Discs: Michael Franti, Gary Burton, Kevin Puts and Sibelius rarities - The Buffalo News
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Discs: Michael Franti, Gary Burton, Kevin Puts and Sibelius rarities


Michael Franti & Spearhead

All People

[Boo Boo Wax/Capitol]

2 stars

Michael Franti founded Spearhead after working with Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and the Beatnigs, bringing elements of funk, soul and reggae to bear on a hip-hop base. Atop this hybrid of styles, Franti, in a gorgeous high baritone, made like a wannabe Bob Marley, positing a “one world, one love” vibe atop sunny melodies and deep grooves.

The result was the creation and maintenance of a sizable worldwide “cult-sized” audience. Fans who have been with Franti & Spearhead from the beginning might find “All People” a tough meal to digest. It’s all but devoid of the rhythm section grooves that have always rooted Spearhead’s sound. Bassist Carl Young and drummer Manas Itene are on the album, but they don’t contribute much when they aren’t buried beneath the thick wash of electro-pop flourishes that connect “All People” to contemporary electronic dance music much more than to anything resembling world beat. That’s a bummer.

That said, if we simply accept “All People” as nothing more than a contemporary pop album, devoid of expectations that previous familiarity with Franti might engender, it’s difficult to dislike the thing.

This is sun-soaked pop music with feel-good, bumper sticker-style wisdom presented as insightful commentary. Franti’s past music is heavy on the social criticism, but this time he seems happy to simply proclaim “I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive,” as he does during the Train-like raver “I’m Alive (Life Sounds Like).” It ain’t deep, but he sounds like he’s having a good time singing it.

The title song marries cut-and-paste acoustic guitars to electronic bleeps and computer percussion, as Franti duets with singer Gina Rene on a sunny melodic line above a straight EDM arrangement. It’s giddy stuff, but one would be hard-pressed to uncover the contributions of a living, breathing group of musicians here.

The ballad “11:59” is a high point, and not just because of the string arrangement written by Buffalo’s Richie English, but because it boasts the album’s strongest vocal melody. “Earth From Outer Space” has a Dub underpinning, and again, Franti’s unflagging optimism is contagious.

Most of “All People” sounds as if it will be presented in a much more organic, muscular and therefore flattering light in the concert setting. The production is contemporary and polished, but somehow, some of Franti’s fire is smothered by the slickness. “All People” might cost Franti some old fans, but it is highly likely to earn him new (and younger) ones, too.

– Jeff Miers


Kevin Puts

“To Touch the Sky,”

“If I Were a Swan” and

“Symphony No. 4: From Mission San Juan”

[Harmonia Mundi]

3½ stars

To the austere 12-tone followers of Schoenberg and Webern in the middle of the last century, the fourth symphony of 41-year-old composer Kevin Puts – especially its fourth and final movement called “Healing Song” – would be considered “shameless” if not “anathema,” not only for its tonality but in its ecstatic version of Gregorian chant. To us now in the 21st century, the finale of that 2007 symphony by the Baltimore composer is a magnificent synthesis of a sort that not only carries on from where the extraordinary Sinfonia India of Carlos Chavez left off, but soars into music that ought, with any justice, to be standard contemporary music for the concert hall.

The symphony was commissioned by a patron in honor of California’s San Juan Bautista Mission, whose founding friars, according to Puts, “baptized thousands of Mutsun Indians and took it upon themselves to teach them to sing church music.” Puts said the friars were nevertheless disturbed by the Mutsuns’ failure to abandon their own music in favor of that which the friars considered to be more civilized. Puts’ fantasia on that imagined synthesis is, I think, a work for our time rivaling the power of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 “Symphony of Sorrowful Song.”

The choral works that complete the disc are world premieres and introduce the Fourth Symphony conducted by Marin Alsop leading the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Both choral works are sung by Conspirare, conducted by Craig Hella Johnson: “To Touch the Sky,” which has its origins in the composer’s discussions with Johnson of “the divine feminine” and “If I Were a Song,” which adapts a text by the composer’s aunt, poet Fleda Brown. “To Touch the Sky” uses texts by everyone from Amy Lowell, Emily Bronte and Edna St. Vincent Millay to Mother Teresa and Hildegard Van Bingen.

The irony of the influence of church medievalism preserving classical music in our time continues.

– Jeff Simon


Various Artists

The Unknown Sibelius: Rarities and First Recordings

[BIS Records]

3½ stars

Everyone, not just Sibelius fans, will enjoy this seldom-heard music, attractively presented on a Swedish label. Some are early, intermediate or experimental versions of famous pieces. There is also early chamber music and music written for now-forgotten – but alluring – dramas. (Sibelius considered his incidental music to “The Lizard” to be one of the most exquisite works he wrote and he used another piece included here, a piano piece I love, in a melodrama called “Nights of Jealousy.”) The music is thoughtfully arranged to show us different sides of Sibelius.

Soprano Helena Juntunen sings a quick, lighthearted song about love, and baritone Gabriel Suovanen sings another love song that sounds heavy and Russian. A glorious duet between big-name mezzos Anne Sofie von Otter and Monica Groop is a wistful waltz, and a few short piano pieces, romantic and 19th century sounding, are world premieres, though the music might be familiar. A late-period Adagio for four-hand piano, which Sibelius wrote for his wife’s birthday, is more than heavy Sibelius we’re used to. I’m not sure why it’s seldom performed. The disc begins with the stark nobility of “Finland Awakes,” an early treatment of the famous “Finlandia.” Various ensembles and artists, mostly Finnish, perform this music of the north, which ends in an expansive, thrilling “Processional,” an orchestration of a movement from his “Musique religieuse.” Texts and translations complete this fine tribute. Every composer should be as lucky.

– Mary Kunz Goldman


The New Gary Burton Quartet

Guided Tour

[Mack Avenue]

3 stars

You know something major is about to happen in the distinguished jazz career of vibraphonist Gary Burton in his 70th birthday year. Open this CD and you see one full page of the notes, an ad for his new Berklee Press memoir “Learning to Listen,” which tells you matter-of-factly that “Burton made his first recordings at 17, has toured and recorded with a who’s who of famous jazz names and is one of a few openly gay musicians in jazz.”

The second disc of Burton’s new quartet continues to prove it one of the better groups in the artist’s long and impressive history, including the earliest showcases for guitarists Larry Coryell and Pat Metheny. You can imagine how delighted he is to showcase his quartet’s other major soloist, guitarist Julian Lage (whose duet disc with Fred Hersch, “Free Flying,” will appear next month).

Lage began recording with Burton when he was 15. (Burton played with guitarist Hank Garland in his teens.) Lage is now 24 and he is a perfectly poised countervoice to a vibraphonist beginning his eighth decade on earth.

Burton’s rhythm section would be remarkable in any context – bassist Scott Colley and the great drummer Antonio Sanchez. Among the next compositions here are ones by Sanchez based on a chord progression out of Thelonious Monk, a piece by Lage called “The Lookout” which had its origins in a tune by guitarist Jim Hall, and an original by Burton called “Jane Fonda Called Again.”

– J.S.

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