Lush Life: Billy Strayhorn
A roll call of established jazz artists fete the late composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington's collaborator for several decades. The brightest stars in the set are the 15 Strayhorn tunes, a few cowritten with Ellington and others ("Satin Doll," "Daydream"), but mostly by him alone: "Chelsea Bridge," "Valse," and "Lotus Blossom," to tick off a handful.
Lush Life should be a good tonic for folks who find the subtleties of acoustic jazz a bit numbing. The disc showcases Strayhorn in a variety of small-ensemble formats — vocal and instrumental (solo piano by Bill Charlap and Hank Jones; a quartet led by saxophonist Joe Lovano) — as well as moods: spunky, romantic, pensive.
Diane Reeves is the vocalist du jour, and she turns in several fine, measured performances. Backed by only Russell Malone's gentle guitar, she handles the title song, one of the great (and most challenging) ballads of all time, with graceful aplomb. Her approach on "The Flowers Die of Love" is stately and operatic, while she brings a lighthearted swagger to "My Little Brown Book."
Elvis Costello, always game for a project of this sort, wrote lyrics to Strayhorn's "Blood Count" and titled it "My Flame Burns Blue." Although his vocal is strident in spots, he seems to be catching on to this jazz vocal thing, touching up the tune with nuance and going easy enough on the vibrato that it doesn't sound like he's singing inside a clothes dryer.
Lovano, playing exclusively tenor sax, leads a quartet that includes Jones, bassist George Mraz and drummer Paul Motian through a number of controlled performances. The sax man's breathy tone lends just the right amount of old-time eloquence to "Chelsea Bridge" and "Lotus Blossom," and homes in the swingy catchiness of "Rain Check."
Lush Life barely registers on the challenge meter, which is why it's a good gateway drug into straight-ahead jazz. 3.5 stars —Eric Snider
THE JUNIOR PANTHERS
This San Francisco band's bio compares the group to just about every U.K. band that matters over the past 25 years: The Smiths (don't hear it), My Bloody Valentine (don't hear it) and The Jesus and Mary Chain (getting warmer) all get a shout-out. The Panthers may not live up to their influences, but their sound is an intriguing Californization of the foggy British rock they look up to. The unit pens some floating, searching tunes that I bet would sound great with the windows down on your way to the Pacific. 3.5 stars —Cooper Levey-Baker
The British arts organization Artangel commissioned this collection of 10 tracks, each themed around one of the Biblical plagues, to be performed at The Margate Exodus, a massive September art event that transformed a dilapidated town into the setting for a modern re-creation of the Israelites' departure from Egypt. If the idea sounds awesome, it is, and in their original milieu, these songs probably dazzled. Compiled here, though, the songs are flat. And with nothing but the theme to connect the dots, the listening experience is discombobulated: Little links the grime track "Blood" by Klashnekoff to the lilting folk track by King Creosote that follows it. There are bright spots, like Brian Eno & Robert Wyatt's "Flies," but as an album, this comp doesn't cut it. 2 stars —CLB
Music for Total Chickens
After establishing a long list of credits working with and for a host of indie rock acts with names like The Fiery Furnaces, Rogue Wave and Sufjan Stevens, Rafter Roberts finally releases his Asthmatic Kitty debut. Roberts really lets his imagination run wild, with 18 short, mostly acoustic songs that just never seem to stay still. His favorite trick is to almost randomly combine his plaintive vocal melodies with off-kilter, off-rhythm backing tracks. The "song" ends up sounding totally disconnected from the music around it. The disc ends up sounding not unlike a gentler, more acoustic version of Captain Beefheart, although Roberts isn't up to the Beef's standards just yet. Still, it's good to hear an indie rocker willing to roll the dice some. 3 stars —CLB
Having left his long-time label, Milestone, to form his own Doxy Records last year, tenor sax legend Sonny Rollins, 75, plays as if he has something to prove on Sonny, Please, his first studio album in five years. His tone — a kind of muscular rasp — sounds more robust than it did in the '90s; his phrasing is largely bold and confident; his well of improvisational ideas a deep one. Rollins lets his playful side hang out, countering outré, false-register smears with bluesy, bar-walker riffs. He wrote four of the disc's seven tunes, ranging from the throbbing swing of the title track to the gently island-esque "Park Palace Parade." While that other great septuagenarian sax man, Wayne Shorter, surrounds himself with first-rate talents, Rollins' long-time sidemen are a more pedestrian bunch, with trombonist Clifton Anderson and guitarist Bobby Broom offering little in the way of improvisational sizzle. On most of his albums in the last quarter century, Rollins has been quite democratic in terms of spreading the solos among band members, which tended to drag the proceedings down. Sonny, Please places the spotlight squarely on Rollins, and the album is much better for it. The performance is not as interactive as truly great jazz should be, but it's a pleasure to hear the legend in such fine form. 3 stars —ES