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Listening Post: Two incorrigible individualists – Francis Poulenc and Keb’ Mo

BLUES/POP

Keb’ Mo, “That Hot Pink Album” (Kind of Blue/Red, two discs, to be released April 15).

Don’t call Keb’ Mo (Kevin Moore to his mother) a blues man and expect that to mean much. Especially, not after hearing this two-disc live set of music from his life on tour throughout 2015. And as long as we’re mentioning things ill-advised, don’t ask why this is called “That Hot Pink Album” either.

He told his “team” to make his live teen set cover “Hot Pink” and so it is – along with the set’s name. Next to an inside picture of Keb’ Mo playing his guitar is this explication “Some will ask ‘why hot pink?’ And I say, ‘why not?’ Why not, indeed. If Keb’ Mo is a musician conspicuously reluctant to have any truck with stereotyping, why would he bother explaining his partiality to hot pink? Keb’ Mo’s usual waywardness comes at some musical cost, I think, though.

This two-disc set presents his live tour performances from all over the U.S. – Charleston, West Hampton, Denver, Wheeling, Saratoga, Kent, Ohio, Sturgis, S.D. But in the three performances at home in Nashville, things are so cozy between performer and audience that he thought he could get away with preserving his and his audience’s mutual affection for his song “Life is Beautiful.” It’s not quite as dispiriting as it is when Louis Armstrong – who in youth sang “What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue?” – wound up slathering “What a Wonderful World” on an all-too-eager world.

But it’s a moment many of us wouldn’t have wanted memorialized on disc along with things like “The Worst is Yet to Come,” “Government Cheese,” “Dangerous Mind” and “City Boy.” He’s a roots performer who is always vigorously defensible in theory but in practice, so much less than, say, that other blues individualist Taj Mahal.

3 stars (out of four)

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CLASSICAL

Poulenc, Piano Concertos and “Aubade” and two-piano chamber works performed by pianist Louis Lortie, with pianist Helen Mercier and the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Edward Gardner (Chandos).

Even if you restricted the composers of the 20th century’s greatest piano concertos to those you could tick off on the fingers of one hand Francis Poulenc would still make the cut – along with Bartok, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich. (We’ll discuss Samuel Barber and George Gershwin later.)

However much Poulenc may have been initially dismissed among the composers of “Les Six” (unlike Honegger and Milhaud), he quickly emerged as a composer of some of the hardiest and most beloved piano music of the 20th century – especially his austere 1929 “Aubade” for piano and orchestra, his 1919 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and, especially, the sublime D-minor concerto for two pianos and orchestra from 1932.

Though he denigrated his own playing, Poulenc was a pianist. His music, like that of his inspiration Erik Satie, has passages of such surpassing melodic grace that their beauty is as beautiful as any music of its century. Louis Lortie is ideal for this music. He writes that he discovered Poulenc in his early teens and was “astonished” that a composer alive in his lifetime “could write with so much facility and flair. He was perhaps the last one to write pleasurable music for the salon in an era when ‘serious’ composers were writing serial or electronic music.” Lortie considers “Aubade” a “truly neglected masterpiece” (no argument here) and the Concerto “almost a guilty pleasure.” No guilt whatsoever should ever accompany the two piano concerto. It’s beyond such foolishness.

A wonderful recording beautifully collecting music that belongs together on one disc – especially when performed this well.

3.5 stars (out of four)

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