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Listening Post: Randy Newman’s Randy Newman; Billy Hart and the World’s Greatest Jazz Orchestra

Pop Music

Randy Newman, “The Randy Newman Songbook, Volume Three” (Nonesuch). In a perfect world, the Pultizer Prize for Music would have decided 30 years ago to forsake, as hopelessly out of date, the idea that it should only be won by contemporary classical composers. Winners of the prize for music, then, would have already included the likes of Charles Mingus, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman. Should anyone doubt Newman’s bona fides, listen to this, the third volume in a series where Newman sings his own songs in his inimitable snide-soulful voice accompanied only by himself at the piano. This is Randy Newman’s Randy Newman. When he gets dark, few American songwriters can get darker. Try this from “Old Man:” “Won’t be no God to comfort you/You taught me not to believe that lie/You don’t need nobody/ Nobody needs you/ Don’t cry, old man, don’t cry/Everybody dies.” Or try “Red Bandana,” all about a fellow who “flew back to Buffalo” from Hollywood “with a red bandana on my head.” When he runs into a “woman I used to love,” she’s in a “bar off the Harlem Road sitting in a booth with Charlie Hobbs/And this little ugly dude/whom I didn’t know” and admiring his new red bandana. To which he replies “it’s red just like your blood is.” Another round of chills for everyone, you know? No American songwriter that I know quite has Randy Newman’s sardonic portrait gallery. On all his stripped-down minimalist “Songbook” records you get what he does pure, whether it’s nutritive or strychnine. The whole series is musical mastery – pure. Four out of four stars.) (Jeff Simon)

Jazz

Billy Hart & The WDR Big Band, “The Broader Picture” (Enja, out next week) The key name here is in small type on the front of the insert: “Arranged and conducted by Christopher Schweizer.” He is “Swiss-born, Hamburg-based” and was a student of drummer Billy Hart’s back in New York in 1992. It was Schweizer’s idea to collaborate with Hart, who had never been a featured soloist with this sort of jazz orchestra before in Schweizer’s arrangements of Hart’s compositions. Hart insisted Schweizer put “as much of your concept there as possible.” And that he did in a way that almost puts him in the same arranging class as the late Bob Brookmeyer and his student Maria Schneider. The result when performed by the WDR Big Band (the greatest jazz orchestra in the current world – Europe’s equivalent of Gil Evans Orchestra or Thad Jones/Mel Lewis in their prime) is a radiant disc of jazz orchestral music with rich, sensual textures and fine European soloists, most notably tenor saxophonist Paul Heller, who is blistering and arresting all the way through. There’s nothing wrong with the other soloists either, but it is Heller’s playing over these sumptuous jazz orchestra textures that makes the record stand out as much as it does. The climactic “Imke’s March” brightens the overall mood but, in fact, dissipates some of its beauty and pushes it more than it needed to be pushed into the direction of conventional jazz big band playing. Nevertheless, most of this is majestic. Three and a half out of four stars. (Jeff Simon)

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