2011 Records To Die For Page 3


HANK MOBLEY: Soul Station
Hank Mobley, tenor saxophone; Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Art Blakey, drums
Audio Wave AWMXR-0001 (CD). 1960/2009. Alfred Lion, prod.; Rudy Van Gelder, eng.; Joe Harley, reissue prod.; Alan Yoshida, remastering. AAD. TT: 37:33

Leonard Feather once famously described Hank Mobley as "the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone." Middleweights never get much respect. But before drugs and general dissipation got him, Mobley recorded some albums for Blue Note in the 1960s that make time stand still. Soul Station exemplifies the suave, flowing melodicism and erotic rhythmic subtlety that made Mobley unique. With a rhythm section for the ages behind him, Mobley delivers profundities of soul and swing now gone from planet Earth. This Audio Wave reissue uses JVC's XRCD24 mastering and manufacturing technologies and gets you closest to Blue Note's master tapes. (XX-9, XXIX-2)

LUCIANO TROJA: At Home with Zindars
Luciano Troja, piano
Luciano Troja 8 84502 34349 6 (CD). 2010. Luciano Troja, Valentina Prudente, prods.; M.P. Kuo, eng. DDD. TT: 64:25

Bill Evans fans know the name Earl Zindars because Evans recorded seven Zindars compositions during his life. But they usually know only the name. Luciano Troja, pianist and passionate Bill Evans fan, decided to investigate. He met Zindars' widow, visited the family home in San Francisco, and obtained many of Zindars' sophisticated, wistful compositions. The result is this fervent labor of love: 16 jewels strung together into a luminous arc of meditation. Troja does not so much play these great songs as allow them to slowly and deeply come upon him. There is also a 40-page booklet full of riches.


NICK LOWE: Labour of Lust
Columbia JC 36087 (LP). 1979. Nick Lowe, prod.; Roger Bechirian, eng. AAA. TT: 32:13

Sure, Labour of Lust is a guilty pleasure. It's unabashedly catchy, chock-full of sweet melodies, hooks, and adolescently sexist lyrics. Even the jacket photos of a shaggy-haired, stoned-looking Nick Lowe have a cheesy, 1970s-yearbook quality. It's kind of embarrassing to have it sitting out in the "often played" stacks, along with the symphonies, classic jazz, and serious, angst-ridden opuses by singer-songwriters. But dammit, it is catchy, it is beautifully crafted, and it does have some of the best power-pop songs ever recorded. One listen to this guaranteed pick-me-up will have you humming "Cruel to Be Kind" or "American Squirm" the rest of the day. An R2D4 for sure!

WARREN ZEVON: Warren Zevon
Asylum 7E-1060 (LP). 1976. Jackson Browne, prod.; Fritz Richmond, Kent Nebergall, John Haeny, engs. AAA. TT: 38:21

One night last week, I spent three hours looking for Warren Zevon. "Carmelita," "Mohammed's Radio," and "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" were stuck in my head, along with a conviction that it was one of the best, and best-sounding, rock records of all time. It wasn't in its place or in any of the other likely spots, so I was reduced to randomly thumbing through LPs. I eventually found it, and not only was it as good as I'd remembered, but hearing it soothed some inner ache I didn't even know I'd had. It's definitely an R2D4, and now, adorned with a fluorescent yellow tab, never out of sight.


Specializing in recordings of Broadway musicals and in solo albums by musical-theater performers, PS Classics—founded in 2000 by Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin—is making recordings of the sort that were produced by Columbia and RCA in the old days, and doing a great job of it. Both of my R2D4 picks this year are PS Classics—and if editorial policy allowed listing more than two, they wouldn't have been the only ones. (I'll sneak in just one more: their recording of Kitty's Kisses, a charming, all-but-forgotten 1926 musical.)

LIZ CALLAWAY: Passage of Time
PS Classics PS-984 (CD). 2009. Tommy Krasker, prod.; Bart Migal, eng. DDD. TT: 55:02

Liz Callaway is an amazing singer. Her voice has a pristine clarity, with no seams between the belt, mix, and soprano ranges, it's apparently effortless at any volume, and it always sounds natural, never "produced" or artificial. More than that, she has the ability to reach the listener at an emotional level. I remember tears streaming down my face the first time I heard her sing "The Story Goes On," on the Broadway Cast recording of Baby. This experience was repeated several times when I listened to this, her latest recording.

The material here is wide-ranging, including songs by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Maltby & Shire, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Flaherty & Ahrens, Stephen Schwartz, Lennon & McCartney, and James Taylor. There are some clever pairings, such as "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" with "Singin' in the Rain." Callaway makes each song sound as if it had been written for her, all the while adhering scrupulously to the music as written. Sensitive musical direction by Alex Rybeck, and very good sound quality. A lovely record.

FINIAN'S RAINBOW: New Broadway Cast Recording
Music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Yip Harburg
PS Classics PS-1088 (CD). 2009. Tommy Krasker, prod.; Bart Migal, eng. DDD. TT: 64:10

Finian's Rainbow is a true classic of the American musical theater, with songs that include "Old Devil Moon," "How Are Things in Glocca Morra," and "Look to the Rainbow." The show has had several recordings—including one of the 1960 revival, of which I'm quite fond—but none to equal this one. Based on the 2009 Broadway revival, it has everything: outstanding singing from the leads (Cheyenne Jackson as Woody and Kate Baldwin as Sharon, both Tony Award nominees), the original orchestrations spruced up by Larry Moore, virtually all the music in the score (including dance numbers), and a recording that maintains an ideal balance between soloists, chorus, and orchestra. The booklet has many pictures of the production, all the lyrics, and an insightful critical appreciation by The New Yorker's John Lahr. A classy job all around.


BRAHMS: Symphony 3
Wilhelm Furtwängler, Berlin Philharmonic
Electrola E 90 994 (LP). 1949. Unnamed prod., eng. AAA. TT: 38:35

Good recordings of Brahms' Symphony 3, let alone great ones, are thin on the ground: Too often, the opening chords sound uncertain, even out of tune, and many conductors seem bent on making the Allegretto sound Italian. My favorite Brahms Third by far is this 1949 recording by Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic, which avoids those mistakes and makes the four very different movements hold together as a single, dramatic statement. (Rudolf Kempe's 1976 recording, with the Munich Philharmonic, deserves an honorable mention in that regard.) I've no idea how many recordings Furtwängler made of this work, but of the ones I've heard, this has the most magic.

Harvest SW 759 (LP). 1971. Pink Floyd, Joe Boyd, Norman Smith, prods.; various engs. AAA. TT: 50:05

Compilations are seldom as high-minded as "real" albums, but this collection of singles, B-sides, and rarities does more than most Pink Floyd records to light the link between the group's original songwriter, the late Syd Barrett ("See Emily Play"), and the best early material ("Julia Dream," "Cirrus Minor," "Paintbox," "Remember a Day") by the group's other members. At more or less the same time they assembled this compilation, Pink Floyd were making Meddle, an altogether different-sounding and more serious project ("careful with that axe," indeed). Some 40 years on, it's Relics we remember—and enjoy—the most. An indispensable record, and quite possibly the best starting point for Pink newbies.


J.S. BACH: The Cello Suites
Steven Isserlis, cello
Hyperion CDA67541/2 (2 CDs). 2006. Andrew Keener, prod.; Simon Perry, exec. prod.; Simon Eadon, eng. DDD. TT: 2:17:08

Combining consummate instrumental command, scholarliness, and passion, this must be one of the best recordings of these monumental works. In his notes, Isserlis points out that the Cello Suites become increasingly complex, profound, and intense; drawing on recent research, he feels that they are connected to certain Christian festivals: the heart-breaking Suite 5 depicts the Crucifixion, the triumphant Suite 6 the Resurrection. All this comes out in his playing. With incredible rhythmic control, he makes the dance movements flexible but stable, and gives his phrasing a spoken quality. Refined and austere, his tone is bright in the joyous suites, somber in the sorrowful ones.

SCHUBERT: Complete Works for Violin & Piano
Arnold Steinhardt, violin; Seymour Lipkin, piano
Newport Classics NCD 60174/2 (2 CDs). 2006. Eric Wen, prod.; Da-Hong Seetoo, eng. DDD. TT: 112:57

Covering 11 years, these six works trace the development of Schubert's genius from his earliest to his late great compositions. True duos for equal partners, they demand combinations of simplicity and sophistication, inwardness and exuberance, soloistic virtuosity and ensemble intimacy. Steinhardt and Lipkin project a patrician expansiveness that allows them to bring out every tonal and expressive nuance. Their phrasing is elegant, their rhythm flexible but steady, their liberties poised and balanced; every note has vibrant life. Steinhardt's tone is warm, pure, beautiful, and constantly expressive; Lipkin matches it perfectly. It is hard to imagine a finer performance of this wonderful music.


DAVID BOWIE: Station to Station
RCA APL1-1327 (US LP), RVP-6027 (Japanese LP). 1976. David Bowie, prod., eng.; Harry Maslin, eng. AAA. TT: 38:08

Appearing on Dick Cavett's television show in 1974, the coked-out "Thin White Duke" sang a ragged "1984" and then, nervously and obsessively stroking a walking stick, submitted to an interview during which he regressed to a semi-infantile state. A year later, still so zonked out he claimed to remember nothing of its creation, he recorded this pivotal masterpiece. Perhaps the lavish, recently released multi-disc edition of Station to Station was Bowie's attempt to reconnect with it. It got me to reconnect with one of my favorites from that unsettled time, via the original American and Japanese pressings, the sound of which I doubt the remaster will approach.

ORNETTE COLEMAN: The Shape of Jazz to Come
Ornette Coleman, alto saxophone; Don Cherry, cornet; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums
Atlantic SD-1317 (LP). 1959. Nesuhi Ertegun, prod.; Dayton Burr "Bones" Howe, eng. AAA. TT: 37:59

Music is but one strand woven into the complex fabric of Fred Kaplan's 1959: The Year Everything Changed, his fascinating book about that pivotal year, but he pays particular attention to Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and this album by Ornette Coleman. Both were breakthrough records of music that didn't rely on chords for their structural underpinnings. The best-selling Davis album was built on modal scales that produced a calming, bluesy feel. The pianoless The Shape of Jazz to Come pulled the floor out from under the listener's feet. It's still punk. Engineered by the great Bones Howe at Radio Recorders, it sounds fantastic on the original LP. The CD is drab. (XIX-2)


JAMES HORNER: Sneakers (Original Soundtrack)
Composed & conducted by James Horner; with Branford Marsalis, saxophone.
Columbia CK 53146 (CD). 1992. Burt Berman, prod.; Dave Collins, eng.; Shawn Murphy, mix. AAD. TT: 48:29

Fond of listening to subwoofers, I'm always on the lookout for CDs with well-recorded deep bass, and in 2004 I discovered a real keeper while reviewing Sumiko Audio's 205-lb REL-III Studio subwoofer. While setting up the REL-III in my listening room, Sumiko installers Patrick Butler and Allen Hager used the soft, dense, sullenly repetitive bass-drum beat from "Cosmos Old Friend" to optimize the sub's phase, level, low-pass, and crossover frequency settings, as well as its optimal distance from the back wall. This soft, pulsing background sound wasn't earthshaking, but it helped them attain the most natural and dense quality at this low frequency. As for drama, Sneakers doesn't disappoint. "The Hand Off" delivers one of the most dynamic piano scales I've encountered, exploding out of a dead-black silence. It never fails to send chills up and down my spine—when my subwoofers are well set up. (XVIII-2)

THE L.A. FOUR: Going Home
Bud Shank, flute, alto flute, alto saxophone; Laurindo Almeida, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Shelly Manne, drums
Ai Music 32 JD-10043 (CD). 1977/1997. Tashinari Koruma, prod.; Lee Hirschberg, eng. AAD. TT: 32:30

The L.A. Four recorded nine albums from 1974 to 1982, but it all began in 1954, when alto saxophonist and flutist Bud Shank paired up with Brazilian acoustic guitarist Laurindo Almeida to make an album called Brazilliance. Twenty years later, they were joined by bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne to form the L.A. Four. Their cool-toned bop showed influences of European classical music, bossa nova, and samba. In the photo on the cover, the musicians are spread out in a large arc: Almeida to the left, Brown at center, Shank to the right, and Manne at center rear. This remastered Japanese edition creates precisely defined sonic holograms of the four musicians on a deep, wide, layered soundstage. (XIV-1)