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Listening Post: Kasey Chambers, Great Jazz reissues, Mitchel Forman and classical piano music


Kasey Chambers, “Bittersweet” (Sugar Hill). Australia is definitely another country. They do things differently there. Australian country singers are not only in more classic-era mode than current American country stars (think Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton), they have a harder and sharper edge too. Here is a disc from a 39-year-old country star from down under which was released in her home country almost a year ago and is only now making it here. And a strange thing it is too. There is quite a lot of religious music here, simplistic and otherwise (“So please God I know you’re so busy/And it seems odd and must make you dizzy/ When everyone wants just/a little piece, a little piece, a little piece of you/ So please Lord I promise I’m not asking for the whole world/ Just a favor for a lost girl/who wants to believe in something. something, something at all.”) But then on the disc’s finale, all that modesty inflates to smithereens in a raw proclamation called “I’m Alive,” complete with snarling F-bomb in passing (“I let my heart break down with bruises and cuts/I heard all the secrets and I kept my mouth shut/ Been given all the chances I deserved/I screwed ’em all up/ I crashed, I burned/I lost from all of this/ But I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive.”) This, it seems, is a veteran Aussie country star making her first record without her producer brother. Whatever she is, she’s a whole more interesting than anything you’ll ever see on ABC’s “Nashville.”  (Jeff Simon)


Xanadu Master Edition Series: Al Cohn and Jimmy Rowles’ “Heavy Love”; Al Cohn and Others “Night Flight to Dakar” and “Xanadu in Africa”; “Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron”; Jimmy Heath, “Picture of Heath”; Albert Heath “Kwanza (The First)”; Sam Most “From the Attic of My Mind,” (Xanadu/Elemental/Orchard). There are a lot of stories behind Don Schlitten’s well-remembered mid-70’s indy jazz label. How, for instance he grabbed the name of Charles Foster Kane’s estate from “Citizen Kane,” and how “Kane” screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz grabbed it from Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A Stately Pleasure Dome Decree”).. And how Schlitten himself migrated to his own label through Prestige and then Cobblestone and then Muse. These 21st century reissues are models of reissues for such things: original liner notes plus contemporary impressions from original writers and others. Some, originally, were most impressed with Barry Harris’ tribute to the great and often forgotten bebop composer Tadd Dameron. I’m personally most fond of the two Al Cohn discs, not least because the duet “Heavy Love” is with the great pianist Jimmy Rowles who once played with Zoot Sims in a great booking at the Statler Hilton Downtown Room in Bufflo. The Heath Brothers – especially Jimmy’s “Picture of Heath” – are solid samples of a jazz seldom heard now (a ripping solo piano blues by Kenny Barron from 1981 ends Albert Heath’s all-brother “Kwanza” disc). If the Sam Most disc seems the least likely to be rediscovered, it’s still hard to argue with a group featuring Barron on piano and George Mraz on bass, another member of that great Zoot Sims quartet we once saw at the Downtown Room. ½ for Barry Harris and the two Cohn discs,  for the rest. (Jeff Simon)


Mitchel Forman Trio, “Puzzle” (BFM Jazz). How can you not love a disc where the bass player – Kevin Axt – “whacked his head on an unfinished door frame” in the recording studio, says his pianist/leader “and played the rest of the day probably with a concussion.” That, jokes pianist Mitchel Forman “might explain some of his ‘dizzying’ solo work.” All kidding aside, when a veteran pianist who’s played with Stan Getz, Michael Brecker, Jaco Pastorius, Hiram Bullock, John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny and Wayne Shorter, among others, opens up a disc by putting together Keith Jarrett’s “Death and the Flower” and “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” you know that no one is kidding around – not when they burn at up tempo as much as these three do. There is no shortage of jazz pianists in the 21st century who are liable to play Bacharach’s “Alfie” theme and Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time” but that doesn’t make the Forman Trio’s version of them anything less than fresh and newly minted. This is pianist who can turn Mingus’ “Nostalgia in Times Square” into a completely convincing, relaxed and funky jazz piano trio piece. “Being a sideman is excellent training” he says now. He’s recorded discs under his own name before but not as impressively as this. ½ (Jeff Simon)


Mozart’s Magical Night, Helene Grimaud, pianist, Jennifer Larmore, narrator, The Bavarian Radio Chamber Orchestra, (Atlantic Crossing Records). Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore warmly narrates a pretty story about how at 7, Mozart is playing the piano at a famous Munich palace, and meets a little girl named Marie, and together they explore the palace’s gardens. In a couple of ways the project disappoints. Grimaud is heard playing the Piano Concerto No. 19 and the A Minor Piano Sonata. However precocious Mozart was at 7, he was not writing music like that, and it throws things off balance. The ending, too, is a cop-out. Mozart is 19, visiting the palace again, and Marie, also 19, is in the audience hearing him play. And there it ends! No re-exploration of the palace grounds, no reconnecting under a full moon. No romance at all – just Grimaud, standing in for Mozart, romping her way through the zany finale of the 19th piano concerto. Marie, you got robbed! But here is what I liked about this disc. Ending aside, though, the story – by Kim Maerkl – is like a mini-vacation. Germany is very “in” right now, and the descriptions of the landscape are enchanting. You imagine a fairyland before outdoor sound systems and electric lights, when you could wander around in silence, breathing the scent of the flowers, drifting in gondolas and swimming in lakes under a full moon. It makes for great therapy.  (Mary Kunz Goldman)


Koechlin, “Ballade,” “Preludes,” “L’Ancienne maison de campagne” performed by pianist Jean-Pierre Ferey (Skarbo). Charles Koechlin is one of those composers whose music, tragically, doesn’t seem to travel far outside his native country – in this case France. He was a pupil and an orchestrator of Faure, an orchestrator of Debussy and a figure much-admired by Satie. And yet with all that, it has been little short of impossible to import him to any significant extent in America. That isn’t likely to change with this French disc as superb as it is. His piano music is comprised of only a dozen pieces, all written before 1924 except for his Preludes and “L’Ancienne Maison de Compagne” (“The Old Country House”) This is piano music neither impressionism or romanticism but at the same time audibly akin to Debussy, Faure and Satie, three of the truly sublime composers in the history of European music, without being in any denigrating sense, derivative. There is very little of Koechlin that isn’t worth discovering. This well-played disc of his piano music is hugely rewarding. ½ (Jeff Simon)


Grieg, Piano Concerto, and Saint-Saens, Piano Concerto No. 2 performed by Vadym Kholodenko. piano and The Norwegian Radio Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya (Harmonia Mundi). These are two of the great warhorses of the piano concerto repertoire, and both have seen their fortunes rise and fall. The Grieg, once upon a time, was the most-often performed piano concerto by anyone, and yet now you don’t hear it all that much. (It is coming back, though. I’ve seen it a bit more recently.) The Saint-Saens was neglected for a while in the 1950s because it was seen as gauche. Vadym Kholodenko plays both pieces with fine articulation and an almost Classical tenderness. The slow movement of the Grieg was so caressing that it made me think of a slow movement of a Chopin concerto. The pianist’s style is matched exquisitely by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. The Norwegians’ hearts are clearly in the music of their countryman. The strings are silky and everyone is supremely unhurried. The Saint-Saens is witty and free. The Scherzo shines with exhilarating, galloping rhythms, and the barn-burner finale is a crisp, bright delight. There’s not a lot new about this disc but it’s fine in my book to celebrate the old. It’s also nice that pianists are free again to be virtuosos Three and a half stars. ½ (Mary Kunz Goldman)


Fugue State performed by pianist Alan Feinberg (Steinway & Sons). “It is impossible to be stupid while listening to Bach,” novelist Ellen Gilchrist wrote in her journals (published under the title of “Falling Through Space”). “There is something about the art of fugue that soothes the brain. I used to make a joke out of this and tell my friends that they could stop suffering love and stop listening to love songs and listen to Bach instead.” She’s not alone. Mozart’s wife, Constanze, loved fugues and got him to write several. This disc is all Baroque fugues, by masters including Handel, Buxtehude and Domenico and Allesandro Scarlatti. It begins and ends with Johann Sebastian Bach, and two fugues by Handel bring out his unique stately grace. Alan Feinberg has a nice neutral tone that neatly delineates the music’s clear lines. At the same time, it’s not dry. There is a touch of pedal in there. He is ultra-gentle with the music, perhaps too gentle for some. It’s good how he is careful to “mix it up,” say, by contrasting a mournful, lovely creation by Alessandro Scarlatti with a rapid, fun-filled “Gigue” fugue by Dietrich Buxtehude. Still the cool logic of this music can grow trancelike. It would be nice to have in your glove compartment or iPhone, just for when you need an antidote to life’s troubles.  (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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