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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

Jazz/Cabaret

Lorraine Feather, "Tales of the Unusual" (Jazzed Media). Imagine the fierce wit and literacy of pixie-voiced Blossom Dearie. Now add the jaunty Gothic tinge of Tom Waits but without the neo-Beat stream of consciousness. Sprinkle a tiny bit of Sondheim's braininess over it all, as well as Joni Mitchell's and Rickie Lee Jones' freedom. Then put across everything you've got in a voice that's almost as clear and "legit" as Judy Collins' but with occasionally tremulous cabaret vibrato a la Jane Monheit. The nutty result is probably the most unusual singer in America -- 63-year-old Lorraine Feather, probably the most underrated musical figure around. And now consider her pedigree. She's the daughter of the late, great, tireless jazz critic Leonard Feather. Her mother, Jane, was a big band singer and a former roommate of Peggy Lee, which meant that her daughter's godmother and, yes, namesake in earliest years was Billie Holiday. All that nicely explains the hilarious lyrics she gave to Duke Ellington's knuckle-busting melody on "Indiana Lana" or those she supplied an Enrico Pieranunzi tune for "I Took Your Hand (Fellini's Waltz)." "Get a Room" would have tickled Dearie to no end, but when you get to the giddily wacko lyrics to "Off-the-Grid Girl" or the allusions to a spill "like the Exxon Valdez" in the demi-monde tour through "The Usual Suspects," you're in the hands of a singular American musical delight -- all the more so, probably, for remaining a coterie enthusiasm all these years. One small problem. If ever a disc should have included a full lyric sheet within, it's this one. 3 1/2 stars (out of 4) (Jeff Simon)

***

Jazz

Chano Dominguez, "Flamenco Sketches" (Blue Note). Dominguez, a jazz pianist from Barcelona, took the title of one of Miles Davis' classic tunes from his best-known album, "Kind of Blue," and approached it literally as a way to play the entire Milesian repertoire from "Kind of Blue" with the addition of Davis' famous tune "Nardis" (first recorded by his sextet pianist Bill Evans but, tragically, never by Davis himself) and his bebop gallop "Serpent's Tooth." So what you've got here is a bunch of Davis' greatest tunes played by a burning Spanish jazz trio to which wordless Flamenco vocalise and percussive hand-clapping has been added for irresistible flavor. Dominguez says, "I basically walk through the languages of jazz and flamenco. I was born in Cadiz, where flamenco as we know it today was born. It was always around me through my parents who were big fans of Flamenco. On the other hand, I've always felt the need to improvise and create in the moment." All jazz, said jazz scholar Jim Patrick once, is a fusion music. Here is just another way to fuse jazz with another musical tradition and it's a complete and unprepossessing success. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

*

Fred Ho and Quincy Saul Present the Music of Cal Massey: "A Tribute Conducted by Whitney George" (Mutable/Big Red Media). At his death in 1972, trumpet player and composer Cal Massey was only five years older than John Coltrane had been when he died (at 40). He was a well-known shadow figure in jazz, much spoken of and alluded to with respect but almost never recorded. Most famously, Coltrane recorded Massey's tune "Bakai," and Massey's tribute "Blues to Coltrane" (with Julius Watkins and Patti Bown) is his only surviving major record. What Fred Ho has done with his orchestra here is quite remarkable -- the first recording ever of Massey's 1970 10-movement "The Black Liberation Movement Suite" to which updates were made in 1986 by Romulus Franceschini. Individual movements are dedicated to Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Huey P. Newton, Marcus Garvey and Coltrane, which indicates both the dating of the piece's character and its disinclination to compromise. The sound of Ho's orchestra is very much in the street-tough Sun Ra mold. What comes through, though, even with the occasionally rough-and-not-quite-ready orchestral sound, is how very beautiful this might turn out to be if played by musicians as skillful and practiced, say, as Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center bunch. Even so, individual movements -- "Man at Peace in Algiers (For Eldridge Cleaver)" -- have no small beauty and spirit just as they are. This is music that veritably screams to be heard under the best circumstances, now that we all have an idea how very much is there. 3 stars (J.S.)

***

Soundtrack

Terence Blanchard, "Red Tails" Soundtrack Music (Sony Classical). That Terence Blanchard is still one of the great living jazz trumpet players has almost been forgotten, at times, with his increasing success as a film composer. Anthony Hemingway's film about the Tuskegee Airmen, which stars Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terence Howard, practically required George Lucas to mortgage part of his reputation to get 20th Century Fox to film it. This is a music soundtrack in the grand symphonic style, with huge orchestral forces, wordless vocalises from female choirs and massive brass fifths suitable for announcing divine visitations from the skies and not just one of the most fabled of all units in the history of American air warfare. It's a tiny bit indebted to the greatest music ever written for a movie about air warfare -- Jerry Goldsmith's music for "The Blue Max" -- but with a jazz trumpet player like Blanchard writing, there are brass and percussion passions here even Goldsmith never thought of. First-rate modern symphonic soundtrack music that very much stands up on its own (and ends with vintage recordings from Harry James, the Andrews Sisters, Maxine Sullivan and the Ink Spots). 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

***

Classical

Renee Fleming, Poemes, music of Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleux, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Alan Gilbert, conductor; the Orchestre National de France, Seiji Ozawa, conductor (Decca). This disc is like a mountain. It looms over you, forbidding, not especially accessible, and the pictures of Renee Fleming, icily beautiful and every inch the diva, do not especially help. Luckily it is warmed up somewhat by Fleming's voice, heavy and rich and dark and perfect for this music, which is, for all its opaque qualities, very sensuous. Fleming sings Ravel's hedonistic "Sheherazade," three songs that are becoming gradually better known, and she gives the music depth and abandon. Messiaen's "Poemes pour Mi," onerous in the mouths of some, are strangely compelling, with their shifting harmonies and orchestral effects. "L'Epouse" is especially moving, like Richard Strauss. Fleming feels this overheated music and communicates it with conviction. She brings out the rhythms and primal energy of seven songs by Henri Dutilleux. Apparently she met the composer, now 96, in the waiting room of a radio station, and he was inspired by her. Which I can understand. 3 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

*

Anne Akiko Myers, Air: The Bach Album performed by violinist Meyers and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Steven Mercurio (E-One); Nicola Benedetti, Italia: Baroque violin works by Vivaldi, Tartini and Veracini performed by violinist Benedetti and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Christian Curnyn (Decca). Two accomplished and very beautiful younger violinists in solid and often very fine explorations of the Baroque violin repertoire. Obviously, the Bach repertoire on Meyers' "Air" is the greater. There's some overdub trickery, in fact, involved in it as she plays both solo parts of the Double Concerto but on different Stradivarius violins. Whether or not the ubiquitous "Air" needed quite as much operatic drama, there is no question that the Double Concerto -- while not exactly performed in Oistrakh territory -- is as richly conceived and performed as promised. Benedetti is a 24-year-old violinist born in Italy and raised in Scotland and she does splendidly on her disc of Vivaldi Concerti (including "Summer" from "The Four Seasons") and Tartini's A-Minor Concerto and Devil's Trill Sonata with Veracini's "Largo" from his A-Major Sonata. No small cause of her exhilaration may be what she now says: "For a long time it seemed that there were so many rights and wrongs [in early music performance]: 'This style is correct, that style isn't.' But today this is one of the areas of performance that is in fact the most free. There has been so much diversity in the way people have performed the music that we've almost arrived at a point -- at least in the UK -- where many different approaches are now accepted." 3 stars for Meyers, 3 1/2 stars for Benedetti. (J.S.)

*

Denes Varjon, Precipitando: piano music of Berg, Janacek and Liszt performed by pianist Denes Varjon (ECM, new series). Among the great triumphs in piano repertoire in the last half century is the eventual acceptance of Alban Berg's magnificent Sonata Op.1 as one of the greatest of all modern piano masterworks. When Glenn Gould, for instance, first recorded it in the early '50s, it was a rarity, despite the fact that its transition from late romanticism to atonality was as febrile and erotic as that in Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night." Denes Varjon is a 43-year-old Hungarian pianist who, in the world we now have, is so steeped in the Berg Sonata that at times he almost cools off its extraordinary fever. At the same time, though, he is such a clever and accomplished pianist that he puts it on the same disc with Liszt's B-minor Sonata -- a clear-cut Berg ancestor and to Varjon the "most essential and pure manifestation" of Liszt's art -- and Janacek's "In the Mists" about which Varjon says, "Though I don't speak Janacek's language, through my knowledge of Hungarian folk music, I've always had an affection for this very special music and a connection to it." 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)