Bryan Ferry, “Avonmore” (BMG). How is it possible that, 33 years after the release of the Roxy Music masterpiece “Avalon,” that album’s driving creative force, Bryan Ferry, is still releasing albums that measure up to that earlier release? At 69, Bryan Ferry has exactly one peer as a revered rock icon still making music on par with his best – Robert Plant. Though it’s not as if Ferry’s work over the past 20 years or so has been less than stellar – “Mamouna,” “Frantic” and “Olympia” are all top-tier works – the new “Avonmore” is particularly stunning. Refined, romantic, sensual, dignified and graceful, the album represents the finest blue-eyed soul extant, but it also boasts Ferry’s attention to detail, his penchant for building gorgeous edifices upon a foundation of harmonic minimalism, and his ability to marry pop and poetry. Working with longtime co-producer Rhett Davies, Ferry has assembled a jaw-dropping list of contributors, notable among them jazz/funk bassist Marcus Miller, Ferry’s son Tara on drums, as well guitarists Nile Rodgers, Johnny Marr, Steve Jones, Chris Spedding, Mark Knopfler and Neil Hubbard. Ferry is not one to invite people to perform on his albums purely to spur sales through association – he employs the particular talents of this incredible cast like a master painter mixing colors. It also doesn’t hurt that the songwriting is sublime – songs like “Loop De Li,” “Soldier of Fortune,” the title track, “Johnny and Mary,” and a complete rewrite of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In the Clowns” (yes, Ferry managed to rescue this song from the labyrinth of melodrama) require exactly one spin before they are stuck in your brain. This is quite simply as good as art-pop gets. ΩΩΩΩ (Jeff Miers)
Dionne Warwick, “Feel So Good” (Bright Music). No one’s going to pretend that at the age of 72 (she’ll be 73 Dec. 12), Dionne Warwick’s voice has the same lovely, sensitive, ethereal sound it did when it first bewitched and haunted the world and seemed the only way to hear Burt Bacharach songs. But aside from the occasional foghorn flirtation heard in this robust and healthy record of duets with Warwick NOW – mostly on old revisited Warwick or Bacharach classics – she sounds awfully good. In the post-Sinatra “Duet” tradition – but with real human contact – she has a star contemporary cast to sing with – Mya, Ziggy Marley, Ne-Yo, (“A House is Not a Home”), Ceelo Green, Jamie Foxx, Cheyenne Elliott, Billy Ray Cyrus, David Elliott. And just to make sure those closest to her own generation don’t feel left out, there are Cyndi Lauper and Gladys Knight (“I Know I’ll Never Love This Way Again.”) In her “special thank you notes” Warwick tells us “how ironic” it was that she and Lauper “happened to be in the same studio the day I was recording. Bumping into you in the hall was a blessing and having you sing your favorite song with me ‘Message to Michael’ sounds like it is your favorite song.” Knight’s entrance on “I Know I’ll Never Love This Way Again” gives Warwick goose bumps, she says. It might serve that way for others too. ΩΩΩ (Jeff Simon)
Jimmy Greene, “Beautiful Life” (Mack Avenue). Almost everything about this disc will break your heart. And so it should – if you’ve been equipped with one in the first place. “My daughter Ana was born on a Tuesday morning in early April 2006” writes saxophonist and composer Jimmy Greene explaining what this disc is all about. “Her life was ended in her first grade classroom on a Friday morning in mid-December – six years, eight months and ten days later. Despite the efforts of many to identify and debate the issues surrounding the Sandy Hook School shooting, an awful reality remains – there has been a proliferation of heinous, senseless acts of violence in America, acts that have ravaged my family and the families of so many others across our country.” In this disc celebrating the six years Ana Marquez-Greene was alive until she died Dec. 14, 2012, you see her picture with her mother, dancing with her father and hear her little voice recorded during a family Christmas gathering in Puerto Rico. It’s likely that hell and high water couldn’t have stopped an entire jazz community from wanting to be on this disc. It’s basic rhythm section is composed of pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Christian McBride and Lewis Nash on drums. Joining Greene before it’s over are Pat Metheny, Jonathan DuBose Jr., Kenny Barron, Cyrus Chestnut, Kurt Elling, Javier Colon, Latanya Farrell, actress Anika Noni Rose, a string ensemble from the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and a children’s choir made up of “my kid’s former classmates and close friends at Linden Christian School in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where we lived for three years before returning home to Connecticut in 2012.” Importantly, this is not funeral music by any means, for all the heart-battering circumstances of the music’s composition. It’s music about all the beauty to be thankful for, says Greene, despite “the seemingly unbearable weight of our loss.” If Greene’s music can’t quite do everything it wants to do, who could possibly not marvel that this disc exists at all – and its very reasons for that existence? A heartrending life triumph accomplished by musical means. ΩΩΩ (Jeff Simon)
Invocation: Music by Bach, Liszt, Ravel, Messiaen and Murail performed by pianist Herbert Schuch (Naive). What an unexpected and beautiful treasure this piano disc turns out to be. Herbert Schuch is a 36-year-old pianist who was born in Romania and moved to Germany when he was 9. In this specifically programmed recital, he is trying to give us music inspired by the sound of bells. It is built, then, around a theme of “invocation – the call of bells” but you can be sure that doesn’t begin to explain how exquisitely he plays a couple of Bach/Busoni chorales, a Tristan Murail memorial to Messiaen along with a Messiaen prelude, three pieces from Liszt’s “Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses” including the virtuoso fireworks of “Funerailles” and the “Valley of Clocks” movement from Ravel’s “Miroirs.” What sounds like a decidedly haphazard and out-of-focus program for a recital turns into a pretext for almost 70 minutes of sublimely performed and chosen piano music. Schuch is clearly a pianist worth paying major attention to from now on. ΩΩΩΩ (Jeff Simon)
Stravinsky and Raskatov, “The Rite of Spring” and Piano Concerto: “Night Butterflies,” Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Ludovic Morlot (Seattle Symphony). The trouble with Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” is that it’s been all downhill ever since the premiere of one of music’s greatest masterpieces on May 29, 1913. It was a ballet back then, not just the concert piece it later became. And its premiere is usually taken to be the most scandalous and disruptive debut in the entire history of music, if not the history of Western art.
What history records as a “near-riot” in Paris’ Theatre des Champs Elyseees has been problematic for the last 100 years in this way: how does one perform it to be congruent with that original adrenaline-pumped outrage? Or, on CD, what do you perform it with that makes a plausible musical relative (other than something by Stravinsky himself?)
Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim did a bang-up recently in their live duo recording of Stravinsky’s own two-piano adaptation. Seattle Symphony Orchestra conductor Ludovic Morlot – who is considered his generation’s musical progressive in the style of Michael Tilson Thomas (who’ll be 70 in late December) – isn’t a natural candidate for the job of conducting it a la Bernstein or Thomas or Valery Gergiev.
But his choice of music to pair with it is unusual and interesting – the “Night Butterflies” piano concerto of 61-year-old Russian composer Alexander Raskatov performed by Tomako Mkauyama – is surprisingly apt. Its pounding rhythms and primitive sonorities are distant modern relatives of “Le Sacre.”
Unfortunately, neither the mysticism or the savagery of Morlot’s version are 100 percent intact, leaving merely an urbane and all-too-dutiful performance of the landmark in the history of musical revolution – with a reasonably apt contemporary musical relative for good measure.
The trouble with the earthiest, cruelest and most blood-thirsty music in the classical repertory is that its essence has become all-too-easy to ignore and forget (and so it was by Stravinsky himself in his own conducted versions in his lifetime.) ΩΩΩ (Jeff Simon)
Ensemble LaCappella, “Shimmering” (Rondeau). Ensemble LaCappella is a grass-roots group from the Hessian region of Germany. Apparently in 2004, these six young women made friends as girls preparing for their First Communion, when they were asked to put on a Nativity play. Now they’re in their 20s, and they have a singing career they never expected. “Instead, they were and are driven by the joy of making music together.” Whether or not you have to take that with a grain of salt – they sound suspiciously accomplished – their music is a joy, which is what matters. They sound so guileless, almost like a boys’ choir.
Highlights of this disc are Max Reger’s enchanting “Maria’s Cradle Song,” several rarely heard songs by Robert Schumann, and a song by Ravel. A handful of contemporary pieces are a mixed bag. “Assumpta est Maria,” by Vytautas Miskinis, has appealing chanting, echoing effects. Music of the Renaissance, of Maurice Durufle and Francesco Guerrero round out the disc, which ends with a wintry Renaissance folk song. ΩΩΩ½ (Mary Kunz Goldman)
The Elora Festival Singers, “The Wonder of Christmas” (Naxos). There’s a lot to love about this budget choral disc from Naxos, not the least of which is that the director’s name is Noel Edison. Accompanied by Michael Bloss on the organ, the music is like one might hear, if one were lucky, at a Festival of Lessons and Carols. There is at least one dazzler, a tremendously light, witty arrangement by Mack Wilberg of “Ding Dong Merrily On High.” And a supremely calm and competent “O Holy Night,” and a traditional “Once in Royal David’s City.” “My Dancing Day” charms in the often-heard arrangement by Bob Chilcott, and a spacious, appropriately ostentatious performance of “The First Nowell” rich with descants and key changes. I could have done without that new tune for “The Holly and the Ivy” – but other little-known melodies charmed, such as Renaissance composer Jean Mouton’s antiphon for the Nativity. There seems to be something for everyone, including carols by Benjamin Britten, John Tavener and John Rutter. This Grammy-nominated chorus hails from Elora, Ont., a picturesque small town in the neighborhood of Kitchener and Guelph. ΩΩΩ½ (Mary Kunz Goldman)