4 stars (out of 4)
Patti Smith doesn't so much write songs as construct incantations.
Which is not to suggest that the melodies that support the poetic texts throughout the 65 year-old Smith's 11th album, "Banga," are tossed off as some sort of afterthought -- indeed, Smith is downright mellifluous throughout most of this transcendent new collection. That said, Smith is up to something other than acting cute for your pop pleasure when she picks up the pen and her mouth meets the microphone. She sings about the French symbolist poets as if everyone who might hear her knows their work as well as she does. She's just as likely to speak to and of the dead as she is to address the living. Time, in her hands, is liquid, not solid. Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse and Rimbaud, and the dog from Mikhail Bulgakov's novel "The Master and the Margarita," are not strange bedfellows in her imaginative cosmos, but rather, are part of a flowing conceptual continuity.
Mighty is the poet who can cheat death through the text, and Smith has done so many times in the past, with spirit-driven pieces like "Paths That Cross," "Gone Again" and "Dream Of Life." On "Banga," she doesn't so much wrangle with death as she does transcend it altogether. It's as if, for Smith, artistic creation exists on a plane somewhere above the inevitable dissolution of the body itself. This is tough turf to tread, but throughout "Banga," Smith never missteps.
The lyrical "Constantine's Dream" is a bookend to opener "Amerigo," and shares with the earlier song its topic -- a journey to America. This is one of Smith's great themes, of course, and as has been the case with similar past triumphs -- "Land," "Dead City," et al -- its lyric trades in buoyant fever-dream imagery and gorgeous abstraction. The underlying implication is that the land always knows more than those who would wish to tame and conquer it.
"Banga" is a beautiful sounding record, too, with warm strings and keys merging with the subtly muscular sound of Smith's longtime band -- guitarist Lenny Kaye, bassist Tony Shanahan, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty -- to stirring effect. As has been the case since her late-1980s "comeback" effort "Dream of Life," Eastern modalities abound on "Banga," with "Nine" -- a song dedicated to friend Johnny Depp -- moving like a sinuous Raga, and "Fuji San" snaking itself around a lovely drone.
The combined effect of all of this is sensuous, exotic, deeply feminine, but sneeringly masculine too, when it wants/needs to be. "Banga," then, is the equal of Smith's best work.
-- Jeff Miers
Chopin Recital 2
3 1/2 stars
Pianist Janina Fialkowska, with her Polish background, has said that Chopin is her favorite composer, and she is associated with his music. She was mentored by Arthur Rubinstein, and you can sense his warmth in her work. This disc shows that Fialkowska has recovered from a cancer in her upper arm, which restricted her playing to left-hand pieces for a few years. Her dedication is sweet and old-fashioned: "I dedicate this CD to those of you who love the works of the great Master but who, due to geographical reasons, or because of restrictions due to age or ill-health or a lack of financial resources, cannot attend a 'live' all-Chopin recital."
Fialkowska's playing, too, is sincere. She is at her best when she is playing most simply, for instance in the quiet and devastating F sharp major Prelude. Be warned, she is very free with the rubato, which is a matter of taste, and some pieces are too herky-jerky for me. But she has a quiet and definite gift.
-- Mary Kunz Goldman
Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans
The "OMG" jazz record of 2012, thus far.
What if someone were to come upon a large cache of previously unseen scores of previously unheard music by Aaron Copland or Bela Bartok? What if, by the same token, someone were to discover the highest quality vintage mid-1940s to late-'50s tapes of previously unheard and unknown music by Duke Ellington?
Somewhere between the two is what we have here in a disc of "newly discovered works of Gil Evans," the greatest arranger and orchestra leader in the post-Ellington era of modern jazz.
The cover reads "Ryan Truesdell Presents" which is not some putrid excrescence of ego from the outer suburbs of commerce, but rather an entirely realistic and apt expression of this music's provenance. Truesdell is a composer who was so obsessed with Evans' music, beginning with his classic collaborations with Miles Davis, that his acquaintance with Evans' widow Anita and sons Noah and Miles led him to access to "scores and sketches which weren't readily available to the public" and finally "full access to all of Gil's manuscripts. And I was shocked." There were things he'd never heard or been aware of before. "I felt I had stumbled upon a hidden treasure that had to be shared with the world."
Well, here it is, with much encouragement from Evans' most rightful heir in jazz, Maria Schneider.
Obviously, the extraordinary late-1950s and '60s players who comprised probably the greatest floating big band in jazz history (working for all manner of arrangers) can't be employed anymore to bring us this newly discovered Evans music. But the modern band that was assembled for this project is more than good enough -- including saxophonists Steve Wilson, Dave Pietro and Donny McCaslin, drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Frank Kimbrough and a glorious cadre of singers: Kate McGarry, Luciano Souza and Wendy Gilles.
Obviously, the oldest arrangements on it -- "Beg Your Pardon" from 1946 and "How About You" from 1947 -- aren't the equal of "Punjab" from 1964 or the 1971 medley of Kurt Weill's "Barbara Song" with Evans' "Waltz," "So Long" and still-astonishing "Variation on the Misery." But it's a beautifully played presentation of new, previously unheard work by jazz' greatest post-Ellington arranger and greatest artistic spirits.
What a glorious way to celebrate the centennial of Gil Evans' birth.
-- Jeff Simon
Ernie Kovacs Presents Percy Dovetonsils
3 1/2 stars
All right. Let's all admit that in this era, Ernie Kovacs' creation of the ultimate sissy poet Percy Dovetonsils couldn't possibly be more politically, aesthetically and sexually incorrect.
Percy, bless him, began with Tennessee Williams' ordinary lisp and turned it into an outrageous 400-hp transformation of every "S" sound into thick "th's" in poems of middle sexuality where maximum advantage could be taken, as in the immortal "Ode to Stanley's Pussycat." Or the line "will someone take this soothsayer away? She's worse than inhaling a goat?"
Here is yet another disc of precious work that no one knew existed, brought to us by the detective dedication of a fanatic. His name is Ben Model. So here they are, the "Lament from a Germ's Eye Viewpoint," "Ode to the Happier Days of the Roman Coliseum," "Thoughts While Falling Off the Empire State Building," "Some Pertinent Thoughts of Julius Caesar While Being Assassinated," and, of course, "Ode to Sam, the Taller of the Two Monkeys." (A poem, you see, about the first rocket launchings. "Cape Cannaveral," admits Percy, was too hard to rhyme.)
Let's admit that Percy was among the lesser flourishes of the great mid-century comic genius of American television. Lesser Kovacs is still major hilarity now and forever.