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Listening Post: Brief reviews of Blackalicious, Mose Allison, Erroll Garner and Anthony DeMare

Hip-Hop

Blackalicious, Imani Vol. 1 (Black Mines). With the likes of Kendrick Lamar crafting headstrong, musically inventive and intellectually sound hip-hop masterpieces like “To Pimp A Butterfly” in the present tense, Sacramento-born late-’90s/early ’00s rap revolutionaries Blackalicious don’t sound quite as irreverent and anti-establishment as they once did. The duo – MC Gift of Gab and DJ Chief Xcel – has been off the grid for a decade now, and during that time, so many of the seeds planted by the group’s high watermark “Blazing Arrow” album (2002) have blossomed into a new forward-looking, genre-stretching art, with Lamar’s being only the most adventurous and obvious example. So Blackalicious’ return to the ring, in the form of “Imani Vol. 1,” (“Imani” being a Swahili word for “faith”) arrives more like a “Hey, remember me?” text message than “Step aside, or get run over” manifesto. Whatever. You can’t live in reverse, and Blackalicious still has plenty of life left in it, as evidenced by the cool, laid-back funk, deep grooves, and often inventive production that makes “Imani” a record that you can party to while simultaneously indulging in rumination. As has been the case with Blackalicious music from the beginning, this collection has positivity and nonviolence in its sights, while simultaneously emphasizing the vigilance necessary for the bettering of one’s circumstances. Though the general textual thrust is an Afro-centric one – with the smokin’ “Blacka,” featuring a Lee “Scratch” Perry sample, offering the most jubilant and forceful example – anyone who has suffered, who has worked to better his or her own reality, or managed to survive amidst a dire day-to-day set of circumstances long enough to reap the benefits of enduring companionship, children and maturity, will find plenty of affirmation in pieces like “Inspired By,” “Escape,” “The Sun” and “Love’s Gonna Save the Day.” Even those who find such sentiments to be cloying – cynics, basically – will have no choice but to bow before the multisyllabic mastery of Gift of Gab, one of the more creative rhythmic linguists in the history of rap. It’s more than nice to have Blackalicious back. “Imani” does not represent a return to form for the duo, since Blackalicious has never really slipped. But it’s a welcome addition to a compelling catalog. ŒŒŒ½ (Jeff Miers)

Jazz

Mose Allison, “American Legend Live in California” (IBis). “I’m not your Hoochie Coochie Man” sang the great Mose Allison at the age of 79. “I’m not your Seventh Son./I’m just a middle class white boy/out trying to have some fun.” When he was younger, of course, the long-retired 87-year-old all-time great jazz/bluesman was masterful and famous for singing about great blues claims to be Seventh Sons and Hoochie Coochie Men. In his gloriously acerbic senior years, Allison was the coolest jazz/blues “middle-class white boy” America is ever likely to have. He was always a great live act and here in 2006 in Fairfax, California’s 19 Broadway Club, he’s in brilliant, late-period club form and he’s recorded so well you can hear up close and personal his unintentional “uh-uh-uh” hummed accompaniments to himself while he plays. It’s not far from a greatest hits package – the early classic “Everybody’s Crying Mercy” (which has been sung by almost everyone), John D. Loudermilk’s patented crowd-pleaser “You Call It Jogging (But I Call it Runnin’ Around”), and, of course, his immortal “Your Mind Is On Vacation (But Your Mouth is Working Overtime”) among many others. It wasn’t generally known before Mose insisted on telling us, that jazz clubs could turn Mississippi Delta singer/pianists into consummate homespun philosophers, but this is late-period Allison as at home in this environment as anyone has ever been. Delightful. ŒŒŒ½. (Jeff Simon)

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Erroll Garner, “The Complete Concert By the Sea” (Columbia/Legacy, three discs). For our new century, this is a glorious remastered reissue exploring one of the more damnable mysteries in jazz history – the eventual obscurity of an utterly irresistible jazz pianist who was, in the mid-’50s, one of the most popular musicians in jazz (“the most happy pianist” one Columbia record understandably called him). As one notater here, Robin Kelley, puts it, “So why isn’t Erroll Garner the subject of half a dozen biographies, hundreds of scholarly articles and theses, or even a major biopic?” Easy to answer, it turns out. In 1961, Garner successfully sued Columbia Records for wanting to release recordings Garner had not approved. His victory came at a cost to his subsequent career. What would he think of this complete release of one of his greatest and most popular records, with 11 tracks appearing for the first time? Heaven only knows, but a good guess, given his history, is not much. What great current pianist Geri Allen writes nevertheless is, “His playing embraces both the rich, two-fisted roots of his musical origins while his innovative improvisations point toward the future. An artist whose music is a defining precursor to bebop, Erroll Garner embodied the very spirit of swing free improvisation and the blues, Garner personified the joy of fearless creativity and exploration. ... Garner’s genius was in his ability to spontaneously compose fully orchestrated big band language in a singular virtuosic piano style.” And, as is always pointed out, he couldn’t read music and had never had a lesson. Forget, I say, that among the new stuff is a version of “Laura” with cascading arpeggions like the worst in Roger Williams and Liberace. Just listen to the incredible “Caravan” that follows. An extraordinary and now-definitive remastered reissue. ŒŒŒŒ. (Jeff Simon)

Classical/Jazz

Anthony DeMare, “Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from The Piano” (ECM, three discs). What a good idea this was. To wit, what if a pianist sometimes called “an evangelist of new music” commissioned contemporary composers to “re-imagine” Stephen Sondheim’s songs as contemporary music for the piano? What Sondheim writes in response to it in the notes is this: “Over the years, I’ve heard songs of mine ‘interpreted’ by singers and piano players and arrangers who change either the vocal lines or the harmonies or both. And much as my ego gets a lift when people sing my stuff, in every case I’ve winced. The pieces created for ‘Liaisons’ are a different matter entirely; they’re written by composers, not arrangers, and they aren’t decorations of the songs. They’re fantasias on them, responses to the melodic lines and the harmonies and occasionally the accompaniments.” Under pianist DeMare’s fingers, here are some of the pairings of composer and Sondheim song: Nils Vigeland and “Merrily We Roll Along,” Rodney Sharman and “Beautiful,” Thomas Newman and “Not While I’m Around,” Michael Daugherty and “Everybody’s Got the Right,” William Bolcom and “A Little Night,” Steve Reich and “Finishing the Hat,” Wynton Marsalis and “That Old Piano Roll,” Fred Hersch and “No One Alone,” Ethan Iverson and “Send in the Clowns,” Frederic Rzewski and “I’m Still Here,” David Shire and “Love is In the Air,” and Mark-Anthony Turnage and “Pretty Women.” One could well say none really improves on the original songs. But almost all “fantasias” are fascinating. And superbly played. A terrific project. ŒŒŒ½. (Jeff Simon)

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