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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

>Country

Rosanne Cash, "The List" (Manhattan). Immediately upon graduating high school, Rosanne Cash hit the road with her father. As a teenager in 1973, Rosanne was, understandably, smitten by the Beatles and the California folk-rock-country hybrids of the day. But dad Johnny was not content to take chances. He assembled a list of 100 "essential country songs," and his daughter kept it these many years, eventually taking these songs into her heart. "The List," Rosanne's first album of cover songs, finds the acclaimed songwriter cherry-picking from Dad's list, recruiting some fantastic musicians -- husband John Leventhal, Bruce Springsteen, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Elvis Costello, Rufus Wainwright -- and coming up with one of the finest country albums to see release in many years. There is a wistful beauty at the core of this collection -- it's there always in Rosanne's singing, it's there in Leventhal's arrangements and his understated production, and it's there in the four duets. (Springsteen's Everly Brothers-like co-vocal on "Sea Of Heartbreak" is particularly moving, and Tweedy's take on "Long Black Veil" is not far behind it.) A beautiful idea, rather flawlessly executed, "The List" is a must-have. Review: 4 stars (out of four) (Jeff Miers)

***

>Hip-hop

Q-Tip, "Kamaal the Abstract" (Jive). Shelved for some eight years due to record label squabbles, "Kamaal the Abstract" is finally seeing the light of day -- although pieces of it have been freely changing hands via the Internet for a several years now. Q-Tip, of A Tribe Called Quest, was well ahead of his time when he compiled this riveting blend of soul, R&B, rock, pop, reggae and mash-ups of all of the above, back in 2001. It's a relatively raw affair, production-wise, which is one of the album's many virtues -- subtle beats, electric pianos, organs, vibes, sliced-and-diced electric guitars, flutes, all arrive, then recede, leaving plenty of room in the mix for Q-Tip's singing and rhyming. Like a psychedelic soul masterpiece, the music moves freely through the space it creates. "Kamaal" feels and sounds like a classic. Review: 3 stars (J.M.)

***

>Classical

Jonathan Biss, piano (Wigmore Hall Live). It is hard to believe Jonathan Biss already has a place in the prestigious Wigmore Hall Live catalog. Wasn't it just yesterday we did a Q&A with him in Gusto because he was a promising kid giving a recital in Chautauqua? (That was in 2003. Biss was 22.) Biss' recital was taped May 12 of this year. He plays two Franz Schubert sonatas -- the C major, D. 840 and the famous A major, D. 959 -- and Biss' Schubert is graceful although I did not find it deeply moving. You have to be an old soul, I think, to nail the music's peculiar sorrow just right. Sometimes I thought the music lacked resonance. Biss has wonderful facility and articulation, though, and it continues to be a joy to observe his development. I almost forgot: Biss frames the sonatas with two short pieces by Gyorgy Kurtag. That is a cute touch but the Kurtag, so unsubstantial next to the Schubert, made me want to giggle. Review: Three stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

*

Leonard Bernstein, Mass, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop, featuring baritone Jubilant Sykes, Morgan State University Choir and Peabody Children's Chorus. This flawed masterpiece is called "Mass," but is subtitled "A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers." This implies an essential visual element that a CD cannot provide. As a purely audio experience, though, Alsop's recording sets a new standard, better even than Bernstein's own 1971 premier production. Understand, the long, arching form of this exceptionally complex Mass is linked by the usual divisions of the Latin Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, etc.). But there are also many interludes from the Jewish liturgy and, even more pointedly, extended tropes (secular additions or embellishments to the liturgy), most in frantic, exhilarating, jazz or rock style. This rather wild diversity suggests that Bernstein was trying to codify his own strong but ambiguous religious views. In the process, he has written a sprawling, exceptionally complex, 104-minute succession of pieces that are meltingly beautiful (A Simple Song), profoundly probing (The Lord's Prayer), viscerally exciting (Gospel Sermon -- God Said) and satisfyingly consoling (Secret Songs -- Lauda, Laude). But there are also stretches of disjointedness and excess. In Alsop's performance, these negative aspects tend to be minimized by the magnetic spell cast in the central role of the Celebrant by Jubilant Sykes, who has electrified Kleinhans Music Hall on visits here. The Celebrant is almost always in the action, and is called on to emote in expressive styles ranging from operatic to folk, from liturgical to a panoply of swinging pop excursions. In every instance, Sykes sounds like the style-of-the moment is the very center of his repertory. And with all this, he manages to not upstage anyone, but to cast a unifying sense of spirit over the whole performance. After almost 40 years, Bernstein's Mass, warts and all, is finally beginning to be considered part of the standard contemporary choral literature. And the most important nudge so far has been given by Sykes, Alsop and her Baltimore forces. Every adventurous music lover should give it a try. Review: 3 1/2 stars (Herman Trotter)

*

Johann Sebastian Bach, Six Partitas performed by Andras Schiff (ECM, two discs). With the great recent completion of Murray Perahia's set of Bach's Six Partitas, it seems we are in a period of sudden ubiquity for the seven-movement solo keyboard suites Bach himself designated as his Opus 1. You can't read too much into that. He was already 46 and the cantor at Leipzig's Thomaskirche. He'd already written, but not published, more than a few masterpieces. What he published, then, at his own risk and expense, was as much commercial bid as claim on immortality. That it was successful as both is no doubt one reason for the sudden profusion of piano titans giving them to us complete. Schiff's collection is, in every way, more impetuous and impassioned than Perahia's already brilliant set. When you add in ECM's almost surreal clarity of sound, his newest contribution to his string of brilliant ECM performances of Bach and Beethoven clearly becomes one of the best sets of the keyboard partitas available. Review: 4 stars (Jeff Simon)

*

Frederic Chopin, Etudes and Six Polish Songs, transcribed by Liszt, Luiza Borac, piano (Avie Records). Borac's career has been mostly in Europe, although the Romanian-born pianist made a mark in America in 1998 by winning a silver medal in the Gina Bachauer Competition in Salt Lake City, Utah. The winning tracks on this CD are the Polish songs arranged by Franz Liszt. You don't hear these very often, and Borac spins them out with delicacy and a fine singing tone. She sounds relaxed, which is high praise, and she brings out the music's sensual nature. I would like to hear these pieces more! Her Etudes are on the pale side. Borac is at her best with the hazy, delicate etudes, like the "Aeolian Harp" and the "cello" Etude. Review: 3 stars (M.K.G.)

***

>Jazz

Jeff Hamilton Trio, "Symbiosis" (Capri); Graham Dechter, "Right on Time" (Capri). Veteran West Coast drummer Jeff Hamilton and pianist Tamir Hendelman are the common denominators in these two discs from a West Coast jazz mainstream that hasn't much changed its musical language in 50 years. The irony of both of these new discs is that either one could have come out on Contemporary or Pacific Jazz in 1963, even though the musicians involved are, in some cases, men who weren't even born when the style was forged. (It's no surprise that Diana Krall, no less, wrote the liner notes for Hamilton's trio.) Of the two, the addition of young guitarist Graham Dechter on his own date as leader gives it more sonic and stylistic variety. But on both discs, there's a lot of venerable repertoire -- Charlie Parker's "Squatty Roo" and Duke Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone" for Dechter and Miles Davis' "Serpent's Tooth" and Lionel Hampton's "Midnight Sun" for Hamilton's trio. Guitarist Dechter is in hopeful Wes Montgomery mode with a side order of Barney Kessel voicings (my God, does this young guitarist love Wes' octaves). Little on either disc will shock, but it's all hugely appealing music, all the more magnetic for the styles having proved to be so timeless. Rating: Three stars for Dechter, 2 1/2 for the Hamilton trio (J.S.)

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