Aztec Jazz

The new Aztec Jazz may be the most wonderful to date. Tom Russell has never been afraid to try something new and different, but he really outdoes himself on this album, a live 2012 performance with guitarist Thad Beckman and the 31-member Norwegian Wind Ensemble. What to call the result, which incorporates elements of jazz, folk, Tex-Mex and classical music? Who knows? Who cares?
As Russell writes, “The results were beyond our dreams. Sometimes it sounded like Western movie music and sometimes it called up Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. [The Wind Ensemble] played behind us without overpowering the songs, and I think my singing is far better than my vocals on the original tracks.” Perhaps so—though his always-emotive vocals on the originals were pretty damn powerful.
At any rate, the Ensemble’s trumpets, oboes, saxes, French horns, trombones and percussion—inventively arranged by Swedish composer Mats Halling—put a new slant on this classic American roots music.

As for the 11-track program, all written by Russell, it makes a strong case for him as one of the great songwriters of our time. He covers a lot of turf, but always sticks to subjects that relate to his personal experience and passions. Highlights include “Finding You,” a poignant love song; “Goodnight Juarez,” about the poverty in that city; and “East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam,” about spending the late 60s in Africa.

Then there’s the apparently autobiographical “Criminology,” in which he sings, “You may think I’m just a folk singer, no, I’m a master in the art of criminology”—which may sound nonsensical until you check Wikipedia and learn that, sure enough, Russell has a master’s in the subject from the University of California at Santa Barbara. The guy is full of surprises, musical and otherwise.
Somebody should nominate Aztec Jazz for a 2013 Grammy. And it should win. But first the nominator will have to figure out what category it belongs in. "Copyright 2013 by Jeff Burger, used by permission"
Tom Russell songs have been recorded by such icons as Johnny Cash, Dave Van Ronk, Jerry Jeff Walker, Doug Sahm, Joe Ely, Nanci Griffith, Iris Dement, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, among others. No less than Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the legendary poet, has said that he shares “a great affinity with Tom Russell’s songs, for he is writing out of the wounded heart of America.”
For Mesabi, Russell invited along several prominent friends to assist him in bringing to fruition his newest compositions, among them Lucinda Williams, Van Dyke Parks, Sir Douglas Quintet keyboardist Augie Meyers and Calexico, the band with which Russell previously collaborated on Blood and Candle Smoke. The result is a collection that may be Russell’s most cinematic and global to date, a work that instantly grips the listener and holds on as its vivid scenarios unfold from tune to tune. The consummate renegade, Tom Russell makes the music he wants to make, without intervention, and he does so without a care for trends and expectations.
“My career seems to have gone in the opposite direction from a lot of people whose notoriety came over their first half dozen records,” says Russell. “Mine didn’t. My career built very slowly, and then I moved to El Paso in ’97, further outside than anybody could imagine. By not plugging into the machine, the records I’ve made in the past 10 years have been my strongest and most outside records, especially the past two. It seems that the older I get, the more I’ve been able to keep on the outside.”
Tom Russell has appeared on the David Letterman TV show five times in the last few years, and his songs have appeared in a dozen movies and television series including: The new Monte Hellman movie The Road To Nowhere, Tremors, Songcatcher and Northern Exposure.
Tom Russell has published three books: a detective novel (in Scandinavia), a compendium of songwriting quotes with Sylvia Tyson (And Then I Wrote - Arsenal Press), and a book of letters with Charles Bukowski: (Tough Company: Mystery Island Press).

Russell is also an established painter represented by Yard Dog Folk Art in Austin( and Rainbow Man in Santa Fe (

A book of Tom Russell`s art: Blue Horse/Red Desert was published by Bangtail Press in September 2011.
Recent Quotes

Recent Mesabi Quotes:
The great U.S. songsmith…touching , beautifully crafted songs…an epic study of sand and celluloid.
UNCUT, October 2011 (Four Stars)
A fierce, sharply drawn portrait…surgical songwriting skills…pick of the week…New Yorker, 9/8/11
Impressive…Russell teams with Lucinda Williams and Calexico on an emotionally potent cover of a Bob Dylan classic…USA Today , Pick of the Week, Aug. 30, 2011

#2 on Mojo’s Top 10 playlist, November 2011. “Brilliantly delivered….”

Tom Russell is the last wandering Beat…a prolific and venerable artist writing the best songs of his career….impeccably written.
San Francisco Chronicle 10/23/11

Essential! The Globe and The Mail (CANADA) Aug. 30.,2011

…the best songwriter of my generation….a conviction reinforced by Mesabi…raises and sets the bar for contemporary singer-songwriters. #1 Folk Album for 2011 - Mike Regenstreif, Montreal Gazette, Sing Out

A crafted treasure of engaging nobility. The Boston Globe

A master storyteller triumphs. Chicago Sun Times, 9/29/11

The album consistently confirms Russell’s status as one of the best singer-songwriter’s of our time. The Washington Post 9/23/11

On his last three albums—Love and Fear, Blood and Candle Smoke, and now Mesabi—Russell has come up with a late-career flurry that rivals what Dylan himself achieved with Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times. Like Dylan, Russell constructs his songs from the building blocks of classic American folk and blues traditions. POP MATTERS 9/11
Zuerich, Switzerland Download
By Nadine Russell Download
By Nadine Russell Download
Photo by Fred Trask Download
Photo by Fred Trask Download
Blood and Candle Smoke  Download
Live in Brussels by Blowfish Download
Tom Russell with Accordion Boy Download