‘‘Blurred Lines” has been out for two weeks now, and is firmly ensconced in the top slot of the Billboard Top 100, giving veteran R&B/pop crooner Robin Thicke his first No. 1 album. Unlike so many of the best-sellers in the pop world of late, Thicke’s smash success seems to be refreshingly unplanned, or at least, not so blatantly hyped by big promotional campaigns.
Thicke has been around a long time, and has had great success writing for other pop artists and middling success on his own. So Interscope, while certainly holding high hopes for the album, didn’t feel the need to pour millions of dollars into the system to ensure success. No, Thicke hit it this time around because the album’s title song is an irresistible bit of groove-based ear candy. The soft-porn nature of the accompanying video and the controversy it produced on YouTube certainly didn’t hurt matters, either.
“Blurred Lines” the album isn’t quite the unqualified success that is “Blurred Lines” the song, as it turns out. It’s a consistently affable pop confection with half a dozen killer pop-disco-R&B tracks, and the rest is basically filler. Some might even call the weaker stuff here simply a poor man’s Justin Timberlake. But the fact that Thicke never seems to take himself too seriously makes “Blurred Lines” a far less demanding listen than Timberlake’s “20/20 Experience” – the latter, in fact, is an album which can’t seem to decide if it wants to be dance music or high art. (Rarely can something be both.)
Thicke, by contrast, knows exactly who he is and has no intention of rising above his station, and “Blurred Lines” is full of shallow pop gems made to dance to. At its best, it sounds like Prince-lite, (“Ooh La La”) or Marvin Gaye for people unfamiliar with the real thing. At other points, there’s some “Off the Wall”-era Michael Jackson-style knockoffs (“Ain’t No Hat 4 That”), electro-pop/hip-hop hybrids (the Kendrick Lamar-duet “Give It 2 U,” a filthy bit of sexual braggadocio with a killer groove) and warmed over Motown motifs (“The Good Life”).
“Blurred Lines” is essentially innocuous pop fluff with some nice singing, some huge hooks and consistently compelling grooves. It’s not trying to be anything more. Timberlake’s massively successful and critically revered “20/20 Experience” may be the album that winds up on more “best of” lists for 2013, but Thicke’s album is an awful lot more fun to listen to.
– Jeff Miers
Piano Concertos No. 1 and 2
Eldar Nebolsin, piano, the Orquestra Sinfonica do Porto and Casa da Musica, Matthias Bamert, conductor
Piano Music, Vol. 9
Jordi Maso, piano
3 1/2 stars
Naxos discs, because of how many of them there are and how affordable they are, get me thinking about how much underplayed and seldom-heard music there is out there.
The concertos by Portuguese composer Fernando Lopes-Graca (1906-1994) are flashy, virtuosic romps, a lot more fun to hear than a lot of things foisted on us. Lopes-Graca was clearly influenced by Mahler but what he does with that influence is quirky and unpredictable. His orchestration is colorful and his ideas grab you and stick with you. The last movement of Concerto No. 1 sounds like a tango, with sharp rhythms and lots of creative snap and pop. Pianist Eldar Nebolsin handles the music clearly and precisely but with flair and fun. Nebolsin was the pianist on the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s Naxos recording of Ernst von Dohnanyi’s “Variations on a Nursery Theme.”
The Spanish composer Joaquin Turina is known for his Piano Trio and a few other pieces, and the suites of short pieces that make up Vol. 9 of Naxos’ survey of his piano music make me wonder why we don’t hear more of what he wrote. This music dates from 1911 and 1947. You can listen casually and love what you hear – it will remind you of Ravel, de Falla and, sometimes, Prokofiev. But it’s even better if you keep track of what Turina had in mind. The lovely “Summer Evening on the Terrace” brings across beautifully a calm, fragrant night in Seville. “In the Presence of Our Lady of Mercy” takes you into a chapel; it made me think of Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral.” I especially loved “Contemplacion,” inspired by three Spanish paintings by Velazquez and Fra Angelico. The catchy, angular “Ante ‘Las lanzas’ de Velazquez” should find its way into the mainstream repertoire.
The young Barcelona-born pianist Jordi Maso does a fine job of presenting this music, which sounds challenging (Turina was a pianist). A few dreamy pieces could be dreamier, but better to underdo the schmaltz than overdo it. By the way, check out the tender tribute to Turina on www.joaquinturina.com. “He had enormous passion for the Processions, and anytime he could, he would go see them in Seville during Easter. He did not go often but he liked bullfighting and going to the movies. He also liked to go with his children to the circus, the local open-air dances, and riding the Ferris wheel.”
– Mary Kunz Goldman
Saturday Morning: La Buissone Studio Sessions
Heart of the Piano
Here are two unquestioned lions of jazz piano from 40 years apart. In other words, one is almost twice as old as the other.
You’d never know in terms of technique, though, that was the case.
Ahmad Jamal, at the glorious age of 83, is a wonder to still be recording music as fierce as some of “Saturday Morning.” It’s a quartet disc with a great rhythm section from the extended Marsalis musical family – bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Herlin Riley – and the great percussionist Manolo Badrena for good measure.
A way to use musical space that Jamal virtually invented with his magnificent late-’50s trio (bassist Israel Crosby, drummer Vernel Fournier) so enthralled Miles Davis that through Davis’ adaptation of it, it had a pervasive influence throughout jazz. Jamal is still doing it – dropping kernels of melody inside infectious rhythms.
Three things are instantly apparent throughout “Saturday Morning”: 1) That as fine as they are, Veal and Riley are too conventional a jazz bassist and drummer to be ideal for Jamal, even with Badrena’s aid; 2) That Jamal, the composer, is never as interesting as Jamal the player (here on such things as “I’m in the Mood for Love” and “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good”); and 3) That his technique far exceeds his melodic invention. It is there, that he is never as interesting on this disc as he is on the classic post-“Poinciana” music for which he’s so well-known.
Even so, on his own tunes “Firefly” and “Silver” (the latter a tribute to Horace Silver), he is on this disc a patriarch of jazz piano whose fire has never banked, even if his invention flags.
Geoff Keezer, at 43, plays solo piano on “Heart of the Piano.” Anyone expecting to be dazzled or enveloped the way one is when listening to solo piano discs by Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau and Michel Petrucciani will be disappointed.
On the other hand, he is a great jazz pianist and on this, his first solo piano disc in 13 years, you have to love a pianist who pays tribute to the compositions of Hank Jones, Donald Brown and Christian McBride at the same time he plays music by, yes, Rush (“Limelight”), Peter Gabriel (“Come Talk to Me”), Alanis Morrisette (“Still,” her end music for Kevin Smith’s movie “Dogma”) and K.T. Tunstall (“Suddenly I See”).
Thankfully in the era since the advent of Keith Jarrett’s solo piano masterworks, solo jazz pianists are nothing if not attentive to sound. “It was very important,” he says about this, “the sound have pristine clarity.” It was beautifully recorded and engineered by Kent Fuqua and Peter Sprague.
Keezer is no one’s idea of a presumptuous jazz musician. He’s right when he says that in comparison to the pianist who first impressed us with Art Blakey: “I think I am a better pianist in general. I have a lot more technical control over the instrument – more subtleties, better touch, and better sound. There’s more life behind it, informing everything.”
– Jeff Simon