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Discs

>Pop

Diana Ross

I Love You

[EMI]

Review: 1 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

Her voice hardly diminished by the passage of time, her penchant for bringing a jubilant spirit to love songs both bitter and sweet still intact, her keen ear for picking the right songs to cover not in doubt, Diana Ross arrived ready for her sessions with famed pop impresario Peter Asher in the recordings that would end up constituting "I Love You." Yet even with all of her ducks in a row, Ross delivered a record that fails to connect emotionally. Sadly, "I Love You" is a largely antiseptic effort, a by-the-numbers pop-soul affair.

Things start off promising enough, with Ross wrapping her breathy tone around Harry Nilsson's timeless "Remember," though Gregory Rose's orchestral arrangement trades the heart-rending understatement of the Nilsson original for a cloying slickness, thereby introducing one of "I Love You's" recurring themes: production overkill. It might've been nice to hear Ross sing "Remember" -- or even Giorgio Moroder's "Take My Breath Away," for that matter -- with a simple acoustic piano and small string section for accompaniment. Wherever possible, however, Asher and Ross pile on the studio gauze, in the process making what could've been emotionally engaging classic pop into fodder for a dentist office's waiting room.

Ross does manage to shine through on occasion. "What About Love" is saccharine, but subtly so, and the sparse arrangement allows the listener to focus on her singing, which is moving and nuanced. Freddie Mercury's "Lovely Day" is granted a Burt Bacharach-esque arrangement and a mildly cheesy dance groove that would've probably thrilled the late Queen vocalist, who celebrated the ironic attributes of camp throughout his career. "To Be Loved" is likable '70s-era R&B, even if Ross' delivery is a bit needlessly breathless and overwrought.

Much more difficult to forgive is Ross' take on Paul McCartney's "I Will," which forgoes the Beatles version's low-key, folk-based charm for a soppy sentimentality that writes the melody far too large for its own good. Ouch.

"I Love You" is far from Ross' finest work, though its best moments are touching in an innocuous, easy-listening fashion.

-- Jeff Miers

***

>Jazz

Various Artists

Lush Life Soundtrack

[Blue Note]

Review: 4 stars

Billy Strayhorn was the other half of Duke Ellington's heartbeat -- his rehearsal pianist, auxiliary leader, right-hand man and, indeed, composer of some of the Ellington band's most memorable tunes, including its very theme song, "Take the A Train." And his jazz immortality -- while utterly dependent on Ellington and his perspicacious recognition of a unique talent -- was also assured by no one more than Ellington himself, when his answer to Strayhorn's early death from leukemia was "And His Mother Called Him Bill," probably the greatest single memorial record in jazz history.

Here, in conjunction with a sudden new spurt of fascination for Strayhorn (and Robert Levi's PBS biography to be shown Feb. 6), is what is clearly the first truly great jazz disc of a still-young 2007. It's a recital of Strayhorn's compositions by pianist Bill Charlap and some great living musicians who truly understand everything there is to love about Strayhorn tunes. The collection of musicians includes, yes, Elvis Costello, who contributed words to one of his most beautiful melodies, "Blood Count," and sings it.

This is kept to chamber jazz dynamic levels, so that the listener can relish the magnificent intimacy of the whole project. As a result, you quickly come to understand that, just as they always did for Ellington's men, Strayhorn's tunes elicit some of the best work of their lives, from some completely disparate jazz figures, especially tenor man Joe Lovano and singer Diane Reeves, who are both gloriously in their element.

It isn't often that a jazz titan as important and enduring as Strayhorn inspires a tribute record that is absolutely as canny and as beautiful as it deserves to be, but this is one of them. It's both jazz for eternity's sake and so approachable and gorgeous that it's a great starter record for someone who wants a toehold for the music at its most intimate.

-- Jeff Simon

***

>Classical

Robert Owens

Fields of Wonder: Songs and Spirituals of Robert Owens

Performed by Darryl Taylor

.Albany]

Review: 4 stars

It's great how Albany Records showcases interesting vocal music we'd never encounter otherwise. Robert Owens, for one, deserves a bigger audience. As an African-American, he occasionally expresses his heritage in music, but he stresses that, as the liner notes put it: "[These songs] are not written for any particular race. They are to be sung by all people who appreciate fine songwriting."

Which this is. Owens has gifts not only for harmony and piano writing but also for melody. He dares a straightforward, romantic setting of Lord Byron's "Bright Be the Place of thy Soul." His music finds a fine advocate in Darryl Taylor, an astonishingly expressive tenor who has been featured in the past by Naxos as well as Albany. The sensitive musicians on this disc know enough to give him room, and he seamlessly fuses classical technique with traditional American sensibilities. That approach especially suits the two Owens arrangements of spirituals that end the collection. "The Crucifixion" is almost unbearably haunting.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

***

>Blues

Various Artists

Music from the motion picture 'Black Snake Moan'

[New West]

Review: 3 1/2 stars

The soundtrack to the forthcoming film from "Hustle & Flow" director Craig Brewer, "Black Snake Moan" digs deep in the fertile soil of Memphis blues and unearths a moving collection of swampy tunes coupled with new entries into the Southern blues canon.

The soundtrack works quite well as an album, each song flowing effortlessly into the next to create a sonic narrative redolent of the near-gothic intensity of the South's most raw music, most of it from the early part of the 20th century. "Black Snake Moan" also offers up a few surprises, including the stark, raw believability of the film's star, Samuel L. Jackson, as a singer. Jackson tackles the R.L. Burnside piece "Just Like a Bird Without a Feather" to open the album, and his tone and phrasing are spot-on for the genre.

Jackson also accords himself quite well with the title tune, a hypnotic take on the traditional song most often associated with Blind Lemon Jefferson. Here, his deeply resonant spoken-word and gruff singing receive visceral accompaniment from Jason Freeman's searing slide guitar. Ohio duo the Black Keys offer up "When the Lights Go Out" and make it clear in the process that the twentysomething generation has plenty to offer in the ongoing blues discourse. The Keys' contribution revels in the connection between rustic Memphis blues and the grandiose rock stomp of Led Zeppelin, and it is a highlight of the record.

A fine hybrid of traditional Memphis blues peppered with modern interpretations, "Black Snake Moan" makes for some delightfully disturbing listening. This is the blues as it should sound -- full of terror, longing and regret, and encouraging the same emotions in the listener.

-- J.M.

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