3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
British musician, DJ and producer Simon Green -- aka Bonobo -- has crafted a masterful collection of chilled soundscapes whose placid surface belies a multilayered complexity waiting just beneath. If, as seems to be the case, Green's aim over the past 10 years has been to force DJ-based electronic music to embrace the more musical strains of smart orchestration, thematic development and full-bodied arrangement, "Black Sands" signifies full delivery on that promise. It's danceable electronic music but with an emphasis on the "music" side of the scale.
Green is a musician, and most of the musical information assembled and displayed here was created by him -- some of it in real-time, some of it cut, spliced and looped, but all of it worthwhile from a musical standpoint. It might be interpreted as a criticism to point out that "Black Sands" is formulaic, but it needn't be so -- if the formula is to start softly and subtly with a beat, add instrumentation, melody and harmony as the piece progresses, and leave the listener with the impression that they've been taken on a bit of a journey with each composition, then one would be better off praising Green's consistency than damning him for "sticking to the plan."
The secret to "Sands'" success lies in the strings -- lush, surprising and supple arrangements of violins, occasionally traced by sparse harp figures, and lent sonic support by harmonium, an occasional music box, or a tinkling Fender Rhodes electric piano. By adding these warm, human touches to the music, Green elevates pieces like "Kiara" and "The Keeper" from the brittle sublunar world of the dance floor up into the far more forgiving light of the ether.
It might seem like not so much of a big deal to have commingled dreamy, ethereal, mood-pieces with minimalist classical themes and modern electronica, but Green is one of the very few who has been able to pull off such a hybridization. His efforts are to be commended. -- Jeff Miers
Bonobo performs at the Tralf Music Hall on April 3.
Yesterday You Said Tomorrow
What a year for jazz records 2010 is already turning out to be.
According to the 26-year-old New Orleans trumpet player (and nephew of alto saxophonist Donald Harrison), this disc was designed to superimpose "textures from our era, the sounds and textures that define my generation" and marry them to "those in the past" and all of it with "the brevity and character of the recordings of the '60s (the John Coltrane Quartet, Miles Davis' 2nd quintet, Bob Dylan, Hendrix, Mingus, etc.)." To that end, he managed to lure the legendary 85-year-old jazz recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder into the control room who calls it "one of the best things I have done in a long, long time."
This is jazz that's alive and creative and restless in the age of Radiohead and Pearl Jam but gorgeously contiguous with some of the best jazz of four decades before. As a trumpet player, Scott can do a little of everything -- scream to get your attention, play with muted sweetness and spin out soft-toned improvisations that are both sinuous and lyrical at the same time.
There's no small amount of political context to the disc, too, which accounts for some of the disc's burning darkness. The opening tune, for instance, is called "K.K.P.D." which is short, says Scott, for "Ku Klux Police Department" and refers, among other things, to the "phenomenally dark and evil" attitude of some New Orleans cops toward African-Americans that he saw growing up and remains in place.
His politics seem deeply felt and integral to him, not in the slightest bit gratuitous. You don't have to share them to be captivated by the music they engender.
His young band -- with not-so-young drummer James Williams added -- is superb, particularly guitarist Matthew Stevens.
-- Jeff Simon
Sting in the Tail
After 40 years, Germany's Scorpions will call it quits following the three-year world tour launched to coincide with the release of "Sting in the Tail" -- according to the band members themselves, the collection that will act as the band's final statement in a career that has seen it sell in excess of 100 million albums around the world.
"Sting," as it turns out, acts as a serviceable bookend to the segment of the band's career that started about 10 years into its tenure, with the 1979 release of commercial breakthrough "Lovedrive." That's when the band lost guitarist Ulrich Roth, enlisted the rather brilliant replacement Matthias Jabs, and stripped its sound down to an easy-to-love, unashamedly commercial heavy metal. Early '80s efforts, "Animal Magnetism" and "Blackout," managed to please fans of the more adventurous Roth-era music, while bringing in boatloads of younger fans eager for the energetic balance of wall-of-sound guitar hooks and memorable melodies. The Scorpions became an international sensation -- undoubtedly Germany's biggest band -- without sacrificing all of its accumulated credibility.
By the end of the decade, though, Scorpions would end up sounding an awful lot like a slightly more menacing version of the many bands who had ripped them off -- among them, Bon Jovi, and various Los Angeles "hair metal" bands too numerous to mention. Success stuck around, but Scorpions never returned to the glory of its career-defining live album "Tokyo Tapes" or its studio predecessors "In Trance," "Taken By Force," and the like.
"Sting" is not a bad album -- singer Klaus Meine, founding member and rhythm guitarist par excellence Rudolph Schenker, and soloist Jabs are absolute professionals capable of conjuring strong, if a touch cliche-ridden, rock tropes at the drop of a hat. For the most part, the album rocks as hard as anything the band has offered over the past 30 years, and, oh blessed relief, the power-ballads are kept to a minimum. Fans of "Love At First Sting" -- the band's biggest selling album -- will probably dig the Scorpions' farewell opus.
But beyond a doubt, these guys are capable of much more.
La Nuit de Mai: Songs and Piano Pieces
Performed by Placido Domingo, tenor and, Lang Lang, piano with the Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Alberto Veronesi, conductor
Lucky Leoncavallo, having Placido Domingo go to bat for the tone poem "The May Night," a sprawling, 40-minute tone poem for tenor and orchestra. The notes say it shows the influence of French culture, but I hear more the influence of Wagner -- in the trombones, the thrilling resolutions, the declamatory vocal lines. In any case, Domingo, who himself has grown into the part of Wotan, sounds at home in the piece, and builds a strong case for it.
In the five songs that follow, Lang Lang does not have a lot to do. The piano parts make him an accompanist, not a collaborative pianist, as Domingo, clearly enjoying himself, soars to those Neopolitan heights. Lang Lang sounds self-conscious tackling the two salon pieces that end this trip back in time. For all his technique, he does not quite have the offhanded gallantry that light music demands. It's not as easy to carry off as you think.
-- Mary Kunz Goldman