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Listening Post: Joy Williams, Carter Pann, Kenny Werner

Pop

Joy Williams, “Venus” (Sensibility/Columbia). This is the first release from singer/songwriter Joy Williams since the demise of the Civil Wars, the Americana-infused duo she shared with co-writer/vocalist John Paul White. That Grammy-winning duo created hypnotic folk-based pieces brimming with sensuality born of the relationship between Williams and White – a relationship that ended acrimoniously in 2014. Williams wisely seeks to distance herself from the Civil Wars here, and it’s a move that might alienate some fans unfamiliar with the three albums Williams released under her own name before the Civil Wars’ rise to fame. There are elements of thinking person’s alt-pop and melancholy electronica at play here, inviting comparisons to Kate Bush at one turn and Paula Cole at the next. Mostly what’s here is a beauty tinged with sadness, though – even as “Not Good Enough” boasts a pure pop hook, there’s heartbreak in Williams’ delivery, as if she’s unable to shake off a spiritual ache that keeps her awake at night, or to fully disassociate herself from a troubled past. Some might find all of this a bit too precious and twee – the music all but screams “NPR,” but that’s the only scream you’re going to get, and so the sort of balance Bush achieved by contrasting emotional drama with a love of the weird bordering on the avant-garde is not present in “Venus.” It’s mostly compelling stuff, nonetheless.  (Jeff Miers)

Classical

Carter Pann, “The Piano’s 12 Sides,” “The Bills,” “The Cheese Grater” and “Your Touch” performed by pianist Joel Hastings (Naxos). Your eye, undoubtedly, was caught by a piano piece by this 43-year-old composer called “The Bills.” No, the piece has nothing whatsoever to do with a well-known football team whose fandom may well be the most populous religion in Western New York. It is, in fact, dedicated to two composers named William – i.e. “Bill” for a nickname – neo-ragtime composers William Albright and William Bolcolm. Accordingly, these are two rags, each about four and a half minutes long. “A Concrete Rag” for Albright is slower and Joplinesque, “An Elaborate Fantasy” for Bolcom is jauntier (The composer calls it “a playful two step” and says it’s inspired by Bolcom’s own works). Some of the composer’s enclosed notes for his strongly tonal work are academic, but others are great fun. As in his explanation of “The Cheese Grater – A Mean Two Step” composed in 1996 “over a long and very loud weekend. The title is inspired by not-infrequent accidents I had with this kitchen utensil and it was following two particular occasions of bloody kunckles that it came time to write something.” The eighth of his “The Piano’s 12 Sides” is called “Soiree Macabre” and the composer instructs us to “imagine a cadaverous Vincent Price playing this ragged-ghost waltz to an audience of zombie socialites milling about at the grand escalier, a monstrous old chandelier hanging sentinel above the fray.” Erik Satie, I think, would have liked Pann very much.  (Jeff Simon)

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Schubert, The Unauthorized Piano Duos, Vol. 3 Goldstone & Clemmow (Divine Art). I haven’t seen Volumes 1 and 2 of the Schubert unauthorized piano duos, but I think I get the idea: In Schubert’s time, anyone was free to make arrangements of anyone’s music. And such arrangements were popular because before recordings, you didn’t often have an orchestra or even a string quartet on hand, so the only way to explore a piece of music was often by playing it yourself, on the piano, with a friend. Here are two arrangements for two pianos: Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet by Anton Hüttenbrenner, a student of Salieri and a friend of Beethoven and Schubert; and the “Unfinished” Symphony, arranged by pianist Anthony Goldstone, half of the performing duo. Hüttenbrenner did a fine job with “Death and the Maiden,” which sounds very much in the spirit of Schubert’s piano music. The slow movement works out especially well because before he wrote the quartet, Schubert wrote the haunting little song, for voice and piano. It’s funny how the last movement has a galloping sound it doesn’t when a quartet plays it. Schubert liked to set songs about knights and such to a galloping rhythm, and this sounds like one of them. The “Unfinished” Symphony (which, in a relevant bit of trivia, lay undiscovered for years at Hüttenbrenner’s house) does not lend itself as easily to piano, but Goldstone’s transcription is imaginative, and there are riveting moments. Music from Schubert’s “Rosemunde” completes it. Goldstone & Clemmow, a British husband-and-wife team, give the music a classical grace that allows its songfulness to shine. We should hear these arrangements more. ½ (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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Great Comedy Overtures, The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Lance Friedel, conductor (Naxos). Don’t know this music? Sure you do. Once upon a time it was heard in cartoons; now, if you have listened casually to WNED-FM for any length of time. Here are 11 overtures mostly from 19th century operetta. The granddaddy of the collection is Domenico Cimarosa’s overture to the opera buffa “Il matrimonia segreto” (1792). And the young whippersnapper is Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Overture to “Il segreto di Susanna,” written as recently as 1909. In between comes a lot of music that, it occurred to me, is Andre Rieu territory: the flashy overture of Ferdinand Herold’s “Zampa,” for instance, the overture to Friedrich von Flotow’s “Martha”; Albert Lortzing’s Overture to “Zar und Zimmermann.” It’s fascinating to hear the bel canto overture to “Si j’etais roi” by Adolphe Adam, the composer we know chiefly from the operatic Christmas carol “O Holy Night.” Great music rises to the surface, this collection reminds you. It’s not by accident that the overture to Otto Nikolai’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is such a hit. This is first-rate light music. Majestic at the start, it unfurls into a riot of color – the music of a master, the best of its kind. The Scottish musicians, who probably know a thing or two about lilting music, play the music with heart and bounce. This isn’t music to change your life, but it will make your life a little bit brighter and zanier.  (Mary Kunz Goldman)

Jazz

Kenny Werner, “The Melody” (Pirouet) and Denny Zeitlin and George Marsh “Riding the Moment: Duo-Electro Acoustic Improvisations” (Sunnyside). What we have here are two recent discs by important living jazz pianists but outside the precincts of major jazz fame. One is a great and hugely ambitious and restless one, the other is a somewhat lesser and less ambitious but always compelling one. Unfortunately here, the great and ambitious pianist – Denny Zeitlin, who, throughout, his jazz life has always been a practicing psychiatrist – is collaborating with an old friend and cohort, percussionist George Marsh, on the kind of experimental electro-acoustic music that showed up in Zeitlin’s music for Philip Kaufman’s absurdly overpraised remake of Don Siegel’s superior “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Their “Riding the Moment,” because of its exploring electronic sound, is not without its interest. But much more interesting in its way is the far more conservative disc by the pianist who isn’t a fraction as ambitious as Zeitlin, Kenny Werner. “The Melody” was recorded in Germany with bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and drummer Ari Hoenig. It’s a disc that rewards frequent listening a good deal. He plays a lot of his own compositions, most of which gain enormously in interest the more you hear them. It’s what he does with the music of others that’s most interesting of all – a gorgeous version of “Try to Remember” from “The Fantasticks,” a fairly obscure tune by John Coltrane called “26-2” and a version of the Dave Brubeck tune probably most beloved by other jazz musicians “In Your Own Sweet Way” that begins with a free out-of-tempo introduction and then merges into an eccentric, stop-and-start free-form reshaping of the tune. Werner discs are often underrated and “The Melody” is no exception. It is, by the way, nothing at all – except in title – like the famous Keith Jarrett solo disc “The Melody Alone At Night With You,” which was Jarrett’s home-recorded way of coping with chronic fatigue syndrome. Zeitlin and Marsh’s “Riding the Moment” is, frustratingly, not all that much more interesting on second, third or fourth hearings than it was on the first time. ½ for Werner trio, ½ for Zeitlin and Marsh. (Jeff Simon)

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