• Published

Classical

Dussek, Piano Concertos, Howard Shelley, pianist and conductor, The Ulster Orchestra (Hyperion). The Bohemian composer Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812) was an important figure in piano in the era of Mozart and Beethoven. He made many contributions to the genre of the piano concerto, contributions outlined in the notes to this CD, which are enjoyably dense and informative in the way that Hyperion notes are. Dussek was the first pianist to put the piano sideways on stage, so everyone could see his hands. He made structural innovations which may have influenced Mozart. He may have been the first composer to omit the cadenza. He pioneered a slow introduction. There are other innovations too complicated to explain quickly, and in the long run they don’t matter much. Because listening to his music, you learn a lesson, that greatness does not lie by definition in innovation. Dussek’s music, accomplished as it is, never attracts your attention. Whereas Mozart, with or without a cadenza or a slow introduction or whatnot, melts your heart. With that in mind, the thrill of hearing the Dussek is that it makes you realize with new clarity how alien, how disorienting, Mozart’s and Beethoven’s music must have seemed at the time they wrote it. If Dussek’s tinkering with the formula helped them write what they did, he deserves our thanks. The performances here are flawless in the way we come to expect from Hyperion. Howard Shelley usually tackles super-virtuoso music and does a nice job with these more modest concertos. And good for the Ulster Orchestra, guided and nurtured by JoAnn Falletta over the last couple of years, to be helping with this prestigious project. ∆∆∆ (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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Rzewski, Piano Music: “Fantasia,” “Second Hand,” and “De Profundis” performed by pianist Robert Satterlee (Naxos). In the profoundly illustrious history of musicians who were once Creative Associates at the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Music, Frederic Rzewski (pronounced “Reffski”) must be accounted one of the authentic standouts at this stage of the 21st century. The composer and virtuoso pianist – now 77 – is known in 2014 as the composer of one of our time’s greatest and most admired pieces of piano gigantism, his epic 36 variations on Sergio Ortega’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.” It has become even more of a performance rite of passage for contemporary pianists than Charles Ives’ immense Concord Sonata. Among the pianists who have recorded it is Robert Satterlee who, on this disc, brilliantly performs some of its relatives in Rzewski’s piano oeuvre. Ten years after pianist Aki Takahashi commissioned his “Fantasia,” Rzewski wrote a second version, changing “the music to obscure the tune, putting in lots of wrong notes and kind of stomping on and smudging everything.” “Second Hand or Alone at Last” from 2005 is a set of six “virtuoso studies” for left hand alone (reminiscent of all the music written for pianist Paul Wittgenstein – Ludwig’s older brother – who lost an arm in World War I). “De Profundis,” for speaking pianist, is based on Oscar Wilde’s classic essay and requires the performer to sing, hum, whistle and hit his body. And yes, of course, that all sounds like a Creative Associate concert. A fine recital of piano new music (as opposed to new piano music.) ∆∆∆½ (Jeff Simon)

Jazz

Dr. John, Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch (Concord). Well, if anyone seems well-suited to tackling a tribute to Louis Armstrong, it’s Dr. John, one of the funkiest white men to ever emerge from New Orleans. This is not the first time the good doctor has paid “Props to Pops” – he presented concerts beneath that moniker in New York in 2012 and Hollywood in 2013 – but for the “Ske-Dat-De-Dat” sessions, “the Night Tripper” attempted to channel the Armstrong vibe through his own decidedly funk-inflected take on New Orleans music. He got a lot of help here, from the likes of trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Terence Blanchard, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and a ridiculously abundant list of virtuoso blues, soul, R&B and gospel singers, among them Bonnie Raitt, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Ledisi, Anthony Hamilton and Shemikia Copeland. Most of the time, it works. The doctor’s vocal phrasing and sly, snaky Professor Longhair-inspired piano comping is a natural fit for the Armstrong-associated material, and many of the guest vocal spots are close to transcendent, particularly Raitt’s take on “I’ve Got the World On A String” and the Blind Boys of Alabama’s church-soaked “What A Wonderful World” and “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams.” Of course, Armstrong’s greatest gift to the world was his trumpet playing, which laid the template for what we now understand as jazz, and paved the way for bebop. So this album needed some trumpet muscle, and it got some from Payton (a fiery “Gut Bucket Blues”) and Blanchard (a bold and brassy “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”). Dr. John has said that the inspiration for the creation of “Ske-Dat-De-Dat” came to him from a dream in which he was visited by Armstrong, who “told me, ‘Take my music and do it your way’ ”. That’s exactly what ended up going down, and with the possible exception of “Mack the Knife” – this one could’ve done with a more strict reading of the melody – Dr. John has crafted a collection that both captures and celebrates “The Spirit of Satch”. ∆∆∆ (Jeff Miers)

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Greg Reitan, “Post No Bills” (Sunnyside). The gorgeous piano trio heard here has been together since they formed in 1996 at the University of Southern California’s music school. Even in a world of younger jazz pianists that includes the great Brad Mehldau, Reitan would clearly now be a standout. And his trio with bassist Jack Daro and drummer Dean Koba is unusually fine, especially when you consider the truly exalted taste with which the whole disc was programmed. The title is from an older piece by Reitan that has been reprogrammed for trio and is the second-last piece heard. But the rest is supremely fine – Keith Jarrett’s “The Mourning of a Star,” Horace Silver’s (not Ornette Coleman’s) “Lonely Woman,” Chick Corea’s “Windows,” Denny Zeitlin’s “After the War.” Reitan is a pianist who can, when necessary, gobble up the keyboard at racehorse tempo, but he is, at heart, a lyric player writing tender waltzes like “Spring” and playing some of the most heart-rending music in the jazz pianist’s repertoire (“I Loves You Porgy”) as well as some that is among the artfully adaptable uptempo “standards” in any band book (“Stella By Starlight.”) A delicious jazz piano trio. ΩΩΩ½ (Jeff Simon)

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Larry Fuller with Hassan Shakur and Greg Hutchinson (Capri). It would be no doubt an oversimplification to say that any jazz pianist who was a friend of Ray Brown’s should be a friend of the rest of ours. But when you remember that the kind of pianist the great bassist used to keep company with included the likes of Gene Harris and Monty Alexander, you have some idea of the kind of crowd-pleasing and artful jazz piano played by Fuller on this disc. He was a trio-mate of Brown’s in one of his latter-day bands. And he tells you his jazz trio ideology here when he says “my favorite musicians embrace the elements at the core of jazz – a joyous swinging pulse and an affinity for the blues.” Gene Harris and Monty Alexander country, in other words. And Fuller does all of that. He takes Clifford Brown’s “Daahoud” at a gallop and makes plausible jazz out of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” without, in any way, burying what is melodically exquisite about the song. After the rubato introduction to “Django,” Fuller digs hard into the funk for its improvisatory section. No jazz pianist who makes sure that his jazz trio disc has a track combining Duke Ellington’s “Reflections in D” and “Prelude to a Kiss” – however awkwardly – should ever be taken for granted. No wonder Ray Brown liked playing with him so much at the end of his life. ∆∆∆ (Jeff Simon)

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