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Various Artists
Color and Light -- Jazz Sketches on Sondheim
(Sony)

Jazz artists have been stamping their imprimatur on show tunes for so long that countless Broadway compositions have entered the lexicon of jazz standards. Certainly the works of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hammerstein have provided grist for the greats: Sonny Rollins's wild ride through "Surrey with the Fringe on Top," for example, or the magnificent Miles Davis-Gil Evans take on Porgy and Bess, or the classic John Coltrane-McCoy Tyner spin on "My Favorite Things."

Never before, though, has there been a Broadway composer like Stephen Sondheim, whose strangely beautiful yet complex songs often defy humming. The challenges presented by Sondheim's song book seem ready-made for modern jazz arrangements, and Color and Light, while nowhere near as ambitious as it should be, displays the gorgeous melodic gifts of the composer while simultaneously exploring some of his more outre tendencies.

Both Peabo Bryson and Nancy Wilson turn in deeply emotional (but never overwrought) vocal performances: Bryson brings a sadness and sense of desperation to "Pretty Women," from the show Sweeney Todd, whose lyric is underlined by Joshua Redman's melancholy tenor saxophone; Wilson's phrasing and coolly emotional delivery is perfectly suited to the playful yet poignant "Anyone Can Whistle," from the show of the same name. She also proffers a deliciously romantic treat on "Loving You," sung in duet with Bryson ("Loving you is not a choice/It's who I am").

Saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., plays it straight with an instrumental rendition of "Every Day a Little Death," notable especially for the loose percussion work of drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard, meanwhile, leads a small ensemble through the complicated "Poems," ably assisted by pianist Bruce Barth. The not-quite-pretty but pretty damn affecting vocals of Holly Cole on the obsessive "Losing My Mind," from Follies, and the wonderfully written "Children and Art," from Sunday in the Park with George, find the disturbing elements in Sondheim's work and examine their intricacies. So does the quirky piano work of Herbie Hancock, who's joined by Sondheim, also on piano, for the album's last and finest track, "They Ask Me Why I Believe."

The line between accessibility and avant-garde sensibilities is one Sondheim has straddled throughout his career, and this disc is a fine reflection of those two worlds.

By Bob Weinberg

Salif Keita
"Folon" . . . The Past
(Mango)

As an African albino, Mali's Salif Keita has endured several lifetimes' worth of prejudice, persecution, and ridicule from his compatriots. The indignities that come with being labeled a "white-black man" have informed the singer, songwriter, and bandleader's music for more than twenty years, and have helped create an artistic vision that sees dignity within the realities of racism and finds strength in the face of humiliation. "Folon" . . . The Past, the followup to last year's brilliant compilation The Mansa of Mali, continues Keita's search for fulfillment, using music, as he states in "Nyanyama," to sew a social fabric of tolerance, compassion, and dignity.

As on Keita's previous Mango releases, "Folon" showcases his piercing, unbridled voice, one of the most strikingly unusual and commanding instruments in contemporary music. On songs such as "Tekere" and the anthemic "Mandela," that voice rises above the percolating blend of snaky bass lines, chopping guitars, chanting back-up vocals, and percussion-heavy grooves so deep James Brown could get lost in them. On "Folon," "Dakan-Fe," and the epic "Mandjou," Keita howls with the fevered determination of the most unrestrained blues singers from the Mississippi Delta of the 1920s; without warning, he then falls into a hushed state of melodic grace, letting the words of his parables fade into the dense, pulsating global-funk fusion. A master of heartfelt emotional drama, Keita creates music that transcends all linguistic and stylistic barriers, a sound that truly deserves to be called world music.

By John Floyd

Angel Romero
Vivaldi: Concertos
(RCA Victor)
Angel Romero
Remembering the Future
(RCA Victor)

The Kennedys do politics and the Romeros do classical guitar -- with both, it's a family thing. These CDs are new additions to the Romero legacy, and they suggest that Angel Romero -- part of a musical family that also includes father Celedoio, brothers Pepe and Celin, and son Lito -- might also be related to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The Vivaldi disc is attractive but homogeneous, while Remembering the Future crosses over more lines than an old-fashioned telephone switchboard.

Cynics say that Vivaldi, once he got The Four Seasons out of his system, composed the same concerto 500 times. That's not quite fair to the "Red Priest," who wrote many of his works for orphaned schoolgirls (do you feel an art-house film coming on?), but an hour of his music needs to be selected with an ear to variety. All seven works on Concertos were originally written for combinations of instruments different from those heard here. Romero's arrangements feature his modern classical guitar, of course (an instrument that did not exist during Vivaldi's time), and other solo instruments such as the violin or the bassoon. Even so, Concertos is monothematic and not a varied concert program, proving, if anything, that Forrest Gump wasn't entirely correct about life and chocolates.

In contrast, Remembering the Future indulges in everything from flamenco and pop to New Age and Latin jazz. In the press material accompanying the set, Romero says, "If you want to see [my] soul . . . this pretty much has me totally naked. All my tastes in music are represented on this record." Classical music is represented by soft-core arrangements of Pachelbel's Canon (again?) and familiar works by several French composers, but it's all too slick and sweet and EuroDisney. Remembering the Future makes it hard to remember a time in the past when classical performers didn't need to record easy-listening music to earn a wage.

BY Raymond Tuttle

Dave Dobbyn
Twist
(Tristar Music)

Heavy on atmospherics, heavy on talented players, heavy on images, and at times just plain heavy, Twist is the sort of album that takes awhile to digest. The second solo outing from Dave Dobbyn, one of New Zealand's premier songwriters, is not likely to make him a household name in the States; it lacks both a hit single and the kind of clamor generally favored in the Land of the Loud. Nevertheless, Twist is filled with quietly moving compositions that distinguish themselves slowly, blossoming into grace upon repeated listenings.

Dobbyn's recipe is simple: high-quality ingredients, well mixed. The disc is a virtual all-star effort, with fellow Kiwis Neil and Tim Finn (Split Enz, Crowded House) contributing guitars and backing vocals, and Mutton Birds Ross Burge and Alan Gregg supplying a rock-steady rhythm section. Veteran producer Mitchell Froom, who has worked the boards for Crowded House, plays keyboards. Together this crew pumps Dobbyn's low-key songs full of enticing noises. "In the Lap of the Gods" and "Lament for the Numb" are both fueled by reverberating guitar leads that sprawl across driving beats. On "Naked Flame," squalls of whining feedback are elicited by the revving of a power screwdriver during Neil Finn's guitar solo, providing an aural jolt during an otherwise subdued love song. "It Dawned on Me" and "I Can't Change My Name" are the best of the album's ballads, with lush melodies fleshed out by violins, piano, and Dobbyn's own smoky tenor.

As a lyricist, Dobbyn combines a vivid feel for his homeland's ravaged regions with his own equally devastated internal landscape. In "Rain on Me," he sings of "a river, deep in my valley/Jagged rapids and the bony salmon thrash/Upstream but never spawn/Rock velvet and sky in my unstable valley/The lava is alive, shallow beneath the dirt." He's also not above pop-culture bashing: "PC," which relates the story of a talk-show viewer turned murderer, joyfully rants against the forces of political correctness in a style that is closer to a beer-hall chant than to a pop song. The disc's sleeper is "Protection," a hypnotic tale about the perils of emotional attachment.

This is cynicism you can snap your fingers to, and if the dozen songs collected here lack the instant flash that wins airplay on radio and MTV, Twist, like the aging songwriter at its center, is built to last.

By Steven Almond

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