Mike Keneally

Wing Beat Fantastic: Songs Written by Mike Keneally & Andy Partridge


4 stars (out of 4)

Mike Keneally, the former Zappa guitarist, uber-prolific solo artist, sideman supreme, multiinstrumentalist, composer, "shred-master" and singer, is also, as it turns out, an avant-pop genius.

Who knew? Well, anyone who spent any amount of time with Keneally's recent "Scambot" album might have had an inkling that their man was more than simply showing off his impressive guitar chops. But even such a listener will have to be a little bit floored by the release of "Wing Beat Fantastic," an album of fully actualized conceptions birthed by the collaboration between Keneally and XTC mastermind Andy Partridge. For fans of both artists, this collection could top your "album of the year" list in December. It is a flawless masterpiece of a recording.

The story goes that Keneally met Partridge while on tour with Zappa in the later 1980s, after he and Zappa bassist Scott Thunes had the nifty idea to invite the members of XTC -- a band they (wisely) adored -- to come to an FZ gig. Partridge -- by then having sworn off live performance and enjoying a reputation as one of the most insanely talented pop composers this side of Lennon, McCartney and Wilson -- surprised everyone by showing up. The two struck up a friendship that yielded songwriting sessions at Partridge's home in Swindon in southwest England. Keneally took the demos they recorded there, flew back stateside, and worked on them for a few years, in between the dozens of other projects he always seems to be juggling.

Handling all of the vocals, most of the instruments, and the production himself, Keneally -- with the help of the brilliant drummer Marco Minnemann -- crafted these songs into a psychedelic pop daisy-chain. His multipart, layered vocal harmonies sound amazingly similar to Partridge's singing, circa XTC's "Skylarking" and "Oranges & Lemons," and his understanding of Partridge's harmonically sophisticated conception of pop is everywhere here -- from the opening left-leaning harmony-fest that is "It's Raining Here, Inside," to the pure sunny joy of the ironically dark-themed "You Kill Me," and on through the dense beauty of "Bobeau."

The descriptive "genius" gets tossed around a bit too casually, but "Wing Beat Fantastic" is suffused with as much throughout its deliciously rich 40 minutes. Fans of prime XTC, Keneally, early Todd Rungren, and "Smile"-era Brian Wilson, you owe it to yourselves to wrap your mitts, your hearts, and your ears around this album.

-- Jeff Miers



Zac Brown Band


[Southern Ground/Atlantic]

3 stars

The Zac Brown Band delivers a message with the title of its new album, "Uncaged" -- and the songs back it up. Although still likely to be described as a country band, the Georgia group purposely, and admirably, avoids Nashville conventions on its new collection.

Ten years in, the ZBB instead focuses on the tight interplay it has developed through heavy touring, dwelling on instrumental chops as much as on vocals and hooks. It also casts a broad view toward material: There is country music, for sure, in the harmony-driven "Goodbye in Her Eyes" and hoedown picking in the exhilarating "The Wind." But, keeping to its theme, "Uncaged" takes on fierce Southern rock on the title cut, gospel-tinged mountain soul on "Natural Disaster," 1970s singer-songwriter musings on "Lance's Song," and Caribbean-influences on "Jump Right In," which has more in common with Paul Simon than Kenny Chesney.

Altogether, "Uncaged" is a powerful artistic declaration rather than an album carefully plotted to achieve maximum radio exposure. And it succeeds, suggesting Brown and his fellow instrumentalists and songwriters plan on gaining a reputation for musical diversity rather than safely repeating an established formula.

"Overnight," the boldest cut on "Uncaged," shifts into contemporary rhythm-and-blues, overtly describing a couple's seductive evening, set to a quiet-storm track that crosses Usher with Marvin Gaye.

-- Michael McCall, Associated Press



Canadian Brass

Brahms on Brass

[Opening Day]

3 1/2 stars

These are timeless piano pieces by Brahms, arranged for brass quintet and brass octet. They work out better than you would think. The Eleven Chorale Preludes, Op. 122, have the natural chorale structure that lend them to brass quintet (they are arranged by Ralph Sauer). A brass quintet setting by Chirs Coletti and Brandon Ridenour brings out the romping charm and also the romance of the famous Sixteen Waltzes, Op. 39. ("Love that tuba!" someone writes on YouTube.) In between, as a kind of wild card, is the Ballade in D Minor, Op. 10 No. 1, adapted for brass octet and timpani by Brandon Ridenour. The arrangements bring out what the musicians call "ghost melodies" -- melodies you might miss when listening to the original piano. Though dignified, they also give the music a rustic tone that I do not think Brahms would have minded.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman



Jan Garbarek



3 1/2 stars

Here is another extraordinary fruit from ECM's glorious and justifiably proud search through its own wonderful past since its 40th birthday celebrations in 2009. It's a three-disc boxed set of music from 1971-75 by the great Norwegian tenor saxophonist Jan Garbarek in which we learned fully on this side of the Atlantic how magnificently international jazz had become. (Garbarek's released collaborations with such Americans as George Russell and Keith Jarrett were, if not classics, awfully close.)

In his fine liner notes, Michael Tucker writes that these discs "brought freshly intelligent and invigorating perspective to bear on questions of dynamics, group sound, interaction and swing, the relations of improvisation and abstraction to the roots of jazz and the relevance of archetypal yet freshly inflected folk forms to contemporary life. All this was captured in recordings, the lucidity of which bore musical witness to the acuity of Paul Valery's insight that 'nothing is as mysterious as clarity.'"

Garbarek's sound was as unique on tenor saxophone as Jackie McLean, in an entirely different way, was on his instrument, the alto saxophone. It is both intensely vocal and slightly sharp -- the equivalent, for a horn player, of a drummer playing slightly ahead of the beat. With Terje Rypdal's guitar fantasias on "Sart," it remains music both challenging and fulfilled.

Nothing, at that historic moment in jazz, was more important than the European take on what had come to confuse and dismay so many about post-Coltrane jazz on American shores. This music reinvigorated ideas about the jazz avant-garde at the same time it domesticated it (listen to "Sart," the first of the three discs, released in 1971). By the time of "Dansere" from 1975, this was music beloved for jazz's most forward-thinking community everywhere.

The most popular, of course, was "Wichi-Tai-To" from 1973, with a quartet filled out by pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen. Other musicians heard here are the great guitarist Rypdal and bassist Arild Andersen.

-- Jeff Simon