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Listening Post: Mariah Carey, 20th Century Women Composers, Joe Locke

R&B

Mariah Carey, No. 1 to Infinity (Epic/Legacy). If you were to wake her up in the middle of the night and ask her for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but, Mariah Carey would no doubt admit she’s had better periods in her life than the one she’s living through. Snarksters and virtuosos in the not-so-fine art of schadenfreude would no doubt chortle at tales of marital woes with Nick Cannon and Vegas concerts canceled because of poor ticket sales. This disc proudly tells you that “Carey has scored more No. 1 singles than any artist in history; only the Beatles have more. And ‘One Sweet Day,’ her powerful duet with R&B group Boyz II Men remains the longest-running No. 1 single in Hot 100 history, topping the charts for 16 weeks between 1995 and 1996.” What all these 18 No. 1 hit singles may tell you is as much about 1) current popular music and 2) Top 100 record charts of the past 20 years as it does about Carey’s music which is distinguished by her astronomical Minnie Riperton high registers and, otherwise, a lack of true distinction most of the time. The sameness of R&B in the period she’s living in is hardly her fault but mostly for those with no special love for her history, it’s pleasantly pretty, over-produced and unoriginal music whose relationship to its singer’s diva reputation is a cause of no small mystery. Whether or not she really is a current “item” with film director Bret Ratner (who directed the video of “Heartbreaker” recorded with Jay-Z) is a matter that only she, Ratner and their press agents could answer definitively. Here, from the notes, is Carey telling us about “We Belong Together” from 2005: “Obviously, this song was an undeniable hit that reintroduced me to the world at a crucial time when I felt very vulnerable. I put all of my emotions into all of it. I love singing this song in concert and seeing the audience reaction as they sing along to the lyrics. It feels like we are singing the soundtrack to my life together in unison, just me and my fans.” A disc for Carey and her fans. No one else need apply. Obviously. ½ (Jeff Simon)

Classical

Beach, Boulanger and Clarke, “Music of 20th Century Women Composers” performed by soprano Lorna Windsor and the Trio des Alpes (2 Kultur/Dynamic). An important program by theme alone, to be sure, but it doesn’t hurt in the slightest that the disc is distinguished by the discovery of a relatively unknown female composer. Her name is Rebecca Clarke who lived a long life (1886-1979) and whose career as an orchestra violist and composer lost her, early in life, the support of her family. Her 1921 trio for violin, cello and piano is a powerful and quite beautiful piece of early 20th century neo-Romanticism whose rhythmic finale sounds like a nonderivative musical cousin of Bartok. Lili Boulanger is usually known as the younger sister of Nadia Boulanger, one of the most important composition teachers of the 20th century (everyone from Copland to Philip Glass), but is seldom known for some of the most mysterious and powerful, if little acknowledged, music of her time in what was an appallingly short life (1893–1918). She died of what we now – when it’s not often fatal – call Crohn’s disease at the age of 25. These two pieces for violin, cello, piano trio come from her final year on earth when she was often dictating her music to her sister because she wasn’t strong enough to hold a pen. Nothing by Lili Boulanger is negligible and some of it – her religious music for orchestra and chorus – is extraordinary. The music of Amy Beach is of more historic importance – especially on this disc – than the music of Clarke and Boulanger, which sounds fresh and gripping in its newness. ½ (Jeff Simon)

Jazz

Joe Locke, “Love Is a Pendulum” (Motema); “Circulation: The Music of Gary McFarland” directed by Michael Benedict (Planet Arts). Since headlining some concerts in The Buffalo News’ Jazz series at Albright-Knox Art Gallery, vibraphonist Joe Locke has become an increasingly ambitious, interesting and important figure in the jazz world. He was always a player – a “musician’s musician” as the publicity for “Love Is a Pendulum” has it, but as a stalwart of the next generation of jazz vibraphonists after Gary Burton, he has probably eclipsed Stefon Harris now. He’s happy to tell us that “Love Is a Pendulum” is “my best work thus far” whose centerpiece is a five-movement suite based on a poem by writer and musician Barbara Sfraga. The band of musicians and guests on the disc is formidable: pianist Robert Rodriguez, drummer Terreon Gully and bassist Ricky Rodriguez. Guests include Donny McCaslin and Rosario Giuliani on saxophones, Paul Bollenback on guitar, and vocalist Theo Bleckmann who appears on “Love Is a Planchette.” If, somehow, “Love is a Pendulum” somehow weren’t enough to indicate Locke’s movement into a higher level of jazz recognition after a life of respect already, Michael Benedict’s superb upcoming disc devoted to the music of the late composer/arranger/vibraphonist Gary McFarland proves the point many times over. McFarland has unfortunately become an increasingly obscure figure since his early ’60s heyday. Compositions, though, like “Why Are You Blue?” would be sturdy played by almost anyone, especially this band with Locke on vibes, Bruce Barth on piano, Sharel Cassidy on saxophone, Mike Lawrence on bass and Michael Benedict on bass. McFarland died at 38 after drinking a drink spiked with methadone under circumstances unclear to this day. His is a reputation that very much deserves the revival Locke and top-level friends give it.  for both. (Jeff Simon)

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