After a five-decade career as a master songwriter, performer and session player for acts including Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys, Leon Russell had largely faded into obscurity before collaborating with Elton John on 2010's The Union. John urged Russell to keep the momentum going with Life Journey (out April 1st), a new album featuring several standards, including material by Robert Johnson, Hoagy Carmichael and Billy Joel. "This is a record of my musical journey through this life," Russell writes in the liner notes. "It reflects pieces of things that I have done and things I never did."
While starting of the project, John urged Russell to work with a producer; he chose Tommy LiPuma (Miles Davis, Paul McCartney), his friend of 45 years. Russell remembers the duo working on O'Jay's sessions together. "I've worked with a lot of producers and I have to say, there's a lot of bullshit going on in that department, and that is not the case with him," Russell tells Rolling Stone with a laugh. "He's the best producer I've ever met in my life. And it's not like me to say that."
The two spent days talking about music; at one meeting, Russell sat at the piano and played his favorite songs including Robert Johnson's "Come on in My Kitchen" (which he discovered via friend Eric Clapton) and Carmichael's "Georgia on my Mind." At Hollywood's Capitol Studios, they cut "Come on in My Kitchen" with a small crew including bassist Willie Weeks and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. while the producer urged Russell to record other tracks with both big-band and Dixieland jazz bands. "I'm kind of an illusionist," Russell says, admitting he was nervous at the idea. "I'm kind of an actor of sorts. I don't consider myself to be in the same league with those guys, so I was little bit rattled."
It paid off. "Georgia on My Mind" begins as a spare, soulful serenade before L.A.'s Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra enter with mind-blowing string arrangement. "I just happened to mention all my life, really, as I played piano, a lot of of the ensembles I was playing on, I was imagining Count Basie's horn section. I was playing the horn section between melodies, so Tommy showed up with Count Basie's bass player." The band augment Russell's loose, bluesy barroom swagger on classics like Haven Gilespie and Beasley Smith's "That Lucky Old Sun" Duke Ellington's "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" and even Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind." "I was pretty much unaware of that song," Russell says.
Russell is excited to take the LP on the road, which he might play with a full string section live. "The charts are not written for a call band in Cleveland – they're difficult," Russell says. "It can't be rehearsed the day of the show."
Russell has had several health scares in recent years and writes, "I'm [nearing] the final exit of my journey," in the liner notes, but he insists he's feeling good nowadays. "I'm 71 and I can still walk. I've got bad foot problems, so I try not to walk more than 50 feet because its very painful for me to stand up and walk. But it beats the alternative, I guess."