Capsule reviews of recent CD releases. Ratings are out of four stars.
We Will Become Like Birds (Nettwerk) *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)
Never one to be confined musically, multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Erin McKeown has taken a broken romance and turned it into her most pop-ish and emotionally fleshed-out recording.
McKeown tosses off the mellow folksinger shackles with this richly textured song cycle that comes complete with crisp acoustic and ringing electric guitars, touches of synthesizer, and even the occasional hip-hop beat. McKeown's clear, albeit low-key, vocals work nicely on the record's two duets, one with Argentine keyboardist-singer Juana Molina (the gently swaying "The Golden Dream") and the other with folkie Peter Mulvey ("Delicate December").
From the jarring opener, "Aspera" -- which, with its Latin lyrics chorus, sets the album's rise-above-it tone -- to the poignant closing track, "You Were Right About Everything," this is an unflinching and inspired effort.
Harry Connick Jr.
Occasion (Marsalis Music) **** (4 stars)
When Harry met Branford during their teenage years in New Orleans in the 1970s, Connick had the reputation of being a jazz piano prodigy. Over the years, Connick's success as a pop singer and actor came to overshadow his jazz roots, but now thanks to a special deal worked out with Sony/Columbia, Marsalis' new record label has been allowed to put out a "Connick on Piano" series of instrumental jazz (non-singing) releases.
This new CD of saxophone-piano duets, a followup to Connick's 2003 quartet album, Other Hours, marks the first occasion the two friends have had to record an entire album together. This is jazz without the safety net of familiar mainstream standards to fall back on, informal and spontaneous rather than carefully arranged. In this intimate and sparse setting, Connick and Marsalis engage in inventive and playful interaction, constantly pushing and challenging each other as they shift between lead and supporting roles.
Connick demonstrates an almost encyclopedic knowledge of jazz piano styles, from stride and ragtime to the avant-garde, though his central focus is hard bop. Connick also reveals his talents as a jazz composer -- 11 of the tracks were written by the pianist and the remaining two by Marsalis -- with highlights including "Spot," a throwback to his New Orleans roots; two poignant ballads, "I Like Love More" and "All Things" from his Tony-nominated score to the Broadway musical "Thou Shalt Not," and the hard-driving and soulful "Good to Be Home" that closes the session.
Marsalis, already known for his robust tenor sax playing, shows a gentler side with his soprano saxophone playing.
But what's most striking about this CD is that these two friends obviously enjoy playing together, and their infectious enthusiasm is clearly conveyed to the listener.
Round About Midnight: The Legacy Edition (Columbia Legacy) *** (3 stars)
Davis' 1957 Columbia debut has been reissued many times, but the irresistible lure here is a second CD of contemporaneous live material featuring Davis' landmark quintet with saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. You get 30 minutes of stunning material from the Pasadena Civic Auditorium recorded Feb. 18, 1956 -- a window into the electrifying unity and momentum this band generated in performance.
The repertoire is familiar but includes two tunes the quintet never recorded in the studio: "Max Is Making Wax" and "Walkin'." The fidelity is good, and impresario Gene Norman's comments (dig the reference to "Johnny Coltrane") are a gas. This release also includes the famous "Round Midnight" from the Newport Jazz Festival the previous July. The original Round About Midnight doesn't match the best of the 1956 Prestige recordings, but we're talking the difference between silver and gold.
Man Like Me (RCA) *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)
On "Don't Ask Me How I Know," the first single from his impressive debut album, Bobby Pinson offers a litany of life lessons -- "Don't lose the girl you love for a night in Panama City/Don't rush off the phone when your mama calls, you ain't that busy."
It's one of the many songs on Man Like Me that deal with wisdom earned the hard way. The title cut, "I Thought That's Who I Was" and, in a lighter vein, "Started a Band" are others. There's a lot of hurt, regret and disappointment recounted in these songs, and if Pinson hasn't experienced it all himself, you wouldn't know it. With a blend of Steve Earle-style country-rock and a rough-edged Texas drawl that belies his youth, he gives these tales the ring of truth.
Dance of the Infidel (Shanachie) *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)
You may not hear the voice of Meshell Ndegeocello on her most recent disc, but sonically, she's everywhere. On Dance of the Infidel, Ndegeocello forces all her genre-bending attitude through the funnel of jazz, and ends up with material reminiscent of Miles Davis' and John Coltrane's work.
Ndegeocello has assembled some of her favorite artists for her "Spirit Music Jamia" ensemble. Lalah Hathaway and Cassandra Wilson are among the vocalists. Horn player Oran Coltrane (son of you-know-who) and pianist Oliver Lake are on the roster of instrumentalists.
The musical arrangements are built from the bass line up and indelibly bear Ndegeocello's signature. The tracks alternate in tone between freewheeling improvisation and moody bliss. Sabina (of the Brazilian Girls) ruminates about a love that has her trapped like a fish in an aquarium; "Will you starve me or feed me/I never really know." The pulsating bass line that rocks her fishbowl world comes courtesy Ndegeocello.
Wilson drops thick, honey-coated vocals on "The Chosen," but the subtly erotic and vulnerable lyrics, using imagery from the Bible's "Song of Solomon," are all Meshell.
Then there are the instrumentals.
The title track is imbued with such powerful emotion that you can't even put words to why you feel like crying after it's over.