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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases


Arvo Part, Creator Spiritus performed by Theater of Voices and Ars Nova Copenhagen conducted by Paul Hillier (Harmonia Mundi). Arvo Part "as a composer of chamber music, if we include in that category a few pieces for chamber choir" is how Paul Hillier, quite simply, explains his gorgeous new disc of music by the great mystic master from Estonia, one of the best known postmodern composers in the world. The major work on the disc is the "Stabat Mater" from 1985 for three singers and string trio, all of whom, as Hillier eloquently explains, have to understand that Part's music "requires both intense feeling under a surface of stillness and the ability to emerge suddenly into the most violent declamation." Other works include "Solfeggio" first composed in 1964 and the "Veni Creator" and "The Deer's Cry" from 2006 and 2007, along with, most unusually for Part, a 2000 solo voice setting of Robert Burns' "My Heart's in the Highlands." The sound of the uppermost voice in Hillier's choirs -- soprano Else Trop -- is somewhere between celestial and astounding. 3 1/2 stars (out of 4) (Jeff Simon)


William Bolcom, "Complete Gospel Preludes" performed by Gregory Hand, organ (Naxos). You wouldn't try to get away with William Bolcom's version of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" at the Grand Ole Opry. You wouldn't be playing Bolcom's 12-minute version of "Amazing Grace" at a church in Branson, Mo., or in Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain neighborhood in Tennessee either. His version of "Rock of Ages" comes with the famous title of a Debussy prelude "La Cathedrale Engloutie" ("The Sunken Cathedral"). The 74-year-old composer first came to us in the great pre-"Sting" soundtrack ragtime wave spurred on by Joshua Rifkin's startlingly contemplative and pseudo-classic versions of Scott Joplin rags on Nonesuch. Americana, then, is Bolcom's "thing." His organ versions of some of the most familiar American gospel hymns and spirituals are kissing cousins in obliquity of Ives' organ variations on "America." "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and "Jesus Loves Me" were never before like this. They're unfailingly strange and evocative, to put it mildly. And devotedly played by organist Gregory Hand. 3 stars (J.S.)



Enrico Pieranunzi with Scott Colley and Antonio Sanchez, "Permutation" (CamJazz). Any first-rate jazz pianist in the world ought to be able to put together a provisionally acceptable jazz trio for some gigs and recordings. You're way ahead of the game, though, if you can jump an ocean to another continent and hook up with two younger brilliant musicians who are almost demonstrably ideal for you. There are no circumstances, I don't think, where Italian jazz master Enrico Pieranunzi isn't one of the world's great jazz pianists. On his terrific new exploratory trio disc, though, he's got bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez. The repertoire is all originals. This is a jazz piano trio worth hearing now and again and again and again. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)


Kenny Werner, "Me, Myself and I" (Justin Time). A funny thing happened to jazz pianist Kenny Werner at his 2011 solo piano gig at the Montreal Jazz Festival. He was playing at the Upstairs Jazz Bar and he suddenly noticed that his "chops and fluidity" were at an unusually high pitch over the two nights of performance. The reason was simple as he relates in the notes to "Me, Myself and I" from that gig: He'd been practicing "more than I ever have" in preparation for performing Danish composer Anders Koppel's Concerto for Piano and Alto Saxophone in Denmark, a piece he was, put quite bluntly, afraid of though he doesn't quite put it that way. Hence all that unprecedented practicing, all of which made this solo piano gig we're hearing here rewarding both for him and for us, whether on Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight" or Miles Davis' "Blue in Green" or John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," which, at long last, everyone seems to be doing remarkably creative and fresh things with these days. One of our best piano jazz vets in charismatic recital. 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)



Donovan, "The Essential Donovan" (Epic/Legacy, two discs). "Electrical banana is going to be a sudden craze/electrical banana is going to be the very next phase." You couldn't beat that for a comic caricature of world psychedelia in the late '60s and early '70s. At the same time, a weird kind of affection and even reverence now attaches to the music of the epitome of the sensitive, hippie-era outsider. The truth is Donovan's big hit music has always ranked very high among the world's guilty pleasures -- "Catch the Wind," Buffy St. Marie's "Universal Soldier" (which, rather stupidly, blames war on soldiers), "Sunshine Superman" (with Jimmy Page on guitar), "Season of the Witch," "Wear Your Love Like Heaven," "Sunny Goodge Street," "Jennifer Juniper," "Hurdy Gurdy Man," etc. You could probably fit the greatest hits on one disc and that would, in truth, comprise "the essential Donovan." But, hey, he was just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Guilty Pleasure Wing, no doubt) so why not give the world another disc of the less-than-essential Donovan to fully understand the entirely lovable poetry and music of the man whom John Mellencamp, Nancy Wilson of Heart, Billy Corgan and Devendra Banhart all swear by as an influence? He's more fun now, probably, when he's out of phase than he was when he was Brit pop's "latest phase." 3 stars (J.S.)


M. Ward, "A Wasteland Companion" (Merge). It's easy to underestimate Matt Ward. In the indie supergroup Monsters of Folk, the guitarist, singer and producer isn't the one with the eerily beautiful voice or the cryptically Dylanesque lyrics. (That would be Jim James and Conor Oberst, respectively.) And in She & Him, he's not the cute-as-a-button ingenue who wins big points for her retro-pop songwriting skills. (That's Zooey Deschanel.) Even on his own albums, Ward is self-effacing. He favors fingerpicked explorations of all manner of American vernacular music, rather than showing off his formidable instrumental and arranging attributes for any purpose other than to serve the best interests of the song at hand. This applies to the Alex Chilton-inspired ruminative original "Clean Slate" or the reworked delight that is his cover of Louis Armstrong's "I Get Ideas." Despite its downbeat title, "A Wasteland Companion" is comparatively cheery by Ward standards, mixing elegantly elegiac moments, like the wordless title track, with upbeat pop such as "Primitive Girl," which features Susan Sanchez on backup vocals while Ward sings the praises of a muse "who don't like to boast but has a lot of what they call the most." A compelling blend, all told. 3 stars (Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer)