My Flame Burns Blue is Elvis Costello's fourth record released on the classical label Deutsche Grammophon, and by now it should be clear that just because Elvis releases something on DG, it does not necessarily mean that the album itself is classical. That term may apply to For the Stars, his duet album with opera vocalist Anne Sofie Von Otter, as well as his orchestral piece Il Sogno (which is excerpted on a bonus CD attached to this release), but it doesn't apply to 2003's song cycle North, nor does it apply to My Flame Burns Blue, which is accurately described on his official website as "his first rock 'n' jazz album!" Evidently, Costello reserves his art projects for his albums on Deutsche Grammophon, of which My Flame Burns Blue is clearly one. As he says in his thorough liner notes (preparing those double-disc reissues apparently has unleashed the rock critic within), "this record may explain what I've been doing during the last twelve years when I haven't had an electric guitar in my hands...I've had the opportunity to work with a number of contrasting ensembles, from chamber group and jazz big band to symphony orchestra. Consequently, I had plenty of charts to consider for my concerts with the Metropole Orkest in the summer of 2004. The Metropole are the world's only full-time jazz orchestra with a string section."
Such an ensemble is ideal for a restless musician like Costello, who is eager to write in different idioms, or rearrange his old work in new ways, which is precisely what he did at the July 2004 concert at the North Sea Jazz Festival that is now captured on My Flame Burns Blue. He completely reworks "Clubland," which is now woozy and elastic, and "Watching the Detectives," which has been turned into "the style of a 1950s television theme." He expands but doesn't alter both "Almost Blue" and "God Give Me Strength," while reviving the David Bartholome number "That's How You Got Killed Before," which has been a standard in his repertoire since the mid-'80s. This makes for roughly a third of the album, with the rest of the set list containing reinterpretations of recent original material, songs he wrote for Von Otter and blues singer Charles Brown, plus Charles Mingus and Billy Strayhorn compositions that have been given new lyrics by Costello. It's an eclectic batch, veering from torchy ballads to rambunctious, sprawling jazz reminiscent of the Mingus Big Band, but it holds together well for two reasons. First, it's all anchored by the always remarkable Steve Nieve, whose piano is simultaneously fluid, florid, and tasteful, giving this a musical throughline that holds it steady throughout its twists and turns. But My Flame Burns Blue ultimately succeeds because of Costello, who has chosen his material wisely, sequenced it sharply, and has given it an enthusiastic reading that is arguably his richest live vocal work, rivaling that on the Costello & Nieve box set.
As good as this is, it is ultimately closer to a detour -- or perhaps a scenic drive -- than a major item in Costello's catalog. It's inspired and unexpected without quite being surprising, and that's because all the music here does have a natural antecedent somewhere within his catalog. What is noteworthy about My Flame Burns Blue is that Costello manages to tie all these seemingly disparate strands in his work into something that is not only cohesive, but explains an area of his work that hasn't necessarily been accurately documented on record before. But what really makes it a good record is that the performance is lively, energetic, and, yes, joyous, which means that even if this may be an art project, it's flat-out more entertaining than any album he's released since Painted from Memory.