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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases


Backstreet Boys, "Unbreakable" (Jive/Zomba). Now a four-piece after the defection of Kevin Richardson following the group's 2005 tour, the Backstreet Boys make no attempt to update their harmony-rich, boy-band, pop-dance sound on "Unbreakable." Well, why should they? In this rather cloistered top 40 world, not much has changed over the past 10 years. What worked then -- a blend of slick, four-part harmonies, antiseptic production values, peppy pop jams and the obligatory overwrought ballads -- should work now. If this stuff is, or ever was, your bag, you'll dig "Unbreakable." It's remarkably solid. And in the vocal department, there's no denying these no-longer-boys' talent. Review: 2 1/2 stars (Out of 4) (Jeff Miers)



McCoy Tyner, "Afro-Blue" (Telarc). From 1960 on, precious few jazz pianists escaped the influence of the music McCoy Tyner made with John Coltrane and, after Coltrane's death, the incredibly dense and celebratory dance music he made by subsuming Coltrane's solo voice into his own playing. Tyner's big, powerful modal chords gave jazz pianists an entirely new way to swing monstrously hard after the era of Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson. By 1998, when this one-disc catchall of his work for Telarc begins, he was in the process of putting a lot of the thunder behind him and remembering the bebop player he once was. The result was a lot of music that was leaner and a lot more sensitive and lyrical -- not "Afro-Blue," of course, which he played so often with Coltrane (and plays here with the Latin All-Stars including Claudio Rotiti and Steve Turre), but for certain, on "Summertime" and a trio version of "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" with Al Foster and Stanley Clarke. Good later-period McCoy. Review: 3 stars (Jeff Simon)


Alan Pasqua, "The Anti-Social Club" (Crypto-Gramophon). If this sounds like some of the best jazz/rock fusion since its embattled heyday, that's because keyboardist Alan Pasqua is as hip and pedigreed a producer of it as you'll find. Back in the day, he played in Tony Williams' Lifetime and studied with the great jazz composer and theorist George Russell. The latter is no small thing and leads to a tune dedicated to Russell on Pasqua's new disc on which he makes the Fender Rhodes piano sound good again, as if we were all listening to "In a Silent Way" by Miles Davis. All virtuosity is high-protein, then, not empty. As a West Coast studio musician, Pasqua has played, too, with a list of rock and pop musicians as long as Shaquille O'Neal's arm, which means he knows a thing or two about hooks and electronic seasonings. It's a standard saxophone/trumpet/guitar sextet with percussion added and it's got energy and ideas to burn -- which, in fact, it sometimes does. Review: 3 stars (J.S.)



Various Artists, I'm Not There: Original Soundtrack (Columbia). This is not a movie soundtrack. This is the connective tissue between the old, weird America and the new, weird America. Tom Verlaine and Nels Cline trade solos with John Medeski and Smokey Hormel while Eddie Vedder sings. Willie Nelson jams with Calexico. Pavement's Stephen Malkmus collaborates with Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo and Wilco's Cline. Television's Verlaine sings "Cold Irons Bound." Over all of this hangs the shade of Bob Dylan, who is indeed "not there," but is everywhere, just the same. How did this happen? It's simply astounding, inspired, fascinating. I'm breathless, and grateful for it. Buy this if you care about the past 40 years of popular music. Review: 4 stars (J.M.)



Beethoven, Diabelli Variations performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy, (Decca Universal). With this disc, comprising the "Diabelli Variations" and "12 Variations on the Russian Dance from Paul Wranitzky's Ballet "Das Waldmadchen," WoO 71, living legend Ashkenazy winds up 40 years of Beethoven solo recording. I've always found his recordings of sonatas insightful and scholarly, but also exciting and human. And I think this last disc is magnificent. First of all, Ashkenazy plays the silly introductory theme through dismissively, as if eager to get it out of the way. (I know, the whole point of these variations is the masterpiece that Beethoven built out of this silly dance, but I still regret the piece doesn't begin with a noble melody.) Then he throws himself into that thrilling, stentorian first variation -- which, I like to imagine, is Beethoven claiming the music, giving us a real theme. What I love about the rest of the recording is that Ashkenazy doesn't impose himself on the music -- he brings out its inner grace (the beautiful, romantic waltz that is No. 8, my personal favorite), its power and, finally, its transcendence. Excuse me if words are failing me. The Variations WoO 71 are a terrific little lagniappe. Review: 4 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)


Bloch, Violin Concerto, Baal Shem, and Suite Hebraique performed by violinist Zina Schiff and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Jose Serebier (Naxos). No 20th century symphonic composer ever directly created more masterworks out of the Jewish heritage than the Swiss composer Ernest Bloch. His great masterwork "Schelemo" is part of the birthright of every cello virtuoso. Less well-known but just as sumptuous and emotional is this music for violin and orchestra. Bloch was originally a gifted violinist -- a student of Ysaye, no less -- and in his 1938 violin concerto he somehow managed to combine American Indian themes with "the complex, glowing, agitated sound that I feel vibrating through the Bible . . . the freshness and naivete of the Patriarchs; the violence of the prophetic books; the Jews' savage love of justice; the despair of Ecclesiastes; the sorrow and the immensity of the Book of Job; the sensuality of the Song of Songs . . . it is all this that I endeavor to hear in myself, and to translate in my music." Anyone who recognizes Bloch's use of fifths and Hebraic melody from the Miklos Rosza film scores for "Ben Hur" and "King of Kings" will instantly understand that here, in vastly superior form, was their model. Immensely powerful violin and orchestra music beautifully played by Schiff and the Scots. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)



A Place For Us: A Tribute to 50 Years of West Side Story (Masterworks Broadway). In "West Side Story," the sum of the parts just might be greater than the whole. So suggest these 12 wildly varying interpretations of songs from the show. The Canadian Brass ("America") and Andy Williams ("Tonight," in a hilariously retro 1962 take) are on the square side, but I was struck by how many artists were perfect for their songs. Johnny Mathis pairs his still incredible voice with Barbra Streisand's for a 1993 "I Have a Love"/"One Hand, One Heart." Julie Andrews singing "I Feel Pretty," Joshua Bell's guileless violin for "Maria" -- you just can't do better than that. The disc is a treat for jazz piano fans. You get the Dave Brubeck Quartet for "Somewhere," and the problematic "Officer Krupke" played in Oscar Peterson style by Andre Previn and his trio. As if to prove how up-to-date it is, the disc has Eldar, the amazing young Russian-born jazz whiz who knocked 'em dead not long ago at one of the Niagara Falls casinos, playing "Cool" while racing back and forth between a piano and a Fender Rhodes. Review: 3 1/2 stars (M.K.G.)

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