Friday, April 18, 2008

Why Do So Many Good Records Come Out in April and May?

That was a rhetorical question. But seriously, there are potentially game-changing records by EVERYONE that have either come out recently or are coming out in the near future, and at the moment at least, I can only listen to a small handful. So expect a flood of album reviews in the near future. For today, at least, I'm gonna try and write short reviews of "The New Crystal Silence," the first collaboration between Chick Corea and Gary Burton in a while, "Diaspora Suite," the new Steven Bernstein record, and Marian McPartland's "Twilight World."

The original "Crystal Silence" was an ECM classic if there ever was one, and rightfully so. It was a brilliant piano-vibes duet album and has clearly informed every other piano-vibes record that Gary Burton has done since, whether with Makoto Ozone or Herbie Hancock. "The New Crystal Silence" is not as good as that milestone, but at least the second CD is a great showcase for Burton and Corea, two brilliant instrumentalists who are still in their prime, to play off of eachother. "Waltz for Debbie," unexpected because this duo has never done standards together, is a particularly gorgeous and welcome surprise. The first CD is the more interesting one of the two (anyone who has ever heard Burton and Corea know what they're getting into with the second disc), featuring string arrangements of tunes familiar to Burton and Corea ("La Fiesta," "Duende," the title track) written by Tim Garland and played by the Sydney Symphony. I personally think that these tracks are beautiful, but there is no question in my mind that its a matter of personal taste. I usually don't like strings, but I think Garland's arrangements are pretty, if not necessarily subtle, and that they add an extra level of bombast to an already larger-than-life duo. Recommended to people who like Corea/Burton collaborations or strings.

When he isn't busy hovering near the top of Downbeat's annual Rising Star on Trumpet critics' poll or making free jazz fun again with Sex Mob, Steve Bernstein has been working on a series of CDs, the most recent of which is "Diaspora Suite," that explore what happens when you mix Jewish music with more contemporary forms. Granted, lately it seems almost impossible to throw a rock without hitting an album whose intent is to do this (Check out virtually anything with Anat Cohen's name attached, or John Zorn's Masada projects), but you can always count on Bernstein to do something interesting. This new one is great, featuring luminaries from California, including Nels Cline on guitar and Peter Apfelbaum on tenor sax. My two favorite tracks are "Simeon (Yis May Chu)," a Jewish funk extravaganza, and the closer, "Benjamin," a klezmer-flavored heavy metal freakout which showcases Cline's guitar chops. While this album definitely is not to everyone's taste (if you think the word "purist" applies to you, I'd take a pass on this one) I would recommend it to listeners with open ears, or listeners who already own and like any of the other "Diaspora" titles.

Finally, Marian McPartland turned 90 years old a month ago, and "Twilight World," her newest offering, was recorded about five months before that. "Twilight World" does not sound like the work of a 90 year-old woman, to put it lightly. Having come up as one of the warhorses of the fifties bop-flavored "mainstream jazz" movement with artists like Oscar Petersen, it should come as no surprise that Marian McPartland has chops, and that her sense of melody is as strong as ever. However, it will come as a surprise (at least to those who don't regularly listen to her "Piano Jazz" show on NPR, where she's spoken with everyone from Petersen to Kenny Werner) that she records not one, but two Ornette Coleman tunes, "Lonely Woman" and "Turnaround," on "Twilight World." These two tracks are fascinating, as McPartland never sounds out of place and manages to make both songs her own. She understands, as anyone from that era would, that lyricism is just as important in free music as it is in music with changes; for that reason these two tracks work just as well as any of the ballads (which include "Alfie" and "In the Days of Our Love"), and fit in. Highly Recommended.

I know people read criticism to see records get panned (believe me, I think it's funny too), but I couldn't really find anything about these three records that could prevent me from liking them. I just saw Lionel Loueke live last night (it was brilliant), so you can expect a review of that next time. After that I'll hopefully be able to review some of the other billion or so big releases this month (Vijay Iyer, Brian Blade, Kenny Werner and Roseanna Vitro, Miguel Zenon, Ambrose Akinmusire and Kurt Rosenwinkel all recently had albums released).

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