The Rose Vol. 2: Music Inspired by Tupac's Poetry
Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)
In the nine years since Tupac Shakur was murdered -- the case has never been resolved -- a plethora of releases have surfaced and sold incredibly well. The cynical noted that Tupac was even more popular dead than he'd been alive, and yes, its been easy to view some of this posthumous activity as exploitative. But Tupac's shadow looms large over hip hop, and for many, he continues to speak to the form's concerns from the grave.
Whereas "The Rose Vol. I" featured Tupac's words over newly-constructed backing tracks in a spoken-word style, Vol. 2 finds a host of big-name rappers taking their cue from the late wordsmith's poetry and constructing their own songs -- some in blatant tribute to his influence, others attempting to carry on his work. While past posthumous releases reeked of an attempt to build an empire around a dead man, Vol. 2 represents a legitimate representation of Tupac's rather revolutionary effect on hip-hop.
The strongest moments on the record come courtesy of rappers who are able to assimilate Tupac's revolution-seeking rhymes; the least satisfying bits involve the modern R&B-pastiche style of tribute, which is suggestive of an artist attempting to up their hipness quotient by associating themselves with Tupac. (Celina's "The Eternal Lament" falls into this camp.)
Bone Thugs n Harmony shine on "Power of a Smile," by exploring Tupac's sensitive side with understated grace. Talib Kweli goes a bit deeper on "Fallen Star," asking tough questions with racial, social and political ramifications; in so doing, the rapper shines a light on Tupac's most lasting legacy. Ludacris drops his clown-prince persona to play it straight on "In the Depths of Solitude," a clean verbatim reading of a Shakur poem over a lilting two chord piano motif. It borders the corny, but manages to stay on the hipper side of the tracks by downplaying the melodrama. (A tough thing to do when remembering someone taken in their prime.)
Later, "Movin' On" finds Lyfe Jennings bringing some serious soul music to bear on Tupac's legacy, holding nothing back in a Prince-like reading.
"The Rose" works because it seems authentic, as if these artists merely wished to pay tribute to a hip hop luminary. For the most part, they've succeeded in doing just that. (Proceeds from the sale of this disc will go toward costs incurred in constructing the recently-opened Tupac Amaru Shakur Center For the Arts in Atlanta, Georgia.)
- Jeff Miers
Review: 3 1/2 stars
Brad Mehldau Trio
Day Is Done
Review: 4 stars
Two discs from jazz's brainier precincts: One is superb and one absolutely spectacular.
The superb one is the entirely unexpected "Keystone", a tribute to, of all people, silent film star Fatty Arbuckle by the wildly unpredictable 42-year-old Dave Douglas, who is to jazz trumpet what Bill Frisell is to jazz guitar. Until Michael Jackson came along, Fatty Arbuckle was the major scandal in the history of American show business (O.J. Simpson doesn't count; show business has to share him with sports -- not that there's all that much difference in our era.)
In 1921, young Virginia Rappe died under still obscure circumstances at an archetypal film folk "wild party." Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle -- a beloved silent film comedian who gave an early boost to Buster Keaton -- was charged with murder and tried three times until there was finally a decision -- an outright acquittal accompanied by a jury statement that "acquittal is not enough. . . . We feel that a great injustice has been done" to Arbuckle. Keystone, named after Fatty's company, is a wild Douglas tribute to Fatty Arbuckle, full of electronica in full bloom, thundering tom-tom backbeats, electric piano, affecting melodies and solos by Douglas and saxophonist Marcus Strickland that are both tender and frenetic. Along with it, you get, on DVD, "Fatty and Mabel Adrift," a 1916 Arbuckle film with new Douglas music. You also get, on the DVD, "Just Another Murder," a collection of 1915 Arbuckle vignettes.
The spectacular disc is 35-year-old pianist Brad Mehldau's new trio disc "Day Is Done," the first to show the world what his well-employed trio will sound like with new drummer Jeff Ballard (Jorge Rossy went his own way). Beginning with a complex and eventually ripping version of Radiohead's "Knives Out," "Day Is Done" serves notice that Mehldau's new trio finds a ferocity that no one would dream of associating with a trio with Mehldau and bassist Larry Grenadier. The fact that they play things like Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," Nick Drake's title song, Burt Bacharach's "Alfie," and the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home" and "Martha, My Dear" shouldn't confuse a soul about what it is that Mehldau and Co. do. This is post-Jarrett piano trio jazz from the great piano star of his jazz generation. It goes on sale Tuesday and it is, by any assay, a great new jazz disc.
-- Jeff Simon
Wagner and Berlioz Arias
[EMI Classics Legend]
Review: 3 1/2 stars
Regine Crespin is that rarest of creatures, a French dramatic soprano who conquered Wagnerian roles. She played Sieglinde in the legendary "Ring of the Nibelungs" cycle recorded by Sir Georg Solti, a monumental project that also included James King, Birgit Nilsson, Kirsten Flagstad and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Her pure voice descended like honey on not only the German masterpieces but on big French romantic music as well. This CD and DVD set, dating from the early '60s, includes her singing the expansive "D'Amour l'ardente flamme" from "The Damnation of Faust" as well as an excerpt from "Les Troyens." Wagner's beautiful "Wesendonck Lieder" bring out the sheer beauty of her voice. A few frantic moments find Crespin sounding a little strained, as if fighting the strength of the orchestra, but in the quieter songs she sounds dreamlike, haunted, her high notes exquisitely sustained.
What a mood she created.
-- Mary Kunz Goldman
Speechless: The Instrumental Bruce Cockburn
Review: 4 stars
Though he's well-known as one of the most eloquent political activists to emerge from the post-'60s popular music world, Bruce Cockburn also happens to be an incredibly virtuosic guitarist. "Speechless" compiles decades of instrumental performances, adds a trio of brand new tracks and throws in rare and previously unreleased nuggets, to create an album that flows with the same blend of intensity, subtlety and -- yes, this sounds overtly flowery, but it can't be avoided -- spirituality as all of Cockburn's best work. Before he started penning poignant and pointed political pieces, Cockburn had honed an incredible finger-picking style that has only deepened over the 35 years he's been a recording artist. Cockburn's roots are clearly folk, but he doesn't interpret that tag with narrow focus; no strum-strum here, but rather, complex chord progressions with beaucoup harmonic color, all delivered with classical music-like mastery and the subtlety one would more often associate with a guitarist like Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell or Pierre Bensusan.
Cockburn views folk music through a wide lens, and so "Speechless" incorporates touches of bluegrass, country, blues, and various indigenous musics from around the globe -- what has almost dismissively been labelled world music by the folks trying to sell it. The oldest recordings here come from 1970; the newest were recorded this past June. All are profound or damn close. Proof, then, that even without his poetic and incisive lyrics, Cockburn still has plenty to say.
- Jeff Miers