Sunday, May 12, 2013

Tom Russell – Aztec Jazz

Aztec Jazz
Frontera Records

Leave it to Tom Russell – who has given us such groundbreaking albums as The Man from God Knows Where, a brilliant folk opera about immigration and the American dream, and Hotwalker, an equally-brilliantly conceived and executed audio collage of original songs, poetry, stories, rants and outside voices that pays tribute to forgotten aspects of American culture, and many other great albums filled with some of the best songwriting of the past 30 years – to raise the art of the live album to a whole new level.

A year ago, Tom and guitarist Thad Beckman, his regular accompanist over the past several years, performed a concert in Halden, Norway with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble, a superb chamber orchestra featuring 21 brass and woodwind players as well as a bassist, drummer and two percussionists under the direction of conductor Frank Brodhal. Swedish composer Mats Hålling wrote orchestral arrangements for 11 of Tom’s songs and the concert was recorded.

The results are absolutely stunning. Tom’s singing and Thad’s lead guitar playing are magnificent and the orchestral arrangements, while uniquely faithful to Tom’s songs, variously recall some of the works of George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and David Amram, or Gil Evans’ Spanish-tinged chamber jazz arrangements for Miles DavisSketches of Spain, or orchestrated New Orleans second lines or Mexican mariachis.

The album opens with a lush version of “Love Abides,” a beautiful song that contrasts tragedy with blessings, hope and love. It was a perfect finale for The Man from God Knows Where and is an equally perfect way to begin Aztec Jazz.

“Nina Simone,” another quiet, song, lushly arranged for the Norwegian Wind Ensemble follows. The song is about finding what you need in a voice that understands. For Tom, once in a bar in San Cristóbal, Mexico, it was the voice of Nina Simone on the juke box. I know I’ve heard Nina Simone cut through to my soul when she sings about being “lost in the rain in Juarez” in a way I think Bob Dylan would appreciate. Sometimes my own “Nina Simones” have been Rosalie Sorrels or Billie Holiday or a dozen other singers who understand. Update, June 16: Video of Tom Russell and Thad Beckman performing “Nina Simone” with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble.

The pace picks up with “East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam,” in which Tom recalls 1969 when – as the war in Vietnam raged, Neil Armstrong took his small step onto the moon, and 500,000 people sat in the Catskills mud for a three-day music festival – he went to Nigeria as a young academic to teach. Update, June 14: Video of Tom Russell and Thad Beckman performing “East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam” with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble.

“Goodnight, Juarez” is a Tex-Mex lament for Jurarez’s descent from an open tourist town to the battleground it’s become. The song looks at contemporary Juarez, remembers when it was a very different place and imagines how it could be so again. “Juarez, I had a dream today/ The children danced, as the guitars played/ And all the violence up and slipped away/ Goodnight, Juarez, goodnight,” Tom sings with mariachi tinges to the orchestral arrangement.

“Criminology” documents a series of harrowing experiences Tom lived through in the late-‘60s and early-‘70s in Nigeria and Canada. The arrangement features some nifty West African guitar fills by Thad and R&B horn punctuation by the Norwegian Wind Ensemble.

“Guadalupe,” done beautifully here with some gorgeous guitar lines by Thad and an orchestral arrangement highlighting the oboes, is a song that reveals more every time I hear it. And I’m not necessarily referring to new layers of understanding of what Tom was thinking when he wrote it. I mean what I hear and understand about my own truths and my own quests filtered through Tom’s words and the gorgeous melody.

“Stealing Electricity,” with the orchestra at full throttle, has a hook that could have made it a hit back when pop music was about real songs. Tom tells us that reaching out for love is like stealing electricity, sometimes you’re going to get burned.

“Finding You” is a beautiful love song written for Nadine Russell, Tom’s wife, and is lushly arranged for the orchestra.

“Mississippi River Running Backwards,” is about a world out of whack – the kind of stuff TV evangelists might attribute to an angry God. It’s a song perfectly suited to the big, New Orleans-style horn arrangement it has here.

While most of the material on Aztec Jazz is drawn from recent Tom Russell albums, “St. Olav’s Gate,” is one of my favorites of Tom’s early songs. It was chosen for this album, I assume, because its setting is in Norway. The song recalls a single night and a broken promise. Most of us have been that drunken man waiting in vain at St. Olav’s Gate, even if our personal St. Olav’s Gate wasn’t in Oslo.

The album concludes with “Jai Alai,” a brilliant, fast-paced flamenco piece about passion: for the game of jai alai – and for love. The Norwegian Wind Ensemble offers a deeply layered and exciting arrangement and Thad’s guitar echoes the intensity of the flamenco masters.

Although these songs might already be familiar to followers of Tom's music, the way they are reimagined and reinterpreted with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble makes Aztec Jazz an essential Tom Russell album.

Aztec Jazz will be released in June but can now be ordered via Village Records

Note: Some of my comments about the songs are drawn from reviews I’ve written about the Tom Russell albums they originally appeared on or from my booklet essay for Veteran’s Day: The Tom Russell Anthology.

Pictured: Thad Beckman, Mike Regenstreif and Tom Russell in Montreal (2012).

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--Mike Regenstreif

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