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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases


Youn Sun Nah, "Same Girl" (ACT). There's huge international jazz news here, especially for those of us from Western New York. In a jazz world that, literally, sees dozens of new discs by jazz singers released monthly (sometimes it seems as if it's weekly), here is one from a singer who's beautiful, stunning and utterly unique. Yes, there's some cabaret and French chanson in it, but the ultimate mix is so little like anyone else. She's Korean in origin, lives in Paris and her voice is uncommonly rich. But it's her musical ideas that are so startling. Brilliant and revelatory here is her dip into the incredible repertoire of Jackson Frank, the tragic folk singer (and friend of Paul Simon's) who had been terribly burned in the traumatic Cleveland Hill School fire of the '50s, made a minor name for himself in Buffalo (while working at The Buffalo News as a dictation clerk and becoming a friend to many of us) and then, suddenly, in New York and London becoming a minor cause celebre until reckless life and depression caught up with him. He died in 1999. Youn performs Frank's "My Name Is Carnival" and it would be electrifying, no matter who had written it. She follows it up with a mad, whirling dancing scat called "Breakfast in Baghdad" written by her great guitarist Ulf Wakenius. What she does to "My Favorite Things" -- accompanying herself on Kalimba -- is of an intimacy you've never heard before. We won't even mention what she does with Randy Newman's "Same Girl" accompanying herself on celeste. This is her second disc and she is, without question, the greatest vocal emergence to hit jazz in many years. Here, for sure, is a great international jazz star, awaiting only a proper American tour to blow minds in large measure. 4 stars (out of 4) (Jeff Simon)

Jon Lindblom and Big Five Chord, "Quavers" (Hot Cup). In the giddier circles of avant-jazz in New York, you're not going to find too many musicians who don't mix rock sonorities and punk garage band attitude along with downtown classical music and jazz improvisation. Guitarist Lindblom's band Big Five Chord is said to be influenced by John Scofield, Eric Dolphy, John Cage, Bela Bartok and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Which means in practice electronic sounds, dissonant harmonies, angular melodies on the brink of tonality and hard rhythmic drive even on something like "Ears Like a Fox," which is just an avant version of a New Orleans second-line shuffle. Keeping company in Lindblom's group is alto and sopranino saxophone player Jon Ibragon, star of the remarkable, cheeky avant-jazz bunch called Mostly Other People Do the Killing, which played a memorable concert in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's Art of Jazz series. For more venturesome ears, to be sure, but it's quite something. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

Kenny Werner, "Balloons" (Half Note). A spectacular 21st century jazz quintet -- Werner on piano, Randy Brecker on trumpet, David Sanchez on saxophones, John Patitucci on bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums. It's the sort of exalted level you'd expect Chick Corea to assemble which is why it's ideal for a veteran as artful as pianist Werner. This is a very standard jazz quintet in instrumentation (if head-rocking in talent), but there's nothing standard about the way moods are created and solos emerge from ensembles here. In other words, you couldn't be further from the more hidebound hard bop orthodoxies of the less talented versions of Blakey's Jazz Messengers. There's beautiful music here with modal chord changes deliberately kept in the neighborhood of folk music. The title cut, in fact, has a genuine ecstatic innocence of a sort that Lyle Mays often seems to attempt in his music with Pat Metheny but can't always attain. Hearing applause for solos and at the end of tunes comes as a shock because it always reminds you that this was a live recording made last April in New York's Blue Note. Nothing ear-boggling about the music but beautiful first to last. 3 stars (J.S.)



Chris Brown, "F.A.M.E." (Jive). The most troublesome line of Chris Brown's new album comes a few minutes into "Deuces," the opening track with Tyga and Kevin McCall: "Like Tina did Ike in the limo, it finally hit me. I got a new chick and it ain't you." The poison dart isn't delivered by Brown but the underlying message is clear: Rihanna brought it on herself. Before the 2009 domestic abuse incident, Brown was a promising pop star prepped to inherit some of Michael Jackson's early solo-career shine but with a modern, sexy edge. After the highly publicized pictures of Rihanna's bruised face, Brown became, to many more people, that violent pop star who beat up his girlfriend and his career was presumed dead by many in the industry.

But on the release date of his fourth album, "F.A.M.E.," Brown is enjoying a slew of hit radio singles. With "F.A.M.E." (an acronym for "Forgiving All My Enemies"), Brown is full-steam ahead as a Lothario whose appetites know no bounds. "Beautiful People," with its powdered-sugar synths and dance floor positivity, is almost a Kylie Minogue song. With a few shifts in production values, "All Back" could have easily found itself in the coffers of Taylor Swift or Carrie Underwood. "She Ain't You" is carried aloft on a gussied up sample from Jackson's "Human Nature." "Look at Me Now" is ubiquitous for a reason, built around a hypnotic toss between bass thumps, alien effects and rapid flow from Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne. The truth is that Brown, like his ex-girlfriend Rihanna, is a provocateur. And as a provocateur who particularly likes playing with the masks of masculinity he seems to be seeing his violent encounter with Rihanna as a kind of strange gift. 2 1/2 stars (Margaret Wappler, Los Angeles Times)



Liszt, The Complete "Anees de Pelerinage" performed by pianist Louis Lortie (Chandos, two discs). As with so much of the work of the 51-year-old French-Canadian pianist, there's a paradox at work here. He is a musician of sublime poetry and utterly impeccable taste -- which begs the question: "Why record the complete solo piano masterwork of Franz Liszt?" In the greatest Liszt performances, there's a tension between poetry and mysticism at one pole and vulgarity and showmanship at the other, just as there is in the composer himself. Liszt's "Years of Pilgrimage" are from the extraordinary post-virtuoso years of "Abbe" Liszt, when explorations of form and tonality made him one of the more secretly advanced musicians of his time. Lortie is brilliant with some of the starkness and contemplativeness of Liszt's poetry here, but there is less sense of the pianistic showman the greatest Lisztians provide. You can feel deprived by Lortie. At the same time, you can be nothing but impressed by both his art and his sensibility. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)



Soundgarden, "Live in I-5" (A&M). So we finally have a live album from Soundgarden, 15 years after the band officially kicked it in the head, and just about a full 12 months into their reformation phase -- a phase which is likely to yield a new studio collection by year's end. "Live on I-5" documents the band at its absolute peak, touring behind what would be its last album prior to the split, "Down on the Upside." The 1996 recordings assembled here do two things. First, they remind us what a mighty unit this Seattle foursome was, and how visceral and powerful its blend of metal, psychedelia and punk was the first time around. Second, "Live on I-5" drives home the startling truth that Soundgarden, though emblematic of the "grunge" movement from which it emerged, was always a bit different. In singer Chris Cornell, the band had the most soulful screamer in hard rock history. Guitarist Kim Thayil's shredding is always more avant-garde than it is akin to most metal's "deedley-deedley look at me" ethos. Drummer Matt Cameron (now with Pearl Jam) and bassist Ben Shepherd are the Bill Ward and Geezer Butler of post-punk, and they simply tear it up here. Thesonglist is culled mostly from the holy triumvirate of Soundgarden classic albums -- "Badmotorfinger," "Superunknown" and "Down On the Upside." The sound quality is excellent, and the rawness of the performance suggests that this album documents how it all actually went down, with zero overdubbage. Scary powerful. 4 stars (Jeff Miers)



Etta James, "The Essential Modern Records Collection" (Virgin/EMI). Its official title was "The Wallflower." But no one has ever called it that. From the time it became an R&B hit in 1955 by the singer who was all of 15 at the time, it's been known as "Roll With Me Henry." It was No. 1 on the R&B chart. "Good Rockin' Daddy" hit No. 6 not long after. Etta James, then, was still a teenager when Johnny Otis "discovered" her and made her a star for his Modern Records. She'd tour with Little Richard and Johnny "Guitar" Watson. And it was still five more years before she would do a stylistic 180-degree turn from her first music and record what is, by some lights, the great R&B ballad of all time, "At Last." When the majestic Ms. James, then, scoffs in x-rated terms at Beyonce singing "At Last" for the president and first lady at an inaugural ball, you can understand proprietary feelings about "her" song. That's because the song will likely never mean as much to anyone alive as it does to Etta James. Listen to the precocious music of her teenage arrival and you'll understand fully. There's even a 1955 beauty called "I'm a W-O-M-A-N" which is no relation at all to Leiber and Stoller's oft-recorded song of the same name which became a smash hit for Peggy Lee. You can argue with Etta James when she claims so much ownership or you can simply listen to this vintage music and realize she's not exaggerating. 3 stars (J.S.)

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