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Review of concert from 2001-09-27 with Charles Mingus Orchestra Los Angeles, UCLA's Royce Hall
Los Angeles Daily News, 2001-09-29
- Rob Lowman


L.A. Life


Rob Lowman\ Entertainment Editor
Los Angeles Daily News

Returning Thursday night from Elvis Costello's performance with the Charlie Mingus Orchestra at UCLA'S Royce Hall, I was flipping the radio dial when I came upon a cha-cha version of "Old Man River," proving the old axiom: Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

Thankfully, that wasn't the case Thursday, although the talented rock star's attempts to fuse some of his lyrical genius with the unique sounds of the late jazz great weren't always successful. That said, the evening, which kicked off UCLA's Live's season, always managed to be interesting - and sometimes exhilarating.

Listening to Mingus' music, it's easy to see why Costello - and before him another pop icon, Joni Mitchell - was seduced into trying to write lyrics to his tunes. If there was someone in the jazz world who deserved the label "iconoclast," it was Mingus, who died in 1979. His music always seemed like it had been written as a soundtrack to accompany some incredible movie in his mind. Mingus might have been categorized as a jazz artist (he was also an exceptional bassist), but his music incorporated the breadth of 20th-century sounds, often in the most unexpected and delightful ways.

One of the first songs that Costello sang Thursday night was an adaption of Mingus' "This Subdues My Passion." It immediately pointed out the pitfalls of such a "collaboration." Costello noted before singing "Passion" that it didn't take anything for a lyricist to want to write words for a song with that title. But while Mingus' titles may have been impressions, Costello's lyrics seemed at times too literal. The words seemed strained at times, and occasionally the melodies too dense. Jazz, though, is an ongoing progression and often about the note that isn't played. So there is ample room to revisit these songs.

And Costello's vocals didn't always match up well with the tunes. While his rich vibrato worked well with his own songs - and on almost any ballad - upscale Mingus numbers like "Invisible Lady," with its samba elements, might have sounded better with a female vocalist who could scat.

The second half of the show was more successful, concentrating mostly on the 11-piece orchestra doing its versions of Mingus pieces or backing Costello doing new arrangements of his own songs.

The orchestra was stellar; every member deserved to be singled out for outstanding solos. And the reworkings of Costello songs like "Clubland" and "Chewing Gum" were fun, as was, in particular, "Watching the Detectives," which was morphed into a version reminiscent of the cool, jazzy themes of '50s private-eye shows.

The personable Costello also scored a lot of points for talking to the audience about the music without being condescending or overly reverential and for keeping a sense of humor throughout the evening.

Even if everything didn't mesh perfectly, the adventurousness and success of Thursday's show bodes well for the rest of the UCLA season, under new artistic director David Sefton.

Two more concerts complete the weekend at UCLA's Royce Hall: tonight, famed soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, and, on Sunday, South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Call (310) 825-2101 for tickets.

The Elvis Costello Home Page

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