20th Century Blues (RCA 74321-38656)
Rock and roll singers have been fooling around with the music of Kurt Weill since Bobby Darin jazzed up "Mack the Knife," and there have been some admirable efforts along the way -- the Doors' version of "Alabama Song," for instance, or David Bowie's rendering of "Baal." But no rock singer has captured the ethos of Weill's work quite as expertly as Marianne Faithfull does in "20th Century Blues." Billed as "An Evening in the Weimar Republic," the album presents a cabaret of sorts, as Faithfull and her accompanist, pianist Paul Trueblood, work their way through a set of mostly vintage tunes. Although the set list isn't totally Weill -- in addition to the Noel Coward title tune, Faithfull dusts off "Falling In Love Again" and Harry Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me" -- his work clearly dominates, and Faithfull duly delivers all the classics: "Mack the Knife," "Pirate Jenny," "Alabama Song" and "Surabaya Johnny." But it isn't her taste in material that carries the album so much as the cracked majesty of her nicotine-stained voice, which fills "Pirate Jenny" and "The Ballad of the Soldier's Wife" with such character and vivacity that her performances seem more like acting than singing. And isn't that what Weill demands?
Telegram (Elektra 61897)
When pop stars release a remix album, what we usually wind up with are extended versions of the singles with boosted beats -- dance tracks, in other words. But when Bjork decided to hire a crew of master remixers to tinker with tunes from her 1995 album, "Post," she had bigger things in mind. What we get via "Telegraph," then, has less to do with dancebeats than with the ways in which a song can be transformed by context. Granted, some selections are trendily predictable, as with the hyper-distorted industrial sheen Outcast bestows upon "Enjoy" or the slinky, soulful feel Dobie imposes on "I Miss You." Others, though, are astonishingly radical, as when the strings of the Brodsky Quartet turn "Hyperballad" into a rangy, dissonant art song, or when Evelyn Glennie uses chimes and pipes to give a Harry Partch feel to "My Spine." Perhaps that's why the most striking and satisfying remixes are those that take an imaginative route to the middle road, the way Dillinja does in his rethink of "Cover Me," which grounds the groove in chattering drum-n-bass rhythms, but fleshes out the song with airy electronics, a ghostly harp hook and snatches of "Also Spracht Zarathustra." Western Union should deliver as impressively.
Travelling without Moving (Work 67903)
Because frontman Jay Kay sounds and writes so much like a younger Stevie Wonder -- he has the same arching lightness in his soulful, tenor voice, and a similar sense of cosmic bliss -- it's easy to peg Jamiroquai as just another crew of '70s soul wannabes. But there's more to "Travelling without Moving" than the obvious retro groove. For one thing, even when the band seems to be playing off an existing hit, it doesn't borrow the past so much as jog the listener's memory. So when the bassline in "Alright" slips into a pattern reminiscent of the Yarbrough and Peoples oldie "Don't Stop the Music," the reference comes across less as theft than as a "gosh, that sounds familiar" reminder. Obviously, credit for some of that belongs with the band itself, which clearly has enough ideas of its own not to need to borrow. But the songs are ultimately what keep "Travelling" moving, as the best tracks here -- like the reggae-tinged "Drifting Along" or the delightfully loopy "Cosmic Girl" -- depend as much on melody as rhythm to make their point. And how many retro soul acts can make that claim?
Brandenburg Concerto (Blue Note 54559)
According to Charles Mingus, one of Charlie Parker's favorite exercises was to slip a classical album onto the hi-fi and improvise along with the greats (he particularly liked jamming to Stravinsky, wrote Mingus). Most jazzmen, though, are far less daring when drawing upon the classical repertoire. Either they play it straight -- that is, exactly as written -- or they completely jazz things up, as Duke Ellington did with "The Nutcracker" or Miles Davis with Albeniz' "Concierto de Aranjuez." Only bassist Ron Carter seems to have the guts to follow Parker's lead, as "Brandenburg Concerto" finds him improvising over (among other things) a straightforward rendition of Bach's Brandenburg
Concerto No. 3. Given that pizzicato doublebass is not the most intrusive of instruments, there's enough subtlety to Carter's approach to keep it from seeming totally blasphemous. Moreover, his consonant harmonic approach (and relatively subdued sense of swing) doesn't overly intrude on Bach's sense of harmonic development. Still, it's a bit of a relief to find that his treatment of Ravel's "Pavanne pour une enfant defunte" is conventionally jazzy, opting for a strong, swinging cadence instead of trying to improve on the original's sepulchral cadence. After all, even the greatest interpreters know their limits.
Pub Date: 1/16/97