Grover Washington Jr.
The Ultimate Collection
So beautiful and soulful and genuine was Grover Washington Jr.'s tone that, along with David Sanborn, he was always the best of the Maharajahs of pop jazz. So beautiful was it, in fact, that Sonny Rollins was happy to share a big concert bandstand with him and, believe me, Kenny G. can't say that. And, in his final years, Columbia even allowed him to make some straight-ahead jazz in premium company ("Then and Now"). Nevertheless, avoid "Prime Cuts: The Columbia Years 1987-1999," an anthology of some of the worst that happened when Washington didn't have a producer like Creed Taylor to make something more than sonic wallpaper out of his beautiful sound (or first-rate musicians to play with him). Much better is this recent and superb catch-all of his earlier work for Kudu, CTI and Elektra Records. This is the Grover that America fell in love with -- "Inner City Blues" "Mister Magic," "Just the Two of Us" with Bill Withers, even a version of Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "Bright Moments" that any jukebox anywhere could live with.
It was pop jazz that actually explored what its soloist had to say, which wasn't ever going to share space on Olympus with Rollins but which could phrase a beautiful line with such buttered-rum soul that you might carry it around in your head for days. It was R&B with elegance (or jazz for the boudoir or dance floor, whichever seems more enticing). David Nathan's notes to "The Ultimate Collection" are pretty grand, too.
His death on the job at 56 was a shock. At a plateau of his early fame, he once played a homecoming gig for the well-remembered Bemo Crockett at the Bleu Poyntt Lounge (yes, that was the spelling) that showed off everything he'd learned from Elvin Shepard and everything he'd absorbed himself. The crowd was small but select: the people who'd nurtured him as a beginner. Thank God, the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame gave him the homecoming he deserved a couple decades (and millions of records) later.
-- Jeff Simon
And Then There Was X ***
DMX changed the rules of marketing last year when he came out with his new album days before Christmas. At a time when new releases had stopped coming out for weeks, here he was, pictured boldly on the cover in red. It wasn't bunting, it was blood -- fitting for the gangsta rap inside, if not for the season. What is Christmas to a gangsta rapper anyway, except another day of insult and danger, with liquor stores closed to boot. What was an audacious plan last year is now tradition, with the new DMX, "And Then There Was X," out this week .
The former Earl Simmons doesn't stray far from the Ruff Ryders formula. He creates tense urban scenes with snakily insinuating, often orchestral backing tracks, adding to the feeling he's creating mini action films. His gruff voice is at the forefront, there are cries of the trademark "What? What?" punctuating his delivery. He keeps asking: "You think this is a game?" in his grim tales, which still have the feel of morality tales, for all their grit and gunplay. Not just in his third consecutive "Prayer" but in the affecting track "Angel." A skit that shows loyalty is more important than money is almost out of Dickens.
So loyal is he to hardcore rap, he includes one of the best tracks, a delightful R&B male-female give-and-take with Dyme, as only a "bonus track."
-- Roger Catlin, Hartford Courant
Country/Roots: From Spirituals to Swing
This three-CD set documents the landmark 1938 and 1939 Carnegie Hall concerts produced by John Hammond, two shows that for the first time exposed some of the greatest black artists in blues, gospel and jazz to white audiences. The reissue expands on the original two-LP version of 1959 with the inclusion of previously unreleased material from the concerts.
The sound is still rough in many spots -- as the liner notes indicate, concert recordings were virtually unheard of at the time. The primitive recording technique especially affects the vocals -- often, they're a bit distant and echoey. Six decades later, though, the ambitious sweep of "From Spirituals to Swing" -- Big Bill Broonzy and Joe Turner to the Golden Gate Quartet and Count Basie, to name just a few -- remains breathtaking, and the power of the performances undeniable. In other words, for all the social and political significance of the shows, the musical value of this set transcends its historical value, and that's what ultimately makes it worth going back to again and again.
-- Nick Cristiano, Knight Ridder
Testify! The Gospel Box
Here's another mammoth summarizing mission: representing the whole of Southern gospel in just three CDs. The reissue wizards at Rhino pulled off just that -- a zealous, soul-revitalizing survey of many of the form's most treasured moments.
The big names are all here -- Clara Ward, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Five Blind Boys, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams -- often heard doing their signature pieces. The lesser-known foundations of the music are covered, and there's a healthy sampling of contemporary gospel. The surprise is the thick accompanying booklet, which provides both an excellent history of gospel and a track-by-track account of the stories behind the songs.
-- Tom Moon, Knight Ridder
Glenn Gould Plays Bach:
The Original Jacket Collection
Sony Classical ****
If you are expecting to buy this 12-CD box, cozy up with the stereo, and spend some time going down liner-notes memory lane, this set won't seem exactly as advertised. The original art from the old Columbia Masterworks series is all there. But on one of the now-diminutive jackets, the liner notes have been obscured by notice of a multimedia component inside, and another set of liner notes was originally continued to a second page, which the new set does not provide.
But to have these revolutionary recordings in one small box seems like a miracle. Glenn Gould was the pianist it is possible to love, hate, and love and hate at once. Some of his decisions are goofy and affected, such as the way he isolates with a staccato touch the highest note in the repeated sequence of the "Prelude" from the first of the "Preludes and Fugues," Book I, The Well-Tempered Clavier. The start of the "Prelude" from "No. 2 in C Minor" comes out with such clockwork regularity that the rubato of the flourish at the end seems like liberation itself.
The eccentricities have not dulled with time. In the concertos, toccatas, partitas, inventions, "The Goldberg Variations" and other works, tempos can be extreme, dynamics arbitrary. But the personality is so fully developed that the interpretation is almost always convincing.
If you were not around, or somehow missed Glenn Gould the first time, you owe it to yourself to listen in on a pianist searching for answers in a repertoire whose true meaning can never be fully revealed or understood, but which may be in the search itself.
-- Peter Dobrin, Knight Ridder