Steve Earle & the Dukes (& Duchesses)

The Low Highway

[New West]

Three stars

Steve Earle’s 15th release offers a tour through everything he’s been doing well across the span of the past 25 years – raw, rootsy country music, rustic folk, rockers tinged with ’60s psychedelia, and sharp, poignant observations on America seen through bleary, world-weary eyes. “The Low Highway” is a travel record of sorts, one in which the narrator acts as a camera eye, recording what he sees in a reportorial tone.

This kind of songwriting’s success hinges on the details, and here, Earle gets them right – though he can fire off the pointed political broadside better than just about anyone else, on “The Low Highway,” Earle paints in broad strokes, and lets the listener fill in the rest of the picture.

Musically, the record moves easily between sparse, acoustic-centered numbers – the lovely opening gambit of the title tune, the heartbreaking “Remember Me,” – and the more raucous electric fare in the mode of the barnstorming “Calico County.”

Earle’s wife, singer and musician Allison Moorer, adds subtle keyboard coloring to the mix, her accordion supporting the wash of guitars during the scathing “Burnin’ It Down,” or lending a gritty saloon-style piano to “Pocket Full of Rain.”

Earle is, as his short stories and novels have by now made plain, a master storyteller with an unfailingly keen eye for detail and an ear for a tone that smacks of earthy verisimilitude. Those gifts, gracefully supported by the beautiful clangor of the Dukes & Duchesses, make “The Low Highway” a soul-stirring trip.

– Jeff Miers


Various artists

Bel Canto Bully:

The Musical Legacy of the Legendary Opera Impresario Domenico Barbaja


Three stars

Fascinating in several ways, this disc is, in effect, a promotion for a book published this month by Haus Publishing in Britain. The book is a biography of Domenico Barbaja, a charming but power-hungry man who shaped bel canto opera in the early 1800s. It is fun to see opera through Barbaja’s eyes, to confront the composers from a business angle. He shaped Bellini’s career, signing him up right out of the Naples Conservatory. He commissioned 26 operas from Donizetti. Rossini was apparently late fulfilling his commissions; once, Barbaja had to lock him in his apartment until he finished the now-forgotten “Otello.”

It seems incredible now, the idea of Rossini tackling the Shakespeare tragedy, but Barbaja apparently knew what would go over big. Occasionally he second-guessed himself. Once, the notes tell us, he tried to appeal to the Germanic audience by commissioning Weber’s “Euryanthe” and also an opera from Franz Schubert – an opera Barbaja subsequently judged a dud, and declined to perform. (He may have been right. The opera has still not entered the mainstream repertoire.)

The music on the CD gives you some unusual clips from operas Barbaja helped birth – including Rossini’s “Otello,” Bellini’s early effort “Il pirata” and Donizetti’s Tudor opera “Roberto Devereux.” What I am really looking forward to is the book. I’ll bet it’s a blast.

– Mary Kunz Goldman



Move: The Trio Project


Three and a half stars

Laszlo Gardony



Three stars

There is no more exciting or prodigiously gifted young pianist in jazz than Hiromi Uehara. Her strong classical training has given her an immense compositional sense; there are no formal ambiguities in a disc by Hiromi. You’re not hearing a presumptuous jazz composer who thinks that harmonic cleverness and musical composition are the same thing. Every piece she writes has a graspable shape – a musical form you couldn’t bust up with a tank.

In addition, her prodigious technique is such that she sounds, in every note, as if she’s always starting at point A, always knows where point B is and always knows how to get there no matter how much velocity and virtuosity are necessary. She is as fond of left hand ostinato figures as McCoy Tyner, but hers aren’t pounding African dance rhythms, hers are a kind of pianistic braggadoccio – a sort of conservatory trained expression “look Ma, ALL fingers.”

The Japanese-American pianist’s trouble has always been her taste. Her post-Chick Corea use of electronics has seldom, if ever, been good. She isn’t sure why being able to do something is not, in itself, sufficient reason to do it.

Except for some thoroughly extraneous electronic effects, her “trio project” is 90 percent acoustic with superb electric bass playing by Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips playing some fusion rhythms so tight and bravura, no matter what tempo, that the whole disc jets along for more than 70 minutes in an adrenaline rush.

Both Ahmad Jamal and Oscar Peterson agreed on her gifts right from the beginning. Corea was delighted to make a duet disc with her. She may still be a little unclear about the difference between showing off and playing jazz but her gifts are so prodigious you’ll seldom care.

What Laszlo Gardony has done on “Clarity” is almost the polar opposite of “Move.” What the Hungarian immigrant pianist does here is similar to what Keith Jarrett did in “The Melody Alone At Night With You.” He felt a “burst of inspiration” so strong on the evening of Oct. 25, 2012, that he went into his music studio in Berklee alone, turned on all suitable machines and played his recent compositions in a 49-minute cluster. The result is appropriately called “Clarity” (as in “I had a moment of …”) and it’s one of Gardony’s best discs.

It would have been a truly great disc if the quality of the piano in his own personal studio had been the very best (a pianist as good as he is really ought to have a concert grade Bosendorfer or Steinway at the ready). As it is, though, it’s a superb disc by a solo jazz pianist who often sounds as influenced by his great classical countryman Bela Bartok as he is by R&B/jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis (listen to a piece here aptly called “Resilient Joy”).

A solo piano disc both very personal and completely infectious.

– Jeff Simon


Iron & Wine

Ghost On Ghost


Three and a half stars

Holy harmonies. Sam Beam, the mastermind behind Iron & Wine, has always enjoyed layering vocals into lush chords, but for “Ghost On Ghost,” his fifth album, he pulls out all the stops, constructing gorgeously intricate stacked harmonies that reveal a deep love of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.

As has long been the case with Beam and Iron & Wine, “Ghost On Ghost” is an often mellow dreamlike affair, in which a mood of drowsy bliss is established early on and maintained for the duration. Some might find this a touch on the boring side, but deep immersion in Beam’s sonic world yields immense satisfaction - his is a reflective, meditative music capable of stretching the boundaries of pop-based folk music.

The unexpected commingling of influences - the billowing strings which soar around the layered vocals, the southern Gothic thickness of the arrangements, the suggestions of New Orleans parade music that peek through the mix – help to generate and maintain the listener’s interest. A strong album, then, from an artist who has displayed consistent growth over the course of the past decade.

– J.M.