In comfortable collaboration with jazz legend Marian McPartland, “At Last” is brought beautifully back to its roots

JORGE FARAH: I’ve always wanted Elvis Costello to record a standards album. I say this with the sad knowledge that this will probably never happen. Though it’s probably futile to attempt to guess the direction of his career, it just doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing that would entice the creatively restless Costello at this point. Not only that, but such a move would likely invite comparisons to Rod Stewart’s Great American Songbook Collection. Stewart’s early-aughts string of standards albums, though huge commercial successes, represented a gaudy, inelegant cash grab meant to capitalize on Baby Boomer nostalgia, adding nothing of real value to a set of inarguably great songs, featuring overly slick and plasticky production and delivered with all the lust-for-life of a tax auditor letting loose on karaoke night. The inescapable mall-pop ubiquity of those albums pretty much slammed the door on the possibility of ever getting a similar collection from EC, in my estimation. And this is a real shame, because not only is Elvis a more interesting interpreter of song than Stewart ever was, but the Great American Songbook is also a fundamental part of his musical DNA: his father was a bebop trumpeter turned dance-band singer, his mother ran a record store and had an encyclopedic knowledge of the music on the shelves; together, they ran jazz clubs on the Merseyside in the 1950s, and made sure their household was always filled with the sounds of the greats. This had a huge effect on EC’s musical development, which was already coming through in his very earliest work.

World-renowned jazz pianist Marian McPartland accompanies Costello on the piano, both clearly enjoying themselves

The closest thing to an Elvis Costello standards album that we’re likely to get is his 2003 appearance on the legendary musician-turned-radio host Marian McPartland’s long-running NPR show Piano Jazz, which was thankfully released as a CD (and can also be streamed on Spotify; do yourselves a favor and seek it out). The set includes the entire interview as well as eight songs: two Costello originals (“Almost Blue” and “I’m In the Mood Again”) and six standards. McPartland, a world-renowned jazz pianist with an impressive career behind her, accompanies Costello on the piano for six of the eight songs. The conversation is comfortable and placid, with the interviewer/interviewee dynamic shifting back and forth into musical collaborator territory; McPartland is clearly tickled by this rock-and-roller’s breadth of knowledge and affection for this music, and Elvis is happy to have someone with such a career to talk shop with. The musical performances are similarly comfortable, with both parties (with the occasional participation of bassist Gary Mazzaroppi) clearly enjoying themselves as they work through these classics.

Etta was bursting with the joy of newfound love. Elvis is sighing dreamily at it

To me, the highlight of this set is Elvis and Marian’s version of “At Last.” Yes, that “At Last”: Written by Mack Gordon and Henry Warren, most famously sung by Etta James in a stirring, iconic r&b arrangement in the early sixties. The choice is a bold one, considering the song’s status in the popular music pantheon as practically synonymous with Etta herself. But it’s also quite an inspired selection; Elvis and Marian work out a quiet, understated arrangement that is no less thrilling than the cathartic, slow-dance belter it’s most famously remembered as. The choice also ties together with Elvis’s musical upbringing, since his father Ross MacManus sang it on a 1958 recording by Joe Loss, six years after Ray Anthony’s version was a top-ten hit, two years before Etta James redefined the song in the public imagination as a soul ballad. The version that Elvis’s father sang stuck fairly close to the original Glenn Miller track recorded for the 1942 film Orchestra Wives; a brassy, after-hours showtune ballad, not unlike Green/Heyman’s “I Cover the Waterfront” or Cole Porter’s “So In Love.” Marian and Elvis stripped it back further, with her spacious, economical yet richly melodic piano laying the foundation for one of Elvis’s smoothest and most confident vocal performances. Together, they highlight an entirely new side to the song. While Etta James was bursting with the joy of newfound love, Elvis is sighing dreamily at it.

I can only imagine what this performance means now, after the passing of both his father and McPartland

Though this is Elvis’s first officially released recording of the song, he had performed it once before, several years earlier, as a duet with his father. He included his father’s recording with the Joe Loss Orchestra as one of his picks for the BBC Radio program Desert Island Discs because, “I wanted to have my dad’s voice with me.” I can only imagine what this particular version means now, all these years later, after the passing of both his father and McPartland herself. Perhaps that has something to do with why we probably won’t get an Elvis Costello standards album: perhaps packaging these songs as a collection and putting them through the marketing machine for to the adult contemporary crowd would feel inappropriate for something so personally significant. We should count ourselves lucky to get the few scattered nuggets we have—the prohibition-era arrangement of “It Had to Be You” he did for Boardwalk Empire, 1978 version of “My Funny Valentine,” the duet of “They Can’t Take That Away” with Tony Bennett. They feel more special that way.

McPartland with Mary Lou Williams and Thelonious Monk

McPartland with Mary Lou Williams and Thelonious Monk

KEVIN DAVIS: Like Jorge, my fondness for Elvis Costello’s interpretations of popular standards is disproportionate to how much of his recorded output they actually account for. He always just seemed to have a knack for how to phrase them; from his 1978 version of “My Funny Valentine,” his off-the-cuff 1981 readings of “Gloomy Sunday” and “Love For Sale,” his take on “The Very Thought of You” from Kojak Variety—not only do these performances seem to just extend naturally from him, they give away how much of his own music over the years has been inspired by this era of songwriting.

This works as a tribute to Diana Krall and an homage to his father

I don’t know if the timing of Costello’s appearance on McPartland’s show was just fortuitous or if he deliberately arranged the performance as a sort of logical extension of the stuff he was working on at the time, but coming smack dab in the middle of the sessions for 2003’s North really does lend Costello’s Piano Jazz recording an air of natural ease. North really finds Costello mastering the way this type of late-night balladry works best for his voice; he admits during one of the interview segments with McPartland that his vibrato can sometimes get a little heavy-handed, and this was the point in his career where he really learned to bend it to his will. 2003 was also the year that Costello married jazz pianist Diana Krall, so it’s probably pretty safe to assume that this music was fresh on his artistic conscience in ways that it may not have been in years. The performance bears it out: The songs come across as effortlessly genuine, both as a tribute to the woman soon to become his wife, as well as an homage to his father and the impact this music had on him growing up.

“At Last,” no question, is one of the finest performances on the disc; the first time I heard it, it wasn’t until halfway or so through the song that it even registered with me that it was the same song as the Etta James soul ballad that I’d heard used in so many of my friends’ engagement videos. The warm, sympathetic interplay between Costello’s vocal performance, which in places barely rises above a whisper, and McPartland’s nimble, light-fingered accompaniment is magical; she hits on harmonic concepts that Steve Nieve and certainly Elvis himself do not, and the chords wrap Elvis’s voice in a sweetly nostalgic glow. Mazzaroppi walks unobtrusively in the background, giving McPartland’s right hand some steady footing.

My one complaint about the McPartland session is that it ends too soon

My one complaint about the McPartland session is that it ends too soon. It’s a shame these two musicians who seemed to have such a natural, friendly rapport didn’t get the opportunity to do this a few more times, to add another couple dozen of these tunes to Costello’s standards repertoire. As Jorge says, the recording that we have stands as extra special as a result – a document of two disparate talents finding a common ground and milking it for all its worth for three quarters of an hour.

Elvis Costello doing a jazz duet on a big-band standard most of us first heard as a soul ballad? A stroll through our ongoing Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist will remind you that you shouldn’t be surprised at all . . .