4 stars (out of 4)
For his 2008 debut as Bon Iver, Justin Vernon pulled a Springsteen circa "Nebraska," recording the whole thing at home -- back then, a cabin in the deep nowhere-land of rural Wisconsin -- in a burst of hermetic activity he originally intended merely as demo sessions for what would be a fully fleshed-out album.
Like "Nebraska," the original lo-fi, disturbingly intimate demos became the full album -- in this case, "For Emma, Forever Ago." And again mirroring "Nebraska," that album became an instant cult favorite, the sort of collection full careers are eventually measured against.
For his second Bon Iver effort, Vernon has finally made that fully fleshed album. If anyone was worried that the stark intimacy of "Emma" was the only thing Vernon had going for him, they were wrong. "Bon Iver" isn't exactly the man's own "Pet Sounds" -- it's more his own equivalent of Joseph Arthur's "Redemption's Son," maybe -- but it is a gorgeously orchestrated collection of experimental pop and folk songs, all of which revolve around Vernon's soul-shredding falsetto, which is almost always double-tracked and is on most occasions wrapped in his own heavenly multitracked vocal harmonies. If anything could make you forget about "Emma" for a while, "Bon Iver" is just the ticket.
You know you're in for a different sort of ride this time around from the moment that opener "Perth" reveals itself amid the compelling racket of marching band drums, supple finger-picked electric guitars and that otherworldly falsetto, odd but familiar. "Minnesota, WI" balances what sounds like a harmonium's wheezing strings, directionally panned horn harmonies, urgent nylon string acoustic/banjo duel and a fuzz-drenched bass line. It's nothing short of a glorious melange of sound and melody.
"Emma" devotees needn't get their knickers in a knot, though. There is still an air of backwoods intimacy to much of "Bon Iver," particularly in the comparatively sparse layered vocal/acoustic guitar arpeggios that inform the wittily christened "Michicant." That existential travelogue motif is extended, both lyrically and musically, throughout the audio postcards that are "Hinnom, TX," "Calgary" and "Lisbon, OH," each title reflecting the geographical origin of its composition.
The blueprint for "Emma" didn't necessarily require improving upon, but somehow, Vernon has managed to retain that earlier album's raw, haunting power while simultaneously dressing it up for a Saturday night bacchanal. Or maybe an early Sunday morning one? Either way, it's a winner.
-- Jeff Miers
Preludes & Melodies
Performed by pianist Alessio Bax
3 1/2 stars
This is enchanting music -- from the Preludes, Op. 23, on through 13 other short pieces, some famous, some not. The Italian-born Bax has a fine technique and a wonderful singing line that he shows off especially in a piano version of "Vocalise." Occasionally, he overengineers the music -- I am thinking especially of the twin Fritz Kreisler showpieces, "Liebesleid" and "Liebesfreud," which should have a sense of simplicity even considering the virtuosity involved. And he can be overbearing with his fortes. But certain pieces -- the quieter pieces -- are charming and entrancing. We should be hearing these romantic dances and tone poems more often. They are like an antique mirror, reflecting an earlier time.
-- Mary Kunz Goldman
Gerald Wilson Orchestra|
3 1/2 stars
Let's be brutally frank here: Gerald Wilson can call this disc's opener "Variations on a Theme By Igor Stravinsky," but it still sounds like a truly ace vintage coastal big band performing something from the "Goldfinger" soundtrack (by the time Wilson gets through with Stravinsky's "Firebird" harmonies, that's how they translate).
But, for pity's sake, Wilson -- composer, arranger, bandleader -- will be 93 in September which makes this disc truly prodigious in a way few other recent discs are.
You don't want to caught in the act of condescension. It isn't that we haven't had nonagenarian jazz musicians before. The great pianist Eubie Blake was still functioning in his 90s, even though it was with far more vigor than invention.
But Wilson is unique. We have never had a jazz composer/arranger/bandleader still active in his 90s before -- not one who is still writing large complex suites for a big band of cream-of-the-crop younger players who are happy to be playing it.
Consider those Wilson has been able to assemble here: pianist Renee Rosnes, drummer Lewis Nash, bassist Peter Washington, saxophonists Antonio Hart, Dick Oatts, Ron Blake and Gary Smulyan, trumpet players Sean Jones, Jeremy Pelt and Frank Greene and trombonists Dennis Wilson and Alan Ferber.
So good is this band and so clean are its performances of Wilson's charts that you don't really care how badly he's kitschifying Stravinsky, Debussy and Puccini. The big jazz band suite here is "Yes Chicago Is" which is, no matter how you slice it, an astonishingly ambitious composition for a 92-year old jazz composer -- even with its enigmatic finale. No one's going to begin to compare it with the best of, say, Oliver Nelson and Quincy Jones (to which it has some similarity), but it's so well played in ensembles and solos that you can almost feel in your heart the palpable longing of the band to have played such music in its prime.
And here's how this music was created by its composer who, because of macular degeneration, is unable to copy down his own music. He dictates his charts, note for note, instrument for instrument to Eric Otis, the grandson he shares with singer Shuggie Otis (who was the son of R&B showmeister Johnny Otis).
It's unlikely you could fit more love on one jazz disc.
-- Jeff Simon
Pinnacle: Live and Unreleased from Keystone Corner
3 1/2 stars
Larry Klein now is best known as the collaborator and ex-husband of the great Joni Mitchell. But go back to these performances from San Francisco and 1980, and he was the bass player for Freddie Hubbard. (A gig which, at one time, was also filled by Buffalo's Juini Booth.)
Klein describes the Hubbard experience here: "Freddie was several people. He was a teacher, a demon, a loyal and kind friend, an irresponsible rogue, a generous mentor and a merciless taskmaster He had come up from the streets of Indianapolis, through the ranks of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and risen to the top of the New York scene before coming to Los Angeles. He had been hazed, head-butted, ripped off and shorted, and he wasn't going to let anyone get through his band without letting them pay the price too."
When it came to pure trumpet virtuosity, though, Hubbard was the man. His music may never have been all that imaginative, despite its success, but no one could beat the pyrotechnics. You won't always love the saxophone voicings here by David Schnitter and Hadley Caliman, but pianist Billy Childs, drummers Eddie Marshall and Sinclair Lott and yes, bassist Larry Klein provide fierce, even ferocious, company for Hubbard on these previously unreleased live performances.