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Disc reviews: Bilal, New West Guitar Group, Stevie Holland, David Finckel and Wu Han

R&B

Bilal

In Another Life

[eOne Music]

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He grew up in the birthplace of Philly soul, was raised in the Black Baptist Church, attended the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City, and loves Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder as much as he is fascinated by King Crimson. So, yeah, Bilal is an eclectic guy.

But as his fourth release, “In Another Life,” makes plain, eclecticism is no longer something to be feared, but rather, is an essential musical trait to be coveted, encouraged and explored. A friend and collaborator to everyone from pop diva Beyoncé to new jazz wunderkind Robert Glasper, Bilal has jazz chops and avant-garde hip-hop attitude in equal measure.

Teaming with producer and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Younge for this new effort, the singer crafts an album that equally favors darkness and light, ruminations on stark social realities and paeans to carnal pleasures. It is, at heart, true soul music, and though its production vibe is decidedly dusty, old-school, ’70s-centric and gritty, there is a distinct air of modernity in twisted post-Motown anthems such as “I Don’t Really Care,” the jazz/hip-hop mash-up “Pleasure Toy” and the genre-less mind-blower “Money over Love,” which features a killer cameo from modern hip-hop savior Kendrick Lamar.

Bilal’s vocal influences are clearly Gaye, Wonder and Sly Stone, but his love for Prince is apparent in his willful eclecticism and startlingly beautiful falsetto singing. When this is married to jazz harmonies, hip-hop grooves, and Younge’s glorious old-school production, the result is forward-looking music that pushes R&B forward at a time when the form so badly needs it. Brilliant, at times, and awfully close to brilliant everywhere else.

– Jeff Miers

Jazz

New West Guitar Group and Vocal Guest Stars

“Send One Your Love”

[Summitt]

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The recent announcement by the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts of three jazz artists to be featured there next season included one of the most exciting young figures in current jazz – Amer-Indian alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who previously played in Buffalo with Vijay Iyer.

Of far greater popularity, though, is breathy jazz singer Gretchen Parlato, who is also coming to UB. She is one of five major emergent jazz singers featured on the new disc by the New West Guitar Group in its 10th year of existence. The others are Tierney Sutton, Becca Stevens, Sara Gazarek and Peter Eldridge. While all sorts of new jazz singers continue to make names for themselves (a new disc by Cecile McLoren Salvant is on the way early next month), these five are lions of jazz singing’s emergent class, even the great Sutton, one of the most accomplished in the whole tidal wave of new jazz song.

The idea of the disc was a strong one – five superb current jazz singers decorating a three-guitar group functioning as backup. The trouble with the disc in its actual execution is, oddly, the New West Guitar Group, which is the focus of the disc and was its instigation.

Some of the accompaniments are weak and inappropriate, neither swinging nor all that sensitive. But some, to be frank, are banal and toothless, like music from some mediocre afternoon variety television show from the ’50s.

The singers, though, are quite fine, especially Sutton’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to” and “When She Loved Me” (by Randy Newman) and Stevens’ version of “Detour Ahead,” wonderful, never-quite-to-be standard.

These are people who know what some of the choicest nonstandard “standards” are and want to do them justice. Often enough, they do.

– Jeff Simon

Jazz

Stevie Holland

“Life Goes On”

[150 music]

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There is serious pedigree to this disc of 10 songs from the Great American Songbook. Not only are they being sung by Stevie Holland, whose off-Broadway musical with Richard Maltby Jr. “Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter” became one of the favorites of the most knowledgeable Porter constituency in New York, but heard in accompaniment throughout the disc is great New Orleans trumpet player Nicholas Payton.

If there’s any drawback to Holland’s disc it’s that the essential quality of her voice is both familiar and more appropriate to cabaret and theater than it is to jazz, per se. It’s a decent jazz voice and she’s a good jazz singer of the most straight-ahead variety but it’s an undeniable truth that the great jazz singers – whether Ella, Sarah, Billie or Carmen in the first-name-is-all-you-need club – announce themselves immediately through sound alone.

As much as she might sound like, say, the great veteran Nancy King, hers is not a voice from which one expects rhythmic agility or stark emotional power.

She’s a fine professional of jazz song, accompanied by an equally professional jazz trumpet player. Such things are never negligible now when so many jazz singers are glutting the market.

– J.S.

Classical

Brahms, Schumann, Mahler Piano Quartets

Daniel Hope, Paul Neubauer, David Finckel, Wu Han

[Deutsche Grammophon]

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I get a kick out of David Finckel and Wu Han. The husband-and-wife team – he’s the cellist, she’s the pianist – played Buffalo’s Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series a few years ago and they were captivating together. Both of them act endearingly ditzy. He mugs and squirms, and she gabs. And then they play, and they’re just superb.

On this disc, recorded live at Lincoln Center, they are joined by violist Paul Neubauer and violinist Daniel Hope. And maybe this perception is colored by my memory, but they all sound as if they are having a fine time. The Mahler, a single-movement fragment in A Minor eloquently marked “Nicht zu schnell,” is almost never heard. Mahler wrote it as a student, influenced by Bruckner and other great romanticists, and it has character and loveliness. Listening to it, you wished he had finished it.

The Schumann Piano Quartet, long unjustly eclipsed by his Piano Quintet, has always appealed to the best musicians. It also gets an attentive performance, particularly its glorious, sorrowing Andante Cantabile movement. The famous concluding Brahms G Minor Piano Quartet has a lot of fire, particularly the Gypsy last movement. The ending is wild. The crowd goes crazy. Live recordings really do have that certain something, and so does this music, which never loses its excitement.

– Mary Kunz Goldman

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