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More jazz than not.

Bach: Suites for Solo Cello; Sonatas in G and D Major for Cello and Piano Janos Starker, cello/Gyorgy Sebok, piano (Mercury Living Presence 470 644-2)

This two-SACD set contains SACD three-channel stereo, SACD stereo, and CD stereo (I auditioned only the last) versions of Starker's famous renditions of the Bach Suites and a couple of Sonatas. There are many recordings of the suites available from many estimable artists, but this one is a version that would no doubt make its way into many a music lover's top two or three versions. Starker brings a great feeling of dignity to the music, and you get the sense that this is the work of a mature musician who in not trying to make an impression, but who is trying to present these works in the best possible light as masterpieces of music.

Although this in not music that many of us (with the exception of you cellists) will listen to often, this is music that many of us will want to always have in our collections. If this is indeed music that you want to have in your collection, and if you are something of an audiophile, then by all means this is the version you will want to have in your collection. It is a treasure.

The Bad Plus: Give (Columbia 2SK 58331)

A while back I waxed enthusiastic over the Bad Plus's debut Columbia CD, These Are the Vistas; about this one, my enthusiasm is subdued. The aggressive attitude manifest in that earlier recording seems to have become a caricature of itself in this recording. There just seems to be just too much banging going on this time, and the bass-heavy tonal balance does not help. I seem to recall a 70s rock album titled "What Once Were Vices Now Are Habits" (I think it was by the Doobie Brothers--Kevin East would surely remember), a title that would be appropriate for this release--but maybe in reverse: "What Once Were Habits Now Are Vices."

In any event, I hope this recording is simply a sophomore slump, and that in their next outing, the Bad Plus will overcome some of their bad habits. If they (and we) are really lucky, they will also find an engineer who is less intent on hitting the listener over the head or kicking him or her in the gut.

Jon Balke & Magnetic North Orchestra: Diverted Travels (ECM 1886 B0003220-02)

Keyboardist Jon Balke and his Magnetic North Orchestra (Per Jorgensen on trumpet and vocals, Fredrik Lundin on bass flute and saxophones, Bjarte Eike and Peter Spissky on violin, Thomas Pitt on bass, and Helge Andreas Norbakken and Ingar Zach on percussion) have a unique sound, spare and playful, rhythmically intense, and amazingly engaging. I've heard no other group with a sound quite like this; think of Thelonious Monk playing ECM chamber jazz after taking a trip through Africa. Great stuff!

Beethoven: Complete Music for Piano and Violoncello Andras Schiff, piano/Miklos Perenyi, violoncello (ECM New Series 1819/20 B0003389-02)

When I first got really interested in classical music as an undergraduate at BYU, I was married, had two kids, and supported the family on my GI Bill payments and mopping floors at a grocery store. Money was tight, but I could not resist buying records when I found a good sale, and one of the recordings I found cheap was (I think) an old Columbia Odyssey recording of the Beethoven cello sonatas. I seem to recall that it was a dated monaural recording, and I can't remember the artists, but I remember enjoying the music.

Three decades later, it is my three youngest (of seven) children who are now undergraduates (one at BYU in Provo, one at BYU-Idaho, and one at Hocking College in Ohio), money is still tight (thank goodness the older two daughters both graduate this summer), and I have rediscovered this wonderful music, this time in beautiful, spacious sound from an ECM CD featuring Andras Schiff on piano and Miklos Perenyi on cello. I'm pretty sure the old Odyssey release was a 2-LP set; it is amazing that this little CD can contain not only the six sonatas, but also three sets of variations that Beethoven composed for piano and cello.

This is spellbinding music, expressive and tuneful. Both the performance and the recording seem treat the piano and cello as equal partners; this is not just music for cello with piano accompaniment. If you are getting into classical music, enjoy the Beethoven symphonies and concertos, and would like to try something else, but are maybe a bit daunted by the string quartets (don't be!), you might want to give this new ECM recording a try. It is really a treasure.

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8 Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon 474 604-2)

DG has recently issued a series of Karajan recordings of the Beethoven symphonies mastered for SACD. These performances were recorded the Berlin Philharmonic back in 1963, and they have something of a grand style--smooth and big and powerful. Although these recordings may no longer serve as references for either performance or sound quality, there is pleasure to be found in listening to Beethoven performed in the von Karajan way, which is sleek, smooth, powerful, and ingratiating. This is a welcome re-release.

Gurdjieff/Tsabropoulos: Chants, Hymns and Dances Ana Lechner, cello/Vassilis Tsabropoulos, piano (ECM New Series 1888 B0003036-02)

Pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos found himself fascinated by the music attributed to the mystic Gurdjieff, whose music was originally set by pianist/ disciple Thomas de Hartmann in the 1920s. Keith Jarrett made a recording of some music attributed to Gurdjieff some years back for ECM, and now we have this new recording of music by Gurdjieff and music in the same style composed by Tsabropoulos, arranged this time for piano and cello.

There is nothing difficult or profound in this music, which is quite easy on the ear, but it is music that can be enjoyed over and over again. Don't worry, though, this is not saccharine music, this is music that sings honestly from the heart, and the two players put an abundance of heart into their performance. For those who would like to hear something a bit off the beaten path that is not overly challenging, I recommend this recording quite highly.

Pat Metheny Group: The Way Up (Nonesuch 79876-2)

The PMG's previous release, Speaking of Now, was quite disappointing. But that did not prepare me for my first listen to The Way Up. The first time I played this new release, I thought it was bad, really bad. It sounded to my ears as though Metheny has spent the past couple of years listening to Philip Glass and had decided to emulate that minister of minimalism.

As I have preached in these pages before, sometimes you just have to listen to something over and over again top begin to appreciate it. It did not work for Speaking of Now, but it definitely worked for this new release, which I now find to be something I enjoy listening to over and over again.

Rather than present a collection of tunes, Metheny and his cohort (co-composer Lyle Mays on keyboards, Steve Rodby on acoustic and electric bass and cello, Cuong Vu on trumpet, Gregoire Maret on harmonica, and Antonio Sanchez on drums) have put together something of a jazz symphony, complete with a brief (5:17) opening movement titled "Opening," which serves as something of an overture, followed by "Part One" (26:27), "Part Two" (20:29), and "Part Three" (15:54). There are themes that run in and out, and once you have listened to the whole thing several times, you will find yourself able to hum (or play the air guitar) along with many of the sections as the music begins to penetrate your mind and work its way into your memory.

Longtime Metheny fans will recall As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, an ambitious recording project undertaken by Metheny and Mays a couple of decades ago (as if the recent deaths of Johnny Carson, Karl Haas, and Arthur Miller are not enough to remind us of how relentlessly the clock is ticking for us all). This new project is much more ambitious and complex, and ultimately more rewarding.

What does it sound like? Imagine some of your favorite PMG moments, with soaring guitar, rippling keyboards, complex rhythms, then just keep inflating that sound. The overall effect is much like that of a symphony, but in this case, a symphony for jazz ensemble rather than for orchestra. The music is not as complex as a symphony, but it is appropriate for the forces performing it. At the beginning of Part Three, there seems to be something of an homage to John Coltrane, a little something to clear the palette, but we are soon back into Metheny/Mays territory.

I have read that Metheny plans to take this composition onto the road for live presentation, and has even hired another guitarist so that the group can duplicate the overdubbed parts in live performance. That should be quite a show! In the meantime, there is this CD, which is truly remarkable.

Marcin Wasilewski/Slawomir Kurkiewicz/ Michal Miskiewicz: Trio (ECM 1891 B0004081-02)

Marcin Wasilewski (piano), Slawomir Kurkiewicz (bass), and Michal Miskiewicz (drums) are certainly not household names in American jazz circles, but these young Polish musicians have begun to make a name for themselves in Europe, where they have formed the core of trumpeter Tomasz Stanko's ensemble. Here they appear as a piano trio, and they have produced an album that is a real delight.

The set opens with "Trio Conversation (introduction)," music with a gentle, probing sound. Next up is Bjork's "Hyperballad," which sounds perfectly logical--and beautiful--as arranged for this piano trio setting. The next tune is also a cover version of sorts, this of a melody by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski titled "Rosana's Song." There are also versions of Wayne Shorter's "Plaza Real" and Tomasz Stanko's "Green Sky," plus several tunes written by members of the trio. The music seems to get a bit more abstract and energetic as the CD proceeds along, but the proceedings are always musical and unfailingly listenable, until the set closes with "Trio Conversation (the end)," which brings things to a peaceful and satisfying conclusion.

Veteran jazz fans will enjoy the artistry of this recording, while those new to jazz will find this a lyrical yet never banal introduction to the art of the jazz piano trio. Given the usual excellent engineering job by ECM veteran Jan Erik Kongshaug, there is not much more you can ask from a recording than what you get here.

Brian Wilson Presents Smile (Nonesuch 79846-2)

You can't read a review of this recording without encountering the term "genius," and already this review is no exception. All I can say is eccentricity is sometimes a sign of genius, but sometimes it isn't. Sometimes eccentricity is simply eccentricity, and that is what I find here.

Yes, there are some fun moments, but overall, there is simply too much hot air. This is a fun recording to listen to a time or two, but it wears out its welcome upon repeated listening. It is fascinating to behold how earnest the whole production sounds. Perhaps part of the problem is that the vocals focus around Brian, and he just sounds too old to be singing some of these things.

Let's see ... He has remade Pet Sounds, he has remade (or made, whatever) Smile--maybe I should put in a request that he remake Holland. How about it?

Another observation: Couldn't the producer of this extravaganza done a little more to recognize the contribution of lyricist Van Dyke Parks? Couldn't he have at least included one picture of Mr. Parks in this package? Oh, well.

Still, despite all my grumbling, I find a soft spot in my heart for Brian Wilson, and I must concede that Smile makes me do just that. Perhaps it will do the same for you.

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Title Annotation:THE MUSIC
Publication:Sensible Sound
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Apr 1, 2005
Previous Article:Our favorite things: recordings.
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