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Disc reviews: Flying Lotus, James Farm, Placido Domingo, Anne Akiko Meyers

Electronic/Hip-Hop

Flying Lotus

"You’re Dead!" [Warp]

4 stars

Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, scares me.

He scares me because I want to believe that electronic music will never replace music made by living people performing in real time on tangible instruments, simply because electronic music, while cool and interesting, will never be able to make the same human connection that organic music makes on a regular basis. When listening to “You’re Dead!,” however, such a notion becomes difficult to cling to. Ellison has basically cut & pasted, produced, manipulated and artificially constructed an album that lives, breathes and terrifies. “You’re Dead!” is a masterpiece, and an incredibly disconcerting one at that.

Like some sort of lysergically altered curator at the grand museum of pop culture, Flying Lotus cherry-picks an unholy host of disparate bits and pieces and fuses them together into something new. In the past, Ellison came across as slightly more conventional, grabbing bits of EDM, dub-step and alternative rock, throwing them into a blender and punching the puree button.

This time, however, he has a deeply emotional tale to tell, and he’s leaning heavily on classic jazz fusion and free jazz to tell that story. It’s a story about facing death in order to truly feel alive, but that’s almost beside the point, for so dizzying is the roller coaster ride Ellison has constructed that you can lose yourself in the sheer vertiginous joy of it all without even worrying about “the big concept.”

The likes of Herbie Hancock and Snoop Dogg show up as composers and/or featured artists, as do Kendrick Lamar and soul-jazz bassist/guitarist Thundercat. All contribute to the fractured and frantic conception, which of course, belongs to Ellison, who presides above it all as the ultimate master of puppets. “You’re Dead!” is less an album than a peek into its creator’s psyche, or at the very least, an invitation of unfettered access to his record collection.

Electronic music fans are being challenged here – if they don’t like jazz, and expect the beats to stay firmly within the prescribed limits of comfortable time signatures, they’re outta luck. Flying Lotus seems to be suggesting that anything resembling linear narrative progression – in music as in life – is merely wishful thinking.

So here we have it. With “You’re Dead!” Flying Lotus has crafted the “Kid A” of electronic music. Ellison is walking on virgin earth here.

- Jeff Miers

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Jazz

James Farm

"City Folk" [Nonesuch]

3.5 stars

Here is the second first-rate disc by one of the more impressive jazz quartets to come together in the past few years. Call it an all-star group if you want, even though bassist Matt Penman and pianist Aaron Parks didn’t quite come into the group sporting the same star pedigree as tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman and drummer Eric Harland.

They are, nevertheless, that good and that much equally responsible for the excellence of their group’s music.

They came together at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2009 and their first disc came out in 2011. The tunes are written by all members – three by Redman, Penman and Parks, one by Harland. So unified are they in aim that anyone trying to guess which tunes were written by which musician (or even, for that matter, by the same musician), would find it impossible.

Their compositions virtually have a group identity the way the music of Weather Report did. Almost all of the compositions are modal with a vengeance and designed to feature melody statements by tenor and soprano saxophonist Redman and his rhythm section.

Unlike Weather Report though, only the Penman composition “Aspirin” features pianist Parks playing an electric instrument.

There is, too, an emotional progress to the music from dark to light before it’s over. Group exultation, if you will – with a fair amount to be exultant about.

– Jeff Simon

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Classical/pop

Placido Domingo

"Encanto del Mar (Mediterranean Songs)" [Sony Classical]

3 stars

Inside every singer with a big voice there seems to be a little voice, demanding a pop project. Domingo, one of the great voices of our time, is accompanied on this disc by a small café ensemble: guitar, cello, bass, harp, percussion, occasional saxophone and bandoneon. One of the songs is “Aranjuez,” based on the beautiful concerto by Rodrigo, and Domingo also sings “En Mediterranee,” by Georges Moustaki, the French/Greek writer of romantic songs. There are also traditional Cyprian and Catalan songs. Domingo has it over other opera singers tackling pop projects in that his voice, in this setting, isn’t annoying. He has a tremendous feel for the music, and the songs sound great in his rich voice, especially when as you listen you feast your eyes on the pictures of him on the beach. It’s frustrating, though, that the songs give his voice no workout at all. Most songs have a range of just a few notes and you are sitting there thinking, this man can sing Wotan! So it is kind of a waste, like admiring a greyhound just sitting there in a little cage. But it’s pretty all the same.

– Mary Kunz Goldman

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Classical

Anne Akiko Meyers

"American Masters: Violin Music by Barber, Corigliano and Bates" [E-one]

3 stars

There is little or no competition for the Great American Violin concerto, should such a thing be needed. The Samuel Barber violin concerto from 1939 is of a lyrical beauty that just stays this side of kitsch. But it occupies a position by itself. The singing vibrato of brilliant violinist Anne Akiko Meyers doesn’t always stay on that side of kitsch with Barber. But it’s a fine enough performance to make for an excellent beginning for any disc of violin music by “American Masters.”

After that, I’m afraid, things go a bit downhill – not in Meyers’ performance, certainly, but in the pieces by John Corigliano, “Lullaby for Natalie” from 2010 and Mason Bates’ 2012 Violin Concerto. While both are interesting (the “Natalie” referred to is Meyers’ daughter), they just don’t occupy the same level as the Barber violin concerto. But then, one could argue, what does? In his notes to Meyers’ disc, Corigliano writes that it was Barber who helped him get his music published. And who, upon meeting Corigliano for the first time, “gave me some important criticism of my work, in addition to a lot of encouragement, and this occasion began a mentorship that lasted through the rest of his lifetime” (he died in 1981).

Corigliano then tells us he’s had a mentor relationship to Bates since he crashed one of Corigliano’s dinner parties. What Corigliano wants us to hear – which we can – is that though the works are not all on the same level, there is a line of American classical composition that can be drawn through them.

– Jeff Simon

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