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Vintage Pop

Fred Astaire, “The Early Years at RKO” (TCM/Sony Masterworks, two discs). No singer was ever more popular with the composers of what we’re now calling The Great American Songbook (some people waggishly call it “GAS”) than Fred Astaire. Astaire, to them, not only sang the songs they wrote without fancy-schmancy embellishment of any sort, he gave every one of them the full benefit of his debonair charm and, as often as not, the nonpareil dancing talent in all of American movies during the breaks. (Though there will always be Gene Kelly partisans who’ll have an argument there.) Here, for the first time ever, is a collaboration of Turner Classic Movies with SONY records on the undisputed musical classics of Astaire’s years at RKO – everything from Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” to Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” to Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields “The Way You Look Tonight” to The Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take Away from Me” and “A Foggy Day” and beyond. Because these are from the movie soundtracks, you get the sound of Astaire’s extraordinary dancing, which makes the sound of taps on a floor an extra percussion instrument to the dancer whom jazz musicians always felt was one of their own (and, of course, the feeling was mutual). It’s very simple, says Michael Feinstein, in his notes to the two-disc set. Astaire “is considered by many to be the most sublime popular singer and dancer of any generation.” Lest any skeptic or scoffer want to argue, just listen to the disc at the beginning of the dispute and watch all opposition fade. Quickly. ∆∆∆∆ (Jeff Simon)

Jazz

The Eric Starr Group, “Such is Life” featuring Iain Bellamy, Nelson Starr, Ike Sturm and string orchestra Ethel (Bronx Bound). Drummer, pianist and composer Eric Starr – bandmate with News Pop Music Critic Jeff Miers in former Buffalo rock band the Tails – takes a huge leap here into fully convincing jazz on this disc of 10 new compositions played by a jazz quartet-plus. The first thing you notice here is that almost everything is fresh about this disc, right from its recording technique, which was to record Starr’s compositions with a jazz quartet (Starr, brother Nelson, tenor saxophonist Iain Bellamy, bassist Ike Sturm) and then overlay string orchestra, synthesizers, extra guitar etc. “Usually musicians are responding to previously composed orchestrations. In this case the orchestra answers the players.” The result is superb. The second thing you notice about the disc is how good a singer Nelson Starr is on these songs. His voice is high and soft, in the Chet Baker and Michael Franks neighborhood without ever swooping up into doo-wop falsetto. (His piano playing on the opening tune is chops aplenty-too.) And then you’re more than happy with Eric Starr’s tunes themselves, which the composer has located in beautiful post-modal harmonic territory without ever falling into the ear-resistant traps that can ensnare educated young jazz players in their sophisticated ambitions. Nothing gets in the way of this music’s freshness and charm. Even the synthesizer is used as color and not as oppressive electronic goop the way bad musicians do it. By the time you get to the disc’s violin solo by Cornelius Dufallo, you’re pretty well enthralled. ∆∆∆ (J.S.)

Classical

Jean Danton, “A Change in Me” (Albany). Jean Danton is a classical singer, and apparently hard-core: She has appeared with the Handel and Haydn Society with Christopher Hogwood, and the Bach Festival with Helmuth Rilling. Her credits also include the Greater Buffalo Opera. Here she is singing Broadway. Many of the songs are by Stephen Sondheim or his disciples, for instance the rather abstract “Come to My Garden,” from “The Secret Garden,” and “Not While I’m Around,” from “Sweeney Todd.” There is also “Move On” from the charming “Sunday in the Park With George” and “No One Is Alone,” from “Into the Woods.” The CD ends with “Into the West,” from “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” Danton has a beautiful voice, with a pure, guileless sound. One trouble, though, is that some of the songs just aren’t that good. I can’t believe sometimes, hearing these songs, that this is the best that composers can do. The flat-footed “Into the West” is especially lacking in imagination. On the more vintage side, Danton’s pure voice gets an attractive workout with a performance of “If I Loved You,” from “Carousel,” and “Bring Him Home,” from “Les Mis.” It was nice of her to include two Cole Porter songs, “So in Love” and “Love For Sale,” even if they call for more heat than she has. Every singer wants to strut her stuff with “Love For Sale,” but it’s tough. ΩΩ½ (M.K.G.)

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Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major Op. 26 and Bartok Concerto No. 2 performed by pianist Lang Lang and the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle (Sony Masterworks). Give Lang Lang some credit. He prepared 15 years to perform Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto and nine years to perform Bartok’s Second. There is a young piano virtuoso who takes the Delpic Oracle (“know thyself”) seriously. He is now at 30, he says, at the right age to begin performing two such masterworks of the 20th century piano repertoire. And you have to cede the wisdom of his careerism at this stage – not exactly something you’d easily assume from a pianist whose roar into public consciousness was so ostentatious and full of musical publicity at its most dubious. These are both great pieces of 20th century piano music and what Lang Lang may occasionally lack in beauty of sound in this music, he more than makes up for in energy and conceptual solidity. He understands this music. It goes without saying that Rattle and the Berliners are collaborators of the sort pianists of any age pray for. ΩΩΩ½ (J.S.)