Julian Lennon

Everything Changes

[Music From Another Room]

Three stars

Being John Lennon’s son has not made things particularly easy for Julian Lennon. Lennon was not, it seems from the myriad published accounts, a particularly great father to his first-born son. And then, after his death, John’s shadow seemed to obscure Julian’s efforts. He looked and sounded so much like his father that, despite the success of his debut album, “Valotte,” it seemed that Julian was never going to be taken particularly seriously.

That’s a shame, because Julian is a writer and record-maker worth attention based solely on his own merits. To be perfectly honest, despite the genetic connection, Julian has always been much more McCartney than Lennon – meaning, he is a pop cratfstman with an affection for unabashed pop melodicism who, unlike John, does not seem to be particularly irreverent.

“Everything Changes,” Julian’s first new release in 15 years, is full of well-written, smartly arranged pop songs peppered with well-observed lyrics and plenty of memorable hooks. Many of the album’s strongest tracks – the unfortunately titled but frankly beautiful “Lookin’ 4 Love,” the elegiac album-opening title tune, the airy, dreamlike “Hold On” – are piano-based ballads that have been built into dramatic set-pieces by Julian and his production team, which includes Grant Ranson, former Ian Anderson collaborator Peter Vetesse, and mixing engineer Jeff Rothschild.

There are rock elements at play here as well, most notably a rather outstanding collaboration with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, who co-wrote and sang vibrant vocal harmony on “Someday.” (The tune begins with Julian and Tyler singing harmony on a snippet from the Beatles’ “Baby You’re A Rich Man,” which offers a nice setup for the psychedelic pop piece that follows.)

This is not earth-shattering music, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is indeed impeccably crafted and passionately performed. As far as contemporary epic, orchestral pop music goes, “Everything Changes” would be an outstanding effort no matter who its creator’s father happened to be.

– Jeff Miers


Chucho Valdes and the Afro-Cuban Messengers


[Jazz Village]

Three stars

The minor miracle that brought us a small wave of great (and often pyrotechnic) jazz pianists from South of the Border began, more or less, with the Cuban group Irakere, whose astonishing pianist Chucho Valdes presaged so many to come to North American ears – Valdes’ younger Cuban compatriot Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Valdes’ remarkable pianist father Bebo, the extraordinary Dominican pianist Michel Camilo, and Hilario Duran, Valdes’ 60-year old fellow pianist who has, courtesy of Canadian flutist and soprano saxophonist Jane Bunnett, virtually become an honorary Torontonian (at the very least an honorary Canadian).

Every opportunity to hear Valdes live or on disc is precious. In 2003, he came to Kleinhans Music Hall under the auspices of a splendidly international BPO. His 2010 sextet disc “Chucho’s Steps” paid tribute to his spiritual and real compadres up North – John Coltrane, Joe Zawinul and the Marsalis family, among others (with whom the Valdes family, with a musical patriarch of its own, can no doubt identify).

“Border-Free” is an even more ambitious and challenging sextet disc than “Chucho’s Steps.” He explains here that “we have tried to combine compatible styles with Afro-Cuban roots and in doing so we were lucky enough to work with the great Branford Marsalis.” It is, then, Chucho’s regular quintet with Branford Marsalis as guest star.

What that means here musically, then, in practice is a flamenco melody, Arabian scales on a tribute to a Moroccan musician (which, in the coda, somehow drags virtuosic Rachmaninoff – his grandmother’s favorite – into the picture), a ripping and surprising invocation of the Comanche Indian influence in Cuban music, a tribute to Marguerita Lucuona who composed “Babalu” and was the sister of Ernest who composed “Malaguena” and pieces dedicated to his father and late mother (with a coda of Bach for that one).

I must confess that I have always like Chucho Valdes best when he is “showing off” – playing exciting, wildly unpredictable uptempo numbers with just a rhythm section or playing equally unpredictable ballads. Not even Branford Marsalis playing with him makes for a cut equal to Valdes playing with just bass and drums. His bassist, Angel Gaston Joya Perellada is particularly fine.

It may be, overall, less gripping than “Chucho’s Steps” but it’s a gift nonetheless.

– Jeff Simon


Canadian Brass


[Opening Day]

Three stars

Summer CDs are like summer movies: They’re supposed to be fun, something you can take in with a Big Gulp. In that spirit, if the Canadian Brass wants to play Robert Schumann’s “Carnaval,” well, bring it on! You can see Schumann kind of rubbing his head at the thought, but, well, he did that at everything. In other words, I welcome the idea of this disc, which includes not only “Carnaval” but “Kinderszenen.”

The Canadian Brass plays beautifully and some sections work out well. The witty apportioning of the music among the various instruments plays up the music’s schizophrenic nature – it often turns on a dime, mirroring Schumann’s personality, zigzagging this way and that. The success of the idea, though, is a mixed bag. Lyrical passages featuring the oboe and/or French horn – “Chopin,” from “Carnaval,” for instance, surprisingly – are serene and agreeable. “Pause” lends itself well to brass – it always sounded to me uncannily like a ragtime waltz. “Paganini,” a tour de force for a pianist, also comes out surprisingly well in this new permutation. At other points, the transcriptions, however artful, can’t capture the spirit of the pieces, which are very pianistic. The quick skipping jumps of “Coquette” bite at you. And though you have to love the subterranean bassoon burp that introduces the climactic “March of the Davidsbund Against the Philistines,” the march itself, even with all the fanfare of a brass band, doesn’t have the excitement a good pianist can give it. The final coda, so dazzling on piano, is reduced to a lot of oom-pah-pah.

Still, this is a lot of fun, and it might help you hear new things in the music.

– Mary Kunz Goldman



Complete Overtures – 2

Prague Sinfonia Orchestra conducted by Christian Benda


Three stars

With the new “Lone Ranger” movie almost upon us (Happy July 4th), can a new recording of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” be far behind?

Not bloody likely. Which is why it’s worth remembering that one of the greatest blindfold tests in all of classical music would be to play someone the first three minutes of the “William Tell Overture” – particularly this version from Prague Musicians with its warm solo cello playing – and ask reasonably literate but not partisan listeners of classical music to identify the overture’s sublimely beautiful five cello opening.

Few would believe that just a couple movements away would be that familiar trumpet fanfare and string gallop which has come to mean “the Lone Ranger” everywhere in America.

The rest of these Rossini Overtures are “Eduardo e Christina,” “L’Inganno felice,” “La Scala di seta,” “Demetrio e Polibio”, “Il Signore Bruschino, “Sinfonia de Bologna” and “Sigismondo,” a nicely full helping of Rossiniana all written before “The William Tell” and so many of which open with a gorgeousness that belies their charismatic energy completely.

– J.S.