Led Zeppelin, I, II and II Deluxe Edition Reissues (Atlantic). It almost seems as silly as pointing out the fact that water is wet, but I’ll say it anyway - Led Zeppelin crafted music of such stunning dynamic depth, soulfulness and musicality that it entered into the realm of the timeless almost as soon as it was released. The ravages of time, the changing of the trendiness guard and classic rock radio’s dogged insistence on beating it into the ground have not managed to deflate the mighty Zeppelin. With the release of the first installment in a full-catalog remastered deluxe version campaign, we are reminded once again that Zeppelin was much more than a heavy blues-rock fusion or, as so many have so wrongfully asserted, a proto-heavy-metal act long on bombast and short on substance. Folk, blues, funk, R&B, classical music, rock ’n’ roll, country - Zeppelin channeled the influence of all of them into their own heady hybrid. Lovingly remastered by Zeppelin founder and guitarist Jimmy Page, the deluxe editions of Led Zeppelin I, II and III arrive with companion discs offering previously unreleased studio tracks, rough mixes, unused songs and alternate versions. For the Zep-head, all are worth hearing, for they provide an aural snapshot of the time period when Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones were crafting the beginnings of a canon that would tower over that of all others, save the Beatles. Page has done a fantastic job with the remasters – these recordings have never been heard in such crisp clarity. It’s almost as if Page has invited you into the studio and given you a seat right between Bonham’s bass drum and Jones’ bass stack. The inclusion, with the deluxe edition of “Led Zeppelin I,” of the full set played by the band at the Olympia in Paris on Oct. 10, 1969, is an absolute must-have. This is the group at its primal best, tearing through its radical reworkings of blues tropes with fury, yes, but subtle musicality as well. Each reissue comes with a book stuffed with period-specific photos, too. The album artwork has been dealt with as lovingly as has the music within. Page also remastered the three albums for vinyl, and not surprisingly, they too sound fantastic. You have options: there’s a single CD version of the remastered original album; the deluxe editions, with the remastered original album, plus a disc of bonus material; the deluxe edition on vinyl; the digital download; or the deluxe boxed set, which packs all of the vinyl and disc editions together, and throws in a card for a hi-def digital download, to boot. Buy them for yourself; Buy them for a friend; Buy them for your kids. But by all means, buy them. ΩΩΩΩ for all three (Jeff Miers)
Louis Armstrong All-Stars, Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings, (Mosaic, nine disc box). It often seems as if Louis Armstrong is, in his way, one of the most difficult of all the greatest jazz geniuses to “get.” If you’ve been raised on jazz as a music of sophistication and complexity, Armstrong, his act and his playing can cause nothing but consternation.
That’s because everything you need to hear is on the surface, totally open and inviting to everyone who’s willing to listen. There’s nothing really hidden. In this, one of the sets that distinguish the whole purpose of Mosaic records’ unvanquished devotion to the jazz heritage, you’re hearing Louis Armstrong in live performance from the late ’40s (a May 1947 concert in New York’s Town Hall) to a 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. The bands were all called his “All-Stars” though there is a notable difference with a late-’40s Armstrong All-Star band with Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, Bob Haggart and Sid Catlett to the later bands with Trummy Young, Edmond Hall and drummer Barrett Deems. In this era, Armstrong was becoming what we would now call a “brand,” mostly on record through the guidance and efforts of one of the greatest of all jazz midwives on record, Columbia’s George Avakian. It was routine to acknowledge that no one could imitate his seminal genius, but no jazz musician could avoid his influence either. And to acknowledge even more the love inspired around the world.
But this is also the era where because he was so open and extroverted, there were both musicians and, especially non-comprehending audiences, who dismissed him as archaic and having gone commercial and even as an “Uncle Tom” (to which Billie Holiday’s answer had soulful perfection: if he’s an Uncle Tom, “Louis Toms from the heart.”) There are nine discs here in wonderful celebration of the ways in which, with George Avakian’s help as producer, Armstrong kept the flame of his own music roaring in the company of one of most buoyant and loved live jazz acts that the music ever had. There are times when the line between complicated, Walleresque self-parody and holy guilelessness is almost erased completely. Nine discs of exalted jazz history, available by mail only from Mosaic Records, 425 Fairfield Ave., Suite 421, Stamford, Conn. 06902 or online from www.mosaicrecords.com. ΩΩΩΩ (Jeff Simon)
If/Then, Original Broadway Cast Recording, (Masterworks Broadway). “If/Then,” featuring the lovably ditzy voice of Idina Menzel, zeroes in on the old theme of how life hinges on little things. Menzel plays Elizabeth, a divorcee newly returned to New York City. Does she stay in the park with one friend, or leave with another friend? The musical traces her in both directions, telling how things turn out. Eliza follows one path; Beth follows the other. It’s sort of like the Gwyneth Paltrow movie “Sliding Doors.”
Stories like this can be poignant, reminding us of our own lives and near misses. The very likable Menzel, who made a charming appearance in 2011 on the Buffalo Philharmonic’s Pops series, plays her part with considerable charm. The songs, by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, are less charming. They’re funny sometimes, but in a raunchy, cheap way. There are the usual paeans to New York City. The shadow of “Rent” looms large. Menzel and “If/Then” co-star Anthony Rapp also were featured in “Rent,” and the shows have the same director, Michael Greif. “No More Wasted Time” and “Love While You Can,” both from “If/Then,” echo “No Day But Today.” It’s a bleak philosophy, that today, this moment, is all that we have, and the humor, too, is bleak. It is all beginning to sound formulaic, all these New Yorkers who are stressed, confused, hurt and godless. Still, the mediocre songs are very well orchestrated and performed, and people like this stuff, maybe because it doesn’t challenge us to judge our own lives too harshly. Billboard reports that this CD is selling tremendously well, debuting at No. 19, the highest debut for a cast album since, you guessed it, “Rent.” ΩΩ (Mary Kunz Goldman)
Liszt, 12 Transcendental Etudes Performed by Lazar Berman (Melodiya); Various Composers, “The Transcendentalist” Performed by pianist Ivan Ilic (Heresy). What you have here is nothing less than a masterpiece of recorded piano music and its philosophical answer in sound. The masterpiece is Lazar Berman’s atom-smashing rereleased version of Liszt’s “Transcendental Etudes,” one of those Russian recordings up there in the firmament of recording history (along with, say, Richter’s recording of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”).
The answer to it is Ivan Ilic’s “The Transcendentalist,” whose annotater Eric Fraad launches straightaway with a need for revisionism of the whole idea of “transcendental”: “In classical music, particularly piano music, the word transcendental is closely associated with the title of 12 piano studies by Franz Liszt. Liszt used the word to allude to the extreme difficulty of the music. The implication is that the musician who masters these works will transcend his or her technique, while stretching the physical, and by extension, expressive limits of the instrument … A broader awareness of the word’s use might lead us to expect that transcendental music would exhibit the opposite of the quest for speed agility or control.” And that’s what you have here from pianist Ivan Ilic, filled not only with a good deal of Scriabin’s always-remarkable and delicate mysticism but the still-shocking conceptualism of John Cage in “Dream” and “In a Landscape” and Morton Feldman’s 1986 “Palais de Mari” (whose simplicity is so stark it’s anything BUT minimal.) Completing the disc is a piece pointedly called “Music Without Metaphor” by Scott Wollschleger, a 34-year old pupil of former Buffalonian Nils Vigeland, himself the musician Feldman called “the most brilliant student I ever had.” It is music that like all on Ilic’s fascinating disc, completely “transcends” all idea of virtuosity altogether. (How can you not love a record label called ‘Heresy?”) Thesis and antithesis in perfect balance. You do the synthesis. Ratings: ΩΩΩΩ for Berman/Liszt, ΩΩΩ½ for “The Transcendentalist” (J.S.)
Paganini, 24 Capricci Performed by flutist Marina Piccinini (Avie, two discs). In the world of somewhat ridiculous instrumental adaptations of classical masterworks meant for other instrumentations altogether, no one will ever beat the Japanese virtuoso guitarist who wanted to prove you could play Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” on the guitar. When the Great Gate of Kiev ended up sounding like music for the opening of a new Olive Garden, the heights of absurdity had been reached. Marina Piccini’s flute adaptation of Paganini’s 24 Capricci for Violin isn’t quite that absurd. John Coltrane, after all, used to claim he was influenced by these classical masterworks for solo violin (much more likely an influence on him was the Bartok Second concerto, but that’s another story.) For all the flutist’s virtuoso brilliance – and for all Paganini’s own dedication of the work to all musicians – this disc is distinguished by one unanswerable question: why? ΩΩ (J.S.)
“Jersey Boys:” Music from the Motion Picture and Broadway Musical (Rhino). The operative word in the title is “Jersey.” If ever there were a Broadway jukebox musical aimed directly at the fabled “Bridge and Tunnel Crowd” so crucial to the financial backbone of the Broadway Theater, it’s the biographical musical about the rise and fall (and rise) of The Four Seasons, a sort of non-tragic white boys Garden State version of “Dreamgirls.” It was just the thing to get Broadway’s New Jersey fans to make the trip into town – not to mention tourists from everywhere else. Please be aware though that in their ’60s prime, the sound of the Four Seasons – especially the Norelco falsetto lead singing of Frankie Valli – was enough to give some pop music fans at the time fits. Until a woman with a rich musical sense of humor forced me to relent, I personally refused to dance to any jukebox where some fool played “Sherry” or “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” Theirs was not a universally beloved sound mostly because of Valli’s take-it-or-leave-it lead. The good news here is that Broadway and screen star John Lloyd Young doesn’t have quite Valli’s mechanical falsetto whine that could damage eardrums. The originals were not a patch, of course, on the silk and satin falsetto of the Ink Spots or the velvet of The Platters, not to mention the heavenly sounds of the great doowop groups like the Five Satins and the Flamingos (“I Only Have Eyes for You” was, along with the Ink Spots best, pop music sublimity.) So this pop music dead end at the time is a reasonably listenable biographical allusion to those Jersey Boys, with, no less, an attempt to sing Eddie Jefferson’s “Moody’s Mood for Love” (wherein Jefferson put words to tenor saxophonist James Moody’s solo.) ΩΩΩ (J.S.)