TALIB KWELI "Eardrum" (Blacksmith/Warner Bros, 3 stars)
Returning with what could be a make-or-break sixth album, Talib Kweli, the pigeonholed "conscious MC" from Brooklyn, remains relevant, if not perfect. With high-profile guests like Kanye West, Norah Jones, Justin Timberlake and Musiq on board, it's clear he's at his best tag-teaming with former Black Star partner Mos Def (not on Eardrum). "Hostile Gospel, Pt. 1 (Deliver Us)," a multilayered beat heavy on churchy keys and a heavenly gospel chorus, is classic Kweli. "Listen!!!" delivers the tried-and-true boom-bap, while the will.i.am-produced "Hot Thing" showcases Kwe's sultry sass. "Eat to Live" offers phenomenally positive messaging but fails as a well-put-together song. "Eardrum" dishes on faith, hip-hop, black self-love and black self-worth better than most.
JOSH RITTER "The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter" (Sony/BMG, 4 stars)
Singer-songwriter Josh Ritter's fourth full-length CD has him sporting not only a new record label, but also a new sound - one that clearly straddles the line between Americana and straight-out rock `n' roll. While Idahoan Ritter hasn't completely turned away from his trademark introspective folk musings, the cheekily titled "The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter" is his most sonically experimental effort to date, and one that seems deliberately designed to push him out of the "guy-with-a-guitar" category. Produced by longtime collaborator/keyboardist Sam Kassirer, "Historical Conquests" smartly plays to Ritter's strengths: rapid-fire wordplay bolstered by sharp imagery, and a knack for clean melodies. He stretches but never strains on all 14 tracks, including the Dylanesque opener, "To the Dogs or Whoever," and the soulful, radio-friendly "Right Moves."
AESOP ROCK "None Shall Pass" (Definitive Jux, 3 ½ stars)
There's a joke in Chris Rock's repertoire that's about Colin Powell's being so well-spoken. While Rock's really clowning dopey Caucasians with low expectations of African-American speech, that same tease can be aimed at MC Aesop Rock.
Born Ian Bavitz, fans credit his starkly smart-bomb missives and his flinty-voiced, rigidly pronounced phrases for his unique dynamism.
True. Rock (Aesop, that is) has a stoic hard baritone not unlike Michael Franti's urgent turgid talk.
Aesop rarely comes off as fun or funny. But rather than concentrate on Aesop's arid chatter - the dry, angry "beast of burden's urgency" that is "Catacomb Kids" - focus instead on the rapper/producer's dizzying humor and slippery musicality.
While the dippy, bass-y jazz-hop of "Bring Back Pluto" relates travails of little Russian dolls who get incrementally smaller with talk of the drug trade, Aesop makes the apocalypse go down sweeter than medicine on "Citronella," with its honk and squeak of sampled brass and reeds. Even the epic-length "Coffee" winds up buoyant, funky and filled with speed-rapped silliness despite its decaffeinated doom sentiment. There might be plenty of vipers and vexing in Aesop's garden. But at least he's able to laugh about it. And he's so well-spoken.
EARLIMART "Mentor Tormentor" (Majordomo, 3 stars)
Elliott Smith is dead and gone, but his brand of delicate, dreamy indie pop is alive and well on the fourth album by Los Angeles three-piece Earlimart. Not that the veteran band fronted by Aaron Espinoza, who sings all 15 "Mentor Tormentor" tracks save Ariana Murray's Aimee Mann-ish "Happy Alone," are mere Smith imitators. Stately and precise melodic gems such as the foreboding "The Little Things," relatively rollicking "Everybody Knows Everybody," and lovingly orchestrated "Don't Think About Me" stake out their own personal territory as contentedly melancholy rainy-day music.
MEM SHANNON "Live: A Night at Tipitina's" (Northern Blues, 3 ½ stars)
"Ain't no such thing as too much funk," Mem Shannon declares during this live set at New Orleans' most famous club. As a Crescent City bluesman, Shannon puts plenty of funk into his music, but that's not all that distinguishes him.
Shannon is a master storyteller who can lighten an autobiographical tale of tough times like "Payin' My Dues" or the stinging social commentary of "Who Are They" with just the right touch of humor. What comes through most here, however, is the warmth and resilience at the heart of Shannon's blues, whether it's the way he segues from the poignant Katrina lament "All I Have" into Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down," or just the way his clean but sharp guitar defiantly cuts through all that horn-fueled funk.
OMAR KENT DYKES AND JIMMIE VAUGHAN "On the Jimmy Reed Highway" (Ruf, 3 stars)
Oft-covered blues great Jimmy Reed had a style that seems simple to replicate, but it's not. Few versions of his songs nail the insouciant charm of the originals. This collaboration between bluesman Omar Kent Dykes, he of the gravelly, Wolfman Jack voice, and guitarist Jimmie Vaughan comes close.
Sometimes they follow the Reed map closely, as when they shamble through classics like "Baby What You Want Me to Do/Bright Lights Big City" (one of three cuts with Kim Wilson on harmonica) and "Hush Hush" (with Delbert McClinton on harmonica and vocals). Most fun is when they veer off a bit, especially when Lou Ann Barton - it's great to hear this Texas belter again - steps up from providing harmonies to duet with Dykes on the saucy, up-tempo "Good Lover" and the slow, seductive "Caress Me Baby."
MARIA SCHNEIDER "Orchestra Sky Blue" (ArtistShare, 3 stars)
It's hard to say what makes Maria Schneider one of the most important bandleaders in jazz. Unlike the big-band leaders of old, she has no hits to sustain her 20-piece band. Yet her fans bankrolled this recording and others in exchange for varying levels of access to her composing and recording efforts.
Schneider, a native of Windom, a tidy burg of 4,400 people in southwestern Minnesota, worked as an assistant to Miles Davis' legendary arranger Gil Evans. She evokes the Midwest regularly on her fifth recording. "The `Pretty' Road," featuring Canadian Ingrid Jensen on flugelhorn and trumpet, was inspired by a hill overlooking Windom. It is perky, Aaron-Copland-meets-Pat-Metheny stuff.
Schneider focuses on shifting soundscapes that lack a driving pulse. "Rich's Piece" exudes this plaintive air that grows into a free-jazz exploration by tenor saxophonist Rich Perry.
Yet she also salts the session with a spicy South American vibe. She sets Peruvian lando polyrhythms into unusual time signatures on "Aires de Lando," featuring Scott Robinson on clarinet. And the wordless singing of Brazilian Luciana Souza courses through "Cerulean Skies," an evolving composition with saxophonist Donny McCaslin and accordionist Gary Versace that emulates the sounds of birds.
It all flies by in a brainy way.
KENNY BURRELL "75th Birthday Bash Live" (Blue Note, 3 stars)
You know what you're getting on this set.
Kenny Burrell, whom Duke Ellington once called his favorite guitarist, celebrated his 75th birthday last year with a five-day stand at Yoshi's Jazz Club in Oakland, Calif. The just-released recording came to feature the Gerald Wilson Orchestra along with organist Joey DeFrancesco and flutist Hubert Laws.
There's nothing not to like here. The entire set is high-toned jazz flavored with Burrell's subtle references to soul and the blues. The guy, who directs UCLA's jazz program, sings "Stormy Monday" more than half-decently, and light-fingers his way through Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" with caresses that movies can't capture.
He and Laws lay down a handsome take of J.J. Johnson's "Lament," while DeFrancesco bats near cleanup on "A Night In Tunisia," sowing the ground for the leader's last thoughts.
It makes for a satisfying romp.
"Live from the Lugano Festival 2006 With Nicholas Angelich, Gautier and Renard Capucon, Sergio Tiempo, Dora Schwarzberg, Lilya Zilberstein and others." (EMI, three discs, 4 stars)
"Franck, Debussy and Schumann" With Dora Schwarzberg. (Avanti Classics, 4 stars)
"An Evening With Martha Argerich" With Gautier and Renard Capucon, Flanders Symphony Orchestra, Alexandre Rabinovitch-Barakovsky conducting. (TDK DVD, 3 stars)
Martha Argerich's discography is taking on the character of Sviatoslav Richter's, with live performances popping up seemingly at random from all different places and labels, and with a challenging variety of repertoire. The Lugano disc is the annual set of live chamber-music performances that are as much of interest for her colleagues as for Argerich herself. This edition is particularly stimulating. Schumann's Piano Quartet Op. 47 (with Argerich) receives something close to a best-ever performance, and Debussy's "Nocturnes" arrive in a fascinating Ravel transcription for two pianos, played by Sergio Tiempo and Karin Lechner. Repertoire discoveries include Taneyev's Piano Quintet Op. 30. It occupies its own epic, mesmerizing sound world - qualities that are obvious thanks to pianist Lilya Zilberstein. Schnittke's wild Violin Sonata No. 1 suggests Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" having a psychotic breakdown. Even the set's breathtakingly gauche coda, "Concerto for Cello and Winds" by recently deceased pianist-composer Friedrich Gulda, is perversely fascinating, with its nonsensical juxtaposition of Austrian folk dance and 1970s blaxploitation movie themes that must be heard to be believed.
The disc of Franck and Debussy violin sonatas with Russian-trained violinist Dora Schwarzberg is hard to find but worth the search. Argerich surpasses herself in terms of energy and imagination. And though Schwarzberg hasn't the most glamorous sonority, her playing matches Argerich's life-and-death freedom. The TDK DVD documents a live outdoor performance with an unusually mighty attempt to rehabilitate Beethoven's oft-dismissed Triple Concerto. But what a visually odd parade of collaborators is seen here, from the eccentric Alexandre Rabinovitch-Barakovsky to the photo-friendly Capucons, Gautier and Renard. Imagine the Addams Family at a fashion model agency.
-David Patrick Stearns