Leon Russell, “On a Distant Shore” (Palmetto Records)
Leon Russell’s final album, “On a Distant Shore,” is a career highlight recorded over his last living year and released 10 months after his November 2016 passing.
Unlike, say, Roy Orbison, who hardly had time to appreciate his post-Traveling Wilburys resurgence, Russell could enjoy his newfound success. His return to the limelight — thanks to “The Union,” his 2010 collaboration with Elton John — offered him the chance to tour extensively and release new music in the following years.
According to his wife, Russell considered his last set of recordings his favorite. “On a Distant Shore” has similar feelings of finality as last year’s Leonard Cohen farewell, “You Want It Darker.”
“Sounds like a funeral for some person here,” Russell sings on the title track in his trademark trill. “And I might be the one.” Meanwhile, his daughters, Sugaree Noel Bridges and Coco Bridges, add some “dip do waddy waddy” backing vocals and the instrumental track validates the lyrics — “I hear the sound of violins /Is this how the story ends?/And I’m lost on a distant shore.”
Taking inspiration from the great American jazz and pop standards for the new tunes, Russell also reinterpreted three of his best-known songs — “This Masquerade,” ”Hummingbird” and “A Song for You” — with orchestral arrangements by Larry Hall.
Other high points include the bluesy “Black and Blue,” the epic “On the Waterfront” and “Love This Way,” which is easy to imagine sung by former Russell associate Joe Cocker.
Time will tell if any of these songs become standards or at least perennial favorites, but whatever distant shore he’s on, Leon Russell should be smiling proudly.