In the history of unlikely musical collaborations, there are few more improbable than Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach’s 1998 album Painted From Memory. But there’s little question the collaboration did much to reinvigorate both musicians. Costello got to explore his deepest pop ambitions, while Bacharach got a whole new audience to understand his songwriting talent (once it wasn’t buried behind a bunch of sappy lyrics about people who could make birds appear suddenly, which always reminds me of a certain Hitchcock movie).
Less well known is that there was a third collaborator on the project–the inventive jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. Costello and Bacharach sent demo tapes of their new songs to Frisell, who worked up small-group jazz arrangements of them. Frisell assembled a group and began recording The Sweetest Punch independent of (but simultaneous to) Painted From Memory.
While Painted From Memory was a pure, lush, 60s-style pop album, The Sweetest Punch is a thoroughly contemporary jazz session. Frisell and his group use intriguing instrumentation (when’s the last time you heard a clarinetist playing an Elvis Costello song?) and quirky harmonic arrangements to draw out some of the hidden possibilities in the Costello/Bacharach songs. For example, on Painted From Memory, “Such Unlikely Lovers” was a slick piece of filler. The version on Frisell’s album, though, is slinky, funky, and experimental, featuring a meaty guitar solo from Frisell himself. It segues into a nice, hung-over-sounding reading of “This House Is Empty Now.”
Costello himself appears on two of the album’s tracks, a lush reading of “Toledo” that plays up the song’s ambiguity (I’ve never been able to figure out who’s leaving who, and I’m sure Elvis wants it that way) and a brilliant (if brief) duet of “I Still Have That Other Girl” with Cassandra Wilson. Wilson also sings “Painted From Memory” accompanied only by Frisell’s acoustic arch-top guitar, but her reading is a little too reserved and detached for my tastes–it almost makes the song sound a little thin. A little bass and some tasty brushwork would have helped here, I think.
Track by track through the rest of the album: Frisell chose to open with the title track, which was Painted From Memory‘s most buoyant moment, filled with chimes and strings and some strong, emotional singing from Costello. Here Frisell and his group give it a fairly straight, laid-back reading.
Altoist Billy Drewes does some nice work on “What’s Her Name Today?” that, at times, reminded me a little of Arthur Blythe in his poppier, mellower moments.
“In The Darkest Place” opened Painted From Memory, but here its despair is magnified with creepy quiet guitar work until some glorious ensemble writing closes things off.
“Vamp Dolce” is the only non-Costello/Bacharach composition on the album. It has some nice late-Miles-Davis-ish trumpet work from Ron Miles but otherwise was probably unnecessary.
I was uncertain how “My Thief,” the most blatantly old-school tune on Painted From Memory, would translate to this format. Don Byron plays the melody on clarinet, and he plays it pretty straight, accompanied only by Frisell’s guitar. This was a wise choice. The major/minor shifting melody is gorgeous, and Frisell’s accompaniment provides just enough counterpoint. I would’ve liked to hear the chorus more than once, though.
Frisell reprises “Painted From Memory,” this time in a more upbeat fashion with Drewes playing melody and Miles riffing some nice counterpoint. “The Long Division” is a trio track with Frisell accompanied by bassist Viktor Krauss and drummer Brian Blade. It was a boring track on Painted and not even Frisell’s best Wes Montgomery impersonation can save it here.
“Tears At The Birthday Party” is perhaps the easiest song from Painted to imagine as a jazz tune, and Frisell’s bluesy, swinging arrangement captures it well. The switch from swung to straight 8th notes at the chorus is a bit unexpected and jarring, but it works in the context of the song. “I Still Have That Other Girl” also appears again, this time in a more “out” version that plays off the song’s clashing opening chords. Byron plays a nice clarinet solo here.
Both Painted From Memory and The Sweetest Punch close the same way: with “God Give Me Strength.” The song was used to good effect in Allison Anders’ movie/Brill Bulding homage Grace of My Heart. Here Frisell gives the song a Creed Taylorish twist, tossing a bouquet to Bacharach as well with his use of clipped flugelhorn notes from Ron Miles. It’s nice, but this was the song where I most missed Costello’s voice–his performance on Painted was nothing short of virtuoso.
All in all, The Sweetest Punch makes a nice companion piece to Painted From Memory, though you can certainly appreciate one without the other. I would’ve liked to hear some more soloing from the great ensemble Frisell put together–his are the only extended solos on the album, and there’s only two of them. But it’s a small quibble. Even though The Sweetest Punch is now five years old, it’s still in print and it’s still worth your consideration.