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Ricky Fante



Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

"It's been a long, long time comin'/But I know a change gonna come," sang Sam Cooke back in the day when R&B mattered, when jogging suits and an overkill of bling-bling didn't make you a star, but singing like a preacher gone to seed did. He wasn't, but Cooke could've been predicting a time when an artist like Ricky Fante might emerge to reclaim the music's gospel-based throne.

It's impossible to fall in love with Fante's "Rewind" without positing it as a strike against the soul-less empire of modern day neo-soul, teen dance-pop R&B and "let's get busy" hip-hop booty calls, which, for an entire generation, are all that is known of rhythm and blues.

Issac Hayes himself has called the 26-year-old Fante "the shot of adrenaline the music industry needs today," and he's right. No young artist has so successfully tapped into the rich pool of Motown and Memphis soul, so convincingly channeled the work of Cooke, Wilson Picket and Otis Redding.

Yes, Fante is joined by, among others, Norah Jones' songwriter Jesse Harris, but this is no adult-contemporary affair. From start to finish, "Rewind" is all scratchy-throated sensuality, gorgeously arranged horns, soulful organ and Funk Brothers/Steve Cropper guitar figures.

Whether he's breathing leather-lunged life into a soul ballad ("Why"), making like Redding in a sultry mood ("I Let You Go"), or echoing the dusty grooves of "Dusty in Memphis" ("Love Doesn't Live Here No More"), Fante is a class act.

Would that Fante be more than an anomaly; R&B needs a serious overhaul, a reaffirmation of its historical merits and musical worth. In other words, not everything calling itself soul music needs a radio-friendly hip-hop sheen. "If you know your history/then you will know where you're coming from," Bob Marley once sang, and Fante learned this lesson well.

-- Jeff Miers


Jessica Williams

Live at Yoshi's, Volume One


Review: 4 stars

Location, location, location. It's the only thing that has ever kept pianists Dave McKenna and Jessica Williams from the ceaseless hosannas they both deserve. If McKenna and Williams lived somewhere in the five boroughs and reguarly worked in Lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village instead of Boston and San Francisco respectively, they would be lavishly and properly worshipped as the jazz piano deities they are. As it is, though, they've spent careers being heard regularly only by the jazz communities in their local environs and sometimes far too infrequently on disc.

To say that Jessica Williams, at the age of 56, is the greatest living female pianist in jazz (and yes, I'm including the venerable Marian McPartland) is a needless (and demeaning) gender qualification to her most important identity. If Keith Jarrett is jazz's great epic poet, Jessica Williams may be the great living lyric poet of the jazz keyboard. Moments of the true sublime are far from a rarity in this trio set from San Francisco's great jazz club. Listen to what she does with Billy Cobham's "Heather." Or the three-act blues drama of her own called "Tutu's Promise." Or her "Poem in G-Minor." Or the totally contrasting fierce parallel lines of her version of "Alone Together." Or her conjugation of the jazz pianist's vocabulary in "I'm Confessin'" from Red Garland's locked hands to Errol Garner's left-hand pulse.

She is utterly magnificent. Her trio-mates -- bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Victor Lewis -- are audibly delighted to be playing her music.

One of the great jazz records in a jazz recording year that -- go figure -- is turning out to be a surprisingly strong one.

-- Jeff Simon



The Complete Published Orchestral Works


Review: 3 1/2 stars

A good argument could be made that Antonin Dvorak -- in his celestial masterpiece Symphony No. 9 in E-Minor "From the New World" -- understood long before anyone else, the future international hegemony of African-American music. What the most trenchant music critics since Dvorak's time have argued is that, as different as the lion's share of Dvorak's music is from his best-known masterwork, there isn't a single false note anywhere in it. The Czech master was, in that way, almost Mozartean or Schubertian.

This 17-disc "White Box" of all Dvorak's published orchestra works is a truly staggering achievement. You can't begin to argue that all of these overtures, rhapsodies, Slavonic dances, serenades, tone poems, etc., are all on the same miraculous level as the "New World" Symphony or the Cello Concerto, but where else, under one roof, are you going to get the chance to explore such munificent melodism and charm?

The performances aren't always of the highest luminescence (to understand what's possible listen to, of all people, Giulini's reading of the "New World") but to have all of orchestral Dvorak in a box and available at what's intended as a budget price is more than a bit mind-boggling. Nor is Naxos alone in doing such things -- a strange and paradoxical dividend of the troubled era for serious music we live in.

-- Jeff Simon



The Living Road


Review: 4 stars

Exotic. Most beautiful things are, in some fashion. There's that mystique, that deeply sensual concept of the unknowable other that makes you attracted to it. Lhasa de Sala has it in abundance, and "The Living Road," her first album in six years, trades heavily in its charms.

Sung in equal parts Spanish, French and English, and buoyed by rich, dramatic arrangements based on propulsive, if understated percussion, strings and lush, yearning melodies, "Road" is indeed one of the less-traveled sort.

Picture Bjork blended with Edith Piaff and Billie Holliday, or Bryan Ferry, circa "Bete Noire"; Lhasa is just as elegant, just as tuneful, but she views the rich tradition of song through a glass, darkly.

Thus, French and Spanish ballad styles are treated to an edge that defies strict categorization, be it the African percussion propelling the Leonard Cohen-like lyrics of "Anywhere on This Road," or the jazz-informed phrasing that meets the subtle Indian undertones of "J'Arrive A La Ville."

It's bold, all of it, deeply musical, and sexy, too.

-- Jeff Miers