Nearly a decade ago at the Concord Pavilion in the San Francisco suburbs, Elvis Costello eagerly agreed to a DownBeat Blindfold Test (November 1994). Touring then in support of his album Brutal Youth, the musical omnivore aced the test after soundcheck, identifying the entire playlist, from Charles Mingus and John Coltrane to Charles Brown and Johnny Cash.
Backstage at the Mother's Day concert was Lillian MacManus, Costello's mother. A jazz club proprietress and clerk in Beatles manager Brian Epstein's Liverpool record store, she said that she knew during pregnancy that her child would grow up to be a musician. In fact, she listened to a range of music — from jazz and classical to the pop of the day — when Costello was still in the womb to give him an early start as a connoisseur of free song. So convinced of his future, Lillian even christened him with an unusual first name — Declan — for remembrance sake. Ironically, in ramping up to his punk-charged 1977 pop debut, My Aim Is True, Declan audaciously crowned himself Elvis, which proved to be a decisive, if not outrageous, nom de plume.
Mom was right in her maternal instincts. Today Costello, 49, whose father was a jazz bandleader in London, is one of pop music's most imaginative, adventurous and honest artists. A rebel at heart and a voracious lover of all kinds of music, he has flourished as an artist primarily because of his unwillingness to be fenced in by stylistic boundaries. He has said, "I can't subscribe to limiting [myself] to one form of expression exclusively." Accordingly, he is the rare artist who has carte blanche from his record companies (today he's signed to Universal's Deutsche Grammophon) to pursue his restless musical whims and passions.
However, this has come at a cost, says Costello in a conversation in August about his evocative new all-ballads, piano-based album, North. He's well-versed in how difficult it is to break out of the mold of expectation. …