Discs: Pharrell Williams, Mehliana, Ambrose Akinmusire, and the music of Steven Mackey and John Adams - The Buffalo News

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Discs: Pharrell Williams, Mehliana, Ambrose Akinmusire, and the music of Steven Mackey and John Adams


Pharrell Williams



2½ stars

Good, clean, dumb fun.

Pharrell Willams knows that pop music is at its best when it doesn’t attempt to rise above its station. That’s capital P Pop, mind you – throwaway, radio-friendly fodder, the sort that is meant to be at once instantly lovable and instantly forgettable. Within that particular subset of pop, Williams is lord and master, a man able to write, produce, assemble and perform eminently likable fluff.

Can there be a more insanely catchy bit of musical nonsense in the current pop climate than “Happy,” the hit single Williams assembled, or the rest of “Girl,” his first solo album in eight years? Not likely.

Three more potential smash singles off the disc – “Brand New,” “Gust of Wind” and “I Know Who You Are” – are so catchy that they’re close to annoyingly so.

Of course, Williams’ voice did most of the heavy lifting on two of last year’s biggest hits, Robin Thicke’s plastic soul anthem “Blurred Lines” and Daft Punk’s ode to ’70s disco “Get Lucky,” so it’s only fitting that both of those genres are amply represented throughout “Girl.” But Williams is clever, and as a producer with a ridiculously well-stocked resume of hits, he knows how to assemble a timely collection of beats and grooves. The guy is good with dense, polyrhythmic drum arrangements, but he’s just as good with classic funk grooves, a la Prince or recent Justin Timberlake, with the occasional nod to the ever-classy Earth Wind & Fire. The album has a beautiful sway in its hips, from first to last.

“Girl” feels like a grab-bag of tunes thrown together rather rapidly to cash in on the fact that Williams (and his ridiculous hat) has been everywhere lately, from the Grammys to the Oscars and back again. Williams, however, is clearly talented enough to pull it off with conviction. Will “Girl” be remembered in 10 years? Probably not. But it will certainly last through the summer of 2014. In fact, listening to it makes you long for a day when you might be able to roll down the car window and crank it up.

– Jeff Miers


Ambrose Akinmusire

The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint

[Blue Note]

3½ stars

In many ways, Ambrose Akinmusire is the most exciting young musician in jazz. The trumpet player won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz competition in 2007. The panel of judges that year was a trumpet aristocracy that went all over the map including Herb Alpert, Hugh Masekela, Quincy Jones, Terence Blanchard, Clark Terry and Roy Hargrove.

The music on this record has to be called “experimental” simply because it is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, and yet it’s made up of elements that are distantly familiar. Put it this way: What surrealism once was to gallerygoers in the 1920s, this music is to the jazz and advanced pop audience of 2014.

Akinmusire (pronounced Ah-kin-moo-sire-ee) isn’t intrinsically or radically interesting as a trumpet player – not, say, the way Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis once was. But what he does with his music has a poetic and narrative contingent that is almost completely unfamiliar. (“Composition is what I’ve been focusing on the last few years,” Akinmusire says. “I want to be able to write a song and not have it need improvisation.”)

He’ll conceive of a composition devoted to a homeless man who saved some money to pay back the church that fed him on weekends. Or a song inspired by Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell, or by tap-dance virtuoso John W. Bubbles, or one dedicated to an imprisoned 16-year-old killer featured in a documentary. And then he’ll turn words and singing over to such rare and idiosyncratic performers as Becca Stevens, Theo Bleckmann or Canadian-born, London-based singer-songwriter Cold Specks.

He has a basic quintet, but he’ll be happy to add a string quartet, if he needs to, or an extra guitarist.

This music is jazz, classical and alternative avant-pop mixed together in a way that sounds as if it’s all being newly discovered by a musician uninterested in any tradition at all.

It’s more fascinating at this stage than accomplished, but listen to this and you’ll suspect that somewhere down the road there’s a masterpiece in Akinmusire.

– Jeff Simon



Taming the Dragon


3 stars

In the life of every ambitious musical eclectic in modern music, a little rain must surely fall. Here, for the great jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, is an electronic duet record with drummer Mark Guiliana, with enough rainfall to ensure a bumper coffee crop in Colombia.

I don’t know if any of it comes within shouting distance of the music which Mehldau performs when he’s not being so free-form and plugged in, but it’s awfully entertaining at times, right from the beginning highway hipster story that gives the disc its title, in which we are instructed to dance (figuratively) with perpetrators of California highway road rage, not fight them.

Mehldau is far too creative a jazz musician to let electronics seduce him into being a crashing bore. But there’s no question that his previous ability to investigate “the art of the trio” sublimely as a pianist is in another league entirely from being a kind of Keith Emersonish keyboard show-off.

– J.S.


Steven Mackey and John Adams

“American Grace”: Music of Mackey and Adams

Performed by pianist Orli Shaham with pianist Jon Kimura Parker and the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by David Robertson

[Canary Classics]

3½ stars

Orli Shaham is one of the better performers of contemporary piano music. Her story of bonding with composer Steven Mackey when she was “seven months pregnant with my twin sons” while he and his wife were also expecting is charming. “I ravenously listened to his oeuvre, convincing me that he was the first composer I wanted to ask to write me a concerto.”

Here it is in a world premiere performance, called “Stumble to Grace,” with, according to her, “different pianistic influences that shine through the music – from Thelonious Monk to Mozart piano concerti to Bach’s counterpoint to Vince Guaraldi.” Along with them, she superbly performs a couple more familiar works, “Hallelujah Junction” and “China Gate,” that exemplify why John Adams is among the most popular of living composers for both musicians and audiences.

– J.S.

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