Otis Redding, “The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection” (Shout! Factory, three discs, released in July but available now from the label’s website). Seventy tracks – every original 45 rpm single by the greatest figure in soul music of his time whose name wasn’t Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder. It includes many appearing for the first time on disc in their original mono mix. Listen to Redding’s original version of “Respect” and understand how very different its original meaning was. (Redding, unlike Aretha, felt no urgency about spelling the word out: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” He was pretty sure the woman he was singing to understood what he meant. Aretha, immortally, felt the need to spell it out, just to make sure her man did.) This is tremendous music here with the fabled backup band at Stax/Volt – Booker T. and the M.G.’s – giving us the likes of “Sitting by the Dock of the Bay,” “These Arms of Mine,” “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song),” “The Happy Song (Dum-Dum),” “Pain in My Heart,” “Mr. Pitiful,” Mick and Keith’s “Satisfaction,” and the greatest version of “Try a Little Tenderness” that ever came out of soul music. Add, too, all those duets with Carla Thomas – “Tell It Like It Is,” “Knock On Wood,” “When Something is Wrong With My Baby” – and even some Christmas songs that shouldn’t have worked at all but did, courtesy of Redding’s extraordinary performing integrity. It’s a terrific anthology that wants you to have the primal pleasure of hearing one of the greatest performers of his time in the primal way that everyone did both before and after he died in a plane crash at the age of 26. The irony, of course, is that Don McLean notwithstanding (about that earlier air crash), the day of Otis Redding’s tragic death wasn’t the day the music died but, in fact, the day that ensured that his next record “Sitting by the Dock of the Bay” would be the biggest hit of his recording career and the day that ensured that disc boxes like this would be created 46 years later. (four stars.) (Jeff Simon)
Dyad Plays Puccini (Lou Caimano, Eric Olsen). This is a kind of unusual disc in that it features a saxophonist, Lou Caimano, and he and jazz pianist Eric Olsen, who make up Dyad, are playing jazz arrangements of Puccini opera excerpts. But face it, the line that separates Puccini from Broadway is faint. Look at the tune “Avalon.” Puccini sued over that song, asserting that the tune was his, and he won. I am struck by how well many of these numbers work as jazz tunes, and it doesn’t bother me to have them interpreted like that. “Musetta’s Waltz” from “La Boheme” makes a lyrical jazz waltz, rendered even better by Olsen’s jazz piano, which could remind you of Vince Guaraldi’s. They take a quirky, clever Bach-like approach to the Overture to “Madame Butterfly.” “E lucevan le stelle,” the wrenching aria sung near the end of “Tosca,” is dicier. Its intensity makes it a tough call for a jazz duet, and evocative as Caimano’s saxophone is, it starts to sound overwrought. “Nessun Dorma,” which also hinges on a kind of uncompromising intensity, also doesn’t lend itself to this treatment. But ‘O Mio Babbino Caro” - why not? Mozart used to hear his opera tunes being played on street corners. They survived. These will, too. Olsen is playing a 127-year-old Steinway, by the way, which adds to the music’s romance. (three stars) (Mary Kunz Goldman)
JD Walter, One Step Away (Jawawalrec). He’s the most creative jazz singer, probably, since Betty Carter. It’s no wonder that the great Kurt Elling – with whom he shares some vocal qualities – is, among so many others, an ardent admirer. If you’re used to jazz singers being the leading edge of the conservatism that has become so popular in jazz, you need to experience just how creative and adventurous JD Walter can be, on some of his own songs, or on Todd Rundgren’s “Pretending to Care,” Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and even Michel Legrand’s “I Will Wait for You” whose melody is atomized to the point where it is virtually abstracted. With the exceptional trio that calls itself Tarbaby – Orrin Evans on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums – this is vocal jazz for jazz’s sake, not popularity. Maybe this is the music that Jamie Cullum and Michael Buble are helping to keep alive, but it’s also the jazz vocal music whose daring give the popular neoconservatives a point. 3½ stars (J.S.)
Mark O’Connor, The Improvised Violin Concerto (Mark O’Connor Music International). I admire the fiddler Mark O’Connor. I am glad to say I was there when he joined the Orchard Park Symphony for his Fiddle Concerto. Could that really have been five years ago? It feels like yesterday. That was such vivid and memorable music.
Not everything O’Connor comes up with is so successful. The Triple Concerto for violin, cello and piano that begins this disc strikes me as pretentious. even the name, which makes you think of Beethoven. The last movement has an appealing klezmer sound, but on the whole the music is pleasant but forgettable and, with its repeated piano riffs, reminded me of New Age. It would be pleasant as background music but it does not command undivided attention. The Improvised Violin Concerto is heralded as a historic first – a concerto with a fixed orchestral part against which the soloist improvises. This trick has actually been pulled off before – by Mozart, for one. The pianist Robert Levin came to UB one eventful evening and winged it through Mozart’s entire 23rd piano concerto, improvising the whole thing, as Mozart had been known to do. Levin had Mozart’s written notes as a guide for what he did, but Mozart, when he played his concertos, sometimes had no notes at all. Still, it’s a concept rare for our time, especially in the increasingly academic arena of new music. I think O’Connor is great for trying, even if he does not quite pull it off. The music sounds all right, but it’s frequently cacophonous and it lacks good melody and frequently it grated on me. It doesn’t sound as if it has a good plan. Though O’Connor’s swingy virtuosity is a pleasure to hear, his graceful riffs and flourishes do not add up to a great piece of music. It does not help that it is an onerous 40 minutes long. I would gladly trade it for a perfect, effortless, three-minute waltz. Or the breathtaking “America the Beautiful” that he played as an encore in Orchard Park, in a simple high school auditorium. Perhaps for O’Connor simple is best. Among musicians, that is high praise.Two stars (M.K.G.)
Nigunim: Hebrew Melodies performed by violinist Gil Shaham and pianist Orli Shaham (Canary Classics). The Hebrew word “Nigunim” means instrumental music. Lest anyone assume, then, from the title of this disc that it is a kind of picturesque souvenir music for listeners craving an upscale version of the score for “Fiddler on the Roof,” a good place to start would be 38-year-old composer Avner Dorman’s “Violin Sonata No. 3” which was commissioned by the sibling performing duo Gil and Orli Shaham and whose frenzied final movement is a virtuoso piece of astonishing fury from both performing musicians. Even when you’re talking about such relatively familiar bits of Jewish musical color for the violin as John Williams’ “Three Pieces from Schindler’s List” (i.e. from Williams’ music for Spielberg’s film) and Ernest Bloch’s masterful “Baal Shem: Three Pictures of Chassidic Life,” violinist Gil Shaham’s virtuosity on this disc is of such pyrotechnic flamboyance and ferocity and the impassioned beauty so openhearted that it bids fair to be one of the greatest of Shaham’s long career and one of the greatest intimate violin recordings anyone is likely to encounter in a while. Extraordinary. 4 stars (J.S.)
Cortot, Piano Arrangements performed by He Yue (Grand Piano). The legendary Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) was renowned over two centuries for his intellectual refinement rather than for his fire-breathing dragon exhalations at the keyboard. He was renowned in his time as a piano professor, mostly at the Paris Conservatoire. His arrangements of work in a 26-volume “Editions de travail” offer music that is well beyond mere pedagogy for a pianist clever enough to perform it. Young Chinese pianist He Yue’s program here includes Cortot’s arrangements from Bach, Brahms, Chopin, Faure, Franck and Schubert. They range from Cortot’s one-piano version of Faure’s two-piano “Dolly Suite Op. 56” and Bach’s classic organ masterwork “Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor” to a superb solo piano arrangement of Cesar Franck’s Violin Sonata in A-Major. In his lifetime, Cortot was one of many whose actions during World War II were questionable (he was in good company, Richard Strauss, for instance) which is what makes the healing distance of time and such discs as this so welcome. 3½ stars(J.S.)
John Bull, “Basically Bull” performed by pianist Alan Feinberg (Steinway and Sons). This music was written for the piano precursor instrument called the “virginal.” Its first performers, then, were usually presumed to be young women of significant chastity. Their composer John Bull, on the other hand, fled England in 1613 in fear of prosecution for “incontinence, fornication, adultery and other grievous crimes.” No less than the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time averred that Bull “hath more music than honesty and is as famous for the marring of virginity as he is for the fingering of organs and virginals.” The music that he composed, though, was far from simple or studiously comported. It is often experimental and quite brilliant, and pianist Alan Feinberg has done rather wonderfully all the way through with the solo keyboard music of a composer so often found in his time (and later) “vexatious.” Bull and his cohorts Orlando Gibbons and William Byrd weren’t writing tinklings for the greater civilities of bourgeois homes but rather were, according to Feinberg, writing music “brimming with invention and inspiration, power and passion, elegance and all the lessons of the older polyphony.” It’s all here in his disc. 3½ stars (J.S.)