Cyrus Chestnut

“Midnight Melodies”

[Smoke Sessions]

3 stars

Whether or not the Steinway in New York’s Smoke Jazz Club is, as Cyrus Chestnut claims in the publicity for this disc “the best piano in the city,” the club was certainly a fine place for Chestnut to play his first (no kidding) live recording.

It’s certainly a fluent and swinging recitation in the grammar of mainstream bebop piano with the kind of sterling veteran trio mates who can’t help but bolster the cause: bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Victor Lewis. There a few tiny, transient episodes of post-Cecil Taylor splatter piano, but what you’ve mostly got here is an adherence to the rules so stringent that, for all its prettiness and swing, there isn’t an ounce of musical surprise in the whole disc.

We learned decades ago, when Chestnut, in the first flush of fame, brought a trio to the Calumet Cafe on Allen Street, that all those years as a gospel pianist and as an accompanist for Betty Carter made Chestnut nothing if not proficient in the showbiz of piano trio music. (I love the sudden, sarcastic pseudo-Jarrett groan he throws in here.) The trouble is when he plays all manner of bluesy stutter-chords here, it’s effective only up to a point. And beyond that point, it just reminds you how much you would rather hear them on a Gene Harris disc.

Chestnut is a fine working jazz pianist with trio-mates of solid gold (listen to bassist Lundy’s melodic banter with him during the melody statement of “Bag’s Groove”). But it’s almost as if the declared excellence of the club’s piano inhibited him and prohibited him from going too deep into the earth with it or taking it too far out into the ionosphere.

A very good jazz pianist but a very earthbound and polite one, too.

– Jeff Simon


ZZ Top

The Very Baddest of ZZ Top

[Warner Brothers, two discs]

3.5 stars

OK, we can practically hear you from here: “by now, we ought to make it a contest – which record label has most mercilessly recycled the same hits over and over and over again? Even if no one is ever going to exceed what RCA has done to squeeze every drop out of Elvis Presley’s recorded legacy, should Warner Brothers’ constant versions of the ZZ Top catalog be right up there?”

Which, by all rights, should consign this newest two-disc collection of ZZ Top to the realm of the splendid but unnecessary.

Not so fast, Private Wojiewski, in the words of the old joke. Something is happening on this double-disc anthology that has never happened before, no matter how familiar greatest hits compilations have become for ZZ Top.

What this does on its selection of 40 ZZ Top favorites is compile the best from all of the band’s three labels – London, RCA Victor and Warner Brothers.

The ancient purist argument about ZZ Top – that it was best as a blues-riffing boogie machine before “Eliminator” made it one of the monster bands of the MTV era – will always be a bit of a crock. But no other double disc greatest hits set is able to give that proposition as much of a thorough test as this one, where the endlessly collected “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Legs,” “Gimme All Your Lovin’ ” and “Tush” sit in the same double disc set with “Just Got Back from Baby’s” (from 1970), “Blue Jean Blues” (1975), the single version of “Viva Las Vegas” (1992), “Jesus Just Left Chicago” (1973) and “Just Got Paid” (1971).

What’s here, then, is the evolution of a boogie-down bar blues band to a pop-music behemoth and then arena rock holding action.

When it’s all over but the shouting, the greatest of ZZ Top’s greatest hits still sound like some of the best stuff rock ’n’ roll has ever done with three-chord grandiloquence.

– Jeff Simon


Jose Carreras

Live Comeback Concerts


3.5 stars

Let’s hear it for the old-fashioned vocal recital, as presented by such singers as Caruso and John McCormack. Jose Carreras’ 1988 comeback concerts, celebrating his almost miraculous recovery from leukemia, follow that populist pattern. The disc begins with Grieg’s “Ich Liebe Dich,” a passionate song people used to hear 80 years ago, but hardly anybody has sung since 1960. And it ends with the highly objectionable but once fashionable “Granada.”

We also get to hear Carreras singing “Nessun Dorma” to piano accompaniment, a Victorian touch.

Carreras was generally considered the lightweight among the Three Tenors. It was understandable considering that the other two were Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. But it sells Carreras’ gifts short. Even as a convalescent, he has an admirable ease of singing, a marvelously smooth and courtly tone, and a beautiful way of shaping his syllables.

He is never on autopilot, either. His heart is in what he sings. The audience’s heart, too, is clearly in it, and the applause is part of the fun as they roar their approval of such songs as Eduardo Toldra’s mournful “Canticel” and Reynaldo Hahn’s “L’heure exquise” as well as arias by Bellini and Scarlatti. The Three Tenors era was kind of fun, you know?

– Mary Kunz Goldman


Stile Antico

From the Imperial Court: Music for the House of Hapsburg

[Harmonia Mundi USA]

3.5 stars

This is wonderful Renaissance music, most of it by Flemish and Spanish composers. A lot of it can make you think of Palestrina, with that weightless feeling as if the melodies are floating down from heaven. There also are harmonic surprises, as if the music is playing tricks with your ear. One of the most gorgeous pieces is “Loquebantur variis linguis” by Thomas Tallis, with interludes of glorious polyphony linked by lines of Gregorian chant. A “Jubilate Deo” by Cristobal de Morales also strikes a majestic note. There is a secular curiosity I loved: Jacob Clemens Non Papa’s “Carole magnus eras,” a paean to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. It ends: “Rome is yours, Europe is yours, Asia and all of Africa. What more? You cannot: You have everything.”

The liner notes are dense and it’s hard to find your way around the CD because the pieces are listed one way on the jacket and in another order – the actual order – in the notes. Still it’s a beautiful disc. Stile Antico is at the top of the Renaissance a cappella scene. Their voices are seamless.

– Mary Kunz Goldman