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Disc reviews: Thundercat, Sarah Fox, Antonio Sanchez & Migration



The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam



Thundercat’s influence is already immense, even if much of the music-loving populous has never heard of the bass- playing, singing and songwriting wunderkind.

That influence is all over Kendrick Lamar’s chart-topping, game-changing hip-hop masterwork “To Pimp A Butterfly,” along with a few of his compatriots, among them Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington. Thundercat – aka Stephen Bruner – shines in every setting, but it’s as a solo artist and bandleader that he shines brightest, as the freshly released “The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam” makes plain.

As a bassist, Bruner has few, if any, contemporary equals. He’s a dazzlingly virtuosic player who blends funky lines with lush chord arpeggios, all played on his hollow-body six-string bass. But this new effort is not all about that bass, at least wholly – it’s about the songs, the way that Bruner has crafted them, the way he sings them in a voice dripping with soul, and the way they seem to effortlessly bridge gaps between funk, R&B, jazz, hip-hop, dreamy psychedelia, and epic multimovement prog-soul.

Opener “Hard Times” suggests what it might have sounded like had Isaac Hayes worked with Todd Rundgren in a world where progressive music and Philly Soul were not deemed mutually exclusive; “Song for the Dead” displays the influence of recent Radiohead releases, but also moves along with a thrust and parry that is more R&B than it is experimentalism; “Them Changes” is swampy funk with an undeniable groove and some gorgeously emotive falsetto work from Thundercat during the periodic bridges; “Lone Wolf & Cup” forms the album’s emotional center, as Bruner drops an ethereal vocal melody atop a complex but propulsive bass arpeggio figure, and guest Herbie Hancock contributes washes of synth-strings and funky interjections.

This is broadly conceived and consistently daring music, and it suggests that Bruner is one of the most significant artists making music that might be considered to fit beneath the “pop” umbrella. He’s stretching an envelope that badly needs stretching.

– Jeff Miers


The Cole Porter Songbook

Sarah Fox, soprano James Burton, piano

[Signum Classics]


Like the songs of Cole Porter, this album is a real mixed bag. Among these 20 Porter songs are the famous and less known, the gently humorous and the flagrantly arch, the sultry and the moving.

“The Tale of the Oyster” is well done, with pianist James Burton chiming in on occasion as the voice of the oyster. Sarah Fox sings “You Do Something To Me” as a kind of nod to Ella Fitzgerald, whose spirit also shines in “Don’t Fence Me In.” Fox is a British soprano (born in a North Yorkshire town with the unforgettable British name of Giggleswick). She sings a lot of Mozart and Beethoven, and even on this album she sings with classical sensibilities. “In the Still of the Night” could be an aria, the way she sings it. But she has a lilt to her voice and also lowdown blues inflections.

Burton can also play like a blues pianist, and plays rocking accompaniments to “Anything Goes” and “What Is This Thing Called Love?” The arrangements are Burton’s. They’re mostly simple, and for the most part very effective. The only “fail” is “Night and Day,” which just doesn’t make much sense. It’s as if they didn’t know when to stop the experimentation. But heck, that just makes me suspect that alcohol was involved – a plus, at least to a degree, if you are singing Cole Porter. And it’s nice that all the songs don’t have the same flavor.

– Mary Kunz Goldman


Antonio Sanchez & Migration

The Meridian Suite



Extraordinary drummer Antonio Sanchez and his band Migration just played this extremely ambitious long suite at the Rochester Jazz Festival (how tragic to have no festival as high level as that here anymore. Rochester’s and Toronto’s are the closest.)

This is not as exceptional as Sanchez’s disc “Three Times Three” in which the drummer who was robbed of a Best Score Oscar for his “Birdman” drum music (improvisations aren’t eligible, somewhat incredibly) played with three separate trios on a two disc set with the likes of Brad Mehldau, John Scofield and Joe Lovano. But it’s enormous evidence of exactly how powerful a small group jazz composer Sanchez is, as well as how powerful a leader.

His group here is exceptional: tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, pianist John Escreet and bassist Matt Brewer, with guest appearances by singer Thana Alexa and guitarist Adam Rogers. What Sanchez says here so inspirationally is that this suite was created by wondering what would happen “if I didn’t worry about time or style constraints if I didn’t care about whether the material was too long for radio play. If I didn’t stop myself or edit my creative flow to fit certain parameters. If I just kept on writing.”

He calls it “the equivalent of a musical novel instead or seven or eight short stories,” something that “encompasses everything I am today as a composer, an artist and a human being.” To understate the case, he recommends that the 55-minute work be listened to with “the shuffle function on your listening device” turned OFF.

– Jeff Simon



String Quartets 1, 8 and 14

Performed by the Borodin Quartet



Shostakovich personally supervised the original Borodin Quartet’s study of his quartets. Obviously, in the 70th year of the existence of something called the “Borodin Quartet” we are not talking about the same musicians. Nevertheless, their performances of Shostakovich are justifiably renowned for their excellence.

The eighth Shostakovich Quartet is the one that is well known for its string orchestra adaptation as Shostakovich’s “Chamber Symphony.” The penultimate 14th quartet was composed in 1973 while the first movement of the first quartet, we’re told, began as a four-page harmony exercise.

So what you have here are all aspects, really, of Shostakovich’s immensely personal string quartet writing performed by an aggregate whose historical association with this music isn’t about to permit laxity of any sort.

– J.S.

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