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Listening Post: McCrary Sisters, Shuggie Otis, Lara Downes


The McCrary Sisters, “All the Way” (McCrary Sisters). Their father, the Rev. Sam McCrary, had a famous a cappella gospel quartet in their native Nashville. Their childhoods were as saturated with music as those of Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. The difference with Ann, Regina, Deborah and Alfreda McCrary is that the group they’ve formed together is as close to a gospel version of the Pointer Sisters in the year 2013 as you’ll ever hear. To coin a phrase about that combination, yes they can can. This is a terrific disc by four singers who have all made solo discs and accompanied the likes of Stevie Wonder but have never made the impact they’re likely to make together. If you’re going to try to pin down exactly what musical category it fits into, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble. It’s soul music, gospel music, R&B – all of them almost equilaterally and all as conspicuously as possible. What they’re doing on their second disc as a group, says Ann, is bringing “joy to somebody’s sadness” which would, no doubt, sound rough-hewn and even primitive to anyone expecting more elaborate self-justification, but when you actually hear the disc, seems to fit its thrust rather perfectly. The title of the disc, by the way, is from the Ann McCrary original that ends the disc and not the famous Sinatra smash hit of the ’50s first introduced in the Sinatra movie “The Joker is Wild.” Three stars and a half stars (Jeff Simon)


Shuggie Otis, “Inspiration Information/Wings of Love” (Epic/Legacy). One worries about child prodigies. Time routinely fails to treat them well. So many who burn so bright so young run out of room to grow, or else find themselves up to their necks in a music business that has very little to do with music itself, and run screaming for the relative comforts of obscurity. Shuggie Otis was barely a teenager when he began performing regularly with his father, R&B legend Johnny Otis. He was 16 when Frank Zappa picked him to play on his “Hot Rats” album. By 21, he was simultaneously releasing his third solo album, the brilliant, genre-busting “Inspiration Information,” and getting ready to disappear from public view. He’d written, recorded, produced and performed virtually every note of the album’s music himself, most of it while a mere 18 years old. The record earned massive respect from musician peers, but didn’t really sell, despite the fact that Otis was clearly an artist reaching toward the heady air of Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder’s best work. “Inspiration Information” became a cult classic over the years, but here, it finally gets its fully remastered, amended due – with four strong b-sides added to the original album, and a second disc, “Wings of Love,” comprised of songs recorded by Otis between 1975 and 2000. Anyone who cares about classic R&B, funk and soul needs to own this. Failure to do so should not be considered an option. Four stars (Jeff Miers)


Uri Gurvich,BabEl” (Tzadik). The sound of the group is anything but the chaotic omnilingual incoherence of Babel. In fact, this is an unusually artful version of a fusion that has become increasingly common in jazz of the past 15 years i.e. jazz combined with Middle Eastern music. On this second disc for John Zorn’s inimitable Tzadik label, Israeli-born alto saxophonist and composer Uri Gurvich plays with his usual quartet (including superb young drummer Francisco Mela) and Moroccan Oud master Brahim Fribgane on three tunes. What has become obvious in the last decade of jazz is that the import to America (usually Brooklyn, eventually) of musicians from all over the Middle East and Latin America has resulted in a post-Coltrane fusion of musical influences that would have seemed almost absurd a half century ago, but which couldn’t possibly sound more natural and organic than it does on discs like this. Gurvich doesn’t quite have the hair-raising icy virtuosity of the great Indian jazz master Rudresh Mahanthappa, but he’s a first-rate alto saxophonist and his group is fine in every way. Leo Genovese is his pianist and Peter Slavov is his bass player. Three stars (J.S.)


Han Bennink and Uri Caine,Sonic Boom” (816 Music). The great Dutch drummer Han Bennink was just presented with a birthday cake in Buffalo when his ICP orchestra played a gig in the extraordinary series of avant-garde jazz events we’ve become so used to at Hallwalls. What you have here is a wild, free and exhilaratingly unpredictable piano/percussion duet with Bennink and pianist Uri Caine. It’s a live performance set from Amsterdam in 2011 and, according to Caine’s own apportionment “there’s some pretty straight ahead music in there, there’s other stuff that’s pretty free, and a lot of it is morphing from one into the other. A lot of the pieces start out in one place, then move into another realm and develop into different areas. That can be risky and it doesn’t always work out, but it’s a fun way to play because you have to think on a second-to-second level.” Which is the way you have to listen too (Caine’s self-appraisal – including his confession that “it doesn’t always work out.”). The only “standard” here is Monk’s “Round Midnight,” which is exploded, atomized and played in a way you’ve never heard before. You may not want to hear it again this way either but it IS fun to hear it once. Three stars (J.S.)


Lara Downes, “Exile’s Cafe” (Steinway and Sons). Pianist Lara Downes will be coming to Buffalo to play some of this repertoire May 7 and 8 at Denton, Cottier and Daniels. She says she got the idea for the disc from a composition called “Tango from the Exile’s Cafe” by former UB Creative Associate Michael Sahl. “I began to fantasize about this cafe as a place both real and metaphorical where individuals gather from all over the world to find a home away from home. It is filled with dream-chasers: travelers, nomads, explorers, gypsies and vagabonds as well as refugees thrust on journeys undesired.” The resultant repertoire makes for a burstingly unusual and indeed singular piano recital of miniatures – Hungarian folk songs from Bartok, Preludes by Rachmaninov and Paul Bowles, who is much better-known as the author of “The Sheltering Sky,” Chopin Mazurkas, a “Pastoral Sonatina” by Prokofiev, Dumkas by Martinu, a Korngold Sonata, a Stravinsky Tango, a tribute to Africa by William Grant Still and, would you believe, an arrangement of Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars.” And yes, the original Michael Sahl piece that inspired this peregrination among the musically stateless is also here. The playing is more than adequate but the repertoire makes the disc a brilliant adventure. Three stars.(J.S.)