2006 Records To Die For Page 8


STEVE EARLE: Transcendental Blues
E-Squared/Artemis 751033-2 (CD). 2000. Twangtrust, prods., mix; Hank Williams, mastering. AAD? TT: 49:56

For my money, no contemporary songwriter has made a more solid series of CDs over the past decade than Steve Earle. With its jaw-dropping arc of Beatlesesque folk-rock-hard-country-Celtic treasures, Transcendental Blues is the best of the best, transcending genre and expectations. Earle has become more overtly political since 9/11 and the Iraq War, but this is still his most elegant collection of masterfully tuneful and heart-drenched songs, every one of which sounds fresher with each listen. "When I Fall," a gorgeous duet with his sister Stacey, is just about the best love song two siblings could sing to each other. (XXIII-9, XXV-2, XXVI-2)

A&M 5240 (CD). 1989. Daniel Lanois, prod., mix; Malcolm Burn, eng., mix; George Horn, mastering. AAD. TT: 53:03

The Crescent City has no better musical ambassadors than this venerable first family, who've brought a spicy dose of their great city to every club and theater they've ever played. Though best known for those sensational live shows, the Neville Brothers have also worked their magic in the recording studio, where they've never sounded better than on Yellow Moon, with its steamy Daniel Lanois textures and production. Here they tackle songs by Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, and A.P. Carter in an altogether saintly way, and totally outdo themselves with "Sister Rosa," an original that lovingly pays tribute to the late Rosa Parks. Like so much of this timeless set, it'll give you goose bumps. (XII-7)


BRAHMS: Violin Sonatas 1–3
Szymon Goldberg, violin; Artur Balsam, piano
Testament SBT 1357 (mono CD). 1953/2005. Prod., eng. unknown. ADD. TT: 68:58

One of the last great LP collector's items has finally emerged on CD. Szymon Goldberg and Arthur Balsam recorded these sonatas in 1953 for the American Decca label (which brought us lots of Bing Crosby). Who knows why these performances languished so long in the vaults. Known mostly for recordings of Mozart and Schubert (often with his late-in-life collaborator, Radu Lupu), Goldberg is heard here in an infrequent outing with music of heroic emotions in a recording that is one of his best. Though a tad past his technical peak, he finds his own way into Brahms with an effortlessly focused tone that accommodates myriad details of phrasing at every volume level, though most remarkably at the pianissimo end. His phrase endings were often the most elegant ever. Most distinctively, Goldberg conveyed intense emotion with profound dignity, thanks partly to the support of one of the 20th century's most durable chamber-music pianists, Artur Balsam.

CHOPIN: Mazurkas, Waltzes, and Other Dances
Arthur Schoonderwoerd, fortepiano
Alpha 040 (CD). 2005. Hugues Deschaux, prod., eng. DDD. TT: 66:15

Fortepianist Arthur Schoonderwoerd has emerged as one of the most exciting and radical figures on the early-music front. This disc is easily the most convincing Chopin played on an instrument (an 1836 Pleyel) of the composer's own time in a program of dance-based music, some of it familiar waltzes and mazurkas, some of it minor works written for utilitarian dance occasions. The contrast between the two gives a rare glimpse of Chopin navigating his artistic and commercial worlds. These performances requestion every element of the music, from rubato to use of rhythm to sonority, but with great charm, style, and feeling. In 2006, watch for Schoonderwoerd's recordings of Beethoven's Piano Concertos 4 and 5. I've heard a European edition (Alpha 079), and the performances virtually reduce the concertos to chamber music in ways that challenge everything you thought you knew about this oft-played music.


Keith Jarrett, piano; Gary Peacock, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums
ECM 1900 (CD). 2001. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Martin Pearson, eng. DDD. TT: 68:11

For many, pianist Keith Jarrett's "Standards" trio, with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette, is the modern mainstream-minded acoustic jazz band of the day. Credit goes to the trio's estimable creative empathy—it's in its 22nd year, save for Jarrett's 1996–98 bout with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome—and to the pianist's capacity as an instrumental troubadour. On this live recording, the three dig into five standards and an original—a wide-open blues—with grace, vigor, and panache. Among the treats: a vibrant romp through "I Love You," with sumptuous melodies from Jarrett and a dancing solo from DeJohnette; a slow, heart-tugging "You've Changed"; and the percolating, underplayed jazz classic "Five Brothers." (XXVIII-3)

HANK MOBLEY: Soul Station
Hank Mobley, tenor sax; Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Art Blakey, drums
Blue Note 4 95343 (CD). 1960/1999. Alfred Lion, orig. prod.; Rudy Van Gelder, orig. eng., remastering; Michael Cuscuna, reissue prod. AAD. TT: 37:33

Clearly an example of hard-bop tenorman and composer Mobley at his zenith, this killer six-track album boasts one engaging performance after another by the leader and three jazz greats, who together have remarkable aesthetic affinity. The material is 1950s–'60s mainstream jazz: two standards and four Mobley originals, none too fast or too slow, all melodically easy on the ear, and all swinging like mad. On board are Mobley's lone jazz standard, "This I Dig of You," which moves from a vamp-like modal section to a flowing groove; the slow, deep blues "Dig Dis"; the lilting "Remember"; and the appropriately titled hipster title track. Song-like, rhythmically charged solos are the order of the day. (XX-9)


THE RADIATORS: Law of the Fish
Epic ESK 40888 (CD). 1987. Rodney Mills, prod., eng. ADD. TT: 45:58

This is the defining moment in the career of the greatest rock band in New Orleans history. Many a late night at Johnny White's—which got an opportunity to live up to its motto "Never closed" last September after hurricane Katrina—was stoked by the hard-rocking "This Wagon's Gonna Roll," "Spark Plug," and "Doctor Doctor," or the anthems of "fish-head music": the title track and "Suck the Head." These tunes emerged from the pen of singer-keyboardist Ed Volker, architect of the band's below-sea-level identity, were then embellished by the inspired guitar combo of Dave Malone and Camile Baudoin, and were driven home by the funky rhythm section of bassist Reggie Scanlan, drummer Frank Bua, and percussionist Glen Sears.

Elektra/Asylum 7315-2 (CD). 1966/1987. Paul Rothchild, Mark Abramson, prods.; Barry Friedman, eng. AAD. TT: 44:55

John Coltrane kicked the door open at the start of the 1960s, and by '66, even rock bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Love were recording lengthy modal jams. But nobody got the message like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, whose East West is still the coin of the realm in this style. That's because they had their own Coltrane, guitarist Mike Bloomfield, whose remarkable solo on the 13-minute title track sounds only better with age. With biting counterpoint from Elvin Bishop on guitar, the stone-cold Chicago blues drumming of Billy Davenport, bass lines from Jerome Arnold, Mark Naftalin pounding the keys, and the indefatigable Butterfield on vocals and harmonica, this was the perfect band at its moment of pure transcendence.


POULENC: Figure humaine
Choral Music: Sept chansons, Un soir de neige, Figure humaine, Quatre petites prières de saint Franois de Assise, Chanson à boire
Daniel Reuss, RIAS-Kammerchor
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901872 (CD). 2005. Florian B. Schmidt, prod.; Henri Thaon, eng. DDD. TT: 53:40

This beautiful disc is pure pleasure from beginning to end, both for the fine a cappella singing and for this world-class choir's stunning evocation of Poulenc's particular harmonic and textural sound-world.

Songs by Enesco, Hahn, Chausson, Debussy
Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto; Daniel Blumenthal, piano
Naïve V 5022 (CD). 2005. Jean-Pierre Loisil, prod.; Pierre-Antoine Signoret, eng. DDD. TT: 65:05

Marie-Nicole Lemieux is one of today's great young contraltos, and if she's a captivating presence on the opera stage, she's equally in command of these truly "exquisite" French songs. The fact that her renditions of this repertoire remain fresh even after repeated hearings makes her recital an ideal record to die for.