Crossover artists — musicians, composers or performers who win fame in one musical genre but decide to try their hand at another — have been getting considerable ink during the past decade or so. Classical crossovers like the Three Tenors and cellist Yo-Yo Ma have been quite successful at this, selling CDs at a good clip and winning new audiences.
Crossover rockers, however, continue to be a mixed bag. Sir Elton John and Danny Elfman have proved surprisingly adept at film music. But Sir Paul McCartney's repeated high-profile attempts to compose serious music can be charitably described as flops.
The latest and most interesting addition to the small club of crossover rockers is Elvis Costello, who began his musical pilgrimage in the early 1990s, when he started digging classical music played by the Brodsky Quartet. He ended up collaborating with them. Not surprisingly, Mr. Costello's own father and grandfather had been jazz musicians, and he also began to warm up to this genre as well.
Like many rock musicians, he initially had no clue about musical notation. But he eventually taught himself how to write music down on paper and create scores for small ensembles, even composing on commission an entire ballet score, Il Sogno, based on Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. Issued as a CD in 2004, the ballet was well reviewed, although hardly a best-seller — a major problem for any budding crossover artist whose fans always insist on more of the oldies.
Like George Gershwin, who routinely collaborated with others when penning Broadway shows and arranging works like "Rhapsody in Blue," it's clear that Mr. Costello has benefited from the help of his collaborators, such as Michael Tilson Thomas, who recorded his ballet with the London Symphony Orchestra. It's also clear that he has little notion of classical structure or the basic rules of harmony.
That having been said, his own good musical sense and his seemingly innate knowledge of the improvisational "rules" of jazz have eased Mr. Costello's crossover journey and made Il Sogno a pleasant and interesting experience, if not an earth-shattering one.
In his latest crossover CD, My Flame Burns Blue, just issued by Deutsche Grammophon and featuring live performances with the Metropole Orkest, Mr. Costello may have created a true breakthrough recording. Consisting of 14 tracks of new and old songs, mostly his own with a few composed by or with others, Mr. Costello has created a fascinating melange of jazz, Latin pop and modernist tonal essays that at times approach the edginess of Bela Bartok or the noirish qualities of hard-boiled detective movies.
Indeed, what's striking about this collection is how well it works as an album, like a formal program of art songs wafting in the alcoholic haze of a smoky, pre-tobacco-lawsuit club. The supple Metropole Orkest provides canny atmospherics, aided and abetted by Mr. Costello's raspy baritone and ability to sell a song.
Selections range from such raucous numbers as a sexy arrangement of "Clubland," a dramatic interpretation of "Episode of Blonde," and a nearly scat "Hora Decubitus," to moodier pieces like "Upon a Veil of Midnight Blue" and "Almost Blue" with their lengthy, near-symphonic instrumental preambles updated with a dash of early black-and-white TV ambience.
Indeed, this collection is an almost eerie re-creation of the kind of 1950s nonrock music that seems lost in the mists of time. Detective shows, variety shows and kinescope recordings of live dramas with musical backgrounds were staples of early television. And TV music, an odd blending of fading big-band, early rock, experimental jazz, and urban bebop created surprisingly dark and lonely moods in a decade inaccurately dismissed for its supposed vapidity.
Yet this was also the decade into which Mr. Costello — the former Declan Patrick MacManus — was born. The '50s, along with the MacManus family's background in Euro-jazz, are clear influences on this CD. It is as good a re-imagining of this complex decade as one is going to get, short of finding an attic cache of old 45s.
Mr. Costello may be disappointing his old fans yet again with this material. But clearly, unlike Mick Jagger and many others, he has made at least an interim decision to grow up and move on with his music. With this CD, he just might find his new audience, more interested in listening and thinking than in destroying what's left of their hearing with the same old indistinguishable noise.
The CD comes with a second bonus CD containing excerpts from the aforementioned Il Sogno. If you're sick of the same old, My Flame Burns Blue is a pretty good way to break out of your rut.