Upon the completion of his final album On a Distant Shore, the legendary Leon Russell would express to his producer Mark Lambert that it ranked as his favorite career project. Considering the scope of his work, from his revered solo albums to his productions for Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker and others, that spoke volumes about Russell's always-be-improving philosophy and persistent work ethic.
Russell, a prolific songwriter/musician for 50 years, died last November at age 74, not long after finishing On a Distant Shore. The album, featuring a number of originals along with reworked versions of three Russell standards, will be released September 29th. The bulk of the original tracks were influenced by Russell's love of the Great American Songbook and are beautifully enhanced by stirring string and horn arrangements.
"Leon told me that he really enjoyed working on this project," recalls Lambert. "He loved the guy who did the string and horn arrangements, Larry Hall. He said it inspired him day-to-day. Even though he was working the road a lot when we started this in late 2015, he was always anxious to get into the studio. It was one of those projects where everything just seemed to fall together. A lot of times, he would have a complete song figured out. Then there were days where he would come in with something he had written the night before. He had not even played them on the piano yet, but he had it all worked out in his head."
Russell suffered from a series of health problems in the last few years of his life. But through all the discomfort, his understated humor and get-after-it enthusiasm never faltered. "He had a heart attack in July," Lambert notes, "and he never really came through it that strong. But even like six or eight days after he got home, he was listening to mixes. During the whole recording of the album, he was great to work with. A lot of people don't know this, but he was really funny. Leon always enjoyed getting off a witty remark. But he never offended anyone, certainly not intentionally."
The familiar scratchy voice is still plainly evident on the album, with a certain robust quality that somewhat belies his age. There's undeniable poignancy on the title track, which Lambert describes as "an odd dichotomy" between lyric and melody. "The lyric is really sad but the music is happy," he points out. "I don't know that he was thinking about his health or anything like that. I just think that loss was more of a general subject he wrote about. 'A Song for You,' which is on the album, also has a poignancy to it and talks about lost love."
For raw R&B-flavored soul, Russell is veritably belting on "Love This Way," a horn-filled trip mindful of much of his earliest work in the 1970s. But that wasn't necessarily the intention.
"Leon originally thought it would be a banjo song," Lambert recounts. "He loved bluegrass music, of course. It didn't exactly turn out that way, though. We laughed about that afterward. But that song is more like what you would expect from Leon. It really jumps out at you. I think it's a perfect introduction to the record."
On a Distant Shore is out September 29th.