bond score, with swooning passages punctuated by his staccato vocals, which reached an impassioned pitch by the third verse.

The CMO also honored its own legacy with instrumentals of such Mingus songs as the Sy Johnson-arranged and conducted "The Chill of Death" and "Eclipse" (featuring a staggering bassoon solo by Michael Rabinowitz).

The encore brought out a natural selection from Costello's catalog for this setting, "Almost Blue," the intended title track of his 1982 "country record," that actually appeared on the next year's more exploratory "Imperial Bedroom." The moody ballad led perfectly into the evening's final song, Mingus' "Hora Decubitis" (Hour of Sleep), which seemed the peak of the cooperative efforts of the two parties.

While those expected a more traditional rock 'n' roll show may have walked away disappointed or disgruntled, Costello proved that he is continuing his awe inspiring ongoing exploration of music. Just as with his past collaborations with such diverse partners as Bill Frisell, Burt Bacharach, and the Brodsky Quartet, the Charles Mingus Orchestra -- and its patriarch -- are opening new and exciting doors for Elvis Costello.

Here is the Nov. 7 Elvis Costello/Charles Mingus Orchestra set list:

"Tonight at Noon"
"Noon Night"
"This Subdues My Passion"
"Jelly Roll"
"Long Honeymoon"
"Self Portrait in Three Colours"
"Stalin Malone"
"Upon a Veil of Midnight Blue"
"Invisible Lady"

- Intermission -

"Chewing Gum"
"Chill of Death"
"Edith and the Kingpin"
"Don't Be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid Too"
"Weird Nightmare"
"Haitian Fight Song"
"Watching the Detectives"

-- Encore --

"Almost Blue"
"Hora Decubitis" (Hour of Sleep)

-- Barry A. Jeckell, N.Y.


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