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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

>Pop

Michael Bolton, "Gems: The Duets Collection" (Sony Legacy/Montaigne). "Blue-eyed soul" didn't always have a reputation as bad as it developed. Back when Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers started doing his version of Ray Charles, and Joe Cocker and Janis Joplin each brought different kinds of ultra-freak street cred to the whole enterprise, it all had a kind of innocence. The strenuousness of Michael Bolton's hernia-producing overkill and relentless middle-of-the-road changed all that. Nevertheless, there's real music here beneath all the MOR mushiness. Bolton genuinely admires his collaborators here and, in many cases, well, he should -- the late Eva Cassidy, Seal (whose version of James Brown's "It's a Man's World" is a pointed answer to Bolton's version of a song practically designed for him, Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman"), Indian demi-genius A.R. Rahman, Rascal Flatts and Anne Akiko Meyers, who shows up on Bolton's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" only to help Bolton prove that nobody but nobody covers Bono. But for every oversung bit of throbbing power balladry, you can't get away from mush -- Leonard Cohen's sublime "Hallelujah," for instance, whose version by Jeff Buckley is truly otherworldly, sounds here like one of Bolton's old love songs to Nicolette Sheridan. Music, in other words, for desperate housewives. 2 stars (out of 4) (Jeff Simon)

***

>Jazz

John Escreet, "The Age We Live In" (Mythology). At long last. We've finally got a young jazz musician who's got enough chutzpah -- and confidence -- to equal the boldness of Ornette Coleman a half century ago who gave his records titles like "The Shape of Jazz to Come," "Change of the Century" and "Tomorrow Is the Question." Here is a 26-year-old composer/pianist in jazz who says, in his disc's very name, that he's giving you jazz for "the age we live in" and proceeds to do just that on one of the more exciting and wildly diverse jazz discs of the year. When Escreet plays electric piano to Wayne Krantz's guitar playing, you're hearing an absolutely fresh take on what happened when jazz and rock (i.e., electric music) found each other four decades ago. At the same time, on acoustic piano with chamber strings and his great alto saxophonist and co-producer David Binney (whose fine new disc "Barefooted Town" is just out on Criss Cross), you're hearing music that is as up-to-the-second contemporary as you're likely to find anywhere. Harmonically, it can be bracing and aggressive as can be. But so too can Escreet be as melodically wistful and moonstruck and poetic as he is on "As the Moon Disappears" and, with Binney, on "Another Life." The British expatriate has long lived in New York and he seems to have become a creative center there for all the things jazz is happy to be right now -- and some of those it's contemplating being in the future. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

*

Lee Konitz with Frank Wunsch, "Insight" (Jazzwerkstatt). No one ever said solo saxophone was easy. Some truly great players -- who should have done it brilliantly -- have tried it but come up against themselves. (The great Steve Lacy, for instance.) Some others -- who should have revealed a stark dependence on others -- turn out to be natural nocturnalists when playing solo. That's what Lee Konitz does here on three cuts of '90s live performances in Europe. For the other six cuts, he's joined by German pianist Frank Wunsch to make for duets as satisfying -- if not as significant -- as those he recorded with the great composer/arranger Gil Evans. 3 stars (J.S.)

*

Eric Alexander, "Don't Follow the Crowd" (High Note). There are three powerhouse tenor saxophonists in jazz at the moment of almost the same vintage -- Chris Potter, the oldest, at 43 and his cohorts in their early 40s, J.D. Allen and Eric Alexander. All -- but especially Alexander and Potter -- are happy as can be to play with the most vintage of vintage pianists (Potter, let's remember, was in an early mutual admiration society with Marian McPartland). Here is Alexander with 75-year-old pianist Harold Mabern, his teacher, frequent collaborator and, for all intents and purposes, musical godfather. Listen to them play "She's Out of My Life," which was made famous by Michael Jackson but was written by a guy who broke up with Karen Carpenter. This is classic tenor-and-piano jazz balladry that would have made Gene Ammons and Don Byas smile (complete with drummer Joe Farnsworth whispering on brushes). A saxophone aria, in other words, not a solo tradeoff. It's meat and potatoes jazz to be sure, but in the hands of some cooks, a simple stew is delicious. 3 stars (J.S.)

***

>Classical

Eric Ewazen, The Music of Eric Ewazen performed by Marya Martin & The Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, (Albany). Buffalo knows Juilliard composer Eric Ewazen. He was the one who wrote the marimba concerto based on Scottish themes that Evelyn Glennie played recently with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Marimba features in the "Mosaics for Flute Bassoon and Marimba" on this disc. Scotland is at the center of the "SeaSkye Songs" -- beautiful songs, easily flowing, with Susan Narucki's graceful soprano set off by light chamber accompaniment of piano, flute, violin, cello and percussion. Ewazen understands the "less is more" principle -- just a touch of percussion, one line on a flute is all he needs to change the color of the music. He also has an easy, unlabored style. Martin, a prominent flutist, brings out this style, giving unpretentious grace to the disc, which also includes the Sonata No. 1 for Flute and Piano and "Bridgehampton Suite" for Flute, Violin, Viola and Cello. This is some of the best music coming out of academia, which is where most music comes from these days. 3 1/2 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

*

Shades of Love, Four Cycles to the Poetry of Constantin Cavafy. John Muriello, baritone, David Gompper, piano (Albany Records). Here are four composers with more awards, grants, honors and academic credentials than Mozart ever had, and not one can come up with anything that grabs you, let alone that you ever would want to hear again. The best is Katerina Stamatelos -- her "Terror," a solo machine-gun outburst from the singer -- is kind of clever. Richard Pearson Thomas is somewhat "accessible," meaning, not too annoying, and his piano accompaniments show some cohesion and imagination. But I feel I have heard it all before. The other two composers, for the record, are David Gompper, who also plays piano on the disc, and Jeremy Dale Roberts. 2 stars (M.K.G.)

*

Echoes: Classic Works Transformed, composed by Schiff, Sheng, Stock, Harbison, Jones, Kernis and Schwarz and performed by Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz (Naxos). I love the idea of this. Seattle Symphony's Gerard Schwarz asked his closest composer friends to give him short "reinterpretations" of classic works, preferably short ones. The results are sometimes close to hilarious, sometimes deeply moving. David Schiff's five-minute whirl through Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite" is called "Infernal" and Bright Sheng's "Black Swan" after Brahms "Intermezzo" for piano is something Brahms might have appreciated. On the other hand, David Stock's "Plenty of Horn" is a terrific 3 1/2 -minute fantasia on Jeremiah Clarke's famous "Prince of Denmark March." Are you ready for the impressionistic "Rubies" by John Harbison based on Thelonious Monk's "Ruby, My Dear" -- which sounds almost shockingly "natural" as a symphonic piece without rhythm section? It sounds like something Gershwin might have written that his brother Ira would have forbade him to publish. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

*

Nico Muhly, Seeing Is Believing performed by electric violinist Thomas Gould and the Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon (Decca). Nico Muhly -- who will be 30 in late August -- continues to be one of the most vivid, as well as instantly likable, of contemporary composers. In "Seeing Is Believing," a kind of 25-minute, one-movement concerto for electric violin, the language is post-minimalist and the composer -- get this now -- was trying "at times to reference the music attendant to '80s educational videos about science, which always sounded vast and mechanical, and sometimes quite romantic." (Composers hear things differently from the rest of us.) At the same time, his love of 18th century English church music is evident here in adaptations of Byrd, Weelkes and Gibbons (whose cadences, says Muhly, "always drive me crazy with pleasure"). "By All Means," though, was written to the instrumentation of Webern's Concerto for Nine Instruments Op. 24, except that Muhly's constant psychological reaction to serial music "is that my brain tries to turn 12-tone music into post-Wagnerian tonal harmonies." So, of course, he tries to marry Webern and his favorite Weelkes. Fascinating music, to put it mildly. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)