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Listening Post: Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap, Anne Akiko Meyers, Ursula Oppens and the Buggalo-Williams Duo

Pop Music

Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap, “The Silver Lining” (Columbia). Let’s get real here. The time is criminally overdue for everyone to understand Tony Bennett’s singularity among pop jazz singers in both our era and, in fact, the entire history of American popular music. Has there ever been an 89-year-old popular singer in America as agile of voice as Bennett still is? And, beyond that, as ambitious and gutsy in what he sings and how he sings it? Not even close. You can, on a couple of tunes, hear some microscopic scratchiness here and maybe a wobbly high note there but if you think that stops him for a second from singing glorious, powerful and ambitious variations on melodies by Jerome Kern that are already difficult, fuggedabout it. There are so many times here when he might have been advised by the cautious to find lower melodic ranges, but he’s still starting where he might have 20 years ago and performing these – some of the greatest songs by one of our greatest composers of classic pop – better than any other singer of the Great American Songbook out there. It was, remember, Buffalo-based Improv records that presented Bennett’s best duets with jazz pianist Bill Evans (the other was on Fantasy). All these decades later, jazz pianist Bill Charlap learned so much from those clearly that this disc is an even more impressive Bennett collaboration with a jazz pianist, whether Charlap is playing solo or in a trio. For what it is, it seems to me this disc is damn near perfect. ŒŒŒŒ (Jeff Simon)

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Jon Irabagon, “Behind the Sky” featuring Tom Harrell (Irabbagast Records), “Inaction is an Action” (Irabbagast Records). Saxophonist Jon Irabagon seems to be ubiquitous these days, whether on tenor, alto, soprano or sopranino saxophones. He plays two discs on his own label here. One is one of the best around right now. The other is more experimental and, in this case, almost completely catastrophic. The near-catastrophic one is his sopranino solo disc “Inaction is an Action,” which begins in aggressive noise-making and returns to it periodically without ever justifying our attention. Vastly more successful and interesting in every way – rather wonderful in fact – is Irabagon leading a first-rate quartet with pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Ymashi Nakashima and drummer Rudy Royston, with the lyric trumpet of Tom Harrell joining him on three tunes. Irabagon says that the disc was “written with the grieving process and its different emotional states in mind.” Irabagon family members are being mourned here but so is the late great jazz trumpet player Kenny Wheeler. And if that sounds at all mournful, the disc is nothing of the sort. There is a ton of energetic celebration here of great lives (listen, for instance, to the second track “The Cost of Modern Living.”) “Behind the Sky” is a terrific, blistering jazz record, impressive in almost every particular. On the other hand, “Inaction etc.” is close to what the old Village Voice used to characterize nicely as a “must to avoid.” ŒŒŒø for “Behind” and Œ for “Inaction.” (Jeff Simon)

Classical

Anne Akiko Meyers, “Serenade: The Love Album” Violinist Meyers and The London Symphony Orchestra, Keith Lockhart, conductor (eOne Music). Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers’ delicate tone, cushioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, lends a wistful sheen on this disc to 13 pops selections. Many are the usual suspects – the theme from “Cinema Paradiso,” for instance, or “Gabriel’s Oboe” from “The Mission,” and of course Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion.” But there are a few surprises. More people should play “I’ll Be Seeing You.” It’s such a great melody, and Meyers gives it virtuoso treatment complete with double stop passages and high whistly notes. “Laura,” with its twisting chromatics, is also a violinist’s dream, and “When You Wish Upon a Star” – what’s not to love? “Somewhere,” from “West Side Story” is also a natural. (It’s a ripoff from Richard Strauss, don’t forget.) Meyers adds embellishments and improvisations. The album kicks off with Bernstein’s “Serenade,” an extended piece I find kind of pretentious and ponderous. But all in all this is an appealing collection, perfect for classical music newbies and anyone who wants to sit back and bask in prettiness. It’s sweet how Meyers recorded this album in honor of her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. ŒŒŒ (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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Christine Brewer and Paul Jacobs, Divine Redeemer performed by Christine Brewer, soprano and Paul Jacobs, organ (Naxos). Christine Brewer is a first-rate singer who has even been featured on the Hyperion Schubert song series (one of my litmus tests for greatness). Her appearance on a Naxos CD is a real bargain. This disc hooks you right away with the beautiful “Bist Du Bei Mir,” made famous through Bach’s Anna Magdalena Notebook. That song, with its transcendent peace, sets the stage for an adventure that includes Franck’s well-known “Panis Angelicus” and a lovely “Salve Regina” by Puccini but also goes off in unexpected directions. I like the disc’s emphasis on the music of the thorny personality Max Reger. Jacobs does an admirable job with the expansive Toccata and Fugue for organ, Op. 59. On a more intimate level we also hear Brewer singing several Hugo Wolf songs with organ accompaniment arranged by Reger. They include the wry little prayer (“Gebet”) from Wolf’s “Morike Lieder,” given new majesty by the organ. And I was delighted to find the beautiful “Nun Wandre Maria.” That song, about Mary and Joseph struggling wearily toward Bethlehem, should be a classic, but you don’t hear it very often. With its long, horizontal lines, gently rising and falling, it paints such a vivid and tender picture. Brewer sings with emotion and reverence, and Reger’s arrangement emphasizes Wolf’s surreal harmonies. Also fascinating are three organ pieces by Nadia Boulanger, who taught composers Astor Piazzolla, Aaron Copland and Quincy Jones. Brewer is very affecting singing “Pie Jesu” by Nadia’s extremely gifted and tragically short-lived sister, Lili Boulanger. Technically I think this is intended as a Christmas CD but I see no reason we can’t listen to it now, and always. ŒŒŒø (Mary Kunz Goldman)

New Music

Rzewski, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” and “Four Hands” performed by pianist Ursula Oppens and, on “Four Hands” with pianist Jerome Lowenthal (Cedille). Gyorgi Kurtag, Jatekok–Games” Complete works for piano duo and selected transcriptions performed by the Bugallo-Williams Duo (Wergo). Rzewski’s epic (50-minute) collection of 36 variations on Sergio Ortega’s Chilean protest song “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” is, unquestionably, the great masterpiece in the form written in the past half century. Its 40th anniversary is now upon us. It was written by Rzewski for pianist Ursula Oppens and given its world premiere by her at the Kennedy Center. It has, ever since, been the late-20th century piano piece that every piano virtuoso of major firepower and intellect wants to record, many of whom do it remarkably. Here is a new recording of it and it’s an atom-smasher, as it should be by the pianist who gave its world premiere. Also, of distinctly different climate, is Rzewski’s “Four Hands” from 2012 which is, says Oppens’ co-pianist Lowenthal, a “wickedly witty” exploitation of the hocket which forces the performers to “fall all over each other while playing music of richly allusive substance.” More exploratory in nature, by far, is the disc by the extraordinary piano duo of Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams which was born in the music school of the University at Buffalo and has specialized in the daunting and the difficult. Gyorgi Kurtag is a post-Bartok Hungarian composer and contemporary of Gyorgi Ligeti, whose music is fascinating but difficult to embrace the way the world embraces “The People United” (not to mention the music of Bartok or some of the huge static pieces of Ligeti). The music of Kurtag’s “Games” bears a relationship to Bartok’s pedagogical collection “Mikrokosmos” but instead of approaching children as piano students, it tries to imitate their fantasies. References abound in this music. The Bugallo-Williams duo plays it with demonic concentration but it needs to be engaged by at least three hearings before it comes across to listeners. ŒŒŒŒ for Rzewski, ŒŒø for Kurtag. (Jeff Simon)

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