The Neville Brothers
Walkin' in the Shadow of Life
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
Few ensembles can bring the funk with the mastery and majesty exuded by New Orleans' proudest sons, the Neville Brothers. With a winning blend of uber-funk chops, R&B-heavy phrasing, and an ability to blend elements of folk, the blues and rock into their sound, the Nevilles are one of the finest bands our country has produced since the '60s.
"Standing in the Shadow of Life" doesn't rewrite the Nevilles' formula -- music you can shake whatever part of your body you choose to, but that speaks to the heart, soul and mind with as much alacrity as it does the booty -- but it most astutely updates it, in the process proving that the Nevilles can be hip and modern without sounding like they're grasping for credibility.
In fact, "Walkin' " is the band's finest effort since its late-'80s, Daniel Lanois-produced masterpiece "Yellow Moon," although musically, it takes its cues in a more concise manner from the band's seminal "Fiyo on the Bayou" effort. That means that George Clinton's got nothing on Aaron, Art, Charles, Cyril and Ivan. This stuff is dripping with N'awlins-style gumbo, and happily, there are legitimate tunes here, not just overextended one-chord funk jams.
Lest we get the wrong impression, and write the Brothers off as adult-contemporary dudes, there's attitude a-plenty here, from the greasy one-two slap of "Poppa Funk" and "Can't Stop the Funk," through the band's devestatingly oily retelling of the classic "Ball of Confusion."
U2 vocalist Bono joined Cril Neville in the composition of "Kingdom Come," and it's a sultry, ominous slice of soul that recalls "Yellow Moon" in its sly, sexy manipulation of groove, if not in terms of its production.
Few do it better, doubtless. The Brothers continue to make relevant, resonant music that at once embraces and expands upon an African-American tradition.
-- Jeff Miers
Sonatas Opp. 10 and 13, "the Pathetique" performed by pianist Maurizio Pollini
Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)
After 40 years in the world's great concert halls, Maurizio Pollini has nothing left to prove. Maybe that's why he handles these searching, youthful Beethoven sonatas with such disarming directness.
The light-fingered, lightning-quick finale to the F Major sonata, Op. 10 No. 2, is a technical miracle, but it's not overly theatrical. The Adagio of Op. 10 No. 1 -- such tender, passionate music, almost like Mozart -- is as simple and beautiful as a song.
Pollini also has a fine sense of timing that makes me think of opera buffa. It might come from being born in Milan.
-- Mary Kunz
Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)
The men don't know, but the little girls understand.
The Donnas cement their reputation as one of the country's finest popwer-pop bands with their follow-up to the breakthrough success of "Spend the Night," the aptly titled "Gold Medal."
This, happily, is no mere schtick, of the "Wow, girls playing guitars!" variety. The Donnas have now officially transcended the influence of '70s punk-girl squad the Runaways.
Is it particularly inventive stuff? Decidedly not. But it's hooky as hell, in the same way that an early Kiss tune is; brash power-chords, and big fat chorus hooks that you remember after hearing only once.
"I Don't Want to Know (If You Don't Want Me)" burns along like the Knack on a virulent strain of speed; "Friends Like Mine" is AC/DC for the current generation of 16 year-olds; "Is That All You Got For Me" is sex set to a candy-floss melody.
It all works. Play it loud.
-- Jeff Miers
Prince of Cool: The Pacific Jazz Years 1952-1957
Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)
You couldn't ask for a better example, under glass, of the difference between a minor artist and a major one: On Dec. 9, 1957, Chet Baker recorded Bronislau Kaper's obscure film theme "On Green Dolphin Street." It's a beautiful three minutes of music -- full of the concentrated authentic lyricism that typifies Baker's work at its best: small in conception but absolutely pure. Six months later, Miles Davis recorded it with his miracle sextet (with John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly and Bill Evans).
Miles' version is a jazz masterpiciece. Everyone -- and it's a large number -- who has played the tune since has been playing tribute to Miles Davis. Not to be slighted, though, is the uncanny beauty of Baker's version from six months earlier.
There's one more thing that Baker exemplifies in the modern world: the unbeatable advantage, in our world, of good cheekbones to an enduring musical reputation. Gerry Mulligan was a vastly greater jazz musician than the trumpet partner he had in one of jazz's most groundbreaking quartets. But Mulligan didn't have Baker's pretty-boy looks; and Mulligan didn't sing with a soft, melting, deeply feminized sensitivity that had caused Baker to be mocked as a "sissy" from the time he was a little boy.
Women and fashion photograhers loved Baker. They still do.
It is Baker and his music in the post-MTV world that no capture the imaginations of those eager to acquire jazz ears and jazz savvy. And, up to a point, it's not a bad thing. In his prime and at his best -- as heard on this three-disc set -- he was a minor jazz artist of profound and genuine sweetness. Only the churlish scoff. This set is far too beautiful for that -- and it swings far too much too. This is perfect Baker, before the lovable young junkie gave way to the erratic and pathetic old junkie he all-too-quickly became.
Each disc has its own identity: Baker the singer, the player and the friend of the West Coast's stellar names (Mulligan, Stan Getz, Art Pepper, Russ Freeman who's, in fact, heard all through). You're on your own with his singing. I respect it and understand it but, frankly, I've never figured out how to like it. Otherwise, he was one of jazz' great miniaturists during this period -- an exceptional melodist and, inside his narrow emotional range, close to perfect. And, when he wanted, he wasn't all that "cool" at all.
This box set may really be the best Chet Baker. Put it this way -- his case will never be presented better.
-- Jeff Simon