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Rock

Elvis Presley, “That’s the Way It Is” (Sony Legacy, two discs). There are two versions of this – an eight-disc box of the Deluxe Edition of Elvis’ 1970 album collecting some of the best live performing in Vegas that he ever did, and this two-disc digest of some of the best of his latter-day decadence. The drugs and fluffernutter sandwiches haven’t yet done their maximum dirty work here and, especially on the full eight-disc box, his jump-suited relationship with his audience is nothing if not singular in all of American popular music. On the two disc version, the first disc is his studio classic and the second disc is the first release of a complete concert from Elvis’ 1970 “summer season” in Vegas. The old jokes are here: “Hound Dog” introduced as a tender ballad but blasted out with his guitarist James Burton and drummer Ronnie Burton burning the house down. There was nothing invidious about Elvis’ exploration of contemporary classics, whether it was “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Elvis and Hollywood were a mismatch from the beginnng. Elvis and Vegas weren’t. ∆∆∆½ (Jeff Simon)

Jazz

Orrin Evans, “Liberation Blues,” (Smoke Sessions). You cannot imagine how deeply unfortunate is the poetry by pianist Donald Brown’s wife stuck into the penultimate movement of Orrin Evans’ suite “Liberation Blues” in honor of his friend, the late bassist Dwayne Burno. Burno died at 43 after a long illness. Pianist/composer Evans explains in the notes that his father was a playwright “so I grew up around theater and poetry.” Nor could anyone question the quantity of grief felt by Evans and all of his musicians, even though its expression in words is vastly inferior than its expression in music. The quality of the poetry isn’t a tiny fraction as interesting as the music on the disc, which is one of the best to ever come from the Smoke Sessions series. This is a powerhouse jazz quintet for the pianist – especially tenor saxophonist J. D. Allen with trumpeter Sean Jones, bassist Luques Curtis, and veteran drummer Bill Stewart. Evans admits of the group that it started off as “five people who were introducing themselves at the rehearsal,” but for his first time on disc, he says, he just wanted to put a group like this together and “see what happens.” What happens is extremely fine indeed, except for its one rather unfortunate side trip into somewhat stentorian “spoken art.” ∆∆∆½ (Jeff Simon)

Minimalist Jazz/Pop

Karen Mantler, “Business is Bad.” (Xtra/Watt/ECM). Karen Mantler is the daughter of Carla Bley and Mike Mantler. That certainly explains her minimalist jazz/pop songs, which suffice, in current American music, as the apex of “fey.” The second song on this disc is called “My Magic Pencil (Wrote This Melody),” which is the song’s first line, followed by “Touch it to paper and wait and see/It wasn’t me/It chose a G/Now I’m waiting to see/What the next note will be.” Her “magic pencil” then goes on to choose an A, an F-sharp (“You’re kidding me/F-sharp’s not in this key”). If it actually was written by a magic pencil, you wouldn’t be surprised. The first song on the disc – complete with plaintive Mantler harmonica solos – is called “Catch as Catch Can” and is a slow-motion defense of “homeless people in the park” killing park animals for their food. “There are too many geese anyway,” Karen sings drolly. Other songs are devoted to speaking French, wintetime, playing harmonica solos and a lousy economy (“You know I want to pay/You just as soon as I can/But please/Have some patience/Business is bad”). And then suddenly in his neo-Winnie the Pooh conception of songwriting, you get the stark and dead-earnest “Surviving You” (“You were mine/I was yours./We shared almost everything./Now that you’re gone/I’m left with a hole/where you used to live inside my heart.…I don’t want to survive/Be the one that’s still alive/I don’t want to surive/If you’re not here by my side”). To put it mildly, Karen Mantler’s music is an acquired taste. If you can even come close to acquiring it, it can surprise you, as it does here. ∆∆∆ (Jeff Simon)

Classical

Mozart, String Quartets Dedicated to Joseph Haydn K. 428, K. 465 and K. 387, Cuarteto Casals (Harmonia Mundi). When Mozart wrote these quartets, they must have knocked people over. They were so unlike anything else being written. I don’t care what anyone says, they are head and shoulders above Haydn. (Haydn would agree.) And for Beethoven, who had to follow this act, they set the bar unbelievably high. The out-of-left-field beginning to the “Dissonant” Quartet, K. 465, is the most famous pioneering example. But there is fascination in every measure of the three quartets performed here by the Barcelona-based Cuarteto Casals. I have always liked the syncopations in the minuet of K. 387, the way they throw you off balance. (Funny, I know this quartet inside out, but I never knew it was nicknamed the “Spring” Quartet. Live and learn.) Highlights of K. 428 include the changing harmonies at the start of the enchanting Andante movement. It sounds like breathing. The stomping minuet is also a joy. I could go on and on. For now I’ll just say I like the Cuarteto Casals’ light, bright, optimistic tone. They don’t yet have the depth of the Guarneri Quartet records I grew up on – they don’t make as much of the music’s contrasts as the Guarneri did, and sometimes they sound hurried, and occasionally they miss out on the music’s wit. But their heart is in the right place. ∆∆∆ (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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Isaac Albeniz, Piano Music Vol. 5, Juan Jose Mudarra Gamiz, piano (Naxos). These youthful pieces, written when Albeniz was in his 20s, have genuine charm. The seven etudes that start the disc sound like etudes – Albeniz wasn’t quite able to disguise them. But they are a delight in their simple way. They reflect Albeniz’s skill at working in miniature, and because of his Iberian roots they have an unusual quality. A “Rapsodia Cubana” shows the composer’s delight in Latin rhythms, and the “Suite Antigua” has Albeniz putting his spin on old dance forms. Two salon mazurkas tug at your heart with the melancholy associated with that moody dance. I also liked the haunting “Autumn Waltz” that closes the disc. Gamiz gives this music a light, nostalgic touch. It is high praise to say this but you can imagine these performances on an old record. ∆∆∆ (Mary Kunz Goldman)