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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

>Pop

Celine Dion, "Taking Chances" (Columbia). Man, I wish I could've been a fly on the wall at the board meeting where some genius came up with the title of Celine Dion's new album. "Hey, why don't we call it 'I'm a Radical?' No? Not snappy enough, eh? OK. How about 'I Hate the Status Quo'? You no like? Hmm. Aha! I've got it! 'Taking Chances!' It can't miss!" Great. Nice work, Waldo. It remains unclear to me, after spending several tortuous hours with the record, what sort of chances Dion is taking here. "Taking Chances" is indeed safe as milk. However, the "sell-by" date on that milk carton is well passed. It's beginning to really stink up the joint. And it's lumpy. Particularly when Dion finds it necessary to exhume "Alone," the melodramatic dreck Heart stooped to cover back in the '80s. Lordy, this woman has never encountered a song she couldn't sing straight into the ground. Dion has about as much soul as a frozen turkey burger. Parts of "Taking Chances" attempt to be hip, but fail. Hiring Linda Perry to write and produce a couple numbers doesn't cut it. This record is disturbingly creepy. It's caviar served with stale crackers and spray-cheese in a can. Review: 1 star (Out of 4) (Jeff Miers)

***

Nat King Cole, "Penthouse Serenade" and "The Piano Style of Nat King Cole" (Collector's Choice); "Welcome to the Club" and "Tell Me All About Yourself" (Collector's Choice). Few if any of the those who steered their lives by Nat King Cole's inimitable and immortal ballads and swingers in the '50s and '60s had any idea that he was once one of the best and most influential pianists in the history of jazz a decade earlier. Once he became one of the most beloved singers of his era, it was never easy putting Cole's two musical worlds together as these later discs of some of his most jazz-friendly work prove. On "Penthouse Serenade" and "The Piano Style of Nat King Cole," for instance, the result is neither pop nor jazz but something watery of each. Much better is Cole with the Basie Band on "Welcome to the Club" from 1959 and the pseudo-Basie of "Tell Me All About Yourself." "Penthouse" and "Piano Style" Review: 2 1/2 stars; "Welcome" and "Tell Me" Review: 3 1/2 stars (Jeff Simon)

***

>Blues

Jimmy Reed, "Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall" (VeeJay/Shout Factory). Elvis covered "Baby What You Want Me To Do" after this first came out as a double-LP set. And Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones each did "Honest I Do." And, for a few decades, everybody who ever had a tall boss (or one who thought he was tall) sang "Big Boss Man" either out loud or under his breath. And that's the great blues composer Willie Dixon playing bass on this re-creation of his 1961 Manhattan concert. There's no question that Jimmy Reed's shuffle beats become more than a little monotonous over the course of the entire disc, but he was one of the great blues singers of his time and this CD version of this classic is choice. Review: 3 stars (J.S.)

***

>Classical

Schoenfield, "Four Parables" for piano and orchestra, Andrew Russo and Prague Philharmonia conducted by JoAnn Falletta; Four Souvenirs and Cafe Music with violinist James Ehnes, cellist Edward Arron and pianist Andrew Russo (Black Box). JoAnn Falletta's musical tastes are eclectic in the most positive and constructive sense. Her recording of Paul Schoenfield's "Four Parables" is the outfall from one of her recent forays into jazz-pop-derived music orchestrated for concert use. Each Parable has a program drawn from the composer's life experiences, with such titles as "Rambling Till the Butcher Cuts Us Down" and "Senility's Ride." There is an instant appeal in the music's driving, nonstop passages, with knuckle-busting pianism. But on repeat hearings it is the slower, blues-inspired moments that continue to touch the soul, while the racehorse chases begin sounding like musical yard goods. Piano and orchestral performances leave little to be desired. The "Four Souvenirs" and "Cafe Music" have their moments of appeal, including a bit more ragtime influence, but largely confirm the impression expressed above. Review: 2 1/2 stars (Herman Trotter)

*

Griffes and Scriabin, Piano Sonatas and shorter works performed by pianist Stephen Beus (Harmonia Mundi). Here is a truly brilliant program of piano music. To put Griffes' big piano sonata (after Ives' Concord Sonata, probably the greatest by an American composer) on the same program with Scriabin's Sonata No. 6 with shorter works by each composer (including Griffes' gorgeous "White Peacock") was beyond inspired, it's close to programming genius. Griffes knew Scriabin's music but that doesn't entirely account for the magnificent correspondences of poetry and ecstasy in these two composers born 12 years and 10,000 miles apart. To understand their musical brotherhood and to perform their music so well is an act of sublime musical intuition. If there's one catch to this disc, it's that the truly towering performances of both the Griffes and the Scriabin Sonatas partake of kind of sulfurous virtuosity that is well beyond intellectual acuity, even of this magnitude. A great disc, nevertheless. These are composers who fit together perfectly -- far more so than, say, Griffes with the Americans with whom one usually finds him, or Scriabin with his initial inspiration, Chopin. Review: 4 stars (J.S.)

*

Mozart, The Four Horn Concertos performed by Buffalo Philharmonic principal horn Jacek Muzyk and the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio conducted by Agnieszka Duczmal (Naxos). Recordings of the complete Mozart Horn concertos are a dime a dozen and are dominated by gaudy names like Brain, Clevenger and Tuckwell. Fearlessly, BPO principal Jacek Muzyk has tossed his hat into this ring and has come up with clean, solid performances that place him, right up there with those legendary performers. Muzyk is not looking for any new, distinctive interpretation of this music. Rather, he puts his trust in Mozart, leans back and pours out a pure, beautiful ribbon of warm, rich sound. There is nothing timid about his playing, but neither is there anything showy intended to attract attention to the performance rather than the music. His only focus is in looking for the most musically communicative journey through Mozart-land. The danger in praising this straightforward approach is that it might be confused with being ordinary, which it most definitely is not. In the aura of "rightness" that pervades both the performance and the excellent cadenzas Muzyk has written for Concertos 3 and 4, you don't notice his flawless technique until you stop and think about it. Duczmal and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra provide partnership that supports the horn very well, yet allows it to maintain an out-front posture that serves this music very well. This is one of the most satisfying Mozart recordings I've come across in several years. Review: 4 stars (H.T.)

***

>Rock

The Killers, "Sawdust" (Island). A collection of B-sides and unreleased beauties, "Sawdust" does a good job encapsulating the magic inherent in the Killers' strange blend of new wave, synth-pop and hypnotic, moody guitar-rock. The team-up with Lou Reed during "Tranquilize" is itself enough to warrant owning this. Add the frisky, sneering "Leave the Bourbon In the Bottle," a strange/smart interpretation of Joy Division's "Shadowplay," and the freakish post-punk of "Where the White Boys Dance" and you've got a collection that, surprisingly, might well be the band's best album. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.M.)

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