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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases


Elvis Presley, "Young Man With the Big Beat: Music of 1956" (Sony/Legacy, five discs). Did anyone in the entire 20th century history of popular music ever have a more eventful and influential year than Elvis Presley did in 1956? The result of his signing with RCA Victor after making those extraordinary records for Sam Phillips and Sun was nothing less than a truly revolutionary change in American musical consciousness, every bit of which can now be heard on the two discs here of complete recorded masters from that year. There are those to this day mired in the delusion that Elvis wasn't much more originally than a cheapening cover artist -- remaking Little Richard ("Ready Teddy," "Rip It Up," "Long Tall Sally"), Carl Perkins ("Blue Suede Shoes"), Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup ("So Glad You're Mine") and, in the case of Big Mama Thornton, de-naturing Lieber and Stoller's "Hound Dog" completely (about which Lieber and Stoller were initially less than thrilled -- until they happily climbed on the gravy train and grew to admire Elvis very much). Yes, the originals were amazing but what Elvis did with every one of them was stunning. And when you hear his "Heartbreak Hotel" and his version of "Blue Moon" you're hearing something full of exalted influences but, in itself, new and revolutionary in American music. From the same period, of course, we have those first "nice boy" capitulations to a world which he was shaking up far more than he ever intended to (the gluing of the gospel group the Jordanaires to every record's background, the journey down Hollywood's road toward truly wicked exploitation). But this is a disc box celebrating the 55th anniversary of Elvis' truly revolutionary year. So lavish and beautiful and non-exploitive -- is this box (complete with interviews from the era and live performances) that you get with it some rare photographs that have no interest whatsoever in underlining the public image of the performer who has become the most exploited figure in American musical history. Here is Elvis waving rifles around and playing pinball, while the world around him changed radically in response to everything he did. It isn't unusual for these Legacy sets to be such noble examples of the disc makers' art, but this one is still special indeed. 4 stars (out of 4) (Jeff Simon)



Tineka Postma, "The Dawn of Light" (Challenge). The young Dutch alto and soprano saxophonist credits the members of her new quartet with "opening up" her playing, and it's hard not to be a little bowled over with the results. This is a disc that confirms just how strong a jazz composer, as well as player, Postma has become. It is, as well one that marks her a jazz musician of serious accomplishment and ambition both (would you believe Esperanza Spalding as guest singer on a Postma jazz setting of a poem by Pablo Neruda?) The music here of the 33-year-old saxophonist seems absolutely in a class with her older American contemporaries Jane Ira Bloom, Bobby Previte and Fred Hersch (not to mention her sometime bandmate Spalding). When she calls her Dutch quartet a group of "free spirits" she isn't exaggerating for a second. There is a rhythmic elasticity and freedom here as well as a formal and sonic inventiveness that is hugely impressive. Listen, for instance, to her duet version of Monk's "Off Minor" with pianist Marc Van Roon. If only this Dutch quartet would tour here. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)



Steve Reich, WTC 9/1 1 with "Mallet Quartet" and "Dance Patterns" performed by Kronos Quartet, So Percussion and Others (Nonesuch, disc plus DVD); Steve Mackey, "It Is Time" performed by So Percussion (Cantaloupe). If we didn't see as many classical works as expected commemorating the 10th anniversary of the world-changing events of 9/1 1, one of the most important by far was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet from composer Steve Reich. It's scored for three string quartets (in overdub) and voices previously recorded voices of NORAD air traffic controllers alerting that the planes were off course, fire department employees on the scene, friends and neighbors of the Reichs and women keeping the Jewish vigil over the remains outside the Medical Examiner's office reading psalms and biblical passages. There was, Reich says, nothing in the slightest abstract in his response to 9/1 1. He lived only blocks away in full view of what happened. "For us it was not a media event," he says. "On 9/1 1 we were in Vermont but our son, granddaughter and daughter-in-law were all in our apartment. Our phone connection stayed open for six hours and our next-door neighbors were finally able to drive north out of the city with their family and ours." Though it bears some resemblances to some of his first "Phase music," it is different from most other Reich music. He even insisted that the original disc cover be changed to mitigate any attention away from the music -- and any feeling of exploitation. Also heard are his "Mallet Quartet" from 2009 played by the marvelous So Percussion and his own ensemble playing "Dance Patterns" from 2002.


The So Percussion Ensemble is heard separately in a fascinating piece by composer Steve Mackey written expressly to "marshal the virtuosity of the individual members of So Percussion to speed, slow, warp, celebrate and mourn our perceptions of time." It was, says the composer "inspired by my young son Jasper (now 30 months old). As an older father (now 664 months old), I felt for the first time in my life, saddened by the immutability of time and the finite limits of how much of IT I will be able to spend with my young family. 'It is Time' fantasizes that we might have agency with respect to time." In keeping with its fantasy based on tragic irony, it is wildly eclectic music full of marimbas, clocks, jazz drums etc. 3 1/2 stars for both (J.S.)


Rihm, Currier and Penderecki, Violin Pieces performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter (Deutsche Grammophon). DGG is about to celebrate its association with Anne-Sophie Mutter, probably the primal figure in the massive current wave of beauteous young violin virtuosi, with a massive box set that would probably bruise a toe if accidentally dropped. Here are four works written for her -- Wolfgang Rihm's "Lichtes Spiel: Ein Sommertuck" ("Light Games A Summer Work"), Sebastien Currier's "Time Machines" and two duo pieces for Mutter and a double bassist, Penderecki's "Duo Concertante" and Rihm's "Dyade." To explain, as Rihm does, that the troubled, nervous expressionism of his "Lichtes Spiel" resembles "something like a summer's walk" is meaningful only if one lives in a decidedly tumultuous neighborhood. Much more appealing is Penderecki's unusual, five minute duo with double bass. Sebastien Currier wrote a violin concerto for Mutter, whose orchestral part was unperformable. "Time Machines" is a revised version of that. The title is meant to think of our expression of time -- or, say "time lapse photographs." Extravagant miniatures is more like it, all brilliantly played. 3 stars (J.S.)