Tom Russell‘s never been one to shy away from a bold move, a sideways step, a novel way to showcase his fine song writing skills. Whether it’s a cowboy themed album, a celebration of Charles Bukowski or a “folk opera” detailing his ancestors’ journey to America. Aztec Jazz may be his boldest yet, a live album recorded in Norway with a 32 piece wind ensemble and guitarist Thad Beckman featuring for the most part songs from his previous two releases, the Calexico backed Blood and Candle Smoke and Mesabi. Living in El Paso Russell was increasingly influenced by Mexican sounds on these albums and it’s tempting to think that the Norwegian Wind Ensemble who back him here were considered to be some equivalent to Calexico. Unfortunately that’s not the case and the album suffers somewhat from the arrangements which can seem at times overblown and occasionally syrupy. It’s a pity that Beckman’s guitar appears to play second fiddle to the strings as on the moments when he appears his strings do have that border feel.
Having said that Russell’s songs are strong enough to survive any amount of basting and his delivery is excellent throughout as he sings with his usual passion. While Guadalupe cries out for a flyblown cantina sound which the Norwegians can’t approximate and Russell’s autobiographical African tale Criminology has just too many horns parping there are some moments to savour. Nina Simone finds the Wind Ensemble in moody cinematic mode and perfectly balanced with Russell and the song. East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam makes full use of their percussion while the wind instruments do conjure up a south western vista that is widescreen and evocative.
Obviously this was a one off occasion and Russell fans will be glad of the opportunity to hear it. As an introduction to his work however it might give the wrong impression and the advice would be to grab Blood and Candle Smoke to hear most of these songs in their original glory.