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Disc reviews: J. Cole, Gina Sicilia, Peter Schickele, Jon Nakamatsu

Classical

Morning Music

Piano Works by Peter Schickele and P.D.Q. Bach

Laura Leon, piano

[G’Day Productions/Musical Tapestries]

∆∆∆

I heard that once at Kleinhans Music Hall, Peter Schickele swung down on a rope from the balcony. I believe it. When I was a kid, every nerd was into P.D.Q. Bach. My brother gave me the book for Christmas and I can still see the pages in my head. (And if I ever forget, I still have the book.) The Bargain Counter Tenor, the Trumpet Involuntary, the Schleptet – it’s all kind of dated now, but still, so funny.

This colorful, cartoonish disc has the cute, neo-Baroque “Goldbrick” Variations and the Overture to “The Civilian Barber,” with bits of Rossini. Beyond that it has several sets of very brief pieces by Schickele. Like a lot of artists, Schickele is at his best when he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Luckily he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously very often, and most of these pieces are colored by wit as well as a certain poetry.

A lot of the music has a New Age sound, kind of like Jim Brickman, only better. Eight settings of American hymns and hollers, including “Amazing Grace,” range from somber to bright and serene. Five “epitaphs,” each between one and two minutes long, pay witty tribute to five composers. Most of the pieces here are very short. If one grates on you, and a few of them will, there’s always the next – and more than a few of the pieces turn out to be surprise delights. “Little Suite For Susan” and “Small Serenade” have quick movements with titles like “Tango,” “Strug” and the jazzy “Riff.” “Second Sonatina” is only three minutes long. The charming first movement recalls Scarlatti. “Three Teeny Preludes,” with their ingenious simplicity, made me think of Carl Orff’s music for children.

The disc seems pretty true to Schickele’s philosophy, which I see reason to applaud. “I think that the boundaries among different kinds of music are not as rigid as they were,” he told me once when I interviewed him. “And that’s a terrific thing.”

– Mary Kunz Goldman

Classical

Schumann

Piano Sonata No. 2, Papillons, Carnaval

Jon Nakamatsu, piano

[Harmonia Mundi USA]

∆∆∆

I always remember what a kick it was when Jon Nakamatsu won the Van Cliburn Competition. The fun of it was that he was, technically, an amateur. He taught high school German and played piano on the side. And he was just so good. He still is, as this bright, energetic disc shows.

His technique grabs you in the sonata’s fast movements. To hear him navigate Schumann’s treacherous fingerwork is in itself a sensual joy. It’s all so clear. “Papillons” (“Butterflies”) also has an appealing clarity that lets you appreciate the music’s flutter and sparkle. Nakamatsu is very classical in his approach and spare in his use of the pedal. Occasionally his playing can sound a bit dry and measured. That is one reason the “Carnaval,” while bright and clear, doesn’t quite nail the whirling hedonism the music should project, especially at the end. But there is a lot to thrill you along the way. Listen in “Carnaval” for that echo of “Papillons.” It’s a moment I always love.

– M.K.G.

R&B

Gina Sicilia

The Alabama Sessions

[VizzTone]

∆∆∆z

This five-song EP marks a new beginning of sorts for Gina Sicilia after four superb albums rooted mostly in blues and R&B. The singer from Newtown, Pa., has relocated to Nashville and is working with new musicians.

“No Use at All” is steeped in country-soul, and “I’m in Trouble” exudes a retroish hipster vibe, but overall, The Alabama Sessions is less rootsy, as three of the songs lean toward ringing guitar-pop. What most links the set to Sicilia’s earlier work, however, besides her striking, smoky alto, is the way she continues to dig deep in her writing. The songs may tell a story of an artist trying to spread her wings and establish a new independence and identity, but Sicilia does so with a maturity and command of her craft that give them, for all their melodic accessibility, great emotional heft.

– Nick Cristiano,

Philadelphia Inquirer

Hip-hop

J. Cole

2014 Forest Hills Drive

[Columbia/Roc Nation/Dreamville]

∆∆∆

This, the third studio album from rapper J. Cole, might not be perfect, but it’s high quality.

One thing many listeners are looking for is music that is socially conscious. And there is some of that here. But Cole can’t decide. What is his stand exactly? Even in his public comments on acts like Macklemore, he has been quick to say he was just kidding, as if shy of controversy. And there is some of that feeling here.

Starting with an intro in which Cole sings, “Do you wanna, do you wanna be happy?”, he sets the tone for this soul-searching album. In classic Cole manner, tracks have heavy bass lines, but are still tranquil. Some tracks bleed from one into the next, causing a sense of sameness, but there are several standouts. In “Wet Dreamz,” Cole flexes his storytelling muscles as he narrates his past virginal dilemma. “03 Adolescence” could be called “Ado-lessons” as Cole recalls a conversation with a friend that changed his life. In this generally understated album, “Fire Squad” stands out for its braggadoccio, as Cole calls out white artists for appropriating and profiting from black music. “G.O.M.D” has one of the best hooks on the album, and in “No Role Modelz,” Cole raps about lack of female role models for women. No club-bangers here, or many potential radio hits, but Cole says, “This is my canvas.” It’s thought-provoking and vulnerable, and it’s also brave, with no featured artists: “2014 Forest Hills Drive” is straight J. Cole, no chaser.

– Sofiya Ballin,

Philadelphia Inquirer

americana

Dan Montgomery

Sin, Repent, Repeat

[Fantastic Yes]

∆∆∆z

“You wonder just where you went wrong/So you write it all down in another song,” Dan Montgomery sings on “Audrey and Hank,” which starts as twangy country before exploding into a rocking rave-up.

A lot has gone wrong, through circumstances or their own weaknesses or both, for the characters who populate the latest batch of songs by the former South Jerseyan and Ben Vaughn roadie, who now lives in Memphis. But the combination of Montgomery’s masterful storytelling, penetrating insight into the human heart, and full-bodied, extremely well-crafted roots-rock make these downbeat tales an utterly gripping listen.

“You know it wasn’t supposed to be this way,” Montgomery wryly laments on “Life’s Funny.” It’s a development that, as he shows throughout “Sin, Repent, Repeat,” can be a great source of artistic inspiration.

– Nick Cristiano

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