Tricky, “False Idols” (Life or Death). It’s been tricky being Tricky. The British DJ/producer, born Adrian Thaws, made a grand entrance in 1995 with “Maxinequaye,” his Mercury Prize-winning debut album that mixed dub, hip-hop and electronica into a dense sound that made other trip-hop acts of the day sound like child’s play. His next few records were more than serviceable, but eventually the paranoia that always coursed through his music overwhelmed it, and after a while, Tricky was a forgotten man.
He’s back on form, however, on “False Idols.” In place of one-time vocal foil Martina Topley-Bird is lovely-voiced 24-year-old Brit Francesca Belmonte, and other tracks feature guest contributions from Peter Silberman of the Antlers and Nigerian songstress Nneka. The opener, “Somebody’s Sins,” references Van Morrison and Patti Smith, and “Valentine” reshapes “My Funny Valentine” for its own moody ends. In both of those cases and throughout “False Idols,” Tricky wisely resists the temptation to undercut the songs’ simple hooks. It wouldn’t be a Tricky album without a touch of the dystopian, but “False Idols” benefits greatly from letting a little light in along with the darkness. ΩΩΩ (Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer)
Agnetha Fatlskog, “A” (Verve). As one of the two golden female voices of Abba, Agnetha Fältskog represents not just the slickest of Euro songcraft but the purest of voices, period. She is queenly beyond a “Dancing Queen.” She’s made few solo albums since the Swedish mega-act dissolved in 1983, and it’s easy to see why: She’s her own hardest act to follow.
With the help of producer / writer Jörgen Elofsson (famous for early Britney Spears and Kelly Clarkson hits), Fältskog sounds as clear and cool in 2013 as she did on “Fernando” of 1976. She’s not an electro-lounge reptilian à la Bryan Ferry, yet like him, Fältskog has a musical language gloriously frozen in time. Though she can’t reach the high notes of yore, Fältskog the singer is full-blooded and icily passionate on the disco-phonic “Dance Your Pain Away” and the sleek MOR pop of “Back on Your Radio.” The main focus of “A,” though, is ballads, be they grand and slow or slight and bright. While the midtempo “The One Who Loves You Now” presents Fältskog at her key-changing trickiest, the sadly romantic “When You Really Loved Someone” and “Perfume in the Breeze” are simple, pristine, and gorgeously rendered. ΩΩΩ (A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer)
Pat Metheny, “Tap: John Zorn’s Book of Angels, Volume 20” (Nonesuch). Melding the music of the Middle East (and even farther East) into jazz is a very different proposition these days than it was with Ziggy Elman and the Andrews Sisters and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon.” Before Dave Douglas, Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa began doing it with astonishing invention, John Zorn and a large wave of Israeli jazz musicians were probably the first and most significant to do it. The indefatigably exploratory Zorn’s 500(!) songs inspired by Jewish music were called “The Masada Book.” The second set of 300 of them was said to have been written over a period of just three months. It is those that have been recorded by many others, including Marc Ribot and Medeski, Martin and Wood and are, in six cases, recorded here by Pat Metheny playing every string and plectrum in instrumental overdub that he can lay his hands on (along with playing bandoneon and, yes, fluegelhorn), along with his accustomed drummer Antonio Sanchez. There is no question that some of the synthesizer sounds that emerge so breezily from the middle American anthemic music he’s made so popular are completely inappropriate for Zorn’s songs. But when he’s improvising on various guitars, sitars and string instruments, the fit is inspired, which makes the seemingly unlikely combination of Metheny and Zorn inspired too. All of this was recorded in Metheny’s home studio with Zorn helping to pick out the most appropriate compositions. “A showcase for Pat’s remarkable imagination, technique, passion and love for the world,” Zorn calls it. Yes, that’s for quotation, but it’s not hype. It’s hard not to love it when Metheny steps out into the world with the likes of explorers like Zorn and Ornette Coleman. ΩΩΩ (Jeff Simon)
Wadada Leo Smith & Tumo, “Occupy the World” (TUM, two discs). You’ll instantly understand why Wadada Leo Smith was a recent recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in the opening minutes of this – huge, spacious music layering a dark melody for horns and string orchestra over a rain of jazz percussion. Cymbal torrents, tom-toms. And then, in earnest, Smith’s surprisingly sturdy and weathered ability to put post-serial symphonic music together with avant-garde jazz. There is an evocation of ancient Egyptian Queen Hathsheput here along with a new tribute to the late New Jazz player Marion Brown. The musicians in collaboration here are one of Europe’s truly remarkable New Jazz orchestras – in this case the Finnish orchestra TUMO (an acronym for Finnish words meaning “Really New Music Orchestra.”) The members of the orchestra came from all over Europe, and Smith’s solos are integrated into what liner notater Frank A. Matzmer calls the “fluid, universal movement for change” that the Occupy Movement was at first. Far less helpful are Smith’s own notes, which essentially underscore his happiness in letting each instrument speak through its own tonality. Some of this goes back to music he made with Anthony Braxton 45 years ago. It is, in many ways, a plausible fulfillment over time of what was once far less plausible. ΩΩΩ (J.S.)
Omer Klein, “To the Unknown” (Plus Loin Music). Pianist Omer Klein is one of the many fine Israeli musicians who have added unexpected colors and sensibilities to jazz over the past decade and a half. He studied with Danilo Perez in Boston and Fred Hersch in New York, but he’s a winning lyrical pianist of a post-Jarrett, post-Mehldau sort who is not trying to be in Jarrett or Mehldau’s league as a virtuoso. He is, in his own right, a formidable player and a rock-solid musical structuralist. Listen to his tunes and solos with his trio (Haggai Cohen-Milo on bass, Ziu Ravitz on drums). They begin somewhere and end somewhere and are fascinating getting from one place to another in the performing process. Even with three other discs to his name, he could have used notes here at this early stage of his career, but the music is winning all by itself. ΩΩΩ (J.S.)
Bob James & David Sanborn, “Quartette Humaine” (Okeh/Sony). What has always separated sluggardly jazz/rock fusion from straight ahead jazz is the unimaginative stolidity of the rhythm sections and the drummers specifically. Except for its infectious final cut “Deep in the Weeds,” this is a straight-ahead jazz disc in which pianist Bob James and saxophonist David Sanborn – whose constant inflections in his phrasing make him so popular as an R&B saxophonist – are so happy to be playing as pure jazz musicians on, say, “Sofia,” and “My Old Flame” that they’re playing here as inventively as they have in a long time on disc. It’s drummer Steve Gadd, I think, who has spent so many decades dispensing rock rhythms that he’s not always capable of figuring out imaginative things to do behind two musicians who are so attuned to each other every step of the way. Sometimes, he just plays elemental rhythms with brushes. As good as Gadd is on the likes of “Follow Me,” the disc is full of tunes where a drummer who’d learned to have a responsive imagination from, say, Shelley Manne or Paul Motian would have made this as savory and warm a jazz disc as James, Sanborn and Genus were ready for it to be. For playing like this, you’ve got to love the disc’s title though – “Quartette Humaine.” Bravo. ΩΩΩ (J.S.)
Stravinsky, Complete Music for Piano and Orchestra performed by Steven Osborne and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov (Hyperion). However much Stravinsky may have performed as a pianist in concert and may have insisted that the piano was the “fulcrum” of his composition, he was not a great composer for the piano – not certainly in the virtuoso sense. It’s likely, in fact, that one of his great masterpieces – “Les Noces” – used the piano in such an idiosyncratic way that any idea of Stravinsky belonging to the through-line of great piano composers (Bach-Beethoven-Liszt-Chopin-Scriabin-Bartok) is utterly absurd. Hence the general neglect of his piano music, which in the case, for instance, of the gorgeous largissimo cantabile from the mid-’20s Concerto for Piano and Wind instruments is a major loss. The late-’20s “Capriccio” is the concerto’s sibling, but in the 1959 “Movements for Piano and Orchestra,” we have one of the post-Robert Craft serial compositions that Stravinsky called his “most advanced” music in its era (influenced, no less, by Krenek and Stockhausen.) Osborne is an especially fine pianist for exactly this kind of endeavor, but the music is, except for the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, not among the modern master’s most engaging music. It’s splendid, I think, that the disc exists and is as proficient as it is. ∆∆∆ (J.S.)
Jorg Widmann, “Violin Concerto,” “Antiphon” and “Island of the Sirens” performed by violinist Christian Tetzlaff and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Ondine). Almost a full minute goes by in Widmann’s “Island of the Sirens” before the violinist makes a few hesitant sounds. “Extreme drama is in the air,” says the composer, who is 40 and is also a clarinetist. It is, without question, the most extreme and avant-garde piece on the disc and, needless to say, requires venturesome listeners who will have a much easier time of it with the broad musical gestures of his violin concerto and “Antiphon.” (Though the notes admit the concerto’s harmonics “resonate from the most horrible dissonances to the most horrible major chords. It becomes more and more terrible with nothing but tonality and beauty.”) Widmann isn’t quite as vivid and ground-breaking as the disc notes suggest, but he IS a striking one, rather excitingly played here by Tetzlaff. ∆∆½ (J.S.)
Rachmaninov, “Symphony No. 3” in A-Minor Op. 44 and “Symphonic Dances” Op. 45 performed by Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin (Naxos). Even with Slatkin conducting, it is perhaps unfair to expect the Detroit Symphony to have the big lush sound these works really demand. (And which, from the major orchestras in London or Moscow or Berlin or New York would be de rigueur.) But then there’s a sense in which purely workmanlike Rachmaninov is a very sensible way to hear the composer away from his concertos. The music is all here. You have to take its fervency on faith – more in the Symphony than in the Symphonic Dances. ΩΩΩ (J.S.)