Since his first appearance 25 years ago, Elvis Costello has cobbled out an exemplary career. He is a musician who is unafraid to follow his enthusiasms, which have ranged from country to chamber music, collaborating with George Jones, Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney, the Brodsky Quartet and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter and others. Named as the first artist-in-residence at UCLA, he kicked off this year’s UCLA Live season by joining forces with the Charles Mingus Orchestra. He can now add jazz singer to his already long and impressive resume.
The late bassist and composer, matching the compositional elegance of Duke Ellington with the fervor of Charlie Parker and the spiritual hunger of John Coltrane, is a typically gutsy choice for Costello. Joni Mitchell got caught in the thickets of his genius on her 1979 album “Mingus”; two decades after his death, his emotionally accessible music is still thorny and uncompromising.
Costello is a more compatible match for Mingus, and the two-hour program mixed Mingus compositions (with lyrics by Costello) with versions of Costello’s own songs rearranged for the orchestra. There were some opening night jitters: The 12-piece orchestra sounded a little stiff and tentative during its opening instrumental, “Myself When I Am Real,” and Costello, whose early vocals seemed rushed, lost his place during “Clubland.”
The band loosened up with a jaunty “Jelly Roll,” and Costello settled down on the twisty “Self Portrait in Three Colors.” By the end of the 50-minute first set — Costello and Bill Frisell’s jazzy, Cole Porter-esque “Upon a Veil of Midnight Blue” (originally written for Charles Brown) and Mingus’ stunning “Invisible Lady” — Costello and the orchestra found their footing and were playing off one another beautifully.
The momentum continued during the second set, which started with Costello’s brassy “Chewing Gum” (originally performed with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band) and the orchestra taking charge on Mingus’ “Chill of Death” and “Haitian Fight Song.” Both songs (and “Slop,” performed later in the set) let the band stretch out, giving Alex Foster on alto sax, Conrad Herwig on trombone, Alex Sipiagin on trumpet, Dave Kikoski on piano and drummer Jonathan Blake a chance to shine.
Costello was a modest, self-deprecating host, sitting on the side of the stage, nodding his head during the instrumental passages. Never the most supple of singers, he has the songwriter’s knack of knowing how to deliver a lyric for maximum impact. But his lyrics and melodies often tried to match the Mingus band’s sprawling musical reach, an admirable, if not to say Olympian ambition (he joked that Mingus’ often whimsical song titles such as “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid Too” and “This Subdues My Passion” lent themselves to lyrics), leading to songs where he strained to keep up with the music, his voice overtaxed by the cascades of lyrics, couplets coupled like train cars, robbing both the singer and song of space to breathe.
“Weird Nightmare” (originally recorded for the Hal Wilner-produced Mingus tribute album) and “Edith and the Kingpin” found him in a more restrained and effective mode.
The encore saved the best for last. An arrangement of Costello’s “Watching the Detectives,” with the saxes reworking the song’s stuttering guitar riff, sounded like it could have been included on such classic albums as “Mingus Ah Um.” And the final number, Mingus’ “Hora Decubitus,” with lyrics recently written by Costello, ended the evening with Costello passionately repeating “Life is a wonderful thing.” Evenings such as this reinforce that sentiment.
Imperfect as it was, this night of brave and passionate music was wonderful and life affirming.