Steven Wilson

Grace For Drowning


4 stars (out of 4)

As leader of Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson is widely accepted as the closest thing to a progressive rock Renaissance Man as we're likely to see during an era when the worth of the "album as cohesive artwork" is called into question pretty much every other week. A scholar of late 1960s and '70s art-rock stylings -- to the point where he is now the go-to man for 5.1 remixes and remastering projects for some of the most revered albums in all of prog-dom -- Wilson brought a searing ambition, technical brilliance and an unfailing flair for the bold, dramatic and subtle in equal measure, to modern heavy music.

He could retire now and be remembered as a brilliant artist. But with the release of "Grace For Drowning," his second solo album, Wilson has outdone himself. Freed from the considerable weight of expectation placed upon him by Porcupine Tree's worldwide fan base, Wilson has crafted a vertigo-inducing tour through musical diversity that reveals several new colors in his paintbox -- among them, jazz and world music, which meet head-on during the album's centerpiece, "Remainder the Black Dog."

Not surprisingly, Wilson surrounds himself here with some legendary progressive musicians, among them Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, bassist/stick-players Tony Levin and Trey Gunn, drummer Pat Mastelotto, as well as the London Session Orchestra and multi-instrumentalist Theo Travis. Considering all the musical muscle in evidence, it might be surprising to some that "Drowning" represents a new peak for Wilson as a songwriter -- these dense, long songs are perhaps paradoxically also his most direct and uncluttered compositions. They also manage to groove like a house on fire.

If you've been wondering whatever happened to the heady commingling of serious musicianship with the might and majesty of rock, here's your answer. One of the finest albums of 2011, beyond a doubt.

-- Jeff Miers



Christian McBride

Conversations with Christian

[Mack Avenue]

3 1/2 stars

Anyone claiming flat out that Christian McBride, at the age of 39, is the greatest jazz bass player now working wouldn't get a whole lot of argument. He has everything other musicians want a great jazz bass player to have -- juicy sound, phenomenal dexterity and all the tonal accuracy that lesser bass players wind up pitching over the side in despair.

As a consequence, McBride is a man whose list of musical friends is about as imposing as you can get in current jazz. Hence, this delightful duet disc in which the man's inevitable showing off is every bit as impressive as it's meant to be -- and not at all off-putting.

Who are the friends happy to perform duets with McBride here? Try this list: Sting, actress/chanter/Jew's harpist Gina Gershon (on the final deliberately outrageous selection "Chitlins and Gefiltefish" where McBride tells her "I never heard no funk Jew's harp before you play like you ain't had no food in about four or five days"), Chick Corea, Dee Dee Bridgewater, George Duke, Regina Carter, Angelique Kidjo, Russell Malone, Ron Blake, Roy Hargrove, Eddie Palmieri and, on two valuable rarities, two great senior pianists who died after recording with McBride, Billy Taylor and Hank Jones.

The raucously sexual and funny version of James Brown's "It's Your Thing" by Bridgewater elicits vocal grunts of approval from McBride while he and violinist Carter manage to transform Bach's Double Violin Concerto into get-down funk without quite going over the line into featherweight kitsch.

With Hank Jones, though, on "Alone Together," he epitomizes all the grace and taste a Jones accompanist has to have. Put him in a duet with Corea, though, on "Tango Improvisation #1," and he is the ideal aide and abettor of Corea's free-form improvisation. For Malone's "Sister Rosa," he is such a powerful rhythmic force that you don't really miss the presence of a drummer. With tenor saxophonist Blake, "Shake 'n Blake" lets you in on how robust two like-minded bebop players can be when they both have instrumental tones as big as a house.

There's almost as much art on all this showing off as there is entertainment.

It's a consistent delight -- though of several different kinds before it's over.

-- Jeff Simon



The Tennessee Tech Tuba Ensemble

Christmas Tubas

The Tennessee Tech Tuba Ensemble, R. Winston Morris, director

[Mark Records]

3 stars

This little CD from the Clarence label Mark Records has me wondering: What is funnier, tubas playing the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's arrangement of "Carol of the Bells" -- complete with ominous beginning as only tubas can play it -- or tubas tackling Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus."

This is definitely a novelty disc. Thunderclouds drift over "Angels We Have Heard on High," and "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen" is jazzy and honking. When you stop laughing, though, you realize it is pleasant stuff, low and easy on the ears. In "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" you forget you are listening to tubas -- it just sounds like a heavy curtain of dark brass sound.

A priceless moment is the stentorian ending to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Try this disc at your holiday dinner party. It would be a conversation piece, that's for sure.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman


Mary J. Blige

My Life II: The Journey Continues, Act 1


3 stars

When Mary J. Blige released her classic "My Life" album in 1994, she was enjoying the highs in her career and weathering the lows of her personal life, battling depression and drug abuse.

So it's definitely a personal improvement that the sequel, "My Life II: The Journey Continues, Act 1," is far more even-keeled, even if it lacks some of the passion of the original.

The bulk of "My Life II" is focused on updating the quiet-storm R&B ballads of the late 1970s and early '80s, delivered emotionally in "The Living Proof" and stylishly with Beyonce in "Love a Woman." Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of the Mary passion we've grown to love. She gets exorcised a bit in "2 5/8" and energized on a cover of Rufus featuring Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody."

But mostly the firepower on "My Life II" comes from her guest stars, including Drake on the current single "Mr. Wrong," Busta Rhymes on "Next Level" and Rick Ross on "Why." Knowing Blige, though, this situation won't last long.

-- Glenn Gamboa, Newsday