Elvis can do anything. From his early days of mixing new wave and punk in the late seventies, through his dabbling with country and soul, to composing both orchestral and classical chamber music, Elvis Costello has almost done it all. Now he can add big band and swing to his résumé thanks to the release of “My Flame Burns Blue,” a live recording with the 52-piece Metropole Orkest.
Considering that Costello’s career has always remained rooted in rock and roll, in spite of his frequent experiments with other musical genres, it’s surprising that his very first live album is a jazz affair in the vein of Harry Connick Jr.. Not that Elvis hasn’t been jazzy before… his 2003 CD “North” was all piano-jazz ballads. “My Flame Burns Blue” is something entirely different, however. And wonderful.
Though there’s no new original compositions on this CD, it’s likely only the most avid fans will recognize most of the songs. The program is primarily made up of big band arrangements of fairly obscure songs from Costello’s past. That’s probably not a bad thing, since that makes much of this music new to most listeners. Of the three “hits” reworked for this concert, only “Almost Blue” seems an obvious choice, as it has been recorded by countless jazz artists over the years, including the legendary Chet Baker and contemporary chanteuse Diana Krall (who is also Costello’s wife). The big band updates of “Watching The Detectives” and “Clubland” both become Mancini-esque to the point where you easily forget that these were originally written as pop songs in the 70’s and 80’s; they are masterfully transformed into pop songs from another era entirely.
Of course, it should be no surprise that these songs work so well in this new format, because the best songwriting always transcends musical genres. Elvis Costello has been one of popular music’s most prolific writers and cunning lyricists for over three decades, and was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s only fitting that he closes this album with “God Give Me Strength,” a songwriting collaboration with another music legend, Burt Bacharach.
It’s also worth noting that “My Flame Burns Blue” includes a bonus CD featuring selections from “Il Songo,” Costello’s 2004 orchestral suite composed for a ballet based on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” If all you’ve ever known from Elvis Costello is his radio-friendly hits like “Alison” and “Veronica,” this double-dose of jazz and classical fare will be quite a musical awakening. “My Flame Burns Blue” is highly recommended!
This review originally appeared in the May/June issue of TC Style magazine