Elvis Costello and All That Jazz

A few weeks ago—when Norah Jones, Rosanne Cash, John Mellencamp, and Kris Krisofferson visited SPECTACLE—we looked at Elvis Costello’s relationship to American music. We set aside jazz, though, for this week. And there is perhaps no single figure that better represents the range and possibilities of jazz than Herbie Hancock, this week’s guest. Over the years, Hancock has helped shape the direction of post-bop modern jazz through his work with Miles Davis; played a fundamental role in the development of hip-hop with the groundbreaking hit “Rockit”; and expanded the potential for funk with his band, the Headhunters.

Though he has often received criticism, or at least a good degree of confusion, for his eclectic approach, Hancock has always argued that these styles all fit squarely into the evolving tradition of improvisational music. Though hardly a jazz virtuoso, Elvis has also consistently, if infrequently, explored different aspects of jazz in his own music.

If there is one song that secured Elvis a spot in the jazz tradition, it is “Almost Blue,” from the 1982 album Imperial Bedroom. Though the song shares its title with the album of country covers that Costello recorded the previous year, it actually came directly out of the torch song tradition, and was later recorded by (among many others) one of its actual inspirations, the smoldering “cool jazz” singer and trumpeter Chet Baker.

He would experiment with more jazz-oriented songs over the years, like the version of Mose Allison’s “Everybody’s Crying Mercy” included on the Kojak Variety album. Elvis’s biggest step into improvisational music came after he served as artistic chair for the 1995 Meltdown Festival; jazz guitarist Bill Frisell was part of the event, which led to the two of them collaborating on an EP titled Deep Dead Blue. (The friendship with Frisell continues—the guitarist has turned up on several episodes of SPECTACLE.)

A jazz feel figured prominently in Il Sogno, Elvis’s 2004 orchestral work. His next major project, however, started a year earlier, when he paid a visit to legendary pianist Marian McPartland’s National Public Radio show, Piano Jazz. The two British musicians performed a mix of standards and Costello originals; the results were released on a 2005 CD.

Of course, the most ongoing relationship that Elvis has with the jazz world is his marriage to pianist and singer Diana Krall, one of the world’s most popular jazz musicians. Her 2004 album, The Girl in the Other Room, consisted mostly of songs that the couple co-wrote—though, just to bring things full circle, it also included her version of “Almost Blue.” But if you want to hear more about Elvis and Diana…well, you’ll have to stick with SPECTACLE for a few more weeks.

– Alan Light

Alan Light is the former Editor-in-Chief of Spin and Vibe magazines, and a former Senior Writer for Rolling Stone. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, he is the author of “The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys” and a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor award for excellence in music writing.