THE RED AND ORANGE POEMS
Gary Bartz (Atlantic Jazz 82720)
Even though Gary Bartz's recent recordings have shown him to be one of the brightest and most distinctive alto players in jazz today, the true scope of his talent doesn't become clear until you hear him deliver something as fully realized and ambitious as "The Red and Orange Poems." It isn't just that the Baltimore saxophonist is, as critic Stanley Crouch enthuses, "one of the very best who has picked up the instrument." What makes this album so memorable is the way Bartz manages to pull such a strong sense of tone and community from the ensemble. There's a consistency of tone regardless of whether the group is essaying a standard such as "But Not for Me" or working through one of Bartz's originals, and that ensures that the music flows smoothly no matter who happens to be playing. In fact, the album's best moments find the soloists playing with such empathy that it's almost as if trumpeter Eddie Henderson picks up where Bartz left off in "Nusia's Poem," or that french horn player John Clark merely continues the thread Bartz begins in "Soulmate."
THE BEST OF CHRIS REA
Chris Rea (EastWest 61758)
Although he has been a fixture on the British scene since the '70s, Chris Rea has had only a smattering of success in this country. As a result, the only track the average listener will likely recognize off "The Best of Chris Rea" would be the 1978 hit "Fool (If You Think It's Over)." Don't take that as a warning, though; think of it instead as an invitation. After all, it's not often that a songwriter this good goes so completely ignored by the pop mainstream. Rea's dark, smoky voice and hard-bit, reflective lyrics aren't as frothy and easily digestible as most Top-40 fare, but that's to their credit. Safe, cheery melodies would never convey the exhilaration of escaping into the French countryside as convincingly as Rea does in "Auberge," nor would they suggest the creeping decay of modernity as deftly as "The Road to Hell" does. But that hardly keeps Rea's tunes from seeming catchy; if anything, his duet with Elton John, "If You Were Me," shows that these two have more in common than Rea's track record would suggest.
Chris Connelly (Wax Trax/TVT 7214)
After screaming his head off with the likes of Ministry and Pigface, Chris Connelly no doubt seems like the sort of singer whose preferred mode of expression would be fingernails-on-a-blackboard aggression. But that's hardly what he delivers on "Shipwreck." This amiably upbeat album recalls the arty appeal of late-'70s David Bowie -- it has the same warped pop sensibility as Bowie's "Lodger," with arrangements as loose-limbed and sprawling as anything on "Low." Connelly even seems to evoke the classic Bowie croon on "What's Left But Solid Gold?" That's not to say "Shipwreck" is quite as good as the Bowie albums, but it comes awfully close at times, particularly when Connelly is making the most of his crack backing band (as on the snarling, insistent "Drench") or his decadent imagination (as on "Spoonfed Celeste").
ROCK 'N ROLL
New York Dolls (Mercury 314 522 129)
Aerosmith wasn't the only American band in the early '70s that tried hard to be the new Rolling Stones; the New York Dolls had much the same ambition. But where Aerosmith aped the suave, sexy side of the Stones' R&B-fueled; image, the Dolls evoked the band's barely concealed deviant side -- and that's what comes through loud and clear on "Rock 'N Roll." A 20-song retrospective collecting most of the band's recorded work for Mercury Records, it shows precisely where glam crossed over into trash, while reminding us just how much proto-punks like Blondie and the Ramones owed to this band. Hard-core fans may feel that the song selection shortchanges the band's second album, "Too Much Too Soon," but will likely be pleased by the inclusion of such previously unreleased gems as "Lone Star Queen" and "The Courageous Cat Theme." On the other hand, those unfamiliar with the Dolls will find the album an education of sorts, one that will help explain everything from how Johnny Thunders became a legend to why those in D-Generation look the way they do.