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Disc reviews: Kelly Clarkson, Kyle Eastwood, Clark Terry and Justin Kauflin

Pop

Kelly Clarkson

Piece By Piece

[RCA]

1.5 stars

Contemporary popular music is enduring a serious personality crisis. As in, it’s very difficult to ascertain any actual musical personality these days.

This is a natural outgrowth of pop’s tendency toward idiomatic mash-ups, urged along by music-themed game shows in which contestants are tasked with singing tunes in a myriad of styles, and none of them particularly convincingly. Personality, individuality, conviction – these have been kicked to the curb in terms of their value, replaced in the pantheon of admirable traits by an ability to sing athletically and in tune, preferably at the same time, while simultaneously boasting an easily marketable look.

It makes sense, then, that former “American Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson seems to have absolutely no idea who she is, musically speaking, as evidenced by the turgid mess that is her newly released “Piece by Piece.”

In the time since her big win, Clarkson has been a country artist, released Christmas music, attempted edgier pop stylings, dabbled with the classics, and even dipped her toe into the R&B pool. This time around, she attempts to do most of these things at once, and ends up doing all of them rather poorly.

Add overly earnest, string-soaked power-ballads, pure ‘80s dance pop, electro-laced R&B and some flagrant attempts to cash Katy Perry’s check, and you’ve got an album that has no idea what it’s supposed to be, other than successful.

Clarkson always has gotten by on the strength of her singing, which can’t be questioned, and her tendency toward stressing themes of self-empowerment in her lyrics. Our culture’s disdain for nuanced argument dictates that suggesting that the constant playing of the “self-empowered female” card is cloying, clichéd and perhaps even cynical, is not an option. It should be. This shtick is getting old. Listening to mediocre pop songs will empower absolutely no one, be they female or male. And “Piece by Piece” is full of them.

Clarkson still has a strong and agile voice. She needs to find some material that is worthy of that voice. There is very little such material on “Piece by Piece,” the exception being the least partly inspired collaboration with John Legend that elevates a take on Tokio Hotel’s “Run Run Run” above its neighbors. Elsewhere, a watered-down mash-up of styles already proven successful by other artists makes up “Piece by Piece.” Ultimately, these pieces don’t add up to much.

– Jeff Miers

Jazz/Soundtrack

Clark Terry and Justin Kauflin

Keep On Keepin’ On

[Varese Sarabande]

3.5 stars

“Whiplash” may have been the popular and searing jazz film of 2014 but the movie, as many musicians and critics will quickly tell you, is a lie from beginning to end about the optimal way to develop young jazz musicians. It made for terrific drama but it’s all hooey, including the story the demonic band director (brilliantly played by J.K. Simmons) tells of legendary drummer Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at the head of a young Charlie Parker. (He threw it in front of Parker’s feet, an entirely different and less murderous proposition.)

The documentary film “Keep on Keepin’ On” (which has, so far, not played Buffalo) is more like it. It’s the antidote to “Whiplash.” It’s a film about the remarkable relationship of young blind jazz pianist Justin Kauflin and the ancient (mid-90s) and magnificent jazz trumpet player Clark Terry, who died of diabetes just a few weeks ago.

What you hear in the snippets of film conversation reproduced on the soundtrack here is the love of an older generation that nurtures a younger one and receives it in return. Who can resist Kauflin getting Terry to remember the tune “Breeze” and then hum it and scat some 94-year old bebop?

The rest of the soundtrack is a rich and full musical portrait of Terry in all manner of circumstances throughout his amazing career – those great performances with Oscar Peterson, his solo on Duke Ellington’s “Harlem Airshaft,” his performances with an edition of the Jazz at the Philharmonic All-Stars and with Count Basie and Quincy Jones (who produced both the film and the disc).

What you have to understand though is that Terry’s career was so long – and he was so crucial to the incredible floating band of studio jazz musicians in New York in the late-1950s and throughout the ’60s – that much of his greatest and most antic work is missing from this. Missing completely, for instance, is the utterly delightful quintet he co-led for years with Bob Brookmeyer and which featured pianist Roger Kellaway.

Still, Terry’s sound on his horn was big, warm, fat and unmistakable under any and all circumstances. It’s not for nothing that among so many others, Jones and Miles Davis both thought of Clark Terry as a mentor.

An exquisite memorial to him, no matter what might be missing.

– Jeff Simon

Jazz

Kyle Eastwood

Time Pieces

[Jazz Village]

3 stars

Jazz bassist Kyle Eastwood has now been in the record-making business for, are you ready, 17 years. When you consider that the 46-year old son of Clint Eastwood has been making records for that long – since 1998’s arresting “From Here to There” (in which one of his guest stars was no less than Joni Mitchell) – anyone deluded into thinking there’s anything of the spoiled and indulged tyro about him is completely mistaken.

This is very good jazz disc by an accomplished veteran player who says that it is, in part, “a return to my jazz roots and influences.” Not least, the influences of his “favorite jazz composers like Horace Silver and Herbie Hancock.”

Silver, in particular, died during the course of this disc being made and his influence is, without question, the most salutary thing about it – not just in the version of Silver’s “Blowin’ the Blues Away” or the tribute to Silver “Peace of Silver” but in the blistering hard bop solos of the formidable quintet of English jazz musicians that comprise Eastwood’s working band. Trumpet player Quentin Collins, pianist Andrew McCormack and Brandon Allen on tenor saxophone are players that any young American jazz group would be delighted to have.

It might have been better in truth, if Eastwood had been dissuaded from taking so many solos on the disc – and at the very least not giving in to the temptation to play the melody line of Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance” on the electric bass (where, inevitably, Hancock’s gorgeously lyrical tune runs the danger of becoming, as they say on “American Idol,” “pitchy”).

But that’s not because he can’t play because he can – superbly.

Let’s be honest about Eastwood: he grew up in a house where a star is a star is a star. And some prerogatives come with that. (Like a lot of solos on your own discs.) Add too the obvious influence of great virtuoso electric bass show-off Jaco Pastorious and you can’t blame Eastwood for taking as many solos as he does.

That’s especially understandable when you remember how deficient in solo wattage from both Eastwood and his friends that first Kyle Eastwood disc was.

Not this one. The soloing here is plentiful, robust and sometimes blistering and virtuosic, whether the tune is fusion or hard bop.

It remains too bad that his residence in Europe prohibits him from the kind of extensive touring in America that might make him into the star over here that he deserves to be.

Kyle Eastwood would be getting major jazz work even if his name were Kyle McGillicuddy. The members of his band would be worth hearing under any circumstances, too.

– Jeff Simon

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