Share this article

print logo

Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases


My Morning Jacket, “The Waterfall” (ATO). Indie-rock lovers are supposed to despise jam bands. So My Morning Jacket must be confusing for them. The band makes records that push all the proper indie buttons – obvious fascination with Bob Dylan and The Band, a full understanding of rustic Americana, a fearless experimental side that allows for the retention of actual hooks . But then, on the concert stage, the tunes turn into epic swirls of psychedelic sonic overload that suggest what it might sound like if Thin Lizzy covered Phish with Bob Dylan singing in his “Lay Lady Lay” voice. In broad, sweepingly general terms, this is the kind of thing indie-rockers despise. MMJ has made a career of bridging the gap – they are embraced by both the indie and jam camps, and they manage to routinely satisfy both of them. With “The Waterfall,” its first album in four years, MMJ has crafted on of its finest and most cohesive efforts. It’s an album that marries lyrical thematic content centered on human struggles with the big issues – our place in the natural order of things, the cruel and persistent effects of time’s passage, how relationships withstand the ravages of years – to a huge, eminently soulful marriage of folk, rock, R&B, pop, country, and “jammy” aspects, all held together by Jim James’ aching high tenor. There are bona fide “roll down the windows and crank it!” summer anthems; (“Big Decisions”) ruminative Dylan-esque pieces; (“Like A River,” “Only Memories Remain,” “Hillside Song”) and funky psychedelia (“Compound Fracture,” “Believe (Nobody Knows)”). All of them work remarkably well, particularly when the deft, subtle production flourishes – strings, occasional horns, the application of gauzy reverb to James’ voice when appropriate – are worked into the mix. “The Waterfall” captures MMJ at a peak. ½ (Jeff Miers)


David Berkman, “Old Friends and New Friends” (Palmetto). As jazz composer/pianist David Berkman explains it in the notes here, it’s both very simple and totally undeniable: “almost 20 years ago, I was very fortunate to hook up with a young jazz label based in New York City called Palmetto Records. Owner/recording engineer/ guitarist Matt Balitsaris ran the place out of his Greenwich Village Apartment.” Berkman and the label, grew up simultaneously in jazz – at first together for four Berkman discs, then apart when Berkman went elsewhere. After the first Berkman disc, the label moved from recording in Brooklyn to a “studio in Buck’s County, Pa. in the barn next to a 200-year-old stone house.” A year and a half ago, Berkman and Balitsaris reconnected and the result is that many years later, Berkman is now recording on Palmetto again, this time with a three-saxophone sextet with bassist Linda Oh and his first drummer, the estimable and much-admired jazz drummer Brian Blade. The saxophonists are Dayna Stephens on soprano and tenor, Billy Drewes on alto and soprano and Adam Kolker on just about every reed under the sun (alto, tenor, soprano, clarinet, bass clarinet.) It’s a richly talented band, let by very smart jazz composer/pianist working again for one of the few great independent and purist jazz record labels left in jazz. Excellent stuff. ½ (Jeff Simon)


Benny Green, “Live in Santa Cruz!” (Sunnyside). The Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, Calif., says hard-swinging mainstream jazz pianist Benny Green “has been my favorite venue and audience to perform for over the past 34 years.” Ever since he used to play there in the bands of Betty Carter and Art Blakey “I found myself lifted to rare heights.” I don’t know that his playing is all of that on this disc but from the very first tune “Certainly,” you can hear that the venue provides an extremely avid and receptive jazz audience who his playing for them as much as Green clearly does. All the compositions are by Green, including a skittering, steel-fingered fast-tempoed beauty called “Sonny Clark” in tribute to the great jazz pianist who could inspire any blues-soaked bebopper anywhere but especially one as terrific as Green. Listen to what Green does on “Sonny Clark” with bassist David Wong and drummer Kenny Washington and you’ll understand why Green’s “first self-led trio recording in 24 years” was a special occasion for him. The audience loved him, he clearly loved them back and played that way. A major event for one of the most reliable masters of current jazz piano. ½ (Jeff Simon)


Prokofiev, Piano Sonatas 6-8 performed by Sviatoslav Richter (Archipel). Not to put too fine a point on the most common and predictable reaction to this disc: wow. These performances, which include some first appearances on CD and the first recorded performances of these works ever on a record by Sviatoslav Richter, are from the most Olympian of Russian pianists from one of his most Olympian periods, 1956-58. What that means is the sound quality is primitive at best but by no means as comically bad as, say, that live performance by Richter of Moussorgsky’s “Pictures at An Exhibition” that was recorded near the Arctic Circle amid an audience that sounded like the respiratory disease clinic at the local hospital. Richter was, in so many ways, the exact opposite of Glenn Gould, preferring to record live in performance rather than in the hothouse of a recording studio. These, nevertheless, were performed in studios whose mono sound was, perhaps, bad enough to make the great and gloriously perverse pianist feel right at home. The performances of these sonatas here are for all time, which makes them true treasures for anyone who is able to respond to Sviatoslav Richter. The absence of disc notes, though, on such an incredible disc is more than a little galling, as sublime as the music is.  (Jeff Simon)


Grieg, Lyric Pieces performed by pianist Janina Fialkowska (Atma). It was about one of these pieces that Claude Debussy memorably wrote that it tastes like “a pink bon-bon filled with snow.” Grieg himself, late in life when their number had almost become too plentiful for the composer, said they were “surrounding me like lice and fleas in the country.” Nevertheless, this is piano music whose exquisiteness gives exquisiteness the good name it so rarely deserves and which endures in their beautiful simplicity as it does in the smaller pieces by Schubert. Montreal pianist Janina Fialkowska is by no means a pianist who’d be caught dead overdoing that but her grace and proportion here are nothing but impressive. This is music which can go wrong is so many ways but in her hands never does. ½ (Jeff Simon)


Bryan Hymel, “Heroique” performed by tenor Hymel, The Prague Philharmonia and Emmanuel Villaume, conductor (Warner Classics). In the late ’90s, New Orleans tenor Bryan Hymel was the youngest singer to participate in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. He sang his way to the grand finals. He has since made a splash not only at the Metropolitan Opera but at other major houses including Covent Garden, where he stepped into Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” at the last minute for Jonas Kaufmann. On this CD he sings “Inutiles regrets” from “Les Troyens,” as well as 10 other arias by Meyerbeer, Gounod, Massenet and others. Warner Classics stresses that this disc boasts a record number of 19 high C’s, and Hymel is up to them. Not only is he up to those technical demands, he sounds as if he deserves a marvelous career. His voice is dark for a tenor, and he projects passion and emotion. The arias he sings are admirably off the beaten track. Gounod is represented not by “Romeo and Juliet” but by the lesser known “The Queen of Sheba.” There is a tender aria from “Sigurd” by Ernest Reyer. This little-known opera is about the Nibelung legend, and it has hints of Wagner, whom Reyer admired. And it is thrilling to hear Hymel soar effortlessly through an aria by Henri Rabaud, a French Romantic composer whose motto was, “Modernism is the enemy.” The Prague Philharmonia provides him exquisite accompaniment. There is a booklet with all the texts and translations, and Hymel’s diction is so good you can follow them all the way through. It is sweet how Hymel, proud of his roots, held the CD release party for this disc recently at his alma mater, Loyola University. “I can’t wait to sing these French arias in New Orleans,” he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “It’s the kind of repertoire that makes me think of the old French Opera House in the Quarter.”  (Mary Kunz Goldman)


Diana Damrau, Fiamma del Belcanto, (Warner Classics/Erato). What is Diana Damrau wearing on the cover? Someone has to ask. It looks like a big, fuzzy orange bedspread. This disc is a bel canto lover’s dream. The Bavarian diva sings arias from Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini, winding up with “Qual fiamma avea nel guardo” from “Pagliacci.” Three operas are signature pieces of hers – “I puritani,” Bellini’s “La sonnambula” and Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Perhaps because she is used to these parts, she can sometimes sound a little on autopilot, letting the sheer beauty of her voice – and it is beautiful – carry her through. The aria from “La Bohème” sounds rapturous when it is in fact very sorrowing – Mimi is bidding farewell to her love. I don’t know if I blame Miss Damrau. If I could sing like that, I might forget everything else, too. The Orchestra Teatro Regio Torino, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, gives her lovely and luminous accompaniment.  (Mary Kunz Goldman)