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Gospel

Robert Randolph and the Family Band

Lickety Split

[Blue Note]

ΩΩΩ½

“The most complex instrument in the world” is what Don Was – now head of Blue Note – calls the pedal-steel guitar. And what Robert Randolph has created on that instrument, says Was, is “a unique voice that is equal parts street-corner church and Bonnaroo.”

It never hurts when your label president is a fan. Especially if he’s a former musician whose description of what you do is spot on. “Equal parts street-corner church and Bonnaroo” will do as a description of the music of Randolph and his Family Band until something better comes along (which isn’t likely to happen for a long while).

“Sacred steel” is what their music was called when we first heard it. To everyone who knew the pedal steel guitar only from Hawaiian music (quoth the late great Peter Ustinov: “What did they do before electricity? Play gas guitars?”) and the treacly and sentimental sound of bad country music, “sacred steel” in general and the Randolph Family Band in particular were among the great musical revelations of the past 15 years.

What Randolph learned in the House of God Church, he says, has been going on since the 1920s. “These guys were my mentors, my Muddy Waters and B.B. Kings. Thinking that I started this style is like saying Stevie Ray Vaughan was the first guy to play the blues.”

When back in the new century’s aughts, they started touring and doing TV shows like “Austin City Limits” and setting off joy grenades every place they went, they quickly earned a reputation for being one of the greatest high-energy, pyrotechnic, rip-this-joint ensembles in all of American popular music. What we all got used to was music on such a sulfurous level that people who caught them live were likely to have smiles on their faces and dances in their step for weeks afterward.

“Lickety Split,” arriving Tuesday, is Randolph’s first studio disc in three years and to absolutely no one’s surprise, it’s mostly sensational and occasionally suffers the disgrace of falling all the way down to merely great.

Pseudo-gospel yells of encouragement to band members occasionally smack of cutesiness – unless, of course, you’ve seen them perform and realize how close this family band really is in live performance.

Guest stars here include Trombone Shorty on one track and Carlos Santana on two.

It was Ray Charles – and in a different way Sam Cooke – who first secularized and sexualized gospel’s ecstasies in American popular music. So no one would dream of being sniffish anymore about the musical journey of Randolph and his family.

When Randolph sings about being “born again” and says “it’s not a religious thing, it’s just a new energy – which is really the old energy I had at the beginning of my career,” it’s best not to worry too much about which side of the aisle he’s on anywhere on this disc. It’s hard to believe that any deity at all wouldn’t be fine with it, just fine.

– Jeff Simon

Classical

Mozart

Piano Concertos No. 17 and 27

Angela Hewitt, piano, with the Orchestra da Camera di Mantova, Hannu Lintu, conductor

[Hyperion]

ΩΩΩ

Angela Hewitt is a fine pianist and you can count on her for quality, especially impressive considering the number of discs she comes out with. She internalizes the music and I was delighted to see that for this album, as for others, she has written the liner notes. Her notes are unusually informative. Most Mozart fans know No. 17 inside out, but it was neat how Hewitt pointed out that Brahms brought the concerto to Clara Schumann’s attention. She loved it, and cried over the unusual, unconventional slow movement. With its subtle, sensual woodwinds, the music looks toward the Romantic era.

Hewitt’s playing is, as always, clear and concise and pure and free of affectation. She does no improvising and a few times I did think she could put more of herself into the music. Sometimes, say in the last movement of No. 27, it sounds too pale. The orchestra is good but can be fussy. The rests sound overengineered and there is something weird about how they super-tailor a single chord so the volume rises or drops.

A few times I thought there was something wrong with my player. Music like this shouldn’t sound labored. It’s too beautiful.

– Mary Kunz Goldman

Classical

Ramon Vargas

Opera Arias

The Budapest Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Frizza, conductor

[Capriccio]

ΩΩΩΩ

The Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas is one of our great living singers, with a breathtakingly beautiful voice and a smoldering approach to music. Listening to him makes me think I have praised other tenors too generously. Vargas just grabs you with that voice. He radiates emotion – even if you don’t understand exactly what the words are he is singing, you cannot help but catch his drift. Beyond that, you have to marvel at his sheer power.

Listening to him pour out those soaring notes in two famous arias in “Tosca” – and of course “Nessun Dorma,” from “Turandot” – it’s like marveling at a perfect piece of engineering. He combines virtuosity with humanity, a most excellent thing in an opera singer.

My one regret is that I wish the disc could have included one of Don Ottavio’s arias from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” Vargas puts the role, which he has sung at the Met, in an astonishing, passionate new light. As one listener comments on YouTube: “He sings on the razor’s edge.” Any disc of Vargas singing, though, is something to celebrate. At 53, he sounds better than ever.

– M.K.G.

Jazz

The Swallow Quintet

Into the Woodwork

[XtraWatt/ECM]

ΩΩΩ

Here is venerable bassist/composer Steve Swallow explaining this quintet: “The knee-jerk reaction to a band with electric bass, electric guitar and organ is that it’s going to have a jazz-rock fusion kind of sound. But I wanted to show that you can go beyond these sonic models, that electric instruments can yield a more varied textural palette. All of the musicians in this quintet are lyrical players, even (drummer) Jorge (Rossy) has this sweet lyricism to his drumming … I think lyricism in music comes from emulating breath in a melodic line, like that of a singer.”

And that’s what you hear here in what is, after all, almost a family band with two musicians (Carla Bley on organ, Swallow) who really are family and tenor saxophonist Chris Cheek and guitarist Steve Cardenas who go back with Swallow to a later version of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra.

It has long since stopped surprising people that a composer and bandleader as exceptional as Bley turns into such a sweet musical romantic when she plays with life partner Swallow. It’s typical of them that the wit of the title (as opposed, as it is, to something that came “out of the woodwork”) is matched by something meaningfully straightforward and melodic, even when, on “Back in Action” the music seems as typically witty and playful as some of the other tune titles (“From Whom It May Concern,” “Grisly Business,” “Unnatural Causes,” “The Butler Did It”).

It could, so much of it, be music they like to play after dinner.

A lovely record, as high on sweetness and likability as it is low on aggressive musical presence.

– J.S.