Recordings: 1/9/05

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Records are rated on a scale of one (poor) to five(excellent) stars.


JEREMY BECK: "Wave." Slovak Radio Symphony. Innova.

In addition to all the inhuman aspects of Sept. 11, it caused the musical events in the summer prior to be quickly forgotten. One was the premiere of Jeremy Beck's "The Biddle Boys and Mrs. Soffel," an over-achieving project of the Tuesday Musical Club that showed the accessible music of this composer.

This new disc of three works expands our understanding of this American talent. "State of the Union" is an old-fashioned political satire, written in 1992 after the first Bush's claim that all was well in the middle of a recession. The bookend movements, "March of the Politicians" and "Revels," depict politicos and pundits caterwauling with an ominous undercurrent. They sandwich "Lullaby (for an urban child)," an empathetic look at the hardships of the urban poor. If it seems too obvious, it fit the period and the Copland-inspired music is much subtler than the program.

The best of the disc is the four-movement Sinfonietta, from 2000, a harmonically inventive, thoroughly engaging work. It also betrays influences of other composers -- namely Elgar -- but it's a strong, modern work. Beginning in rousing perpetual motion, a melody soars above the texture, leading after twisting cadences to a warm contrasting section. The second movement never quite lives up to its "grave" marking as far as the mood, but it is sinewy and gorgeous. The last two movements are much more subdued in energy, offering the lazy beauty of a cat lounging in the sun. The first movement tries to return in the finale, but the work dissolves gracefully into thin air.

The final piece, "Death of a Little Girl with Doves," sung by soprano Rayanne Dupuis, is based on the life of Camille Claudel. It's a robust symphonic rhapsody for soprano, but overly sentimental for my taste, especially the spoken parts.

-- Andrew Druckenbrod


CLAUDIA VILLELA WITH KENNY WERNER: "Dreamtales." Adventure Music.

At the risk of getting fined by the jazz police, I confess that the prospect of truly spontaneous collective improvisation makes my guard go up. Not that it hasn't been done, of course -- and beautifully -- from Ornette Coleman to Marian McPartland. But overall, the kind of sustained dissonance that comes with the territory just isn't my thing.

That said, jazz fans of any stripe should feel free to leap before looking at Claudia Villela and Kenny Werner's spontaneously improvised new CD. This surprisingly melodic set is understated, mysterious and even gorgeous, boasting Brazilian accents and a bebop flair.

Villela, a Brazilian now living in California, makes all kinds of intriguing noises with her vocal cords, from percussion to bird sounds to actual singing that's sweet and soulful and encompasses a broad range in pitch and dynamics. Yes, Bobby McFerrin comes to mind, and Flora Purim, as well as Ella and Sarah when Villela unleashes her scat-singing chops.

Werner is a wonder at the piano, displaying a mastery of bossa, samba, gospel-tinged jazz, long, snaking flights of bebop and airy, modal vamps. Like Villela, he manages some cool special effects, such as damping the piano strings so that they thump like a drum.

The eight pieces each evoke a distinct mood -- from the appropriately cool and otherworldly title track to "Cappuccino," with an exotic modal feel that at times recalls "Caravan." Then there's "Tom's Waters," which is the prettiest piece here -- a nod to the melody and chords of Jobim's "Waters of March," taken to a new place. Villela even composes on-the-spot Portuguese lyrics for some of the tunes. The written translations don't do a whole lot for me, but just the sound of her Brazilian Portuguese is seductive.

At the start of this unusual CD, Villela says quietly, "Let's go for it." Well, they got it.

-- Peter B. King

KEN KARSH: "Ventana." 2004 Ken Karsh.

The feeling among many musicians and jazz fans is that Pittsburgh's Ken Karsh is one fine guitarist, perhaps ranking with some of the nation's best.

Karsh, joined by more than a dozen standout players from the 'Burgh, goes a long way toward affirming his reputation on his first CD as a leader.

His playing (on three different guitars) is consistently first-rate; his considerable compositional skills are on display on five originals among the 11 songs (including the jubilant title tune co-written with the ingenious Bobby McFerrin); he's come up with a truly fresh arrangement of Lennon-McCartney's "Blackbird," and he's shown his ability as a leader in his wise choice of songs and musicians.

Highlights include a scintillating version of Miles Davis and Victor Feldman's "Seven Steps to Heaven," which alternates between medium and very fast tempos, with Karsh ripping off cleanly articulated runs that certainly will catch the listener's attention. His impressive solo performance of "Blackbird" proves a showcase for his technique. His version of the classic "Old Man River" is interesting, too, for the lightly Latin and subtly bluesy feel he generates.

"Ventana" is a celebratory samba that turns near tumultuous thanks to the steel pans of Victor Provost, tenor saxophonist Eric DeFade and trumpeter Steve Hawk, drummer Billy Kuhn and electric bassist Brian Stahurski.

Hold on for the racehorse ride Karsh, drummer Roger Humphries and band give us on the cleverly arranged Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer standard "My Shining Hour." Among songs he's written is a lovely melody titled "In Retrospect," a softer samba featuring Fender Rhodes piano, steel drums and a nice blend of trumpet and saxophone. Then there's a solo reading of "Dancing Mist," on which notes from his nylon-string guitar can easily be thought of as dance steps.

Karsh's basic quartet here comprises three giants of Pittsburgh jazz: pianist Max Leake, bassist Dwayne Dolphin and Humphries on drums. They are together (with of percussionist George Jones) for the opening "Just Squeeze Me."

They come together again for Billy Strayhorn's lovely "Chelsea Bridge," played surprisingly and effectively as a bolero and featuring the consummate Mr. Dolphin.

"Ventana" can be purchased online at and

-- Bob Protzman


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