Albuqurque Journal: Best music of ’09, never mind the genre (incl.Beethoven Vol.1)

Albuquerque Journal
Friday, January 8, 2010
by David Steinberg, Journal Staff Writer

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Here is my list of the best CDs of 2009:

"Beethoven Late Quartets" (Opus 131 and Opus 135), Cypress String Quartet. You take your pick of recordings of string quartets playing these well-traveled pieces but the Cypress injects, such exuberance in its playing that if Beethoven were alive today, and had his hearing, he'd stand up to applaud.

"QSF Plays Brubeck," Quartet San Francisco. This string ensemble - yes, a string ensemble - pays a glorious tribute to the compositions of jazz great Dave Brubeck. Cuts include "The Duke," "Blue Rondo a La Turk" and "Three To Get Ready." They also perform "Take Five," associated with Brubeck but composed by bandmate Paul Desmond. Listen to this CD and it will pull you to go back to the originals from half a century ago.

"The Chick Corea Songbook," The Manhattan Transfer. If this album had just one selection, it would be "Spain," and it would be worth the purchase price. It's probably Corea's most famous composition, and deservedly so. With its scat singing, this vocal ensemble reinvents the song and opens listeners' heads to 11 other Corea tunes.

"Woodstock - 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur's Farm" and "Woodstock, Music from the Original Soundtrack and More." Still tell your friends you really were at Woodstock? Fine, but you probably were so preoccupied with the mud and the love-in experience that you weren't paying attention to the music. These two Rhino sets will more than do the job.

"Yasgur's Farm" has six CDs with such luminaries as Richie Havens, Santana, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and The Who. The two-CD set gives you some of the same musicians. Both conclude with Jimi Hendrix's memorable "Star Spangled Banner." Far out!

"Live," Jake Shimabukuro. If anyone can convert the ukulele into a rock instrument, it's Jake Shimabukuro. Actually, his ukulele is at home in any kind of music Shimabukuro wants it to. On this his newest CD, he serves up "Thriller," the Japanese children's tune "Sakura Sakura," and J.S. Bach Two-Part Invention No. 4 in D minor. What's more, Shimabukuro is a kick to listen to.

"New York," Frank Sinatra. This four-CD, one-DVD set strikes me as the ultimate in Sinatra box sets because of its range and depth. It offers songs Ol' Blue Eyes recorded over 30 years in various New York City venues, from Carnegie Hall to Radio City Music Hall to the United Nations. The DVD is from a 1980 concert not on the CDs. An accompanying booklet has commentaries from Frank Sinatra Jr., jazz critic Nat Hentoff and others, plus brief remarks from a diverse crowd, including Tony Bennett, Twyla Tharp and Yogi Berra.

"Oog," Casey Driessen. Driessen isn't the kind of fiddler your grandpa listened to. But he is a talented fiddler who seamlessly finds a home in bluegrass, country rock, new grass and some far-out stuff that you have to check out for yourself to believe. Like the bizarro cut "The Day Before Halloween" or the no-man's land of "Lunar Cages" or the race-car speed of "Hunt for the Quail Egg." What a great ride.

"Yesterdays," Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. Though released in 2009, this is the fourth CD drawn from the trio's 2001 touring. It contains sweet ballads such as the title cut and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," both by Jerome Kern, and nifty interpretations of pieces written by jazz legends - Charlie Parker's "Scrapple From the Apple," Horace Silver's "Strollin' " and Parker and Dizzy Gillespie's "Shaw'nuff." The trio members are old friends; they've completed 27 years together.

"Meera - the Lover," Vandana Vishwas. Twenty-first-century singer-composer Vandana Vishwas meets 16th-century Indian mystic-hereticpoet Meera Bai. The result is an unspeakably beautiful album of romantic devotional songs on which Vishwas' voice and music and Bai's poetry converge. Though the hypnotic songs are grounded in East Indian tradition, they have crosscultural appeal.

"At Last," Ann Hampton Callaway. This jazz singer has a voice that is so silky and so sexy that she will knock you out, regardless of the song. Callaway certainly has that effect with her sustained power on the title cut. Her voice takes on a smokiness on "Comes Love" and it acts as a sedative on "Lazy Afternoon." She's backed by a superb ensemble, though my ears were especially drawn to the pyrotechnics of tenor saxophonist Teodross Avery.

"No Easy Way," Hilary Smith. The competition is stiff every year, but some of the best CDs come out of New Mexico. This year it's mesmerizing Albuquerque R&B singer Hilary Smith. She's also a composer; witness her slick results collaborating with Luis Guerra on "Standin', "Let Love Go" or in her interpretation of Stevie Wonder's "Superwoman." Hats off to Guerra and John Rangel as album producers.

"Obsesión," Anna Estrada. Estrada offers up a mix of love songs and other tunes from the Americas, showing off her diverse interests and her vocal flexibility. I think Estrada shines on her interpretations of the old ballad "Nature Boy," Burt Bacharach's "Always Something There to Remind Me" and "Flor Sin Retoño," a classic bolero that Mexican actor Pedro Infante had sung.

"Brazilian Cafe" (various artists). Twelve cuts, 12 different artists, 12 tunes to groove on. My faves are Márcio Faraco singing "No Casa do Seu Humberto," Rosa Passos' honey-coated "Pequena Musica Noturna" and Marcia Salomon doing "Quando o Carnaval Chegar."

"Splendor in the Grass," Pink Martini. There's no musical horizon that's too far for this very cool ensemble that delightfully explores swing, folk, background music that would work for an Italian TV sitcom, and a song titled "New Amsterdam" sung in 1920s German cabaret style that seemingly honors the 17th-century Dutch community on Manhattan. This stuff grows on you.

"Enrico Pieranunzi Plays Domenico Scarlatti. Sonatas and Improvisations." I've been a big fan of Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas, so I was blown away when I heard Pieranunzi's CD. Not only is he a formidable interpreter of 13 sonatas, but he gives listeners a bonus. He improvises on the themes of many of them so that what you get is one pianist's inventions. But a sonata can segue into an improv - or vice versa - as they were forever connected over the centuries. Classical music needs more adventurers like Pieranunzi.

"Beethoven, The Complete Works for Piano and Cello," Zuill Bailey and Simone Dinnerstein. This recording is stunning to listen to because the duo knows when to complement and when to lead. That probably comes from their work as concert soloists and chamber musicians and from their mastery of the music on this two-CD set. Bailey is a neighbor: He teaches cello at the University of Texas El Paso and is artistic director of the El Paso Pro Musica.