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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

> Country/Roots

Shelby Lynne, "Revelation Road" (Everso). Delving into heartache and epiphany with her usual expertise, Shelby Lynne's 12th studio album is "her most personal yet" -- a description routinely employed in reviews since "I Am Shelby Lynne," the 1999 breakthrough that helped earn the Alabama-raised artist a Grammy in 2001. Her torchy yet honeyed vocals and bold yet introspective songwriting have earned her praise, as has her defiance of Nashville's "corporate country" machinations. Lynne's Grammy was for Best New Artist, even though it was her sixth album, which helped illuminate overall music-biz foolishness. An assertive singer of roots rock, folk pop, gritty soul or jazzy honky-tonk, Lynne wisely shucked any Carrie Underwood-esque makeover attempts or treacly Lady Antebellum-type outfits. Since notably exploring the vintage soul-pop of England's Dusty Springfield (2008's "Just a Little Lovin' "), Lynne has recorded (at home) a second originals album on her Everso label. Reaching beyond her guitars, she played all instruments, including mandolin, banjo and percussion. The result is note-perfect enhancement of deeply private tracks, such as "I'll Hold Your Head" -- recalling vocalizing with her murdered mother and comforting her younger sister -- and the stunning "Heaven's Only Days Down the Road," taking the perspective of her father's ultimately suicidal state, which led him to shoot Lynne's mother. She's never gotten closer to this subject than here. Doing it precisely her way was no doubt essential; the artistic catharsis is palpable. Review: 3 stars (out of 4) (David R. Stampone, Philadelphia Inquirer)

> Jazz

Ellis Marsalis, "A New Orleans Christmas Carol" (ELM Records). Traditional, age-old Christmas songs have "good bones" -- a structure that makes them good vehicles for improvisation. Ellis Marsalis, the pianist patriarch of the Marsalis family, celebrates that on this album. It's fun to hear him romp, with vigor and good cheer, through "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," say, or "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." His clear and tender approach to "The Christmas Song" is also, and "A Child is Born." The fault with this album is the fault with some of Marsalis' previous albums: He takes things too quickly, never delving into anything very deeply, often playing just a few choruses. A short "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," just 30 seconds long, is torture. Couldn't we have had some fun with this cool old song and skipped the remix of "Little Drummer Boy"? Guess not, considering the album was produced by Jason Marsalis, the drummer in the family. Review: 3 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

John Coltrane, "The Impulse Albums, Volume Four" (Impulse, five discs). There is no question that even among the most avid incense-burners at the altar of John Coltrane, the often off-putting music of "late Coltrane" presented in this magnificent seasonal five-disc box inspires far less impassioned worship than the music made for Impulse by Coltrane's "classic quartet" (McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones). Alice Coltrane, for one, was a far less forceful and creative pianist than McCoy Tyner. And Rashied Ali, though a remarkable "free jazz" drummer, wasn't the elemental force of nature that Elvin Jones was. The marriage of Coltrane's solos and Jones' glorious polyrhythmic weather events (which, nevertheless, involved no small musicianly finesse, however gale force the volume level) was one of the wonders of the jazz world in its prime and remains so now. But it's tragically easy to underrate a lot of the music on this five-disc collection of late Coltrane: "Selflessness," "Cosmic Music," "Om," "Expression" and "Live at the Village Vanguard Again!" However much Alice Coltrane is forced into Tyner's modal carpet role (but without ecstasy), the two-horn combination of Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders is such sulfurous and ecstatic jazz expressionism that it even overcomes the godawful ungainly introductory chanting on "Om." Even those who might have been appalled by "late Coltrane" (he was dead, at 40, a mere two years after "Om" was recorded) have to be gripped by Coltrane's playing and the obvious fact that Sanders' was the next logical outgrowth of it. Even the home recordings on "Cosmic Music" -- released posthumously -- are fascinating records of an ecstatic religious pilgrimage few could follow but many could admire. Review: 3 1/2 stars (Jeff Simon)

Oscar Peterson, "Unmistakable: Zenph Re-Performance" (Sony Masterworks Jazz). The Zenph process is, in effect, a sophisticated digital reinvention of the player piano for the high-tech 21st century. Original performances by great pianists are transferred, in full nuance, into a high-revolution digital file. And then they are "played back on a real acoustic piano with sophisticated computers and hardware" and released on recordings. So why, you might ask, not just listen to the original recordings? Because the original recording quality might not have been optimal. What's on here is Oscar Peterson recording himself at home in the mid-'80s and then reproduced wonderfully in the Zenph proces (which Peterson himself was hugely interested in). The piano used to reproduce it was Peterson's own Bosendorfer and there's no question that what's lost of "reality" here is microscopic. And what's gained in sound quality is terrific. This is solo Peterson at his most florid and virtuosic. Terrific. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

Christian McBride Big Band, "The Good Feeling" (Mack Avenue). The title doesn't tell you all you need to know. Bassist McBride's first major recording of his big band arrangements is far more ambitious than he'd like you to think. Listen to his "Science Fiction" and you'll hear some of the brightest American big band arranging this side of Maria Schneider (the Europeans are used to a kind of hugely ambitious orchestral jazz, thanks to all those radio orchestras). Here's what McBride did when Wynton Marsalis asked him to arrange some things for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in 1995: "I called Jimmy Heath. I called John Clayton. I called Jerry Dodgion. I bought Don Sebesky's book 'The Contemporary Arranger.' I bought Nelson Riddle's book 'Arranged by Nelson Riddle.' I bought Rayburn Wright's book 'Inside the Score.' I sent away for Oliver Nelson, Thad Jones, and Duke Ellington's Scores." And with all that -- admitted with such admirable frankness -- McBride did indeed learn how to be an arranger who's hugely capable at worst and, at best, imaginative and impressive in a decidedly uncommon way. And the candor of the disc notes by McBride can't help but charm anyone. Review: 3 stars (J.S.)

> Classical

BBC Legends Series: Leopold Stokowski, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, Mahler Symphony No. 2, Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 8 and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Ravel "Rhapsodie Espagnole," Brahms Symphony No. 4 and Novacek Perpetuum Mobile performed by Leopold Stokowski leading various English Orchestras (BBC, three discs). Leopold Stokowski was 90 in 1972. The earliest of these live concert performances recorded from the BBC dates from 1963, the latest from 1974. No one could claim that the sound reproduction was ideal -- nor that the predictable occasional sound of reverberant audience chest coughs adds much. But this very old man was still able to bring forth performances of luscious sound, transcendent beauty and visceral power. The version of Mahler's second symphony here is gorgeous. Bernstein may be responsible for the wholesale international revision of Mahler's reputation, but Stokowski's Mahler seems close to ideal. The performance of Shostakovich's Fifth rivaled that era's historic performance by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in Moscow. The orchestras he conducts are the London Symphony, BBC Symphony, and New Philharmonia with various choruses and soloists Rae Woodland and Janet Baker. Not many octogenarians and nonagenarians are known for conducting music as affectingly as this, no matter what the sonic imperfections. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)