Donald Fagen, “Sunken Condos” (Warner Bros.). Steely Dan’s keyboardist/vocalist/co-songwriter Donald Fagen drops his fourth solo album, “Sunken Condos,” the first outside the trilogy begun with 1982’s “The Nightfly” and concluded with 2006’s “Morph the Cat.” It’s exactly what you’d expect from the now 64-year-old Fagen – smart, sardonic, but still deeply moving lyrics; plenty of jazz harmonies; hip, sophisticated soloing from a variety of fantastic players; and sly, sultry R&B and funk grooves. If this description sounds a bit flippant, well, that may be due to the fact that Fagen has been spoiling us for decades. No “pop” or rock band has come close to Steely Dan when it comes to marrying the harmonic sophistication of jazz to song formats. Fagen’s solo work has been all but equally remarkable. So we naturally have come to expect anything Fagen turns his attention to and stamps his name on to be miles beyond the work of the majority of his peers. “Sunken Condos,” its title a delicious bit of suggestive imagery, is perhaps more groove-oriented and frankly funky than other Fagen fare. There’s even a rather brilliant, slightly disco-fied take on Isaac Hayes’ “Out of the Ghetto” thrown into the pot. But what continues to be so striking about Fagen is the way he’s able to marry his wistfully bemused observations on life, love and aging, to such unerringly hip chordal constructions. The guy remains well ahead of the pack. ŒŒŒ½ (Jeff Miers)


Debussy and Szymanowski, Piano music performed by pianist Rafal Blechacz (Deutsche Grammophon). You never know where the first-rate Debussy pianists will come from. But you can guess. Angela Hewitt proved recently that as devoted as she can possibly be, her Debussy is simply not on the level of her Bach and Beethoven. Here, though, is a young Polish pianist who admires the recorded Debussy of Michelangeli, Cortot and Gieseking and sounds it. He fully conveys the deep Debussyan poetry of “Pour Le Piano,” “Estampes,” and “L’Isle Joyeuse,” which means that he’s at least halfway there with what the notes here call “the existential poetry” of Szymanowski’s long-lined Prelude and Fugue in C-Sharp Minor and the expressive size of his huge (five movement), powerful C-Minor Sonata Op.8. Until now, Blechacz has given us Chopin, Haydn and Beethoven. This opens up new intellectual and poetic vistas for an enormously accomplished young pianist. ŒŒŒ½ (Jeff Simon)


Jana Herzen and Charnett Moffett, “Passion of a Lonely Heart” (Motema). Here’s something no one could have expected: a duet disc by a new singer/guitarist with one of the great living jazz bass players where the exceptional singer/guitarist just happens to be the founder and president of one of the great current jazz labels. Her name is Jana Herzen and she turns out to be a soulful singer with a big, warm voice and a folkish guitar style that often meshes gorgeously with the solid, huge-toned playing of bassist Charnett Moffett. It’s only her second record. Her first was “Soup’s On Fire,” and it’s safe to say the world forgot about it almost completely while she built the Motema label with great discs by Randy Weston, Gregory Porter, Monty Alexander, Rene Marie and Co. By way of self-explanation, she says “there aren’t that many singer-songwriter-guitarists in the jazz idiom but there are some great examples – such as John Pizzarelli, George Benson or Raul Midon.” In a disc dedicated to Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass, she may not quite be in their company but she’s solidly in their tradition. ŒŒŒ½ (J.S.)
Louis Armstrong, “Satchmo: Ambassador of Jazz” (Universal/Decca, four discs plus book by Richard Havers). A luxurious and marvelous piece of disc and book creation obviously intended for gift season. Here is, some would argue, the most important single career in American vernacular music, right from Louis Armstrong’s first years as second trumpet with King Oliver and featured soloist with Bessie Smith to epoch-making stardom on his own, great duets with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby and Jack Teagarden and ending with, yes, the dreaded “What a Wonderful World” from 1967, which is only saved from being felonious kitsch by the trumpet player and singer who turned almost everything he touched into a singular musical reality of its own. This cuts across labels here (it’s not just Decca and Verve Armstrong) so if you want to be picky, peevish and critical, you might ask where, here, are the magnificent duets with Earl Hines? And where is that incomparable combination of an Armstrong vocal and Cole Porter’s complete lyrics to “Let’s Fall in Love?,” one of the wittiest records in the entire history of jazz? But forget all that. Richard Havers’ 162-page book is so good and so much classic Louis is here, from “West End Blues” and “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” to a marvelous appearance with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic on “St. Louis Blues.” (Bernstein eloquently points out that even when practicing, Louis Armstrong put all of himself in every note.) None of this music is strictly “ambassadorial” (i.e. recorded in other countries where he was known to greet English kings, say, by calling them “Rex”) and even a great book cries out for full musician listings on every track that aren’t there. But this is a terrific set about why Louis Armstrong will never stop being one of the greatest of all American subjects. Now, then and forever. ŒŒŒŒ (J.S.)
Harry Allen and Scott Hamilton, “’Round Midnight” (Challenge). OK, so they’re not Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, or Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane or or their closest models, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. But if you can’t enjoy the classic mainstream jazz fluidity of Scott Hamilton and Harry Allen when they convene for a two-tenor conclave, you’ve missed entirely one of happiest instrumental archetypes that jazz has to offer. They’ve been recording together off and on since 2004. In truth, Allen and Hamilton combine here for some of the most conservative jazz arrangements I’ve heard in decades. But their playing is so full of relaxed jazz melodeering and back-on-your-heels swing that it’s jazz joy on the hoof. Support here comes from pianist Rossano Sportiello, bassist Joel Forbes and drummer Chuck Riggs and they couldn’t possibly take the word “support” more seriously. ŒŒŒ (J.S.)