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With Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy


Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)

The certain smash-hit movie of the season (it opens Christmas Day), it's also the movie soundtrack of the season, too - and by a mile. In fact, this may turn out to be one of the biggest-selling movie soundtracks since the soundtrack Golden Age of "Grease" and "Saturday Night Fever." That last is what will happen when you've got Beyonce Knowles doing a very creditable (and nicely lusty) impression of what it might have been like to be a Supreme and Eddie Murphy putting every bit of horsepower he has got into a James Brown impression (with a little Marvin Gaye thrown in around the edges).

But mostly that is what will happen when you've got "American Idol" also-ran Jennifer Hudson making four minutes and 45 seconds of film history by doing the Broadway show's "I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" in a way that seems to incorporate all the rawness of Broadway's legendary Jennifer Holliday and more than a little bit of her own, too. It's sensational by any possible definition.

No one is ever going to pretend that this slick Broadway pastiche of '60s Motown and chitlin circuit soul by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen is anything like the real thing, but it's superb for the artificial thing that it is. By this time a month from now, this music will have been heard exploding from a lot of teenage girls' bedrooms - and adult living rooms, both.

- Jeff Simon



Steve Swallow/Robert Creeley

So There


Review: Three stars

It has always been a myth that jazz and poetry belong together. But then everyone who has ever heard them pair up knows that. The idea stemmed from poets so (understandably) in love with jazz - and jazz musicians so appreciative of poets - that they threw out aesthetic common sense and promiscuously had all manner of one-night stands.

The late Robert Creeley, though, was always a special case, and everyone always knew it. No musician could possibly listen to Creeley read his work and not understand immediately that jazz had an influence on it - and that it existed in the same world of jagged rhythms and irregular phrasing as a jazz solo (and a very ambitious and avant one at that). Of all modern poets, Creeley - above all - clearly got jazz. And was even influenced by it a little (as much as a poet sensibly could be).

Jazz musicians were often among his friends. And they often insisted on setting his work to music. Here is an impressive, full-scale collaboration completed before Creeley's death between the poet reading his work and one of the most revered of current jazz bassists/composers.

Nor is it always straight-ahead 4/4 jazz, with string settings and the like. Some of the mood counterpoint here can be decidedly arresting. The starkness of the poetry and the sanguinity of the music can be at considerable odds.

But the undeniable pleasure here is hearing a great poet read so much of his best work in the company of a musician who truly knows and understands it.

- J.S.



Brian McKnight



Review: Three stars

Since emerging onto the R&B landscape 15 years back, Buffalo native Brian McKnight has been a bit of a maverick. While R&B has increasingly abandoned its roots in '60s Motown and '70s soul, instead courting the hip-hop crowd by appropriating that form's production ethic, McKnight has stayed the course, with idols Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Prince held in high esteem regardless of temporal trends.

McKnight is not alone in this adherence to the deepest tenets of soul music; the former Terence Trent D'Arby (now Sananda Maitreya) did the same thing at the same time, in a bolder, deeper fashion. But McKnight is important because he has kept it real and sold 16 million albums in the process. For this reason, he has become old-school R&B's most visible ambassador.

"Ten" is McKnight's first album in his new deal with Warner Bros., and it's solid, through and through. At turns mildly brash and boastful (album-opener and first single "Used to Be My Girl" finds McKnight addressing his ex's new man with swagger) to humble and repentant ("Shoulda Been Lovin' You" turns hip-hop braggadocio on its head as McKnight assumes the voice of a man copping to his own selfishness and ego-driven attitudes), the record makes clear its debt to Gaye's seminal lovelorn magnum opus "Here, My Dear."

McKnight is at his absolute best when tackling a grandiose soul ballad, and "Ten" is packed with them. "What's My Name" offers an ample showcase for his creamy vocal tone and suave phrasing. "A Little Too Late" is a piano ballad with a fey drum machine providing the beat, and in lesser hands, it would be pretty cheesy. But McKnight invests much genuine emotion in the tune, and his singing is soulful enough to rescue it. "Again" is another pop-R&B gem, the well-worn trick of mixing the sound of a scratchy vinyl record in time with the track unable to capsize the tune.

Only the collaboration with country's Rascal Flatts, the patriotic "Red, White & Blue," falls into the realm of the overwrought, its melodramatic adaptation of a soldier in Iraq's viewpoint coming across as a touch cynical and disingenuous. That aside, McKnight has crafted another old-school R&B winner.

- Jeff Miers



Moros Eros

I Saw the Devil Last Night and Now the Sun Shines Bright


Review: Three stars

Victory records has long been a home for hard-core and, since 2000, emo and emo-core bands. Atlanta's Moros Eros is certainly an anomaly on the Victory roster. Though the young band's sound might be loosely classified as emo, and its angular guitars, edgy tempos and emotive, key-stretching vocal melodies label it a punk outfit, the group's debut, "I Saw the Devil Last Night and Now the Sun Shines Bright," owes much more to Talking Heads and Sunny Day Real Estate than it does, say, Angels & Airwaves.

Part of the record's charm is certainly its earnestness, a common characteristic of emo. But guitarist/vocalist Zach Tipton avoids the whining self-indulgence and "page from my high school diary" lyrical approach of many bands in that decidedly of-the-moment idiom.

In fact, during "Short of the Shore," Tipton balances his open-throated urgency during the song's taut verses with a subdued bridge that suggests familiarity with the dramatic sing-speak of Jim Morrison. And though the band loves the skittish rhythms of modern punk, in its readily apparent ability to manipulate time signatures and master its own harmonic information - these songs actually boast key changes and purposeful chord progressions, not a given in modern rock - the group is ahead of the majority of its peers. Musical sophistication, which Moros Eros has much more of than the band members' tender ages might suggest, is not in abundance in post-2000 punk.

A compelling debut and, hopefully, a record indicative of a deepening of the modern punk and emo forms.

Moros Eros arrives in Buffalo for a show at the Showplace Theater at 8 p.m. Monday.

- J.M.



Sarah McLachlan


[ A r i s t a ]

Review: 3 1/2 stars

Though Sarah McLachlan has been coasting on the strength of her '90s breakthrough albums "Solace" and "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" ever since their release, she has never made a bad record. She has made a habit of treading water, true, but her gorgeous voice and the ethereal, gauzy production she'd perfected with partner Pierre Marchand always managed to at least get her by.

With "Wintersong," nominated last week for a Grammy Award hot on the heels of its release, McLachlan has found the spark she needed to break out of her rut. Which is not to say that she has really messed with her own formula too much -- Marchand is still on board, and so is the patented McLachlan sound, which is, as ever, grit-free. But as a singer, McLachlan is in her element here, whether she's tackling John Lennon's sublime "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" with empathy and conviction, or wrapping her gossamer vocal chords around Joni Mitchell's transcendent "River."

McLachlan's readings of traditional pieces -- "Silent Night," "The First Noel/Mary Mary," "O Little Town of Bethlehem" -- are also poignant.

A smart, refreshing take on the sounds of winter.

-- J.M.



James Taylor

At Christmas


Review: Three stars

This collection of holiday standards arranged and produced by contemporary jazz giant Dave Grusin would probably be pretty close to complete dreck if someone other than James Taylor was singing on it. Grusin assembles some reasonably inventive arrangements and summons some major session players and pop-jazz stars to make a pleasant sound that, at its best, offers some smart harmonic recontextualizing of well-known tunes, and at its worst, sounds an awful lot like cocktail jazz.

Taylor, however, brings such an abundance of warmth and soulfulness to the process that it becomes difficult to harden your heart to the music. "Winter Wonderland" transcends its standard performance when Taylor sings it, and the unlikely inclusion of the gospel giant "Go Tell It on the Mountain" is a surprising treat.

Like Sarah McLachlan, Taylor has grabbed ahold of Joni Mitchell's "River," and in the trio format -- just Taylor's voice and acoustic guitar, Larry Goldings' piano and Dave Carpenter's upright bass -- the song's gorgeous chord progression truly shines.

"At Christmas" leans too heavily on Taylor?s charm as a singer, but, most of the time, that charm is enough to carry it.

-- J.M.

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