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Listening Post: Harry Nilsson RCA Albums Collection and Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby


Nilsson: The RCA Albums Collection (RCA/Legacy, 17 discs). When they called George Martin “the fifth Beatle” it was because, as their producer, he was their extraordinary older brother, an indulgent, understanding and wildly creative partner whose maturity and knowledge and innovation gave them things they didn’t have. Harry Nilsson was a different kind of “fifth Beatle” – a musical and temperamental soul brother whose utterly extraordinary but now mostly obscure music of the ’70s now so clearly belongs next to theirs at the time. John Lennon and Paul McCartney loved to tell the press he was their favorite American musical artist. Lennon even produced the terrific (and, at the time, underrated) “Pussy Cats” for Nilsson and did more than his share of pub-crawling in his company (they were, famously, thrown out of L.A.’s Troubador together for heckling the Smothers Brothers). Nilsson avoided performing in public himself as assiduously as latter-day classical pianist Glenn Gould (who became, well before Nilsson, a creature of the recording studio). In the 21st century people record to establish an audience to make real money in live performance. In Nilsson’s era, it was reversed but after his utterly unbelievable ’70s decade with RCA Victor, his career progressed toward oblivion until he died of a heart attack in 1993. He was so intrinsic to his musical era that no less than two musical stars – “Mama” Cass Elliott and Who drummer Keith Moon – died in the same room four years apart while borrowing Nilsson’s Curzon Street flat in London – Elliott of a heart attack, Moon of a medicinal drug overdose. (After Moon’s death, Nilsson sold the flat to Pete Townshend and remained in L.A.) Nilsson’s music was astonishing at the time, and seems five times that now. A high school dropout and paleozoic computer geek, he had, at his best, a gymnastic voice that accounted for the hits he had with others’ songs, “Everybody’s Talking” and “Without You.” But it was his own music that was so much spiritual kin to the Beatles that they coveted him for their label, Apple – “Coconut,” arguably the most sublime novelty song in pop history, “You’re Breakin’ My Heart” with its immortal chorus, “Together,” “Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore,” “Me and My Arrow,” “One” (Three Dog Night had the hit version), “Gotta Get Up,” “I Guess The Lord Must Be in New York City.” At the same time, nobody else sang Randy Newman songs better than Nilsson – except Newman himself. And in the failure “A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night,” he nevertheless anticipated Linda Ronstadt and every other pop musician subsequently wallowing in “The Great American Songbook.” This is the full Nilsson on RCA that he wanted to see in his lifetime and that fans have always awaited but was denied him while he lived – outtakes, radio interviews and commercials, the works. Few complete sets of a performer have ever been more overdue than this. Few, then, are more welcome. One of the important box sets of 2013. ∆∆∆∆ (Jeff Simon)


Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby, “Cluck Ol’ Hen” (Skaggs Family/Fontana). Ricky Skaggs set out at the beginning to become his hero, bluegrass progenitor Bill Monroe, and by this point, he’s pretty much succeeded in doing so. Skaggs is a virtuoso of the form, as both mandolin player and vocalist. He’s helped preserve bluegrass while simultaneously pushing it forward. When Skaggs teamed with pianist/singer/songwriter Bruce Hornsby six years ago for a series of recording sessions, the move only seemed strange to those unfamiliar with Hornsby’s work – whether leading his own band, jamming with the likes of Pat Metheny and Bela Fleck, or loaning his talents to the Grateful Dead and the Other Ones, Hornsby has consistently proven himself to be one of the true (and few) pop virtuosos of the past three decades. “Cluck Ol’ Hen” captures Skaggs and his band with Hornsby in the concert setting, and it is an absolute scorcher of a collaboration. Whether tackling bits of the Monroe canon (“Toy Heart,” “Bluegrass Breakdown,” “Darling Corey”); doffing the cap to Ralph Stanley (“Little Maggie”); or proving that Hornsby tunes like “White Wheeled Limousine,” “The Way It Is” and “Gulf Of Mexico Fishing Boat Blues” are more than capable vehicles for some serious bluegrass shredding, Skaggs, Hornsby and Co. sound positively inspired throughout. ∆∆∆∆ (Jeff Miers)


Leo Ornstein, Piano Music Volume Two: Complete Waltzes, “A Morning in the Woods” and “Suite Russe” performed by pianist Arsentiy Kharitonov (Toccata Classics). It isn’t that familiarity bred contempt in the musical life of Leo Ornstein; or that he lived so long his music couldn’t possibly have remained on the same astonishing level as the piano music he wrote as a post-Scriabin Russian “Futurist” (he headed Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute and, at his death, was, yes 108 years old). It’s nevertheless true that neither his music or his reputation itself could surmount such astonishing longevity. Despite his long American residence, it is this disc’s contention that Ornstein remained an intensely Russian composer and it is that Russianness that animates this brilliant disc in a series that establishes Ornstein on the tragically obscure Olympus of ecstatic masters of rhapsodic dissonance following Scriabin (including Dane Rudhyar). Lest the Complete Waltzes heard on this disc strike anyone as lesser trivia, one listen to the sulfurous and virtuosic fury one finds abundant within confirms that they are anything but minor music. What extraordinary music Leo Ornstein composed for the piano. How great it is to have it explored so devotedly and well. ΩΩΩΩ (J.S.)


Marc Neikrug, “Healing Ceremony” performed by Susan Graham, mezzo soprano, Matthew Worth, baritone, New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, Guillermo Figueroa, conductor (Entertainment One). Buffalo has met Marc Neikrug. He is a fine pianist and he was here with violinist Pinchas Zukerman. On that occasion they played a short Neikrug original, which bored the Tick crowd silly. The sprawling “Healing Ceremony,” I am afraid, would go over even worse. It was composed for the dedication of a New Mexico cancer facility, and as the notes say, “Its purpose is to provide an experience to help people faced with serious health issues find balance and calm.” I will tell you this, if I had serious health issues and were heading into this hospital, the last thing I would want to hear would be this piece. (What, do they have it playing in the lobby or something?) The opening is especially ominous, with uneasy murmurs and a recurring rustling rattling sound, like a snake. The music borrows from Mahler and from Native American traditions and is full of aimless melody lines with New Age lyrics (“Stand tall like a tree…” “Water - Water - Water - Bubbly sparkling rain fed streams...”) Obviously somebody made money off this, considering the great Susan Graham is involved, but there’s not much in it for the rest of us. Ω (Mary Kunz Goldman)