Listening Post: Michael Jackson, Leonard Bernstein, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Bobby Avey, Jeff Hackworth. - The Buffalo News

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Listening Post: Michael Jackson, Leonard Bernstein, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Bobby Avey, Jeff Hackworth.


Michael Jackson, Xscape (Epic/MMJ). It’s hard to argue with Quincy Jones. The revered producer, arranger and musician, who guided Michael Jackson in the making of his biggest and best albums – “Off the Wall,” “Thriller” and “Bad” – told the CBC last week that the posthumous release “Xscape” was tailor-designed “to make money.” Well, yeah. Albums compiled from scraps after the artist whose name is on the marquee are dead tend to be about the money. Sadly, “Xscape” is no exception to this general rule. Here, producers Timbaland, Babyface and others take Jackson’s demos and craft them into contemporary dance-pop pieces, with of-the-moment production. The resulting album, predictably, sounds pieced together. Jackson was meticulous in his studio work, particularly when Jones was insisting that he be so. It’s doubtful that he’d appreciate “Xscape,” but then, though the body might be gone, the brand lives on. So the recent Billboard Awards telecast found a holographic image of Jackson “performing” the “new” tune “Slave to the Rhythm,” and it was just as creepy as it sounds. Those fans who have had a truly difficult time letting Jackson go might find “Xscape” worthwhile. His singing is, as it always was, outstanding. The grooves constructed around that voice by the producers run the gamut from passable to contrived. The whole thing stinks of a “Let’s re-create this icon for a new, younger audience, and cash in” ethos. There’s something very cynical at the heart of “Xscape.” And Michael Jackson was many things, but cynical never seemed to be one of them. ΩΩ (Jeff Miers)


Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story performed by Alexandra Silver, Cheyenne Jackson and the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (SFS Media/Harmonia Mundi). Leonard Bernstein has never stopped being in season but, even so, he has seldom been as prominent in musical consideration as he is at the moment, what with Deutsche Grammophon issuing a mammoth 53-CD box of its Bernstein Collection (more on that later), and now his perceived acolyte Michael Tilson Thomas essaying a major two-disc recording of Bernstein’s great theatrical masterwork “West Side Story.” The original Columbia cast recording was one of the classic recordings of its era and will always remain the standard by which everything else is judged. With startling frankness, Thomas says in the notes, “For my fourteenth birthday, showbiz friends of my parents gave me the original cast album of ‘West Side Story’. But at that point my musical tastes had shifted from those of my parents’ circle. I actually exchanged the album at my local record store for Hans Rosbaud’s recording of the Berg Three Pieces for Orchestra.” But in the summer before his second year of college, he and his roommates had to paint their apartment and “one of my roommates had the ‘West Side Story’ album and played it while we painted. By the time we finished the job, ‘West Side Story’ had become a part of my life.” For years, he performed the “Symphonic Dances” from the score that Bernstein put together with Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal. But here is the complete score in what is, rather conspicuously, a classical concert rendering of it, i.e. without the nervousness and explosiveness that made the cast recording one of the all-time classics of American recording. It is, nevertheless, rather wonderful in its own way, which is “a whole dramatic picture” of the entire musical. For what it is, then, rather than for what it could never be, it’s terrific. ΩΩΩ½ (Jeff Simon)


Vittorio Grigolo, The Romantic Hero (SONY Classical). Tenor Vittorio Grigolo has been making a name for himself at the Metropolitan Opera, recently singing Rudolfo in “La Boheme.” Before that, he made a name for himself in Italy, where he grew up singing in the Sistine Chapel. I liked a disc of sacred music he released not long ago, titled “Ave Maria.” This CD shows a different side of him. But no one can argue that it is an alluring side. Grigolo’s graceful, free voice gives a lyrical loveliness to this set of French arias, by Massenet, Gounod, Bizet, Offenbach, Meyerbeer and Halevy. Joining him on occasion are Sonya Yoncheva and Alessandra Martines. Some of this music has sounded fluffy to me in the past, maybe because I am accustomed more to the German tradition of opera. Gounod’s music to “Romeo and Juliet,” for instance, always seemed too light for the drama’s theme. Grigolo, though, gives it an irresistible panache and it can be convincing, how he sings as if his life depends on it. The Italian tenor lives! Grigolo is accompanied by the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale Della RAI, Evlino Pido, conductor. ΩΩΩ½ (Mary Kunz Goldman)


Schumann, “Kinderszenen” and “Waldszenen” and Janacek “On the Overgrown Path I” performed by pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin (Hyperion). There is almost no overstating how magnificent Marc-Andre Hamelin’s recording career continues to be. There’s no one like him for performing difficult pieces of music that regularly terrify or elude completely in substance other classical pianists, whether we’re talking about Godowsky, Alkan, Busoni, Ornstein or Rzewski. But, conversely what we have here on this sublime recording of piano music are recordings at the very summit of piano lyricism played with a sensitivity and a stream-of-consciousness fluency and freshness that is, I think, at the apex of the pianist’s art for this music. A truly great recording by a pianist who is not in the habit of offering us much less. ΩΩΩΩ (J.S.)


Jeff Hackworth, “Soul to Go” (Big Bridge). The exact opposite on the jazz spectrum from the music on Avey’s serious chamber composition. This is from the Buffalo-bred tenor saxophonist who has always been proud to be steeped in the tradition of basic blue “chitlin circuit” tenor players from Gene Ammons and Ike Quebec to Stanley Turrentine, David “Fathead” Newman and Houston Person heard at the Pine Grille, the Bon-Ton and other clubs. It was Person who became Hackworth’s major recording benefactor when he got to New York. Hackworth isn’t the only major Buffalo reference on this gut-bucket ballads and blues record in the style Hackworth has long been so happy with. When you’ve got a Hammond B-3 organist who knows how to use the pedals as does Radam Schwartz, you don’t need a bassist – especially if you’ve got a guitarist as fluent in rhythm guitar as Ed Cherry. Buffalo was the city of Cherry’s professional birth. It was here that he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band for a Shea’s Buffalo gig which was, in effect, the beginning of his entire major league jazz life. Cherry was a soulful, Kenny Burrell plus Grant Green player then and he still is. Meat and potatoes jazz here, sticking to the ribs. ΩΩΩ½ (J.S.)


Bobby Avey, “Authority Melts from Me” (Whirlwind). Jazz ambition is not only making a comeback in the art but is often roaring to the fore even though the music itself is in a period of popular decline. It’s too easy to say those things are related. But what is obvious in this “suite for quintet, inspired by my respect for the Haitian people” written by a hugely ambitious composer/pianist, is that it’s a serious jazz chamber composition, however much brilliant soloing is done by Avey, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon and guitarist Ben Monder. In addition to writing a musical piece dedicated to Haiti, a country, says Avey, whose government, aided by the U.S., “has presided over eight years of human rights abuses,” he is, in addition to making a political statement, hoping “to add something to the legacy of jazz that stays true to the aspirations of that music while incorporating a style that up to now has not been explored in this way.” A style hypnotic, percussive, slashingly dissonant and yet enormously disciplined. This is music that has to be listened to a few times before it reveals itself. ΩΩΩ½ (J.S.)

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