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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

> Jazz

Bill Evans, "The Sesjun Radio Shows" (T2, two discs). These performances for Dutch radio are from 1973, 1975 and 1979, the year before Bill Evans' death. It is one of the more foolish myths of jazz that what Evans was playing at the end of his life was somehow coarser and less profoundly poetic than his music of the late '50s and '60s. Listen, for pity's sake, to this wild, impassioned live trio performance from 1979 of "My Romance" and you'll hear, I think, some of the best work of his long and beautiful recorded life. He was on fire at the end of his life, I think. Sad things were happening in that life and he wasn't at all well, but with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera (in 1979) and Eddie Gomez and Elliott Zigmund six years earlier, his playing perfectly matched robustness and sensitivity, as if music were the enclave that mattered away from everything else, where he could be what he wanted to be. (Zigmund, by the way, was just in Buffalo at the Albright-Knox Art of Jazz series with pianist Pete Malinverni.) There's great Evans duo and trio music all through these two discs, and, yes, four priceless tracks where the great Belgian harmonica player Toots Thielmans joins him. Review: 4 stars (out of 4) (Jeff Simon)

Ernie Krivda, "Blues for Pekar" (Capri). Once upon a time, when WBFO-FM was still serving the community by remaining in the jazz business, we had an on-air personality (and prominent local musician) who'd actually refer to tenor saxophonist Ernie Krivda as "the iron lung of Cleveland, Ohio," the kind of nickname that jazz musicians might raucously use among themselves but which doesn't exactly translate gracefully to the world beyond. Clumsy though it was, it gets to the heart of what makes Krivda a unique player whose relatively small reputation in jazz rests solely on one fact: He's spent his life in Cleveland, Ohio. Or, as the late Harvey Pekar -- underground comic maestro and world-class irascible American grump -- used to say, "Ernie Krivda is one of the greatest tenor saxophonists in the world but nobody may know this because, like me, he chooses to live in Cleveland." It's Krivda's circular breathing that makes his agile lines incredibly long and ferocious in a sustained way that isn't like anyone else. He's a spectacular player -- passionate and high-voltage without pulverizing in the least a natural musicality that makes his ballads glorious. And listen to the players with him on this bebop tribute to Pekar -- trumpet players Sean Jones and Dominick Farinacci, and his rhythm section "The Detroit Connection" composed of 78-year-old pianist Claude Black, bassist Marion Hayden and drummer Renell Gonsalves, son of Duke Ellington's great, harmonically daring marathon tenor player Paul Gonsalves. A great disc. Some American musical splendor in Pekar's honor. Review: 4 stars (J.S.)

Pat Metheny, "What's It All About" (Nonesuch). There is a fine line between ambient, atmospheric, evocative recordings and "easy listening." For years, Pat Metheny has been unfairly lumped into the latter group, precisely because, if you wanted to play, say, "One Quiet Night" or even the Metheny Group's "Still Life (Talking)" in the background at a cocktail party, you might be able to ignore the harmonic and dynamic complexity of the music and just hear the "jazzy" vibe. None of this is Metheny's fault, nor does it appear to be his concern. He remains a vital jazz artist, as both player and composer. And he continues to follow his fancy wherever it might lead. "What's It All About" is the mirror image of 2003's "One Quiet Night," meaning it's a one-man, acoustic solo project. Perhaps last year's incredibly ambitious "Orchestrion" project left Metheny in the mood for stark simplicity; this new effort is comprised of Metheny's take on some of the classic pop tunes -- many of them of the " '70s AM radio" variety -- Metheny grew up loving. For much of the album, Metheny turns his attention to the baritone guitar, an instrument he clearly has an affinity for, its dark-hued timbre well-suited to the man's penchant for subverting dazzling technique to emotional resonance. The likes of "Cherish," "And I Love Her," "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" and "The Sound of Silence" might seem like odd raw materials for a jazz virtuoso to employ, but Metheny finds the beauty in each of them and exploits it tastefully. Don't play this one softly in the background while you host a wine and cheese party, though -- play it loud. Review: 3 1/2 stars (Jeff Miers)

> Classical

Herbert Howells, The Winchester Service and other late works, the Winchester Cathedral Choir, Simon Bell, organ, Andrew Lumsden, conductor (Hyperion). Howells is for hard-core choral music fans. If on one end of the contemporary choral spectrum you have John Rutter, with his Broadway harmonies and primary colors, on the other you have these uneasy, disorienting declamations. They impress with their sheer power and, occasionally, majesty. But even the numbers that are supposed to be exultant -- which include an English "Te Deum" and "Exultate Deo" -- are ponderous and brooding (extremely at odds with the CD's cover, which shows a brilliant, colorful landscape). Still, there will be choral connoisseurs who will love this. The assembled forces do a wonderful and chiseled job with it all. Review: 3 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

John Adams, Son of Chamber Symphony and String Quartet performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble Conducted by John Adams and St. Lawrence String Quartet (Nonesuch). It's hard to resist someone who calls a piece "Son of Chamber Symphony" -- especially when a composer's previous essay in the form was 15 years before. The breeziness of the title belies Adams' admission that "a piece of symphonic scale written for a large group of virtuoso soloists provides all sorts of challenges, not only to the performer but also to the listener. Balances are always in danger of going completely out of whack. Individual string instruments can easily be buried by an overly loud clarinet or, in my case, an enthusiastic drummer." Which makes this piece by Adams definitively recorded under the composer who was very much under the sway of the Op. 9 chamber symphony of Arnold Schoenberg "considered by some the most fearsomely serious party pooper of all time." There's no party pooping here. When Mark Morris turned it into ballet music, he called his ballet "joyride." Adams' 2008 String Quartet is similarly energetic, nervous and extremely demanding of his musicians -- and listeners, too. (Beware trying to listen to this as "background music." You'll be a nervous wreck in no time.) Review: 3 stars (J.S.)

Biber, Mystery Sonatas, Julia Wedman, violin, musicians of Tafelmusik (Sono Luminus). Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (you say it just like Justin Bieber) wrote his "Mystery" Sonatas, full of hidden code, as an inspiration for praying the rosary. There is a brief sonata for every mystery. The music is beautiful to listen to on the surface -- Biber was a wonderful Baroque composer -- but if you delve into the notes of this CD, you'll be fascinated. There are simple sound effects: trumpet blasts in the Glorious Mysteries, and in the Sorrowful Mysteries, suggestions of hammers as well as wrenching, stretching, hard-to-play sounds. The notes also take you into arcane matters of tuning, harmony and technique, and how they relate to the mysteries themselves and to the ancient, mind-bending practice of praying the rosary. Wedman, a violinist with Toronto's Tafelmusik, presents all the sonatas in order with her colleagues, and her playing is rich and varied. Just as admirable are her personal reflections disclosing how Biber's sonatas illuminate the individual mysteries for her, as well as how centuries-old paintings in Salzburg helped her unlock the music's secrets. Review: 4 stars (M.K.G.)

> Pop

ZZ Top, "Live in Germany 1980" (Eagle/Rockpalast). Let's kick a very bad old critical cliche to the curb and hope it stays there. It has often been thought that the greatest years of ZZ Top were when the Bearded Ones were a dung-kicking, overalls-wearing blues band from out of Texas and not the blues rock wonders whose "Eliminator," etc., weren't afraid of synthesizers and all manner of other studio sophistications to give their hilariously seductive neo-primitive blues raunch a synchro-mesh transmission the likes of which few, if any, blues rock bands ever had before. It is later ZZ Top that is some of the most rollicking pop music of its time, not the earlier stuff, however full of roadhouse integrity it's presumed to possess. Not that there's anything wrong with earlier ZZ Top, mind you, but this live concert from Germany's Rockpalast in 1980 is from the time of "Deguello" with suitably reverent covers of Elmore James ("Dust My Broom") and good old Elvis ("Jailhouse Rock."). ZZ hit fans will make merry with "Cheap Sunglasses" and "Tush," but if this were all the world ever knew of the gentlemen who would later help put MTV over, they'd have remained a fond indulgence of blues/rock nostalgists and not one of the formative bands of their time (and a touring favorite even now -- not to mention Billy Gibbons' sometime appearances as the father of the wizardly lab tech on "Bones," one of TV's most droll bits of casting). Good early ZZ, but the top shelf is still to come. Review: 3 stars (J.S.)

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