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Cassandra Wilson

Another Country


3 stars (out of 4)

There are disappointments.

And then there are disappointments.

Cassandra Wilson -- no matter what -- is the greatest living jazz singer.

Her deep soulful sound is so magnificent -- and so distinctive (she is, quite literally, inimitable) -- and her resolutely independent ideas of how to put a disc together are so far beyond even the most venturesome of the female jazz singers in their incredible modern Renaissance (where they are quite possibly even more popular in music than they were in the swing jazz of the 1930's), that she is beyond compare in any way.

And if you think that means there are no bad Wilson discs -- or no complete puzzlements even on good Wilson discs -- you simply haven't been following one of the most important careers in American vernacular music.

What, you might well ask, is "O Sole Mio" doing here, complete with acoustic guitar and "squeeze box" in a sound that a Venetian gondolier might envy? Well, her guitarist and producer is Fabrizio Sotti and his solo is rich and sumptuous even if the pumping keyboard boxes of European cafe life still account for fatuous music more often than not.

Most of the compositions are hers, too, which means that you're as dependent on her compositional ability on this disc as you are her glorious voice (which is, let's admit, one of the wonders of the musical world) and the fine musicianship and sensitivity of her partner Sotti. "Deep Blue," for instance, and "Letting You Go" are pure instrumentals by Sotti, not an unfamiliar thing on Wilson records.

And no, not all are on the highest possible level.

That being said, there is so much to glory on this personal and intimate disc of voice/guitar dialogues that you might as well join the ranks of those who have long since learned that Wilson's career is one that one eavesdrops on, rather than basks in while a performer pursues an incorruptible desire to ingratiate.

It's always a privilege. One indeed pays for it a little (one almost always does) but in her first disc with a new label, she is still virtually a genre unto herself.

-- Jeff Simon




Looking 4 Myself


3 1/2 stars

Listeners have spent so much time trying to guess who the next Michael Jackson might be (Bieber? Chris Brown?) they've ignored the obvious: Usher Raymond. Making soul-inflected pop since childhood, Usher has matured into a challenging, provocative crooner (when the moment requires, a la "Lessons for the Lover") on "Looking 4 Myself," with a hip-hopping hiccup in his throat, a cool, high vibrato for punctuation, and enough nuanced passion to turn robotic Auto-Tuned trickery into something deeply human.

He can also do the traditional, finger-snapping R&B thing, albeit with his own weird spin on the torrid "Twisted." Usher works with future-forward, dance-centric producers like David Guetta in collaborations that bring out the most adventurous sides of both parties.

It's commercial stuff, too: Check out the contagiously searing "Climax" with Philly's Diplo. Plus, Usher shakes a mean tail feather, baby. For all of this album's urgent inventiveness, Usher sounds casual within the maelstrom. "Scream" has a peculiarly poppy feel -- a ringing melody; a sprightly, rocking groove -- through which Usher just riffs, a scat vibe with a sensual message.

Against Rick Ross' rough rap on "Lemme See," Usher's so relaxed it's as if he's on Xanax and Drambuie. Now that's smooth.

-- A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer



Ravi Coltrane

Spirit Fiction

[Blue Note]

3 1/2 stars

Something truly extraordinary happens on this disc.

Ravi Coltrane was smart enough to ask Joe Lovano -- one of the canniest and most creative musicians in jazz, if not always one of its greatest players -- to produce this disc. And for the first time, this no-longer-young tenor saxophonist (he'll be 47 in August) who has carried around one of the greatest last names in jazz, sounds as if he is neither the slightest bit afraid or resentful of it, but is actually springing from his father's musical legacy into places his father never entirely dreamed of -- but would, no doubt, whole heartedly approve.

Listen to the title track and you'll realize that where his father was a both a prophet and a poet, his son is a poet and scientist.

This is a terrific jazz disc, with great jazz playing by pianists Luis Perdomo and Geri Allen, blistering counterpoint for Coltrane by his long-standing trumpet player Ralph Alessi and drummers Eric Harland and Eric Strickland providing sensitivity for the soloists as well as freedom, invention and immense power.

Coltrane's duet with Strickland on "Spring & Hudson" -- a tribute to the venerable Half Note club whose bandstand virtually compelled musicians to face each other -- is a decidedly more orderly and epigrammatic affair than his father's sprawling and ecstatic epic searches with Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali.

On "Fantasm," his tenor-playing record producer Lovano joins Coltrane and Allen to play a composition by drummer Paul Motian, who had just died when the disc was made.

This is Coltrane's first disc with a new record label and the result is his best in a very long time.

-- J.S.



Chelle Rose

Ghost of Browder Holler

[Lil' Damsel]

3 1/2 stars

Ray Wylie Hubbard has another great album out right now, "The Grifter's Hymnal." But the long-in-the-tooth Texas tunesmith also produced this equally potent debut by Chelle Rose, a young singer and songwriter out of East Tennessee who's now based in Nashville.

It's immediately apparent why Hubbard was attracted to Rose. She calls her music "Appalachian rock 'n' roll," and it's as elemental and evocative as Hubbard's rawboned Americana, with a deep, rural-rooted sense of place, as evidenced by its tales of miners and preacher men. You can hear echoes of such forbears as Bobbie Gentry and Lucinda Williams (especially in her tart drawl), and she delivers a driving, riff-heavy take on Julie Miller's "I Need You."

But Rose's own songs -- from the opening "Browder Holler Boy," about a first love who died young, to the closing "Wild Violets Pretty'"(with Elizabeth Cook), about the death of an unborn child -- pack a visceral punch of their own.

-- Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer