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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

> Jazz

Carol Welsman, "Journey" (Justin Time). She's the beautiful blond Canadian jazz singer/pianist who didn't marry Elvis Costello and become a major phenomenon in American popular music. No one who loves Diana Krall, though, should probably pass up an opportunity to make the acquaintance of Carol Welsman, who's been making dandy jazz vocal records for 15 years. This is as good a place as any. Her voice isn't as smoky as Krall's (who, these days, sounds so much like latter-day Joni Mitchell sometimes she could be her daughter) and she admits Peggy Lee to be a hero. But she's as delighted as Krall -- and almost as much as Tierney Sutton -- to feature delicious sidemen with a big sound. There's a theme on this disc obviously -- Welsman, the itinerant, who travels the world, spent a while living in France, etc. But then that also means the repertoire is witty and terrific, from "Route 66" and "On the Road Again," to "You've Come a Long Way From St. Louis," and the coolest and most unusual version of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" you're ever likely to hear. Things get more esoteric after a while, with a breathy version of Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse's theme music for "Two for the Road" and a final version of Marian McPartland's "Twilight World" whose Johnny Mercer lyrics she never even knew existed until McPartland emailed them to her. Review: 3 stars (out of 4) (Jeff Simon)

Steve Kuhn Trio, "Wisteria" (ECM); Gonzalo Rubalcaba, "XXI Century" (5Pasion, two discs). Here are two formidable jazz pianists who seem to find opposite ways to disappoint. When Steve Kuhn first started out, he and Denny Zeitlin both seemed to be the angular, dry-point versions of Bill Evans. Kuhn's history, as that, soon became quite formidable. He was Coltrane's first pianist in Coltrane's classic quartet (until Coltrane realized that McCoy Tyner's harmonic carpets suited his magic flights better than competing lines), Stan Getz's pianist in a group that included bass prodigy Scott LeFaro and Art Farmer's pianist in a group that included Steve Swallow, who's the bassist on "Wisteria." "Wisteria" though -- named for a tune within by Farmer -- is almost shockingly boring. Where his one-time counterpart Zeitlin -- born 17 days after Kuhn in 1938 -- has become one of the most fascinating pianists in all of current jazz (with trio and solo), Kuhn seems disengaged, even while playing with Swallow and drummer Joey Baron. The great 48-year-old Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba is as abstractly disengaged sometimes as Kuhn is tediously "pretty." The good news is that there is so much linear and sonic invention by Rubalcaba with the likes of guitarist Lionel Loueke and drummer Ignacio Berroa that Paul Bley and Lennie Tristano compositions that might have sounded smothered from the beginning by Kuhn have room to breathe with Rubalcaba. He's played much better on other discs, but if he's in a transitional phase in our new millennium, he certainly seems to be going somewhere worth following. With Kuhn, the sound of stasis even seems to overwhelm Steve Swallow and Joey Barton. Review: 2 stars for Kuhn, Review: 3 stars for Rubalcaba. (J.S.)

Ablaye Cissoko and Volker Goetze, "Amanke Dionti" (Motema). Gorgeous. The second phenomenally successful duo disc by a Senegalese vocalist and kora player (a West African string lute with a gourd body) and a German jazz trumpet player who answers the haunting melodies of the Senegalese master with music that fits in perfectly. Their first was "Sira." That they are two completely like-minded musicians from entirely different musical traditions is probably a shock to some, even though, if you think about it, it shouldn't really surprise anyone. Lovely, lyrical and keeningly melodic music composed by Cissoko and arranged by Goetze. Review: 4 stars (J.S.)

> Country/blues

Rick Nelson, "The Complete Epic Recordings" (Real Gone Music). Two of the three albums on this two-CD set were never released before Rick Nelson's death in a plane crash on New Year's Eve 1985. They were recorded from 1976 to 1979, long after Nelson had established himself as a more-than-a-pretty-face teen-idol hitmaker and had gone on to become a pioneering country-rocker before scoring a comeback hit with 1972's nostalgia-defying "Garden Party." The first album, "Intakes," showcases Nelson's strengths as a crisp rocker and folk-tinged balladeer. Only two of the numbers are originals, but "Something You Can't Buy" and "It's Another Day" are two of the strongest, showing again that Nelson was more than just an ace interpreter. The ultimately shelved follow-up, "Back to Vienna," has similar highlights, such as Dylan's "Mama, You've Been on My Mind" and the ZZ Top rocker "Getting It On." But in most cases you have to wonder what producer Al Kooper was thinking, as he surrounds Nelson with fussy orchestrations that don't suit him at all. The real treat is "Rockabilly Renaissance," which came out in 1986 in truncated and overdubbed form as "The Memphis Sessions." Here are the original mixes of Nelson tearing through Buddy Holly's "Rave On" and John Fogerty's "Almost Saturday Night," adding some twang to Bobby Womack's "It's All Over Now," and getting soulful on Tim Krekel's "Send Me Someone to Love." Best of all is "Dream Lover," the yearning Bobby Darin midtempo ballad that Nelson makes thoroughly his own. That it didn't become a huge hit underscores the mostly ill-fated nature of his Epic tenure. Review: 3 stars (Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer)

> Classical

Janacek, Taras Bulba, Lachian Dances and Moravian Dances performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit (Naxos). We've never before had as much music available here from the great Czech composer Leos Janacek as we do now, courtesy of Naxos records. As valuable as they all are, very few are as well-performed as these folk-derived pieces, which are some of the most beautiful Janacek ever wrote (especially "Taras Bulba" inspired by a Gogol novella and sounding like a Czech descendant of Mussorgsky and Borodin). Janacek, like Bartok in Hungary, was a student of his country's native folk music. While neither his "Lachian Dances" or "Moravian Dances" quite equal Bartok's orchestrations of folk melodies (not to mention Villa-Lobos' from Brazil), the ecstatic shimmer of Janacek's orchestrations and devotion to the contours of speech all around him raises them above Dvorak's much-played "Slavonic Dances," which somehow seem more Brahmsian (and less authentic) to post-20th century ears than Janacek's putative "naivete." Wit and the Warsaw Orchestra have already recorded Janacek's great masterworks -- the "Sinfonietta" which is one of the great works of 20th century music, and the Glagliotic Mass -- and, with these, they present lesser but still top-rank examples of a composer on a perpetual rise. Review: 3 stars (J.S.)

Respighi, Complete Orchestral Music Volume 1, Feste Romane, Fontane di Roma, Pini di Roma, Gli Uccelli, Suite for Strings, Suite in G for Strings and Organ performed by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco LaVecchia (Brilliant Classics, two disc). For 50 years, it seemed, Respighi's "Fountains of Rome" and "Pines of Rome" were paired by conductors and orchestras in need of a crowd-pleasing orchestral showcase. Few and far between for all that time have been the orchestras and conductors willing to consider Respighi -- a beloved jockey of orchestral warhorses -- as a serious composer in notable need of large-scale, even complete, exploration. Well, here's one that just began that very project in an idiomatic way. With underrated masterworks still to come, like the "Ancient Airs and Dances for Lute" and "Church Windows," we have here a two-disc set of his most popular works, "Gli Uccelli" (the birds) based on Baroque keyboard music, a neo-classic Suite for Strings that would stump most in a blindfold test and a Suite for Organ and Strings that is unjustly obscure, no matter how you look at it. The only thing wrong with Respighi, the warm-blooded classicist and master orchestrator, is that he lived in the wrong era, when musical revolution was going on everywhere around him, none of it by him. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

Scriabin, Etudes Op. 8, Preludes Op. 13 and Op. 16, Piano Sonata Op. 10 and Vers La Flamme performed by pianist Olli Mustonen (Ondine). You could search, of course, but you probably couldn't find a better traversal of the radical change circumscribed by Alexander Scriabin in his piano music. The Etudes Op. 8 would be completely in place in a Chopin recital, the Preludes are Scriabin at his most off-handedly Lisztian. By the time you get to the final piano Sonata and "Vers la Flamme," you're into a world of piano music incomparably strange and -- still -- immensely influential throughout the world. Scriabin's final cosmic trills and fervent avoidance of tonality is the exact point where late-Romanticism began to turn into modernism. Composers who owe a debt to Scriaban are, among others, Karol Szymanowski, Dane Rudhyar and Leo Ornstein. "Vers La Flamme" -- if you believe its major champion Vladimir Horowitz -- was visionary Scriabin's music for the end of our planet. Finland's Mustonen is not a pianist to have much truck with cosmic ecstasies or transcendental proto-expressionism. He wants to make sure we can still hear the Chopin and Liszt in late Scriabin and though there are Scriabin pianists I much prefer (Hilde Somer, Ruth Laredo, Roberto Szidon), you have to respect him for it. Review: 3 stars (J.S.)