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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases


Mark Ronson, “Uptown Special” (Columbia). Though his name is quite likely an unfamiliar one to many listeners, Mark Ronson’s work has had a major impact on the development of a vibrant neo-soul scene. His production work on Amy Winehouse’s seminal “Back to Black” album laid down the blueprint for organic contemporary soul production, and is yet to be topped in that department. Ronson the solo artist might seem like a questionable proposition to some, but in fact, “Uptown Special” makes a strong case for the idea that “Back to Black” had at least as much to do with Ronson’s genius as it did with Winehouse’s talent. It’s a star-studded collection, but in contrast to most cameo-laced modern collections, “Uptown Special” uses every guest to that guest’s fullest capacity, be it Stevie Wonder, Bruno Mars, rapper Mystikal, or Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. The glue that holds all of this together is Ronson’s unerring ear for deep, swampy and serious funk. The grooves, the horn stabs, the hot buttered soul so lovingly brought to a boil by the earthy ’70s-style production – all conspire in service of one of the funkiest collections this side of D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” comeback. Mars shines on first single “Uptown Funk,” a slab of Meters-informed New Orleans dance music; Mystikal spits street grit all over “Feel Right”; and the three Parker tunes scattered throughout the album form a Tame Impala EP dripping with psychedelic soul. Add Stevie Wonder’s inimitable harmonica playing to a pair of tracks, and you’ve got 40 jubilant minutes of ferocious fat-free funk.  (Jeff Miers)


Mussorgsky, “Pictures at an Exhibition” and Schumann “Fantasie Op. 17” performed by Paul Lewis (Harmonia Mundi). It will surprise no one that Paul Lewis’ reading of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” is far from the pyrotechnic exhibitionism and ferocious virtuosity of the ones that are legendary – Horowitz’s and, especially, that near-miraculous recording by Sviatislav Richter in that near-Arctic Circle Concert Hall where the entire audience sounded as if they had the flu. Not only is Lewis a great Beethoven pianist – and, therefore, a devotee of the most rigorous classical virtuosos – but he’s a pianist who gives more than a little notice of his approach by the work he chose to fill out his Mussorgsky disc, Schumann’s Fantasie in C-major Op. 17. Lewis’ castle in the moonlight, for instance, is daubed lovingly but is largely without magic. And his opening of the Great Gate of Kiev is without that slightly mad yearning for orchestral size that is so often found in “Pictures” finale by the pianists more attuned to Mussorgsky’s magnificent eccentricity. Lewis is a player of classical taste and proportion, which is no doubt ideal for a “Pictures” for those suspicious of virtuoso extravagance. Schumann’s “Fantasie” seems much closer to Lewis’ temperament.  (Jeff Simon)


Mozart, Complete Violin Concertos and the Sinfonia Concertante K. 364 performed by violinist Rachel Barton Pine with violist Matthew Lipman and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Neville Marriner (Avie). Violinist Rachel Barton Pine likes to perform the five Mozart violin concertos complete on a single evening. Not surprisingly, she too is very much a soloist with classical taste in virtuosity on her instrument rather than a flamboyant Romantic-era waiting for a chance to embellish and inflect and musically italicize all over the place. What her 90-year-old conductor Marriner says of her is that ”she is one of the most honest violin players I have ever heard.…everything is there for a purpose and musically it makes such good sense.” To hear Pine tell it, she is a bit more dramatic than that. She says, “I always recommend ‘Amadeus’ to students. While the story may not be factually accurate, the film definitely captures Mozart’s personality and his operatic side…Listening to Mozart’s operas, I gained an appreciation for the drama and playfulness of his violin concertos. They are filled with constantly changing characters – now happy, now angry and boy is there a lot of flirting!” Her musical approach is a bit less phantasmal than that but her playing is very much within the Mozartean sphere, for those who like their violin concertos emotionally well-contained.  (Jeff Simon)


Justin Kauflin, “Dedication” (Jazz Village). A funny thing happened to jazz on film in 2014. “Whiplash” is an Oscar nominee. At the Tribeca Film Festival in April, Al Hicks’ and Adam Hart’s “Keep on Keepin’ On” won, among other things, the Audience Favorite Award. The film is a documentary that follows four years in the mentorship of young blind pianist Justin Kauflin by the great trumpet marvel Clark Terry, who is still, bless him, with us (though at last report quite ill) at the age of 93. Kauflin was born in 1986 and has been playing both violin and piano since he was a child. He became blind at the age of 11 and has been playing jazz publicly since then. His models are some of the great mainstream jazz pianists of his time – Harold Mabern and the late James Williams and Mulgrew Miller. But he’s also an admirer of Ornette Coleman, which reveals a rather vigorous refusal to be typecast in jazz. He is not yet 30 but he sounds like a swinging and poetic veteran in the jazz piano mainstream on this trio and quartet disc. His mates in the quartet are either guitarist Matt Stevens or guitarist Elan Haziza. His rhythm section in both groups is drummer Billy Williams and bassist Christopher Smith. He wrote all the tunes on the disc and while none are pre-possessing, they are mostly all charmers and swingers that make it both easy and hugely rewarding for soloists to wail on. Among the pleasures of this disc is trying to imagine how much fun Terry, in his incomparably witty instrumental prime, might have had playing on top of his late-life young pianist friend. It was Terry’s history to have wonderful and idiosyncratic taste in pianists, whether playing with Thelonious Monk before the jazz world at large discovered him or with the great omni-pianist Roger Kellaway in the quintet Terry co-led with Bob Brookmeyer. An enjoyable young pianist who, at this stage, needs to be challenged by some of the best young soloists current jazz has to offer.  (Jeff Simon)


Red Garland Trio, “Swingin’ On The Korner” (Elemental Music, two discs). Red Garland was 60 when he died in 1984. It was his incomparable luck to be the pianist in one of the greatest and most formative jazz quintets of the ’50s – Miles Davis’ Quintet with John Coltrane. Because of it, the jazz world was treated to a whole lot of Red Garland with Miles and Coltrane or sometimes just Coltrane alone. Not quite as common by far was Garland in a trio, especially a trio as formidable as this one, featuring drummer Philly Joe Jones and the West Coast walking bass monolith Leroy Vinnegar. When he played with Miles, Garland the lyricist and Milt Buckner locked-hand chordalist sounded to a lot of undiscerning listeners like an extremely eccentric form of cocktail pianist. But then, Miles’ subsequent pianists – Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans – gave a full indication of where Miles wanted his pianists to go. What is irreplaceable about this disc is that as a trio pianist, Garland is far more of an athletic swinger than he often seemed with Miles (who was understandably pleased that Garland too had, earlier in life, been a boxer). Current pianist Benny Green says that Garland’s playing “addresses a full spectrum of emotion, and the innate sense of hipness, taste and timing seemingly possessed by only the greatest voices in music....a musical brew which maintains its pure cool and freshness throughout the ages.” What is most fun about this hitherto unreleased two-disc set from San Francisco’s Keystone Korner in 1977 is Garland and his fiery Miles bandmate Philly Joe Jones, the primal firebrand drummer of the kind Miles’ bands would turn into the most influential drum style of the next 40 years or more. Cecil Taylor used to claim that without Red Garland as a model, Bill Evans would have been lost. An overstatement to be sure but not an entirely incredible one as you can sometimes hear in this fine, brand-new disc of previously unheard Red Garland in live performance. ½ (Jeff Simon)

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