BILL FRISELL Gone, Just Like a Train (Nonesuch 79479-2); PHILIP CATHERINE QUARTET Live (Dreyfus FDM-36587-2). Bill Frisell's "Nashville" was one of the great jazz records of 1997, a fusion of genres so successful that it didn't sound like fusion at all but rather a kind of hitherto unimagined but natural American roots music. Frisell's newest disc is no "Nashville," but it continues the guitarist's collaboration with Lyle Lovett's bassist Viktor Krauss (brother of Allison). Completing the trio on "Gone, Just Like a Train" is the revered L.A. rock drummer Jim Keltner (Clapton, Dylan, John Hiatt, Steely Dan, etc.). "Mystery" is what Frisell says he looks for in musicians, and "these guys have it," which may even be understatement. It rocks hard when it rocks, wails when it wails, and is folksy and fresh when it's folksy. It's the greatest kind of fusion jazz -- jazz that literally fuses two things together to make a powerful and distinct third thing. At the moment, Frisell is the most creative guitarist in jazz, by far. Rating: ****. Not quite as successful fusing things is the live set by the great French guitarist Philip Catherine (whom Mingus, after his late and only session to include guitars, dubbed "Little Django"). The midsection of this 1996 live performance in the Netherlands allows Bert Van Den Brink to ooze synthesizer slime over everything on keyboards. When Van Den Brink simply plays piano or organ in effective support of Catherine, it becomes clear why so many people think Catherine one of the world's great jazz guitarists and certainly one of the finest in Europe (besides another former "Little Django," Bireli Lagrene). When Catherine swings, he doesn't just swing hard, he stomps. And when he plays midtempos, he can be blisteringly inventive. Rating: *** 1/2
-- Jeff Simon
KENNY ROGERS Across My Heart (Magnatone MGT-116-2). I've mocked Kenny Rogers a lot, because he and his music have always struck me as smug and stilted. But what do I know? Rogers has sold 80 million records, going back to 1958 and a song called "That Crazy Feeling." He hasn't had many hits lately, but he may have a major success on his hands. This disc finds him going back to what he does best, soft country ballads. "To Me," with backing from Kim Carnes, is one of the prettiest I've heard this year. And hats off to Kenny for doing "Have a Little Faith in Me," by the superb songwriter John Hiatt. Rating: ****
-- Dan Herbeck
GARY STEWART The Essential Gary Stewart (RCA 66932-2). Twenty years ago, when lightweights like John Denver and Olivia Newton-John were somehow dominating country music, a hard-living Kentuckian named Gary Stewart was one of the few singers still doing honky-tonk music. Stewart's best songs like "Drinkin' Thing," "Out of Hand" and "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)" were throwbacks to the glory days of George Jones. This 20-song set is a good sampler. Stewart's wobbly voice won't suit everyone's taste, but you've got to have a certain amount of admiration for a guy who wrote songs like "You Can't Housebreak a Tomcat." Rating: ***
VARIOUS ARTISTS Including Gary Haleaman and Sonny Lim, Na Mele O Panolo: Songs of the Hawaiian Cowboy (Warner Western 9-46561-2). Now, this is really off the beaten track! You may never hear them on country radio, but the lilting harmonies of the Hawaiian cowboy singers (Paniolo O Hawaii) date back to the 1840s. It has been said that their songs mesmerized mainlanders such as Mark Twain, Will Rogers and John Wayne. If you can get past hearing lyrics in a strange language, there are moments of true beauty. Lim's work on guitar, ukulele and other stringed instruments shines. Rating: ***.
LITTLE TEXAS (Warner Bros. 9-46501-2). This band is so smooth, professional and commercial that almost every song could be a hit. Guitarist Porter Howell is an outstanding and versatile songwriter; he had a hand in six of these songs. Among the best are the hard-rocking opener, "Loud & Proud," and "Ain't No Time to Be Afraid," a poignant ballad about growing up. Rating: ***
JOHNNY PAYCHECK Super Hits (Epic EK-68173). "Take This Job and Shove It" was Johnny Paycheck's 15 seconds of fame. Few songs captured the working public's imagination better than the delightful 1977 hit. Since then, Paycheck has fallen into hard times and off the charts. Too bad, because the man had talent. Best-known for saloon songs, he also had a surprisingly nice way with a ballad. "Friend, Lover, Wife," from 1978, was probably the only successful effort ever at recording a country song with a disco beat. Ridiculous as that sounds, it worked. This disc gets four demerits, however, for lousy liner notes. People who buy oldies collections want to know something about the artist, his successes, his failures and what he's up to now. This disc tells us nothing about Paycheck. Rating: ***
(1) Candle in the Wind 1997/Something About the Way You Look Tonight, Elton John (Rocket). (2) You Make Me Wanna . . . , Usher (LaFace). (3) How Do I Live, LeAnn Rimes (Curb). (4) My Body, LSG (EastWest). (5) Feels So Good, Mase (Bad Boy).
(1) Sevens, Garth Brooks (Capitol Nashville). (2) Let's Talk About Love, Celine Dion (550 Music). (3) Higher Ground, Barbra Streisand (Columbia). (4) You Light Up My Life -- Inspirational Songs, Leann Rimes (Curb). (5) R U Still Down? (Remember Me), 2Pac (Amaru).
ADULT CONTEMPORARY SINGLES
(1) Something About the Way You Look Tonight, Elton John (Rocket). (2) At the Beginning, Donna Lewis and Richard Marx (Atlantic). (3) So Help Me Girl, Gary Barlow (Arista). (4) How Do I Live, Leann Rimes (Curb). (5) The Best of Love, Michael Bolton (Columbia).