This recording of Elvis Costello on Marian McPartland’s long running jazz interview show will surprise only those of his fans who haven’t been paying attention. For the last 20 years, Elvis has made a career of confounding expectations and sneaking popular music and standards into the unlikeliest of places. This latest recording, featuring EC singing a mix of standards, ballads, and a few of his own tunes and discussing his career with the indefatigable McPartland, is the purest fruit of his long labor in the vineyards of the American songbook.
If you’re unfamiliar with the format of McPartland’s show, which is typically interview material alternated with a joint performance between host and guest, the chatty bits between the songs may throw you. For those who prefer not to hear the chatter, the songs are thoughtfully on separate tracks. It would be a mistake to skip the interview, though, as Elvis discusses his early influences (his dad the jazz musician, his mom’s record collection, British R&B singers), his approach to performing, his early 80s collaborations with Chet Baker, and other bits of interesting ephemera.
How about the songs? The performances are clean: I don’t think Elvis has ever turned in a purer rendition of “My Funny Valentine” than on this disc, his Little Jimmy Scott-esque vibrato on the final phrase notwithstanding. “At Last,” which Elvis dedicates to his dad who performed it many years ago, is understated and touching, as is “The Very Thought of You.” He takes a turn to the darkness with “Gloomy Sunday” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is” (and notes in an aside to McPartland, “I can make ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’ sound dark—I’ve had this face for 48 years now, there’s nothing I can do about it!”).
Of the EC originals on this disc, the closer (“I’m in the Mood Again,” from his underrated North) is the better performance. With Elvis playing “composer’s piano,” the melody is effortlessly spun into a gentle reverie that, to my ears, betters the album performance. Alas, no such luck with “Almost Blue.” McPartland hangs back a little too far and the flow of the piece is lost; I also miss the coda of the piece.
To my ears, the highlight of this disc is “They Didn’t Believe Me,” a forgotten Jerome Kern jewel from 1914 that sings in this version. It narrowly bests Elvis’s other recording of the song with the Brodsky Quartet, available only on a promotional sampler from the Juliet Letters tour.
Based on the chronology of this session (Elvis mentions he’s in the process of recording North), this recording was made around the time that his relationship with Diana Krall began. The performances show it. This is a man in love, and the performances of these ballads benefit from it: gentle, sensitive, and optimistic in a way that is unusual in EC’s massive catalog. Highly recommended.
(Also on Blogcritics.)