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Jazz

Ben Sidran

Don’t Cry for No Hipster

[Nardis Music]

Three stars (out of four)

The definitive witticism on the subject of Ben Sidran belongs to the great jazz critic Gary Giddins: “the white Mose Allison” is what Giddins merrily called him.

If Allison was the wittiest and funkiest jazz/blues pianist/singer ever to emerge from the Delta with the whistle-clean look of a Lutheran minister (or a member of Nixon’s White House staff), Sidran was the most convincing Allison disciple of them all.

Sidran has never had Allison’s sublime wit or prophetic panache. Nor has he ever given us crooning high-voiced blues as infectious and joyous as Allison was noted for doing so routinely. It’s Allison’s version of “The Seventh Son” the world knows and loves as its standard and not Willie Mabon’s original version of Willie Dixon’s song on Chess. Allison’s “Your Mind is On Vacation and Your Mouth is Working Overtime” is, along with “Everybody’s Crying Mercy [And They Don’t Know The Meaning of the Word]” off-hand and epigrammatic social criticism as sharp as any in American contemporary vernacular music.

If you can’t have the master, though (and too, let’s be frank, Allison is 85), his best disciple will have to do.

Here is Sidran – historian and scholar (see his book “There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream”) as well as singer, pianist, composer – giving us priceless, tossed-off history in his liner notes: “The hipster is a semi-mythical figure in American pop culture. Decades before the term was used to describe young cats in small hats, it was used during Prohibition to describe a denizen of the night who arrived at the club with a flask in his back pocket. Hence ‘I’m hip’ meant ‘I’m carrying.’ But it came to mean much more than that.”

Should such literacy be simultaneously giving us all those ostentatiously and disingenuously ungrammatical “nos” in the wrong places (“Don’t Cry for No Hipster,” “It Don’t Get No Better”)? Just enjoy the genial affectation of the ride as he tells about The Hipster “when young becomes old/ and cool turns to cold/ That’s where we’ll see/ If the truth set him free.”

Whether or not it sets him free, the truths Sidran gives us here include: that he’s enjoying life immensely on “The Back Nine,” that he’s a “Private Guy” with a “Rich Interior Life” and he’s instrumentally partial to Thelonious Monk’s way of “Reflection” as well as his band’s own way of “Hooglin’.”

He’s cool enough, amid all those with witty and, yes, “hip” originals, to give us Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons,” a 1950’s hit that couldn’t possibly be more appropriate for the vicious downsize corporate age we’re living in. (“You load 16 tons and what do you get/ Another day older and deeper in debt/ St. Peter don’t you call me cause I can’t go/ I owe my soul to the company store.”)

Here is Sidran’s 35th record. It has 12 original songs. It’s a good guess that fact might well make Mose Allison smile too.

– Jeff Simon

Classical

Rachmaninov

The Piano Concertos and Paganini Rhapsody

Performed by pianist Valentina Lisitsa and the London Symphony Orchestra under Michael Francis

[Decca]

Two and a half stars

All-Night Vigil

Performed by Latvian Radio Choir under Sigvards Klava

[Ondine]

Three and a half stars

It is virtually a given of classical concert life that if you’re an emergent young pianist with the proper pyrotechnical resources, you’re likely, early on, to commit to disc a complete Sergei Rachmaninoff piano and orchestra cycle, including the daunting third concerto, and the much-beloved “big tune” concert hall war horses, the second concerto and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

“Arguably the most ambitious piano-orchestra project a pianist can undertake in a lifetime” is what the beautiful 39-year old Russian pianist Valentina Lisitsa calls it. “The sheer variety of emotions and styles it touches upon is encyclopedic.” She wanted the recording to be as “live” as possible which is, sadly, a less than perfect strategy for Rachmaninoff’s concert hall conquistadors on disc. What Lisitsa has produced here is nothing if not competent (and, in fact, rather astonishing at presto tempos) but neither the recorded sound or her performances themselves come close to the best in the huge “encyclopedia” of towering Rachmaninoff performance on record. These two discs, then, mark a virtuoso’s test passed but absolutely nothing more.

Altogether different is the exact opposite pole in Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre from the great concert hall war horses for piano and orchestra – the sublime “All-Night Vigil” (Vespers) for chorus which is one of the greatest of all choral masterworks in its era (1915) and is heard by so many as the great pianist/composer’s noblest claim to immortality. As long as there are pianists in the world, we’ll hear new performances of the concertos and the rhapsody; as long as there are choirs in Eastern Europe and Russia (especially those with that uniquely creamy bass section sound), we’ll hear how truly magnificent a composer Rachmaninoff was.

– J.S.