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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases


Billy Joel, "Live at Shea Stadium: the Concert" (Columbia/Legacy, two discs plus DVD). So here he is from July 2008 celebrating himself and his work in the home of the Mets with some of the fancier company a rock star can have these days -- Paul McCartney, Garth Brooks, John Mayer and, yes, Tony Bennett on "New York State of Mind." And then go to the DVD and you'll find "bonus performances" by Billy Joel with no less than John Mellencamp, Steven Tyler and Roger Daltrey. It's weird to say it, but Joel's work is so varied that the same ultra-pro band isn't really appropriate for "Allentown" and "We Didn't Start the Fire." It all sounds like rock showbiz of the kind you perform on ball fields or at Super Bowls. But hey, "Walk This Way" with Steven Tyler on the DVD? And "My Generation" with Roger Daltrey? And "Pink Houses" with John Mellencamp? It's hard to be too nasty about a man with such heavyweight friends. 3 stars (out of 4) (Jeff Simon)



Trio Dolce Vita, "Amacord" (Jazzwerkstatt). If someone told you that a drummerless European chamber jazz trio of mostly bass, cello and clarinet had made one of the more irresistible jazz discs of the year by playing the music Nino Rota wrote for the films of Federico Fellini, you'd think they were daft. Clarinetist Claudio Puntin and cellist Jorg Brinkman do their share of instrumental doubling here -- Brinkmann on electronics, Puntin on everything from toys and a glockenspiel to Hohner Organa 30 to bass clarinet -- but the basic sonority here is the sort of drummerless chamber jazz swing that Jimmy Giuffre brought so brilliantly into jazz a half century ago. The revelation here is how sturdy as jazz is the music that Rota wrote for Fellini, especially if the musicians involved feel absolutely free to do with it whatever they jolly well choose. So the themes from "Amacord" and "Casanova" and "La Dolce Vita" and "La Strada" pass by with a guest appearance by the waltz Rota wrote for "The Godfather" in a driving fantasy full of electronics and slapped bass. These are superlatively imaginative musicians who love these melodies too much to make jive out of them. Instead, they transform them into something magical. 4 stars (J.S.)

Monty Alexander, "Uplift" (JLP). He is one of the infectious and consummate delights of jazz piano -- a musician even more extroverted than Oscar Peterson if not quite as bedazzlingly pyrotechnic (though Monty Alexander is a ripping virtuoso in his own right). When a man's repertoire on this disc includes "Come Fly With Me," "One Mint Julep," "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Body and Soul" and "Fungi Mama," he's not exactly playing for the esotericists in the audience (especially when he's delighted to throw bits of "Broadway" and other instantly recognizable tunes into his solos on the fly). That's why it was bizarre indeed that on the second disc of teenage alto saxophonist Grace Kelly, he was so subdued as the group's pianist. It was the avuncular gentleman in him not wanting to overwhelm a burgeoning jazz soloist and leader. This is more like it -- a master in the show business presentation of jazz capable of tapping the foot of the heaviest and most joyless ox in the audience. A terrific Alexander trio where Herlin Riley alternates drums with Frits Landsbergen and Hassan Shakur is the bassist throughout. This was recorded at concert halls around the globe between 2007 and 2010 and when you hear the applause you'll understand exactly how pleased the audiences were. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

Al DiMeola, "Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody" (Telarc). Radical is exactly what this pursuit of rhapsody isn't. If DiMeola, in fact, has a radical bone in his body, you're not going to hear it on this disc. He's bringing his World Sinfonia to the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts on Saturday, and the good news is that in live performance, such fiery instrumental virtuosity is usually a lot more exciting than the relatively bland uses of thousand-finger virtuosity you'll hear on this disc. The omnicultural eclecticism of the band is certainly appealing, even if DiMeola is among the ever-growing horde of musicians trying to sneak the accordion back into jazz if the players are good enough (the player here is Fausto Beccalossi who is pleasant but not nearly "radical" enough to rise above the instrument's corny cafe sonority). The major trouble on this disc is DiMeola's rather constant distrust of musical space -- the silences which, in fact, make for the music. Something, often of the sonically icky variety, is always going on behind DiMeola's admittedly splendid playing on both acoustic and electric guitar. In fact, you have to wait for almost half the disc to be over for it to get truly interesting. That's when guest stars like Charlie Haden, Peter Erskine and, especially, the great Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba really begin to kick in, and the disc ceases being a kind of elevated and show-offy Muzak. 2 1/2 stars (J.S.)



Matt Haimovitz, "300 Years of an Italian Cello" (Oxingale). Buffalo first met Matt Haimovitz when he was crossing the country in his little car with his cello in the back seat, and they stopped at Nietzsche's. Haimovitz does cello off-roading, too, on his indie label, Oxingale. This solo cello CD fuses the new and the ancient. The graceful music of Domenico Gabrielli, dating from the late 17th century, is the main thread of the collection. In between, Haimovitz throws in the music of Luciano Berio, Luigi Dallapiccola, Brian Cherney, Salvatore Sciarrino and Claudio Ambrosini. Like most projects like this, it works out better on paper than in practice. The modern pieces, though they come with the usual lengthy explanations, are difficult listening. Still, it's fun to hear Haimovitz max out his cello, a 1710 Matteo Goffriller. He whistles on it, scrapes on it, uses it as a percussion instrument and draws out of it sounds its long-ago makers never intended. He gets my respect, though, for being an original, also for treating all the music with the same passion. 2 1/2 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

George Antheil, Sonatas for Violin and Piano and premiere performance of the 1927 Sonata for violin solo performed by violinist Mark Fewer and pianist John Novacek (Azica). Bravo isn't enough. Try a good lusty Bravissimo for this disc, one of the most welcome classical discs of the year. That's because the violin/piano sonatas of George Antheil are some of the most riotous -- and perennially exhilarating -- masterworks of the American avant-garde of the '20s and beyond. American music has few more interesting composers than Antheil, a revolutionary futurist of the '20s who wound up composing film music and co-inventing (with actress Hedy Lamarr!) a frequency-hopping method of communication that was the forerunner of today's Wi-Fi communication and cell phone. Wait until you hear the Allegro from his second sonata for violin and piano dedicated to Ezra Pound, with its pianist banging away and making little side jokes about Debussy. Or the Sonata No. 1 dedicated to Pound's lady, violinist Olga Rudge, whose singularly affecting low notes and "Irish adrenal personality" Antheil so admired. He relished being called the "bad boy of American music," but what's self-evident about this music now is that it's still got a spirit guaranteed to shock the bourgeoisie -- or at least that part of it that can still be found in concert halls. At the same time, its impudence remains a galvanizing and timelessly exciting force even now. 4 stars (J.S.)

Jazz Nocturne, "American Concertos of the Jazz Age," the Hot Springs Music Festival Symphony Orchestra, Richard Rosenberg, conductor (Naxos). It's time we had some alternatives to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which, though ingenious, is overplayed. The ol' "Rhapsody" is front and center on this disc, this time billed as the "first complete, unabridged recording of the manuscript." (Everyone has a reason why his or her recording of the "Rhapsody" is the only "true" one.) The good news, though, is that the "Rhapsody" spawned some imitations, and they're also here. Though they're not as good, they're charming, and they're a change. One is "Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody," by stride pianist James P. Johnson, the joyous talent behind Big Joe Turner's rocking "Roll 'Em Pete." Johnson's concerto is orchestrated by William Grant Still. Two pieces come from the pen of Dana Suesse, whom the New Yorker called "Girl Gershwin." Her "Jazz Nocturne" and "Concerto in Three Rhythms" (orchestrated by Ferde Grofe, as was the "Rhapsody"), also bring the Jazz Age, to use F. Scott Fitzgerald's old term, to life. It's great that Naxos is dusting off this music. The disc's sleeper hit, however, is Harry Reser's rollicking Suite for Banjo and Orchestra, arranged by Don Vappie of the Preservation Hall Band. It's 11 minutes of loony-tunes novelty. 3 1/2 stars . (M.K.G.)

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