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Listening Post: Todd Rundgren, Jaimeo Brown, Craig Taborn, Chuck Owen


Todd Rundgren, “State” (Esoteric Antenna). Todd Rundgren boasts one of the most dynamic, demanding, intriguing and stylistically divergent bodies of work in post-’60s rock. That’s not news. Nor is the fact that Rundgren is a maverick, a man capable of composing pop-friendly ditties by the bucketful who, generally speaking, refuses to do so, instead following his own artistic calling. Because of this, Rundgren remains a cult artist whose fans revere him, but whose greatest commercial success remains an album he produced for Meat Loaf. Yes, that’s sad. But Rundgren has never seemed to want it any other way. “State,” out this week, finds our Todd crafting a conceptual examination of a bankrupt culture, set to the soundtrack of that culture’s demise – techno, dub-step, electro-pop, and the occasional blend of electronica and hard rock that was once referred to as industrial. And yet, Rundgren bends all of these forms to his will by forcing them to bow before his mastery of melody. Rundgren seems genuinely incapable of writing a throwaway tune, and “State” boasts nothing that would fit that description with the possible exception of the ironic good-time anthem “Party Liquor.” On balance, “State” is eloquent, melodic, and in its lyrical demeanor, a little bit sad and resigned. Witness the sublime “Sir Reality,” which laments the surreal nature of living in a culture where a human-constructed reality has fully supplanted an empirical one. Fans of Rundgren’s “Liars” album will be on familiar terrain here. A typically fascinating Rundgren album. 3 and ½ stars (Jeff Miers)


Jaimeo Brown with J.D. Allen and Chris Sholar, “Transcendence” (Motema). One of the most exciting jazz discs of the year so far. Brown is a 34-year-old drummer, composer and (according to his publicity) “conceptualist.” And anyone who thinks that last is pretentious and gilding the lily should listen to this extraordinary fusion of (get this now) the spirituals of Gee’s Bend, Ala., East Indian Carnatic music, blues, hip-hop, electronica and post-Coltrane jazz. Absolutely none of it sounds out of place. Brown is one of those musicians who understands how very much of the completely disparate music of the world transcends time and place and mixes comfortably in the music of musicians who are determined to bring freedom, passion and expressivity to the world, no matter what. Along with the great young tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen on this disc, you’ll hear pianist Geri Allen on “Power of God,” and the Gee’s Bend Quilters, spiritual singers from Gee’s Bend, Ala. You’ll also hear vocalists who are congenial members of the Brown family. “Accra,” says Brown, was “inspired by my trip to Ghana, Africa, one week before this recording took place.” It’s very simple as Brown puts it. “The primary purpose of black spiritual music is to build community and provide a medium for healing and worship. This is what I aim to do with my music as well.” If only John Coltrane were alive to hear how utterly naturally young jazz musicians are doing what he struggled so mightily and powerfully to do in his final years. 4 stars (Jeff Simon)


Craig Taborn Trio, “Chants” (ECM). The piano odyssey of Craig Taborn has been a fascinating one. We first heard of him when he came out of Chicago in the group of the great saxophonist James Carter (who played with Taborn and rhythm section in one of the most memorable gigs ever at the late and lamented Calumet Jazz Club on Chippewa). He seemed at the time to be in the Don Pullen mode of combining conventional jazz piano with Cecil Taylor piano splatter. Years later what we have here is Taborn playing with drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Thomas Morgan on a disc whose piano trio artfulness and complexity belie a contemplative streak previously unsuspected in his expressionism. “I’m not interested in quiet and delicate music for its own sake,” he says, “but the softer you play the more impact you can have when the loud enters. As a listener my affections tend to go toward louder, more dense, more extreme music and it’s always in my sights. But I don’t want to expend all my energies as a player going there.” A fascinating and rather unexpected jazz record from a jazz pianist who’s hitting middle age quite brilliantly. 3½ stars (J.S.)


Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge, “River Runs: A Concerto for Jazz Guitar, Saxophone and Orchestra” (Summit). Among the greater misfortunes ever to befall jazz was Gunther Schuller’s name “third stream” to brand as new and brave etc. etc. etc. a combination of modern jazz and modern classical music that, in fact, couldn’t possibly have occurred more naturally and logically. When you hear Chuck Owen’s great tribute to the powers of nature with his superb big band the Jazz Surge as well as a symphony orchestra, you’ll be reminded of how superbly and naturally the greatest composers of “third stream music” (who didn’t include Schuller but rather went by such familiar jazz names as John Lewis, J.J. Johnson and Jimmy Giuffre) made music that didn’t require any of what modern listeners might understand as “OMG” Italics. The soloists with Owens’ band here are tenor saxophonist Jack Wilkins and guitarist LaRue Nickelson. Among those in full support of what Owen has done here are Dave Liebman, Rufus Reid, Bob Belden and Randy Brecker (who rather nicely paid tribute to Owens’ “Ocean of Melody, Sound and Soul”). We’re hearing musical tributes to the Everglades and various rivers, all of which alter, with almost no effort whatsoever, all understanding of jazz as a strictly urban music. It is, as Owen reminds us quite beautifully, much, much bigger than that. 3½ stars(J.S.)


Vincent D’Indy, Symphonie on a French Mountain Air and Other Works performed by pianist Louis Lortie and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba (Chandos). What is slightly unusual here is how many decades have gone by with classical listeners becoming accustomed to the pairing of D’Indy’s great work for piano and orchestra, the Symphony on a French Mountain Air, with the Symphonic Variations of Cesar Franck. What we have instead here is a full disc of D’Indy’s music to acquaint those who may not know it with a contemporary of Debussy and Ravel who deserves far more recognition and currency than he usually gets (even if he doesn’t quite seem to earn the praise Gabriel Faure lavished on him “The Samson of Music”). D’Indy’s master may have been Franck but his pupils included Satie and Roussel, which isn’t exactly what people imagine for such a conservative Catholic musician. The influences of Wagner and his master Franck don’t detract a whit from a composer who greatly rewards vastly more attention than he usually gets. 3½ (J.S.)


Beethoven, Pathetique, Moonlight and Appassionata piano sonatas performed by Yundi (Deutsche Grammophon). Once upon a time, the young Chinese-American pianist was known as Yundi Li. In a classical world increasingly populous in the West with fine Chinese pianists, it’s almost incumbent on those in the Lang Lang sweepstakes to answer the call of classical marketing and record the three best known Beethoven Sonatas, in case there’s anyone out there who might actually believe that his performances would be even close to the best available. It couldn’t be more obvious then that what you get instead is a perfectly decent – and wholly unremarkable – way to market a young Chinese pianist for a musical world far more in tune with young musicians than great performances of Beethoven. Yundi is certainly capable here but there is little, if anything, here that should dissuade anyone from searching out the dozens (hundreds?) of better recordings by pianists from the past. 2½ stars (J.S.)


Clay Swafford, “Rooster” (Lost Cause). Boogie woogie lives. Does it ever. It was Clay Swafford’s grandfather, supposedly, who observed when his grandson was born in 1983 that he looked like a rooster. Any relative who listens to Swafford play boogie woogie – or accompany a modern blues singer as raw as Diunna Greenleaf – would have all the reason in the world to crow about talented relatives. This is the young boogie woogie master’s first disc and it’s a blues beauty. Legend has it that Pinetop Perkins, on hearing Swafford, said “I have 10 fingers. It looks like he has 20.” A terrific blues pianist. 3½ stars (J.S.)