Rhapsody Streamnotes: January 6, 2010

These are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on December 6. Past reviews and more information are available here.

Year End Edition

Spent way too much time during December collating year-end lists, but they gave me some hints as to what I've been missing. In years past I used to scrounge around used shops to scrounge up a few things to take a risk on. Much easier (and cheaper) to dial them up from Rhapsody, at least when I can find them. Usual caveats apply: only one or two plays leading to a snap judgment, which might be a bit generous but more often is cautious. Usually this quenches my curiosity, but on sometimes I've sought out records that I first encountered this way, and a couple of those I've bumped my rating on. Certainly the critics who are pushing Phoenix [a previous B+(*)], Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, and Dirty Projectors to the top of the polls have listened to them more than I ever will. I don't doubt that greater exposure will make them seem less alien, and might even lead me to grant them some technical points, but I've listened enough to not care: I will always have better things to play.

Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009, Domino): Mojo and Uncut have already tagged this as the best album of 2009, and it's currently tied for second in my barely started meta poll tabulation (behind Yeah Yeah Yeahs). The group has been up there before, and will probably be reckoned a signature group of the decade. If so, 2000-09 will be the decade where I've finally lost touch with the rock critic consensus -- not that I was a big fan of Nirvana in the 1990s or U2 in the 1980s, but I mostly understood what they were about. Animal Collective is not just unappealing -- they're damn near unlistenable. Still, I'm hedging (as I did with Strawberry Jam): I do hear the chopped-up late-Beatles hooks, layered with too many voices, and I find my foot inexplicably tapping to "Brother Sport." I can't imagine listening to this enough for all the rough edges to mesh, but I can imagine someone else doing so -- someone much younger than I am. B+(*)

Otis Gibbs: Grandpa Walked a Picketline (2008 [2009], Thirty Tigers): Singer-songwriter from Indiana, filed as folk because his music -- guitar and voice -- is so primitive, and also because he has some politics. Title song credits union support with helping both his grandparents' and parents' lives, but there's nothing dogmatic about that, nor about the more personal topics. B+(***)

Dailey & Vincent: Brothers From Different Mothers (2009, Rounder): Opening notes are so bluegrass they could be Flatt and Scruggs. Principals are Jamie Daley and Darrin Vincent. Old fashioned values, including modesty and piety, not necessarily humor. B+(**)

Phosphorescent: To Willie (2009, Dead Oceans): That would be Willie Nelson, who wrote 7 of 11 songs. Pseudo-group, actually singer-songwriter Matthew Houck, from Athens, GA, on his fourth album. Rather scattered given such a tight concept, but then it may be what he likes most about Nelson is his off-handedness. Pedal steel helps, and there's some but not enough of that. B+(*)

Alela Diane: To Be Still (2009, Rough Trade): Another singer-songwriter doing business without her last name (Menig), like Jemina Pearl. Billed as "nouveau psych folk" -- means nothing to me, but she strums her guitar and sings along, and this works best when she slides into an organic groove. B+(*)

Holly Williams: Here With Me (2009, Mercury Nashville): Related: half-sister of Hank III, daughter of Hank Jr., granddaughter of the real deal. Doesn't have her brother's pipes, brains, or attitude; about par with her father, except on attitude. No threat to the family legend. B

DJ Quik & Kurupt: Blaqkout (2009, Mad Science): A couple of west coast rappers, been around quite a while, only thing I've heard is Quik's 1991-2000 Greatest Hits, which aren't that great. But this is cartoony, with lots of whizzy synth and crunky chorus, which is the only way to redeem titles like "Cream N Ya Panties," "Whatcha Wan Do," "F**k Y'All," and "Hey Playa!" (Couldn't play the title cut.) B+(***)

BLK JKS: After Robots (2009, Secretly Canadian): Rock group from South Africa, not totally lacking African roots, but not very evident either. Most cuts are heavy handed, clunky, with rapid-fire drums and metallic dross, but it's not all like that: the closer, "Tselane," offers a tinkling repetitiveness that is rather nice. B-

Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest (2009, Warp): Currently running second in my year-end poll metacount, behind Phoenix and barely ahead of Animal Collective. No idea why. Rhapsody lists it as "lo-fi," which certainly isn't true. Christgau denies that it is "chamber pop," and makes that case without solving the puzzle with "folk-prog." One reason it's so hard to peg is that there's so little substance to hang anywhere. It's easy enough to listen to, and the harmonies sweeten it up a bit. Didn't notice a word, which doesn't mean there were none. Does mean they weren't very witty, or incisive, or loud. B-

Mayer Hawthorne: A Strange Arrangement (2009, Stones Throw): Alias for Andrew Cohen, a DJ/producer from Ann Arbor, who presumably does the lead vocals, using his best Marvin Gaye accent. Maybe even dubs his backing vocals, which are pretty much in the same slightly disconcerting voice -- helps that most are slow, but "The Ills" is an exception that works well enough. There's a niche market operating lately for rediscovered soul obscurities, and these prim and proper Motown arrangements fit the bill. They're fake, slight next to the classics, but it's not like you'd rather listen to neo-soul. B+(*)

Boo Hewerdine: God Bless the Pretty Things (2009, Navigator): English singer-songwriter, been around since 1989 when he cut an album with Darden Smith that AMG thinks highly of. Nice, clear guitar-plus-voice, thoughtful songs, sincere singer. B+(*)

Sufjan Stevens: The BQE (2009, Asthmatic Kitty): I thought his 50 albums for 50 states concept was too ambitious, but after Michigan and Illinois I was looking forward to more, even if Indiana came next. But then he got sidetracked, releasing outtakes from Illinois, then Christmas songs, and now some sort of quasi-classical soundtrack presumably immortalizing the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. He almost makes the hokey grandeur of classical music work. B

Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca (2009, Domino): Lo-fi, alt, indie, experimental rock group (AMG's styles), running about number 5 in my year-end meta poll. First three songs aren't unlistenable, but they're not music either -- at least not any form I can follow, which is hard to fathom in a band that enjoys some substantial amount of critic mass. Fourth song, "Stillness Is the Move," has something going for it -- sort of a falsetto soul thing. One other song struck me as having an interesting drum track, but little else meshes here. Fans point out the vast number of ideas they work with, and that may be true, but they strike me as so alien as to be uninteresting. And it's not like I'm a critic with little breadth or bandwidth. C+

Tegan and Sara: Sainthood (2009, Vapor/Sire): Canadian duo, identical twins, surname Quin. Fifth album since 1999. Always had sort of a cult following, which probably meant that they started out low-tech and folkie. But they've grown into rock beats and riffs -- here they sound a bit like the Bangles, only more serious, and better organized, both good signs, especially for the future. A-

Veda Hille: This Riot Life (2008, Ape House): A real find, one of those rare things that Christgau discovered even though virtually no one else noticed. AMG lists 4 previous albums going back to 1998; Christgau says she has a dozen. A singer-songwriter from Vancouver, plays piano, composes for theater, crafted a song cycle here. Not sure what it's all about, but from the start it feels right, sharply arranged, smartly worded -- closest analogue I can come up with is Kate Bush only more consistent and less bombastic. A-

Joe Nichols: Old Things New (2009, Universal South): Hunky country singer, has recorded quite a bit since 2002 but this is the first I've heard of him. Straight neotrad, classic themes: has drinking problems and marital problems but has better things to do than see a shrink. B+(***)

James McMurtry: Live in Europe (2009, Lightning Rod): Alt-country singer-songwriter, son of the famous novelist, cut his first literate album in 1989, but didn't really connect until his last two Bush-fueled albums. Live album seems to be one of those CD-DVD packaging vehicles, as if anyone needed such a thing. I'm only listening to the 42-minute CD, which is solid but strikes me as rather placid -- at least compared to what I'd imagine. B+(*)

Shakira: She Wolf (2009, Epic): Second play gained enough that I suspect this hasn't peaked. Early on she sounds like herself, showing that she has a distinctive sound and stance rather than an instinct for opportunism. Then songs like "Good Stuff" and "Gypsy" kick in. Maybe more -- wasn't keeping track, and didn't notice if two Spanish titles are really in Spanish. A-

Ghostface Killah: Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City (2009, Def Jam): Oh, wow. Aside from a song extolling love at first sight to a pregnant lady married to some other guy, this flows at its simplest and runs right over you more than once -- "Guest House" is as compelling a piece of hip-hop as I've heard in years (and it's not like I'm an easy sell for gangsta). Dirtiest sex I've heard in at least that long, too. (Maybe another weak one or two -- some evidence of guest star blight, but overall more likely to go up than down.) A-

Eminem: Relapse (2009, Aftermath/Interscope): This stops being funny around the second skit, not that there weren't hints before. A couple of reviewers gave this the benefit of a doubt when it came out, but it lost interest so completely that it has scarcely shown up on a single year-end list. Not without talent, but too many songs apply it by rote, and not enough give you any reason to care. B-

Brother Ali: Us (2009, Rhymesayers Entertainment): Albino rapper from Minneapolis, original name Jason Newman. First album was his best because he had absolutely no pretensions. He's still uncomfortable with them, but coming off a live album he's living in a different world now, which means one further removed from the one we live in. Still has good intentions, not to mention beats. B+(**)

Atlas Sound: Logos (2007-09 [2009], Kranky): Solo project second album by Bradford Cox (b. 1982), originally of Deerhunter, a self-described ambient-punk band from Athens, GA. Has some elements of the year's dominant aesthetic -- I'm tempted to group Animal Collective et al. as chaotic picaresque -- but with only one auteur it never gets too chaotic to follow. Which leaves atomistic picaresque, with occasional twang. B+(*)

The Flaming Lips: Embryonic (2009, Warner Bros.): Oklahoma City band, been around since mid-1980s, with more than a dozen albums, but this is the first I've heard. First two cuts live up to their "noise pop" reputation, then they do a spacey ballad that goes on much too long, followed by more emphatic noise. This sort of cyling goes on and on, the pop coming from sweet hooktones, the noise coming from odd directions. More plays would help sort this out, but I don't know if they'll ever even out. One song called "Watching the Planets" -- on the noisy end of the spectrum, hit me hard enough to jot it down on my schematic (and probably worthless) year-end songs list. B+(**)

Fever Ray (2009, Mute): Solo project from Karin Dreijer, more commonly half of the Knife -- a Swedish brother-sister duo with a 2006 album (Silent Shout) Christgau likes but I somehow missed. Gloomy at first, beatwise, obscure vocals, sort of thing that could grow comfortable on you but isn't likely to ever amount to much. B+(*)

Florence & the Machine: Lungs (2009, Island): English singer Florence Welch and a lot of overtracked mechanical backup. AMG likened her to contemporaries like Lily Allen and Kate Nash, but her voice is closer to Shakira's, and you can extend that analogy by trying to imagine what you'd wind up with if you stripped Shakira of the Latin groove and Lebanese sass and 30-40 points of IQ, and put what's left in an overproduced Kate Bush straightjacked. Well, it's something like that. B

Future of the Left: Travels With Myself and Another (2009, 4AD): Punkish Welsh band, rooted in a group called Mclusky that I never bothered with. Sounds basically solid but not much in the way of revelation or even critique. Remember when the History of the Left included the Mekons and the Gang of Four? The Beautiful South even? B+(*)

Elvis Perkins: Elvis Perkins in Dearland (2008 [2009], XL): Singer-songwriter (actor, photographer), uses a bit of harmonica which gets him compared to Dylan (doesn't take much, does it?). Too much keyb for a real folkie; probably to many horns, too. Tends toward melancholy. B

Mastodon: Crack the Skye (2009, Reprise): Heavy metal has gone from the fringes to the arena and back again. When I look as "best metal" lists these days few names are even remotely familiar, but this group seems to be the one breakout threat. Fourth album since 2002; second on a major label. Reportedly a concept album about Tsarist Russia, an ancien regime that managed to make Lenin and Stalin look good. Mixed feelings here: the heavy crunching beat and neatly layered guitar flash are sharp enough I could go for an instrumental album of this. The vocals are thick and dreary, not quite histrionic. Didn't get the story line, probably just as well. [Only 5 of 7 songs available.] B

Camera Obscura: My Maudlin Career (2009, 4AD): Scottish group, sextet, fronted by singer Tracyanne Campbell who also claims all the writing credits. Fourth album, something of a commercial breakthrough, with a rich pop sound and a friendly tone. Was enjoying it until the synths got a bit out of hand. The fake horns aren't so bad. B+(*)

Passion Pit: Manners (2008 [2009], Frenchkiss): Boston group, second album, fronted by Michael Angelikos, whose falsetto vocals and keyboards are reinforced by much more of the same. Gives them an inveterate pop sound, which they crank up and twist into strange shapes. I could imagine getting sick of them, especially if the initially annoying "Sleepyhead" doesn't come around. But for most of the album the ekstasis is pretty infectious. B+(*)

La Roux (2009, Cherry Tree): French name, English group, eponymous first album, with Elly Jackson the photogenic singer, mostly keyboards in the straightforward electropop. B+(*)

The Low Anthem: Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (2009, Nonesuch): Rhode Island group, looks like their third album, but the first on a label with any distribution. AMG classifies them as folk, but they're more like American history buffs who work Americana themes into a more sophisticated rock matrix -- sure, not nearly as sophisticated as Sufjan Stevens, but who is, and why the hell would one want to be? Leadoff song reduces the title to "Charlie Darwin," using a weird falsetto that may explain the album title. It's a feint toward opera, which the rest of the album works hard to undo. B+(***)

Dâm-Funk: Toeachizown (2009, Stones Throw, 2CD): Aka DJ Damon Riddick, reportedly whittled this down from five LPs, although that's not much of a reduction, and there's more here than anyone can handle in a sitting. Funk grooves, some exceptional, all pretty listenable. Doesn't cut any new ground -- seems to use old gear and favor a 1980s sound, which is fine with me. B+(**)

Holly Beth Vincent: Minnesota California (2009, Holly Beth Vincent): Former singer in Holly and the Italians, a punkish new wave group from the early 1980s. A correspondent described this as an "odds and sods" collection, but I couldn't find any discographical info, so for now will treat it as new. (After a 25 year hiatus, Vincent dropped an album in 2007.) Early pieces are band-backed, workman-like but catchy. Later ones tend to be less formal, and more interesting. B+(**)

God Help the Girl (2009, Matador): Basically a Belle and Sebastian spinoff, with singer Catherine Ireton. Music is mostly strings, or some such approximation -- a bit cloying at times, but often painless and sometimes inspired. Wish all the songs were as inspiring as the one about "playing a decent song at last." B+(***)

A Place to Bury Strangers: Exploding Head (2009, Mute): Basically a heavy metal reduction, dull stuff, rocksteady beat, lots of volume and some ambient noise. Very simple, which is why it works. Advisers say "play it loud" but I've found you don't have to crank anything up to get that effect: the record is so intrinsically loud it amplifies itself. Not sure how often I'd feel like playing it, but half a second spin only reinforced my initial reaction. A-

Pissed Jeans: King of Jeans (2009, Sub Pop): Hardcore band from Allentown, PA. Couple of previous albums. Mostly thrash and roar, but holds your attention on the rare occasion when they cut back to the bare minimum. B+(*)

JJ: JJ N° 2 (2009, Sincerely Yours, EP): Swedish duo, looks like their second album, but at 9 songs in 27 minutes doesn't quite count. Has a light, slippery pop feel, but flexes into a delightful little groove on "Intermezzo" -- probably a throwaway. B+(*)

Manic Street Preachers: Journal for Plague Lovers (2009, Columbia): One of the big British groups of the 1990s that (except for Radiohead) never broke in the US, partly because leader Richey James Edwards vanished shortly after their peak album, 1994's The Holy Bible. Trying to get something back here by using a batch of Edwards' lyrics. Sharp at best, but does seem to drag a bit here and there. B+(*)

Bat for Lashes: Two Suns (2009, Astralwerks): Alias for or group led by British and/or Pakistani singer Natasha Khan, on her second album drawing comparisons to Björk and/or Siouxsie Sioux. I don't understand a bit of it, other than that she's conceptually schizophrenic, with a little soft-beat art rock that is mostly pretty listenable. B-

Lady Gaga: The Fame Monster (2009, Interscope): Packaged variously, either as an EP with eight new songs or as a deluxe repackaging of the initial album, The Fame. I note that she gets a lot more press attention than critical respect, but there's a long history of that with dance music sex bombs (e.g., Madonna). Seems sort of average -- in beats, voice, and posture -- for this niche, which puts her far above Christina Aguillera but doesn't exactly make her Betty Boo. [Note: Played what seems to be one of the 2-CD editions -- it's always hard to tell with Rhapsody. I suspect that if I sorted this out carefully the old album might be a notch better than the new part of the new album, which probably represents haste in pimping product rather than lack of development.] B+(*)

Dark Was the Night (2009, 4AD, 2CD): New music compilation, a multi-artist effort for the Red Hot organization that has been pushing CDs against AIDS since 1990's Red Hot + Blue. Title comes from a Blind Willie Johnson song, given a cautious, wordless take by Kronos Quartet. I don't recognize all of the artists here, and don't much like many of the ones I do recognize, but don't much dislike anything I hear here -- even the Dirty Projectors' lead-off song. On the other hand, nice pieces like the one by Yo La Tengo don't go very far -- they mostly take it easy. B+(*)

Girls: Album (2009, True Panther): AMG's 11th group with this name. Wonder if any of them are female -- this one consists of two guys from San Francisco. Songs hop from one stylistic notch to another, with little in common other than that when they get loud they effect a shoegaze guitar jangle. Good chance the songs will all cohere given time, and there's no reason not to give them a shot. Some chance they'll even make sense aesthetically -- not that that matters when you can always plead postmodernism. [Note: Album proved impossible to find on Rhapsody until a link showed up from their blog. Part of that is their lack of originality in naming themselves or it.] A-

Fuck Buttons: Tarot Sport (2009, ATP): All instrumentals, mostly hard beats and guitar fuzz; nothing fancy in that, but I felt the groove all the way through, and was occasionally amused by little filips around the lines. What more can you ask for? [Note: Another impossible to search album, listed under f*ckbuttons.] A-

Drake: So Far Gone (2009, Young Money, EP): Seven songs, clocks in a little over 30 minutes. Read somewhere this was extracted from a mixtape of the same name. Canadian rapper, sometime actor, keeps a thick bass underground groove, likes the green stuff. B+(**)

Wale: Attention Deficit (2009, Interscope): DC rapper, parents came from Nigeria, so he shortened his original first name, Olubowale. Impressive at first, with phat beats, sober rhymes, a little commercial push, but drags in spots, especially when female backing singers take over. B+(*)

Rihanna: Rated R (2009, Def Jam): Looking more jaded on the cover than anyone only 21 is entitled to much less deserves. Voice strikes me as cold and worn, too, and I gather the lyrics are rough lived -- Christgau's line was "constructing a person of interest." Much more consistent than Good Girl Gone Bad, although I would have been happier had they quit before "The Last Song." B+(*)


Records I looked for but didn't find on Rhapsody:

  • Annie: Don't Stop (Smalltown Supersound)
  • Bell Orchestre: As Seen Through Windows (Arts & Crafts)
  • Bibio: Ambivalence Avenue (Warp)
  • Bill Callahan: Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle (Drag City)
  • Justin Townes Earle: Midnight at the Movies (Bloodshot)
  • Rosie Flores: Girl of the Century (Bloodshot)
  • Little Boots: Hands (679/Atlantic)

Recycled Goods

The following were written during this period for Recycled Goods:

Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 (1970 [2009], Columbia/Legacy): Seems like an afterthought appearing after Cohen's marvelous Live in London (2009), where he has songs -- especially from his 1988-92 albums I'm Your Man and The Future -- that project to full stadium weight. This shows many of the same tactics, such as starting a song off by reciting a verse. His songbook was much slimmer then, and far less familiar to me, but there was far more to it than the now canonical trio of "Bird on a Wire," "Goodbye Marianne," and "Suzanne" -- all present and account for here. So this is intriguing more in retrospect than it ever was momentous -- a rough diamond whose matter of fact sexuality and self-amusing turn of phrase are still striking. B+(***)

The Hold Steady: A Positive Rage (2009, Vagrant): Does what a live album should do: distills a remarkable four-album catalog into a superb show, cranks up the energy a notch, adds a little personal touch, especially at the end. A-

Chris Knight: Trailer II (1996 [2009], Drifter's Church): Carries on from The Trailer Tapes, more demos from just before Knight's debut album; just voice and guitar, focusing straight on the sharply observed songs -- most good enough they're on his first two albums. B+(***)

Warne Marsh & Lee Konitz: Two Not One (1975 [2009], Storyville, 4CD): Lennie Tristano's two most famous disciples on their first visit to Denmark, playing three nights at Montmartre in Copenhagen in early December and a fourth just after Christmas, plus a couple of studio sessions. Some feature tenor saxophonist Marsh in trio and quartet settings, but most add Konitz's slippery alto sax for a quintet. Storyville has been dipping into these tapes for years, but the effect of piling them up is cumulative, especially as they plot their own paths through well worn standards. A-

Roscoe Mitchell: The Solo Concert (1973, AECO): Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist goes solo, with squeaky soprano, thudding bass, several weights in between; he moves cautiously, picking out logical paths and sonics, nothing too straight or all that crooked, just raw thought. B+(*)

Big Jay McNeely: Nervous (1949-59 [1995], Saxophile): A tenor saxman with a honking bold sound but not much finesse and no interest in bebop filigree, McNeely blasted the jukeboxes in the 1950s, with occasional hits but no real albums to speak of. Someone with access to the scattered scraps could put a terrific 2-CD sampler together, maybe even a Proper 4-CD Box. Rhapsody has six reissues up dated 2009, labelled Jay McNeely Masters, but I haven't found them anywhere for sale. In any case, I picked this one because it matches a compilation I could find a little discographical information on, and it turns out to be a fair sample of his work: 19 cuts, 6 live, a couple alternates. A few have vocals and "Roadhouse Boogie" turns on inspired wicked sharp jive. The live "Body and Soul" was so uninteresting that McNeely wandered into another melody, but his jump blues are really acrobatic, and most of the album burns white hot. B+(***)

Panama! 2: Latin Sounds, Cumbia Tropical and Calypso Funk on the Isthmus 1967-77 (1967-77 [2009], Soundway): Rough, upbeat singles soaking up the main currents of the region, drawing on Cuba, Trinidad, Colombia, maybe even some gringo rock and soul, or maybe just digging deeper into the worldview of a country torn in half due to a geologic fluke and the yankee boot. A-

Tanya Tucker: My Turn (2009, Saguaro Road): Starting out as Nashville jailbait, she's always sung songs over her age, but past 50 leaves her with timeless classics -- Hank Williams, Lefty Frizell, Faron Young, George Jones, Don Gibson, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard -- nailing them all. A-

Jazz Prospecting

The following were written during this period for Jazz Prospecting:

Michael Bublé: Crazy Love (2009, 143/Reprise): Singer, from Canada, b. 1975. Fourth studio album since 2003; second straight to chart No. 1, which puts him in a different universe than nearly every other jazz singer -- this album has sold more than 1.5 million copies to date. Pretty much the polar opposite of Gretchen Parlato: a suave, sophisticated, powerful vocalist, backed with an arsenal of a big band, so much overkill it turns into amusing self-caricature. Obvious songs, too: "Cry Me a River," "All of Me," "Georgia on My Mind," the Van Morrison title cut. Some clever ideas: a Sharon Jones duet, "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)"; sounds like the Mills Brothers on "Stardust." Not sure whether to be appalled or applaud. Most likely neither. B+(*)

Taylor Ho Bynum & Spidermonkey Strings: Madeleine Dreams (2009, Firehouse 12): One of those things that musicians sometimes do: take a piece of literature and turn it into opera. My all-time favorite is Michael Mantler's take on Edward Gorey's The Hapless Child, the exception to the rule that opera is usually a just a nasty slog. The book here is Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's Madeleine Is Sleeping. I don't know how it reads, but it's awkward musically, and I can't say anything nice about Kyoko Kitamura's voice -- sure, could be an inspired meeting of weird words and music, but not an obvious one. Three extra cuts at least give the band a chance to show off. The Spidermonkey Strings are Jason Kao Hwang (violin), Jessica Pavone (viola), Tomas Ulrich (cello), and Pete Fitzpatrick (guitar), fortified by Joseph Daley (tuba) and Luther Gray (drums), with the leader on cornet. Coleman and Ra are standard here, but Ellington's "The Mooche" is most sublime, at least until Kitamura butts in with her Adelaide Hall impression, almost as amusing. B

Bill Dixon: Tapestries for Small Orchestra (2009, Firehouse 12, 2CD): Trumpet player, b. 1925, which makes him 84. Late starter: he got his first notice on a 1966 Cecil Taylor album, Conquistador, but didn't carve out much of a career until the 1980s when he cut a series of albums on the Italian Soul Note label, a run that ended around 2000. Those were small group albums, some no more than duos with drummer Tony Oxley. However, Dixon was enough of a legend, at least in some circles, that he reappeared in 2007, of all things arranging for large groups -- curiously, a move also made by Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers, and Charles Tolliver. I've only sampled Dixon lightly over the years, and never found anything particularly appealing, but this one is striking. The 9-piece group is heavily stocked with the trumpet family -- Dixon plus Taylor Ho Bynum, Graham Haynes, Stephen Haynes, and Rob Mazurek, most on cornet with flugelhorn, bass trumpet, and piccolo trumpet also credited. The only reed is Michael Conte's contrabass and bass clarinet. Glynis Loman plays cello, Ken Filiano bass, and Warren Smith vibes, marimba, drums, tympani, and gongs. Several of these plyers are also credited with electronics, which can get a bit Halloweeny, often pierced by jabs of cornet. Eight pieces stretch out over two discs. Package also includes a DVD, which I don't have and haven't seen. B+(***)

Gianni Lenoci: Agenda (2003 [2005], Vel Net): Thought I'd check out an earlier work by Lenoci, an Italian pianist whose recent Ephemeral Rhizome solo impressed me. This is also solo, a set of Steve Lacy pieces transplanted to piano. Slow and deliberate, thoughtful. B+(*)

The Manhattan Transfer: The Chick Corea Songbook (2009, Four Quarters): Vocal quartet: Tim Hauser, Cheryl Bentyne, Janis Siegel, Alan Paul. Been around since 1969 or 1971 or 1976 (when Bentyne replaced Laurel Massé), dropping 23 or 24 albums. I've heard very few of them -- none that I can recommend. Their harmonizing gives me the willies even on songs built for it, but it seems all the more ridiculous vocalese-ing on top of Corea's mostly Spanish-flavored melodies. C-

Gretchen Parlato: In a Dream (2008 [2009], ObliqSound): Singer, bio provides no details before winning a Monk prize in 2001, but seems to have been born in 1976, probably in California. Second album. Musicians include: Lionel Loueke (guitar), Aaron Parks (piano, keybs), Derrick Hodge (bass), and Kendrick Scott (drums). Keeps them rather minimal, like her voice, which if anything is even thinner and less flexible than Astrud Gilberto's -- a rather novel feat in presumably a native English speaker. Still, kinda cute. B

Schlippenbach Trio: Gold Is Where You Find It (2008, Intakt): Same trio in 1972 cut Pakistani Pomade, one of the founding documents of Europe's avant-garde, a crown selection in the first and recent editions of The Penguin Guide to Jazz: Alexander von Schlippenbach on piano, Evan Parker on tenor sax, and Paul Lovens on drums. All three have done a lot in the intervening 36 years (especially Parker, who has been averaging 5-6 records per year), but the aesthetic here hasn't changed much. Parker and Schlippenbach are both forceful players, always prodding, searching, and Schlippenbach is like having a one-man rhythm section. In his company, Lovens is all finesse. B+(***)

Alexander von Schlippenbach/Daniele D'Agaro: Dedalus (2008, Artesuono): Germany's premier avant-garde pianist turned 70 in 2008, releasing a bunch of records I've been hard pressed to find: a trio Gold Is Where You Find It (Intakt), duets with Aki Takase Iron Wedding (Itakt), Friulian Sketches (Psi), two volumes of Twelve Tone Tales (Intakt). On the other hand, I did find this duo with Italian reed player D'Agaro, so figured I should give it a listen. D'Agaro, b. 1958, leads off with clarinet; also plays bass clarinet, tenor sax, and C melody sax, but don't have details here -- tenor sax, for sure. Has a few records more or less under his own name, mostly avant-garde (give or take Sean Bergin), but a couple of early ones were tributes to Don Byas (Hidden Treasures and Byas a Drink), a trio with Mark Helias and U.T. Gandhi looks like Ben Webster (Gentle Ben), and another is credited to the Daniel D'Agaro-Benny Bailey Quintet. The pianist is forceful enough to more than hold his own, framing the multipart pieces to draw D'Agaro out, and providing the necessary percussion on the Monk trilogy (plus "Hackensack") at the end. It's worth pointing out again that Schlippenbach's Monk's Casino is an outstanding tribute to Monk. B+(***)

Scottish National Jazz Orchestra: Rhapsody in Blue: Live (2009, Spartacus): Gershwin's famous jazz-flavored composition, written originally for Paul Whiteman's famous -- in the day; nowadays rather unfairly taken as a joke -- big band. The Scotts take it seriously, giving it the full bore treatment, with the small-print names on the front cover -- tenor saxophonist Tommy Smith and pianist Brian Kellock -- making all the difference. B+(**)

Tommy Smith Group: Forbidden Fruit (2005, Spartacus): Scottish tenor saxophonist, broke in with Blue Note in 1989, moving to Linn after four albums, then eventually to his own label. Started out with phenomenal speed and technique, and eventually grew a mature sound to round out his capabilities -- Blue Smith, from 2000, was a breakthrough. I last heard him on 2004's Symbiosis, a duo with pianist Brian Kellock, which was a Jazz CG Pick Hit -- last record he sent my way, although he made all the difference on last year's Arild Andersen record. This is the follow up, a little dated for Jazz CG, but finding it I had to play it. Young Scottish group: Steve Hamilton (piano), Aidan O'Donnell (bass), Alyn Cosker (drums). I go up and down on the group, but Smith is a tour de force running through his considerable range. A-

Miguel Zenon: Esta Plena (2009, Marsalis Music): For sheer virtuosity, perhaps the most impressive alto saxophonist to show up in the last two decades -- maybe since Anthony Braxton. Fifth album since 2002, mostly uneven although Jíbaro held to a tight Puerto Rican concept and was nearly flawless. This is more lavishly, and slavishly, rooted in his native commonwealth, with extra percussion and lots of vocals piled on top of a superb quartet -- Luis Perdomo (piano), Hans Glawischig (bass), Henry Cole (drums). Not sure what I think of the vocals, other than that "Que Sera de Puerto Rico?" would make a curiously indecisive anthem. Really need more time than I have now, and a little miffed that I didn't get serviced on this one -- especially since the label sends me everything else they release. B+(***)