Aspen — Early in his career, in his days as an angry, English punk, Elvis Costello seemed to reserve his strongest venom for music journalists. The mutual disrespect between Costello and the press came to a head in the early spring of 1979, in New York, when Costello was pushed into a press conference to explain away some rude comments he had made about Ray Charles, James Brown and other gods of American music to rocker Stephen Stills. Costello, 24, and already at odds with the media and under the spotlight for his remarks, instead of apologizing, turned on the press and let loose with the sort of rage evident in his music at the time.
"The press were looking for something to crucify me with and I fed myself to the lions," Costello later said, as reported in Rolling Stone.
Some years later, Costello would provide another perfect means for the press to vilify him. This time, it was artistic.
In the early '90s, Costello, who had shown experimental tendencies from the beginning, started coming fully unmoored from the sneering brand of New Wave/punk that had established his name. The straying started with 1993's The Juliet Letters, a cycle inspired by Romeo & Juliet, recorded with the classical group, the Brodsky Quartet. Any rock musician can expect a torrent of criticism when venturing into such serious waters, and Costello was probably bracing for more than his share. Instead, he earned mostly praise: Spin ranked The Juliet Letters with Costello's best; Newsweek called him "a songwriter beyond genre."
Costello probably didn't need such positive reinforcement to proceed down the non-pop music path. But showing the contrarian, devil-may-care spirit that marked his early albums, Costello boldly claimed a broader terrain than any musician who comes to mind. Perhaps inspired by his father, a big-band singer who had to absorb a variety of styles, Costello tackled it all.
Kojak Variety covered Bob Dylan, the Supremes and the Great American Songbook. Painted From Memory was a duets album with Burt Bacharach. On For the Stars, a collaboration with Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, and North, Costello emerged as an honest jazz balladeer. Not all reviewers loved all the work, though each album drew a good amount of critical applause. But Costello was at least taken seriously in his efforts.
In recent years, Costello has returned now and then to his roots, most successfully on 2002's When I Was Cruel. His most notable work, however, has come from outside the pop realm, and sometimes way outside. Il Sogno, a 2004 ballet score after A Midsummer Night's Dream, was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and earned respect in the classical world. That same year, he co-wrote much of the material on The Girl in the Other Room, an exquisite jazz recording by Mrs. Elvis Costello, Grammy-winning singer-pianist Diana Krall. Last year's The Delivery Man was a brilliant take on alt-country, featuring guest singers Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams.
Topping it all was last year's My Flame Burns Blue, a live recording of Costello with the Metropole Orkest that ingeniously reimagines a jazz orchestra as an avant-rock instrument. Fans of the "old" Elvis should get a kick out of radically reworked versions of "Watching the Detectives" and "Clubland."
Costello's latest, The River in Reverse, finds him wandering again, this time to the damaged music capital of New Orleans. He has stretched in this direction before; 1989's Spike was recorded partly there, and featured the city's Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Costello has also worked with Rebirth Brass Band. The River in Reverse, released earlier this month, reteams Costello with New Orleans' Allen Toussaint, who had added a memorable piano part to Spike. The album — which represents another new twist, Costello as the socially conscious artist — will be the focus of the Jazz Aspen June Festival concert, which features Costello's band, the Imposters, and Toussaint as a special guest.