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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

>Pop

Livingston Taylor, "There You Are Again" (Whistling Dog). Being a superstar musician's sibling can be a real drag -- just ask Mike McCartney and Chris Jagger, both of whom struggled to carve a niche for their own art beneath the estimable shadows of their brothers. Livingston Taylor has had more success making his own mark in folk-pop, despite the worldwide legion of followers devoted to the work of his brother James. "There You Go Again" is a tender, unabashedly romantic slab of singer-songwriter fare, circa 1975. Melodic, inviting, impeccably performed, well-written and sprinkled with glorious guest cameos -- former sister-in-law Carly Simon, brother James, pals Pam Tillis, and session aces Steve Gadd and Leland Sklar -- the record will appeal to the "imp of the sappy" in all of us. There will always be a place for music this solid and open-hearted. Review: 3 stars (Out of 4) (Jeff Miers)

>Classical

Ligeti, String Quartets 1 and 2 performed by the Artemis Quartet (Virgin Classics). Just as Brahms' first symphony has sometimes been thought of as Beethoven's Tenth, you could probably think of Gyorgy Ligeti's wildly phantasmal first quartet -- called "Metamorphoses Nocturnes" -- as Bela Bartok's Seventh Quartet i.e. a string quartet in virtual direct lineage to the six extraordinary Bartok quartets, the greatest in 20th century music. The first of his Hungarian descendent Ligeti is hallucinatory, formidable music, fiendishly hard to play and yet performed by the Artemis Quartet here with eerie virtuoso ease. Once you get to the Second Quartet from 1968, you're in the same era that produced such magical Ligeti post-eletronic orchestral music as "Atmospheres" and "Lontano." He actually makes allusions to Bartok's Fourth Quartet in the third movement of his second quartet. It is gripping music that seems equally suffused with stillness and slashing violence. The performance level is the sort that composers pray for. Review: 3 1/2 stars (Jeff Simon)

***

Ana Maria Martinez, soprano, Prague Philharmonia, Steven Mercurio, conductor (Naxos). Martinez, who made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Michaela in "Carmen," has a flexible lyric soprano voice that's like caramel -- it's that dark and sweet. Listeners just discovering opera will enjoy the disc's focus on hits, like "Vilja" from "The Merry Widow" and Puccini's "O mio babbino caro." Connoisseurs will thrill to the Latin dash Martinez brings to the music, such as the extravagantly long high notes that conclude Delibes' "Les filles de Cadix" and "Je veux vivre," from Gounod's "Romeo and Juliet." You could almost call her a show-off, but I love the joy she takes in her art. The haunting "Bailero" from Cantaloube's haunting "Songs of the Auvergne" is a delight. Review: 3 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

>Hip-hop

Mary J. Blige, "The Breakthrough" (Geffen). Mary J. Blige is the sole diva in her particular category. She alone has succesfully melded old-school gospel, soul and R&B to post-hip-hop recording tendencies. She is also one of the few modern soul women who avoids over-singing to the point of inducing excrutiating agony in the listener. Blige knows, as so few of her peers do, that so much of soul's mystique comes from being understated, sultry rather than crassly sexual, laid-back and warm rather than in-your-face and over-the-top. "The Breakthrough" is the strongest of her eight albums, because Blige doesn't seem so eager to prove herself; she just sits back and lets it all be. Nice. Review: 3 stars (J.M.)

>Jazz

Jim Hall/Geoffrey Keezer, "Free Association" (ArtistShare). There's a very good reason why this disc is called "Free Association." There's also a very good reason why you can only get it through Jim Hall's website, www.jimhallmusic.com. Never in jazz history has such a disc as this been considered "commercial." There is terrific musicianship on this disc (especially the five minute live concert performance called "Furnished Flats"), but there is also a substantial share of music that stubbornly resists rising above the status of impressionist noodling. Hall is the greatest duet musician in jazz history (his duets with pianist Bill Evans on a disc called "Undercurrent" were legendary) and Keezer is one of his generation's most brilliant pianists. The resultant music, though, is less than the sum of its constituent parts. Review: 2 1/2 stars (J.S.)

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