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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

>R&B

Jamie Foxx, "Intuition" (J Records). Jamie Foxx doesn't do anything unless he does it all the way. Check his acting performance in "Ray," catch the guy's comedy routines or hear him on the radio offering lightning-fast free-form commentary. Then try to deny the fact that the man is simply on fire. Normally, winning Academy Awards would be enough for an average ambitious type, but Foxx isn't an average "Joe the Actor" -- he's Jamie Foxx, which means that he can make pop records too, if he feels like it. As a pop artist, Foxx should be an embarrassment, another in a long line of actors-turned-musicians with dreadful results. He isn't, though. "Intuition," his latest, is one of the strongest R&B/hip-hop records of the year. Why? It's mostly because Foxx is hilarious, a great mimic and a stunning actor. He can adopt the personality suggested by each song -- Ray Charles for the faux-soul of "I Don't Need It," Prince and John Legend for the falsetto-driven "Just Like Me," LL Cool J the ladies man for "Number One" -- and, since he happens to be an excellent, soulful singer, can deliver the goods with far more conviction than can the dudes he seems to be taking the mickey out of. Foxx is wildly creative throughout "Intuition," and he layers his vocals smartly, employs that voice as a rhythm instrument in spots, does a smarty-pants version of Bobby McFerrin when the mood takes him, and always remembers to stay on-point.

The album would be more than good were it not for the fact that the usual "star cameo" suspects are trotted out in obligatory fashion. Guess who? Yup, Kanye's here, Timbaland shows up, T-Pain is (sadly) in the house and Lil' Wayne drops by to make a train wreck out of "Number One" with his robotic Auto Tune "singing," which by now has more than worn out its welcome. Foxx doesn't need any of these clowns. He's got more talent than all of them combined. Review: 3 stars (out of four) (Jeff Miers)

***

>Classical

Copland, Dance Symphony, Symphony No. 1 and Short Symphony performed by Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop (Naxos). An altogether convincing and worthy disc of the OTHER Copland symphonies -- the ones that are not his large-scale masterpiece, the Symphony No. 3, certainly one of the greatest symphonies ever written by an American. There are Spartan modern music partisans who will, in fact, insist that Copland's first symphony from his 1924 Symphony for Organ and Orchestra is the great Copland Symphony. Or choose his Short Symphony from 1933. While it's true that Copland's musical personality was fully formed by the late '20s, the later populist masterworks -- and the wartime seriousness of the Third Symphony -- take his work to another level entirely. Alsop and the Bournemouth Orchestra's performances here on this budget-priced Naxos disc are predictably first rate, if not exactly inspired. Review: 3 1/2 stars (Jeff Simon)

*

Rubinstein, Sonatas, Nokuthula Ngwenyama, viola and violin, and Jennifer Lim, piano (Edi). The great piano virtuoso Anton Rubinstein, lionized in the 19th century, was known for his compositions in his day. Now, you don't hear them much. These two sonatas are lovely. If you happened on either of them on the radio and wanted to play Guess the Composer, it would drive you crazy. You would think, OK, this isn't first rate -- but there are moments of beauty, and it's no small praise to say that the music holds your attention. An Andante begins with viola and piano both playing solo, answering each other, and then rolls into a tune that could be a movie theme. Rubinstein's gift of melody that shows in the very first measures of the violin sonata. Canadian pianist Jennifer Lim and California-born violinist Nokuthula Ngwenyama (her father was Zimbabwean) have done a great job in dusting off these pieces and presenting them with passion and conviction. They leave you thinking this music deserves a better place in the chamber music repertory. Review: 3 1/2 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

*

Nielsen, Complete Piano Works performed by Christina Bjorkoe (CPO, two discs). Surprise, surprise. It turns out that there are two discs worth of truly exceptional piano music by the great Danish composer Carl Nielsen stretching from the Five Piano Pieces Op. 3 from 1890 to 1931's "Piano Piece." But then perhaps it is Carl Nielsen's lot in musical history to perennially surprise us. The widespread discovery of his fifth symphony 4 1/2 decades ago led to the cardinal place of his symphonies in the modern symphonic canon. Nielsen's instrument was the violin, but his piano music is as fascinating and as idiosyncratically early modern as his symphonies. Bjorkoe is a beautiful young pianist who relishes all of their post-Brahmsian eccentricity. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

*

Musica Intima, "O Nata Lux" (ATMA Classique). It's funny how new music is so much more palatable when it's sung by a chorus and accompanied by eggnog, or mulled wine, or other libations commonly served up after Lessons and Carols. The excellent a cappella group Musica Intima, described as a "distinctly Canadian ensemble" (whatever that means) starts this set of 19 carols and anthems with a lovely version of "In dulci jubilo." But that medieval melody is answered on the adventurous side by Jonathan Quick's "Angels From Heaven Came," written in two keys and full of all kinds of strange effects. In between is "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree" and modern rethinkings of "The Wexford Carol" and the Basque carol "Gabriel's Message." It will be a bit modern for some tastes -- the harmonies are sometimes so tart that you can taste them. But on the whole, it goes down easy. Review: Three stars (M.K.G.)

***

>Jazz

Mike Holober and the Gotham Jazz Orchestra, "Quake" (Sunnyside). The distinction between a jazz "orchestra" and a "big band" is by no means a rhetorical one. Something called an "orchestra" is, for sure, about texture of sonority and counterpoint rather than the gut punch and scream of something happy to be known only as a big band. Obviously, there are any number of modern exceptions (most notably Germany's extraordinary WDR Big Band) but pianist Mike Holober's Gotham Jazz Orchestra is a classic modern example of youngish modern players preferring to come together as an orchestra with a kaleidoscopic variety of sound (a la the Ellington band and Gil Evans) rather than the "16 men swinging" of the Basie band in apotheosis. Holober's fond of choirlike sound masses and complex mass counterpoint. His is a rather wonderful sounding ensemble but not one given to showboating, however fine Tim Ries often is as the tenor saxophone soloist. You've never heard George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun" or the Stones' "Ruby Tuesday" quite like this. (Available in January.) Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

***

>Reggae

Stephen Marley, "Mind Control Acoustic" (Universal Republic). It says a lot about Stephen Marley's love of music that, after he debuted with a Grammy-winning hit album, 2007's "Mind Control," his next recording is a subtle acoustic version of the original. During a promotional tour Marley performed solo on acoustic guitar, and fell in love with the simplicity and direct contact it gave him -- and listeners -- to the songs. The result is soulful and captivating. The sparse instrumentation -- just guitar, percussion and bass with surprises like flute, harmonica and pedal steel, with no thundering dub or dense production -- lets the bones and emotion of the songs come through. Reggae tracks like "The Mission Acoustic" or "Traffic Jam Acoustic," both featuring brother Julian "Jr. Gong" Marley, have a gutsy, straightforward swing that gives powerful, understated punch to their rebellious message. Review: 3 stars (Jordan Levin, Miami Herald)

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