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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases


The Grateful Dead, "Spring 1990: So Glad You Made It" (Grateful Dead/Rhino, two discs). Oh so wisely, the Dead have whittled down the limited edition 18-disc "Spring 1990 Box Set" - the initial run of which was limited to 8,000 copies, and was sold out in less time than it would take you to get through a decent-length "Dark Star" - to a twin-disc package of highlights. As fans know, this three-week Spring '90 run of shows represented the last pretty much flawless jaunt for the group. The level of musical interplay was on a level that rivaled, say, Europe in '72; everyone seemed to be healthy and happy; Jerry Garcia was in great form; the setlists were routinely jaw-dropping; and that gorgeous blend of technological sheen and ragged organicism marking the era was in abundant evidence. Dead archivist David Lemieux did a fantastic job of whittling the 18 discs representing six complete shows into a two-disc set that boasts the ebb and flow of a single, particularly great 1990 Dead gig. Things kick off with a stellar take on Sam Cooke's "Let the Good Times Roll," with the verse-trading between keyboardist Brent Mydland, guitarist Bob Weir, and Garcia simply brimming with joy. The rest of this artificially sequenced "First Set" boasts a strong "Feel Like A Stranger," a ragged but right "West L.A. Fadeaway," a transcendent "Loser," and a beautiful "Bird Song," all of which move gracefully into Mydland's poignant "Blow Away." Set two is even better, as a torrid "Samson and Delilah" opener gives way to a "Scarlet Begonias>Estimated Prophet>Playing in the Eyes of the World" run that should make the top 10 list for anyone who truly loves this inimitable (though many have tried) band. A genuine treat for the faithful, then, one made all the more enjoyable by the inspired artwork by Wes Lang that adorns the package and booklet. Four stars (Out of four) (Jeff Miers)


Michael Jackson, "Bad 25" (Epic/Legacy, three discs plus DVD). In celebration of the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson's commercial and cultural blockbuster "Bad," Legacy has assembled "Bad 25," a lovely box housing the original album in remastered form, a full CD of extras, outtakes and oddities, the full July 16, 1988, performance at Wembley Stadium on DVD, and an audio CD documenting that same show. That's an awful lot of the "King of Pop," but the good news is, this is prime-period Jackson, and the box doesn't reek of posthumous "cash-in." The original "Bad" album, produced by Quincy Jones (who deserves much of the credit for the album's success) yielded five consecutive No. 1 singles, sold some 30 million copies worldwide, and birthed one of the most successful concert tours of all time. More interestingly, the album is (still) a boldly imaginative hybrid of pop, R&B, soul, funk, disco and radio-friendly balladry. The disc of outtakes should really only hold appeal for the most devout fan, although the Spanish and French versions of "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" are pretty entertaining, and some of the underproduced outtakes are more raw and spicy than anything that made it to the final album. The full live Wembley show is a revelation, though. This captures Jackson before things went horribly south and the train left the track. As a result, it conjures nostalgia for a bygone, seemingly more innocent era. It's hard to view Jackson as anything other than a tragic figure these days, but "Bad 25" helps us to remember that he was once a vibrant, hopeful figure and a consummate pop craftsman. 3 and ½ stars (J.M.)


Sasha Cooke, "If You Love for Beauty," with the Colburn Orchestra, Yehuda Gilad, Music Director (Yarlung Records). Mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke, famous for singing John Adams' "Doctor Atomic" at the Met, begins this CD with "Am I in Your Light," from that opera. The beginning of it, misty and reflective, could make you think of Mahler. The beauty of that beginning cannot be sustained, and I find the piece unsatisfying, with its jagged, jumpy melody line. But it gives symmetry to this disc, which ends with Mahler's "Ruckert Lieder." In between Cooke sings Ernest Chausson's "Poeme de l'Amour et de la Mer," intense and lovely, and two arias by Handel, including the famous Largo. The Largo is extremely largo, and the Colburn Orchestra, a group in the Los Angeles area, sounds fussy. But all the artists are best showcased in the beautiful Ruckert Lieder, which is high praise. 3 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)


Beethoven, "Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 3" performed by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Sony Classical). It would be heaven on earth indeed if all the great pianists were equally superb in all repertoire, but it simply doesn't work out that way. Have the great Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes perform Grieg piano music on the piano that was, in fact, played by Grieg himself and you've got one of the great classical piano recordings of recent decades. His gifts don't disappear when they're stretched in one direction to play Schubert and in another to play Rachmaninoff. Unfortunately, as crisp and competent and engagingly performed as these performances of Beethoven's First and Third piano concertos are, there is also something just a wee bit dry about them which seems to be a combination of both Andsnes' playing and the sonic engineering. He has studiously avoided Beethoven until now and wisely says of the piano concertos that they're not really a "cycle" because "they are five very different masterpieces." No one could possibly criticize the scholarship involved from Andsnes here (read his conversation with Alan Rusbridger in the notes) but there was something to be said for the grand mid-20th century style of Rubinstein et. al., even in the semi-comic finale of the first. These chamber performances may be more apt but as good as they are, there's something missing - magic, presence, call it what you will. 3 stars (Jeff Simon)


Medeski, Martin and Wood, "Live: Free Magic" (Indirecto). A good argument could be made that Medeski, Martin and Wood should only be heard in live recordings. The personality of the group is entirely different when keyboardist John Medeski, bassist Chris Wood and drummer Billy Martin are stretching out for a live audience than when they are playing calculated music in a recording studio. This is music from their first-ever all-acoustic tour in 2007. "We're having a conversation when we're playing," says Martin in the publicity notes. "And the dynamic range is much greater in the acoustic setting. When we play electric, everything is turned up to 11 and it's screaming. But with John on piano, Chris on upright, we can play with a much more nuanced touch." Medeski, in particular, benefits from the acoustic settings demands, which turn him into a much wilder player at times. Conceptually, he says, they owe more to Ahmad Jamal than organ trios and the result here is one of their best in a long time. 3½ stars(J.S.)


Luciano Souza, "Duos III" and "The Book of Chet" (both discs, Sunnyside). The artist is the same. The label is the same. And the producer - Joni Mitchell's main man Larry Klein - is the same. But these two discs couldn't possibly be more fundamentally different. The great Brazilian singer says that her love of Chet Baker's singing comes from the sound of "quiet loneliness that I crave in music." She's not alone, certainly, in loving Baker's singing even though there are definitely some of us who find it immensely overrated, from its sibilantly wobbling dentures to its flat squishiness. You have to admit though he had admirable taste in what to sing and that is what Souza sticks with, for all the off-putting monotony of the disc. Much better by far is the hugely varied music on the largely Brazilian music on "Duos III" that she sings with either guitarist Toninho Horta, Romero Lubambo or Marco Perira. "Each" says Souza "has carved out a different area of the spectrum of Brazilian guitar playing as the emotional center-point of their mastery." Her collaborations with them are delicious. 2½ stars for "The Book of Chet," 3½ stars for "Duos III." (J.S.)