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Discs

Jazz

Donald Fagen

Morph the Cat

[Reprise]

Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)

As one-half of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen co-authored one of the most exciting, challenging, and genre-busting bodies of work to have emerged from the '70s. With his partner Walter Becker, Fagen forged the only fully actualized co-mingling of jazz, rock, R&B and funk that we've yet to hear. This stuff could never really be called "fusion"; though Fagen and Becker's bands could certainly rock, their compositional acumen is based in jazz harmony. Call it Ellington with electric guitars.

Away from Becker, Fagen has created moving, intelligent work, but it has fallen a tad short of the high watermark for excellence established by the pair's collaborations. The same has been true of Becker's solo work. Happily, with "Morph the Cat," his third solo album over the past 20 years, Fagen has clearly hit pay dirt. This record measures up to classic Steely Dan efforts like "Aja," "Gaucho" and "The Royal Scam." That's not faint praise.

"Morph" is essentially a valentine to New York City, but Fagen being Fagen, it's a love letter equal parts romanticism, skepticism, irony, rapier wit and literary hijinks. No post- 9/1 1 paeans here, for Fagen has never favored the obvious. Instead, look for the "homeland security hottie" manning the airport checkpoint in "Security Joan," the pair of embattled, world-weary lovers hiding in their bunker in "The Great Pagoda of Funn," or the rascal politicians storming the gates in "Mary Shut the Garden Door." Fagen makes the crumbling of the country, the cultural neuroses, even the impending apocalypse, something you can chuckle about.

Employing most of the studio musicians from the touring Steely Dan ensemble that created nightly magic on the band's "Everything Must Go" tour of 2003, Fagen sculpts gorgeous environments for his impeccably crafted songs. Many are propelled by a funk beat, and there are certainly elements of R&B present throughout. But make no mistake, this is jazz. Fagen favors rich, extended chord voicings in all of his songs, as he and Becker always have with Steely Dan.

In this sense, Fagen has no peer on the current landscape. His music is incredibly sophisticated -- musicians will note plenty of augmented triads, lots of ninths and 13ths, and a complete disdain for the standard chord voicings common to modern rock and pop tunes -- but it's also sexy, funny, delivered with a wink, and virtuosic without making too big a deal of itself. Which is to say, it's an awful lot like a classic Steely Dan record.

-- Jeff Miers

***

>Jazz

Gonzalo Rubalcaba

Solo

[Blue Note]

Review: 3 1/2 stars

*

Michel Camilo

Rhapsody in Blue with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra under Ernest Martinez Izquierdo

[Telarc]

Review: 3 stars

We've known it for more than a decade: In the blissfully populous ranks of luminous pianists in current jazz, no place has been more profligate in producing them than the Caribbean, including Cuba, our worrisome, nettlesome neighbor 90 miles offshore. But perhaps the greatest thing about Caribbean jazz pianists is the unself-conscious ease with which they cross over into classical music and back again. These are omni-pianists in jazz, much like Keith Jarrett and, to a lesser extent, Chick Corea.

Cuban Gonzalo Rubalcaba, 42, and Dominican Michel Camilo, 51, are two of the fiercest, most exciting and gifted jazz pianists from the Caribbean. They have each, in diametrically opposite ways, filled the jazz cup over the brim into classical music in their new discs.

Rubalcaba's is his first solo piano disc, and it's sublime -- as poetic and spellbinding as any omni-piano solo disc to hit jazz since Jarrett's first solo LP, "Facing You." This is gorgeous music, an ever-changing kaleidoscope of moods, colors and rhythms. None of it falls victim to terminal introversion (as the worst of Bill Evans did) or, on the other hand, barrelhouse crudity. A marvelous disc.

Camilo's all-Gershwin disc, "Rhapsody in Blue," is fine but more than a bit curious. He plays Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Concerto in F like a man born to, but his improvising on Gershwin's "Prelude No. 2" was woefully ill-advised. For all his ability, taste -- never a problem with Rubalcaba -- bedevils Camilo here.

-- Jeff Simon

***

>Classical

Anna Netrebko

Violetta: Arias and Duets from Verdi's "La Traviata," with Rolando Villazon, tenor, and Thomas Hampson, baritone, the Vienna Philharmonic, Carlo Rizzi, conductor

[Deutsche Grammophon]

Review: 3 stars

Anna Netrebko's life is a little like an opera itself -- she started at the Metropolitan Opera with a lowdown, backstage job, and now she's a prima donna, that much more celebrated because of her rags-to-riches tale. This disc, recorded at the 2005 Salzburg Festival, is the opera disc du jour. Macho young tenor Rolando Villazon is Alfredo to Netrebko's Violetta, and Thomas Hampson, who, alas, turned when we weren't looking into something of a senior statesman, plays Germont.

Hampson's courtly qualities make him perfect for the part of the older gent, and Villazon works, too, in his part. His somewhat brash, hormonal style is an advantage here. Netrebko, with her light-toned soprano, brings out Violetta's youth and vulnerability. The lighthearted party scenes, a forte of Verdi's, sparkle especially. Like the wine they celebrate, they're full-bodied yet quaffable.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

***

Hip-hop

Dem Franchise Boyz

On Top of Our Game

[Virgin]

Review: 1 star

Hailing from Atlanta, Dem Franchise Boyz arrive with a fully formed marketing plan in tow, led by an eager hip-hop press anxious to proclaim the band's "snap" sound -- an updating of Southern "crunk," a dark, heavy, club beat-based estuary of gangsta rap -- the next big thing.

Though "On Top of Our Game" is one of the more cynical, shallow, cliche-ridden hip-hop records to see release in some time -- picture 2 Live Crew without the humor -- the marketing plan has worked. "Game" debuted in the Top 5 a few weeks back and generated more than 1 million ringtone sales in the process. Welcome to the future. Hope you're comfortable.

It's tough to approach "Game" from a musical standpoint, because there's not much music here. Devoid of melodies and stripped to its bare essential elements -- gut-busting bass, made to be cranked in clubs and freshly pimped rides, relatively tired beats and the occasional synth sample -- the record is as depressing as it is vapid.

Lyrically, the Boyz plow familiar ground: braggadocio, guns, misogyny, all delivered in a light-hearted manner. This stuff was made for high volume enjoyment, where its dramatic bass frequencies might qualify it as exciting. Turn it down and check it out closely, however, and you'll find there's not much to sink your teeth into.

-- J.M.

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