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December 1999

Bill Frisell/Elvis Costello
The Sweetest Punch, Songs of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach
Decca Records

Too often, the fragile crossover zone where jazz and pop interact is fraught with worry and stigma. What will the peers and music industry honchos think? Moreover, will cash registers ring? But there's a big world of promise, mostly untapped, where jazz intellect and improvisatory zeal can benefit from the melodic clarity of pop, and this unique project succeeds in opening our ears to the possibilities.

So here we have Bill Frisell, the ever open-minded sensitive guitar hero (or anti-hero?), delivering painterly interpretations of material from the Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach duet project, Painted from Memory. And why not? It works small wonders, as Frisell works up soulful, horn chart-laced readings of the songs, with such comrades as drummer Brian Blades, Don Byron, Ron Miles, and Curtis Fowlkes.

Of course, it's a stretch on paper only. Burt Bacharach, once a symbol of non-mainstream pop-making, has been rightfully reinstated as an icon of modern pop music-making: his hits have great integrity; his songwriting vocabulary has been visionary; and fans in jazz, pop, and elsewhere genuflect accordingly. His subtly strange chord changes and organic twists of phrase are nicely mirrored in Costello's own art pop sensibility.

The song set is framed by the title tune, a ditty at once sweet and punchy, and the gospel-esque "God Give Me Strength," which could be a modern-day standard. The instrumental character is what makes the project memorable, but Costello also shows up for a couple of gratuitous cameos. Cassandra Wilson even joins Costello for a duet on "I Still Have That Other Girl"-swapping her musky tone with his wobbly tremolo, with Frisell and band slithering artfully in the sidelines. This is brainy music, on some levels, but always with beauty in mind, which makes the like-minded closet romantic Frisell a perfect match.

Originally published in December 1999
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