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Jim James

Regions of Light and Sound of God

[ATO]

3½ stars (Out of four)

As leader of My Morning Jacket, Jim James grabbed hold of the alt-country movement and dragged it kicking and screaming into the world of arena-rock guitar solos and grandiloquent gestures. The band could, and still can, go from a whisper to a full roar with grace and ease. As a result, James helped to bring an indie-rock sensibility to the jam-band world, and vice versa.

For his full-bore collection outside the embrace of MMJ, James offers a genuine solo effort. He made the album, the enticingly titled “Regions of Light and Sound of God,” by himself, handling the instrumentation, the writing, and the sonic imprint. That makes the collection a more intimate affair, but don’t be misled – this is no ruminative strummer-bummer singer/songwriter fare. These are arresting songs, completed pieces with significant attention paid to detail, arrangement and dramatic arc.

What’s immediately apparent here, as it has been on some of MMJ’s most arresting tunes – “Golden,” “Librarian,” “Thank You Too” – is the warm soulfulness of James’ singing. It’s impossible to miss the gospel influence throughout “Regions of Light …,” from the opening supple piano chords welcoming “State of the Art,” through the outer space disco of “Know Til Now,” and even lurking within the ambient beauty of the truly tripped out “Of the Mother Again.”

Regardless of the instrumentation – be it synthesizers and drum loops, or a creaky old upright piano and a rudimentary acoustic drum figure – James brings a sense of the American South to the proceedings, even if his take on “church music” might not have any conventional connotations. The album’s lyrical themes – the cycle of death and rebirth, the need to push perceived limitations in the interest of new discovery, and the inevitability of having to do all of it all over again, repeatedly – are lent grandeur by the implied mysticism of the sounds themselves. The voice – otherworldly, yearning-infused, capable of summoning serious emotional heft – is equally affecting whether delivered as breathy whisper or wailing falsetto.

The danger with solo albums involves the tendency toward unrewarding self-indulgence. Anyone who has ever crafted a recording solely on their own knows well the temptation to satisfy every imaginative whim, taking full advantage of the fact that no one is hanging around waiting to tell you “No.” Happily, James treated “Regions of Light …” much as he’s treated MMJ albums – as an opportunity to craft beautifully idiosyncratic music that is at the same time eminently capable of forming a deep emotional connection with the listener. That’s a tough gig. James makes it sound easy.

– Jeff Miers

Jazz

Wayne Shorter Quartet

Without a Net

[Blue Note]

4 stars

Miles Davis Quintet

Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2

[Columbia/Legacy]

4 stars

The very best is always worth waiting for.

There will be few more-awaited jazz discs in the entire rest of 2013 than these two have been already for months – the three-disc (plus DVD) box set of searing live performances by a truly great Miles Davis Quintet that never recorded in the studio and the new disc of live performances by the 79-year-old jazz titan who is the other featured frontline soloist with Davis. Both are jazz history milestones.

So extraordinary a player does saxophonist Wayne Shorter remain at his advanced age that they are already planning his late summer 80th birthday celebration at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Absolutely nothing on “Without a Net” reveals any late-life failing or musical vulnerability from Shorter. What you’re hearing, quite simply, is an exceptional jazz quartet in a string of live performances that has been together for nearly 12 years playing jazz of the highest invention and virtuosity in current jazz. If there are times with earphones if the sound mix seems oddly light on its premier solo voice Shorter, when you’re talking about a group with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Pattitucci and drummer Brian Blade, you’re dealing with musicians playing at a uniformly Olympian level (Perez and Blade are particularly powerful here). And with a conventional disc player, all sound deficiencies are rectified five times over.

Nor is it all small combo music. The 23-minute track “Pegasus” is a larger composition played by the quartet with the Imani Winds that was recorded in Disney Hall in Los Angeles. Says Shorter “if your goal is to play an instrument, what comes out can be pretty boring. But if you think in broader terms about what you feel needs to be heard of what you wish for the human condition, that can change things.”

The title of the disc came from a conversation with Shorter and his old friend, the late actress Vonetta McGee, whom he’d known since they were teenagers. “You know what?” she told this quartet. “You guys are playing without a net.” And so they do.

No one in postmodern jazz history explored the art of playing without a net more thrillingly than Davis in his “Bitches Brew” period. “Live in Europe in 1969” is a singular, glorious and electrifying contribution to that very jazz history – a string of live European performances by an amazing Davis quintet: Shorter, electric pianist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette playing some of the most astonishing music of his entire life. As if all that weren’t enough, this is some of Davis’ most robust live performance on disc from any era.

It is a box set that is everything that could have been hoped from those who have long waited for it.

These are official reasons for the jazz audience to celebrate for months to come.

– Jeff Simon

Crossover

Polkastra

I Do: The Wedding Album

[Ancalagon]

3 stars

Lots of classical musicians try to kick back and do something just as a joke. Few do it well. Violinist Lara St. John and a group of friends, including soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, outdo themselves, and anyone else I have heard, with this klezmer/polka/slow drag group, Polkestra. Their previous album, “Apolkalypse Now,” was also released on St. John’s private label, Ancalagon (and was praised in The Buffalo News).

You have to laugh hearing a subsonic, burping contrabassoon accompanying a veering take on Jeremiah Clarke’s “Trumpet Voluntary,” with the melody played on a trumpet/flugelhorn hybrid. Wagner’s “Lohengrin” March played on a sassy trombone, accompanied by a growling bassoon, then bursts into happy klezmer chatter, ending with a horse whinny. “J.S. Bach Bachelor Party” is a wacky take of “Wachet Auf,” with the musicians bopping happily away at the obbligato and the trombone taking the chorale melody. It morphs into “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” with accordion and dotted rhythms. And all those numbers are just in “The Ceremony.”

“The Party” includes “Kosher Chicken Dance,” “O Sole Mio” and other things you might not want to know about.

I’m going to assume that these people have been on “A Prairie Home Companion.” If they haven’t been, they should be.

– Mary Kunz Goldman