Review Archive

‘Aztec Jazz’ from Tom Russell - recorded live - destined to become a classic

(June 20, 2013)

There are album titles that convey exactly what you get, others mislead often deliberately, while some leave you wondering. The latest album ‘Aztec Jazz’ from renowned American songwriter Tom Russell Aztec Jazzdoes the latter. Although, that reference is probably better called ‘wonderment’ rather than ‘wondering’ because ‘Aztec Jazz’ is a striking live performance with guitarist Thad Beckman and the Norwegian Wind Ensemble. This is full-blooded Americana – for sure, there is some jazz mixed in there, along with some classical and country - all knitted together by some stunning songwriting.

Behind the intensely powerful vocals of the lone performer the Norwegian Wind Ensemble, deliver arrangements by Swedish composer Mats Halling, with trumpets, trombones, saxophones, French horns, trombones and flutes along with drums and percussion they add richness to Tom’s impassioned songs. These stories are based on personal encounters and events garnered from a widely-lived life – he turns experience into narrative and takes you with him on the journey.

From the haunting sadness of ‘Nina Simone’ with its raw, laid-bare emotion, through the wide-ranging incongruity of Africa within ‘East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam’ complete with intense narrative and precise guitar, to the quiet contemplation of ‘Goodnight Juarez’ – these songs share and expound an essential themes of life. These are stories of living through days that sear themselves into memory – delivered poignantly to allow Tom’s listeners to share their episodes. The faintly terrifying accounts of living in locations from Nigeria to Canada within ‘Criminology’ are turned with a jazzy melody, sharp lyric and enthusiastic delivery – and yes Tom does have a Master’s degree in criminology – a song that pretty much sums up its subject; while the toughness of ‘Stealing Electricity’ is given a similar lilt to emphasise its message.

For me, two of Tom’s previous albums Blood and Candle Smoke and Mesabi remain constants on a list of all-time favourites (well, my all-time list anyway). Now with ‘Aztec Jazz’ recorded live in Halden, Norway in May of 2012, I have another to add to the list. This album will become a classic – no doubt about it. You’ll find it on Proper Records with a UK release date of 1 July 2013.

Reviewer: Tim Carroll

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