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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

>Jazz

Kate McGarry with special guest Kurt Elling, "Girl Talk" (Palmetto). The greatest thing about this disc is that it doesn't carry an ounce more ideological freight than McGarry's singing is strong enough to handle. It's delicious. But it's also making a point in her professed "starry-eyed admiration and gratitude for our strong lineage of visionary jazz women" which, she says, fueled the disc. She's talking about such women as "Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Anita O'Day, Nina Simone, Ellis Regina, Sheila Jordan, Irene Kral and Abbey Lincoln." In her college days she listened "over and over to the albums of these women In addition to mastery of swing, harmony, improvisation and storytelling, I heard in each of their unique voices powerful ways of navigating the world as women that were completely new to me. These icons were co-creators of the great art of jazz singing at a time when women's voices and dreams were still so easily silenced and devalued." And if McGarry's singing weren't absolutely equal to it on such standards as "We Kiss in a Shadow," "The Man I Love," and yes, "I Know That You Know" and "It's a Wonderful World" (which is not to be confused with Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" and begins by scatting the theme from "Hot House"), the disc would have sunk irrevocably under the weight of its ambitions. It does the contrary. It gives you the best work McGarry has ever done in all her years of a very personal, almost folk-derived kind of jazz singing. Kurt Elling comes aboard for "O Candator," and "Charade" is Latin-tinged and sensual as all get-out. The great version of Neil Hefti's "Girl Talk" remains Ray Bryant's piano trio version, but McGarry is so good she even gets away with making Bobby Troup's lyrics sound genuinely witty, rather than club cutesy. If only organist and keyboardist Gary Versace were as good as McGarry. 3 1/2 stars (out of 4) (Jeff Simon)

*

Alfredo Rodriguez, "Sounds of Space" (Mack Avenue). The 26-year-old Cuban-born pianist is about to be featured on a first-rate Kenny Garrett disc coming out in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, this disc -- produced by Quincy Jones no less -- gives you a terrific guided tour through a pianist who seems ready, willing and able to do almost anything on his instrument at his age -- splatter piano, funk, brilliantly spun-out linear melodism. He can be as homey and gorgeous as he is abstract and percussive -- and all within seconds on the same tune. His father was a musician in Cuba and Rodriguez performed "every type of music" in his band. He was turned on to improvisation by Keith Jarrett's "Koln Concert" (it "changed my life. I realized that was what I wanted to do: just sit and play.") His reedman Ernesto Vega isn't quite in his league but contributes enough. Drummer Francisco Mela is one of the most ferocious drummers around these days and is superb on two cuts. When Rodriguez first flew to Laredo from visiting his father in Mexico he was detained by the police and, according to the disc's publicity, told them "I was coming to stay. I wasn't planning to do anything illicit. I was coming to write and play music, work with Quincy Jones and start my career. And I told them 'if you turn me back, I'll be back tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that until I can make it through.' " They let him in. You'll hear that fierceness in his music too. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

*

The Duke Robillard Jazz Trio, "Wobble Walkin' " (Blue Duchess/Shining Stone). A good funky guitar trio disc from the blues guitarist who was so good that on first hearing him, Big Joe Turner supposedly called up T-Bone Walker's widow and said "T-Bone lives!" You won't find a lot of "lickity boom" be-bop lines negotiated here in breakneck tempo. Nor does Robillard take you "outside" for a walk, much less a flight to lord knows where. This is club jazz blues and bounce and standards of an infectious and irresistible sort. A Robillard original like "Skippy's Dream" is so much in the pocket that it sounds like something Lou Donaldson might have written 50 years ago. Good fun. 3 stars (J.S.)

***

>Cabaret

Ute Lemper, "Paris Days, Berlin Nights," with the Vogler Quartet and Stefan Malzew (Steinway & Sons). Buffalo knows the Vogler Quartet. The musicians, trained in East Germany, have visited here on a number of vastly different occasions. They have played contemporary music at UB's Slee Hall with the Arditti Quartet. And, on the other end of the spectrum, they have appeared on the Slee Beethoven Quartet Series. The Vogler Quartet trains its collective excellence here on a wildly divergent territory -- the cabaret songs of Paris and Berlin during the days of the Weimar Republic, as sung by such artists as Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich. The experiment works out very well. Lemper is impeccably cool. Nothing fazes her. Years ago, in Robert Altman's "Ready to Wear," she appeared walking a catwalk, nude and very pregnant. In other words she has the gumption for these songs, and she sings them with the kind of chilly relish that the music demands. Sometimes she sings, sometimes she screams. The quartet mostly keeps its distance, filling in with hints of, say, "La Vie en Rose." An accordion joins in. Stefan Malzew is on accordion and he also wrote all the arrangements. Titles I love: "Elle frequentait la rue Pigalle," written for Edith Piaf by Raymond Asso. And "L'Accordioniste," a kind of "Waltzing Matilda" that ends with the singer, her soldier boyfriend killed, yelling "Stop the music." Some tangos by Astor Piazzolla round out this international cabaret collection. 3 1/2 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

***

>Classical

Marlis Petersen and Jendrik Springer, piano, Goethe-Lieder (Harmonia Mundi). This is a delight for Lieder nerds like me. There are a couple of sublime songs here by Schubert and Hugo Wolf that I knew -- otherwise these are all from left field. Petersen sings a selection of Goethe songs -- songs with words by Goethe -- that you would never expect. People who love Lieder know Schubert's famous settings of "Nachtlied"; "Gretchen am Spinnrade" and "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt." This disc gives us the same poems, set beautifully, but differently, by (respectively) Schumann, Wagner and Tchaikovsky. The collection challenges you by making you put aside the familiar and see the poems differently. Other interesting songs include Ernst Krenek's restless "Monolog der Stella" and a soaring outpouring by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Felix's sister. Throughout the disc, like a leitmotif, runs "Wanderers Nachtlied," Goethe's haunting little poem about beauty and death. Petersen sings not only the Schumann version, but a beautifully simple setting by Hans Sommer (a world premiere) in addition to treatments by Wilhelm Kempff, Nicolai Medtner, Charles Ives (the exquisite song known as "Ilmenau") and, finally, Franz Liszt. All the songs are interesting in their own right. Petersen, with her bell-like high tones, makes them sound heavenly. 4 stars (M.K.G.)

*

Eric Whitacre, Water Night and Other Works performed by the Whitacre Singers, soprano Hila Plitmann, cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and the London Symphony Orchestra (Decca). We don't listen to choral music the same way anymore. After Part, Gorecki and other mystic minimalists of post-modernism, we almost expect the kind of celestial beauty that Eric Whitacre almost makes commonplace (and that opens off this omnibus disc with his "Alleluia"). This is probably the most variegated presentation of the extraordinary composer/conductor on disc -- a moto perpetuo piece of "dynamic minimalism" ("repetitive patterns as long as they don't get boring") called "Equus," a cello and string orchestra piece called "The River Cam" with soloist Julian Lloyd Webber and written for his 60th birthday (a "pastoral piece" with "serious echoes of Elgar and Vaughan Williams"), the title piece for string orchestra (written from music that "sounded in the air" while he read poetry by Octavio Paz), some choral pieces and "Goodnight, Moon" a lullaby for his son from his son's favorite book by Margaret Wise Brown and sung by his wife, soprano Hila Plitmann who "sings it to him before bed nearly every night." So beautiful is his music and so ingratiating his way of explicating and presenting it that Whitacre continues to sound almost too good to be true, if not completely unreal. He's very real, though, and apparently quite true to his musical calling. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)