Jazz Punks, "Smashups" (Foam@The Mouth Records). If you're not already used to this idea, you should be getting there. It's not kitsch and it's not just "novelty" music either, it actually flirts with ingenuity. Following on the heels of John Pizzarelli doing something similar in "Double Exposure" (in recognition, he said, of growing up with two different record collections -- his sister's pop trove and his father's jazz treasure house), we've got a suitably named young Los Angeles outfit called the Jazz Punks that has a fine old time smashing classic jazz tunes into classic pop tunes and then improvising on the resultant collisions. Some of these "Smash-Ups" are clever and even close to wonderful. What they do to Sonny Rollins' "Oleo" -- called here "Foleo" -- is the best of it. "Clash Up" marries the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" with Paul Demond's "Take Five" in alternate chunks. Their usual procedure is to play rock basslines from rock classics and layer jazz on top. When it clicks, it's very witty and the improvisations by tenor saxophonist Robby Elfman and guitarist Sal Polcino are good.
Not so hot, unfortunately, are the marriage of Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A-Train" with Radiohead in "Creep Train" (sorry, Strayhorn's tune trumps everything you can possibly do with it). Putting the Who's "I Can See for Miles" together with Miles Davis' "No Blues" on "I Can See Miles" turns Miles into a careless afterthought. And "Heavyfoot" puts Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" together with the Beatles' "I Want You/She's So Heavy" in a way that transforms the Beatles into Vanilla Fudge. No matter. Even if Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia" totally dominates Led Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop" in the Jazz Punks "Smashup," you can't help but be more than a little tickled by the idea. 3 stars (out of 4) (Jeff Simon)
Omer Avital, "Suite of the East" (Anzic). Word is that bassist Omer Avital wrote the haunting tunes while living in Israel, finished them in New York and presented them to the world at a monthlong gig at Small's. The near-infinite capacity of jazz to fuse with any music in the world is gloriously evident all through this disc, in which Middle Eastern rhythms, sonorities and ostinatos clear the way for terrific solos by saxophonist Joel Frahm, trumpet player Avishai Cohen and pianist Omer Klein (who is, sadly, not playing on the best instrument). The Israeli musicians in New York have done continuing sensational work for many years now but nothing done by that passionately cohesive musical enclave (which is anything but insular) is better than this. As is so often the case, the greatest affinity of the terrific Israeli jazz musicians seems to be with the innocent combination of melody and solo in the work of Abdullah Ibrahim (who was "discovered" when his name was Dollar Brand by Duke Ellington). I'd love to hear what Duke would have made of this. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)
Hot Club of San Francisco, "Live at Yoshi's San Francisco" (Azica). French singer Isabelle Fontaine is the guest star on this delectable live disc of gypsy string jazz by San Francisco's version of one of the favorite kinds of jazz in every civilized American city. (Buffalo's local favorite gypsy jazz band, of course, is Babik.) The more you hear of gypsy jazz, frankly, the more you realize how very much of it there is in the modern world that is as infectiously hard-driving and likable as can be but how little, if any of it, comes anywhere close to equaling the genius of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli together. Under these circumstance, obviously, Fontaine's affection for the songs of Billie Holiday is all well and good but not quite as apt as her affection for Anita O'Day (hear "Stella by Starlight"). The band makes a stronger musical bid for international affection, oddly, than she does. 3 stars (J.S.)
Willie Nelson, "Heroes" (Columbia Legacy). Who doesn't want to sing on a disc with Willie Nelson these days? And why on earth wouldn't they, especially now, as he sings that "the road is getting longer and the weed is getting stronger." Those words come from Willie's son Lukas whose vocal DNA is clearly Nelson all the way. There's a gathering of the clan here and not just literally in the case of Lukas but spiritually in the case of Merle Haggard on "A Horse Called Music," Billy Joe Shaver with Jamey Johnson on the title tune and Ray Price with "Cold War With You." But it's old buddy Kris Kristofferson and, yes, Snoop Dogg who really get the party started with "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," just about the happiest and least self-conscious cannabis-lover's anthem anyone's ever going to hear. There's a lot of Lukas on this disc, and you won't mind in the slightest, especially when brother Micah joins them on "Come on Back Jesus (And Pick Up John Wayne on the Way"). And when Willie sings Coldplay's "The Scientist," you know that it's not necessarily the job of country legends like Willie (and old clansmen Johnny Cash) to write great songs but to teach everyone the art of meaning the ones that there are. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)
Bach, Nouveau "Brandebourgeois" Reconstitution by Bruce Haynes performed by Bande Montreal Baroque under Eric Milnes (Atma). Something a little new and wildly ingenious here. Since (A) Bach had absolutely nothing whatsoever against transcribing his own and others' music for other musical forces and (B), a large quantity of the music Bach left at his death was lost to history, why not believe that one of the eternal classical masterpieces the world now knows as Bach's Brandenburg Concertos was just part of a huge stock of lost Bach concertos that may have numbered as many as 100? And further, why not believe they can be simulated by taking movements from Bach's Cantatas, transcribing vocal lines for the instrumental forces familiar from the Brandenburgs and present the whole merrily synthetic thing as "Nouveau Brandebourgeois" concertos? The Brandenburgs they're not, but you'll be joyfully surprised by how plausible these synthetic Bach pieces are. Good fun, as all such inventiveness should be. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)
Sviatoslav Richter, The Teldec Recordings: Music of Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Schumann performed by pianist Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet (Teldec, three discs). You could, if you want, claim that the semi-godlike reputation of pianist Sviatoslav Richter resulted, in part, from the scarcities of the Cold War, in which every bit of the traffic by classical titans between the United States and Soviet Russia, was considered precious, whether it was Van Cliburn, Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern on one side of the Atlantic or Richter and the Oistrakhs on the other. That's why on the third disc here, the Borodin Quartet's warm recording of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet, shares what is nominally a Richter disc with Richter and The Borodin sumptuously playing Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major Op. 44. Added to the scarcities imposed by a Cold War, of course, there was that imposed by Richter's relative distaste for recording and preference for live performances in the least likely places (in that, of course, Richter and Glenn Gould developed diametrically opposite ideas about performing, however much both possessed performing genius). Richter loved playing Bach and his Bach, though not as loved as his other interpretations, is rather wonderful. The Mozart piano concerto K503 and Sonatas (with second part created by Grieg and played here by Elisabeth Leonskaya) and, especially, Schumann Quintet here are the meat of these recordings, all made in the early '90s. Not the greatest Richter, of course, but all Richter on disc is precious -- every bit of it. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)
Trans-Siberian Orchestra, "Beethoven's Last Night: The Complete Narrated Version" (Atlantic, 2 CDs). Whatever you think of the TSO's music, you have to admire the group's success. Also the musicians' ability to recognize heavy-metal potential in many a classical tune. In "Beethoven's Last Night," a rock opera the band has performed here in Buffalo, you could find yourself marveling at how well the finale of the "Pathetique Sonata," for instance, works with a big beat. It doesn't even need any doctoring! Obviously this won't please Beethoven fanatics, of whom I am one. Plus, a classical music nut will grow impatient with the TSO musicians' limited repertoire. (Though it's probably just as well, the musicians seem content to rely on their childhood classical training, so you get standard-issue Beethoven: the "Moonlight" Sonata, the "Ode to Joy," the Fifth Symphony, etc.) When the musicians write their own material, it has no melody to speak of. The poetry is also pretty pedestrian, albeit with metalhead humor. But still, but still ... These musicians have tender hearts, there is something sincere about this ham-handed homage to Beethoven, and somehow I think the old master himself would find it amusing. Plus, it's loud enough so he might actually be able to hear it. 3 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)