After Leon Russell’s successful 2010 duet album with Elton John (“The Union”), big labels were suddenly knocking again on the Oklahoma-born singer/songwriter/pianist’s door. But they wanted him to do something he’d never done: use a producer.
So Russell recruited Tommy LiPuma, one-time principal at Blue Thumb Records, the late 1960s/early ’70s album-oriented independent rock ‘n’ roll label whose roster included Captain Beefheart, Albert Collins, Earl Hooker, Dave Mason, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks and the Crusaders. The two had never worked together, but LiPuma had produced George Benson’s 1976 cover of Russell’s “This Masquerade” (No. 3, Billboard R&B singles; No. 6, adult contemporary; No. 10, Hot 100).
LiPuma granted Russell carte blanche to play whatever he liked. As the album progressed, Russell realized it was shaping up as standards he’d either done in session or solo work, or had always wanted to do — “a record of my musical journey through this life,” as he relates in the liner notes.
Rod Stewart’s “Great American Songbook” it ain’t. From the down-to-earth reading of Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen” (featuring former band member Chris Simmons’ rollicking slide-guitar work) to the simmered-in-strings slow blues/jazz of “The Masquerade Is Over,” Russell is clearly having a ball jumping from genre to genre.
A pair of unexpected tunes turn out to be worthy: Paul Anka’s “I Really Miss You,” first heard as an Anka-Russell collaboration on Anka’s 2013 “Duets,” here featuring pedal-steel player extraordinaire Greg Leisz; and Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” one of three tunes with L.A.’s Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.
Only two songs are Russell compositions: “Big Lips” and “Down in Dixieland,” earlier versions of which are found on his 2008 “In Your Dreams.”
• “Georgia on My Mind,” a reciprocation of Ray Charles’ cover of Russell’s “A Song for You.”
• “Fever,” tweaked into a jump-gospel version and again featuring Simmons’ exquisite slide.
• “That Lucky Old Sun,” a prior rendition of which appeared on Russell’s 2002 “Moonlight & Love Songs,” but here showcasing the heavenly sound of pedal steel (Leisz) and Hammond B3 organ (sideman supreme Larry Goldings) in tandem.
1. Come On In My Kitchen
2. Big Lips
3. Georgia On My Mind
4. That Lucky Old Sun
6. Think Of Me
7. I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good
8. The Masquerade Is Over
9. I Really Miss You
10. New York State Of Mind
11. Fool’s Paradise
12. Down In Dixieland
Total time: 47:34