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Ron Sexsmith

Time Being


Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

Who doesn't like an immediately gratifying tune, one that has been specifically crafted to grab your attention instantly, hold it for three or four minutes, and then disappear from your life completely, until the next time you hear it?

Unfortunately, its place has been overvalued, to the point that these days, songs of this type are pretty much all we'll hear if we don't take the initiative to dig through a few layers of strata, down toward the underground. Down there, you'll find songwriters like Ron Sexsmith. These are earnest, deeply talented craftsmen who make music for listeners looking for something more than the obvious, the hottest body and cutest face at the party, so to speak. Sexsmith's music is a meaningful conversation, not a drunken make-out in the back seat. Which is precisely why, 10 albums into a remarkably consistent career that has earned him the often-uttered respect of artists such as Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney and the Kronos Quartet, Sexsmith remains a cult figure.

"Time Being" is his latest effort, and, not surprisingly, it's mostly stunning in conception and execution. It's also a celebration of -- let me beat this dead horse one more time -- musical values that are hardly in vogue these days, they being melody, harmony, astute musicianship, subtlety, fully developed lyrics and subject matter that isn't limited to pre-sex, actual sex and post-sex concerns.

There are at least a half-dozen Sexsmith classics here, among them a few of the earnest, poetic, but never too precious wistful, world-weary love song variety ("Hands of Time," "Snow Angel," "Never Give Up") and the whistling-past-the-graveyard wizened optimism married to indelible pop melody strain ("I Think We're Lost," "Cold-Hearted Wind").

As has always been the case, Sexsmith rarely missteps. When he does, as on the mildly over-ambitious "Jazz at the Bookstore" and the touch too obscure "The Grim Faced Trucker," it's a matter of slight degree. The mellifluous, slightly trembling voice; the elegant guitar figures; the layered harmonies on the choruses; and the beautifully billowing production acumen of Mitchell Froom all conspire to make this yet another fine Sexsmith album.

-- Jeff Miers



Charles Tolliver Big Band

With Love

[Blue Note]

Review: 2 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

What Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson, Gerry Mulligan, Quincy Jones and, yes, Stan Kenton proved four decades ago is that Duke Ellington had created a permanent schism between a standard jazz big band and a jazz orchestra. It's the jazz orchestras a la Ellington, Evans, Nelson and Mulligan that are precious and irreplaceable.

Not that the jazz world doesn't need a new star-filled big band, mind you. Certainly, it's nothing but heartening that a fire-breathing jazz big band has suddenly sprouted around Charles Tolliver and brilliant veteran rebels like Stanley Cowell and Billy Harper (as well as such like-minded newer musicians as Craig Handy and Robert Glasper). The trouble, though, is that all that fire seems to have seriously singed the possibilities for jazz as art.

Heaven knows there's exciting, even blistering playing all through this disc, but so too is there some ensemble playing that even Sun Ra might have found ragged. It's almost all blare and scream and bluster with very little of what makes a truly great jazz orchestra one of the great wonderments in all of American music. Even Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight" -- a gift to instrumental colorists everywhere -- comes through biting and snarling, as if these guys were determined to have Maria Schneider's Jazz Orchestra for breakfast.

Not only that, among high-octane big bands, the Mingus Big Band is vastly more interesting (but then that will happen when your repertoire is almost all Charles Mingus).

Tolliver's has been a going bunch since 2003. No matter what, it's truly great news that Blue Note has decided to present it with appropriate seriousness. Now that its rage to live has been answered with suitable corporate punctiliousness, such extraordinary talents deserve -- as they say -- to take it to the next level. (To be released on Tuesday.)

-- Jeff Simon



Peter Lieberson

Neruda Songs sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo soprano, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine, conductor


Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

Mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died of cancer in July at 52, didn't have just a distinguished career. She was half of a very affecting love story. She was married to Peter Lieberson, the son of Columbia Records CEO Goddard Lieberson and a respected composer. His love for his wife, the daughter of two Bay Area musicians, shows in his romantic cycle of songs set to the passionate poetry of Pablo Neruda.

Listeners have responded. The recording debuted at No. 2 on Billboard's Classical Music chart, and after NPR explored the music in "Weekend Edition," it reached No. 3 among all music CDs. (Goddard Lieberson must have been beaming down from the heavens.)

Set off by rich, lush orchestration, reminiscent most closely of Mahler, the songs aren't so much melody as mood. But the nebulous music rather suits the smoldering sonnets, each of which, Lieberson explains, "reflect a different face in love's mirror." He adds, "When I set them, I was speaking directly to my own beloved, Lorraine." Shown on the cover in an unrelenting portrait by Richard Avedon, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson doesn't so much sing the songs on the recording as pour them forth, in smoky, silky, intense tones. She was already ill at the time, and in the rhapsodic songs, the listener can sense her anguish but also her acceptance.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman



Various Artists

Hyphy Hitz


Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

Just when you were getting used to dropping "crunk" into casual, music-related conversations at dinner parties, thereby proving your "street cred," along comes the next big thing. This time, it comes from the West, as a host of San Francisco-area rappers and hip-hop stylists have formed a loose collective responding to crunk's ultra-boomy bass frequencies, distorted '80s synths and party-anthem texts.

"Hyphy Hitz" is in possession of a premature title, since the form is still only a regional success. But as any starmaker worth his salt knows, the way to break a movement is to insist it's already a breaking movement. TVT is on board with this mind-set. "Hyphy Hitz" is a smart collection that is configured in such a way as to make the listener feel like he or she has been missing out on something. Hyphy is beautifully produced, fun, kinda stupid and not too demanding. It sounds good loud, and glorifies the "smoking blunts and chugging gin 'n' juice" lifestyle by concentrating its rhymes on ... smoking blunts and chugging gin 'n' juice.

Hyphy has its own invented lingo, most of which is derived from the query "Y'know what I mean?" The A'Z start things off with "Yadadamean," and Keak Da Sneak reprises the slurred question in his own "Super Hyphy." "Stupid" is also a common reference in the Hyphy vernacular, as in "stupid good," meaning ... er, really good. Da Muzicianz "Go Dumb," and Mac Dre does "Get Stupid," while Mistah F.A.B. is "Super Sic Wit It" and Twisted Black confesses "I'm a Fool Wit It." Extra kudos to the listener who is hip to just what the much-venerated Hyphy name-check "purple" is all about.

Hyphy is the clear inheritor of crunk's momentum, and the clarity of vision and singularity of purpose displayed by these San Francisco artists means that the form is ready to break nationwide. Yadadamean?

-- J.M.

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