Recording information: Capitol Studios; Capitol Studios, Hollywood, CA; Electric Lady Studios, New York, NY; HM Studios, New York, NY.
Photographer: Ryan Roth.
Prior to his Elton John-endorsed career resurrection via the 2010 duet album The Union, Leon Russell cranked out self-released oddities to little notice. Once The Union again made Russell a draw, there was little chance that he would revive his MIDI keyboards, and Life Journey indeed stays far, far away from those cramped, tinny settings, preferring to revive the loose-limbed, woolly Tulsan rock & roll that made his reputation. Working with Tommy LiPuma -- a veteran producer who had never recorded with Russell but who helmed many successful jazz sessions, including George Benson's Grammy-winning Breezin' -- Russell primarily sticks to standards, whether they're by Robert Johnson, Hoagy Carmichael, or Billy Joel, and that's how it should be. Although he's a fine songwriter, as evidenced here by his two originals -- "Big Lips" and "Down in Dixieland," raucous numbers both -- Russell is a stylist, bending songs to fit his swinging piano and slow drawl. He may occasionally follow a straight line with a ballad but he knows how to draw out the phrases on "That Lucky Old Sun," finding an unexpected contour in familiar melody, and he finds funk in "Come On in My Kitchen" while tearing up "Fever" and leaving "New York State of Mind" as a splashy big-band celebration of the Big Apple. This small list suggests how Life Journey touches upon much of the music Russell has sung over the years -- it's heavy on R&B, blues, jazz, and swing, but strangely lacking in much country -- and LiPuma is a perfect match for this celebratory approach. Where The Union occasionally veered toward the austere, Life Journey is robust and soulful, emphasizing the raggedness of Russell's voice and smooth boogie in his playing. It's a joyous thing to hear, a record that recaptures much of the magic of Leon's Shelter records without being fussy. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine