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Discs

>Pop

Bebel Gilberto

Momento

[Six Degrees]

3 stars (out of 4)

In Brazil, Bebel Gilberto is a star, her contemporary take on jazz-inflected Brazilian music accepted as a wholly successful hybrid of pop stylings and the more serious strains of deep tradition. Two albums -- the debut effort "Tanto Tempo" and its self-titled follow-up -- showed that Gilberto was not afraid to bring a present-day electronica ethic to the Brazilian party, and could just as easily eschew the hipster technology in favor of warm, acoustic simplicity.

Gilberto's breathy beauty in the vocal department offered stirring counterpoint to her pop smarts. This stuff couldn't miss.

"Momento" doesn't exactly break new ground for Gilberto, but it does tighten up the intent of her first two records. Here, Gilberto has fully perfected the trad-Brazilian/pop hybrid, but she has gone even further, employing erstwhile Bjork/Madonna/Imogene Heap collaborator Guy Sigsworth to bring dance-tronica elements to bossa novas, in the process forging a mainstream music much more layered and variegated than one is used to encountering in the pop world.

That said, Gilberto's charms are of the softly seductive variety, and, on occasion, it would've been nice to hear her kick it up a notch, breaking through her sexy late-night/early-morning purr in favor of some full-blooded womanly exuberance.

That's being picky, though. On balance, Gilberto is experimental enough to seem bold and new and traditional enough to make sure these pieces remain full-on songs, not merely skeletal melodies with dance beats thrown atop like saggy skin.

"Momento" is a sexy, often beautiful, always stirring collection from a Brazilian pop artist digging into the prime of what should be a memorable career.

-- Jeff Miers

***

>Jazz

Kurt Elling

Nightmoves

[Concord]

3 1/2 stars

If you were inclined to be deeply peevish and unpleasant about it, you might think of the whole post-Diana Krall influx of female jazz "songbirds" as downright pestilential, like crows or starlings or those sparrows that congregate at airports in such numbers that they've been known to fly into engines and bring planes down.

What about current male jazz singers? They have, historically, always existed in far fewer numbers than the great female singers, but with this disc -- his first on Concord -- Kurt Elling establishes unequivocally that he's one the best, possibly the greatest after Andy Bey and up there with Kevin Mahogany and his musical "uncle" Mark Murphy (whom he may now have surpassed).

Most of this disc is good, at the very least, but there are two truly stunning moments here. One is Elling's truly extraordinary musical setting of Theodore Roethke's poem "The Waking" ("I wake to sleep/And take my waking slow"), which he sings accompanied only by bassist Rob Amster. Here is an idea that shouldn't have worked at all but does, brilliantly. The other sublime moment is the finale, Elling's setting of Von Freeman's version of Duke Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise" from "Black, Brown and Beige." With Duke's gorgeous melody but original lyrics that just skirt banality, Elling turns it into something even more moving than Al Hibbler in Duke's original.

Nor are those pinnacles the only high points here. Listen to his dark version of Fred Astaire's personification of the adjective "debonair," Irving Berlin's "Change Partners." And his version of Randy Bachman's "Undun" or "Body and Soul," the national anthem of the jazz tenor saxophone (Elling puts Dexter Gordon's solo to words, Jon Hendricks style). "There's a film score on this record," says Elling. "This is my idea of a screenplay." You won't be inclined to doubt it much. It's that dramatically coherent, and that good.

-- Jeff Simon

***

>Soul

Macy Gray

Big

[Geffen]

3 1/2 stars

Macy Gray lands exactly where she should be with "Big," a straight-up paean to '70s soul music centered not around elaborate studio trickery, but the rough-hewn beauty of her soulful rasp. By keeping it simple, Gray has made an album as emotionally compelling as her debut.

Of course, '70s soul music is a bit cheesy and lays on the overemoting, the syrupy strings, and subservience to the groove a bit thick. Gray does that, too, but she always delivers these hook-heavy soul nuggets with a healthy dollop of irony or, failing that, at least a nod and a wink. Gray always sounds a little bit sleepy and, believe it or not, this can often be her saving grace. If a lesser soul singer with more chops were to tackle something like "Shoo Be Doo," for example, it wouldn't be half the song it is -- the piece works because Gray makes it fun and sexy, not a study in coloratura.

There is ample balance between the Saturday night party anthems and the slow-cooking morning-after soul burners here. In fact, the ballads may take the prize on "Big." Particularly surprising is "Glad You're Here," which features a cameo from Black Eyed Peas vixen Fergie -- not surprisingly, since the Peas' Will.I.Am is both executive producer and collaborator here -- in a delightfully subdued, sultry setting. Nice.

Gray remains a delight, and the era-specific (properly so) string arrangements of producer Ron Fair deepen that delight. This is a first-rate update of the '70s soul ethic.

-- J.M.

***

>Classical

Nathan Granner and Beau Bledsoe

Departure

[Tzigane]

4 stars

Nathan Granner, a Metropolitan Opera auditions winner, and Beau Bledsoe are on what they call the "Mozart was a Punk" tour in support of this CD. Their recent recital at Nietzsche's was, shall we say, intimate -- which is too bad, because the many folks who missed it missed something big. This was one of the finest recitals I've heard in years, and I'm counting big venues. Granner sang early music by Monteverdi and John Dowland, Schubert songs and, in a highlight, lullabies by a contemporary composer, Brad Cox.

The pair also did "The Ash Grove," a spiritual, flamenco music and a wildly adapted "E Lucevan le Stelle" from "Tosca." To say they are unusual is putting it mildly. Engaging and passionate, Granner reaches out and grabs you in a way few singers, let alone tenors, do. The beauty of his voice made me think at one point of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and at another point of Richard Tauber. Bledsoe is a dream of a guitarist, virtuosic and intuitive. Had I heard these two on the prestigious Ramsi P. Tick series, I would feel I had gotten my money's worth. They are that good. A lot of what we heard is on this disc. Hear for yourself.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

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