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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

>Pop

Now That's What I Call Music, 42 (EMI). Call it "Now 42" for short. Everyone's favorite Supermarket Survey of Rock Hits is now up to its 42nd installment and this one, to be frank, isn't so hot. ("Now 38" if you can find it -- now that's what I'd call music.) Kelly Clarkson is suitably hit-sounding with "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)," but after that you're on your own, even when Madonna shows up with Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. for "Give Me All Your Lovin.' " Yes, there's Bruno Mars and Gotye featuring Kimbra, Train, Taylor Swift and Labrinth featuring Busta Rhymes, but it's unlikely that even the Grammy folks would want to nominate any of this guff. 2 1/2 stars (out of 4) (Jeff Simon)

Martin Zellar and the Hardways, "Roosters Crow" (Owen Lee). This has got to drive an artist nuts. Martin Zellar has done a lot of stellar work, first with the Gear Daddies and later on his own, but the Minnesotan's best-known song is probably the novelty "I Wanna Drive the Zamboni," which was originally just a hidden throwaway on a Gear Daddies album. You won't find anything so lighthearted on "Roosters Crow," Zellar's first album in 10 years. Thematically, it's the downer you'd expect with titles such as "Took the Poison," "Seven Shades of Blue" and "The Skies Are Always Gray." But as anxious, guilt-ridden, and regretful as Zellar may sound, he always skirts tedious solipsism. Helping greatly to counter the gloom is the clean, spare accompaniment, which encompasses ringing rock and rootsy touches such as Lloyd Maines' pedal steel and dobro on selected cuts. "I will be OK," Zellar concludes on the finale, "It Works for Me." Works for us, too. 3 stars (Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer)

***

>Classical

Monks of the Desert, "Blessings, Peace and Harmony" (Sony Masterworks). With the pope encouraging greater use of Gregorian chant -- not that the revolution will reach Buffalo any time soon -- the timing is great for this disc from the Monks of the Desert. It includes chants you will probably hear at churches that offer the Tridentine Mass -- a widely used Kyrie, Gloria and Sanctus as well as famous chants like "Parce, Domine," the Easter "Alleluia, O filii et filiae" and the beautiful Advent chant "Rorate caeli." Much as I love this repertoire, the performances leave a little to be desired. The monks give a few of them a kind of boisterous Broadway sound, and they often sound more like a group of separate voices rather than one flawlessly unified entity. But they have the right spirit, and there is something endearing about their earthbound humanity. These monks, by the way, live at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico. They follow the prayer schedule known as Opus Dei, or the Divine Office, praying seven times during the day and once at night, beginning at 4 a.m. And when they are not praying they brew their own beer. A perfect life! 3 1/2 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

The Columbia Sessions, Christopher Creviston, saxophone, Hannah Gruber, piano (Albany). You've got to love Albany records, grabbing attention with this title. The "Columbia" refers not to the record label but, I am guessing, Columbia, S.C. (The fine print says the recording took place at the University of South Carolina.) Well. Now that they've got our attention, this is a fine little set of pieces. Creviston has adapted Poulenc's Flute Sonata, premiered in 1957 by the composer and Jean-Pierre Rampal, to sax. Sometimes it's shrill, but mostly it works. Creviston's tone is lovely in the atmospheric Cantilena movement. Claude Delvincourt's "Croquembouches" are six quick, airy pieces named after sweets. A croquembouche is a pile of cream puffs (yay, my Martha Stewart reading finally came in handy). Two preludes by Dorothy Chang, written for Creviston, are nothing special. But Heitor Villa-Lobos and William Bolcom are a delight, as always. 2 1/2 stars (M.K.G.)

Jeremy Denk, piano music by Ligeti and Beethoven performed by Denk (Nonesuch). "A crowning achievement of his career and of the piano literature" is what pianist Jeremy Denk calls Ligeti's "Etudes," Books One and Two, which certainly explains why he plays them as if they're "already classics" as he contends (with passion and commitment that spills over into forgivable hyperbole -- though never as a pianist). But to play it on a disc with only one other composer -- Beethoven in his final Sonata No. 32 -- is a two-composer program that requires a touch of explanation. Jazz is alive and well in the allusions of Ligeti's Etudes -- notably in the fourth and fifth etudes (in the latter Ligeti paid tribute to Bill Evans' sevenths). But among the glorious incongruities of Beethoven's final piano Sonata is that jazz listeners can't help but hear jazz within (of this "proto-jazz" Denk himself wittily asks "of all the profound whiffs of the future Beethoven might have caught, it had to be boogie woogie?"). He is an exceptional pianist and a stalwart in that growing tribe of pianists who are as much irresistible writers about the music they're playing so brilliantly as they are major musicians. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

***

>Jazz

Mike Reed's People Places and Things, "Clean on the Corner" (482 Music), Hailey Niswanger, "The Keeper" (Calmit Productions). It isn't that jazz has become totally submerged in ancestor worship, mind you. It's just that in the case of 90 percent of current jazz musicians, their greatest competition is not each other but their ancestors whose personalities and musical achievements were so difficult to maneuver around. That's why we've got here in two groups -- drummer Mike Reed's groups on "Clean on the Corner" and saxophonist Hailey Niswanger with her quartet and trumpet player Darren Barrett on "The Keeper" -- the opposite poles of the last great avant-garde period in jazz, the late '50s to late '60s. Reed's groups, especially on the opener, "The Lady Has a Bomb," sound as if the influences of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill held sway. Niswanger, on her second disc, is a powerful player out of Coltrane who's been setting jazz aflame since 2009, when she was all of 19. Reed, rather startlingly admits "in the end, it took over a year to release this record since I didn't know how to contextualize what had been made There was no grand concept going into the project. But a year later I still connect with the visceral reaction that produced this recording." His commitment is to new tunes, but despite guests pianist Craig Taborn and cornetist Josh Berman, the counterpoint of saxophonists Greg Ward and Tim Haldeman is more exploratory than purposeful. Niswanger's pianist Takeshi Ohbayashi is so beholden to McCoy Tyner that her playing almost doesn't have a chance to move away from Coltrane-worship. These are all good young players but not quite sure, it seems, what it is they each do best. 2 1/2 stars for both discs. (J.S.)

John Pizzarelli, "Double Exposure" (Telarc). Hold the phone. What's going on here? The Beatles' "I Feel Fine" with Lee Morgan's "Sidewinder" as the instrumental setting? Tom Waits' "Drunk on the Moon" by way of "Lush Life?" James Taylor's "Traffic Jam" given a Lambert, Hendricks and Ross treatment with Joe Henderson's "The Kicker"? Pizzarelli's explanation couldn't be simpler. When he was growing up, he was caught between two record collections -- his legendary guitarist father Bucky's and his sister's. The result, then, is a clever recital of "hearing double" -- with, say, the Allman Brothers' "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," which he paired with "themes from Wes Montgomery's 'Four on Six.' " How about Seals and Crofts' "Diamond Girl" "taking its cue" (as he puts it) from Miles' "Kind of Blue?" If it all seems to work with minimal kitsch, it's because his musicians include Larry Goldings, violinist Aaron Weinstin and his brother Martin on bass. Anyone who's ever thought that Pizzarelli had gone so pure cabaret that he spilled over the border into cutesy will have a great time with this, full to the brim with chops and smarts. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

***

>Country/roots

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, "Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down" (Superlatone/ Sugar Hill). Since he teamed up in 2001 with the Fabulous Superlatives -- guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson, bassist Paul Martin -- Marty Stuart has been making the best music of his career, even if the onetime "Hillbilly Rock" champion is no longer having hits as he did in the '90s. He continues on that roll here. As Stuart puts it in the liner notes: "Today the most outlaw thing you can possibly do in Nashville, Tennessee, is play country music." OK, that's a bit of hyperbole, but make no mistake: This is country music, no holds barred, from the propulsive twang of the title track to the aching balladry of "A Matter of Time" and the hot picking of the instrumental "Hollywood Boogie." And the material matches the excellence of the music. Stuart wrote seven of the 10 numbers, augmented by the cautionary tale "Sundown at Nashville," the honky-tonk lament "Holding on to Nothing," and Hank Williams' "Pictures From Life's Other Side," on which the always history-minded Stuart duets with Hank III. 4 stars (N.C., Philadelphia Inquirer)