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Bruno Mars

Unorthodox Jukebox

[Atlantic]

Rating: 3 stars

Album No. 2 is always the kicker. Bruno Mars had a lot to live up to in the follow-up to “Doo Wops & Hooligans.” That debut effort won a Grammy, sold abundantly well and made Mars a star. (Prior to the release of that debut, Mars offered a rather stunning, if brief, performance as part of a University at Buffalo Springfest bill). “Unorthodox Jukebox” seems to be at least an attempt to tell the story of what has happened to Mars in the time since.

Guess what? Stardom doesn’t seem to have made Mars happier. Nearly every tune on this mostly excellent collection takes a dim view of women, relationships and love. Which we may well have expected after even a casual glance at the album cover, which pictures a large ape with its arms wrapped amorously around a jukebox. (Read that however you like – “Music is the only reliable mistress,” perhaps?)

The underlying disquiet that occasionally spills over into genuine nastiness shouldn’t keep “Jukebox” from cleaning up, commercially speaking. There are far too many killer hooks here to allow the album to tip beneath the weight of what sounds like genuine disappointment in Mars’ always virtuosic singing.

The opening combination of “Young Girls,” a song that wears its Prince fixation proudly on its sleeve, and “Locked Out Of Heaven,” a musically ebullient pop-reggae hybrid that offers a nod in the direction of the Police – well, with just two songs, Mars presents himself as modern pop’s great hope.

Things don’t run out of steam here, either. “When I Was Your Man,” “Money Make Her Smile” and the raunchy booze, blow and sex anthem “Gorilla” have hit written all over them.

The downside? It’s sometimes tough to get a handle on exactly who Mars is – the guy does Prince, Michael Jackson and ’70s soul-pop so well, his own music occasionally creeps toward the terrain of virtuosic karaoke. But as an attempt to beat the sophomore slump, this “Jukebox” is stacked.

– Jeff Miers

Holiday

John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John

This Christmas

[Universal Music Company]

3 stars

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta cozy up together with this disc of 13 Christmas songs. These two go back together a long way, and their comfort level brings a certain charm to a bunch of most traditional numbers.

Let’s face it, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is dated. “My sister will look suspicious, my brother will be there at the door...” Does anyone care any more? But it’s cute, pleading and wheedling. There’s a sweet, reverent “Silent Night,” with a children’s choir. “White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and other ubiquitous hits get a sweet contemporary vibe.

A few guest stars get to glimmer. “This Christmas” features Chick Corea, which would be fun aside from that it’s a dumb song. It’s hard to establish a new Christmas classic and this one just doesn’t have what it takes. Neither does “I Think You Might Like It,” which seems to cry out for a line dance. Can’t you guys just sing “The First Noel”?

Oh well. An album like this is like a bunch of kids’ toys under your Christmas tree: a few are bound not to work. There’s one more turkey, which, unfortunately, is “Auld Lang Syne.” It starts out OK, with Newton-John crooning it in a kind of after-hours style, but then Travolta comes in with “Christmas Time Is Here.” They alternate the two songs line by line. It’s unbearable.

Another song, though, is so captivating that I played the track out loud in the office. That is “Deck the Halls,” featuring special guest James Taylor. This is an old Welsh dancing song that is said to go back to the 16th century. The history-minded Taylor, collaborating with Dave Grusin, gives it a Renaissance sound, with pipes, jingly percussion and guitar. It would be nice to hear less of “The Christmas Song” and more of these old yuletide chestnuts.

– Mary Kunz Goldman

Jazz

Lalo Schifrin

My Life in Music

[Aleph, Four Discs]

3 stars

Well, no it’s not really Lalo Schifrin’s whole “life” in music.

The book accompanying this terrific but feloniously delinquent box makes no delay in showing you 1977 photographs of the great Hollywood composer with the most important influence of his entire musical life, Dizzy Gillespie. Schifrin was Gillespie’s composer/pianist for years. In those Gillespie groups you would have often found, no less, Chuck Lampkin, who was a jazz drummer back then before he became the first black anchorman in Buffalo TV history at WIVB.

Nowhere in this wonderful four-disc box of this superb musical life will you find Gillespie, either performing Schifrin’s music (“The New Continent,” “Gillespiana” at their collaborative best) or performing in the working quintet in which Schifrin was his sideman. Yes, you’ll find a couple of superb movements from “Gillespiana” terrifically played in ’90s concerts in Germany. But will you find anywhere in the booklet here who the trumpet player is? Forget it. It is almost certainly Gillespie’s greatest acolyte Jon Faddis, but you won’t find his name here. Nor, in the blistering 1999 tenor solo in Cologne on Schifrin’s fantasia on “Once a Thief,” will you learn the identity of the player, who was almost certainly the greatest resident Hollywood tenor player of the ’90s, Ernie Watts. It is somewhat appalling that Watts, as with all the soloists on the fourth disc’s live concert recordings, has to be identified by expertise rather than the disc notes.

But then, these four discs are so worshipful of Schifrin on the occasion of his 80th birthday that they forget that jazz is a music where crediting individual instrumental brilliance of all sorts – especially solos – is the very essence of the art form, not a bureaucratic encumbrance to be skipped when it seems of lesser importance than lionizing someone else. Schifrin was too great a sideman for Gillespie to have put up with that in this box set – especially if that is Schifrin himself as the very fine pianist in those European concert jazz recordings.

Far more tolerable than the total lack of important musician credits here are the three discs of often extraordinary music from Schifrin’s career as one of the most identifiable Hollywood composers of his time. He was the one who put those eerie and malevolent female vocalises into the music for “Dirty Harry” (leading to imitation by other composers and his own music for four “Dirty Harry” movies), whose theme for “Mission: Impossible” is one of the most famous TV themes of all time, whose music for “Bullitt” is utterly archetypal Hollywood crime film music, along with his music for “Coogan’s Bluff,” “Joe Kidd,” “The Beguiled” and all manner of films by Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel. (You haven’t lived until you’ve heard the “Amputation Aftermath” music of Siegel’s “The Beguiled” with Eastwood, probably the most Bunuelian movie ever made in America.)

Yes, there’s music here from “Enter the Dragon,” Brett Ratner’s “Rush Hour,” and “Red Dragon” as well as “The Return of the Marquis de Sade.”

Ray Charles singing the theme from “The Cincinnati Kid”? Sure. The theme from TV’s “Mannix?” Of course. “The Fox?” “The Eagle Has Landed?” “Kaleidoscope?” Yes, yes, yes and more, too.

His music provided the climate for a large portion of people’s screen-viewing life. These seem to be re-recordings rather than originals but, despite the felonious lack of truly crucial information in this box, the music is wonderful to listen to for reasons of both remembrance and appreciation.

Whether Schifrin was ever better than he was with Gillespie is an interesting philosophical question.

– Jeff Simon