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.
|Label: Shout Factory
Tom Russell is a master storyteller and Mesabi, his new release for Shout! Factory, corrals some of the acclaimed singer-songwriter’s most compelling tales to date.
A thread runs through its songs, a zigzagging but determinedly solid line that connects the perilous bordertown of Juarez, Mexico to the real and faux glitz of L.A. and the bleak iron range of Minnesota—the Mesabi of the album’s title. The broad landscapes created by Tom Russell for Mesabi are inhabited by characters we all know - Bob Dylan, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor - and some we may not: the now-obscure, once well-known singer Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, the tragic Disney child star Bobby Driscoll and the character actor Sterling Hayden.
It’s a logical progression from Russell’s last album, 2009’s Blood and Candle Smoke, yet it’s like no other album Russell has made in his nearly four decades as a recording artist.