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Listening Post: Brief reviews of select releases

Country/Folk/Roots

James McMurtry, “Complicated Game” (Complicated Game). “The wedding party is raging yet/How the old and desperate misbehave/The limo smells like cocaine sweat/cheap cologne and aftershave.” They’re just lyrics, right? Words plucked from the air and arranged in rhythmic and syllabic agreement, draped over a melody, lent wings by chord changes and a rhythm section. But the best lyrics – and James McMurtry is one of the finest lyricists working in 2015 – set a scene, provide lighting and ambience, create a space and populate it with characters that may or may not have some resemblance to the singer, and then pull us in to act as witnesses. When you read the above lyrics, from “You Got To Me,” off McMurtry’s just released “Complicated Game,” you can see how the whole movie will unfold. McMurtry has been employing his novelist’s eye for the telling detail, the tear in the fabric of normality, the blemish on the otherwise flawless skin, for 25 years now. (McMurtry’s father is novelist Larry McMurtry, of “Lonesome Dove” fame, which might explain the depth of the talent pool here.) James McMurtry has never missed his mark, and he continues that tradition with this, the first release on his own label, which shares the album’s name. There is a theme in most of McMurtry’s work, one of deflected fulfillment and unrequited longing, but McMurtry has a keen ear for humor too, and if his characters are desperate – they are – then he is also able to laugh at and with them. So if the antiheroes who populate “How’m I Gonna Find You Now?” (in which the narrator washes down his blood pressure pill with a Red Bull,) “Ain’t Got A Place,” “Copper Canteen” and “These Things I’ve Come To Know” all seem to be anything but the beautiful and privileged classes, McMurtry’s pen has compassion for them. The Austin, Texas, native hasn’t released a studio album in seven years, but not much has changed – he still relies on country, folk, Texas blues and roots music for inspiration, although this time around, his always undervalued electric guitar playing takes a back seat in arrangements that are largely acoustic in nature. In a voice that often suggests what Lou Reed might’ve sounded like if he had more fondness for astute melody and pitch control, McMurtry roams the terrain he’s created here like a desperate journalist eager to jot down details on the doings of fools during the end days. His brilliance is presented in an offhand, “Ain’t no big deal” manner most of the time, but make no mistake – it is brilliance. McMurtry is a rare bird, a singer/songwriter with a deep connection to the old, weird America who, with “Complicated Game,” has entered a new masterwork into a canon already brimming with them.  (Jeff Miers)

Bluegrass/Jazz Fusion

Paul Elwood,Nice Folks” (Innova). What the devil is this, you might well ask – banjo virtuoso Paul Elwood putting bluegrass into the same studio with jazz musicians, including the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s percussionist Famadou Don Moye? Not only is Moye prominent here but Elwood named the disc after the Art Ensemble’s “Nice Guys” as a variation on that disc’s title. Guitarist Jean-Marc Montera and saxophonist Raphael Imbert get into the “say WHAT?” spirit of this brand-new fusion beautifully, and you’ll be amazed at how logical so much of it sounds. On the other hand, when the disc gets around to putting together things that don’t really belong together in the slightest is when the disc really becomes fun in a wild, bizarre and enormously delightful way. What Elwood says about Moye and this disc is that “I believe that this recording will offer fans of the AEC the opportunity for an aural update on this legendary percussionist and to hear him in a new context.” And how. It’s all music, says this disc. And its spirit couldn’t be more infectious.  (Jeff Simon)

Classical

Grigory Sokolov, The Salzburg Recital, (Deutsche Grammophon). Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, God love him, likes live recordings. He feels they are more honest, as opposed to editing and airbrushing studio recordings. The music on this double-CD set was recorded live at the Salzburg Festival in 2008. It appears that it sat in a drawer for a while before being released recently, with a lot of fanfare, by Sokolov’s new label, Deutsche Grammophon. Sokolov is lionized in the liner notes – too much so, I found msyelf thinking. The “Sokolov,” in huge letters, with no first name. And “The Salzburg Recital,” as if, haven’t you heard of it? And the first sentence: “Few pianists of recent years have become quite such a legend in their own lifetime as Grigory Sokolov.” Yeah, yeah. On the bright side, I liked what I heard. I’ve noted in the past that Sokolov’s tempos and approaches to Romantic music can be unpredictable and controversial, but the second disc, with the 24 Chopin Preludes and other Chopin, Scriabin etc., was damaged, so all I got to hear was the first disc, which contains two Mozart sonatas. Sokolov plays good Mozart, without doing anything fancy. He chose two interesting and underplayed sonatas in F, K. 280 and K. 332. Sometimes piano students study these sonatas, otherwise you almost never hear them, and they’re beautiful. Both have haunting slow movements, vacillating between major and minor, utterly lovely. Sokolov plays the music straight, with a robust clarity and a touch of improvisation. He “gets” the music’s beauty, and he brings it out with grace.  (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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Lieder, Brahms, Schumann, Ann Murray, mezzo soprano. Malcolm Martineau, piano (Linn Records). Here are 25 songs that take you to the heights of 19th Century Romanticism, performed beautifully by some of the best current Lieder artists. The Schumann songs begin with the rarely heard Poems of Mary, Queen of Scots, Op. 135. Schumann was, like Schubert before him, enthralled by Sir Walter Scott. And Clara Schumann, I was thrilled to read, loved royal tragedies. Hence these songs, brooding and poignant in that beautiful Schumann way. Their delicate accompaniments and sudden surges of passion, even their melodies and harmonies are strongly reminiscent of “Frauenliebe und -Leben.” A set of songs Schumann set from Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister” poetry, with the exception of the lovely “Mignon,” are tougher going for a Lieder fan because you keep contrasting them with Schubert’s more famous settings. A duet version of “Ich Denke Dein” likewise suffers. But it’s all first-rate music, and the “Meister” songs make me want to read Goethe’s book, which sounds like a crazy story. The Schumann set winds up with affecting duets including the rapturous “Minnespiel.” As for the Brahms songs, I love them all, from the transcendently calm “Your blue eyes” to the famous Brahms Lullaby. My great-grandfather was a blacksmith on Buffalo’s East Side, so I get a kick out of “The Smith,” a sultry love song a woman sings to the rhythm of her blacksmith sweetheart’s hammer. Oh, I could go on and on. This is a marvelous Lieder album. Besides Murray and Martineau, it also involves tenor John Mark Ainsley and Johnny Langridge, baritone Benjamin Appi and pianist Hester Dickson.  (Mary Kunz Goldman)

Jazz

Jack DeJohnette, “Made in Chicago” (ECM). A disc few of us ever thought we’d hear in the 21st century. More than a half century ago, Jack DeJohnette, Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill were classmates at Wilson Junior College in Chicago. They’d jam back then and prepare for the astonishing careers to come – DeJohnette first with Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band and Mitchell and Threadgill to follow with Abrams. All were involved when Abrams first created the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1965, one of the most important seedbeds for the avant-garde in jazz history. Drummer DeJohnette moved to New York and soon became what he has been for more than four decades – one of the greatest of all jazz virtuosos on any instrument. By many lights, his mastery of the drums in the years since he first played with Charles Lloyd had made him the closest equivalent we have in modern jazz to the incredible virtuosity of an Art Tatum in the swing era. In August 2013, DeJohnette got back together with Abrams, Mitchell and Threagill for a Chicago Jazz Festival concert in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Here is that rare and one might have thought impossible thing – Jack DeJohnette as a free jazz drummer. Not surprisingly, he is as formidable in his way as a free jazz drummer as he has been with Lloyd, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett and any number of other titans of jazz. There is, of course, no pretending that this disc is as listener friendly as DeJohnette’s music with those musicians, but what is abundantly audible throughout this live concert recording is what Mitchell talks about: “Every time I get together with musicians from the AACM, it’s like we are just picking up from wherever we left off. I think you can achieve great things in music by having these longstanding relationships with people. If you told me back then that this thing never stops, I might not have believed you. But now I see that’s really true.” A historic reunion to put it mildly. It must have been incredible experienced live.  (Jeff Simon)

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