Interview with Elvis Costello and Bill Frisell about The Sweetest Punch
- Dan Ouellette
Introvert meets extrovert
Copyright (c) 2000 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. Copyright Maher Publications Division Feb 2000
Musical omnivores gravitate toward each other, especially if they also happen to be recording artists. Unencumbered by sectarian tastes, they take an expansive approach to music appreciation, listening with open ears and then comparing notes. While eclecticism in the creative process can result in postmodern fluff, that kind of receptive mindset can bust open new doors. Why stay in a safe neighborhood when you can venture out to other boroughs to explore alternatives to the status quo?
While neither artist is perched on the cusp of creating a new varietal of music, both guitar virtuoso Bill Frisell and pop song maestro Elvis Costello possess an insatiable appetite for sounds of all persuasions. The former roots his repertoire in jazz but freely expresses himself by infusing his music with a range of styles from country to John Philip Sousa marches, and the latter is equally at home pounding out punk-infused rock and crooning with a classical string quartet. It's this simpatico spirit of breaking down boundaries that makes for the ideal pop-jazz crosscut they pull off on The Sweetest Punch, Frisell's arrangements of tunes Costello co-wrote with songsmith Burt Bacharach for the 1998 album Painted From Memory.
Released nearly a year after the Costello-Bacharach collaboration, Frisell's companion disc, largely an instrumental recording, showcases his genius for developing lyrical arrangements.
Supported by a septet and guest vocalists Cassandra Wilson and Costello himself, Frisell stays faithful to the Elvis-Burt song structures while at the same time applying new brush strokes of tonal color.
"I don't really know how to define a record like this," says Costello while discussing the project, released on the newly revived Decca label. I suppose you could call it an album of ensemble playing where the melodies have been reharmonized and revoiced away from the instruments the tunes were originally written for. But overall, this is music that doesn't fit in any genre comfortably."
In signing with Universal in 1998, Costello was given free reign to fit his often hard-to-categorize recordings into the appropriate label owned by the recording giant. "I'm hoping Decca will be a new place to put music without using that dreadful C-word. You know, that word that begins with C-R-O-S ... But this record isn't crossover... oops, there I said it"
Costello laughs and adds, "The Sweetest Punch goes to another place where Bill and I are both comfortable. We each make music by following the natural flow rather than trying to jump the hurdles that words like pop and jazz end up becoming."
Frisell was thrilled to be asked to come up with instrumental arrangements of the Costello-Bacharach material. "I love working with Elvis because he's so encyclopedic with his knowledge of all kinds of music and he's so spontaneous," he says. "I've been a big fan of his music since his second or third Attractions album. A friend played me one of his albums in the early '80s and it hit me how different he was from everyone else doing pop music then. Then I saw him on Saturday Night Live just by himself with an electric guitar. I remember thinking that he wasn't a one record fluke, but a serious musician unafraid to take chances."
While they may share the same penchant for musical adventure, Frisell and Costello couldn't be more dissimilar in personality. Its a classic case of introvert meets extrovert. In conversation, Frisell is reticent, unassuming and pensive, often pausing mid-thought to make sure he stresses exactly the point he's intent on making. He's a haltingly articulate speaker. In the other court, Costello talks a blue streak, as if he were in a caffeine buzz. Slightly cocky yet sincere, he bubbles over with ideas.
"I tend to fly with words and Bill's just the opposite," says Costello in a phone conversation from his home in Dublin, Ireland. When told that both their hectic schedules necessitate the interviews being done separately, he adds, "That's fine. Actually, I'd be afraid that if we were together I'd do all the talking, and Bill wouldn't be able to get a word in edgewise."
The Sweetest Punch was born soon after Bacharach and Costello decided to work together on a full album's worth of new songs, which made pop music headlines. Bacharach and Costello had already teamed to write "God Give Me Strength" for the film Grace Of My Head, an over-the-telephone collaboration that proved to be so successful that they made plans to write more songs together. So the pair met a year later and began crafting, then finessing new compositions.
"Even when we were still writing, the idea got bandied about that we would also commission an instrumental project," Costello says. "I was extremely anxious not to get the hippest rhythm section and the hottest tenor saxophonist in town to blow over the changes. I thought that could only lead to disaster. I felt strongly that a chamber group approach or something similar would be more appropriate."
Enter Frisell, with whom Costello had worked briefly on two other occasions, in 1992 on producer Hal Willner's Charles Mingus tribute album, Weird Nightmare, and again in 1995 when the pop star asked the jazz guitarist to perform with him in a duo setting at the Meltdown Festival in London (the resulting live recording, Deep Dead Blue, is available as an import-only disc).
Costello remembers his first encounter with the guitarist when Willner enlisted both to play on the tune "Weird Nightmare." Costello had just come off his Kojak Variety project and was thrust into a situation that he initially thought was over his head. "I didn't know Hal's approach, which was basically to put a bunch of characters into a room to see what would happen. Hal created a scary place sonically with this wonderfully nightmarish feel, but I had no idea how I was going to sing the tune. Suddenly at the bridge Bill came in and I thought, I'm home. He played so beautifully to complement these various unusual timbres that I just sailed right through the rest of the piece."
Likewise, Frisell was impressed by Costello, especially how he came in cold to the session and nailed the challenging number in a couple of takes. While he didn't get to spend much time with Costello during the recording of Weird Nightmare, Frisell remembers him coming to the Village Vanguard to catch one of his shows a couple of years later. It was then that Costello invited him to perform at the Meltdown.
"Because Elvis was so busy organizing all these other shows at the festival, we barely bad enough time to run through the songs we were going to play," he says. "Basically we just hit it. There was no tip-toeing around him. It was like playing with another musician. With some singers, you have to feed them what they need. But he had that spontaneous way of singing. He goes for the moment and something happens. That's what took place on The Sweetest Punch when he came in to do vocals on two songs. He didn't work the pieces to death. He approached the songs in a jazz way and we had the numbers down in one or two takes."
Given Frisell's well-documented love for pop music of all stripes and Costello's depth of jazz knowledge it makes sense that the two found common ground. The Elvis-Burt link, on paper a promising pop music marriage, was also not very surprising.
But what about Frisell's opinion of Bacharach, often derided as a purveyor of sappy pop tunes? In the '60s, he composed with lyricist Hal David numerous top forty hits, including Tom Jones' "What's New Pussycat?," BJ. Thomas' "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" and a slew of Dionne Warwick chart toppers like "Do You Know The Way To San Jose?" Even though Bacharach filled his songs with odd time signatures and atypical orchestrations, wasn't this a stretch even for the jazz guitarist with such idiosyncratic tastes?
"Are you kidding? Burt Bacharach's music is larger than life for me and has been interwoven into the fabric of my entire career," says the 48-year-old Frisell.
Frisell recalls his high school Top 40 gigs when the bands he played in covered tunes by James Brown, the Temptations, the Beatles and Otis Redding. But when it came time to work up a Warwick hit, well, the guitarist found himself treading in deep water. "I'll never forget trying to do 'Alfie,"' he explains. "I got the first line, 'What's it all about...' Then it was oh-oh. I couldn't continue. There was something going on that was way more harmonically sophisticated than anything I had dealt with before." He laughs, then sheepishly concedes, "So I just gave up."
When Frisell began working on The Sweetest Punch, he marveled at how the songs Bacharach and Costello crafted were just as challenging. He notes that the songs were simple enough on one level to easily enter into a listener's subconscious. But, again, playing them was another matter entirely. "The melodies unravel so freely. The way a phrase will continue longer than it's supposed to before the chord changes reminds me of Ornette or some old blues guy. There's a logic to it, but the music is really tricky and difficult to play."
The jazz catalog is full of tunes based on pop tunes of the day, but recording an instrumental interpretation of a collection of songs while the original project is still a work in progress is unprecedented.
"I always hoped there would be another life for these songs besides me singing them," says Costello. "In fact, even though the tunes Burt and I wrote are meant to be done as vocal pieces, most of them existed as music first. Painted From Memory was not governed or driven by lyrics, but by mood. The mood of the music led naturally to the lyrics."
Costello and Bacharach composed the songs over the course of several months, usually in five-day stretches. In between the sessions, the two worked independently on finessing the melodies and developing lyrics that fit the music. On the last day of writing, the pair made a few tweaks and gave each other homework assignments before the recording sessions were to start six weeks later. Costello refining the lyrics and Bacharach developing the orchestration. Their final task together was to draw a road map for Frisell.
"We photocopied all the song manuscripts and lyric sheets and we made a tentative vocal rehearsal tape of Burt playing the piano and me singing the tunes," Costello says. "Burt also wrote out very early four-line sketches of arrangement ideas. So, literally with the ink still wet, we parceled it all up and sent it off to Bill. We didn't talk with him about what band configuration he would use and how he would arrange the songs, but obviously we were hoping that he was going to come up with something quite different than what we planned."
The package that landed on Frisell's doorstep the next day was, in his words, "pretty overwhelming." He explains that coming up with his own interpretations of other people's songs requires time-sometimes several years of the melodies incubating themselves within him before he's inspired to put his own distinctive slant on them. In the case of the Costello-Bacharach tunes, he had a relatively small window: two months to write the arrangements, rehearse a band and record the music.
The first thing Frisell did was translate the material into his own world by re-envisioning the songs on his guitar. In that way he distanced them from the keyboard on which the tunes were originally composed. From there, he approached the arrangements in the same manner as when he works on his own compositions. Instead of taking cues from the lyrics, Frisell says that he "obsessed over all the notes." Then he put together his band, featuring clarinetist Don Byron, alto saxophonist Billy Drewes, trumpeter Ron Miles, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, bassist Viktor Krauss and drummer Brian Blade, to give voice to his vision.
Frisell pays tribute to the songwriters' melodies on The Sweetest Punch by viewing them through a different lens. So, in lieu of the full orchestration on the Elvis-Burt version of the melancholic beauty "In The Darkest Place," Frisell offers a four-horn tonal color, a reflective guitar chime and a sorrowful trumpet cry. Instead of the strings and schmaltzy ringing bells on "The Sweetest Punch," Frisell whimsically paints dark hues. Gone are the trademark Bacharach flugelhorns on "Toledo," replaced by horn-guitar harmonies and a catchy Byron clarinet solo at the close.
After Frisell completed the instrumental tracks for the album, he and producer Lee Townsend brought in guest vocalists Cassandra Wilson and Costello to overdub their parts. "It's my only regret in the whole process that I couldn't get to record live with the ensemble," says Costello, who at the time was still knee-deep in the Painted From Memory recording sessions. "But I was very pleased to sing with Cassandra, who I greatly admire but hadn't met before. When we sang 'I Still Have That Other Girl,' we did it like we were having a conversation, like she was admonishing me."
Costello also sings on "Toledo," which in Frisell's hands is manifest with a different rhythmic sensibility and vocal phrasings. "Sure, I was nervous at first because I had to come up with a new interpretation of a song so soon after doing the original," Costello says. "But I solved that by reacting instantly in the spirit of jazz to the new architecture Bill had built."
In listening to The Sweetest Punch, Costello discovered plenty of other surprises. He likes Frisell's art-song take on "What's Her Name Today?" with its almost delirious pulse, the ominous visual quality of "Such Unlikely Lovers," the element of French fairground music in the second version of "Painted From Memory" (Wilson gives an alluring show-stopping read of the tune earlier on the disc) and Byron's clarinet part after the sketch-like intro of "My Thief."
As for Frisell, he didn't get a chance to hear the finished Painted From Memory project until several months after he completed his version. "My initial reaction was, wow, I know these songs," Frisell says. "It was weird hearing a new album when you're already intimately familiar with all the tunes. It's a bizarre thing that I'm guessing will never happen again." DB
Copyright © 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.