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Stop All That Jazz
Leon Russell

Shelter SR-2108
Released: May 1974
Chart Peak: #34
Weeks Charted: 16

Leon RussellThose who visit the Leon Russell empire at Disney, Oklahoma, and do not succumb to Russell's dark magnetism come away muttering about mind games and mass manipulation and even "rock evangelism." Rita Coolidge, I know, was glad to pull herself away from the Russell influence. I have seen rock audiences who could not resist his control begin behaving just the way I have seen audiences react to another Oklahoma performer, Oral Roberts. Both Roberts and Russell offer a form of salvation and, importantly, both men appear to have been tamed by success, which led in both cases to a quest for respectability. That quest, in turn, has drastically altered both men's work: Roberts becomes a southwestern Billy Graham and Russell becomes musically schizoid.

Russell seldom alludes to his evangelical side, but drops a few lines in his adaptation of "If I Were a Carpenter" on this album:

I get so mean sometimes
When the spirit's on me
Think I'll think I'm Jesus
Out buildin' crosses

Leon Russell - Stop All That Jazz
Original album advertising art.
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All of the above has everything to do, and nothing to do, with Russell's music, since his life is his music and vice versa and neither has been particularly illuminating.

The last time he granted a lengthy interview, Russell mentioned that he enjoyed making people wonder about him, speculate and ponder his actions and motives, and his career suggests that he works overtime at inspiring that wonder. It's difficult to imagine, in an industry often predicated on aberrations, a stranger musical history: Okie greaser makes good by being odd. Along the way, he has remained an enigma, masking himself first as a pompadoured sessionman, then as the mysterious Master of Time and Space, and lately as C&W songster Hank Wilson.

When he was working sessions in Los Angeles and arranging songs for the Ronettes and the Crystals and writing hit for Gary Lewis and the Playboys, no one would have predicted that this surly guitarist and pianist would one day parlay a secondhand knowledge of gospel music, a firsthand experience of hit-making, and a cosmic aura into a brilliant -- for a time -- rock career. Even the Asylum Choir gave no hint of a budding superstar, perhaps because it is not in Russell's nature to be just a collaborator.

Once he emerged from seclusion in his Skyhill Road studio in Los Angeles with a firm purpose in his mind, however, Russell's rise to prominence was hypersonic. He seemed to be everywhere. His excellent sessionwork on the first Delaney and Bonnie album was a modest beginning, leading to sessions with Joe Cocker and, ultimately, with Eric Clapton and the Stones. He was just weird enough, talented enough and pushy enough to accomplish what he wanted. With disarming ease, he transformed Mad Dogs and Englishmen into a showcase and giant stepping stone for Leon Russell. Still, he remained a mystery, a nonplus in a top hat and Holy Trinity shirt. Later, he would achieve longtime ambitions by producing Bob Dylan ("Watching the River Flow"/"When I Paint My Masterpiece") and by filming a documentary of himself.

Both ventures were critical failures, and other such disappointments are stacking up for Russell. The catalog of Shelter, his record label, is not impressive and Freddie King, the biggest Shelter seller after Russell, has just defected to RSO Records. Russell's live album last year was dismal and his Hank Wilson experiment seems abandoned, at least temporarily, although yet another film of that is underway.

When Russell was still a solid rocker, his music revealed nothing, except that he found it as easy to write a particular brand of flamboyant gospel-based rock for himself as it was to write hits for Gary Lewis. His albums, up through Carney, were deftly original, satisfying works, and his tendency for musical satire (a satire in itself) was evident and very effective in ballads and rockers from "My Cricket" to "Roller Derby."

It's easy now to tell that his introduction of the unexpected element has all along been the key to his success, lyrically, musically and personally. It's also easy -- and painful -- to understand that his notion of the unexpected is no longer effective, especially now that popular music is the proving ground for every imaginable experiment.

Stop All That Jazz -- the title is a parody that doesn't work -- is an awkward pastiche of substanceless songs and attempts at jazz that just fall flat. In an interview, Russell once said of Dylan that he "was making musical constructions that were far beneath his actual awareness, just so they could be assimilated by a lot of people." If that is not what Russell himself is attempting here, then his is a sad, sad failure of an album, a schizophrenic display. His attempts at brassy jazz -- especially "Mona Lisa Please" -- are such direct copies of Ray Charles that I know he's been memorizing Charles's Genius Plus Soul Equals Jazz.

Excesses here pile up on one another like derailed train cars: "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" is an embarrassing Isaac Hayes emulation that must burn Dylan's ears; "Spanish Harlem" is cocktail reggae; "If I Were a Carpenter" is so bad that I hope it's a parody, although I fear it's not; Mose Allison's "Smashed" is delivered as froth; "Streaker's Ball" is nonsense. The only bright spots are "Leaving Whipporwhill" (which, unhappily, borrows its structure "Roller Derby") and isolated moments of other songs.

Even when Russell is bad, there's still enough going on occasionally that it's not a disaster. This aimless noodling, however, is not what you expect form an acknowledged major rock artist. His jazz is even less convincing than his C&W, and half-a-dozen close listenings to Stop All That Jazz produce a mental numbness that convinces me, at least, that Russell shouldn't be taken seriously again until he puts honest effort into a release. It's been almost two years since Carney, since the last time Russell had something original to say, and it increasingly appears that he's simply throwing anything he can find into the gap and hoping that the gullible public will pay inflated prices for a deflated product.

- Chet Flippo, Rolling Stone, 8/1/74.

Bonus Reviews!

Leon is back with what is basically his first new LP in two years, following a live set and a country album under the name of Hank Wilson, and for the most part, it's the same Leon Russell that has made him such a monumental star over the past five years. Taking a Tim Hardin or a Bob Dylan cut and rearranging it to his personal style or handling some of the fine originals he has put together for the set, Russell's distinctive voice and piano remain the highlight of the album. An instrumental adds some more depth to the set. All in all, this is a very fine return for one of the few true superstars in American pop music, and one that should prove another monumental seller for him. Best cuts: "If I Were a Carpenter," "Streaker's Ball," "Working Girl," "The Ballad of Hollis Brown."

- Billboard, 1974.

The bad jokes start with the cover, which depicts Leon in a cannibal stewpot, the joke being that since he's not even tasty any more why would they bother? (Oo-ee). Leon's version of "If I Were a Carpenter" has a part about rock stars and groupies that is even dumber than the original. (Stop, my sides are splitting.) And the title is a sly reference to the horn riffs which are the only music on this record I ever want to hear again. (Stop anyway.) D+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

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