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Listening Post: Tracy Chapman, Alexander Scriabin, and Kenny Barron

Folk Rock

Tracy Chapman, “Greatest Hits” (Elektra/Rhino). There was nothing remotely racist about David Letterman’s “Late Show.” But if you watched it nightly for a number of years you noticed a definite paucity of faces of color in the audience and even, sometimes, among its guests and musical performers. For every Letterman African-American favorite – the Will Smith family for instance – you’d be able to count 30 miscellaneous white performers. Aside from Ronnie Spector, one conspicuous exception right from the very beginning of Letterman was great folk rocker Tracy Chapman. The show loved her, it seems, right from the beginning. And when it was time to say goodbye forever, it was Tracy Chapman who showed up on his final show to sing what he declared his favorite song, Ben E. King and Leiber/Stoller’s “Stand By Me.” Her performance was the highlight of the whole farewell show for many. It was an unaccountably moving moment. It ends this fine recording of her “Greatest Hits” whose title is something of an anomaly because other than “Fast Car,” she wasn’t exactly thought of as a hitmaker. Nevertheless, as you can hear from this disc she has always been a distinctive, sensitive and moving performer who resembles no ones else. (If you stretch it quite a bit she might fit into a loose category with Nina Simone but the category would have to be very loose indeed because Simone was an interpreter, not a singer/songwriter.)

3 1/2 stars (Out of four)

– Jeff Simon

Classical

Symphonies 3 (“Le Divin Poeme”) and 4 (“Le Poeme de Extase”) performed by London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev (LSO). It isn’t commonplace in the recording world to find a marriage of artist and repertoire as ideal as this one. If ever there were a conductor perfect for Alexander Scriabin, the virtuoso pianist who was also the great messianic mystic and visionary of Russian Late-Romanticism, it’s Valery Gergiev, a man who can be counted on to find Russian bipolarity anywhere it might hide in music. Scriabin’s two Symphonic poems were made for him – the Symphony no. 3 (“Le Divin Poeme”) which captures all the richness of Scriabin’s chromaticism and then, in the Symphony no. 4, begins to glory in the atonality that had been implicit before. This is Scriabin’s journey from the outer rings of eccentricity to proto-madness by a fine tour guide to ecstasy in music.

4 stars (Out of four)

– Jeff Simon

Jazz

Kenny Barron, “At the Piano” (Orchard/Xanadu Master Edition). The reappearance of Don Schlitten’s Xanadu label has brought back a lot of terrific mainstream bebop and post bebop from the early ’80’s but none of it will be better than this solo piano recital in his magnificent prime by pianist Kenny Barron. There is a huge amount of great Kenny Barron on record – not least in his long association with Stan Getz before Getz’s death. But this chance to show what he could do as a solo pianist is incredible. It begins in “Bud-Like” with a laughing toss-off of vertiginous Bud Powell velocity that goes on for six minutes. Then comes a sensitive version of Ellington/Strayhorn’s “Star-Crossed Lovers,” a ripping and brilliantly episodic set of variations on Monk’s “Misterioso” and another on “Body and Soul.” It ends with Monk’s “Rhythm-n-ing” and a bonus never-released blues called “Wazuri Blues.” Barron was a phenomenal bebop player but almost never featured anywhere as smartly and attentively as he is here in his absolute prime. He’s still around, still superb but not in the prime he was on this recording from 1981.

4 stars (Out of four)

– Jeff Simon

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