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Listening Post: Harry Belafonte, Bill O'Connell and Philip Glass

Folk Music

Harry Belafonte, "When Colors Come Together" (RCA/Legacy).

Sidney Poitier came first on Feb. 20. On March 1, it's Harry Belafonte's turn. That's when he turns 90. If ever there were two Americans who changed radically the way America looked at itself in the mirror, it's those two.

Unlike Poitier and Belafonte, Billy Eckstine and his most ardent fans used to complain that white America couldn't live with the sexual challenge he provided (and flocked to Sinatra instead.) But no one could possibly ignore the tidal sexual attraction of the two impossibly handsome African-Americans who rocketed to stardom in the mid-'50s and revised all racial thinking entirely.

The challenge that Eckstine claimed was too frightening to American white males had to be accepted fully when Poitier and Belafonte came along. It's no small thing that both were actors of great talent and giant presence. You had to see Belafonte perform in his prime to appreciate both his theatricality as a folk singer (he was one of the least "folksy" performers who ever lived) and its iron grip on live audiences, especially those of the female persuasion. He virtually invented Calypso as a musical form for American ears with his 1956 album "Calypso," the first LP to sell a million copies.

PBS' 2011 Belafonte tribute "Sing Your Song" produced a tribute anthology more interesting than this, even if Belafonte himself picked the contents of this one. You can't blame him for celebrating the institution and historical figure he's become but you can't necessarily give a hoot about a children's choice singing a new version of "Island in the Sun" either.

But the great stuff from "Calypso" is still here --"Banana Boat Song," "Jamaica Farewell," "Matilda," "Brown Skin Girl" with "Scarlet Ribbons" and some others where Belafonte the legend and pivotal historical figure is more prominent that the performer who opened American eyes and ears to a new culture it needed desperately. Almost completely missing is the humorous Belafonte who gave us "Man Smart" and "Zombie Jamboree." He too was a key to how radical a figure he became.

3 stars (out of four) - Jeff Simon

*****

Jazz

Bill O'Connell, "Monk's Cha Cha" Solo piano Live at the Carnegie-Farian Room (Savant).

There are a couple of jazz standards here--"The Song is You," "It Could Happen to You." And prominent is Mongo Santamaria's jazz standard "Afro Blue." But most of these live piano performances are  from a concert venue in Rockland County is composed of originals by a composer and veteran pianist deserving more attention and finally, it seems, getting some of it.

The trouble, though, in an era when great jazz pianists have re-invented the art of solo jazz piano, O'Connell sounds more like a poetic bebopper than a 21st century master. He is always, and perhaps forever, better as a jazz trio pianist with a bassist and a drummer.

3 stars (out of four) - Jeff Simon

*****

Classical/New Music

Philip Glass, Piano Works performed by Vikingur Olaffson and the Siggi String Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon). It has sometimes driven classical critics batty that Philip Glass has always been so comfortable in concert playing his own piano music. His models, in doing so, were jazz pianists as composer/performers rather than virtuoso classical pianist/composers like Rachmaninof, Bartok and Poulenc.

The greatness, though, of classical pianists steeped in Glass' music performing his works for piano is undeniable, especially compared to Glass' own idiosyncratic musical monologizing. This is, frankly, one of the best single discs of Glass piano music I've ever heard, with a full spectrum of dynamics heard along with both personal utterances and works of true grandeur.

Only two distinct works are presented: The opening of "Glassworks" performed at low volume by pianist alone and then again by pianist with string quartet; and forming the giant middle portion of the disc, 11 of Glass' etudes for piano performed out of order (no. 9 begins precedes no. 2 which precedes no. 6 etc.)

In full performance, Glass' Etudes take two and a half hours to play. This selection of them by the 33-year old pianist from Iceland is quite stunning in its way. Everything about this selection--choice of repertoire, dynamic level, performance--is exquisite. This is Glass minimalism that even a hostile Ravel and Debussy-lover could love.

4 stars (out of four) - Jeff Simon

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