Boston Phoenix CD Reviews
FEBRUARY 2, 1998:
KEYS TO ASCENSION 2
OPEN YOUR EYES
(Beyond)Try as they may, Yes will never be anything more than an old-fashioned, overblown art-rock band -- not that there's anything wrong with that. Recorded quickly and released quietly to fulfill a lame-duck contract, the studio disc of Keys to Ascension 2 is their best album since 1977's Going for the One, and the first time they've played full-blown Yes music since then. Rick Wakeman's twiddly but dazzling keyboards and Steve Howe's twiddly but raunchy guitar are back to shed light on singer Jon Anderson's melodic musings. "Footprints" and "Mind Drive" (running nine and 18 minutes, respectively) are complex epics that hold together as songs; "Sign Language" is a simple and pretty instrumental. The second disc of Keys is a live reworking of Yes oldies, neither improving on nor trashing the original versions.
On the other hand, the official new album Open Your Eyes shows how silly Yes can sound when they try to go mainstream. Wakeman's out and LA dude Billy Sherwood is in to write and produce most of the songs; Howe doesn't get enough to play, and it sounds as if Anderson had been hastily dubbed over Sherwood's vocals. The title track and "New State of Mind" have a bit of the old Yes grandeur. The rest is mostly slick adult-contemporary with "I'm okay, you're okay"-type lyrics. Save for an interesting bonus track, with 15 minutes of effects and a cappella snippets, this makes "Owner of a Lonely Heart" sound like Beethoven's Ninth.
-- Brett Milano
SEIZE THE MOMENT
(Warner Bros.)Smooth harmonies, light in melody but full of body, distinguish Phajja from the raspy-to-giddy work of rival vocal trios. So does the group's production, which features mid-tempo, widely spaced beats backed by delicate guitar work, hi-hat and cymbal rhythms, and a bit of piano -- just enough music to time the group's harmonies and introduce their frothy-light high notes and juicy-fruit low tones. Inevitably, perhaps, one hears in their slender songbird approach echoes of Toni Braxton. Still, from the sadness of "So Long," the horniness of "What Are You Waiting For," and the funky hurt of "Why You Wanna Pick on Me" all the way to the dreamlights of the Christopher Cross hit "Sailing," Phajja insist on a soft touch -- one less fatal than Braxton's swoon -- in order to project a bit of hope into music of sweet nighttime sadness.
-- Michael Freedberg
**** Phyllis Bryn-Julson and John Shirley-Quirk with Leon Fleisher
SCHUMANN SONG CYCLES
**** Leon Fleisher with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra
BRAHMS CONCERTOS, ETC.
(Sony Masterworks Heritage)Pianist Leon Fleisher has probably been in the news more often for not playing the piano than for playing it so well. More than three decades ago, repetitive stress syndrome forced him to give up playing with his right hand. More recently, his resignation as artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center made headlines and he canceled his only scheduled Boston concert appearance. Some new recordings, though, remind us of Fleisher's real significance.
For his first two-hand recording in 35 years, you might have expected at least a concerto or a sonata -- some work that gives primary importance to the soloist. But his latest consists of accompanying three Schumann song cycles. The singing is left to two well-known vocalists, soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson and (better) baritone John Shirley-Quirk, neither of them in the full flush of youthful freshness. There's the Opus 24 Liederkreis ("Song Collection"), Frauenliebe und -leben ("A Woman's Love and Life"), and the heartstopping Dichterliebe ("A Poet's Love").
Dichterliebe includes some of Schumann's most beautiful and intimate writing for the piano. The accompaniment doesn't just give the singers breathing space or tell them what key to sing in -- it's a kind of running commentary on the poems, expanding or undercutting the emotion. There are exquisite, evocative preludes to the songs, and the extraordinary postludes are like the last chapters of 19th-century Russian novels that tell us what happens to the characters after the story is officially over. In Dichterliebe, Heine's 16 short poems trace the misery of a failed relationship. But Schumann's final postlude has something not in the words themselves, a mysterious backward glance from the transcendent world of art where the poet/singer/composer has finally found his resting place. It's more than a minute and a half of just piano, and Fleisher gives this music the most sensitive and mysterious reading imaginable.
Fleisher's marvelous Brahms recordings on Epic (made between 1956 and 1962) have finally reappeared: the two Piano Concertos with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, the Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Handel, and the irresistible Opus 39 waltzes. They're as fresh as ever. Fleisher is both powerful and scintillating without ever sounding fussy or overblown. He plays with the startling notion that you can convey energy and passion with clarity and tact. And the heartening news is that on his brand new recording he's lost none of these qualities.
-- Lloyd Schwartz
*** Jamie Baum
(GM)Baum deserves as much credit for her writing and arranging as for her soprano and alto-flute chops. In the current mode, she blends jazz and classical procedures. She mixes odd tonalities and time signatures with standard song form and bop phrasing, putting as much emphasis on written ensemble detail as on swing and spontaneous blowing.
Not that there's any shortage of the latter. Baum and trumpet-king-of-the-moment Dave Douglas spin simultaneous counterlines, making for witty bursts of dialogue, or they step forward for brainy soliloquies. Meanwhile, the arrangements shift and turn, pulsing, free-time passages alternating with funky vamp figures and straight-ahead grooves. A tune like "Aftermath" is its own self-contained little world, its "Comin' Home Baby" bass vamp and quizzical/elegiac minor-key horn/flute theme trading with spare, flowing solos from Baum, Douglas, and bassist Drew Gress. Jeff Hirshfield is the all-ears drummer; Kenny Werner and Roberta Piket chip in appropriately economic piano support (i.e., they know when to lay on a flourish and when to lay out).
-- Jon Garelick
*** Derek Bailey & Tony Oxley
SOHO SUITES: RECORDINGS FROM 1977 & 1995
(Incus)Derek Bailey, one of the avatars of free improvisation, is getting nastier as he ages. At least as a player. Of these two discs of live duets with percussionist Oxley, the '95 recordings from New York City have the most bite. Oxley's no slouch either. Together they move from sonic landscapes dotted with light flurries of sound to dense, squalling blizzards of noise 'n' fury. Then back to gentle, probing exploration. This is improvisation bent on defining its own language, so the music's often free of melodies, harmonies, or the other amenities listeners usually hang their hats upon. As such, it's not easy listening.
But it is liberating. Oxley -- who in the '77 recording plays piles of kitchen utensils, generators, and springs (all amplified) as well as a gargantuan drum kit -- is as daring as Bailey, trying to keep his playing in a textural rather than a rhythmic vein. Ultimately, it's hard to decipher what both artists are trying to say. But they certainly seem to mean it. And they're so very responsive to each other's playing, locked in their deeply personal musical conversation, that it's unreasonable to dismiss their craftsmanship as artifice. (Write to Incus Records at 14 Downs Road, London E5 8DS, England)
-- Ted Drozdowski
***1/2 Chris Potter
(Concord)On his latest CD, young saxophonist Chris Potter more than measures up against an all-star rhythm section of guitarist John Scofield, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Young lion/old lion pairings like this can be pretty bland, especially if the new player hasn't developed much of a personality yet and the veterans simply coast. But this is a one-off outfit that sounds like a working unit. In fact, Scofield turns in his best recorded performance of 1997, and DeJohnette -- who often rests on his laurels in situations like this -- is energized and inspired throughout. Clearly the old-timers are reacting to Potter's impressive command of the tenor and soprano saxophones and his way of coming at a tune from oblique angles.
Potter has a willowy tone, slender and strong with an especially vocal quality in the upper register, that serves him well on ballads like the title track, where his singing tones add a melancholic bluesy dimension to the performance. Up against DeJohnette's fearsome power and fluidity on "Seven Eleven," he darts and feigns with impressive agility, angling in from unexpected directions. But he's at his most impressive matching wits with Scofield in some fiery exchanges on "Amsterdam Blues."
-- Ed Hazell
*** Buddy Miller
(High Tone)Buddy Miller's assertive guitar charges more toward rock here than on his intense debut, Your Love and Other Lies, but the overall mood is still in the retro-country vein. Cajun fiddling propels the rhumba-tinged title track, which is topped off with some snarling harmonies by Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris lends her hillbilly whine to a track. Writing with his child-voiced wife, Julie Miller, as well as singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale, Miller offers songs about life on the land, where farm folks are poisoned by insecticides and buried land mines litter the Third World. This is classic country music that veers away from country's contemporary links to conservative politics.
-- Bruce Sylvester
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