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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

>Country

Mindy McCready, "I'm Still Here" (Iconic). Mindy McCready's new album "I'm Still Here" opens with a somber string arrangement and prayerful words about sin, forgiveness and making amends in a husky voice that is tender and blue. The song "Wrong Again" sets the mood for McCready's contrite, soulful, surprisingly effective return to recording after a decade filled with personal calamities. At this point, McCready's known best for a tabloid life of domestic abuse, drug and DUI arrests and suicide attempts. She originally surfaced in 1996 as an engaging 20-year-old country music spitfire riding a feisty No. 1 hit, "Guys Do It All the Time," and a double-platinum album, "Ten Thousand Angels." Fourteen years later, she's staging a comeback after a high-profile role in the 2010 edition of VH1's "Celebrity Rehab." On "I'm Still Here," her vocal ability not only remains, but has gained depth and maturity. It shows best on ballads about surviving difficult times, as in the touching title song, which brought her "Rehab" colleagues to tears when she performed it on the TV show. McCready also fares well on uptempo tunes, especially "I Want a Man," the album's lone song with the playfulness the singer showed in her youth. While uneven at times, "I'm Still Here" suggests McCready's talent has endured, despite the destructive public behavior. 3 stars (out of 4) (Michael McCall, Associated Press)

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>Classical

Hommage A Chopin, Jonathan Plowright, piano (Hyperion). An unusual Chopin Year disc, this 29-piece recital shows us Chopin through the eyes of other composers. In other words Chopin comes at us from all kinds of different directions. The B major prelude emerges from the fevered fog of the Russian composer Mili Balakirev's imagination. The 19th century super-virtuoso Leopold Godowsky memorializes the older master with a delicately seductive waltz. There is Busoni's eerie look back on the C minor Chopin prelude, and an arch salon piece by Tchaikovsky. The most substantial piece is Mompou's 25 variations on Chopin's famously simple A major prelude, and they are glorious, with harmonies that sound like jazz. Speaking of which, if a few pieces take you far afield from the mind and tastes of Chopin, that's OK. Chopin was guilty of the same thing, with his homage to Mozart's "La ci darem la mano." I love to see pianists turning again toward this florid, fantastic music. 4 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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Bach, Berg and Webern performed by pianist Benjamin Hochman (Artek). "Introducing Benjamin Hochman," is this disk's full title. Hochman, a promising and intense-looking young pianist who studied at Curtis and the Mannes Institute of Music with Claude Frank and Richard Goode, seems to be channeling Glenn Gould with his juxtaposition of Bach and Webern. The Bach Fourth Partita is graceful, like a smooth machine -- you find yourself glued to it, like following a bouncing ball. The gliding Allemande is especially entrancing. The recital ends with Bach's E minor Partita, No. 6. In between are the abstract Webern Variations, Op. 27 -- five minutes or so of music, and the Alban Berg Sonata, a piece I love. Hochman could put a little more fire into the go-for-broke Berg. Though obviously a promising pianist, he still sounds scholastic. It will be interesting to see him mature. 3 stars (M.K.G.)

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Haydn, Symphonies performed live by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Pierre Boulez, Christoph Von Dohnanyi, Zubin Mehta, Franz Welser, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Vienna Philharmonic, three discs). Because we live in a world where orchestras put out their own discs, there's something rather wonderful about this three-disc compendium of Haydn Symphonies. The "stars" are Haydn and the Vienna Philharmonic, not the conductors who are midwives, even when they're as wildly different in approach and history as Boulez, Mehta and Harnoncourt. So what you have is Vienna's great orchestra playing the composing "papa" of what people came to call "the first Viennese school" (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern being the second). Recordings date all the way from Mehta's 1972 recording of the Symphony No. 22 "Der Philosph" to the "London" Symphony No. 98 recorded in May 2009. Timed to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his death last year, the box excludes all the Paris symphonies as well as such tried and true favorites as the Symphony No. 94 "Surprise" and the G-major Symphony No. 88. It is, nevertheless, an inimitable contribution to the worldwide recorded commemoration. 3 1/2 stars (Jeff Simon)

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>Pop

Frank Zappa "Philly '76" (Vaulternative). The live album is the bastard son of the music biz. The idea is a throwaway -- usually a contract-fulfilling tactic. Still, the Philadelphia live album has had it good. The Doors, David Bowie and Grover Washington Jr. are but a few who made their stage time in Philly sound worthwhile. Yet none has done better than the late Frank Zappa. As a guitarist, Zappa was unrivaled in his abilities to solo fluidly, with grace and grunge on his side. As a composer, Zappa married intricate pop and avant-psychedelia with lyrics either socially astute or satirically arresting. As a bandleader, he chose only the best musicians. "Philly '76," recorded Oct. 29 of that year at the Spectrum, embraced Zappa's weird pop side ("Camarillo Brillo," a cover of the chugging '50s rocker "Stranded in the Jungle") with but a few exceptions, such as the slithering, soulful "Black Napkins." While Zappa and violinist Eddie Jobson fill that lengthy epic with rapturous solos, the pop of "Philly '76" has a boogie R&B and gospel edge, too. Blame Lady Bianca Odin. Her churchy vocals help turn the stammering "Dirty Love" and "Dinah-Moe Humm" funky and chic. This is truly exquisite stuff from a master of his trade. 3 1/2 stars (A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer)

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>Jazz

Sonny Rollins, Way Out West (Contemporary OJC), Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (Jazzland OJC), Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (Contemporary OJC), Joe Pass "Virtuoso" (Pablo OJC) and The Dave Brubeck Quartet "Jazz at Oberlin." (Fantasy OJC). In this, the latest batch of Concord Remasterings, we have what are not only some of the greatest records in the entire history of jazz but some of the irreplaceable music that made people fall in love with jazz in the first place. In most, there are additional performances from the same period. "Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section" is most people's nomination for the greatest record Pepper ever made, a kind of celestial statement of East Meets West bebop. (Its backstory is not pretty: Pepper hadn't played in a while and the cork on his horn had dried out. The renowned junkie admitted in his autobiography that he smacked up right before the session.) "Way Out West" -- performed in one long night -- was one of Sonny Rollins' most extraordinary pianoless trios (with the West Coast's Ray Brown and Shelly Manne). Until the Carnegie Hall concert was discovered, the Monk and Coltrane record was virtually all that survived of that short but historic collaboration. "Virtuoso" was the first mind-boggling solo statement from guitarist Joe Pass in what would prove to be one of the greatest series of solo jazz guitar discs. And "Jazz at Oberlin" is the very early Brubeck Quartet (with bassist Ron Crotty and drummer Lloyd Davis) playing all standards in 1953. For all but the Brubeck, there really aren't enough stars in any reviewer's constellation for these discs. Ratings: 4 stars for all but Brubeck, 3 1/2 stars for Brubeck. (J.S.)

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Dave Holland Octet, Pathways: Recorded Live at Birdland 2009 (Dare2/Red Eye). For an all-star group as jammed with astounding jazz talent as this is, the disc is a minor disappointment. Consider the group, though: Antonio Hart on alto saxophone and flute, Chris Potter on tenor and soprano saxophones, Gary Smulyan on baritone, Alex Sipiagin on trumpet and fluegelhorn, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Steve Nelson on vibes, Nate Smith on drums and Holland on bass. Unfortunately, Holland's tunes (the disc's best, "Wind Dance" is by Spiagin) don't bring out the soloists' best, and Nelson's vibes and marimba lend a definite chill to the harmonic accompaniment that a piano would have avoided. One never knows the degree to which group politics determine these things, but there is a definite gap between the luminosity and abilities of the players here and the music created. 3 stars (J.S.)