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Jeff Simon: As summer wanes, some adventures in books and sound

Jeff Simon

Here's a headline from Forbes magazine: "Millennials Aren't Very Interested in Traditional Radio Anymore." Well, duh, as the younger, more impatient ones might say. They're all still interested in new music, of course, but they're getting it online from streaming sites (Spotify, Pandora etc.) and getting ideas for what to investigate from Internet lists.

Here, as summer draws to a close, is a list but it's not for millennials looking for new pop unless it fits into another overall category. And that is books that aren't beach reads and music that isn't party down music but rather artistic expression for those who have a desire to investigate out of the ordinary books and music. This is music and literature for the adenturous. With some vacation time to investigate, this is an agenda for them.


Charles Lloyd + The Marvels and Lucinda Williams "Vanished Gardens" (Blue Note). I have not been able to get this music out of the lead spot in my personal rotation for weeks. It's a jazz/country collaboration that celebrates Charles Lloyd's 80th birthday in a way no one could have imagined. His band The Marvels--featuring Bill Frisell on guitar and Eric Harland on drums, no less--collaborates with Lucinda Williams, whose raw alt-country music has a unique haunting integrity all its own bordering on rock, blues and folk music. The very first song she sings on this disc tells you that it's not like anyone else's jazz record you've ever heard or anyone else's country record either. It's called "Dust" and it's a deep cry of mourning for the death of her father, poet and translator Miller Williams. It's adapted from one of his poems and you're in a stark, lyrical territory that is bound to be brand new to most: "there's a sadness so deep/The sun seems black/ No you don't have to try to keep the tears back/No you don't have to try to keep the tears back./ Because you couldn't cry if you wanted to/ You couldn't cry if you wanted to...Even your thoughts are dust." At last report, Lloyd was investigating ancient Byzantine hymns in Greece for his next record. For his 80th birthday here, he went back to the music he made when he was young in Memphis to find a new treasurable offspring of it and free it all as only a jazz saxophonist and flutist can. I couldn't love this record more if I tried. Rating: Four stars out of four.

The Punch Brothers, "All Ashore" (Nonesuch). They'll be at the University at Buffalo Center for the Performing Arts Aug. 8. When the Coen Brothers made their tribute to Greenwich Village Folk Music "Inside Llewyn Davis" they turned out to be all-purpose musicians on the soundtrack. On their own record, their genre-melding of country, folk and jazz doesn't begin to have the rawness or authority of Lloyd and Williams. This is much less arresting than what they performed with the Coens. Just how hip and avant do we want bluegrass to be anyway? Still, they are terrific musicians and always worth paying attention to. Two and a half stars out of four.

Erroll Garner, "Night Concert" (Mack Avenue/Octave) "The Most Happy Piano" of best-selling 1950s jazz continues his posthumous comeback with the first-ever release of this 1964 Saturday night concert from the fabled Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. At this stage, Garner toured under the auspices of Sol Hurok and his manager Martha Glaser as a reliable international concert favorite. In other words, he was one of the '50s most reliable jazz "brands" and was always accorded "venerable" status, deserving or not. His playing, despite the odd ensuing 30 years of disfavor, is always infectious to listen to. This, though, is not premier Erroll Garner. Rating. Three stars.

John Harbinson, Symphony No. 4, Carl Ruggles, "Sun-Treader" and Steven Stucky Second Concerto for Orchestra performed by National Orchestra Institute Philharmonic conducted by David Alan Miller (Naxos). The major piece here, despite its second billing, is Carl Ruggles' "Sun-Treader," a craggy and ecstatic musical masterpiece that is almost a perfect abstract musical analogue to the huge abstract expressionist canvases by Clyfford Still in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Ruggles was a difficult (racist, anti-semitic) genius in New England who was a friend of Charles Ives and and a beneficiary of Ives' patronage and largesse. Michael Tilson Thomas was so attracted to Ruggles' "Sun-Treader" that he recorded it twice--once in the middle of Ruggles' epigrammatic, complete works with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and once with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. On its own, this performance of Ruggles is less immense but better than both of those. The new works are strong but not nearly as impressive in any way. Three and a half stars.

The Buffalo Springfield, "What's That Sound: Complete Album Collection" (Rhino, four discs). A hugely important folk rock band of the '60s, to be sure. But how much great music is there to hear after Stephen Stills' primal classic "For What It's Worth" despite being a fabled band featuring Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay? Not entirely as much as one might hope in retrospect. The major selling point here is Neil Young's commentary on both the music and the remastering in the notes. Two and a half stars.


The Collected Stories of Machado de Assis translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, forward by Michael Wood (Liveright, 928 pages, $35). In many ways, perhaps, the most important literary book of the year thus far. Joachim Machado de Assis was, in his lifetime, considered Brazil's greatest writer. And yet he wasn't translated here until 1964. Even then, his huge international reputation didn't entail the significant translation of these stories--certainly not in a giant, revelatory volume of the sort befitting one of the world's greatest late 19th century writers. In the era when Borges, Fuentes, Marquez and others were causing enormous international celebration of "El Boom" in Latin American literature, their progenitor Machado de Assis  (1839-1908) only slowly rose in esteem as people read "Epitaph for a Small Winner" (which is the title "The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas" had when it was first translated) and "Don Casmurro." This volume is, at the very least, an exemplary way to present a great literary master to a language whose publishers, up to now, have been far too dilatory. Everything about it--from the opening portrait opposite the title page to the translation and introductions--is an example of how to make the best possible use of a magnificent writer whose reputation in English has been oddly delinquent from its proper place (due, no doubt, to being written in Portugues rather than Spanish).

"Near-Death Experiences" And Others By Robert Gottlieb (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 350 pages, $28). So crucial was Robert Gottlieb in late 20th century American literature and publishing that everything he writes now is important. Here is the literary editor who gave us the versions we know of Heller's "Catch 22" and "Something Happened" (the greatest Heller novel, to my way of thinking) and "The Collected Stories of John Cheever," among other things. In the same career, he shepherded Bill Clinton's memoirs and the New Yorker magazine after the legendary William Shawn was removed from it. Unfortunately, Gottlieb's autobiographical memoir "Avid Reader" was an odd disappointment, leaving his books of essays to be far more engaging, in shorter form, in every way. That was true of his previous collection "Lives and Letters" and is true of this, whose subjects range from Leonard Bernstein and Arturo Toscanini to Dorothy Parker to Donald Trump and, in fact, its own indispensable publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, about whom Gottlieb is just about as readable and sapient as a writer could be. If only he wrote about his own career as irresistibly as he did others.

"Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century" by Nate Chinen (Pantheon). You mean jazz isn't dead yet? Didn't all those godawful fusion gymnasts, electric rock volume showoffs and contemporary jazz bores put an end to it? The answer is an emphatic no, which is where a really first-rate jazz critic has been necessary to lay out how vital it remains beneath all the encrusted misperceptions. It's no accident that Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock and the New Yorker's Alex Ross blurb this book. Don't look for Robert Glasper here. Instead look for Mary Halvorson, Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer and Mark Turner. Jazz' tradition continues by being constantly reinvented by wildly talented musicians and writers who truly understand them like Chinen, who's spent 20 years writing about them. It's always wonderful to read the results when artists and writers need each other.





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