Orange County Register, June 15, 2006

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Playboy Jazz Festival: Ode to the Crescent City


Ben Wener

"I've never played the Hollywood Bowl before," Elvis Costello mentioned by phone from a tour stop in Japan. "I don't think I've ever even been to the Hollywood Bowl."

He paused for a second, then added: "Maybe to see the L.A. Philharmonic and Bob Dylan."

Another pause, then: "Not together, I hasten to add."

So it is that Costello's Playboy Jazz Festival debut Sunday, during the second half of this weekend's 28th annual event, also marks his first Bowl appearance. And yet neither of those significant footnotes comes close to overshadowing the reason why the recently inducted Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is performing at what is arguably the nation's biggest jazz bash.

Chalk it up to the ongoing revival of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation last August. Just as Bruce Springsteen delved into the Crescent City's roots with his latest album, so has Costello paid homage to one of American music's most crucial Mecca with his new effort, The River in Reverse.

His means: collaboration, in this case with influential producer, singer, songwriter, arranger and fellow Rock Hall honoree Allen Toussaint.

Toussaint, author of staples like "Working in the Coal Mine," "Mother-in-Law" and "Right Place, Wrong Time" - the gentlemanly giant whom "River" producer Joe Henry considers "the closest thing to a living Duke Ellington in this country" - has been in exile in New York since Katrina destroyed his New Orleans home.

A soft-spoken man of indefatigable spirit, Toussaint, 68, didn't waste time drowning in tears. He quickly got back to work, appearing at several post-Katrina benefits while establishing residency at Joe's Pub in NYC. It was at such gigs that Costello and Toussaint rekindled their creative relationship, tentatively begun more than a decade earlier when Toussaint provided his fluid piano and arranging genius to key tracks from Costello's 1989 album "Spike," including its emotional high point, "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror."

Costello started regularly sitting in with Toussaint and his band - "and I started to think that not only was it great to sing with Allen, but there's all these songs of his, so many of which I have filed away in my mind ... I thought maybe there could be an idea."

Yet what began as a "songbook record" - a chance for Costello to showcase Toussaint's talents by resurrecting favorite obscurities - soon morphed into an equally measured pairing, with Costello eventually contributing new songs (including the scathing but hopeful title track) in a darker Toussaint vein.

The result is a tremendously appealing, thought-provoking work that plays to both artists' strengths - Toussaint's nimble-fingered flow and Costello's wordplay, which is as compassionate toward the displaced as it is stingingly accusatory toward those who have been slow to aid them.

"There must be something better than this," he sings, " 'cause I don't see how it can get much worse." That's an original line, but more often Toussaint's dusted-off gems do the talking for him, some with deceptive playfulness ("Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?"), others with sober inspiration (the moving plea "Freedom for the Stallion").

Those songs, along with two new numbers, form the bruised-but-healing heart of the album, sealed by the vital "Ascension Day." Set to a minor-key variation on Professor Longhair's "Tipitina," Costello offers up lyrics (perhaps his most heartfelt ever) that play like a different sort of we-shall-overcome invocation.

"Those opening lines - 'not a soul was stirring, not a bird was singing' - a friend from New Orleans had described that to me," he recalls. "And on our very first day back there, we were driven down to the worst areas, right by the levee - and, yeah, that was exactly what it was like. And that was already several months later. Nothing much had changed or been replaced or repaired.

"The progress in some places is as slow as that still. But there are good things from which we must take heart. Unfortunately, less of them have to do with the authorities and structures that are supposed to support the people and more to do with individuals and their spirit - that spirit that will enable this recovery."

Toussaint is one such spirit. Indomitable doesn't do him justice. "I consider myself fortunate," says the man who lost decades of history in the flood. "Something as large as Katrina ... the larger they come, the harder they fall. I find that the scales eventually balance out. The bad is outweighed by the good. And this (collaboration) was an opportunity for me to get involved in one of the positive outcomes of Katrina."

Ben Jaffe, bassist for New Orleans' long-running Preservation Hall Jazz Band, also appearing at the Playboy fest, shares Toussaint's optimism.

"It's bittersweet, having this spotlight focused squarely on the musicians of New Orleans right now. To see someone like Allen Toussaint basically have a new celebrity career, which he richly deserves, because of Katrina, it's just ... I keep coming back to that word 'bittersweet.' How can we have this great success out of all this destruction and disaster?

"All I can say is that if anyone is due that respect right now, it's the musicians of that city. Our lives are forever different. We were reminded very abruptly that within an hour your life can be destroyed beyond imagination. That brings a new level of importance to what you bring to each performance. And it has put the responsibility on us. If there isn't a grass-roots effort on the part of people connected to New Orleans, then the efforts to rebuild lives and homes there just won't happen."

Playboy's organizers wanted to do their part to raise awareness as well, turning this year's festival partially into a tribute to New Orleans.

The shows won't entirely be devoted to that, of course. Many observers, in fact, are banking on English sensation Jamie Cullum to have the breakout set of the weekend.

As this event has in the past, the parameters of "jazz" have been busted apart. Previous lineups have featured crossover acts as diverse as Bruce Hornsby, Isaac Hayes, Keb' Mo', Joni Mitchell and Etta James, while world music has gained attention through turns from King Sunny Ade and Femi Kuti. This year is no exception, with Cullum and previous fest favorite Ozomatli appearing alongside more exotic fair like Senegalese star Baaba Maal and Japanese jazzbo Hiromi.

"We knew even in the earliest days that we had to broaden the base of the festival," explains its president, Dick Rosenzweig, overseer since the bonanza began. "Our demographics are so wide-ranging. We have to appeal to all different types of music fans now.

"But this year we knew we especially wanted to incorporate New Orleans music. We all know the influence the city has had on this music. "Look at the impact of the Marsalis family alone! This is really our tip of the hat to New Orleans and everything the musicians from there have brought to jazz."

For Costello and Toussaint, however, this West Coast debut of their collaborative tour has deeper meaning. Costello has rarely been prone to political grandstanding in his 30-year career; even now he worries that having recorded parts of "River" in New Orleans will seem an overplayed gesture, something that could overshadow the music itself.

"We just wanted to get back to work. Not act like nothing has happened, but act like a certain business - this business of making music - that it can happen again there.

"You hear a lot of talk these days about musical artists accused of abusing the privilege of a position on stage to make naive political pronouncements. The reality is that it's these politicians who actually play up simplified slogans that don't offer those who they represent the complexity of the situation. Rather, they reduce it to a series of fearful images.

"Artists are actually the ones who are able, by the very nature of what we do, to express emotions that might be too hard to put into words. On this record, something could be humorous, something else could be grave. But it's all about the time we've just passed through and the time that we continue to be in. Whether that's a big statement depends upon how you view it. But it is offered there."

Contact the writer: 714-796-2248 or bwener@ocregister.com.

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Orange County Register, June 15, 2006


Ben Wener previews Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint on Sunday June 18, 2006 at the Playboy Jazz Festival, Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, CA and interviews Elvis Costello following the release of The River In Reverse.




A few more minutes with Elvis Costello


You'd think, given the length of my Friday piece about Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint's new collaborative album, The River in Reverse, and how their appearance Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl coincides with the Playboy Jazz Festival's salute to New Orleans this year, that I would have included everything worth mentioning from my interview with the two disparate legends. (That is, you might think so if you're reading this Friday or later. If you come across this before then, well, consider it a sneak preview.)

But as often happens, I have leftovers, and these bits - and the subject who spoke them - are too interesting (to me, anyway) to leave languishing in my notebook.

One response focuses on Costello & Toussaint's appearance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in April, where they were on the main stage just before Bruce Springsteen unveiled his Seeger Sessions show. By all accounts (as I've mentioned elsewhere) it was a most moving experience; Toussaint called it "the most important Jazz Fest ever" when I asked him about it.

My question to Elvis was trite - something about how it felt to be part of that particular event. That's the sort of query I wouldn't suspect Costello to take in stride, but it turns out he's not nearly as prickly as you might think these days. Just serious. Gracious, but focused.

"When you're at big open-air festivals," he said, "it's often about big choruses and not about little details and lyrics. It's just not that kind of listening you go there for. You come for the sensory experience and to be with friends, so the music that prevails are big anthemic pieces.

"But that was not the case at this festival at all. People were really listening. They were also having a great time, but they were really listening to what was being said. It had a particularly memorable feel to it. I don't think I'll ever forget that."

To end our chat, I asked him if he prefers collaboration to solo endeavors, given that in the past decade he's worked with everyone from Toussaint and Burt Bacharach to opera singer Anne Sofie Von Otter. Is it more rewarding or challenging at this stage in his career?

I think his response explains a great deal about his attitude toward his craft and creativity - and why making what some people consider a traditional Elvis Costello album often holds zero interest for him.

"Isn't everything you do a form of collaboration?" he responded. "Even if I were to make a record with just the Imposters, as I did on the last go-'round (The Delivery Man), that is still a collaboration. It's a collaboration with the producer you work with, with the players you have backing you.

"That goes right back to the beginning of my career. I didn't even know quite what I was doing when I first got into the studio with Nick Lowe and the Attractions." (Aside to nitpicky EC nuts: Yes, I'm sure he's aware that he made his first record, My Aim Is True, without the Attractions. He seemed to be speaking generally.) "We just made records. Then we went out and played some shows. Then we made some more records, you know?

"At a certain point some opportunities came my way to really write a body of songs with some notable songwriters, and to do some things that were very different than the music I started out with. And I suppose (those projects) have been noted more than the mechanism that goes into the making of everything you ever do.

"I'm also aware that there are some people in this world who wish I would just make a rock 'n' roll record with ... well, probably they wish it was with the Attractions. But that can never happen. That would be an inferior venture. To my mind, I've made those records already. Those records are great."

To him, dwelling in the past like that "is like when you're 12 years old, and you wrrite on a piece of paper your favorite sports team made up of all the players from all the teams you like, and you think that team would be the world leader. The reality is that every piece of music you make is made in the moment you make it, in the circumstances you're in, with the tools that you've got, with the skills that you've accumulated.

"That's been my experience. And why I still have curiosity and excitement about making music is that I haven't stayed with one idea. I've remained open to lots of new things. And occasonally one of those things is to pick up an electric guitar and start yelling. But that isn't inherently superior to doing something with a string quartet or an orchestra, or to enter into something as joyful as this collaboration with Allen.

"Though much of this music has lament in its voice, and there are some angry or accusatory lines in some of the songs, the actual experience of recording it was one of the most joyful occasions of making music that I can ever remember having anywhere. And that probably is superior to just going into a dark room and bashing out a lot of what you think people want to hear from you, becase you're afraid to let go of the past."

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