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Jazz

Heather Masse and Dick Hyman,Lock My Heart” (Red House). You can credit Garrison Keillor for this gorgeous cross-generational tandem beauty. In an age where young singers of all stripes – jazz, R&B, TV’s horde of idol wannabes – do way too much, Heather Masse is a beautiful and stunningly artful 30-year-old jazz singer who never does more or less than necessary, which makes her virtually singular these days and also makes almost everything she does extraordinarily beautiful. Vibrato is virtually nonexistent, melisma is disciplined, jazz phrasing is always musical and never acrobatic for gymnastics’ sake. She’s simply a gorgeous singer – what, it seems to me, Jane Monheit aspires to be but never achieves. She’s part of a Canadian folk trio called the Wailin’ Jennys and has been frequently heard solo and with them on Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” Masse remembers the tremendous ultra-veteran 85-year-old jazz pianist and educator Dick Hyman from when she was 12. “My mother is a pianist and she had his book, ‘Dick Hyman’s Professional Chord Changes and Substitutions for 100 Tunes Every Musician Should Know.’ I would sing and play through the tunes and quickly fell in love with the American songbook.” Fast forward a decade and a half. Hyman was a guest on Keillor’s show and Keillor paired the vigorous octogenarian pianist and the young singer to perform Ellington’s “I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good.” This marvelous disc – including their version of Duke’s classic – is the result of the pairing’s success. So good is Masse that in her company, Hyman feels absolutely no necessity to overdo either. He swings like a terror (wait until you hear them rip through “Love for Sale”) and embellishes with the exactitude of a pianist who knows his singer is “in perfect command of her technique, with the grasp of all sorts of styles and with the improvisational ability of a jazz, blues, folk performer always at hand.” I could have done without the final pseudo-’20s cutesy-poo of the title tune but, other than that, this is a great young singer in the company of one of the great mainstream jazz piano masters. Three and one-half stars (Out of four) (Jeff Simon)

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Barry Altschul, “The 3-Dom Factor” (TUM). Another cross-generational May-December jazz fiesta. In this case, the great free jazz drummer Barry Altschul (Chick Corea, Anthony Braxton) celebrates his rapidly approaching 70th birthday by making his first record as a band leader in more than 25 years – a pianoless trio date with troublemaking alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon, the lead solo voice in the tremendous, searingly sarcastic group that calls itself Mostly Other People Do The Killing, and bassist Joe Fonda. Says Altschul: “The music represents how I look at ‘free jazz.’ The late, great drummer Beaver Harris used the phrase ‘From Ragtime to No Time’ to describe the music” and that’s what you’re hearing here – with the proviso that freedom never leaves them stranded without anything interesting to do, with time or without. The requirement for “free jazz” is that the musicians have enough technique, imagination and wit to know what to do when they can jolly well do as they please and this trio – especially Altschul and 34-year-old Irabagon – is virtually a demonstration of how it’s done. It’s wild, often funny and seldom less than enthralling. Three and one-half stars (Out of four) (J.S.)

Classical

Bach, The English Suites performed by harpsichordist Richard Egarr (Harmonia Mundi, two discs). Sir Thomas Beecham famously compared the sound of the harpsichord to the sound of two skeletons copulating on a tin roof. As witticisms go, it usually stands out more for its flair than for its accuracy. Anyone listening early on to the mono recordings by Wanda Landowska was listening to music that was anything but skeletal and tinny. The same with Igor Kipnis in his recording heyday. On the other hand, there is no question that there are harpsichord recordings of even some of the greatest music in which neither the sound engineering or the performance were enough to transcend a sound which, to our ears, can seem anything but full-bodied. These are fine performances of great Bach keyboard music, but there is no question that in the recording technique, the lack of sonic intimacy distances the music in a way that the performances themselves don’t deserve. Beecham notwithstanding, you can learn to love, quite quickly, the sound of the harpsichord if it has some of the sonic presence it has for the performer. If, on the other hand, you’re cast into a large 18th century drawing room listening to it, the greatness of the music can be diluted. That happens too often here. Three stars (Out of four) (J.S.)

Blues

Taj Mahal, “The Complete Columbia Albums Collection” (Sony/Legacy–15 discs). In retrospect, you could probably say that Charles Mingus was the earliest and probably greatest post-modern jazz musician from the early ’50s on, he was the great living master of meta-jazz, i.e. jazz ABOUT jazz. In a roughly analogous way, Taj Mahal was – and remains – the greatest post-modern bluesman in that he was the greatest at creating meta-blues – blues ABOUT the blues. Among the great things about Black History Month is the formidable inundation of majestic books and disc collections that comes out in celebration. This set of all of Mahal’s incredible music on Columbia – all 15 discs and 170 tracks of it – includes his collaboration with Ry Cooder called “Rising Sons” which was recorded in 1965-66 and issued years afterward in 1992. Taj was among the more misunderstood – and hence underrated – musicians of his time, which means that a mind-bending 15-disc box like this one is virtually necessary to get a sense of exactly how rare and creative a musician he has always been. All manner of things that were difficult to release early on – when there were so many who missed the point of Taj Mahal almost entirely – are put back here in the proper chronological context. The career hereby encompassed is exhilarating and altogether wonderful. Those who were in the Burlington, Ont., neighborhood on Friday could have caught him at the Burlington Performing Arts Center. That he continues to perform is almost as inspiring as the appearance now of this terrific box set. Four stars (J.S.)