|The Elvis Costello
Review of concert from 2001-09-27: with Charles Mingus Orchestra,
Los Angeles, UCLA's Royce Hall
Concert Review: Matriculating with Mingus at UCLvis
By Tomm Carroll
Elvis Costello and The Charles Mingus Orchestra
Quite fortuitously, I happened to be in London six summers ago when Meltdown, the annual nine-day music festival held at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, opened its season. That year's guest artistic director was one Elvis Costello.
Fresh from recent collaborations with everyone from Paul McCartney to the Brodsky Quartet to Tony Bennett, Costello took full advantage of his carte blanche as curator and programmed one of the festival's most varied schedules in years, featuring musical artists he had admired or with whom he had previously worked.
Costello not only performed himself during the festival, but also introduced
each of the programs and either made guest appearances or participated
in full-fledged collaborations with many of the musicians. In only a
pair of evenings, I witnessed him play a solo set and also join -- to
varying degrees -- the performances of The Jazz Passengers with Deborah
Harry, gospel group The Fairfield Four, guitar-guru Bill Frisell and
longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve -- all with whom he has since gone
on to record and perform live.
Flash forward to 2001. The man behind the Meltdown, David Sefton is
now the director of UCLA Performing Arts' concert program UCLA Live.
His ambitious opening salvo was the two-night, star-studded mega-hootenanny/
tribute to folk music compiler Harry Smith (featuring Costello, Beck,
Marianne Faithfull, Philip Glass and many, many others) which was held
at the campus' Royce Hall last spring. For the university's 2001-2002
season, Sefton instituted an Artist in Residency program and selected
Costello as its inaugural namesake.
Given the latter's acclaimed and successful curation of Meltdown '95, as well as his many recent collaborations, the four projects that will emerge from beneath his aegis over the UCLA season should prove to form an eclectic, genre-bending series (perhaps it should be called UCLvis?).
They're certainly off to an auspicious start. The university's performance series opened last weekend with a two-night-stand of the seemingly ubiquitous Costello paired with The Charles Mingus Orchestra, a stripped-down, hipped-up version of the Mingus Big Band. To these ears, it was better than it had any right to be; a case of the sum being a bit bigger than its parts.
Like the prolific songwriter that he is, Costello penned lyrics to many of the late jazz iconoclast's sprawling instrumentals such as "Jelly Roll," "Invisible Lady," the haunting ballad "Weird Nightmare" and the seemingly free-form, avant-noise piece "Don't Be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid Too."
Switching from aggressive shouting to tender crooning where appropriate, he sung them as if his voice were just another instrument in the mix, only playing the melody -- much as he used his vocals in his work with the Brodskys. This combination of styles worked surprisingly well given the divergent artistic visions, even if the words seemed superfluous to Mingus' intricate compositions, which do their talking through the instrumentation and distinctive coloration of sound.
For the Mingus purists who may have resented a former punk rock upstart like Costello getting involved in serious jazz, there were several Elvis-less instrumentals performed by the 11-piece group, which featured such unconventional "jazz" instrumentation as bass clarinet, bassoon and French horn. These unadulterated charts included "Eclipse," "Tonight When I'm Real" and the accessible rhythmic workout "Slop."
As for the re-envisioning of numbers from the Costello canon, the most interesting was the sassy Latin bounce of "Clubland" as a make-believe mambo, with the vocals re-phrased to fit the Cuban-style rhythm. Also revised was one of the songwriter's oldest chestnuts, "Watching the Detectives," done in a finger-snapping, but de-reggae-ized style with the orchestra taking over the back-up melodies while Costello sang the lyrics fairly similarly to the original.
Making full use of the Mingus ensemble's horn section, Costello also revisited two tracks from his eclectic "Spike" album which were originally recorded with New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band -- a rousing funk-up of "Chewing Gum" (which opened the second set) and a vocal version of "Stalin Malone" (previously an instrumental).
This pairing of Elvis and Mingus resulted in yet another successful collaboration for the ever-explorative Costello, and we can expect more of his innovation in upcoming UCLA shows. Reportedly, one of them will be the U.S. debut of his orchestral score for a ballet based on Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which premiered in Europe last year.