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Listening Post: Jazz from Jeff Denson and Lee Konitz, music from Sibelius and Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Pop

Now That’s What I Call Music: 55 (Sony Music/Universal). This is the latest in the momentarily current series of greatest hits packages put out seasonally by SONY and Universal together for the sake of being sold at such culturally upscale places as supermarket checkout counters. They’re often great fun for those of us not biologically attached to the latest pop bonanzas because we can discover how much we might like, say, Lady Gaga or Pharrell Williams or Sam Smith’s latest hit. Nothing on this one begins to compare to the pseudo-Middle Eastern alto saxophone breaks by producer Ori Kaplan on “Worth It” by Fifth Harmony with rapper Kid Ink. It’s an old pop music wonderment: some brilliant pop music producer has a moment of spectacular musicianly inspiration and lets music triumph over formula – those incredible thumps in The Four Tops’ “Standing in the Shadow of Love” for instance when producers Holland and Dozier quieted everyone else in The Funk Brothers just for a couple of raw, naked beats on his conga by percussionist Eddie “Bongo” Brown. Here, in a record where it doesn’t really belong, is an alto saxophone riff that reminds us that some of the hippest musicians in America at the moment are immigrants from Israel (like Kaplan) and India. Otherwise, almost everything here sounds like background music for a teen party where no one’s having fun except for those attendees risking everybody’s neck by breaking the law. Taylor Swift’s “Style,” for instance, has none at all. And DJ Snake and AlunaGeorge’s “You Know You Like It” guesses wrong. ½ (Jeff Simon)

Jazz

Jeff Denson Trio + Lee Konitz (Ridgeway Records). Lee Konitz sings! No kidding. Among the more unusual jazz recordings of the past few months is surely this one, wherein the hugely influential and genuinely venerable alto saxophonist who first came to prominence with Lennie Tristano sings on record for the first time in his 60-year recording career. What has to be acknowledged about Konitz and his alto saxophone playing is that in his later years, it has crossed over the border that separates “abstract” and “disembodied.” There are, on record, performances by Lee Konitz in the most revered time of his life that are, frankly, either ectoplasmic or – as they sometimes used to say on “American Idol” – downright “pitchy.” What is happening here, though, is that he’s playing with a trio of young jazz musicians who know his importance and, in Denson’s case, have admitted to being mentored by him. There are Tristano rarities heard here – “Baby,” and “East Thirty Second.” And Denson, as a bassist, is a powerful player and his pianist Dan Zemelman, is a fluent and graceful Tristano offshoot. But it’s the singing by Denson and Konitz that makes this a standout and even, yes, charming. Gregory Porter, Kevin Mahogany, Andy Bey, Kurt Elling and Harry Connick Jr. have nothing to fear from the competition. But who can deny in jazz that it wouldn’t hurt any musician at all to sing on occasion? Whether they allow us to hear the result is another matter but in this case, it elicits only smiles.  (Jeff Simon)

Classical

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Carl Goldmark and Rubin Goldmark, “Korngoldmark” performed by violinist Orsolya Korcsolan and pianist Emese Mali (Solo Musica); Korngold, “The Korngold Project Part One” performed by violinists Daniel Rowland and Priya Mitchell, cellist Julian Arp and pianist Luis Magalhaes (Two Pianists Records). Erich Wolfgang Korngold is one of the greatest causes in the history of 20th century music. Whether his music is at all worthy of all the advocacy it has inspired is another matter but his was, to be sure, an exemplary life for a 20th century composer. His late-Romantic film music is considered by some to epitomize late-Romantic soundtrack music in the ’30s and ’40s (his music for “The Sea Hawk” is considered a classic score and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Anthony Adverse” won Oscars). What we have here are enormously winning discs that make the case for the other Korngold, as well as some of his musical brethren. Korngold, as Bryan Gilliam is quoted in the notes to “The Korngold Project” – in which we hear his Piano Trio in D-major Op. 1 and the Suite for Two Violins, Cello and Piano Left Hand Op. 23 – was “twice exiled.”. That is, as a Jewish composer he had to flee the Nazis for America. And then, when he was able to return to his home, his vehemently tonal romantic music was out of fashion. He “left Austria as a ‘degenerate’ and returned an anachronism,” said Gilliam. On “Korngoldmark,” Hungarian violinist Orsolya Korcsolan presents us with “Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis” that is, says Michael Haas, “a glimpse into a lost past that is as uniquely Viennese as Mozart, Hadyn, Beethoven, Brahms and Strauss.” Karl Goldmark, says his fellow Hungarian Korcsolan, was “once the pride of the entire nation” for his late Romantic melodic purity. Goldmark’s younger brother Rubin is included on “Korngoldmark” bringing us, as the violinist says in these violin piano duets, “back to a colorful, turbulent and exotic place and time.” “The Korngold Project” is another and more serious project to reinstate the serious anti-modernist Romanticism of Korngold before European history exiled him and Hollywood sheltered him. The Suite for Two Violins, cello and piano left hand is a wild, flamboyant and extravagant piece of rare instrumentation that deserves as much stubborn re-affirmation as willing musicians want to give it. ½ for both. (Jeff Simon)

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Sibelius, Pelleas et Melisande and Other Works performed by soprano Pia Pajala and mezzo-soprano Sari Nordqvist and the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam (Naxos). Among the great oddities of the relationship between theater and music is this: Maurice Maeterlinck’s “Pelleas et Melisande” has been almost as much of an inspiration to musical masterpieces as the plays of Shakespeare. No less than three composers produced either masterpieces or almost-masterpieces based on Maeterlinck’s play – Debussy’s great opera, Arnold Schoenberg’s magnificent tone poem and occupying a half hour of this disc, the complete incidental music Jean Sibelius wrote for the play in 1904, a year before Schoenberg’s tone poem made its premiere. Recordings of the complete score, rather than the suite, are hardly commonplace and this one, by the orchestra whose history makes it the oldest in Finland, is excellent. It is, though, so idiomatically Finnish that it is clearly under no need to be dramatic outside its own homeland and inspiration. Also on the disc are the Valse Lyrique and Valse Chevaleresque of 1921, Musik zu einer Scene of 1904, “Autrefois-Scene Pastorale” from 1919 and “Morceau romantique sur un motif de Monsieur Jakob Von Julin” from 1925. Sibelius’ was a long life and this music was from the early years and middle of it.  (Jeff Simon)

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