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Disc reviews: Jose James, Aurora Orchestra, The Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz, Mini Mansions


Jose James

Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday



Jose James calls Billie Holiday his “musical mother.” He’s far from alone in jazz song in claiming her maternity. The number of jazz singers, justly or not, who might claim Holiday as their mother would, no doubt, be huge – greater than any other jazz singer who ever lived.

That her centennial is almost upon us (she was born April 7, 1915) is going to be just cause for major celebration all year, just as it will be for the centennial of the first singer to claim a kind of brotherhood with Holiday, Frank Sinatra.

You can circle the equator with singers claiming Holiday kinship if you want to but the fact was she was absolutely as inimitable as she was influential. She was unique.

Her voice, for one thing, was never pretty in any way, much less beautiful. It was sweet and girlish early on but always thin and reedy. At the end of her life, the cracks and squawks literally made her voice ugly at times, but the best way to describe it would be with the title of a Thelonious Monk tune – it was “Ugly Beauty.”

So much art, musicianship and expressivity went into her music – especially toward the end of her life – that it quite literally redefined jazz song. Probably only Carmen McRae deserved to claim kinship.

You have to say this for James and his artful tribute record: despite being sensitive and “pretty” all the way through, his approach is not completely foreign to Holiday’s music as so many jazz singers can be, despite their protestations. His version of “Strange Fruit,” for instance, makes it a kind of jazz folk song that isn’t nearly as absurd as some “tribute” versions have been – Annie Lennox’s, for instance.

Only pianist Jason Moran here understands the tolerance for roughness implicit in a Holiday tribute. There is a actually a tiny bit of finger fumbling in his solo to “Good Morning, Heartache.”

James’ accompanying trio here is terrific – Moran, bassist John Pattitucci and drummer Eric Harland. The disc is like a lyric poem in tribute to a great drama or a great epic.

The disc, then, is poetic rather than dramatic and tragic.

Not bad, though. Not bad at all.

– Jeff Simon


Mini Mansions

The Great Pretenders



How do you make existential despair sound like fun? Pop music has wrestled with this conundrum forever. Or perhaps I should say, good pop music has done so – the throwaway stuff has always stuck to the surface concerns, the easy emotions, the “I’ll love you forever” stuff. Pop’s dark underbelly, meanwhile, has wrestled with the tougher stuff, be it Jim Morrison wondering what might happen if one dared to “take the highway to the end of the night,” to Phil Spector finding pathos through the generous application of reverb and making “Be My Baby” sound like a desperate cry from the soul, or Prince noting that the death of human love sounds a lot like the mournful cry of a dove.

All of these songs are major bummers in their way, but all were also huge hits. Los Angeles trio the Mini Mansions has packed sophomore effort “The Great Pretenders” with bittersweet tunes that, in a perfect world, would also be big hits. Though the sort of thinking man’s psychedelic pop Michael Shuman, Tyler Parkford and Zachary Dawes gather in service for their second album might be a little too weird for the full-on mainstream. If one can imagine Ween’s goofy-but-beautiful “White Pepper” fused with ELO’s” “Out of the Blue,” and then covered by the Cars, circa “Candy-O,” then one might be able to take “The Great Pretenders” in the spirit with which it’s being offered.

It’s not particularly useful to know that Shuman doubles as a full member of Queens of the Stone Age, because there are few parallels between the two projects, beyond a consistent spirit of invention. An album that is able to deliver the space-funk-disco of opener “Freakout!” and then a mere five songs later, invite Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson aboard for the reach-for-the-sky harmonies elevating “Any Emotions” is painting with a broad palette. “Mirror Mountain” is downright spooky in its Doors-meets-Nine Inch Nails ambience. “The End, Again” views life as Sisyphean struggle, and wallows in billowing clouds of lovely gloom. “Vertigo” is anthemic without being overbearingly so, and might appeal to fans of Animal Collective’s more ruminative fare, or MGMT minus the drugs.

“The Great Pretenders” is often startlingly good. When it falls just short of that marker, it’s still well worth hearing. Shuman and Company make being mildly bummed out sound like a badge of honor.

- Jeff Miers


Chant: Into the Light

The Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz

[Obsculta Music]


Since 1183, seven times a day starting at 5:15 a.m., the monks at Austria’s monastery of Heiligenkreuz have been singing Gregorian chant, in unison and in Latin. They recorded this disc, they write, “to facilitate a deeper experience of the mystery of Easter.”

They do so also in the hope that more people will be inspired to explore this traditional music of the Roman Catholic Church, and incorporate it into worship. These particular chant melodies are often heard at traditional Latin masses around the world, including hear here in Buffalo at Latin masses at St. Anthony of Padua Church and, in Cheektowaga, in the beautiful little chapel of Our Lady Help of Christians.

To hear these monks sing the chants of Holy Week and Easter, though, gives a special feeling of timelessness. They have it down to a science after all these centuries, and their voices blend seamlessly, creating a kind of curtain of sound. The monks sound on the young side, and they are, judging from the photos showing them in their sweeping white robes.

The disc begins with the Missa Beatae Mariae Virginis (Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary) and continues with chants involving Christ’s Passion and death before concluding with the Easter Jubilation.

The monks have recorded several chant albums since 2008, when Universal Records approached them and talked them into the first one. All of them have been “hits,” popular with traditional Catholics, people interested in medieval music and still others who class themselves as “spiritual” and are simply seeking calm.

– Mary Kunz Goldman


Aurora Orchestra

Road Trip

[Warner Classics]


A lot of this album is pretentious but I like the idea of what the Aurora Orchestra is trying to do, to present classical music along with pop, and a few things from the gray area in between.

Three folk songs are fitted out with orchestral accompaniment by Nico Muhly that really do nothing for them, and that, and the slow pace, give the songs a weirdly lifeless feel. Paul Simon’s “Hearts and Bones,” which in its original version draws its energy from its rapid pace, especially suffers. There are a couple of dull contemporary pieces: John Adams’ ”Chamber Symphony,” a minute-long pastiche of drums and sound effects called “Passing Places” by Max Baillie.

At the heart of the CD, though, is Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” in the original version for 13 instruments. This is such evocative music, and the Aurora Orchestra’s attentive approach makes it blissful.

Charles Ives’ “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” the last movement of a piece inspired by a walk Ives and his bride took on their honeymoon, is also interesting, with its highly unusual orchestration and tonal effects.

– Mary Kunz Goldman

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