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Listening Post: Black Sabbath, Morton Feldman, The Yellowjackets and the Emerson Quartet

Heavy Metal

Black Sabbath, “Thirteen” (Vertigo/Universal). As the first studio album to feature a Black Sabbath fronted by singer Ozzy Osbourne since 1978’s “Never Say Die,” the new “Thirteen” had an awful lot to live up to. Add the fact that original Sabbath drummer Bill Ward opted out of the reunion due to contractual disagreements – pronounced “money” – and the pressure mounted. Could the band still deliver the mighty, meaty doom and gloom, particularly without Ward’s Ginger Baker/Mitch Mitchell-inspired leaden swing in the timekeeping department? The answer is a resounding yes. Not only is “Thirteen” not an embarrassment, it’s damn close to a masterpiece. Produced by Rick Rubin – very minimally, and thus, extremely effectively – the album underscores the fact that Sabbath is both the progenitor of heavy metal, and the band that perfected the genre. As ever, the quartet’s cornerstone is guitarist Tony Iommi, the master of the monster post-blues riff. Iommi, despite undergoing chemotherapy during the recording of the album, delivers some of his most visceral playing here, in terms of both sinister, walloping riffs and decidedly otherworldly soloing. Bassist Geezer Butler defined metal bass playing with the release of the band’s 1970 debut album, and he’s still the man to beat in this department. Teamed with Ward’s replacement, former Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave drummer Brad Wilk, Butler lays down a terrifying wall of low-end doom here. (Wilk, by the way, accords himself remarkably well throughout. Hardcore fans will never forgive him for filling in for Ward, but that’s silly – the drumming on “Thirteen” is uniformly excellent and genre-appropriate.) Oh, and that Ozzy fellow? I have no idea how this is possible after all the man has put himself through over the years, but his performances here are very, very strong. The lyrics, consistently concerned with some sort of existential battle between good and evil/god and devil, are a bit silly, but really, that’s the sole criticism that can be leveled against “Thirteen.” It’s a headbanging tour de force of an album, but it’s also a dynamic and (in metal terms, at least) deeply musical affair. Sabbath fans, you won’t want to skip over a single tune. ΩΩΩΩ (Jeff Miers)

Jazz Fusion

The Yellowjackets, “A Rise in the Road” (Mack Avenue). This revered and long-serving jazz fusion outfit took a serious blow when it lost bassist Jimmy Haslip last year, but with “A Rise in the Road,” the democratically led outfit comprised of saxophonist Bob Mintzer, keyboardist Russell Ferrante and drummer William Kennedy has rebounded with remarkable strength. Credit the arrival of new bassist Felix Pastorius, whose last name may ring a bell – he’s the son of iconic bassist Jaco Pastorius, quite possibly the greatest electric bassist in the history of the instrument. Felix is his own man, though, and has been for some time, proving himself to be a serious player capable of carrying on his father’s work while adding his own ideas to the mix. The Yellowjackets celebrate their new lease on life throughout “A Rise in the Road,” embracing the buoyancy provided by new blood while simultaneously honoring their 30-year career. Highlights include “Can’t We Elope,” a giddy and witty takeoff on Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island”; Mintzer’s tribute to both Felix and Jaco Pastorius, “I Knew His Father”; and Ferrante’s appropriately titled harmonic study, “Longing.” The band has always worked creatively inside the niche it created for itself within the broader jazz world, and this new album suggests that the creative well within that niche is far from dry. ΩΩΩ½ (J.M.)


Morton Feldman, “Violin and Orchestra” performed by violinist Carolin Wildmann and the Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra conducted by Emilio Pomarico (ECM). Notater Jurg Stenzel has this to say about Morton Feldman’s large (50-minute) “Violin and Orchestra” from 1979, which marks the early stage in his life as the Varese Professor of Music at the University at Buffalo in which he was beginning to investigate the concept of scale in music: “it is certainly not a concerto for violin and orchestra, even though the solo violin part is at least as demanding as those by virtuosi such as Pietro Locatelli and Niccolo Pagaini or composers such as Brahms, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Berg. Feldman’s piece has no “brilliant” passages, no melodies to hum along with, no trace of acrobatics. In fact, the soloist should sit in the orchestra, not stand in front of it and even when apparently forgotten, must repeat short, microtonal lamenting phrases.” It is, he says, “like music from a distant star, like an echo sounding from unlimited spaces – or else engendering echoes from the orchestra itself.” All very true and well put besides. But for those of us who became quite knowledgeable about Morton Feldman’s minimalist sound world during his UB professorship and singular local presence, “Violin and Orchestra” sounds almost tumultuous. It is, by Feldman standards, almost packed with musical event and incident – even dramatic ostinati. The piece was premiered by violinist Paul Zukofsky (virtuoso son of poet Louis; their last name is misspelled in the notes) in 1984, five years after its composition in the same city whose orchestra performs this recording. Its volume level is at Feldman’s accustomed level, but in its dreamlike quietude there is an unmistakable agitation about the piece which makes it rare indeed in his life work. As might be guessed from the performing forces here and the commercial patrimony, this is a truly superb performance of music that is often lucky to be presented at all, let alone so elaborately and well. One of the most important Feldman discs in years. ΩΩΩ½ (Jeff Simon)


Conrad Tao, “Voyages” (EMI Classics). Conrad Tao is just turning 19 and already he has a hip new music festival rolling in Brooklyn. He also not only plays piano extremely well but he plays violin, too, extremely well. Plus, he composes. He won eight consecutive ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards between 2004 and 2011. He looks great on paper, and you have to admire his success. On the other hand, there is no doubt that he is being overpraised and overindulged. The New York Times, for instance, hailed him as some kind of genius for simply rearranging a bunch of Rachmaninoff preludes to form “an emotionally charged narrative arc.” I love Rachmaninoff, but give me a break. This CD shows Tao looking mean, staring the buyer down through a shower of squares of something, possibly glass. The repertoire is openly pretentious. Tao opens with “Railroad (Travel Song)” of Meredith Monk – repetitive, minimalist and forgettable, but it’s cool to play Meredith Monk, and apparently no one else has ever recorded this. Then come the rearranged Rachmaninoff preludes. Later comes Ravel’s dark “Gaspard de la nuit,” a show-offy offering, with nothing special about the performance. In between come Tao’s own “Vestiges” and “iridescence.” Tao is lavishly credited with helping bring back the era when virtuoso pianists would compose, but his compositions sound like the same pointless ramblings you hear everywhere. In “iridescence,” he sets an iPod to play a monotonous riff, and he plays riffs over that on the piano. There is a video on YouTube that looks like a joke, with Tao wearing ear buds and a dead-serious expression as he turns from piano to iPod and back again. He might be onto something. Debussy and Ravel would have loved this technology. But Tao has to learn to use it in a way that touches your heart. Time will tell if he will grow into an artist with something genuine to offer or just another academically spawned grant-consuming, Bjork-loving overpraised composer of stuff nobody really wants to hear. ΩΩ (Mary Kunz Goldman)


Emerson String Quartet, “Journeys” (Sony Classical). The great Emerson String Quartet is transitioning. The group’s longtime cellist, David Finckel, left to pursue other projects (his second-last concert with the quartet was in Buffalo, a few weeks ago) and is being succeeded by Paul Watkins. This recording is, I am guessing, the last to feature the old configuration. It also features two additional musicians. Violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Colin Carr join the group for Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence” and Schoenberg’s “Verklarte Nacht.” The musicians’ energy hits you right off. Much of it is attributable to Finckel, although I am sure his successor will do as well. Finckel digs into that cello and gives the music drive and momentum. Violinist Phil Setzer, with his expressive tone and generous use of portamento, gives Tchaikovsky’s wonderful fantasy a romantic sheen. Though both pieces could be considered warhorses, they’re warm and arresting, and the whole ensemble, going full tilt, draws you in irresistibly. Violinist Eugene Drucker plays first violin in the transparent Schoenberg, and the music’s beauty shines. Music students should have to listen to this disc. It’s a clear and listenable display of marvelous and heartfelt ensemble playing. ΩΩΩΩ (M.K.G.)


Great Wagner Voices, the Munchner Rundfunkorchester (BR Klassik). Here are 10 great Wagner singers who were big in the 1960s. The resonant bass Theo Adam, heard in the cathartic “Wotan’s Farewell” from “Die Walkure,” is still among us and remembered. So is the great African-American soprano Martina Arroyo, magnificent in a brooding excerpt from “Lohengrin.” Other singers in this collection are almost forgotten. It is a pleasure to hear Josef Greindl, whose recordings I’ve admired on YouTube, singing “Goetterdaemmerung.” Basso cantato Franz Crass – the notes explain nicely how his approach to Wagner differed from Adam’s – is heard in Hans Sachs’ famous “Wahn! Wahn!” monologue from “Die Meistersinger.” (It would be nice to have heard him in “Wotan’s Farewell,” too, to compare and contrast.) The sustained, rounded tones of Elisabeth Grummer and the exuberance of Ingrid Bjoner are thrilling in “Tannhauser.” Catarina Ligendza, famous for Wagner and Strauss, ends the disc with the “Liebestod” from “Tristan and Isolde.” Translations would have been welcome. Wagner fans probably don’t need them, because these are well-known excerpts, but newcomers might. There are good notes and pictures of the singers. ΩΩΩ (M.K.G.)