My Flame Burns Blue (2006) liner notes

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Liner notes

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My Flame Burns Blue


Elvis Costello

This record may explain what I’ve been doing during the last twelve years when I haven’t had an electric guitar in my hands… In that time, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of contrasting ensembles, from chamber group and jazz big band to symphony orchestra. Consequently, I had plenty of charts to consider for my concerts with the Metropole Orkest in the summer of 2004. The Metropole are the world’s only full-time jazz orchestra with a string section. This recording captures a very joyful evening at the North Sea Jazz Festival and collects together songs and arrangements that have been developed over the last decade.

“Hora Decubitus”: I first sang a Charles Mingus composition in 1990 when I recorded “Weird Nightmare” for Hal Willner’s album of Mingus music, Weird Nightmares. The recording employed conventional instruments combined with the fantastically named microtonal inventions of the composer Harry Partch such as the “Cloud Chamber Bowls”. The session was attended by Charles Mingus’s widow, Sue, and a short time later I began collaborating with the ensembles that she runs under the title of the “Jazz Workshop”. These ranged from impromptu appearances with the Mingus Big Band at The Fez, a basement club in New York City, to a concert at the Free Jazz Festival in Rio de Janeiro. At Sue’s invitation I began writing words for a number of Mingus compositions. In September 2001, I was scheduled to open my year as visiting artist-in-residence at UCLA with a concert at Royce Hall. It was to be my first appearance with the Charles Mingus Orchestra, which combines classical woodwind with a big band line-up and predominantly performs Mingus’s concert music.

Having already written words for “This Subdues My Passion”, I began working on lyrics for a further six Mingus compositions, including “Jellyroll” and “Don’t Be Afraid The Clown’s Afraid Too”. I was making the final editorial changes on September 11th.

Needless to say, travelling to New York City for rehearsals at the earliest opportunity was a very unusual and emotional experience. The words for the last number to be completed, “Hora Decubitus”, were obviously coloured by the mood of those days.

I could offer nothing more than a simple affirmation of life and rejection of vengeance. The piece made for a charged finale to the Royce Hall concert on 20 September 2001.

The arrangement heard on this recording is by Sy Johnson, who works closely with both Mingus ensembles. Additional orchestration for the Metropole Orkest was done by Joan Reinders.

“Favourite Hour”: This song was written 1992 during my time at Dartington Summer School, in Devon, England. I was preparing for the second performance of The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet, just prior to the recording of the piece. I was also contributing to a songwriting course run by the composer John Woolrich. During workshop experiments, I suggested that the course participants create contrasting pieces suggested by a title that I would provide. Consequently, there are probably a number of compositions entitled “Favourite Hour”.

On the eve of The Juliet Letters concert, I found a piano in a rehearsal room and wrote my version of a song of this title. The lyric describes the anticipation of an execution.

The song was first issued as the final track of the album Brutal Youth, in a solo performance with my own piano accompaniment. The pianist on this recording, Steve Nieve, wrote the arrangement.

“That’s How You Got Killed Before”: This song was written and recorded in the 1950s by the great New Orleans bandleader Dave Bartholomew. I first performed it in 1986 as the opening number of concerts billed as Elvis Costello and His Confederates and later recorded it as the guest of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on their record The New Orleans Album. Vince Mendoza wrote this arrangement especially for the North Sea Jazz Festival appearance.

“Upon A Veil Of Midnight Blue”: I wrote the original draft of this song for the blues balladeer Charles Brown, perhaps best known for songs such as “Merry Christmas, Baby” and “Black Night” and whose vocal style is said to have been an early influence on both Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. Charles was in a rare seam of form late in his career but adapted my song to such a radical degree that we agreed to publish his interpretation under my original title, “I Wonder How She Knows”, while I retained the first draft of the song as “Upon A Veil Of Midnight Blue”.

In 1995, I was asked to be the director of the Meltdown Festival at the South Bank Centre in London. The nine-day schedule offered a wide variety of events, including the debut performance of the long-established Nashville gospel group, the Fairfield Four, and the final London appearances of the composer Moondog and the singer Jeff Buckley, who performed Purcell’s “When I Am Laid in Earth” from Dido and Aeneas.

I made a number of appearances during the festival, including my first full-length set with Steve Nieve and first-time collaborations with guitarist Bill Frisell and also the Jazz Passengers.

A concert with the Brodsky Quartet offered highlights from The Juliet Letters, but in the second half, the ensemble was expanded to eleven musicians with the addition of double bass, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, two French horns and trumpet.

Bill Frisell wrote the original draft of this arrangement especially for that for the concert but it was subsequently adapted by Earl McIntyre for performances with the Charles Mingus Orchestra. Bill’s original string parts were restored in the edition performed by the more expansive Metropole Orkest line-up.

“Clubland”: Written in 1980, the song first appeared on the album “Trust”, performed with the Attractions around a prominent piano part from Steve Nieve. Sy Johnson arranged the song for the September 2001 concerts with the Charles Mingus Orchestra, ingeniously adapting some of the instrumental figures from the original recording, while giving distinct Latin, swing and circus waltz character to different sections of the song.

“Almost Blue”: Written in 1981 with the voice of Chet Baker in mind and first issued on the album Imperial Bedroom, this song has gone on to be my most recorded title, including two recorded renditions late in the career of Chet Baker and a recent version by my wife, Diana Krall.

I wrote the first draft of this arrangement as a possible encore tune for the concerts with the Brodsky Quartet following the release of The Juliet Letters in 1992. I expanded the arrangement to include the brass and woodwind parts for the chamber group concert at the Meltdown Festival in 1995, and the song was later performed in that arrangement with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The instrumental coda was added in an adaptation of the chart for the Charles Mingus Orchestra. This performance features Steve Nieve on the melodica in the closing bars.

“Speak Darkly, My Angel”: One of a set of songs entitled Three Distracted Women, this number was first written for a concert tour by Anne Sofie von Otter and the Brodsky Quartet and performed by them in Paris, London, Madrid and Bologna.

The songs portray a trio of woman in contrasting predicaments. The first song is concerned with a vaudeville diva and her scheming understudy, and the last is about a woman living in the isolation of crumbling wealth that she compares to the life of a cosmonaut.

“Speak Darkly, My Angel” is the central black comic ballad that describes a wealthy divorcée who, after tiring of her younger lover at the end of the season, is considering pushing him out of the window.

For the arrangement heard in this recording, I turned to Richard Harvey, with whom I collaborated on the music for Alan Bleasdale’s eleven-hour dramatic television series G.B.H. in 1990.

“Almost Ideal Eyes”: Written in the mid-90s, a version of this song was recorded with the Attractions at the sessions for the album All This Useless Beauty. Sy Johnson provided this arrangement for the concerts with the Metropole Orkest.

“Can You Be True?”: In early 2000, I received an unusual invitation to attend a dance performance based on Dante’s Paradiso. By the end of that evening in Reggio Emilia, I had agreed to provide the music for Aterballetto’s next adaptation, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I am not sure that it was originally imagined that I would deliver an orchestral score, but after the creation of musical sketches and consultation with artistic director and chorographer, Mauro Bigonzetti, I spent ten weeks of that summer writing my first full-length instrumental work. The dance and music collaboration received its premiere at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna on 31 October 2000 and was later performed throughout Italy and in France, Germany and Russia.

A rudimentary recording was made with the Orchestra of the Teatro Comunale to allow the company to perform in studio venues that couldn’t accommodate orchestra. When Deutsche Grammophon heard this version, the decision was taken to make a full recording. This gave me the chance to amend the score with a view to it being performed as a purely instrumental work. I was fortunate to receive the advice and a thoughtful critique of the score from Michael Tilson Thomas. He encouraged me on to get the best out of my material and the revisions were soon completed.

The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, made the full recording of Il Sogno at Abbey Road Studios, London in April 2002. Nevertheless, there was a concern that the audience might not expect or accept an instrumental work from someone who was predominantly known as a songwriter. It was therefore proposed that the release of Il Sogno be preceded with a studio album summarizing my writing for orchestra, and much of the repertoire on this recording was under consideration.

Before the sessions could take place, a number of events occurred that led to the writing and recording of the album North. This collection of piano-led ballads featured orchestral writing that echoed the more chamber-musical episodes of Il Sogno but retained the intimacy of the late hours in which the songs were written.

The revised Il Sogno received its premiere concert performance by the Brooklyn Philharmonic at the Lincoln Center Festival in July 2004. I appeared in a programme of songs in the second half of that concert and also on other two other nights with the Imposters and the Metropole Orkest. Deutsche Grammophon issued the full recording of Il Sogno in September 2004.

When “Can You Be True?” was performed at the North Sea Jazz Festival, it was the first time that the full orchestration had been heard on stage. I had spent much of the previous nine months performing the songs with just Steve Nieve’s piano accompaniment and felt that I now really understood how to sing the song.

“Put Away Forbidden Playthings”: This song has its origins in a most unusual commission. In early 1995, I was asked to contribute to a concert marking the tercentenary of the death of Henry Purcell. The viol consort, Fretwork, was to perform Purcell’s fantasias alongside contemporary works written for viol and voice.

My song was first performed by the countertenor Michael Chance and Fretwork at the Purcell Room at the South Bank Centre, London and subsequently recorded for the album Sit Fast. The piece was later performed by a number of other singers, including David James of the Hilliard Ensemble and the soprano Emma Kirkby.

I adapted the song for my own voice and re-orchestrated the composition for a concert with the Swedish Radio Symphony in the late 90s and it is that arrangement that is heard on this recording.

“Episode Of Blonde”: This song was originally recorded with the Imposters for the album When I Was Cruel. Vince Mendoza took my original horn chart and expanded it to incorporate the entire Metropole line-up in an arrangement that compliments the surreal nature of the shouted and sung words.

“My Flame Burns Blue”: While preparing and proposing repertoire for the collaborative album with Anne Sofie von Otter For The Stars, I received permission from the estate of Billy Strayhorn to write a lyric for his last composition, the beautiful “Blood Count”. I had become obsessed with the recording found on the Duke Ellington album …and his mother called him Bill. Listening to the human quality of Johnny Hodges’ alto saxophone, it was possible to believe that it might make a very fine vocal piece.

In the end, the song, now re-titled “My Flame Burns Blue”, did not feature at the For The Stars sessions, but it was later recorded by the singer Darius de Haas on the album Daydream ­ Variations on Strayhorn. I have also recorded the song with saxophonist Joe Lovano and pianist Bill Charlap for a forthcoming documentary about the composer.

Vince Mendoza wrote this arrangement especially for the concerts with the Metropole Orkest.

“Watching The Detectives”: First recorded in 1977, this is the oldest original composition in this repertoire. Even though the song was then recorded in a reggae rhythm, there were small references to orchestral film and television music, particularly that of Bernard Herrmann, in the arrangement. Naturally, given the resources of the time, these ideas were expressed on a Vox Continental organ or an old upright piano.

When preparing for concerts with the Charles Mingus Orchestra, I thought it would be a surprise to completely revise a well-known tune from my repertoire, so I arranged “Watching the Detectives” in the style of a 1950s television theme. The arrangement underwent further revision to the orchestration by the Metropole’s editors, incorporating the Orkest’s string section.

“God Give Me Strength”: In 1995, I was asked to collaborate with Burt Bacharach on a song for the motion picture Grace of My Heart. I had first performed a Bacharach/David composition in 1978. We went on to write twelve songs together and recorded them for the album Painted From Memory. The record closed with our first composition.

Although we probably made equal contributions to the music of this song, the character of the performance is completely defined by Burt Bacharach’s distinctive arranging style. It seemed only natural that the Metropole Orkest, Vince Mendoza, Steve Nieve and myself should conclude our show with the same number.

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My Flame Burns Blue liner notes (2006)


Elvis Costello's liner notes for My Flame Burns Blue.




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