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Country

Tim McGraw

Two Lanes of Freedom

[Big Machine]

Rating: 2 stars

For his first album in two years, Tim McGraw arrives clean, sober and reportedly, very happy to be both. He also arrives on a new label, Big Machine, home to Taylor Swift, who appears here in a cameo role. Appropriately, given McGraw’s new lease on sober life, the album at least loosely follows a theme of new beginnings, despite the fact that McGraw didn’t have a hand in writing any of the songs that fill it.

Only a cynic could fail to be happy for McGraw. He’s always seemed like a decent guy, and who doesn’t like to see a good guy beat his demons and get back on track? That said, it would have been nice if the music felt like a new beginning, rather than a cliché-ridden regurgitation of the past. This is modern country music’s problem, not just McGraw’s. The tendency toward hackneyed tropes has become expected, to the point that someone like Swift can come out with high school diary psychobabble and be praised as “refreshing.” True, if contemporary country puns like “Truck Yeah” and “Mexicoma” – both employed by McGraw here – stick in your craw. But so much modern country music sounds interchangeable that even the slightest idiosyncrasies stick out like a Stetson at a hip-hop concert.

Musically, things are par for the present-day course throughout “Two Lanes of Freedom,” its title sounding like it could have been cribbed from a truck commercial script – the musicianship is sturdy, the performances impeccable to the precipice of sterility, the singing emotive and sincere to the point that you can’t help but doubt its sincerity. Sometimes, this is fine and dandy, as it is during the album-opening title song, which has an undeniable pop hook to recommend it. But elsewhere – as in album-closing, cringe-worthy power ballad “Highway Don’t Care,” which features both Swift and Keith Urban adding to the musical carnage – it’s painfully obvious that McGraw has no intention of challenging himself or his audience.

Sadly, that may be the point.

Jeff Miers

Jazz

Pat Metheny

The Orchestrion Project

[Nonesuch]

Rating: 4 stars

At the conclusion of his 2010 tour, Pat Metheny headed directly to a soundstage in Brooklyn, where he performed the program he had just taken to more than 100 cities solely for the camera eye of filmmakers Pierre and Francois Lamoureux, and a bunch of strategically placed microphones. The idea was to capture how the material Metheny had been playing grew, morphed and was ultimately transformed over the course of the tour.

No big deal, you might say, except for the fact that for this particular jaunt, launched behind the “Orchestrion” album, Metheny’s “band” consisted of a computer-controlled mini- orchestra, whose entry and exit-point cues were controlled in real time by Maestro Metheny’s guitar. It was as if Metheny had become a one-man band but was still able to “play” somewhere in the area of 15 instruments, sometimes simultaneously.

No mere parlor trick, as a tour stop at the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts more than proved, the “Orchestrion” gig was a wonder to behold. Not merely on the technological level, though that was certainly jaw-droppingly incredible, but on the musical level, too.

Somehow, Metheny was able to craft genuinely organic interplay between himself and the “instrument-bots” assembled around him. It was freaky, for sure, but much more importantly, it was dense, dynamic, exciting, subtle and beautiful.

“The Orchestrion Project” is, in a few ways, even more sublime than the original “Orchestrion” album. Here, Metheny displays a mastery of the technology. There is no question who is in charge by this point, and be assured, it ain’t the machines.

Beginning with a dramatic on-the-spot acoustic guitar/percussion creation known simply as “Improvisation #1,” Metheny then blends reimagined bits of his back catalog into this new setting, intermingling them with the “Orchestrion” material. Beautiful Latin-based melodies like “Antonia” and “Tell Her You Saw Me,” both culled from Metheny’s 1992 album “Secret Story,” come to sparkling life in this context, as he “conducts” the music-bots with subtle mastery. He does so in a painterly fashion – bringing different colors and textures in and out of the mix at will.

Sometimes this is dramatic and near-epic, as is the case with a radically reimagined “80/81 – Broadway Blues.” At other times, as with the set-closing take on “Unity Village” (originally on the 1976 release “Bright Size Life”), a sparse and lyrical approach is embraced. Either way, Metheny has managed to do the all-but-impossible here – he’s made machines sound deeply human.

J.M.

Classical

Duke Ellington

Black, Brown and Beige and Other Works

The Buffalo Philharmonic conducted by JoAnn Falletta

[Naxos]

Rating: 3 stars

Jerome Moross

Symphony No. 1, The Last Judgment and Variations on a Waltz for Orchestra

London Symphony

conducted by JoAnn Falletta

[Albany]

Rating: 2½ stars

The classic tale of Duke Ellington’s collision with “official” American Culture (with a capital C) stems from 48 years ago. The Pulitzer Prize jury, finding no single work by anyone awardable recommended that the prize go to Duke Ellington for his body of work. The Pulitzer oversight board – a traditionally stuffy, indeed clueless outfit at the time, to put it mildly – nixed the idea.

Ellington’s comment on the whole sorry business to come along in his 66th year on earth was: “Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to become too famous too young.” (Part of the virtually inexhaustible evidence that Ellington may well have been the coolest human being who ever lived.)

Buffalo high culture has never partaken of Ellington condescension, not even in the slightest. Courtesy of the ’60s efforts of its choir director Hans Vigeland, Westminster Church, quite famously, sports a representation of Ellington on its stained glass windows along with more exalted “classical” figures.

Here we have, performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by JoAnn Falletta, about as good a version of Duke’s “Black, Brown and Beige” and other major bits of Ellingtonia as you’re ever likely to hear from a symphony orchestra. Listen to the BPO’s percussionists doing what they do to conclude Ellington’s “Harlem” from 1950. There’s no question that no performance will ever beat those that Ellington put on record. That’s because the pieces were almost always written with the members of his own band – their strengths and limitations – in mind.

Other pieces besides “Black, Brown and Biege” (whose first movement “Black” sounds truly majestic from a full symphony orchestra) include the 1943 ballet “Three Black Kings,” which was completed by Ellington’s son Mercer; 1970’s “The River” orchestrated by Ron Collier; and Ellington’s own symphonic arrangement of his alter ego Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train.”

A fine celebration of Ellington by Falletta and the BPO with solos by Sal Andolina and Tony DiLorenzo.

Of less interest in Falletta’s rather wonderfully prolific recorded output is her performance with the London Symphony Orchestra of a full program of works by film composer Jerome Moross, including his first symphony and the world premiere recording of Moross’ “Variation on a Waltz for Orchestra.” Moross was an interesting figure. Even though the Copland influence on his first symphony was clearly immense, he was also the pianist for the first broadcast performance of the opening of Ives’ “Concord Sonata.”

These are all appealing works in the extreme, if not quite as deserving of attention in upscale music circles as the works of Ellington.

One does, however, find less of a gap between Falletta’s performance of Moross’ music with the Londoners and the music’s ideal performance than there is between the BPO’s creditable performance of Ellington and the best performances the music is ever likely to have.

– Jeff Simon