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Joe Jackson & Friends,
Heaven And Hell

(Sony Classical)

AUGUST 18, 1997:  Although still best remembered for "Is She Really Going Out With Him," from his 1979 debut album Look Sharp, Joe Jackson has always looked to be more than simply a pop musician. His experiments as a composer have led him through a series of albums exploring a variety of musical styles. He returned to the pop of his past with the albums Blaze Of Glory and Laughter And Lust, but then he deliberately turned away from pop for good with 1982's jazzy hybrid Night And Day.

So it should come as no surprise that Heaven And Hell -- Jackson's first record since Night And Day -- is being released by Sony's classical division and features a range of performers from both the classical and pop camps. A concept album based around the Seven Deadly Sins, the first track, "Prelude," features a frantic yet tempting violin solo by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg meant to introduce the root of all sin, the Devil. The remaining seven tracks take up the sins themselves in the traditional order from least to most severe.

While a concept album perhaps has the right to be treated only as a whole, the loose, non-narrative framework provided by the Deadly Sins allows the pieces to be considered separately. Which is just another way of saying that the songs themselves don't seem to be connected by anything other than that framework. Unfortunately, a similar problem arises around the connection between the orchestral and pop elements on some of the tracks. In short, it sometimes comes off as artificial, particularly in the early tracks. "Fugue 1/More Is More (Gluttony)," for example, requires pained pauses in the musical composition to allow Jackson to squeeze his lyrics in where they don't seem to belong. The juxtaposition of folk singer Suzanne Vega and soprano Dawn Upshaw on "Angel (Lust)" likewise comes off sounding forced and devoid of any palpable organic link.

On the other hand, as the record goes on and the sins get worse, Jackson's attempt at hybridization fares better. The lethargic flow and biting sarcasm of "Passacaglia/A Bud and a Slice (Sloth)" -- held together by the vocals of the Crash Test Dummies' Brad Roberts -- is a true and contemporary musical interpretation of the laziest vice, and the frenetic drumming of "Right (Anger)" is the same for the hottest.

The record's finest moment, however, is undoubtedly its last. "Fugue 2/Song of Daedalus (Pride)," offers the best lyrics of the batch (and that is why we know who Joe Jackson is in the first place, right?) as the "narrator" progresses from mild self-obsession to a declaration that he himself is God, letting the strings plummet back into the devilish violin with which the record began.

While Jackson's insistence on unpredictability and musical shape-shifting might come off as wantonly contrarian and has often led to mixed reviews (such as this one), his ambitious pursuit of the novel is admirable. And while Heaven And Hell is imperfectly realized, it's worth noting that experimentation -- even when it falls short -- is no sin. -- Jim Hanas

(Jackson's latest should be in the stores by September 2nd.)

Frank Sinatra (with The Red Norvo Quintet),
Live In Australia, 1959

(Blue Note)

Sinatra fans (and lovers of classic traditional jazz) can rejoice with the first official release on Blue Note of Live In Australia, 1959, a swingin' live performance by the Chairman of the Board and The Red Norvo Quintet from 38 years ago. Actually, the disc contains selections from two separate concerts on consecutive nights (March 31 and April 1, 1959, at West Melbourne Stadium). This 18-song compilation captures Sinatra and his solid sidemen at the top of their game, exhibiting total musical control with effortless grace.

After a 10-minute instrumental introduction featuring the quintet sliding through "Perdido" and "Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea" (and also building audience anticipation), The Voice commandingly appears behind a jaunty "I Could Have Danced All Night." Sinatra then launches into a trio of Cole Porter standards ("Just One Of Those Things," "I Get A Kick Out Of You," and "At Long Last Love") before pulling in the reins with the reflective "Willow Weep For Me."

The other quiet numbers ("Moonlight In Vermont," "Angel Eyes," "All The Way" and "One For My Baby") are about as intimate as one can get in a stadium setting. With particularly sympathetic backing from vibraphonist Red Norvo and pianist Bill Miller, Sinatra shines as a consummate live performer, engaging and then mesmerizing as he weaves his world-weary tales of lost loves and hopeful new beginnings. There's a playfulness at work here that was often sacrificed in the making of Sinatra's most remarkable studio recordings, and this live document from Down Under can stand comfortably alongside the other benchmarks in the Sinatra Songbook from the stellar Capitol era (1953-1961).

Listeners will have to lower their sonic expectations somewhat, as the technical quality of this live recording will sound a bit primitive when compared to current digital standards. Yet even with the drop-outs and overmodulation, this remastered version is vastly superior to the various bootlegs that have appeared over the years (which were blighted by much more hum and hiss). And of course, the performance far exceeds any imperfections encountered in mechanically reproducing it. An insightful essay by Sinatraphile Will Friedwald (whose book Sinatra! The Song Is You is required reading) rounds out the package with respectful reverence.

Frank Sinatra's genius is of the unconscious, natural type, much like that of two other prototypical American masters, Buster Keaton and Louis Armstrong. Although he never professed to be anything but "a saloon singer," Sinatra grew along with his art into the most powerful interpretative popular vocalist the world has thus far heard. Whether he was swinging easily with a twinkle in his eye or lyrically lamenting his lousy luck in love, Sinatra was always brave enough to stand up and sing like he meant it, with his heart on his sleeve and his guts in his hands. Live In Australia, 1959 emerges as another rare gift from the Master, a long-overdue classic from an era of now-lost musical integrity. -- David D. Duncan

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