Music Review

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto - Joshua Bell/Berlin Philharmonic/Michael Tilson Thomas (Sony)

joshua_bell.jpgBell and MTT combine to give this warhorse a lithe, elfin gracefulness at times (in the fast outer movements) more reminiscent of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto than of the heavily Romantic readings often heard in the Tchaikovsky. Linda Kobler's booklet notes quote Bell as calling the piece "the most intimate, elegant, almost 'balletic' warhorse I know!" Well, that's also a partial list of Bell's strengths as a player -- just add in the most beautifully silken, refined tone of any player of his young generation on record, an exquisite sense of dynamics and the technique to project clearly even in the most hushed moments, and the good taste to avoid the sort of grotesqueries that some fiddlers are resorting to in order to distinguish themselves from the crowded field in well-known repertoire. Bell doesn't show off in this music by emphasizing its difficulties, instead making it sound easy --which, really, is much more impressive, especially in the finale.  Read more »

Silver Jews: Tanglewood Numbers (Drag City)

Silver Jews

For a fan such as myself, sitting down to listen to the Silver Jews' Tanglewood Numbers was somewhat like bumping into an old friend one hasn't seen in a long while, pleased to see that they retained qualities that drew you to them in the first place and yet changed in ways that have earned them new charm in your eyes. Indeed, Tanglewood Numbers should mark a happy reentry for old fans and a welcome introduction for those who have not yet come to know and appreciate Dave Berman's idiosyncratic, matter of truth tales and sardonic musings. With this latest record, however, Berman adds yet another set of elements to the mix: violins, Nashville swing, and, dare I say, actual happiness. Read more »

John Coltrane: One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note (Impulse!/Verve/Universal)

coltrane.jpg This captures Coltrane’s classic quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones at its 1965 peak (a few months before Trane began adding other players; by the time he went into the studio in 1966, Tyner had been replaced by Alice Coltrane) in radio broadcasts from a New York club on March 26 and May 7. Crescent and A Love Supreme had been made the previous year and The John Coltrane Quartet Plays... was being recorded contemporaneously.
Coltrane had refined his modal playing to the point where he’s playing with absolute assurance, pushing into the highest levels of imaginative expression that the style could support; soon he went further and crossed the line into free jazz. Read more »

Shirley Horn: But Beautiful - The Best of Shirley Horn (Verve)

Shirley HornWooing jazz listeners with thrillingly intimate deliveries of standards and surprises for over three decades, Shirley Horn secured a spot high in the jazz pantheon long before she died last month. Not only a superb singer, she was also an excellent pianist who prefered to accompany herself and did so once she'd gotten it through record producers' heads that that format allowed her to communicate best with her audiences. Read more »

Yusef Lateef/Adam Rudolph/Go: Organic Orchestra: In the Garden (Meta/YAL)

Yusef LateefI'm late in reviewing this, but I wouldn't want to deprive improvised music lovers of notice of this truly great album. Multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef, one of the amazing musical innovators of the past four decades, fully deserves his own genre (he dislikes the connotations of "jazz" and has dubbed what he does "autophysiopsychic music") because he crosses all other style boundaries; he once won a Grammy in the New Age category -- for a symphony -- and had to ask what New Age was! Lateef has been working with percussionist Adam Rudolph for about a decade now, and in their collaborations they seem to consistently inspire each other to the most exquisite heights of improvisational imagination. Read more »

Jon Brion: The Canal Room, NYC


The word "genius" is severely overused, but if Jon Brion hasn’t earned it, no one has. He composes movie scores, produces records, plays every instrument that you can imagine (he’s contributed notable guest performances to records by Beck and Elliott Smith), and has released an album of original material. His talent is enviably flexible, but everything that he does bears the mark of his original and distinctive sensibility; his work is always marked by a lush, ornate, retro atmosphere, catchy riffs played on antique instruments, and a delicate balance between wit and sadness. It's the sort of music that makes you feel nostalgic the first time you hear it. Whether you know it or not, you've heard Brion play, and you may be an unconscious fan. Read more »

Shemekia Copeland: The Soul Truth (Alligator)

Shemekia CopelandShemekia Copeland, daughter of bluesman Johnny Copeland, followed in her father’s footsteps for her first few albums, but with this release she’s slid into the adjacent genre on the musical spectrum: Southern soul. The disc is produced by Stax-Volt legend Steve Cropper of Booker T & the MGs (kids, if you haven’t heard of him, at least you’ve probably seen him in the Blues Brothers: he’s the guitarist), who also plays on all but one track. Add the Muscle Shoals Horns on seven of the eleven tracks, plus keyboards (especially organ) from Felix Cavaliere (Rascals) Chuck Leavell, etc., a rock-solid rhythm section anchored by Steve Potts or Chester Thompson on drums, plus Copeland herself, and there’s soul oozing from every track. This was a direction Copeland was already moving in, so it’s no surprise. Read more »

McCoy Tyner: Passion Dance (Milestone)

Passion DanceThis was the first McCoy Tyner album I bought, on the recommendation of my friend Josh Bloch, a couple decades ago when I was just starting to explore jazz beyond the superstars. I’d heard Tyner playing on recordings with one of those superstars, of course (John Coltrane), but his style had changed since then. Well, this recording (with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams on two of its five tracks) from a Tokyo festival on July 28, 1978 certainly convinced me of his merits away from the older context.

The album opens with the trio on “Moment’s Notice,” a Coltrane tune played with explosive energy. Read more »

My Morning Jacket: Z (Ato/BMG)


The songs that My Morning Jacket create, set against lush pastoral backdrops, have always been infused with something beautiful and serious and notoriously impossible to categorize. Their earlier full-length recordings, Tennessee Fire and At Dawn -- this reviewer is an avid fan of both -- were songs hung loosely, then held together in a delicate fashion by Jim James's reverberating vocals, the yearning poetry within each song, and the band's ability to extend songs into instrumental meanderings without losing their structural integrity. And while this latest release -- Z (ATO/RCA/BMG) -- is certainly a well-made rock record and may please some with its smoothed-out production and electronic dabblings, it's an unfortunate step down from the band's earlier sensitivity. No poetry and whiskey here, rather a washboard approach to the songwriting and sound that doesn't do the band proper justice. Read more »

Bill Evans: The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (Riverside)

EvansWhen I reviewed the most recent Paul Motian Trio album awhile back here on, while putting his career in context I of course made reference to his time in the Bill Evans Trio, especially the edition with bassist Scott LaFaro. And now here comes a three-CD set compiling everything extant from their peak moment: June 25, 1961, "live," just ten days before the tragic death of LaFaro in a car crash. Read more »

Bob Dylan: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack (Columbia Legacy)

dylanThis is the soundtrack to the new Martin Scorsese film, just shown on PBS, that focuses on Dylan’s rise to fame. With some slight adjustments, Columbia has turned it into Volume 7 of its Bootleg Series of Dylan rarities; which it fits well since all but two of its tracks are previously unreleased (at least officially; bootleg collectors will be familiar with much – although not all – of what’s here).

Disc one is acoustic performances, mostly solo, including recordings made before Dylan moved to New York. It reaches all the way back to 1959 for what’s called “most likely the first original song recorded by” Dylan, “When I Got Troubles,” fascinating for the way Dylan sings in a sweeter, less cutting voice. Read more »

Portastatic: Bright Ideas (Merge)

PortastaticSuperchunk frontman/Merge head honcho Mac McCaughan reactivates his side project for another perky album of power pop a la Big Star (and acolytes such as The Apples in Stereo, the Elephant 6 scene, etc.). The chiming, jangling guitar sound (plus melodica on one track!) and stuffy-headed vocals mostly stick to the charmingly sunny side of things, although there’s sometimes a hint of more serious things in Mac’s lyrics. Anyone who’s a fan of chirpy, melodic indie-pop can put this on repeat play and be happily entertained for hours. - Steve Holtje Read more »

Do The Chicken Dance!

little_freddie_kingLittle Freddie King: You Don't Know What I Know (Fat Possum)

More kick-ass juke-joint blues from the folks at Fat Possum!

Yeah, Little Freddie King is 65-years old but sings with the glee of a teenager - try not to grin while "Chicken Dance" is playing. Not that King doesn't sing about some pretty adult situations, such as the fact that he has a bullet lodged next to his spine from when his wife shot him during a quarrel. Read more »

Jazz's Holy Grail!

monkThelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane: At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note)

There's a lot of hype for this recently unearthed (at the Library of Congress) Voice of America tape of two short sets as part of a November 29, 1957 benefit. It may sound like exaggeration. But not when you hear the music. Background: Thelonious Monk was one of the harmonic architects of bebop, yet never fully a bopper himself, too original and rhythmically idiosyncratic to fit into what became sleekly formulized.

Read more »

Austerity Styles

lamentateArvo Pärt: Lamentate (ECM)

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (born in 1935; he turned 70 on Sept. 11) has found considerable success with his austere style. After first gaining notice as a Serialist composer incorporating stylistic collage, he took two sabbaticals, partly because the Soviet government approved of neither his Serial tendencies nor his religiousity, partly to rethink his style. Starting in 1976, he pioneered a lean, meditative style he dubbed Tintinnabuli (think of lots of bells chiming). Read more »

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