Perhaps the most compelling part of The River in Reverse, the brilliant collaboration between Elvis Costello and legendary New Orleans producer-songwriter Allen Toussaint, is the immediacy that crackles through the music.
A mix of Toussaint classics and new compositions, the album was written and recorded as Hurricane Katrina was still wreaking devastation on the Gulf Coast, and it was wrapped up with sessions in New Orleans days after the city reopened to outsiders.
The pair bring those songs, as well as Costello's band and back catalog, to Saturday night's headlining slot at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass festival.
"I'm going to bring my iron lung with me, my altitude suit. I've managed Boulder, so I don't think it's that much higher, is it?" Costello asks of Aspen as he and Toussaint do an interview during a break in rehearsals last week.
Costello performed at Seattle's Bumbershoot festival in early September 2005 as Katrina images filled every TV screen in the nation. He sang Toussaint's "Freedom for the Stallion."
"It's pretty impossible to go onstage when you know everyone's watching something and there's a communal feeling about it and not reflect it in some way. I couldn't think of any song of my own that had any better meaning," particularly since he and Toussaint had both played the New Orleans Jazzfest just months earlier, he says.
After participating in several benefits for Katrina, Costello says: "I knew by that point that Allen had made it to New York. I asked if someone could find out where he was at and ask if he might have any interest in renewing our acquaintance musically." They'd collaborated on a couple of pieces of music in the '80s.
Costello found Toussaint playing a set at Joe's Pub and sat in on a couple of songs.
"When he approached me, I pondered for every bit of about two seconds and was very glad to say 'yes.' We got right to work on doing things," Toussaint says.
"When Allen and I started writing, New Orleans was under martial law. You couldn't enter the city," Costello says. "You couldn't even get information about when you could enter the city."
Toussaint's band members had been displaced as well, and Los Angeles ended up being the city with most of the musicians, so sessions started there.
"During the process of writing, word came from the city that you could actually go there on other than federal or Katrina-related business. So we were able to do the second week of recording in New Orleans," Costello says.
While initially planning to just cover Toussaint classics that seemed fitting, such as "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?" and "Tears, Tears and More Tears," "it became apparent that we were going to create some new pieces," Costello says.
Those songs make up the sometimes-angry heart of the album, along with Costello's title track. "Broken Promise Land" particularly melds the two artist's styles, with Toussaint's elegant piano lines counterpunched by stinging Costello guitar.
"Broken Promise Land instrumentally ended up being Allen's piano and my guitar, that tremolo thing that I've used as a signature sound, I suppose, inasmuch as I have anything like that in my fairly limited palate of guitar-playing ideas," Costello says.
"Elvis has such a heart for the music it translates in every facet, be it lyrical content, melodic lines, chord structures. It just goes to show how dearly the music is in Elvis' heart," Toussaint says of the collaboration.
"I remember being a bit too deferential the first time we sat down at the piano," Costello says. "We couldn't seem to get really flowing with ideas. Tentative is not the right word — just too respectful of one another's point of view."
Costello liked Toussaint's version of the late Professor Longhair's Tipitina transposed to a minor key. The two turned it into Ascension Day, a song that starts dark but ends with hope.
"It began with this very bleak image, described to me by a friend in the city, to the hopeful last chord. It could mention things that happened, but it had to go somewhere hopeful," Costello says.
Joy is apparent in other songs. International Echo is a raucous tribute to music in general.
"(That song) was the one that I got a kick out of," says Costello. "The music was all there — Allen came in and played this piece down and it was just telling me a story. I went home that night and wrote the whole lyric.
"And it had to be about music, and I've never written a song about music before. It had to be about what music does for you, how it turns you upside down. It is a comedic song."
Others are more pointed and political. Costello is one of the artists who have been criticized for making political statements in songs. Politicians and TV talking heads say artists are "naïve and abuse the privilege of the stage to make naïve announcements," Costello says. "Actually it's the politicians who make crass simplifications of complex matters in order that they don't leave office in disgrace or handcuffs.
"We're not running for office. We're trying to be humans and feel something and hopefully offer something in a song, whether it gives consolation, whether it gives voice to some anger or disquiet someone has or a purely personal view."
The title track of The River in Reverse focuses not just on Katrina but on the nation as a whole, Costello says.
"I believe we are surrendering liberty to this climate of fear that is being cynically promoted by people in power. That song is not exclusively about New Orleans. It's emblematic of the way we're treating one another."