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Listening Post: Stacey Kent, Wes Montgomery, Henryk Gorecki, Emil Gilels

JAZZ

Stacey Kent, “Tenderly” (Okeh)

Among the prouder acclaims of jazz as a music these days (and, in fact, since the age of radio) is its joyful protection of the “little” voice in a world of pop, rock and classical music devoted to making the voices and settings larger than they are (and, often enough, larger than they ought to be.)

The wittiest and greatest of all jazz’ “little voices” will always be the late, great Blossom Dearie. But her once inimitable legacy has, somewhat incredibly, expanded in the 21st century. Among the several “little voices” in jazz in an era where voices lead the way in popularity is New Jersey’s Stacey Kent, the singer in her late '40s who teams up here in the most intimate possible way with 78-year old Brazilian guitarist Roberto Menescal, one of the lesser known early apostles of Bossa Nova.

To maintain this record’s quiet charm all the way through, there’s no drummer on the disc, only Jeremy Brown on bass and an occasional lyric aria from Kent’s husband, tenor saxophonist Jim Tomlinson. Kent and Menescal were brought together by a Brazilian DJ named Bob Tortas.

It was he who brought Kent’s version of “Isn’t it A Pity” to Menescal and his wife and made this collaboration possible. Menescal may be thinking of Julie London and Barney Kessel as he plays but the result, on this album of standards and Great American Songbook classics, may also remind some of '50’s New York guitar master Mundell Lowe.

In its vehement intimacy, it is a kind of stubborn “littleness” in jazz recording that is paradoxically always bigger.

3 stars (out of four)

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Wes Montgomery, “One Night in Indy” featuring the Eddie Higgins Trio (Resonance)

So you say you’ve never heard of the Eddie Higgins Trio? So what? The operative rule is never, ever, pass up a chance to hear Wes Montgomery recorded when he was a local guitar prodigy in his home town of Indianapolis.

That’s when jazz giants would come through town and be mind-boggled at this local guitar titan playing with his thumb and doing wonders with octaves no one else even thought of. This disc of Montgomery’s live gig at a local club is the sound of a monster guitar player at ease on his home court. And his pianist Higgins is a pretty solid 1959 Midwest bebopper, just as their drummer Walter Perkins is a man who’d do wonders with Ahmad Jamal. It’s less than 40 minutes of music, true.

But for years “Wes in Indianapolis” was a legend among guitarists and jazz musicians. The legend, courtesy of Resonance, has been fully audible for a while.

3.5 stars (out of four)

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CLASSICAL

Henryk Gorecki, Symphony No. 4, “Tansman Episodes” performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Andrey Boreyko (Nonesuch)

The smash international success of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” threw almost everyone into a kind of delighted discomfort except for a horde of listeners so large that the record actually showed up on pop music charts. Gorecki’s discomfort on being interviewed by the international music press was echoed by the discomfort of the journalists themselves. However much they have felt pity for the mystic Baltic sea minimalist introduced to a new kind of attention and affection, they were, themselves, being offered a kind of stony rejection you can only get in another language and from another cultural climate altogether.

There’s a huge difference between the Third Symphony and this final Gorecki symphony in honor of Polish composer Alexander Tansman. Gorecki’s statement on the popularity of his Symphony No. 3 is that “Perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music ... Somehow I hit the right note or something they were missing. Something somewhere that had been lost to them.” Gorecki’s final fourth is a work of large, powerful even brutal and contradictory gestures (fortissimo timpani, for instance.)

In its third movement, a capturous chamber ensemble of strings and piano plays haunting music reminiscent of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” The symphony’s finale makes reference to a gallop by composer John Adams just as its second movement referred to music by Szymanowski. The changes in the Fourth Symphony’s finale couldn’t be more abrupt – archaic hammer blows alternating with hymnal melodies and triumphing at the end. A fascinating, puzzling and brilliant work. Despite its allusiveness, it’s a postmodern universe complete unto itself.

4 stars (out of four)

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Emil Gilels, The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon (Deutsche Grammophon, 24 discs).

A huge, magnificent box of recordings by the first exciting Soviet pianist to hit America in the 50s before Sviatoslav Richter turned American’s classical audiences upside down and, in the same period, Van Cliburn conquered Russia with Richter’s help (as a Tchaikovsky competition judge.)

In the middle and late '50s, great pianists of immense international reputation carried almost all of the yearnings of both Russia and America for an end to the Cold War. The 1955 reception for the first Soviet pianist to debut in the decade in America – Emil Gilels (1916-1985) – was almost a template for later pianist worship in both countries.

The obvious problem with this irreplaceable 24-disc box of Gilels’ recording career is the unavoidable technological disparity between Gilels heard in the recording techniques of the '60s through the '80’s (most of the Beethoven Sonatas were recorded then) and the earlier mono recordings from the '30s to the '50s (Baroque composers, Liszt, Medtner, Faure, Brahms and Kabalevsky).

As with so many pianists, Gilels’ career described an amazing arc from early extravagance and brashness (when he was initially known for playing “loud and fast”) to the Olympian virtuoso master of his final decades. In all decades, Gilels’ supremacy at the keyboard was never in doubt – all of it obvious on every disc here. One of the great keyboard figures of the 20th century.

4 stars (out of four)

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