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Discs

> Jazz

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane

At Carnegie Hall

[Blue Note/Thelonious]

Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)

We've waited almost a half-century for this disc. It was assumed, all that time, not to exist. Or there was a rumor of its existence that was, in reality, little more than a prayer.

But here it is, 51 minutes of musical bliss that is -- even with a great deal of competition -- the jazz record of the year and, beyond that, a miracle of American music.

The facts are these: in his first tour with Miles Davis' Quintet, John Coltrane was a junkie held in such low esteem by his boss and musical partner that, in October 1956, a horrified Thelonious Monk witnessed Miles strike Coltrane. Monk offered Coltrane a job right then and there. When Miles eventually fired Coltrane, the saxophone giant spent nine legendary months of 1957 in one of the most famous quartets in the history of jazz -- the damnably, infuriatingly underrecorded Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane. It was during that time that the John Coltrane who transformed jazz became John Coltrane. After Miles' abuse, Monk's tutelage -- conceptual, musical -- meant the world to him. Except for a precious few cuts together in the studio -- not enough even for a whole record -- there was no record of one of the greatest and most fateful of all jazz meetings.

Fast forward to February 2005. Larry Applebaum of the Library of Congress is thumbing through acetate tapes from the Voice of America. One is marked "Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957" on one side and "T. Monk" on the other. As soon as he and his colleagues played it, they realized it was the Holy Grail of modern jazz recording -- two sets of Monk and Coltrane in live performance (and recorded beautifully, too).

The pleasures and treasures of this Nov. 29, 1957, performance are vast.

Miracle of miracles, it's all here, along with the wit, the passion, the beauty and in the pocket algebraic blues magic one always assumed we'd hear from this quartet. The very existence of this disc is an incomparable gift to American music.

-- Jeff Simon

> Traditional Irish

Liam O'Maonlai

Rian

[Rian Records]

Review: 3 1/2 stars

As pianist and vocalist with Hothouse Flowers, Liam O'Maonlai has been bringing traditional Irish music to bear on rock, soul and folk music for nearly 20 years, during which time, the Irish band has released a handful of absolute classics, among them "Songs From the Rain," "Home" and "Into Your Heart." In the Flowers, it has always been apparent that O'Maonlai was attempting to act as a channel, to somehow express the music of his soul in an unfettered, pure fashion. The band stuck to semi-conventional song structures, and stretched them to the breaking point in concert; it was achingly clear that O'Maonlai had something deep and potent behind him.

With "Rian," we see exactly what that something is. Though the bulk of the record is composed of traditional tunes, don't expect strict readings; O'Maonlai is an interpreter, and once he's had his way with a song, he's left his mark. He's also unafraid of pointing out the similarities between indigenous musics of the world; hence, the tin whistle solo in the lilting 6/8 waltz "Sadbh Ni Buruinnealadh" can suggest at once trad-Celtic and Indian tonalities, and the multitracked whistle instrumental "An Buachall Ban" bridges whatever perceived gap their might be between eastern and western modality.

But it's O'Maonlai's voice that, as ever, does the majority of the heart-melting here; he is both fearless and humble, dramatic and understated, willfully manipulative of timbre and tone, and wise enough to know when to get out of the way and let the melody tell the story, as written. His is a voice that speaks directly to the heart of the sentient listener, one able to conjure the sort of emotional response for which words fail to do justice. That's "Rain's" magic; it speaks, it breathes, it asks only that you listen, and maybe sing, and then pass it on. An absolute treasure, this one.

-- Jeff Miers

> Rock

Supergrass

Road to Rouen

[Capitol]

Review: 3 stars

Of the bands comprising the Brit-pop movement of the mid-'90s, none have fared as well as Supergrass, whose fifth album, "Road to Rouen," seals the deal; forget Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Kula Shakur, whoever. Supergrass has grown from a clever and cheeky outfit capable of mining glam rock's finest and adding idiosyncratic twists, into a unique outfit capable of summoning grandeur in service of well-orchestrated, rich and melodic modern rock music.

"Rouen" may well alienate some of the 'Grass' faithful, for it's a mellow affair, and the in-jokes and snide musical asides have gone largely missing. That's a good thing, for now Gaz Coombes, Mick Quinn, Danny Goffey and Robert Coombes can get down to the business at hand, that being the creation of eminently singable pop-based tunes that somehow manage to sound unlike anything else you might currently call pop. Pianos abound, acoustic guitars outweigh their electric counterparts, string and horn arrangements -- courtesy of the band and collaborator Simon Hale -- provide much of the irony-free color.

It's clear from the beginning that the boys are up to something a bit different, as "Tales of Endurance (Parts 4, 5 & 6)" breaks out of the gate like it's in a hurry to get somewhere, and then promptly takes its time, langourously indulging in creating a harmonic mood. There's so much to listen to in the mix -- the electric piano as it ping-pongs against the acoustic guitar, the textural percussion, all crescendoing not in the electric explosion you'd expect, but into a classical motif played by piano, strings and horns, all serving to set up Coombe's elegant, ethereal vocal. It's classy and inspired.

Most of the record follows this strain of mellower, reflective and fully developed structures, which is a treat. Throughout, the arrangements, the performance and the construction of the songs is pretty close to astounding. Only one wrong move -- the inclusion of the goofy, tongue in cheek instrumental "Coffee In the Pot," a throwback to the band's days of creative bong-hit humor -- mars what is otherwise a highly enjoyable ride. "Road to Rouen" rewards concentrated attention; it's dense and heady, and it speaks well of this band's capacity for continued relevance.

-- Jeff Miers

> Classical

Cecilia Bartoli

Opera Proibita, Arias by Handel, Scarlatti, and Caldara

With Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski, conducting

[Decca Universal]

Review: 4 stars

This album's theme is prohibited opera, and the title is stamped across the cover as if a censor did it. The idea is that in 18th century Rome, the new public entertainment known as opera was all but forbidden. It's a gimmicky, idea and it works, because the music is so outstanding, and Bartoli's voice is so strong, so virtuosic, so utterly amazing. I hesitate, somehow, to use the word beautiful.

Listening to her sing Scarlatti, you can find yourself intimidated by the power of her pipes rather than bowled over by their beauty. Her tone is deep, almost threatening. But you get used to it, and by the time she sings Antonio Caldera's touching Vanne pentita a piangere, you're completely enthralled.

In Handel's Aria della Bellezza, you want to laugh out loud with delight, as the enjoyable photos show Bartoli laughing with delight. This music sounds even tougher than Rossini, and Bartoli's virtuosity is just so otherworldly, so absurd. That anyone can sing like this, can navigate this demanding, take-no-prisoners, mile-a-minute music, is nothing short of astonishing.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

> Folk

Neil Young

Prairie Wind

[Reprise]

Review: 3 stars

No artist from the rock era has made childlike simplicity seem more complex and resonant than Neil Young. For 40 years, the guitarist and songwriter has balanced his groundbreaking sonic explorations with Crazy Horse and earlier, Buffalo Springfield, against an irony-free penchant for folk songs of unadorned, elegant beauty.

Young's importance as an artist has never been based on an ability to forge new ground harmonically -- he favors chord changes that have been around forever, and cleverness has never been his forte. Rather, Young is an artist who has created a profound body of work based primarily on his almost unfailing ability to get out of the way and let the music speak through him. Young has always known, implicitly it seems, that keeping it simple can often yield work of lasting emotional complexity.

"Prairie Wind" is Young's new effort, and it can be seen harmonizing with earlier, folk-country albums like "Harvest," "Comes a Time" and "Harvest Moon," all records that weather well and seem immune to the ravages of time and transient shifts in musical culture. "Wind" continues that tradition, but it also manages to stand on its own as one of "Shakey's" most compelling subdued, reflective collections.

There is an autumnal aspect to this record, recorded in Nashville while Young was undergoing treatment for a brain aneurysm earlier this year. That doesn't make "Wind" Young's own "Time Out of Mind," however. Essentially, Young is doing here what he's always done -- reflecting on the world around him with a sense of loss and longing. But it can't be denied that "Wind" whips harder and with more intimations of ill portent given the current global climate of hopelessness, fear and panic.

Young hasn't rocked hard for the better part of a decade, at least in the recording studio, and he seems happy to have passed the torch in that department to younger bands he's influenced, most notably, Pearl Jam. "Wind" is based around Young's acoustic guitar playing, always a delight, and the subtle and supple contributions of longtime friends and collaborators Ben Keith (steel guitar), Spooner Oldham (keyboards), drummers Karl Himmel and Chad Cromwell, and bassist Rick Rosas. Young and Keith, who produced the album together, adorn these gentle, uncluttered basic tracks with wisely-employed harmony vocal parts, string arrangements, a horn section and, on a few numbers, a gospel choir. None of it seems busy, contrived, or obtrusive. The word "organic" may well have been invented to describe Neil Young productions.

Young has long extolled the virtues of simple living, and throughout "Wind," he sings of homespun truths and clear, uncluttered existence. But that's only on the surface. The recent death of his father, writer Scott Young, hangs over the proceedings and shades them; the knotty topic of religion and faith, and their co-opting by extremists, is the subject of the moving gospel lament "When God Made Me"; and in general, the easygoing, mellow tone of the music is countered by Young's awareness that not much is left behind by the brutal and careless thief that is time. What remains, however, is worth clinging to.

"I have my friends eternally/We left our tracks in the sound/Some of them are with me now/Some of them can't be found," Young sings during album-opener "The Painter," before acknowledging that "if you follow every dream/You might get lost."

Positing the idealism and hopefulness often associated with the '60s against the cold and soulless present gives power to many of these songs. "No Wonder" contrasts pastoral and rural recollections against the image of a politician who "sits in a leather chair behind a big wooden desk/the caribou he killed mean nothin' to him/He took his money like all the rest."

Elsewhere, Young pays tribute to his father on the title tune, and revels in the comfort of family memories on the horn-fueled "Far From Home." "Here for You" is a touching promise from father to child. "This Old Guitar," with soul-stirring harmony vocals from Emmylou Harris, sums up Young's attitude toward music; "This old guitar ain't mine to keep/It's mine to play for a while," he sings with world-weary conviction. In other words, it ain't about me; it's about the music I'm passing on.

The album's centerpiece is the sublime ballad "It's a Dream," a haunting lament that contrasts the warmth and comfort of lambent memories against the cold, harsh reality outside the window in the present day. Young's aching falsetto and the comfortable flow of the chord progression combine in a sublime manner here.

There are no real surprises on "Prairie Wind." Nor does the album suffer for their absence. Just Neil, singing these childlike, beautiful songs, stopping time for while and stilling a world spinning out of control. Who couldn't use a little bit of that?

-- Jeff Miers

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