Astor Piazzolla, a Flute and Piano Tribute
Astor Piazzolla took tango from the streets of Buenos Aires to the concert halls of the world. To the dismay of Argentina's tango purists, and to the delight of just about everyone else, his compositions incorporated elements of American jazz, classical music, and Yiddish klezmer music; these he heard on New York City's Lower East Side, where he lived for a period as a boy in the 1930s. But his music was rooted firmly in the nostalgic rhythms of tango, which he played with extreme emotion and physical intensity on a bandoneon, a small accordion that served as the sound's traditional instrument, brought to Buenos Aires by European immigrants at the turn of the century.
Piazzolla died in 1992, and on this tribute album, flutist Jorge de la Vega and pianist Carlos Franzetti perform eleven works written for Piazzolla's quintet (violin, piano, electric guitar, bass, and bandoneon) during the last two decades of his life. De la Vega is a soloist with the Teatro Col centsn Opera Orchestra in Buenos Aires, Franzetti a pianist-composer currently with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra.
This impeccably produced recording by two very accomplished classical musicians presents new arrangements of Piazzolla's work. In the absence of the bandoneon, the flute takes the lead role, supported by the piano. A string quartet joins the duo on two tracks -- "Milonga del Angel" and "Tango for Astor" -- arguably the strongest cuts here, perhaps because Piazzolla's compositions reach their full potential when propelled by the percussive rhythms provided by string instruments. Still, de la Vega and Franzetti, in the flute-and-piano-only setting, award his compositions a noble character, exchanging the songs' original gritty power for a more lyrical sensibility. But while the work stands up beautifully as classical music, listening to it being played on flute and piano only made me long to hear the furious strains of Piazzolla's own genial bandoneon.
By Judy Cantor
The Apples in stereo
Fun Trick Noisemaker
Ah, the caress of the ineffable pop song, a warm aural glow, a sound-sensation sigh that openly (no, brazenly!) defies the cold, cruel realities of this postnasal-drip universe. Yes, love rock A or at the very least a variation thereof -- perseveres in the breathy strum-o-rama tunes of the Apples in stereo (titlewise, much like that old Sixties TV series on ABC: The FBI, in color), who resonate on a frequency occupied previously by the Cowsills, Unrest, Small Factory, Barnabies, Lois, Throw That Beat in the Garbage Can! and other pop naifs. The Apples, led by the schoolboy vocals of songwriter-guitarist-producer Robert Schneider, pulsate good-naturedly through a dozen songs, from the opening Redd Kross-y "Tidal Wave" to the Velvet Crush-y "She's Just Like Me," straight on to the closing Sneetches-y "Pine Away," whipping up charming, teeny-weeny sonic dust storms wherever they veer and swerve. As for their whirligig world-view, well, perhaps these lines from the careening "Dots 1-2-3" will give you a clue: "Step inside the rocket ride/You're leaving on a race through outer space/Speeding on your way to the constellations/It's easy: You can trace a starry face and see me." Hold that spaceship! I want to go, too. (P.O. Box 1798, NYC 10156-1798)
By Michael Yockel
Deep Blue -- 25 Years of Blues on Rounder Records
For the past quarter-century, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based independent Rounder Records has been producing some of the best blues and roots records available. With a genre-spanning stable of artists encompassing zydeco, Texas swing, Chicago and Delta blues, gospel, R&B, and soul, the label wears its eclectic heart on its sleeve, acting as a springboard to larger record-biz deals for some, the only game in town for others.
Deep Blue serves as both a celebration of where the label has traveled in the past 25 years and a sampler to entice listeners to buy stuff from the label's vast catalogue. Like a visit with old friends for blues lovers, the two-disc collection (priced at a deep discount) includes some much-missed and important artists: Robert Johnson protege Johnny Shines, barrelhouse piano great Champion Jack Dupree, the intensely soulful Ted Hawkins, and the tragically overlooked R&B crooner Larry Davis. Also present are classic performances from the likes of slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk, distinctive vocalist-guitarist J.B. Hutto, swing-blues guitarist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and New Orleans's Big Chief of piano, Professor Longhair. A few acoustic nuggets pop up along the way A Frank Hovington's beautifully rendered "Mean Old Frisco," Rory Block's gorgeously sung and deftly picked "Since You've Been Gone," and the rich a cappella tones of the Persuasions' "My Jug and I."
Deep Blue celebrates not just longevity but the commitment Rounder has made to presenting roots and offshoots of great black music. That's worth celebrating, and that's more than worth listening to.
By Bob Weinberg
Music from the Motion Picture Dangerous Minds
An unsurprising number one on the charts, this souvenir from the Michelle Pfeiffer update of To Sir with Love manages an unexpectedly coherent look at current hip-hop and R&B styles with a minimum of dumb-ass gangsta hyperbole. In fact, Coolio's "Gangsta Paradise," a Stevie Wonder rewrite performed with newcomer LV, is one of the most convincing antiviolence screeds ever tossed out by a rapper. Rappin' 4-Tay's two tracks provide compellingly sensible advice to both policymakers and the kids in the 'hood, with "A Message for Your Mind" building itself around irresistible samples from the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back." Meanwhile 24-K's "Don't Go There" lends a riot-grrrl-style perspective to bass music, repeating the word whore for a gleeful playground chant. Big Mike's "Havin' Thangs" is a better P-Funk rip than most you hear these days, while former Guy member Aaron Hall's clever seduction jam, "Curiosity," may demonstrate the greatest improvement in this class (his solo album, The Truth, stank). All this is pretty much enough to make up for the crummy tracks by Immature, Devante, and Sista and to provide context for "This Is the Life," veterans Wendy & Lisa's closing rumination.
By Rickey Wright
Pioneering power-pop poobah Peter Case (Nerves, Plimsouls) mutated into a folkie troubadour with his 1986 self-titled solo debut, an album, if I recall the liner notes correctly, filled with what he termed songs of "sin and salvation." A transcendent little revelation, it brimmed with Case's disarming story-songs about these United States, his passionate playing and singing, and considered production from T-Bone Burnett and Mitchell Froom. But with each successive album since then (excluding last year's fine almost-all-covers-of-traditional-songs romp, Sings Like Hell), Case's pop savvy slowly has eroded in favor of a certain literary pretension, his energies more concentrated on the creation of the story than the telling of the song.
On Torn Again, it becomes abundantly apparent that while Case remains an engaging tunesmith (especially on the gangly slide-guitar rocker "Takin' It"), his literary reach almost always exceeds his grasp. Accordingly he strains for poignancy on "Blind Luck," "Wilderness," and "Punch & Socko," but merely achieves cliches. And while he occasionally salvages some songs (in part) with infectious choruses sung in his likably gruff voice ("Airplane," "Turnin' Blue"), so many others here shortchange the music for a blunt stab at the pop-song equivalent of a Raymond Carver story. Rock and pop conventions demand concision, something Case seemed to understand innately in his power-pop past ("Million Miles Away," "This Town," "Now," "Zero Hour," "How Long Will It Take?") but has forgotten in his singer-songwriter present.
By Michael Yockel
Avant-garde Muzak? There must be a market for this elegant gunk, most likely on the far side of the River Styx. On the plus side: No duets with Tony Bennett.
By Steven Almond