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Sizzla, Charlie Haden Quartet West with the Chamber Orchestra

Sizzla
Be I Strong
(VP)
That Sizzla can lick a riddim like no one else was evident as early as 1994's Black and Comely, his first album that saw him do lyrical battle alongside singer Mikey General. Turning out the biblically weighted "Song of Solomon" with the coarse, spine-tingling chant "I and I a raw African," the eighteen-year-old's debut single from that record foreshadowed a rapture that would soon sweep both his native Jamaica and reggae's global outposts.

With 1995's Burning, the self-identified Warrior for the Emperor Selassie sprung the catch on the revolving door of the DJ's sing-song. Driving the rhythm with his sinewy incantations -- a near-erotic display of mike skills -- he skirted the stale "mash down Babylon/hail Selassie/trod on" references so rife in contemporary reggae. Despite his Jah-centered focus, Sizzla's lyrical science sounded a new alarm.

Be I Strong is Sizzla's (a.k.a. Kalonji) seventh album in four years, and it's a testament to his immense talent that neither his penchant for flooding the market nor his extremist, "fyah burn" onstage declamations (including a silly "war" waged against the hedonist flavors of dancehall king Beenie Man) have dampened his fans' fervor. If anything this latest effort, revealing a slightly gruffer-voiced Sizzla and stripped-down, hip hop-inflected rhythm tracks, should heat both reggae's obsession and hip-hop's fascination.

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Although only "The Vibes" (featuring Capelton, Sizzla's frequent partner) leaps off the figurative turntable and screams "Yes!" Be I Strongshows no signs of slackening inspiration, musically or lyrically. Equipped with the reggae DJ's requisite bluster, the singer's ability to pitch a note anywhere on the scale, and the musician's gift to imagine that note, Sizzla lays his considerable assets at the feet of the Riddim God, dropping lyrics of preternatural wisdom with the lightning precision of a master African drummer. The result is an airtight sixteen-track set that plays like one long single, or, more accurately, like a delirious, all-night, Jamaican country session held under a blanket of equatorial stars. -- Elena Oumano


Charlie Haden Quartet West with the Chamber Orchestra
The Art of the Song
(Verve)
It would be a bit presumptuous to call bassist Charlie Haden's latest release, The Art of the Song -- a lavish affair that sets the acoustic sounds of his Quartet West against the Chamber Orchestra's full orchestral backdrop and prominently features singers Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson -- his most fully realized recording. This is, after all, a man who has already anchored Ornette Coleman's legendary quartet of the early '60s, founded the ambitious Liberation Music Orchestra, and led the sublime Quartet West since 1986. But the CD does represent his lushest work to date.

The Art of the Song contains a collection of lyrical and melodic gems that, while semiobscure, have stood the test of time and remain genuine classics. Rendered in full-scale opulence with a string orchestra breathing life into every corner, Haden's selections are culled from an earlier era's films and plays (such as Frank Sinatra's "You My Love," from the 1954 film Young at Heart, and Leonard Bernstein's "Lonely Town," from the 1945 play On the Town), new compositions from Haden and Quartet West pianist Alan Broadbent, and, interestingly, the classical repertoire -- a section of Rachmaninoff's Opus 16 no. 3 in B minor and an early Ravel prelude, both piano pieces here arranged by Broadbent for quartet and orchestra.

Throughout the album the fullness of the Chamber Orchestra and the gentle swing of the Quartet West integrate beautifully, largely owing to Broadbent's arrangements. Henderson proves himself one of the more underrated jazz singers around on selections such as "Ruth's Waltz" and "You My Love," and Haden's bass sounds as rich and full as ever, especially in the moments when he steps to the fore on the Rachmaninoff-derived "Moment Musical." And yet in the midst of all this brilliance, it's Horn who very nearly steals the show with her breathtaking performances on four songs. Horn has always shone with tempos so slow they would drown the less talented, and on tunes here like "In Love in Vain" and "I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life," she does it again, energizing the songs so dramatically that time seems to slow down and hang on her every nuanced whisper.

The album's only slightly sour note is hit by Haden himself, who makes his vocal almost-debut (as a child he sang as part of the Haden Family Band on the Grand Ole Opry) on the disc's last track, "Wayfaring Stranger." But saying Haden's vocal isn't up to what preceded it is perhaps a bit unfair; after the mastery exhibited on the rest of The Art of the Song, it's doubtful anything else would be either. -- Ezra Gale

 
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