3½ stars (Out of 4)
Paul McCartney is in uncharted waters. Again.
It’s apparently not enough that McCartney helped create the blueprint by which, let’s face it, we routinely do (and always should) judge popular music. Now, McCartney is once again going where no other mainstream rock artist has gone. With the release of “New,” his 4,798th album (I kid), McCartney becomes the first rock artist to make a positively great studio album in his 70s.
“New” succeeds, like everything great that McCartney has been involved in, on the strength of a rather jubilant diversity. It’s a beautifully recorded and smartly produced example of pop and rock craftsmanship at its finest. And it’s also incredibly hip.
That’s not something McCartney could always be accused of being. He seemed hopelessly out of touch, for example, when releasing “Off the Ground” in the early ’90s, and yes, “Ebony & Ivory” is fairly cringe-inducing stuff. But by taking a few pages from his work as the Fireman, the McCartney of “New” was smart enough to call on producers like Mark Ronson, Paul Epworth, Giles Martin and Ethan Johns to help him conjure an album that runs the gamut from nearly avant-garde pop (“Queenie Eye,” “Alligator”) to painfully earnest balladry (“Early Days,” “On My Way To Work”). There is throughout this album the childlike joy that has long informed McCartney’s masterpieces – as ever, he sounds positively thrilled to be in a recording studio, singing his songs, burying hidden treasures in the mix for the curious ear to discover, playing most of the instruments himself, and reminding us all that he is indeed “that guy.”
Lyrically, there are a few moments that come across as a bit clunky. “On My Way To Work,” for example, attempts to blend the slightly psychedelic and surreal with the everyday in the manner of “Penny Lane,” but occasionally comes across as more corny than charming. But melodically, McCartney is in top form here. The melodies are of that rare variety that arrive like old friends, sounding at once memorable and incredibly infectious. And McCartney, as ever, is a brilliant arranger, a man who knows just where to add a vocal harmony, when to allow an overdubbed guitar figure to emerge into the mix as if a beam of light from behind a black cloud, and what percussion to add to which bit of the song in order to keep the forward momentum going.
At this point in time, McCartney can only be measured against his past work. Even by that ridiculously high standard, “New” comes up a winner.
– Jeff Miers
Ralph Towner, Wolfgang Muthspiel and Slava Grigoryan
Tarun Balani Collective
No one expects jazz anymore to be parochially American, but this is ridiculous. How international can you be? Listen to these two discs and you’ll know.
Drummer Tarun Balani, 27, is an Indian musician educated at Berklee (of course) whose disc “Sacred World” was recorded with all-Indian musicians in Mumbai, except for Swedish bassist Bruno Raberg, who now lives in Boston.
Ralph Towner’s new three-guitar chamber disc is with Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel and Australian guitarist Slava Grigoryan, who was born in Kazakhstan. They came together to become a group in Australia, but the disc was recorded in Lugano, Switzerland, for the ECM label.
For those of us in America who have been blown away by the Indo-American jazz of Rudresh Mahanthappa and Macarthur “genius” fellow Vijay Iyer, the music of “Sacred World” presents us with something very different in Indo-American jazz. It’s often more conventional and almost always far more full of space and deliberation than the Indo-American jazz of Iyer and Mahanthappa, whose way of being dissonant and virtuosic can be blistering. The distinguishing quality of “Sacred World” on the other hand is simplicity and an extreme contemplative reluctance to pursue virtuosity at the rocket tempos where Iyer and Mahanthappa do their most transcendent work.
It’s a beautiful disc whose quietude, contemplativeness and internationalism would have fit perfectly on ECM.
Towner, the co-creator of Oregon, has been recording with ECM for 40 years. This three-guitar chamber jazz blends Towner’s classical 12-string guitars, Muthspiel’s electric guitar (and voice) and Grigoryan’s classical and baritone guitars into etudes of virtually monastic purity. In effect, it often (as on “Amarone Trio”) sounds more like a “Sacred World” than the music on Balani’s disc.
Beautiful discs both, nevertheless.
– Jeff Simon
Conjurer and Vocalise
“When asked to compose a percussion concerto,” writes brilliant and much-honored composer John Corigliano, “my only reaction was horror. All I could see were problems. While I love using a percussion battery in my orchestra writing, the very thing that makes it the perfect accent to other orchestral sonorities makes it unsatisfactory when it takes the spotlight in a concerto.”
You’d never know it in “The Conjurer,” which seems so lacking in discomfort that it might have been something that came from a former fellow traveler of West Coast percussion experimentalists Lou Harrison, John Cage and Henry Cowell. Only the electronics identify it as very much post-Varese while the strings make it post-minimalist. With Dame Evelyn Glennie, it’s a tantalizing mix of sonorities, all with their own contexts and connotations. And all materialized with mystery by the percussion “Conjurer.”
The disc ends with a marvelous 21-minute “Vocalise” performed by soprano Hila Plitmann and composed in 1999, says Corigliano, “to come to terms with the worlds of amplification and electronic manipulation that surrounded [the modern ensemble] in the popular and film world.”
“I wanted to write a piece for electronics that was beautiful to hear.” And so it is.
Lisitsa Plays Liszt
Valentina Lisitsa, piano
This disc strikes a show-offy tone, announcing that its centerpiece is “the ferociously difficult and rare recorded ‘El Contrabandista.’ ” But Valentina Lisitsa, Ukrainian pianist turned YouTube phenomenon, has created a warm, engaging and admirable disc of Liszt’s florid, self-indulgent transcriptions.
The Schubert song treatments are lovely – they include “Gute Nacht” from “Die Winterreise” and “Der Muller und der Bach,” the next-to-last song from “Die Schoene Muellerin.” Lisitsa sometimes muddies the music by indulging in what my piano teacher, Stephen Manes, calls the “Paderewski syndrome” – that is, she doesn’t play the hands quite together. That can get irritating, though it’s a matter of taste.
She does have a good vision though for this music. Bravo to her for “El contrabandista,” which Liszt described as a rondo on a Spanish theme. And for “Erlkoenig,” a Schubert song that is hard enough to play on the piano when you are accompanying a voice, let alone playing all the parts. By the way, who remembers that Lisitsa played Buffalo’s Ramsi Tick concert series? She did, in January 2007, as accompanist to violinist Hilary Hahn.
– Mary Kunz Goldman