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Blues/Rock/Jam Band

Gov’t Mule, “Shout!” (Blue Note). The Mule can do no wrong, really. Fans of this Warren Haynes-led quartet’s searing blend of blues, rock, funk, soul, R&B, Southern rock and the jam-based mixture of all of the above will greet “Shout!,” the group’s first new collection in four years, rapturously. Built around Haynes’ virtuosic blues-based guitar playing and the unerring groove provided by drummer Matt Abts, the Gov’t Mule sound marries Led Zeppelin-esque riffs to ambitious song structures, and leaves plenty of room for some seriously graceful soloing. Haynes, an erstwhile member of the Allman Brothers Band and a veteran of tours with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, knows how to pace his improvisations, and “Shout!” is crammed full of them – every tune here features a healthy jam section, and as a result, the album clocks in at nearly 75 minutes. Lyrically, Haynes tackles thorny present-day issues with grim determination, exulting in the ability of the human spirit to endure despite living in a world that often appears to have come off of its axis. The deluxe two-disc version of the album features all 11 tracks with Haynes’ vocals replaced by contributions from a ridiculously awesome list of guest vocalists, among them Elvis Costello, Ben Harper, Dr. John, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Toots Hibbert, Glenn Hughes, Dave Matthews and Steve Winwood. Stunning, all of it. ∆∆∆½ (Jeff Miers)

Jazz

John Funkhouser, “Still” (Jazsyzgy). Surely, you think, “John Funkhouser” must be a made-up name for a jazz pianist. Apparently it’s not. He’s a terrific Boston-based player who, if this disc is any indication, deserves to be as widely known as The Bad Plus (the rock-centered acoustic jazz trio whose music is so often superceded by so many better bands in roughly the same musical territory – E.S.T., for instance). When Funkouser tells you that he thinks that what his piano trio does is as much Grateful Dead as Craig Taborn, he’s not being ostentatiously eclectic. What he wants is those musicians’ sense of “epic journey and you wouldn’t even know how you got there – but it was so satisfying to go along for the ride and it had that sense of surprise.” As, for instance, does Funkhouser’s wildly assimilable piano trio version of the old folk song “House of the Rising Sun.” “I’ve always been attuned to the deep, dark allure of that music – that resonant melancholy, the way it somehow represents human dignity even in the darkest situations.” He gave his bassist Greg Loughman acres of space to play on it, reharmonized it to increase “the grandeur of it” and gives it an extraordinary groove as potentially popular in its way as those great old jazz club acoustic piano rave-ups by Ramsey Lewis. Here is a jazz musician who not only deserves 10 times the renown he’s got on his fourth disc but deserves 10 times the praise he’s gotten along with it. ∆∆∆½ (Jeff Simon)

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Dave Holland, “Prism” (Dare 2). Jazz people will look at this band and automatically exclaim “wow”: Kevin Eubanks on guitar, Craig Taborn on piano, Eric Harland on drums and the leader Holland on bass. That “wow” is as far as it goes. Unfortunately, the disc falls victim to a commonplace problem among current jazz discs, the playing gifts of the principals so outweigh their compositional gifts that the insistence on original compositions makes the effect vastly less than it should have been. Neither the “groove” intentions or the “avant-garde” intentions of the band register a fraction as much as this band should have. ΩΩ (J.S.)

Classical/World Music

Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, “Brahms Beloved,” John Axelrod, conductor and pianist and Nicole Cabell, Indra Thomas, sopranos (Telarc, two discs). This double CD is the first of two big Telarc productions featuring conductor John Axelrod and dedicated to Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann, the woman he famously loved. It includes Brahms’ Symphonies No. 2 and 4 and a selection of songs by Clara Schumann. There are a lot of interesting personalities involved. Nicole Cabell is a veteran of Buffalo’s own Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series. The recording is produced by Michael Fine, winner of multiple Grammy Awards. The follow-up to this set, scheduled to appear next year, features two star singers, Wolfgang Holzmair and Dame Felicity Lott. John Axelrod, winner of various awards himself, has designed the set around Brahms’ fabled love for Clara Schumann. The two CDs pair two Brahms symphonies with various songs by Clara. Everything is well-performed, but I have mixed feelings about the premise. Brahms had real feelings for Clara from the moment he met her until the end of his days. And there are sad, bittersweet notes to those feelings. (Watch “Song of Love,” starring Katharine Hepburn as Clara, and look for the scene where Brahms asks her to marry him. I think they nailed it.) On the other hand Brahms had feelings for other women, too. One of them, for a while, was even Clara’s daughter. I could name you a handful of others off the top of my head who were more than passing fancies, so let’s not pretend that he had eyes for no one else. And furthermore there were things motivating him other than women – while sex has been one of the main motivators of artists through the centuries, it’s not the only one. Axelrod’s notion that four Brahms symphonies were intended as four different aspects of Clara sounds to me very far-fetched. Finally, someone has to say it: Clara Schumann’s songs are overrated. There are a couple I can’t stand: “Er ist gekommen,” for one, just grates on me. They show talent, and maybe because of her times and her piano career, she was robbed of her potential as a composer, but these songs can’t stand up to the Brahms symphonies. Can’t they include Brahms songs instead? You find yourself wishing that. Listening to his symphonies, you never want the music to stop. ∆∆∆ (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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Elgar, Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky, Rococo Variations performed by cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Jiri Belohlavek (Harmonia Mundi). Once upon a time, the Elgar Cello Concerto was, along with the rest of Elgar, almost the exclusive property of British musicians, especially the truly sublime and tragic virtuoso cellist Jacqueline DuPre. No more. It is now the common property of all virtuoso cellists, largely for its celestial opening theme and its melodic richness throughout. Queyras is a young French cellist best known for his work in Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain, but his performance of Elgar here is truly extraordinary, among the best in a long while. He includes Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations” he says, as a kind of contrapuntal mirror, in its melancholy, to the “profound nostalgia” of the Elgar. A young cellist to be paid close attention to from now on. ΩΩΩΩ (J.S.)

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Bach, Six Sonatas for Violin and piano performed by violinist Michaelle Makarski and pianist Keith Jarrett (ECM, two discs). It goes without saying that the main attraction of this disc – aside from Bach’s magnificent music – isn’t the violinist (as it might be ordinarily) but the pianist, who is Keith Jarrett on holiday from being one of the truly sublime jazz virtuosos of his time. It is not Jarrett’s way to make a fool of himself when he plays the classics and he certainly doesn’t here either. He’s exceptional all the way through. Unfortunately, Makarski is only acceptable all the way through and really not on Jarrett’s level here. ΩΩΩ (J.S.)