07/15/04

Elvis Costello with the Netherland's Metropole Orkest

After making his mark as a scrappy English pop-rocker, Elvis Costello has transitioned to middle age with a series of what might be called “adult music” collaborations. He has worked with Bill Frisell, Burt Bacharach, the Mingus Orchestra and, most recently, his new wife, Diana Krall. “Il Sogno,” a full-scale orchestral work that premiered July 17 at Lincoln Center, signaled Costello’s entrance into the club of aging rockers-turned-classical composers, where he joins the likes of Paul McCartney and Billy Joel. (Judging from the free sampler handed out by Deutsche Grammophon several nights in advance, Costello’s compositional and scoring chops aren’t easy to dismiss.)

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Mark Seliger

Elvis Costello

But Costello hasn’t thrown in the rock ’n’-roll towel. He spent the second of his three nights at Avery Fisher Hall cavorting with his four-piece pop combo, the Imposters. And he spent opening night belting out jazz, rock and swing with the Netherlands Metropole Orkest, a 50-piece ensemble (big band plus strings and a few other bells and whistles), conducted by the esteemed jazz pianist, composer and arranger Jim McNeely.

This was the Orkest’s North American debut, and they proved to be a versatile and exciting unit, with a superb jazz trumpet soloist in Ruud Breuls. Props are also due the saxophonists, Marc Scholten and Paul van der Feen (altos) and Leo Janssen and Jos Beeren (tenors), who summoned exactly the sort of noirish mood that Costello’s ballads needed.

If there were moments during these two engaging sets that recalled Joni Mitchell’s recent strings albums, Both Sides Now and Travelogue, it could be chalked up to the involvement of Vince Mendoza, Mitchell’s orchestrater. The evening led off with an instrumental version of Mendoza’s “Barcelona” and went on to include several Mendoza charts, among them “My Flame Burns Blue,” a Costello-penned lyric to Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count.” Bill Frisell and Sy Johnson arranged many of the other pieces, which were poetic and finely detailed, even when the acoustics proved shrill and overbearing.

Vocally, this was a taxing gig, but Costello sounded strong as he navigated his odd harmonies and intervallic crests and dips (which, again, brought Joni Mitchell to mind). The moodier side of Costello’s songcraft came through on “Put Away Forbidden Playthings,” “Favourite Hour,” “Can You Be True?,” “When Did I Stop Dreaming?” and “When Green Eyes Turn Blue.” But there were saucier moments as well; it was a sight to see McNeely earnestly conducting the rocking, guitar-driven numbers “Dust” and “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,” while the string section sat idle. Dave Bartholomew’s jump-blues tune “That’s How You Got Killed Before” changed the pace completely, as did the complex cabaret vehicle “Punishing Kiss” and the Latin-tinged 6/4 clap-along “Almost Ideal Eyes.” The first half ended with the full-on jazz of Charles Mingus’ “Hora Decubitus”; the second half wound down with a so-so swing rendition of Costello’s classic “Watching the Detectives.”

There is nothing modest about Costello’s increasingly highbrow eclecticism, and some critics have taken to knocking him for it. Granted, Costello does have his turgid side -- “Speak Darkly, My Angel,” from a trilogy composed for the Brodsky Quartet, comes to mind. But the exuberance, sophistication and sheer vocal prowess he displayed at Lincoln Center ought to earn him his share of respect, in the jazz world and wherever else.

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