Where to place Leon Russell these days? How to place him…though he wrote some wonderful songs he’s been off the radio for some time. And yes there were some wonderful records under his name but history will probably best remember him as an arranger, band-leader, sideman – it’s his contributions to so many records outside of his own that really made his name right? And a whole generation has grown up now without him – unless they dug through second-hand stores.
In 2010 Elton John made an album with Russell, it was duets, but was essentially a fan-letter from Elton. It wasn’t great, but we can see the real value in that album now that we have this, new work from Leon Russell, a couple of originals and him working his way through a bunch of evergreens; staples from the American songbook that so clearly informed his very best work.
Hearing him sing I Really Miss You and That Lucky Old Sun and – of course – Georgia On My Mind it’s as if he’s aiming for the middle ground between Ray Charles and Willie Nelson, or it’s Willie-does-Ray and just a little bit of Dr. John on the side. It’s that lived-in, weathered, treasurable voice. But it’s the arrangements here – and the story inside these songs, and it’s the way Russell can still create magic in his pretty-much inimitable way. The proof here is finding a use for a Billy Joel song – his New York State of Mind should be signed over to Russell; he owns it now. Better than that he’s made it more than tolerable – gorgeous band charts frame so many of these versions and NY State of Mind just whistles along lovely/lovingly under Leon’s stewardship.
At some point in the future we’ll miss him. Obviously. But I’m really glad this record came along. It’s lovely.