Those aren't earmuffs we're wearing, they're headphones. Some visitors to our office can't tell the difference. It's hard to blame them.
Sometimes we really do look like like a gang of kids about to venture forth into the snow with earmuffs on. We're not. We're the News' record critics getting in as much office listening time as possible -- before, that is, we go home and listen some more. We're trying to keep up with the profusion of new discs coming out.
During the holiday season, it's an uphill journey. Just as movie studios and book publishers save some of their biggest guns for the holidays, record labels small and large bring out their best in quantity for the gift-giving season.
If it's an uphill journey, what's at the top of the hill is pure bliss. This is the season of the year when The News' disc critics -- as dedicated a lot as you'll find anywhere -- are constantly reminded why we all love music so much in the first place.
Here then, are The News' record critics choices for the very best discs to be released in the last three months. This is the answer you'd get if you called us up on the phone and asked "what have you heard lately that you really loved?" My list in alphabetical order follows immediately and then the random lists of some of the most dedicated and ardent music listeners anywhere.
The Adderly Brothers, The Summer of 1955 (Savoy two discs). They came to New York from Florida and bowled everyone over. Brother Nat, on cornet, didn't quite have it all together back then but, despite all the critics who dubbed him the new Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderly was already taking his robust, juicy, soulful, altogether individual flights into some of the best alto playing in jazz.
Richard Chon, li'l world (East Light). A delicious pan-ethnic, pan-musical feast with a main course of western swing from a well-remembered local journalist/musician who went to Bakersfield, Ca., wound up immersed up to his black stetson in western swing. A very happy record by any reckoning.
Alicia De Larrocha, Great Pianists of the Century Series (Philips two discs). The program on the second volume of the two De Larrocha collections in Philips' singular "Great Pianists of the Century" series is Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Scarlatti, all from the period 1972 to 1987. No matter where you turn for current masters of all or part of this repertoire -- Schiff, Perahia -- you won't find pianism better than this. That De Larrocha is known to so many as a Spanish music specialist really diminishes her because her magnificence in this, some of the greatest keyboard music ever, is sublime.
Benny Goodman, The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert (Columbia Legacy two discs). The Jimmy Mundy arrangement of Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing" -- complete with pounding Gene Kurpa tom-toms and trumpet sarcasm -- has become part of the ubiquitous soundtrack for this century, even for people who have no idea what they're hearing. You can still hear it today in countless TV commercials and movie soundtracks. The whole concert -- of which it's only a part -- is one of the century's invaluable recorded moments.
The Complete Django Reinhardt and Quintet of the Hot Club of France Swing/HMV Sessions 1936-1948 (Mosaic six discs). Django Reinhardt is a god the character Sean Penn plays in the upcoming Woody Allen movie "Sweet and Lowdown." And why on earth not?
He's a god to just about every other jazz guitar player too-- as Stephane Grappelli is to every jazz violinist.
This music explains why. All of it was contained on a larger 10-disc set from EMI/France some years ago but this one has vastly better notes. Though Mosaic discs sometimes show up in cannier stores you can always get them by mail from Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, Conn. 06902.
Various Artists, "20th Century Time Capsule" (Buddha Records). It's a collection of news sound bites and songs over the past 100 years. Buddha bills this 75-minute CD as "history for those with short attention spans." Songs include "Over There," "We're in the Money," "Shout," "Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In," "Sweet Dreams Are Made of This" and "Macarena."
The real fun is the news sound bites which include speeches by Teddy Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Charles Lindbergh, Lou Gehrig, Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Clinton, the Beatles and Malcolm X. Most shattering newscast is the report of John Lennon's assassination. A fascinating concept.
Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony, "S&M" (Elektra). Not a great album but a fascinating collaboration of metal heads Metallica with a symphonic orchestra. You've got to hear "Enter Sandman" and "Master of Puppets" with the new twist of full orchestra backing.
Beck, "Midnight Vultures" (DGC/Geffen). White boy slacker Beck takes on hip hop culture in a CD that spoofs record industry marketing. Beck's funky style and musical creativity turn this effort into a delicious blend of satire and funk.
Rage Against the Machine, "The Battle of Los Angeles" (Epic). An ear-shattering mix of metal and hip hop by today's most socially aware band. Rage Against the Machine is a throwback to the '60s, combining rock and social activism and this is their best album to date.
Lou Bega, "A Little Bit of Mambo" (RCA). Lots of fun and hip-shaking sounds by Bega. He hit it big with the novelty dance song and title track. Irresistible ear candy.
Brian McKnight, "Back At One" (Motown). Classic and smooth soul by McKnight, who grew up in Buffalo. McKnight is a throwback to the great Motown acts of years past.
Charlotte Church, "Charlotte Church" (Sony Classical). Church, 13, is a soprano with a golden voice that extends far beyond her tender years. With a little help from PBS, she could be the next Sarah Brightman.
In reverse order:
Larry Gardner, Baton Rouge (Evidence). Larry Gardner sang gospel in New Orleans, so you know he's got the pipes. He's also got a bluesy axe and a gift for songwriting.
Kid Ramos, Kid Ramos (Evidence). Once you're past the pompadour, the 1950's Stratocasters, the vintage Fender amps, you realize Kid Ramos needs no gimmicks. He's lead guitar with the Fabulous Thunderbirds for a reason.
Pee Wee Crayton, Blues After Hours (Blind Pig). It's too easy to dismiss California as a home of some down and dirty blues. Until you hear Pee Wee Crayton, a blues guitar veteran joined here with slick harpist Rod Piazza.
Edgar Winter, Winter Blues (Rhino). Johnny's little brother Edgar is twice the musician without the noodling. Johnny, Dr. John, Leon Russell and Eddie Money join in.
The Robert Cray Band, Heavy Picks (Mercury). Cray's blues' fans think he's too heavy into R & B; that crowd wishes he would lighten up. Cray continues to please and displease both groups with 14 of his best.
Koko Taylor, Force of Nature (Alligator). Where does this lady get the energy to belt them out the way she has for decades? She still peels the paint off the house.
Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Backwater Blues (Fantasy). Ornery, talented pickers and harp players who anticipate each other's every move, Sonny whooping when he's not blowing harp, Brownie singing and picking immaculate guitar.
Various Artists, Blues Routes (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings). A wonderful find that has everything from gandy dancers singing on the rail line to Etta Baker's "One Dime Blues" to Mardi Gras blues.
Johnny Otis, The Johnny Otis Rhythm & Blues Caravan, The Complete Savoy Recordings (Savoy Jazz). A son of Greek immigrants, Otis is a vocalist, musician, songwriter and band leader who attracted the best. Little Esther is a special treat here, as is Jimmy Rushing, Count Basie's favorite vocalist.
Little Milton, Welcome to Little Milton (Malaco Records). If it takes a slew of guest artists like Keb' Mo', Peter Wolf, Lucinda Williams, Delbert McClinton or Government Mule to get Little Milton some attention again, then so be it. He's a treasure heading into his 7th decade who should be bigger than just a southern attraction.
Brahms, Hungarian Dances, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer conducting (Philips). A wild recording that bridges two genres, classical and folk, this CD brings Brahms' famous dances, many in revised arrangements, back to their roots. Joszef Lendvay Jr. plays a virtuosic classical violin, while his father, a traditional gypsy violinist, adds his own cadenzas. Notes explore the controversies surrounding the pieces' authorship.
Tony Bennett, "Sings Ellington Hot and Cool" (Columbia). With a little less bombast than usual, Bennett emphasizes the heat and high style of Ellington, with a sultry "Caravan," the beautiful "Chelsea Bridge," and more. Wynton Marsalis plays some trumpet, and tromobonist Al Grey kicks in that trademark early-Ellington growl.
Ian Shaw and Cedar Walton, "In a New York Minute" (Milestone). Quirky Ian Shaw is sort of a European Mark Murphy. Restrained and touching, he and Walton turn out unconventional arrangements of "Alfie," "That's Life" and, best of all, "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," which I've never heard sung by a man before.
Cecilia Bartoli, "The Vivaldi Album" (Decca). The mezzo who dares to be strong rather than sweet fairly hurls herself into jangling "storm arias" as well as gentler pieces with an almost medieval flavor. Her technique knows no bounds. With her are the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini conducting.
Chopin, Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, Krystian Zimerman, the Polish Festival Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon). Zimerman conducts from the keyboard, admirably bringing out the Slavic dash of Chopin's music without sacrificing the composer's classical sensibilities.
Joe Williams, "Me and the Blues" (RCA Victor). With backup guys like Clark Terry, Kenny Burrell, Ben Webster and Hank Jones, this is the late blues shouter at his earthy best.
Bach, the St. Matthew Passion, the Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe conducting (Harmonia Mundi France). The Mercedes Benz of St. Matthew Passions, with soulful tenor Ian Bostridge as the narrator and Andreas Scholl, the guy who made countertenors hip. The superb package is completed by a CD-ROM that takes you through this music, one of the most towering, overwhelming creations of history.
Dolly Parton, "The Grass Is Blue," (Sugar Hill). There's no denying the greatness of this disc. And it's one the major labels couldn't begin to do because of what they often do -- clog the grooves with micromanaging. This is pure Parton and pure bluegrass, elevated to an ethereal outcome by the best pickers in the biz.
Ray Wylie Hubbard, "Crusader of the Restless Knights" (Philo). Yet another minor label triumph, this one showcases brilliant ballads by Hubbard, a well-traveled Texan with an eye cocked skyward and keen sense of humor rooted in the bizarre nature of his fellow earthlings.
Faith Hill, "Breathe" (Warner Bros.). Hill gets an "A" for throwing a curve to critics and, perhaps, fans for this hard-rockin', palpatatin' steamer. The disc features a great selection of songs, rock-solid production and the substantial voice of Hill.
John McCutcheon, "Storied Ground" (Rounder). McCutcheon has been tilling the fertile fields of folk for many moons. This, his 24th trek to the studio, is yet more evidence why he is revered. The bounty is intelligent, thoughtful, fun looks at the issues of today and yesterday, tied together into one neat musical bundle. McCutcheon's best: "Cross That Line," the historic moment in Cincinnati, when Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson silenced the bigots of baseball.
Larry Rice, Tony Rice, Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, "Rice, Rice, Hillman, Pedersen" (Rounder). Amid a bluegrass backdrop, this all-star lineup assembles a subtle sonic masterpiece that offers a cavalcade of influences, from jazz to honky-tonk. Not surprising, given the resume. These guys are the grist for musical history (Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, New South). Lets not forget some gorgeous harmony.
Sony Music: 100 Years/Soundtrack for a Century. "Country: The American Tradition," (Columbia/Epic/Legacy). Part of a 26-disc box set designed as a fingerprint of the century's sounds, this showcases 50 artists from the '20s through today. Yeh, there are gaps, but not many packages this size will team up Patsy Montana with Mary Chapin Carpenter with Roy Acuff with Lefty Frizzell with Johnny Cash.
Merle Haggard, "For the Record" (BNA). Haggard, whose rough-and-tumble days are behind him, reprises 43 songs that define his status as legend. The patina of Hag's years gives an interesting shade to these nuggets. Guest appearances by the likes of Jewel, Willie Nelson and Alabama make it a nostalgia trip worth taking.
One of the most intriguing of recent CD arrivals involves two Buffalonians, JoAnn Falletta and her husband, the clarinetist Robert Alemany. As guest artists on the CD entitled "Paul Freeman Introduces, Vol. 4" (Troy), Falletta conducts the Czech National Symphony with Alemany as soloist in the 1955 Clarinet Concerto by the American composer Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991). The legendary Nicolas Slonimsky praised this concerto for its "brilliant realization of jazz, blues and swing in a classically formal idiom." It's a piece that deserves to be heard. Falletta and Alemany, whose tone is lusciously liquid and technique amazingly agile, give the work a very persuasive performance. The CD also includes Gwyneth Walker's winsome "American Concerto" (violin), Creston's Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, and the deeply moving "Just An Accident?" for soprano narrator and orchestra by Renee Staar, subtitled "A Requiem for Anton Webern and Other Victims of the Absurd."
A Christmas CD that can be wholeheartedly recommended is "Home for Christmas" by the honey-voiced Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter (Deutsche Grammpoophon). She sings, absolutely gorgeously, 21 religious and popular Christmas selections from both the Swedish and English, American traditions.
The unassuming looking two-CD set "Zelenka -- Trio Sonatas" (Jan Dismas Zelenka, 1679-1745) is easy to overlook (ECM). But it would be a mistake. As played by some of the world's greatest double-reed artists, oboists Heinz Holliger and Maurice Bourgue, and bassoonist Klaus Thunemann, the set is a textbook demonstration of how to play baroque trio sonatas. Performances are immaculate, phenomenally articulate, perfectly balanced and infused with a winning vitality.
English composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934) is best known here for such luscious, pastoral orchestral poems as "On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring." His music for violin is all but unknown here. Violinist Galina Heifetz (no relation to Jascha) and pianist David Allen Wehr have partially filled thad void with "Delius -- Three Violin Sonatas" (Connoisseur Society 4224). The sonatas (from 1905, 1914 and 1930) are warmly lyrical, often dreamy, but without the pastoral ambience of his orchestral music, and are winningly spun out by Heifetz and Wehr. Interspersed are some delightful miniatures, the 1923 Three Preludes for piano and the 1921 Five Pieces for Piano, the fourth of which is the captivating "Lullaby for a Modern Baby."