One of the biggest challenges for any record store clerk must come whenever Elvis Costello issues a new album and the question immediately becomes where to file it.
Among the most eclectic artists in the pop world, Costello straddles genres as easily as he changes guitar strings: Tin Pan Alley to country to jazz standards to classical to cabaret.
That dizzying musical adventurousness is at the heart of the reason Costello was picked for the newly created position of artist-in-residence at UCLA, where the innovative punk/new-wave survivor will participate in several major projects throughout the internationally-themed 2001-02 season at Royce Hall.
"I'm not moving into the dorms or anything like that," Costello joked from his home in Dublin, Ireland. "But I will be spending time there on campus. It's going to give me a venue for some ideas and concepts I've been thinking about, if not actually working on. But you won't see me riding my bicycle around Westwood — or maybe you will."
Up first is a collaboration Sept. 28 with the Charles Mingus Orchestra, an 11-piece jazz ensemble that will perform new arrangements of Costello songs and pieces by the band's visionary namesake.
Three more projects with Costello will be announced later in the year.
"Elvis is pop's true renaissance man," says David Sefton, UCLA's new performing arts director, who chose Costello for the inaugural chair. "He's done this phenomenal range of stuff and the great thing is he's prepared to stick his neck out where lots of other people wouldn't. He has this breadth of musical knowledge and ability and brings a deep understanding of the music. With him, something like his project with (opera singer) Anne Sofie von Otter doesn't come across as a lightweight exercise. It has substance."
For his part, Costello plans to use the UCLA opportunity to attempt musical maneuvers he doesn't want to disclose just yet. But he said the schedule won't include a concert alongside von Otter, with whom Costello recorded the well-received new album, For the Stars, a diverse set of contemporary songs featuring the Stockholm-born singer hailed as one of the finest mezzo-sopranos on the opera stage.
"No, I wouldn't say our voices are a blend made in heaven by any stretch," Costello, 47, said. "That's why we tried to come up with another way to approach the material. Unlike me, Anne Sofie is such an accomplished singer that she can virtually sing anything."
That approach, von Otter explained, included rarely singing together, instead alternating verses and phrases. In fact, von Otter's is the primary voice heard throughout the disc as she subtly interprets such songs as Brian Wilson's "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder')," the Beatles' "For No One," ABBA's "Like an Angel Passing Through My Room" and a handful of tunes by Costello, who produced and arranged the beautifully low-key album.
"I wouldn't call it 'pop,' " von Otter, 45, said by telephone from Sweden. "Some people don't like the word 'crossover' because it has this feeling of something contrived but I view it as a cross-pollination of chamber music, pop, folk and classical. It's something you don't hear very often."
The partnership evolved over time. Costello and his wife began attending von Otter's London concerts in 1989 before striking up a friendship.
"I don't know what it was in her voice, but it had a truly magical effect on me," said Costello, who included von Otter's 1996 effort, Wings in the Night, in his list of 500 favorite albums in Vanity Fair's music issue last winter. "Every time my schedule allowed it, I would go and listen to her sing."
In 1996, he composed the song cycle "Three Distracted Women" for the singer and the Brodsky String Quartet, with whom he'd made the 1992 classically-oriented album, The Juliet Letters.
After numerous meetings in which von Otter and Costello compiled lists of material they wanted to cover on For the Stars, recording began in Stockholm with Swedish musicians and a few of Costello's colleagues, including his longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve.
In the end, the duo recorded 23 songs in 14 days, "and I can certainly say that it is the most fun I've had in the studio for years," Costello said.
The disc was issued on the prestigious classical imprint Deutsche Grammophon, a Universal-owned label that's also home to von Otter, whose recent solo efforts include a holiday album, Home for Christmas, and the critically acclaimed Folksongs.
Costello's unusual agreement with Universal allows him to make albums of various genres.
During a lengthy career that began at the center of London's amazingly fertile punk/new-wave scene of the mid-'70s, the self-taught Costello (real name: Declan MacManus) has made more than a dozen albums both as a solo artist and with his backing unit the Attractions. Many of Costello's roughly 300 songs have been covered by artists whose names reflect his wide musical interests: Chet Baker, Johnny Cash, June Tabor, Roy Orbison, Dusty Springfield, Charles Brown and George Jones, among them.
"He has this amazing energy when he sings and I just really love the sound of his voice," von Otter says. "He's a real pro. He's been in this business for many years and knows what he's talking about. A fantastic brain and a fantastic memory — if he decides to go ahead with a project, he really puts everything he has into it, all the way."
In light of his yearlong UCLA post, Costello is no stranger to the world of arts administration. In the early '90s, he acted as artistic director of the South Bank's groundbreaking Meltdown Festival where he met UCLA's Sefton.
"When I began formulating the artist-in-residence program, Elvis was the first person on my mind," Sefton said. "The idea was someone who embraces collaboration and creative exploration and insatiable artistic curiosity. We're just delighted he agreed to come."
In fact, it was Sefton's idea to bring Costello together with the Mingus orchestra for the world premiere concert in September. A longtime aficionado of the avant-garde jazz composer and bassist (who died in 1979), Costello contributed vocals to producer Hal Willner's Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus, a 1992 celebration of Mingus' music. Costello also penned lyrics for Mingus' composition, "This Subdues My Passion," performed with the Mingus Big Band (a different ensemble than the orchestra) in Brazil in 1997.
"The orchestra came to me to set up a date at Royce Hall," Sefton recalled. "I immediately called Elvis and said, 'Look, would you want to do something?' He just said, 'Yes, yes, yes!' I think that's a perfect illustration of what I meant when I said 'insatiable artistic curiosity.' "