Album | Tom Russell (with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble) – Aztec Jazz

tom russell aztec jazz album cover

Ever the eccentric, it almost seems on this occasion as though Russell has set out to collate the least appealing set of words ever to appear on an album cover. Long-term devotees will not be put off, though, and nor will they be disappointed.

Recorded live in his collaborators’ home town of Halden last May, with long-term accompanist Thad Beckman present as always on guitar, the collection sees a handful of Russell’s many classic songs given a fresh twist by composer Mats Halling’s arrangements, using the wind section to underscore the emotion of Russell’s lyrics and at other times to send the songs soaring to new heights.

The veteran singer’s body of work ranges from the beautiful to the bonkers and that full range is represented here, from ‘Love Abides’ and ‘Guadalupe’ to ‘Criminology’ and ‘Stealing Electricity’. All that is perhaps missing is one of his riotous cowboy songs, as it would have been great to hear the orchestra given free rein on the likes of ‘Tonight We Ride’ or ‘Gallo Del Cielo’.

It’s a slightly churlish complaint, though, given the quality of what is on offer. The backing lends a suitably soulful swing to ‘Nina Simone’, while the more subtle brass already present on ‘East Of Woodstock, West Of Vietnam’ is expanded and amplified. The orchestra’s bombastic introduction almost manages to make even ‘Stealing Electricity’ a worthwhile inclusion. Almost.

‘St Olav’s Gate’, written and set in Oslo, is an inevitable inclusion and a good fit with an uptempo Halling arrangement, while the album closes with a surprising piece of magic in the form of ‘Jai Alai’. From Russell’s most recent studio album, Mesabi, the song is inspired by the dangerous squash-like game of Basque pelota. If the sport is an unlikely metaphor for love, it is still less obvious as a foil for a Swedish composer and his 24 brass and woodwind-toting fellow Scandinavians – but Tarjej Grimsby’s trombone solo exactly halfway through kicks the song into a different realm and is rightly applauded mid-song by the crowd.

If you’re not already on board with Russell, this may not be the most obvious starting point – and let’s face it, you have over 25 more conventional releases to choose from. But Russell completists, casual fans, or simply those who savour originality and experimentation in music should search out this excellent and unusual project.

Tom White

Aztec Jazz is out now.