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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

> Classical

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, "A Tribute" (Harmonia Mundi). Publicity-shunning in life, mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is turning into a star after her death. The good news is, she deserves the hype. These two CDs are an uncompromising but excellent collection of Handel arias, from "Ariodante," "Theodora," "Messiah," "Susanna" and a few others. Listening to the music's rococo curlicues, its twists and turns, you marvel at Hunt Lieberson's facility and clarity, the smoothness of her voice, the grace of her articulation. She injects excitement and emotion into even the much-heard "Messiah." The desolation and shame in her voice in a long, stretched-out "He was despised and rejected" is unlike any other interpretation I have heard, and is tremendously moving. Listening to her, you realize how many singers are on autopilot in comparison. Texts let you follow where Hunt Lieberson is going even in arias from lesser-known operas, and she holds your attention. As heart-melting encores we have two beautiful arias about death, the famous "Bist du bei mir" from Bach's "Anna Magdalena Notebook," luxuriously slow, and "When I Am Laid on Earth," from Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas." Review: 4 stars (out of 4) (Mary Kunz Goldman)

Viktoria Mullova and the Matthew Barley Ensemble, "The Peasant Girl" (Onyx, two discs). No one should be the slightest bit surprised that Ukrainian classical violinist Viktoria Mullova is pleased as punch to place herself among those great classical violin virtuosos who have no interest whatsoever in segregating the music they love. So what she's doing here is presenting her free fantasy of "gypsy" violin in various guises and settings -- with cellist Matthew Barley in Bartok's "Seven Duos with improvisations" and Kodaly's "Duo for Violin and Cello Op.7," with Barley's ensemble in DuOut's "For Nedim" and John Lewis' "Django," not to mention a couple of tunes by Weather Report's Joe Zawinul. That old favorite "Dark Eyes" comes off as both irredeemably "square" and, at the same time, more than a little daft in its palm court jazz civility. As jazz violinists go, no one's going to mistake her for Jean-Luc Ponty or Stephane Grappelli but if she's out to make an eclectic gypsy point on this two-disc set, you'd have to admit that she makes it unequivocally. Review: 3 stars (Jeff Simon)

> Pop

Little Dragon, "Ritual Union" (Peacefrog/EMI). Swedish electro-skitterers Little Dragon traffic in coolness, a tough balance when you're not particularly cool. Most electro-skittering these days comes with a retroactive feel (Washed Out) or a futurist aura (James Blake). But these sexy middlebrows come closest to an Everything but the Girl or a Roisin Murphy, who followed American beat influences like Timbaland rather than decidedly Euro drum-and-bass or trip-hop. As such, LD command an aura that's torchier and classier than Lykke Li or La Roux. Yukimi Nagano has put in vocals for Gorillaz, Raphael Saadiq and David Sitek, and she knows just how to curl around the hooky, laptop-lite environments here without breathing too heavily. The best of the tracks (like the stretch of "Shuffle a Dream," "Please Turn," and "Crystalfilm") will have you rooting for more uncool. Review: 3 stars (Dan Weiss, Philadelphia Inquirer)

> Jazz

Avishai Cohen, "Seven Seas" (Sunnyside). In the huge army of young musicians who were first introduced to us through the auspices of Chick Corea -- who comes to the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts Monday evening -- one of the most surprising by far years ago was the great 41-year-old Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen, one of the first to serve notice on this side of the Atlantic that a small wave of superb Israeli jazz musicians was about to wash over us. That wave is still going. This disc by Cohen has been available in Europe (and here as an import) since March and will be issued by Sunnyside at the end of the month and it's a beauty. And no small part of it is its gorgeous use of Jewish folk material. It's mostly piano-based but with some vocals, Amos Hoffman contributing oud solos and Jimmy Greene soloing on soprano over a horn section (when is the last time you heard a jazz disc with an English horn player in the horn section?). The pianist is mostly Shai Maestro, another Israeli and one clearly influenced by some of the most innocent folkish playing by Cohen's old patron Corea. An irresistible disc and one not much like anything by anyone else. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

Kenny Wheeler, "One of Many" with John Taylor and Steve Swallow (CamJazz). Kenny Wheeler, the great British-resident trumpet player from St. Catharines, Ont., plays fluegelhorn all through this drummerless trio disc with British pianist John Taylor and the great American bass player Steve Swallow. The absence of a drummer puts it squarely in the tradition of chamber jazz that first came to so much prominence in jazz with the Modern Jazz Quartet and the Jimmy Giuffre Three. And, like so much of the first generation chamber jazz, this 21st century version of it has no difficulty swinging the house down or going all engines full (depending on which metaphor you like better). Wheeler is a gorgeous and singular horn player. His sound is absolutely his own. Some of his high notes have the long-held anguish of Miles Davis at his most expressive. But his art makes a sunlit landscape of whatever anguish might lie within. It's beautiful music and these two musicians understand Wheeler perfectly and surround him with aptness in every direction, even the guitarlike legato from Swallow's electric bass. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

John Brown Trio, "Dancing with Duke: An Homage to Duke Ellington" (Brown Boulevard Records). Cyrus Chestnut has turned into a very different type of jazz pianist than we once thought he would. After coming into jazz from gospel piano and that tough, demanding jazz school Betty Carter U., he has turned into a far less assertive and exhibitionistic pianist than we might once have guessed, for all his virtuoso panache. Here, he's just "the pianist" in a trio led by bassist John Brown. Listen to Chestnut's melody statement and solo, though, right at the beginning with "In a Mellow Tone" and you're aware of a musician who thinks compositionally rather than as a scrambling, scrappy soloist. It's never a bad idea to have a good piano trio make a whole disc of Ellington tunes but this one is wittier and more flavorful than most. And too, who can have anything but praise for musicians who decide that no traversal of Ellington repertory is complete without a version of one of his soundtrack themes for the movie "Anatomy of a Murder"? If only Chestnut had shared Oscar Peterson's affection for that orphaned late-'40s tune "Lady of the Lavender Mist." Review: 3 stars (J.S.)

Michel Camilo, "Mano a Mano" (Decca/Emarcy). You won't find a conventional jazz drummer on this piano trio disc either, just latin percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo with bassist Charles Flores (not to be confused with drummer Chuck Flores). But then when a pianist is as prodigiously gifted and loaded with ideas as Michel Camilo, you wind up thanking the gods that so much joyous idiosyncrasy needn't compete with conventional drum thunder. Listen, for instance, to what Camilo does with Lee Morgan's "Sidewinder" and there are times when, in fact, Hidalgo is completing Camilo's melodic phrases. It's extroverted and infectious music -- a sort of continuous dance music that knows how to connect to the space between the ears and not just the feet. You don't expect Camilo records to even flirt with mediocrity, let alone outright badness or ungainliness. And sure enough, this one doesn't either. One of the most likable of all current jazz pianists. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

> Country

Trace Adkins, "Proud To Be Here" (Show Dog-Universal). On his previous album, Trace Adkins came out stomping and snarling like a riled-up snake, creating the hardest-rocking album of his career. But the album failed to generate any top 10 hits. Understandably, on his new collection "Proud To Be Here," the tall country star returns to what he does best, using his deep, gruff baritone to lend philosophical weight to sensitive songs about love, lasting relationships and working-class value. The album's first single, "Just Fishin'," perfectly captures the sentimentality of a father and an elementary school-age daughter spending a morning on the water, with the focus more on togetherness than on what they catch. Other songs rise to the same level, from how the title cut recognizes the blessings that have come his way to the way the songs "Days Like This" and "Poor Folks" find beauty in a simple life. Adkins can rock, as he's proven regularly in the past. But when he slips into a conversational tone and delivers story songs about what matters most to him, as he does throughout "Proud To Be Here," he is as good as anyone in contemporary country music. Review: 3 1/2 stars (Michael McCall, Associated Press)