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MAY 18, 1998: 

*** Salim Washington & RBA



RBA is an acronym for "Roxbury Blues Aesthetic," a fitting name for a jazz band with a long history of performing in that neighborhood. Leader Salim Washington, a multitalented saxophonist, flutist, and composer, looks beyond Roxbury and the blues to John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, and that strain of lyrical Afro-romanticism called to mind by albums like Africa Brass and Thembi. Guest pianist Joe Bonner is on hand with lots of rhapsodic solos; guest trombonist Frank Lacy (who also steps out on trumpet) lends some hard-edged riffing.

But Washington's original compositions stand on their own with their attractive melodic hooks and his sax solos, which reflect an advanced harmonic thinking. Violist Melanie Dyer is a real discovery -- her quicksilver flash adds an appealing element to an ensemble dominated by the dark and dense interplay of five horns. And drummer Bobby Ward, whose splashy polyrhythms create an unstoppable momentum, brings everything together on this cohesive and imaginative outing.

-- Norman Weinstein

*** John Lindberg Ensemble


(Black Saint)

Bassist John Lindberg, an unheralded master if there ever was one, has released another creative gem. A consistently imaginative composer-arranger, and a virtuoso instrumentalist, he is also a leader of stellar bands, including his latest quartet with trumpeter Dave Douglas, saxophonist Larry Ochs, and drummer Ed Thigpen. Lindberg's compositions display both classical and jazz leanings with equal measure as they roam through a catholic range of jazz idioms, from the hard-swinging title track to the pointillist free group improvisations on "Eleven Thrice." Douglas is in exceptional form throughout, especially when he's blending his own wide spectrum of tone colors with Lindberg's on the opening "Firewood Duet," and intertwining his lines in counterpoint with Lindberg on "Fortune on a Sphere." Larry Ochs joins the trio on the title track and "Eleven Thrice," adding gritty textures and a wilder emotional edge to the more-contained trio. And the veteran Thigpen swings gamely no matter what context Lindberg's music thrusts him into.

-- Ed Hazell




The scatting-in-tongues and remarkable range of vocal expression on Iva Bittová's first US release will lead some to mark her a Czech Diamanda Galás. But where chaos is often Galás's lifeblood, Bittová's musical passions unfurl with a sharp sense of order, not to mention a gentler employment of melody. A violinist and singer of uncommon talent, Bittová is a child of classical form, folk tradition (Gypsy songs of her Moravian heritage), and the avant-garde (collaborations with adventurers John Zorn and Fred Frith). The tensions among these seemingly conflicting alignments, the push-pull of joy and pain, allow her songs to follow imaginative zigzags of rhythm and mood. She moves from quaint village refrains to urban-edged jolts, the lilting to the shattered, with remarkable ease.

The combination of Bittová's soprano and her rhythmic stroking of violin and viola give this starkly recorded solo disc a dramatic presence. The violin's hypnotic Middle Eastern drones on "Ne Nehledej" ("Stop Searching"), for instance, are drawn through layers of darkness by softly yearning cries, murmurs, and staccato inventions. Although Iva Bittová is a collection of eight tracks taken from two European recordings released in 1991 and 1994, it sounds like days of future already passed.

-- Tristram Lozaw

*** Harvey Danger



Harvey Danger are from Seattle, but the group have gone to great pains in their press bio to distance themselves from the region's musical geography. And with good reason: Harvey Danger are about as far away from grunge as Soundgarden were from understatement. This one-time Nirvana cover band come across as a brash, clever, pungent pop group who take their cues primarily from Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers. And like Sloan or Possum Dixon, they manage to sound smart but not smarmy. "Carlotta Valdez" -- a nod to Kim Novak's alter ego in Vertigo -- is a bratty burst of fizz and friction. Singer Sean Nelson's hormones-in-overdrive vocals are a perfect fit for the sabotaged adolescent longing of lines like "All I ever wanted to be/Was a woolly muffler on your naked neck" ("Woolly Muffler"). It's a lot cooler when Nelson sings it.

-- Jonathan Perry

*** Fastball



At first you might hear a great disparity between the melody and the lyrics on All the Pain Money Can Buy -- hidden behind catchy, sweet layers of harmony lie difficult and troubling questions about the future. But in fact both the words and the music from this Austin-based trio work to convey the message of an optimistic departure from a dark and dusty world in favor of sunnier pastures. The radio-friendly single "The Way" describes an old couple who ditch a family reunion for more exciting escapades. The equally lively "Better Than It Was" is about money problems that no longer seem to matter. Tony Scalzo and Miles Zuniga take turns at lead vocals, which helps break up the monotony of the disc's 13 uptempo guitar-driven tunes, as does a guest vocal by Poe, and a cameo by a brass ensemble.

-- Ian Pervil

***1/2 Calexico



If the adage "a picture paints a thousand words" has any truth to it, then what does sound paint (or, more aptly, signify), and how? The mostly instrumental duo Calexico seem obsessed with the question on The Black Light, an evocative and diverse sonic roadtrip through spaghetti-Western soundtracks, post-cocktail nation pop, expansive desert rock, and squiggly, multicultural alterna-country.

Based in Tucson, Joey Burns and John Convertino are perhaps better known for their work with other artists (Giant Sand, Victoria Williams, Lisa Germano, Richard Buckner). But The Black Light shows the two multi-instrumentalists have no problem focusing on a cohesive, unified project uniquely their own -- here a roadtrip concept story -- that is haunting (the title track, "Stray"), whimsical ("Sideshow," "Frontera," "Fake Fur"), and consistently engaging. Although the duo's top-notch musicianship melds various styles and genres, it's not this CD's painstaking instrumental detail but the results that make it so eloquent. Like the desert's natural power, The Black Light -- shadowy and dangerous one moment, celebratory and colorful the next -- evinces a vast, cinematic character as revealing as it is mysterious.

-- Mark Woodlief

** Various Artists



**1/2 Above the Law


(Tommy Boy)

In 1987 Eazy-E founded Ruthless Records for the express purpose of recording his N.W.A, a crew who were to hardcore hip-hop what the Sex Pistols were to punk rock. The enterprise became the forerunner of every insurgent gangsta-rap label to come, yet if you can imagine the inevitable ravages of bad taste, mismanagement, and petty malice that would plague any label led by someone like Johnny Rotten, you'll also get a sense of how mixed up Ruthless's history has been. The company's two-CD retrospective fares no better. It's a documentary mess, with inaccurate dates, a jumbled chronology, and crucial omissions (including most of N.W.A's biggest and baddest raps). Yet the mess actually gives the label's unsung wares room to shine, including a sharp new Eazy-E track ("24 Hours To Live''), outstanding forgotten cuts by D.O.C. and Above the Law, and a small array of numbers by one-shot female acts to balance the rampaging sexism of their male masters.

Despite the Tenth Anniversary title, the compilation actually ends just before Eazy's 1995 death (his final find, Cleveland's Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, is underrepresented). The story continues, however, on Above the Law's Legends. This trio left Ruthless two albums ago, but they're still playing like boyz of old, only with slower beats, deeper voices, and less egregious nastiness. The sole kink in their smooth display of gangsta competence is the stunning "Deep Az the Root,'' a gorgeous lament shot through with regret about a gangbanging life where setbacks "come by the millions.'' Neither Eazy nor Johnny ever said as much, but I bet they'd understand.

-- Franklin Soults

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