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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases


Shelby Lynne, “I Can’t Imagine” (Rounder). For her Rounder Records debut, and her 13th effort overall, Shelby Lynne reminds us why she is one of the most significant country artists of the past 15 years. She came along just as country-pop was beginning to dominate the world and simultaneously wipe out the form’s connection to its roots in Southern folk music by replacing rustic soulfulness with pop’s cut-and-paste methodologies. Lynne was cut from different cloth – the Alabama-born singer and songwriter sang like she had whiskey and cigarettes on her breath, and she was given to gritty realism as a writer, pop-country’s tendency toward melodrama and the veneration of clichés being anathema to Lynne’s sensibilities. She won a Best New Artist Grammy in 2001, but was not offered the commercial support of country radio, which predictably, had no idea what to do with her, and Lynne has spent the time since releasing a steady stream of incisive country and roots music-based efforts. “I Can’t Imagine” is the strongest of these since 2000’s “I Am Shelby Lynne.” It’s an album that ably blends the folk-country influences of the Deep South with the more urbane and soulful styling associated with California in general, and Bakersfield in particular. Lynne co-wrote two of the album’s tunes with Canadian troubadour Ron Sexsmith, and these are an achingly melodic batch. She also brought in Clarence Greenwood, aka Citizen Cope, to join her on harmony vocals for three tracks, and these favor a dusty, Gospel flavor. This is country music that folks who prefer a nice IPA over a Bud Light Lime can wrap their heads and hearts around. Lynne remains the real deal.  (Jeff Miers)


Joan Tower, Violin Concerto, “Stroke” and “Chamber Concerto” performed by violinist Cho-Liang Lin and the Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero (Naxos). The word “academic” isn’t nearly enough to describe classical composition in the 21st century. There seem to be two entirely different kinds of academic composition and both are evident on this disc by one of the most oft-awarded and lionized composers in current American classical music, Joan Tower. “Stroke,” the most recent, is what might be thought of as the best of 21st century academicism, a piece whose origin, Tower says, was in the stroke suffered by her brother George as she began composition. It paralyzed his left side and as she now says, resulted in “a pretty emotional piece.” Its brute power reflects, she says, a stroke victim’s different emotional stages “crying, anger, anxiety and depression” as well as “welcome rests of peace and deep love that becomes more pronounced as the stroke victim adjusts to his new reality.” Its language is modern, not post-modern. The 1991 violin concerto is of a less vital academicism although it, too, is notable for the kind of broad strokes that connect to modern listeners. The 2006 “Chamber Dance” was written for the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and for all its authority it crystallizes the problem with Tower’s music: as superlatively well-made as it can be, it only underscores how little it deserves, in its contemporaneity, to displace so much better 20th century music by the likes of Honegger, Hindemith, Piston, Schumann, Bernstein, etc. And yet, of course, because it is the “music of our time,” it will have an inside track to both performance and recording that an older but much more vital work by a now-dead composer might not have. That’s the paradox of “academic music” in our time.  (Jeff Simon)


Keith Jarrett, Creation (ECM); Samuel Barber, Piano Concerto, Bela Bartok Piano Concerto no. 3 and Jarrett’s “Tokyo Encore” performed by pianist Keith Jarrett and Dennis Russell Davies conducting the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Saarbrucken and Kazuyoshi Akiyama conducting the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra (ECM). There is little question that the 70th birthday of pianist Keith Jarrett – which happens Friday – is one of the more notable events in American music. Jarrett’s redefinition of the role of the pianist in jazz has been close to total. With all of that, ECM’s way of recognizing such a milestone in the life of its most important artist, by far, is, to be honest, not equal to the occasion. “Creation” is an improvisational solo piano disc in the tradition of so many that are now classic recordings of the past half century – the first “Facing You,” “The Koln Concert,” “Bremen-Lausanne,” “The Sunbear Concert” and so many others. “Creation” is different in kind from all of them. They’re extended concerts in one place or in a couple of places. “Creation” is put together thematically (literally AND figuratively) from concert recordings made in Japan, Canada and Europe in 2014 – Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, Tokyo, Rome and Paris. Jarrett sequenced the improvised performances from his own sense of composition and inner logic. That’s all well and good but as fascinating as it might sound in theory, it isn’t nearly as interesting considered as an improvisational piano suite. It has the rare sound, in Jarrett’s work, of spirituality and holiness that’s only evident to the player, not the listener. Much better, if still not entirely convincing, is Jarrett’s performances of the Barber Piano concerto and Bartok Third Piano Concerto. In the latter especially, Bartok’s Hungarian folkisms and Satanic Lisztian virtuosity are performed with fresh understanding by one of the greatest jazz pianists of his era. For those seeking great Barber and Bartok performances, on the other hand, there are certainly many that are better, however admirable a celebration they offer of Keith Jarrett’s musical life. ½ for “Creation”;  for the Barber and Bartok concerti (Jeff Simon)


Milford Graves and Bill Laswell, “Space/Time – Redemption” (TUM). Do not look for easy understanding of this terrific disc of percussion and electronics. Bill Laswell, in the notes, says this: “Understanding the unique rhythmic thrust and fractured sonic patterns of Milford Grave’s tribal matrix is like trying to synchronize raindrops. Time is lapsed, accelerated and finally erased.” Which is elementary compared to Graves’ “explanation”: “The primary objective of the totality of the Celestial-Mystic-Spiritual-Scientific musician is to initiate an intradynamical thrusting force on the various particles that comprise Earth’s conscious cosmic mysteries that interact with the human biological system.” Got all that? No? Don’t worry about it. Graves has been one of the most formidable and interesting avant-jazz duo percussionists for decades. Among his greatest musical partners was the late great pianist Don Pullen. Bassist/electronicist Laswell is as creative and formidable in what he does as Graves. They combine rather brilliantly – two hugely free musicians who listen to each other and combine with otherworldly rightness. Not your everyday jazz duo but marvelous in all respects. ½ (Jeff Simon)


Harvie S and Sheryl Bailey, “Plucky Strum” (Whaling City Sound). Another fascinating jazz duo disc of communicating across genres and dialects. Harvie Swarts and Sheryl Bailey are experienced duo musicians – bassist Swartz with Sheila Jordan, Kenny Barron, Jim Hall, Jack Wilkins, Gene Bertoncini and John Scofield, guitarist Sheryl Bailey with Wilkins, Howard Alden and Paul Bollenback. “It’s a challenge to be so precise,” says Bailey, whose acoustic guitar playing here isn’t much like anyone else’s you’ve heard recently. “It felt so amazing to play without amplification for the dynamics and blending of tones. I now have the highest respect for acoustic players. With the acoustic, it’s all about the pick, the fingers and the strings. It’s very unforgiving of wrong notes so it keeps me honest and it’s taking me to new places that I couldn’t have imagined before.” What she and Swartz do together is, in the 21st century, so rare as to be virtually unique. For all its unamplified sound, it emphasizes the paradox that Jimmy Giuffre’s “Three” used to years ago – it swings like mad. ½ (Jeff Simon)