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Various artists

Healing the Divide: A Concert for Peace and Reconciliation


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

This 2003 concert, recorded at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center in Manhattan, was initially a benefit for Richard Gere's Healing the Divide nonprofit, which raises money for the health insurance needs of monks and nuns living in refugee camps in southern India. It kicks off with a brief invocation from the Dalai Lama, and proceeds through a program of avant garde, classical, Tibetan tantric chants, Indian sitar music and twisted folk before its conclusion.

All of the music is both brave and ethereal, universal and temporally specific. It sounds as ageless as the wisdom aspired to by the Tibetan Buddhists the concert (and subsequent sales of the CD) aimed to aid.

After the sublime, surreal "throat singing" chants of the Gyuto Tantric Choir, Anoushka Shankar -- daughter and most accomplished student of sitar master Ravi Shankar -- offers her "Nivedan," an other-worldly sitar piece with semi-tone-based melodic lines snaking their way around a droning root note. The piece transforms at its midpoint, with the arrival of tabla drums. This is sublime traditional Indian classical music, and comes across more as a prayer than a composition.

Later, Phillip Glass and West African kora player Foday Musan Suso team up for the elegiac "The Gambia," a mantra-like polyrhythmic modern classical piece that's nothing short of mesmerizing. The kora is a 21-stringed instrument combining qualities of both the harp and lute, and Suso truly makes it sing, his modern take on traditional African music offering able counterpoint to Glass' multi-idiomatic hybrid of Western and Eastern forms. Exotic, strange and beautiful.

The remainder of the eclectic program is comprised of a rather breathtaking musical co-mingling between Tom Waits, his longtime bassist Greg Cohen and the Kronos Quartet. This is a marriage conceived somewhere to the left of heaven, as Cohen's upright bass melds with the quartet's knotty tonalities, and Waits howls like a bluesy carnival barker atop it all. "Way Down in the Hole" becomes a field holler with an avant garde violin solo in the middle; "God's Away on Business" is prefaced by Waits' self-deprecating humor, as he feigns indignance at having to "fill in" for opera singer Jessye Norman "again," then proceeds through the Kurt Weil-like creepiness of the post-modern string arrangement.


-- Jeff Miers



Abbey Lincoln

Abbey Sings Abbey


Review: Three stars

When she was younger, there was a grating crow squawk that Abbey Lincoln could never entirely keep out of her voice. She was so feisty, so individualistic, so impassioned and so determined to be in charge against any odds that jazz might put in her path that, on occasion, the sounds that came out of her throat were more ugly than anything else. With Billie Holiday, the odd squawk and crack was the badge of a squandered life bravely presented to the audience without musical euphemism. With Lincoln, they seemed more errant pride than anything else.

Age has been kind to Abbey Lincoln's voice. A lessening of its power is very much a good thing. She can move you in ways that weren't so easy before. There is still that utterly indomitable ego to deal with; typically, this, as she approaches 77, is a disc of her own songs, plus her lyrics to Monk's "Blue Monk." At the same time, it's touching in a way her discs have seldom been in the past. When she sings "I'm learning how to listen/How to hear a melody/How to hear a song I'm singing/How to feel and let it be/And listen for the song/ Knowing how it goes/ And listen to the melody that flows," you're hearing naked autobiography beneath the self-righteous preachment -- and it's poignant indeed.

I wish that such hard-won music didn't come with pseudo-Nashville guitar by Larry Campbell and Gil Goldstein's decision to pick up an accordion. But this disc is a genuine autumnal triumph from an artist whose will to dominate and need for respect sometimes deprived her of the very things she so wanted.

Few, if any, of her songs are likely to be taken up by others, but hearing them from her, they get to you. One of the messages here: Want to know one place Norah Jones came from? Pull up a chair.

-- Jeff Simon



John Lee Hooker

"Don't Look Back" and "Jealous"

[Shout! Factory]

Review: Three stars for "Don't Look Back," 3 1/2 for "Jealous"

From the second it was released in 1997, John Lee Hooker's "Don't Look Back" was a Grammy waiting to happen -- his last full-length album, collaborations with Los Lobos and Van Morrison (who produced most of it), and a Hooker tribute to Jimi Hendrix's "Red House," no less. As it turned out, it won two Grammies. Listen to the kick Hooker is getting playing "Dimples" with Los Lobos, and you'll understand why.

The even-more-riotous "Jealous" -- the other juicy remaster being re-released next week -- began a full return to Hooker consciousness in 1986 and came with a tribute from Carlos Santana ("a supreme force in American music . . . an ocean of inspiration"). Each of these explorations of the metaphysics of one-chord boogie comes with two previously unreleased bonus tracks.




Widespread Panic

Choice Cuts


Review: Three stars

A few decades into its career, Georgia progressive jam band Widespread Panic has fully solidified an ambitious sound blending elements of blues, folk, Southern rock, pop and various improvisational musics into an instantly identifiable din.

"Choice Cuts" is a bit of a stopgap, as the band's considerable fan base awaits its new studio album, recently wrapped up at Compass Point studios in the Bahamas and tentatively slated for an early fall release. As stopgaps go, this hand-picked "best of" collection is about as good as it can get.

Panic has always seemed like a relic from a different age, which is not at all the same thing as suggesting the group sounds dated or mired in the past. Rather, Panic willfully ignores the temporal tastes swirling around the music business at any given point in time and mule-headedly proceeds to do whatever the heck pleases it.

That means shooting for pop hits has never been a concern, nor has kowtowing to the latest trends in record production. Instead, Panic concentrates on perfecting its band dynamic and interplay, and capturing its live sound in the recording studio. Since it first signed with Capricorn records, Panic has been ably blending its myriad influences into an expansive, yet still song-oriented, sound. "Choice Cuts" presents some of the best of these moments in a smooth-flowing running order.

Whether tackling JJ Cale's sublime "Travelin' Light" with easy-going aplomb, getting way out there with the searing guitar explorations of "Love Tractor" or laying down the greasy funk on "Weight of the World," Panic pleases. "Choice Cuts" is a great single-disc "playlist" for the aficionado or a solid introductory primer for the uninitiated.

-- J.M.

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