Listening Post: Miles Davis, Apocalyptica, Big Star and Donny Hathaway - The Buffalo News

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Listening Post: Miles Davis, Apocalyptica, Big Star and Donny Hathaway


Apocalyptica & the MDR Symphony Orchestra, “Wagner Reloaded” (BMG). The big question is this one, of course: If Richard Wagner was alive today, would he be “throwing goat” at a heavy metal gig? The members of Finland’s classical-metal ensemble Apocalyptica certainly seem to think that, yes indeed, Wagner would be a headbanger in 2013, the year of his 200th birthday. Apocalyptica teamed with the MDR Leipzig Symphony Orchestra and choreographer Gregor Seyffert to stage “Wagner Reloaded” in July, and the results are never less than interesting, and always completely bombastic and over-the-top. Which is fitting, since this is Wagner we’re talking about – the man’s operas were and are groundbreaking, nuanced and sophisticated, but they weren’t exactly understated. That Apocalyptica took it upon itself to compose music in the Wagnerian tradition speaks of a healthy amount of fortitude. And yet, somehow, it all works – Wagner imagined as metal, with live drums bashing away behind an orchestra, and distorted cellos filling the sonic space normally reserved for electric guitars. Fans of Apocalyptica’s past interpretations of Metallica will find plenty to love in this ambitious marriage of symphonic music and heavy metal. ΩΩΩ (Jeff Miers)


Miles Davis, “The Original Mono Recordings” (Columbia Legacy, 9 discs). If Miles Davis had never recorded anything else, the music on these nine discs would suffice to epitomize the art of jazz. Five of them – “Kind of Blue,” “Jazz Track,” and the three Gil Evans collaborations “Miles Ahead,” “Porgy and Bess,” and “Sketches of Spain” – include some of the most sublime music ever to be called jazz anywhere. Certainly, the most artful jazz combo that ever existed was the Miles Davis Sextet that featured John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly and Bill Evans. But then, the obvious hard truth is that this is not exactly rare music in the collections of the most dedicated lovers of American music on disc. Don’t people who love music have this music already, on stereo discs of greater sound? And that’s where this newly remastered box of the original mono recordings becomes very interesting indeed. It was George Avakian in the mid-’50s who signed Miles to Columbia after hearing a newly drug-free Miles play “Round Midnight” at the Newport Jazz Festival. According to Avakian, “Mono featured less studio trickery and fewer audio distractions so you can actually hear the musical conversation between Miles and the other musicians as it occurred in the studio.” And if you listen to these transcendent classics of American music with Avakian’s ears, sure enough, he’s got a point. As originally released, these were the first nine Miles Davis discs on Columbia – “Round About Midnight,” ‘Miles Ahead,” “Milestones,” “Jazz Track,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Kind of Blue,” “Sketches of Spain,” “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and “Miles and Monk at Newport.” Some of the greatest of all American music – often recycled, true, but in this particular instance with its own 21st century preservationist take on classic American music. ΩΩΩΩ (Jeff Simon)


Big Star, “Playlist: The Very Best of Big Star” (Zoo/Legacy). “Playlist” accords itself well as an introductory primer for anyone unfamiliar with Big Star’s nigh-on-peerless power-pop. The collection pulls tunes from each of the star-crossed band’s three ’70s studio albums – “#1 Record,” “Radio City” and “3rd/Sister Lovers” – and then pads the remainder with no less than seven tracks culled from the ’90s reunion release “Columbia,” which found Big Star’s Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens joined by members of the Posies for a live recording. A useful overview for the novice, then, but there’s nothing here that serious fans won’t already have in their collections. Owning all three of the ’70s Big Star albums in full should be mandatory for any self-respecting music fan. ΩΩΩ (J.M.)


Donny Hathaway, “Never My Love: The Anthology” (Atco, four discs). What matters here – what really matters – are two discs of previously unreleased music. One is never before released studio recordings and the other is a full disc of 1971 performances from the Bitter End gig in New York that is also featured on what is perhaps the most famous Hathaway disc of them all, his 1972 “Live.” The tragedy of Hathaway stood out in a time when so many premature musicians’ deaths were drug overdose-related. In Hathaway’s case, he was treated for paranoid schizophrenia but wasn’t always assiduous about taking his medication. In 1979, he was found dead in front of Manhattan’s Essex Hotel. It was ruled a suicide. He was a truly exceptional figure. His duets with Roberta Flack are still remarkable – among the great pop duets of his or any time. On his 1971 Bitter End live gig here, you can hear him singing a song written by jazz composer/arranger Gary McFarland and originally sung by jazz drummer Grady Tate, not exactly an everyday occurrence for a great R&B figure. The stuff from the Bitter End that didn’t make the classic “Live” album – his slow version of “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”, for instance – isn’t all that less than the music that did. It’s the contention of liner annotater Charles Waring that “Donny Hathaway’s body of work is tantalizingly small but very varied and is in some ways because of that almost perfect.” A heady claim, but on the excellence of this box, not entirely unjustified. ΩΩΩ½ (J.S.)

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