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Discs

>Soul

Cat Power

The Greatest

[Matador]

Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)

The queen of indie-pop gloom and doom comes clean on "The Greatest," which finds Cat Power -- aka Chan Marshall -- digging deep in the loam of Memphis soul and unearthing a masterpiece.

Marshall has long been known for playing outside the box, avoiding the unity and cohesion that marks great pop music, as if she was more interested in exploring the dark corners of the Velvet Underground's arty self-implosions than making a record that sounded and felt finished. "The Greatest" finds her abandoning such conceits, and as a result, it's not only Marshall's best work, but also one of the strongest albums yet created by a child of the '90s.

Marshall tracked the album at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis, birthplace of the cult classic "Third/Sister Lovers," Big Star's beautiful bummer. She also enlisted guitarist Teenie Hodges and bassist Leroy Hodges, the pair responsible for elevating Al Green's soul masterworks toward the sublime. Booker T and the MGs drummer Steve Potts rounds out the core band on the record. Marshall hand-picked an all-star band, to be sure, and these players are at least partly responsible for the true soul genius of the record, which rivals "Dusty in Memphis" as one of the finest Southern soul records ever laid to tape.

Don't worry, though. If you liked Marshall the way she was -- dark, brooding, depressed, and yet somehow bent on celebrating that fact -- you won't find "The Greatest" off-putting. Take the title tune, for example; a musty, dimly lit piano begins the proceedings, and a subtle string arrangement wraps itself around Marshall's heartbreaking melody like cotton-wool heat. It's recognizable as Cat Power, but clearly Marshall has moved up a few pegs. This doesn't sound like an alternative musician dabbling in Memphis soul; it sounds like the real deal, an organic marriage of performance and vision. That, three songs later, Marshall can be equally as convincing on the comparatively upbeat, horn-driven "Could We," bears out the record's promise.

"The Greatest" marks Cat Power's arrival in the big leagues.

-- Jeff Miers

***

>Jazz

Sidney Bechet

Mosaic Select 22

[Mosaic]

Gerry Mulligan

Mosaic Select 21

[Mosaic]

Both Review: 4 stars

Absolute heaven in a box (or at least the jazz version of heaven). In fact, here are two boxes that the most enlightened jazz hard-cores will find as superb and delicious as any three-disc set to come out in a very long time.

In a record business in long transition, Mosaic Records figured out long ago that jazz's most enlightened core listeners would have to supplement their prowls through record stores if they expected to find some of the greatest reissue collections in jazz (Mosaic's releases are available only by mail from Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06902 or on the Web at www.mosaicrecords.com).

These three-disc sets couldn't be more terrific if they tried. Only 5,000 of each were made, which makes them that much rarer. The Bechet box presents one of the two greatest masters of New Orleans jazz (the other, of course, is the far more famous and more amiable Louis Armstrong) in all of his greatest appearances on Columbia and allied labels. What that means is that the great clarinetist and soprano saxophonist is heard from 1923 to 1925 (when he was on fire), from 1937 to '38 (when, single-handedly, he justified any ensemble he was in, large or small) and from 1947 (when he acquired an acolyte in the great player Bob Wilber, who wrote these terrific disc notes).

Bechet's huge tone and impassioned vibrato have certainly been imitated but never equaled or even close. This is classic jazz at its most expressive and primal and joyous.

The three Mulligan discs collected on Mosaic Select 21 are those that Mulligan's first cadre of fans know to be among the greatest -- his 1957-59 reunions with Chet Baker, the extraordinary bopsiland fiesta "Gerry Mulligan Songbook Vol. 1" with Basie stalwart Freddie Greene and its dream saxophone section including Allen Eager, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Lee Konitz and "Annie Ross Sings a Song of Mulligan," as genial a vocal/instrumental meeting as happened in its time. For good measure, there's the extreme rarity of 1957 Mulligan with Strings, which was never released at the time but is delightful.

For anyone who ever wondered why people love jazz so much, these boxes provide ample explanation.

-- Jeff Simon

***

>Classical

The Yale Cellos

Cello, Celli: Twenty Cellos Play Bach and Brubeck

[Naxos]

Review: 4 stars

The Dave Brubeck creations on this warm, glowing disc reflect the Brubeck we in Buffalo have gotten to know on his visits to St. Joseph University Church. The music is deeply religious -- but, somehow, radiates light and life. "God's Love Made Visible," which Brubeck originally wrote for mariachi band, calls to mind Brubeck the jazzman, while the beautiful "Elegy" can make you think of Strauss' "Metamorphosis." "Regret," with its gentle counterpoint, suggests more than words can the spirit of this eloquent, humble man.

The Yale Cellos, a nimble group led by Aldo Parisot, vivaciously take on two of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. In Bach's mournful "Jesus Christ! Je t'implore," you can hear where Brubeck finds his inspiration.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

***

>Bluegrass

Bela Fleck & the Flecktones

The Hidden Land

[Columbia]

Review: 3 1/2 stars

"The Hidden Land" marks a return to Bela Fleck & the Flecktones' roots, in that all of the album's tracks were written with live performance in mind. Anything that the quartet couldn't perform in real time onstage was rejected for these sessions. The result is an album that continues the band's long tradition of groundbreaking instrumental work, and lends an air of vibrancy to the proceedings, something that has long been a prominent factor in the band's concert performances.

Virtuosity has always been a prominent factor in Flecktones music, and that's still the case here. But in contrast to the tendency for showboating amongst many virtuoso instrumentalists, the Flecktones serve the song at every turn. Opener "Fugue From Prelude & Fugue No. 20 In A Minor," a combination of J.S. Bach pieces, finds the band -- Fleck on banjo, Victor Wooten on bass, sax player Jeff Coffin and percussionist Future Man -- effortlessly playing over genre lines and idiomatic boundaries, mixing classical, bluegrass and jazz in an absolute tour de force of a performance.

Elsewhere, fusion -- the good, honest, organic variety -- informs the dazzling interplay of "Labyrinth," while Fleck once again manages to marry country pickin' to a dexterous manipulation of time and timbre shifts in the elegant "Kaleidoscope."

The group continues to forge its own path through the musical wilderness on "The Hidden Land," turning disregard for the transience of commercial concerns into a towering strength. It's passionate, emotional music, a searing blend of technique and heart.

-- J.M.

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