Rhapsody Streamnotes: February 8, 2011

As I was assembling this month's streamnotes, I ran across a blog post by Robert Christgau, Commenter's Lament. He starts by explaining how impressed he is at the quantity and quality of comments over at his Expert Witness blog, then singles out a series of three comments complaining about how little time many record reviewers put into hacking out short record reviews. One commenter recalled a time when he was rushed to write a review, turned in 150 words based on six plays, and his editor reprimanded him for wasting so much time. Another mentioned someone he knows who reviews a dozen records a month never playing one more than once. A third commenter agrees that it takes at least three plays to suss out an album. Christgau adds, "Do I have to point out how sad this is -- how infuriating, how true, how pervasive? I've heard several similar stories recently from people working at or at least for venues more prestigious than the local alt-weekly -- yes, there are still a few. Writers' laziness is one thing, though when reviews are paid at 10 bucks a pop I guess there's a kind of justice there. But editors' demands are at least as bad. Crushing out reviews for timeliness's sake is such a trap."

They're right, of course, but it's also true that more than half of the following reviews are based on one play under less than ideal circumstances: a dicey stream connection from a sloppy vendor played through a computer that has other work to do and cheap speakers while I'm sitting at another computer doing other things like writing this introduction. Some of the records I streamed a second time, mostly because I didn't hear it well enough to write something, or sometimes because I caught something interesting and wanted to see how it held up. I recall playing Gang of Four and Wire three times each, partly in hopes they'd get better (and they did, just not enough). Das Racist and Todd Snider got more plays, probably 5-6, but I had hard copies of them. But the rule of thumb is that these are snap judgments -- not real reviews, but progress notes to jog my own memory, that I'm sharing with you because some of you might find them interesting or useful even. And if you, too, have a Rhapsody account (or want to take advantage of their free intro period) you can always look up a title I say something good (or bad) about and hear it yourself.

Some of the records below I do have a fairly good sense of, but quite frankly I don't remember anything about Rakaa other than what I wrote below, and just looking through the list that's true for a lot of records here. Christgau is very insistent about never writing about anything until he knows what he thinks, religiously following his rules of playing A-list albums at least five times and HMs -- the marginalia he's cut loose in moving from Consumer Guide to Expert Witness -- three times. I actually average pretty close to those 3-5 plays when I write Jazz Consumer Guide, and usually play something more than ten times before I finish a full-length Village Voice review, so I don't have much to be embarrassed about there. (I did write a review of the Outlaws once based on two radio singles heard when I was delirious with mono, a rare moment of inspiration. My editor insisted that I buy and listen to the whole record, which I did, once, then didn't change a word.) I write Recycled Goods much faster, but it's usually about stuff I already know pretty well, so that works out nice.

But the stuff below is pretty dicey. I pigeonhole a lot of records, so if X reminds me of Y and Z that I know something about I feel like I know more about X than I really do. I factor my uncertainties into the grades, hedging good records down a bit, bad records up. I don't offer many real low grades because I never spend enough time with a bad record to figure out how bad it really is. Some records are by their nature real hard to pin down in one or two plays: Deerhoof and Destroyer, which have already emerged as two of the top three critic faves of January (Decembrists is the other one). I've played them enough to satisfy my curiosity, and I've hedged them a bit (down for Destroyer, which I'd say has about a 10% chance of winding up at A- if I played it much more, and up for Deerhoof, which I'd give a 12% chance of winding up at C, and 6% of winding up at D). Bike for Three! and Extra Lens might have a little better chance of moving up; Black Angels and Boris Yeltsin and Wire a bit less, but I'm only throwing wild-ass guesses. Some 2-star albums have a chance, but most don't. Deerhoof might even have a 2% chance of making A-, but other B- records like Fang Island and Lady Antebellum are infinitesimally close to 0%.

I do have some experience with reassessing grades from this column. Need to write them up and tack them onto a future column, but I've upgraded a number of albums that I first noted here -- in most cases I gave them more attention because I picked up real copies. Upgraded from A- to A: Big Boi: Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (Def Jam); VV Brown: Travelling Like the Light (Capitol); Dessa: A Badly Broken Code (Doomtree); Bruno Mars: Doo-Wops & Hooligans (Elektra); the Roots: How I Got Over (Def Jam); Vampire Weekend: Contra (XL); Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-A-Fella) -- most of last year's top records. I revisited some records that other critics liked more than I did, and bumped a couple up a notch but not much -- the most significant was Calle 13: Entren Los Que Quieran from *** to A-. It's a good example of a record that's tough to get right off the bat.

Of course, your mileage will vary. It always does.

One footnote: I recycled the Todd Snider review from Recycled Goods. Arguably it makes more sense here -- I started sticking in some real discs a while back because I don't have any other good venue for them. I also copied the John Zorn Interzone review from an old Jazz Prospecting blog. I'm not going to make a habit of that, but thought another good record would be nice, and it's the sort of thing that might appeal more to far-out rock fans than to beboppers. (A decision I made before I found the Henry Clay People, which thus far is the best 2010 album I missed -- hat tip: Jason Gross.)

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 January 15. Past reviews and more information are available here.

Akala: Doublethink (2010, Illa State): British rapper, Kingsley Daley, also brother of Ms. Dynamite. Raps fast, the accent adding a little choppiness to the already choppy beats. Akala is a Buddhist term meaning immovable. Seems very centered, careful about respecting women, conscious of his aging and moderating his ambitions. Different world for rappers over there. B+(***)

Rahim AlHaj: Little Earth (2010, Ur Music, 2CD): Iraqi oudist, got some notice in the wake of Bush's Iraq misadventure with his modestly straightforward Iraqi Music in a Time of War. A half dozen albums later comes this double, each of 15 tracks pairing AlHaj with a name guest (and sometimes an unnamed extra, like Bill Frisell brings along violist Eyvind Kang). Still, the guests are relatively transparent, partly because the instrumentation is designed to mesh readily with the oud -- strings including guitar, kora, sitar, bass, pipa; flutes, ney, didjeridu, accordion, percussion. B+(*)

The Beets: Spit in the Face of People Who Don't Want to Be Cool (2009, Captured Tracks): Wikipedia redirects me to Doug, which makes no sense to me. Lo-fi band -- if they were recorded in a garage the mics were kept in an adjacent room. Debut, 12 cuts, 23:57, which in some quarters counts as an EP, but I'm beginning to think that anything with 10+ cuts should count as an album even if the band can't keep it going for half an hour. Didn't catch a word of this, but it shows some pop sense, mostly because the drumming is so dependable -- and when you can't hear anything else, that counts. B

The Beets: Stay Home (2011, Captured Tracks): Second album (skipping a "Do the Locomotion" single), sound is much sharper (mics in the same room this time), and they've managed to stretch 13 songs out a bit more, all the way to 28:12. Hard to say much more: Rhapsody's only queueing up 4 of the 13 songs, and while they're an improvement, it makes sense to hedge. B

Bike for Three!: More Heart Than Brains (2009, Anticon): I missed this one, but found it in Buck 65's Wikipedia discography; turns out that Christgau had it as a low HM. Buck 65 raps over beats by Joëlle Phuong Minh Lę, aka Greetings From Tuskan, from Belgium, who has one album of her own: Lullabies for the Warriors (2006). The raps are sharp and energetic, but tapes much more richly shaded and idiosyncratically tweaked than Buck 65's own rhythm tracks. Not sure whether this would grow on me or turn. B+(***)

The Black Angels: Phosphene Dream (2010, Light in the Attic): Austin band, considered psychedelic because their keyb-guitar sound is like something from the late 1960s, but they took their name from the Velvet Underground's "Black Angel's Death Song" -- suggesting they always craved harder stuff. They're denser and darker than Sam the Sham or ? and the Mysterions but not as much as VU. B+(***)

Buck 65: 20 Odd Years (2010 [2011], WEA Canada): DJ/rapper from Halifax, Nova Scotia, b. 1972, celebrating his 20th year in the hip-hop racket -- if you don't know him, skip this one and seek out Talkin' Honky Blues or Man Overboard or Square (all on WEA Canada, which makes them imports here) or even his one-shot US intro, This Right Here Is Buck 65 (VP). His business strategy has become harder to fathom with the Dirtbike series of downloadables in 2008 and four 2010 EPs. Now this compilation collects 11 of 15 cuts from those EPs, then adds two more, probably on the time-honored theory that anyone fanatic enough to buy all the EPs will buy them again with a bit more bait. Feels a little chintzy given that all four EPs would have fit comfortably on a CD, the two extra cuts included. Half or so of the pieces feature various female vocalists, a couple in French -- something I find pretty irresistible. His own raps are typically sharp-witted, except for "Zombie Delight" which is downright catchy. [PS: Rhapsody also has the four EPs (but none of the top three albums I recommended above); I don't much care for EPs, and at this point don't see any value in evaluating them separately; the omitted songs aren't bad but aren't essential either -- "The Niceness" has a nice concept but doesn't quite pull it off.] A-

The Budos Band: The Budos Band III (2010, Daptone): Staten Island funk instrumental group, related somewhat to Antibalas which suggests African influences -- indeed, AMG talks a lot about their Afro-beat, but I can't hear much of it. Horns -- tenor saxist Cochemea Gastelum is the one name I recognize, but that's probably because he has a hard name to forget -- guitar, organ, bass, various percussion. A little on the heavy side; maybe sludge is the word. B-

Cloud Nothings: Cloud Nothings (2011, Carpark): Group front for Dylan Baldi, teenage singer-songwriter from Cleveland, with a previous self-released EP jacked up to 42 minutes when Carpark picked it up last year, and now this: arguably another EP as it only runs 28 minutes, but with 10 songs -- lo-fi, minimally catchy, no waste or fluff -- this is probably his idea of a real LP. B+(*)

Codeine Velvet Club: Codeine Velvet Club (2009 [2010], Dangerbird): Scottish band, debut album, showed up number two on Jason Gross's EOY list (after Kanye West), got one moderately favorable review in my metafile (Spin 3.5 stars), one Pazz & Jop vote (Gross). Hyperbolically fancy pop hedonism, the kind of thing someone could get real hooked on but most people will shy away from, either because they don't recognize it or they do but realize it's not something they want to get involved with. Looks like a one-shot, with ex-Fratellis frontman Jon Lawler promising to go solo. B+(**)

Currensy: Pilot Talk (2009-10 [2010], DD172): Louisiana rapper, Shante Anthony Franklin, usually decorates the "s" in his name with a dollar-sign stroke, tastefully absent on the cover here. Third album. I'm unclear on the label, variously reported as BluRoc, Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam, and/or Island alone or in some combination -- not that it isn't all Universal, at least that's where the $ come clear. Low key, nice propulsion, nothing very fancy. B+(**)

Currensy: Pilot Talk II (2010, DD172): Fourth album, out about three months after its namesake so suggests leftovers. Cover returns dollar sign -- Curren$y -- but record hasn't sold as well or gotten as much critical acclaim, so it strikes one as a cheap shot -- profits are calculated on the margin, and go up when costs go down. I don't hear much difference myself, other than that I caught more lyrics more clearly. There's one about the Porsche in the front and the ocean in the back, but most aren't so materialistic, and it's not just the kush. B+(**)

Daft Punk: Tron: Legacy [Original Soundtrack] (2010, Walt Disney): French electronica group, arrived to much fanfare with Homework in 1997, has had ups and downs since then. For all their electronics, this sounds like a very traditional soundtrack, which is to say it sounds totally pilfered from the Euroclassics, just like Hollywood's been doing it since all those Germans (Jews and Goyim alike) showed up in the late 1930s and forever put their mark on American popular culture. Didn't see the movie, but one can imagine every cliché, because they're all reinforced here -- so much so that I'm tempted to call it a formal masterpiece (but can't see cutting the grade even more slack). B

Das Racist: Shut Up, Dude (2010, mixtape): Himanshu Suri and Victor Vazquez spin 17 tall tales over junk beats that rarely flow even within a given song, filled with flashes of literary genius and repeated shots of "das racist," which is either a general purpose putdown or some kind of trademark. I don't get the "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" joke, and probably not because I once typeset the Pizza Hut "Brand Management Handbook" or even because I live in a town where Taco Bell is joined at the hip to KFC. I understand why people wish they were better than they are, and don't see any reason why they can't be -- the line about reading Arundhati Roy almost does the trick by itself. The main problem here is that the mess misfires all over he place. That's, like, what a producer is for. B+(***) [download]

Das Racist: Sit Down, Man (2010, mixtape): More is more, but not by much. I'm often impressed by the rhymes, and generally approve of the samples -- clearly there's a lot of brains going in here, talent too, but am I wrong to think it needs to flow a bit to actually be enjoyable, let alone good? Maybe someday I'll figure out how to burn a copy I can play on something other than the computer. Most critics regard this as the better set. It's more accomplished, but still pretty offhand -- even the brilliant "Fashion Party." Still, having it handy helped me play it more than I would have from Rhapsody, and it keeps getting better -- even the initially annoying world cops toward the end, like "Return to Innocence." A- [download]

Deerhoof: Deerhoof vs. Evil (2011, Polyvinyl): San Francisco group, dropped their first album in 1997 and is up to 11 now. Regarded as a noise-rock group early on, graduated to noise-pop as they picked up some tricks. Vocals mostly by Satomi Matsuzaki, a light edge to tricky prog motifs -- lots of time switches and synth harmonies, stuff that works often enough to seem interesting, but not often enough to keep you listening. B-

Jason Derülo: Jason Derülo (2010, Warner Brothers): R&B singer-songwriter, b. 1989 in Florida of Haitian parents, original name Jason Joel Resrouleaux. First album, usual hyperslick production; seems to me that he doesn't really have the voice, but sometimes its roughness helps deliver his point. B

Destroyer: Kaputt (2011, Merge): Vancouver, BC group, basically a vehicle for singer-songwriter Dan Bejar. Ninth studio album since 1996; first I've heard, although this got enough attention that one month into my 2011 metafile this is the early leader. No idea why the name: nothing violent or heavy here; a fairly slick writer and arranger, reminds me of Sufjan Stevens as much as anyone. Or maybe not, but does seem like to sort of thing that could grow on you. B+(***) [Later: B+(*)]

Disappears: Guider (2011, Kranky): Chicago group, AMG places them "in the middle of garage-punk snarl, shoegaze haze, and Krautrock grooves," but I'd say they're post-Velvets minimalists, especially on the 15:57 closer, "Revisiting," which for my money doesn't run on nearly long enough. Nor do the other five songs, which leave this at 30:57, just a tad longer than last year's 10-song Lux. B+(***)

The Extra Lens: Undercard (2010, Merge): Side project by John Darnielle (Mountain Goats) and Franklin Bruno (Nothing Painted Blue) -- the second such after a 2002 release as the Extra Glenns. Don't know squat about Bruno's group (half-dozen albums in 1990s, not much since) and I hear Darnielle's wry voice over scant guitar. B+(***)

Fang Island: Fang Island (2010, Sargent House): Band, from Providence, RI, an art school spinoff (something common in the UK but not in US). AMG describes them thus: "The Brooklyn-based indie rock outfit Fang Island crafts impossibly heavy, hymn-like anthems that blend the uplifting and accessible hard rock melodiousness of Andrew W.K. and the D.I.Y. recording style of Surfer Blood with the offbeat tech-heavy progressive metal of bands like Protest the Hero and Sparta." That's sort of right, although I can only vouch for two of the four reference points and neither would have occurred to me. Moreover, the hymn suggestion reflects nothing more than the use of organ, and nobody actually does impossible anything -- check the dictionary there -- but wouldn't they love to? B-

The Fresh & Onlys: Play It Strange (2010, In the Red): San Francisco group, second or third album; tunewise they draw on punk, but the keyb thickens and stiffens the sound under the guitar sheen, and the singer is heavy-handed and ham-fisted -- make you wonder if they're after some kind of arena metal-punk synthesis, but they're probably too smart for that as anything more than a joke. "Fascinated" was the song that broke through for me. Can't imagine really liking them, but do sort of enjoy this. B+(*)

Fujiya & Miyagi: Ventriloquizing (2011, Yep Roc): UK group, trio -- David Best (vocals, guitar), Steve Lewis (synth), Matt Hainsby (bass) -- second album, or more if you count EPs and compilations thereof. Synth puts them in borderline electronica, but I wouldn't stick them there. At best sounds like they're slouching toward Pet Shop Boys, but that doesn't happen often. B+(*)

Gang of Four: Content (2011, Yep Roc): Post-punk group emerged in 1979 with one of the year's best records, got a extra twang into the rhythm that could be called new wave funk, plus a strong case of post-Frankfurt critical theory. Fell apart after their fourth album proved sadly misnamed (Hard?), worked more or less ordinary jobs, regrouped here with their first new album in 16 years. Like Wire's only slightly less surprising return, they had little trouble recouping their sound, and remaining unregeneratly political they have plenty to gripe about. Tatum like this so much I don't doubt that there is more to it, but I don't quite hear it -- just a familiar buzz that's distinctly on its own. B+(***)

Goldfrapp: Head First (2010, Mute): Either Alison Goldfrapp (vocals, synthesizer) or her duo with Will Gregory (more synthesizer). Fifth album since 2000; first I've heard. Danceable synthpop, takes off with the sharply hooked "Rocket" and stays locked in its orbit ever more. AMG makes a lot of silly allusions trying to situate this, but its main trait (and minor weakness) is how clean it all sounds, or as one title puts it, "Shiny and Warm." B+(***)

The Henry Clay People: Somewhere on the Golden Coast (2010, TBD): Los Angeles group. Not sure if they know why Henry Clay was, but they certainly recognize Neil Young, the Replacements, and Pavement, and I wouldn't be surprised if they knew what I was saying when I mention that the keyboard player reminds me of Joe Ely at his most honky-tonk. First time through cinched their grade with the fast ones; didn't notice them slowing down or stretching out much until the second play, another revelation. A-

Iron & Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean (2011, Warner Brothers): Well-regarded singer-songwriter, Samuel Beam, fourth album since 2002, not counting a couple EPs. Songs are catchy, friendly, go down easy. Other than that, can't remember a thing after two plays. B+(*)

R. Kelly: Love Letter (2010, Jive): The album cover, with its prominent "STEREO" sticker, looks like a throwback to the 1960s, as does the pic, the duds, the shades suggesting a mid-point between Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. I haven't followed him since he closed out his prime period with one of those career-killing best-ofs (has anyone who ever insisted on a Volume 1 or So Far qualification ever managed to add much?). But this is solid all the way through, even if "Number One Hit" is just a concept. B+(**)

Kings of Leon: Come Around Sundown (2010, RCA): Big-time mainstream rock band with a southern twang, fifth album since 2003. I've never paid much attention to them, and ignored this one having gotten the whiff that even their fans were down on it -- year-end lists occasionally extend to biggest disappointments, where only Weezer's Hurley got more citations than this. Other hints: AMG gave it 2.5 stars, and its Metacritic score was 64, pretty down in the dumps (others with same rating: Devo, Kesha, Buckcherry, Meat Loaf, Nelly, David Byrne's Imelda Marcos album). Turns out it's remarkably listenable, even-handed, moderately tuneful and grooveful, with a little personality. B+(**)

Klaxons: Surfing the Void (2010, Polydor): English band, second album, enough big beat that Rhapsody slots them as indie-dance, but they're dense and leaden enough for low-grade metal. Cat on the cover, space on their minds. B-

Lady Antebellum: Need You Now (2010, Capitol Nashville): Second best selling album of 2010, trailing only Eminem's Recovery. Trio: male and female singers (Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott) with longstanding showbiz ties, plus "multi-instrumentalist" Dave Haywood. Most song credits list all three, although they wrote fewer and had more help this time than on their debut. Big, slick sound, the two vocals mesh but don't especially communicate. All this is tolerable enough, but the group name has both structural problems -- it suggests more focus on Scott than there is -- and historical baggage: reminds one -- doesn't it? -- of the good old days of slavery, something I might cut them more slack on if I thought we (and that presumably includes lots of their fans) were over it. B-

Lightspeed Champion: Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You (2010, Domino): Alias for Devonté Hynes, singer-songwriter, b. 1985 in Houston, TX; grew up in England, now based in New York. Black, but doesn't sound like it. Second album. Cover looks like an old Arhoolie blues album; anyone buying it on that basis will be confused, if not necessarily sorry. Has written songs for Florence and the Machine, Diana Vickers, and Chemical Brothers. Has toured as opening act for Bright Eyes -- which is about as close an affinity as I can think up, but had he opened for Sufjan Stevens I could have gone just as easily with that. (He plays at least six instruments, and has eight official bootlegs since 2007 on top of his two albums, so the main thing he's lacking viz. Stevens and Conor Oberst is recognition.) All pretty interesting, vaguely promising, not really my taste but something that might merit further consideration. B+(**)

Nellie McKay: Home Sweet Mobile Home (2010, Verve): She returns to songwriting after a very good Doris Day covers album, but doesn't find the knack to make the songs felt. Some clever tricks, of course, mostly in the grooves. B

Lloyd Miller/The Heliocentrics: (OST) (2010, Strut): The Heliocentrics are a London-based jazz/electronica group which has made a point (or maybe an art) of seeking out obscure gurus and freshening them up -- notably Ethio-jazz inventor Mulatu Astatke. Miller, b. 1938, got a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology in Utah then flew off to Iran where he hosted a television show as Kurosh Ali Khan. In the 1960s he recorded Oriental Jazz, and some of his work has recently been recycled on Jazzman as A Lifetime in Oriental Jazz. Presumably Miller's responsible for the exotic reeds here, swaying gently over the lounge jazz groove. B+(*)

Mimicking Birds: Mimicking Birds (2009 [2010], Glacial Pace): Portland, OR singer-songwriter Nate Lacy, expanded his group to a trio although he doesn't make any real use of the extra guitar and drums. Songs are quiet, solemn, charming; not quite as slow as glaciers, as the label name suggests, nor quite as chilled. B+(*)

OFF!: First Four EPs (2010, Vice, 4CD): Hardcore punk like it was done in the early 1980s -- loud, dense, rude -- but tighter than ever: longest song clocks in at 1:33, and four of sixteen can't keep it going a full sixty seconds ("Full of Shit" says what it wants in 0:33). My only complaint is the packaging, which may seem unfair given that I haven't actually seen it, but I can't help thinking that had I bought it I'd feel ripped off. Such brevity means the whole 16 song load barely tops 17 minutes, but to preserve the feel of old 4-song EPs they split it all up onto four separate discs, ranging from 4:04 to 4:42. I can't imagine all that shuffling, but I suppose you can download it and play it straight through. In that case its brevity doesn't keep it from feeling more satisfying than lots of punkish LPs. A-

Joe Pug: Messenger (2010, Lightning Rod): Folk singer, I guess, low tech with some social and political consciousness -- noted an antiwar song in passing, probably "Bury Me Far (From My Uniform)" -- and country-ish grit. B+(**)

Punch Brothers: Antifogmatic (2009-10 [2010], Nonesuch): Bluegrass band, led by mandolinist-singer Chris Thile, formerly of the popular but already forgotten Nickel Creek. Second record, both on WEA's prestige label which makes me wonder what I'm missing -- turns out the record is very hard to hear, not that it's clear that I'm missing much. Usual sweet twang and stuff. Didn't catch a word. Could be worse than I think, but probably not much better. B

Rakaa: Crown of Thorns (2010, Decon): Debut solo spinoff from member of CA underground rap group Dilated Peoples, which released five albums 2000-07. After the overwrought title intro, this settled into a sharp underground groove and a smart political tack, and when he packs in a guest for some star clout, he gets KRS-One. One song mentions that plane that was flown into an IRS office, concluding "money makes the world go nutty." Or from "Ambassador Slang": "you'll never hear me say the three words, 'I'm too stoned' . . . no need for talk, I'll just go out and solve it." A-

Max Richter: Infra (2010, Fat Cat): Classified as classical, or post-classical, something like that -- in the modern European composer tradition although his instrumentation is mostly electronic. Fairly stately pieces, no swing, nothing to dance to, but the simplicity and elegance are appealing. B+(*)

Darrell Scott: A Crooked Road (2010, Full Light, 2CD): Country singer-songwriter, has penned some hits for others and tramped his way through a half-dozen albums on his own, an earnest, unspectacular performer who wound up calling his previous album The Invisible Man. This splits 20 songs 80:31 onto two discs so you don't have to endure them all at once, as I just did. Has a lot to say. Not sure that anyone wants to hear. B-

Serengeti & Polyphonic: Bells and a Floating World (2010, Anticon): Haven't been able to confirm that this is available as anything other than a download, but that seems to be true of most of David Cohn's catalog -- a rare exception was his previous Polyphonic album, Terradactyl, but it was also released by Anticon, so the release may be in some kind of purgatory. First few cuts are pretty disjointed before this finally comes together, ending with a flush of strong grooves; less sure about the raps. B+(**)

The Service Industry: Calm Down (2010, Saustex): Austin band, fourth album since 2006. Loud, mainstream, down to earth, eager to gripe about their jobs; can turn a phrase but I'm less sure I care to hear them sing it. One line: "these Jesus freaks give me the creeps"; a verse: "I'm a socialite/I'm with an Israelite/I'm smoking Camel Lights/we stay up all night." B

Shining: Blackjazz (2010, Indie): Several bands with this name working recently, including a Swedish death metal band. This band is from Norway, styled by AMG as heavy metal and/or black metal, but sometimes they think of themselves as a jazz group -- I guess that can happen when you add a saxophonist to a guitar-synth-bass-drums-screaming vocals base. But also some members came from acid jazz group Jaga Jazzist, and it can also be noted that the Thing and Atomic -- two groups with uncontroversial jazz affiliations (unless you're Stanley Crouch) -- can challenge damn near any metal band in decibels. Sounds a little like Ministry at first. The sax helps but is rarely in the clear -- the endemic sludginess of metal is a tough nut to crack. Ends with a cover of "21st Century Schizoid Man" -- compressed to the point of bursting and amusing when it does. B+(*)

Skyzoo & Illmind: Live From the Tape Deck (2010, Duck Down Music): Gregory Skyler Taylor, Brooklyn MC, has a previous album and some miscellany behind him, picks up a second voice -- Illmind, or !llmind, or Ramon Ibanga Jr. -- here for depth of contrast and levity of purpose. B+(***)

Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde (2011, Fat Possum): Chicago band, second album, upbeat, catchy, ringing guitars, frothy vocals, and very little to show for any of it. B

Todd Snider: Live: The Storyteller (2010 [2011], Thirty Tigers/Aimless, 2CD): Folk singer from Oregon, cut a live album in 2003, Live: Near Truths and Hotel Rooms that rolled up eight year's worth of smart songs but spread out with equally witty patter -- stories, really, some even more diverting than the songs. Eight years later he's repeating the same trick, and at double length without repeating any of his early songs -- his 2004-06 albums, East Nashville Skyline and The Devil You Know were his best, full of sharply observed, improbably sympathetic characters his storytelling can scarcely improve on. They form the backbone here, gain nothing from the live sonics, let alone his "Eighteen Minutes" disclaimer, but they're so original they feel fresher the second time around than most of the stuff you hear brand new. And the stories are indeed diverting -- the one where he didn't meet NASCAR driver Bill Elliott, the one where he didn't play football, the one where he ruled Portland, OR. And the Rusty Wier cover sounds real fine, its admission covered by another story on how luck happens to one in the right place at the right time. A- [cd] [Later: A]

Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin: Let It Sway (2010, Polyvinyl): Springfield, MO band, and I suspect innocents from the suburbs even there. (Not that it's a town with distinct inner- and outer-belt cultures. I remember it as a sleepy small town; its post-1960 growth and sprawl was modelled on suburban ideals.) Safe to say they haven't had a lot of personal contact with the late Russian President. Slight, neatly layered, both in guitars and vocal harmonies. More than pleasant, more like refreshing. B+(***)

Ebo Taylor: Love and Death (2009 [2010], Strut): Guitarist, from Ghana, b. 1936; Discogs shows a couple previous albums from 1977 on, but that's undoubtedly an understatement. More Afrobeat than not. I might be more impressed but Rhapsody's only providing four of eight tracks, and they're already a mixed bag. B+(*)

Ana Tijoux: 1977 (2009 [2010], Nacional): Chilean rapper, original name Anamaria Merino, b. 1977 in France, French mother, Chilean father, on the lam from Pinochet. Has a light, thin, abstract underground feel, no swish or bling, a couple of sung samples but rarely even that. Can't follow the Spanish, which is probably make or break. B+(**)

Weekend: Sports (2010, Slumberland): Guitar noise band, like certain riffs lifted out of Velvet Underground or Jesus and Mary Chain only denser and more metallic. B+(***)

Wet Dog: Frauhaus! (2009 [2010], Captured Tracks): Website describes them as "international super group," presumably because drummer Mr. Vom used to play in Die Toten Hosen, bassist Richard Searle used to play in Corduroy, and singer-guitarist Anna Donarski used to play in some group even I never heard of. Previous albums established that the group name is two words instead of one run-on like the cover suggests. Postpunk primitives, reminds some of Kleenex. Don't have song times, but 14 songs come close to 30 minutes, leading Rhapsody to file this as an EP. Still, they find something extra when they stretch a bit. B+(**)

Wire: Red Barked Tree (2011, Pink Flag): The transition group in the late-1970s punk invasion, with songs as compressed as punk but so refined and artsy they had to be designated differently, like as new wave. Three early albums, the first the sharpest, then a hiatus and regroup in the late 1980s, another longer break and a 2003 album, two since then in 2008 and now 2011. Cuts like "Moreover" and "Smash" hook straight back into their classic sound. ("Two Minutes" too.) Other cuts are less angular and more uncertain, closer to their late 1980s mode, not a bad place to be. B+(***)

Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3: Northern Aggression (2010, Yep Roc): Singer-songwriter, fronted the Dream Syndicate c. 1982, took a couple other flyers, started recording (mostly) under his own name in 1990, has been prolific while remaining obscure ever since. Most songs offer something catchy, smart, or both, while never quite seeming remarkable. Odd knack he has, and for that matter has always had. B+(**)

YU: Before Taxes (2010, Mello Music Group): Another underground rapper, usually lowercases the 'y' and uppercases the 'u'; although it you look at the cover art there may be more twists to that. Other than that and his association with the comparably obscure Diamond District collective (based in DC?) I know nothing about him. Nothing slick here: stock beats, nice flow, some awkward sounding production glitches, means to be taken seriously, and earns that much. B+(*)

John Zorn: Interzone (2010, Tzadik): Lost track of whether Zorn succeeded in his quest to release one record for each month of 2010, but this is Miss November. It's also the one that sounds most like a standard-issue John Zorn record: screechy sax, open spaces, lots of scattershot percussion. John Medeski's "keyboards" sound like they include a piano; Marc Ribot plays guitar-like instruments; Trevor Dunn basses; Cyro Baptista, Ikue Mori, and Kenny Wollesen are responsible for the bumps and blips. Theme has something to do with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, which in Zorn's hands means comic book punk jazz with surreal or absurdist interludes -- the sort of thing he used to do c. Spillane and Spy vs. Spy before he got all Jewish on us and/or discovered he discovered he could throw a bunch of index cards at other musicians and get them to record 3-4 times as many records under his name as he could do himself. So this feels a bit like a con, but Ribot is terrific, there are some utterly sublime oases amidst the chaos and cartoon violence, and, well, unless Medeski somehow snuck a Cecil Taylor sample into his synth I for one have never heard him play piano like this. Very tentative grade: A-


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

  • Agalloch: Marrow of the Spirit (Profound Lore)
  • Alcest: Ecailles de Lune (Prophecy)
  • Foxy Shazam: Foxy Shazam (Sire)
  • Kokayi: Robots and Dinosaurs (QN5)
  • Javiera Mena: Mena (Jabalina)
  • Skream: Outside the Box (Tempa)
  • Solar Bears: She Was Coloured In (Planet Mu)
  • Sweet Talks: The Kusum Beat (Soundway)
  • Systema Solar: Systema Solar (Chusma)
  • [various]: Now That's What I Call Club Hits 2 (EMI)

Recycled Goods

The following were written during this period for Recycled Goods:

The Best of Chubby Checker: 1959-1963 [Cameo Parkway] (1959-63 [2005], ABKCO): Philadelphia's answer to Fats Domino, got his big hits busting dance moves from "The Twist" (a Hank Ballard song) to "Pony Time" to "Limbo Rock" -- a formula his main songwriter, Kal Mann, shamelessly milked for "Twistin' USA" and "Let's Twist Again" and "Slow Twistin'" and "Twist It Up" and the multilingual "Twistin' Round the World," not to mention "Let's Limbo Some More"; one brilliant obscurity here, "Popeye the Hitchhiker," a terrific "The Hucklebuck," a riotous "Surf Party," jump sax breaks, pure party music. A-

The Best of the Dovells: 1961-1965 [Cameo Parkway] (1961-65 [2005], ABKCO): Another Philadelphia vocal group, five white guys with assumed names (nés Gross, Gordesky, Borisoff, Freda, Silver), started with a number one dance anthem, "The Bristol Stomp," followed that with "Foot Stompin'," and kept returning to dance moves -- "The Jitterbug" was one of the most frenetic; the closer, "1-2-3," is probably Len Barry's solo version, good enough Holland-Dozier-Holland sued him over it. B+(**)

The Best of Charlie Gracie: 1956-1958 [Cameo Parkway] (1956-58 [2006], ABKCO): Formally a rockabilly singer, which must have seen worth a shot with Elvis Presley tearing up the charts; actually a young kid from Philadelphia who could just as well have turned into Fabian or Bobby Rydell, so his plucky beat and twang is a revelation; his one hit, "Butterfly," got scooped by Andy Williams -- nice to rediscover it here. A-

Alan Jackson: 34 Number Ones (1989-2008 [2010], Arista, 2CD): None from his 2010 album Freight Train, so maybe the label decided the string is done. Leaves him 6 shy of Ronnie Milsap's 40 #1 Hits, but even at his most generic, Jackson's neotrad beats Milsap's schmaltz hands down. Still, this is less consistently inspired than 1995's The Greatest Hits Collection or 2007's 16 Biggest Hits. B+(***)

Norah Jones: . . . Featuring Norah Jones (2001-10 [2010], Blue Note): One track from The Little Willies, a couple of her own feat. someone else, the rest her guest shots on others' records, including an OutKast/Q-Tip/Talib Kweli trifecta in the middle that won't push her fans much out of their comfort zone; good voice, good taste, good manners, eminently listenable except for Ryan Adams. B

Lloyd Miller: A Lifetime in Oriental Jazz (1960s-80s [2009], Jazzman): Miller took his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology to Iran in the 1960s, immersing himself in the culture even to the point of hosting a television show using the alias Kurosh Ali Khan. Miller's father was a trad jazz clarinetist, and he picked up many instruments, working in scattered groups but the overall feel here is both more jazz and more exotic than Miller's recent encounter with the Heliocentrics, not that he's trying to fuse the two but somehow feels them both in his bones. Don't have much info, and don't know whether the booklet helps -- a curse of reviewing this way. B+(**)

The Best of the Orlons: 1961-1966 [Cameo Parkway] (1961-66 [2005], ABKCO): Philadelphia doo-wop group, three young women (Rosetta Hightower, Shirley Brickley, Marlena Davis) plus a guy, Stephen Caldwell, who takes an occasional lead but more often provides a novelty twist; they got their break with a dance anthem, "The Wah-Watusi"; the hits dwindled after "South Street" but they kept picking up new tricks, some echoing the Marvelettes. A-

The Best of ? & the Mysterians: 1966-1967 [Cameo Parkway] (1966-67 [2005], ABKCO): The British Invasion pushed Cameo Parkway to look beyond its Philadelphia homebase and its doo-wop/blue-eyed soul/girl group/dance mania standbys and look for something competitive, like this organ-propelled Flint, MI group -- actually Texas-born Mexican-Americans; one huge hit, "96 Tears," a lot of filler -- this best-of is also their complete works -- which holds up remarkably well. B+(***)

The Best of Bobby Rydell: 1959-1964 [Cameo Parkway] (1959-64 [2005], ABKCO): Another teenager from Philadelphia, his name straightened out from Ridarelli, scored a couple snappy hits with "Kissin' Time" and "Wild One," followed that up with a "Volare" that outsold Dean Martin's 1958 hit, then the tango-flavored "Sway"; after that, dwindling returns, fittingly ending with an overpumped Beatles cover, and yet another "Jingle Bell Rock." B+(**)

The Best of Dee Dee Sharp: 1962-1966 [Cameo Parkway] (1962-66 [2005], ABKCO): More grit to her voice than you'd expect, but once again she mostly hit with dance anthems -- "Mashed Potato Time" was so big that the sequel "Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes)" charted top-ten; later on she matures as a soul singer, graduating from Appell-Mann novelties to husband Kenny Gamble. B+(***)

The Best of the Tymes: 1963-1964 [Cameo Parkway] (1963-64 [2005], ABKCO): Male vocal group, five strong, the most old-fashioned of doo-wop groups; like many Cameo Parkway groups, their biggest hits came early -- the classic "So Much in Love" and the sweepingly grand "Wonderful! Wonderful!"; remarkably steady thereafter, closing with a barely subclassic "Goodnight My Love." B+(***)

Cameo Parkway: The Greatest Hits (1956-66 [2006], ABKCO): More big type on the cover: "25 Original Hits"; couldn't get Rhapsody to actually play this, so I picked out the song list from the box set, and that worked. Only two songs not on the eight single-artist best-ofs: "Silhouettes" by the Rays, one of the great doo-wop singles, and John Zacherle's hilarious "Dinner With Drac, Pt. 1," which perfectly follows Chubby Checker's jubillant "Limbo Rock." A

Spiritual Jazz: Esoteric, Modal and Deep Jazz From the Underground 1968-77 (1968-77 [2008], Jazzman): Obscure funk tracks -- the only names I recognize are Lloyd Miller, Mor Thiam, and Leon Gardner, and even those are names I rarely run into -- not sure what the unifying theme really is but they flow and feel like some sort of harmony. B+(**)

Jazz Prospecting

The following were written during this period for Jazz Prospecting:

Geri Allen & Timeline: Live (2009 [2010], Motéma Music): Pianist, b. 1957, several dozen albums and scads more credits since 1984 -- a major jazz pianist by any reckoning. Two Jazz CG appearances: an A- for her superb trio The Life of a Song, and a dud for the sprawling Timeless Portraits and Dreams. Haven't gotten anything from her since, including two well-regarded albums this year. Flying Toward the Sun got nearly all of the poll attention, finishing ninth at Village Voice, but it takes something really exceptional in a solo piano record to hold my interest. This has more rhythmic push -- a trio with Kenny Davis on bass and Kassa Overall on drums, plus something extra in tap dancer Maurice Chestnut. The piano remains impressive when it breaks out, the rhythm helps sustain things, and the taps are hard to figure. B+(**)

Dmitry Baevsky: Down With It (2010, Sharp Nine): Alto saxophonist, b. 1976 in Russia; moved to New York in 1996, studying at New School. Second album. Half quartet, with Jeb Patton (piano), David Wong (bass), and Jason Brown (drums); four cuts add Jeremy Pelt for a classic bebop quintet. Indeed, this is classic bebop, with a couple of songbook standards, Ellington's "Mount Harissa," and everything else from 1950s boppers (Bud Powell, Clifford Brown, Gigi Gryce, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins). Not sure he's doing anything Gryce didn't do, or for that matter Parker -- whom he reminds me more of, at least when Pelt is goosing him along, but his ballad tone is lighter and cleaner. Has one of the worst Flash websites I've ever seen; bet it cost him a fortune. A-

Bedrock: Plastic Temptation (2009 [2010], Winter & Winter): Uri Caine's electric keyboard group, the main reason he polls so high on an instrument that's actually a small part of his toolkit. WIth Tim Lefebvre on electric bass and guitar, and Zach Danzinger on drums, probably others popping in here and there -- vocalist Barbara Walker with a big-time gospel sample is one. Two previous Bedrock albums broke my A-list, so I was keenly interested in this one. But Rhapsody cut short nearly all of the 18 cuts, turning this into an annoying hodge podge. Not fair, for sure, but I'll note this with a placeholder grade -- it's probably better but it's not inconceivable that it's worse. [B]

John Bunch: Do Not Disturb (2010, Arbors): Pianist, b. 1921 in Indiana; plane was shot down in WWII and he finished the war in a German POW camp. Played with Eddie Condon, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson; from 1966-72 was Tony Bennett's music director. Cut his first record in 1975; in the 1990s mostly recorded as New York Swing Trio with Bucky Pizzarelli and Jay Leonhart. Returns to that same piano-guitar-bass format here with Frank Vignola and John Webber, reprising the title song of his first album ("John's Bunch") and a bunch of standards, the most modern from Brubeck and Parker. Turns out to have been his final studio album, a long but relaxed 71 minutes. B+(***)

Sylvie Courvoisier/Mark Feldman: Oblivia (2009 [2010], Tzadik): I've seen the artist-order presented both ways here. Feldman's name is to the left on front cover, but the print only runs from top to bottom, not from left to right, and other sources credit Courvoisier first. (The spine is usually more definitive, but rarely scanned.) Piano-violin duets, sharp and prickly. B+(*)

Neil Cowley Trio: Radio Silence (2009 [2010], Naim Jazz): English piano trio, third album. I figure Cowley has been most influenced by Esbjörn Svensson (aka EST), a much more prominent force in European jazz than over here. I got an advance of their first album, Dis-Placed, and wrote it up in an early Jazz CG, but they never bothered to send me anything more. Like the other albums, this one is sharply played, beat-wise, catchy, and just tough enough no one will mistake it for pop. Could aspire to popular, though. B+(**)

Dave Douglas & Keystone: Spark of Being: Expand (2010, Greenleaf Music): The new record, or three, or you can buy them all in a box, or download, etc., in some sort of subscription -- the business plan behind this product is more complicated than the music. Expand is the second disc if, e.g., you buy the box, and it's the only one on Rhapsody. The first is Spark of Being: Soundtrack, the edited soundtrack to a Bill Morrison "multimedia collaboration." Expand is made up of seven long-ish pieces before they got hacked up for the soundtrack. The third is Spark of Being: Burst, which are ten more pieces written for the film but not used. Group includes Douglas on trumpet and laptop, Marcus Strickland on tenor sax, Adam Benjamin on Fedner Rhodes, Brad Jones on Ampeg baby bass, Gene Lake on drums, and DJ Olive on turntables and laptop. The keyb and electronics are as tightly integrated and integral as ever, maybe more so. The horns are far less bracing, but that goes with soundtrack mode. I'm reluctant to rate this higher without being able to see the rest of the puzzle. But Douglas is in a prolonged creative stretch, albeit sometimes a puzzling one. B+(***)

Lorraine Feather: Ages (2008-09 [2010], Jazzed Media): Daughter of jazz encylopedist Leonard Feather, b. 1948, full name Billie Jane Lee Lorraine Feather, the first for a godmother named Holiday -- not the first comparison a fledgling jazz singer wants to bring to mind. Cut an album in 1979, not regarded as much, then restarted her career in 1997, this her eighth album. She wrote the lyrics, picking up music from her band and guests -- guitarist Eddie Arkin; pianists Shelly Berg, Russell Ferrante and Dick Hyman; banjoist Béla Fleck. Several striking songs, like "The Girl With the Lazy Eye," "Two Desperate Women in Their Late 30s," and "I Forgot to Have Children." B+(***)

Erik Friedlander: Fifty: Miniatures for Improvising Quintet (2008 [2010], Skipstone): Reading the cover I get 50 Miniatures for Improvising Quintet, but Friedlander's own sources spell out Fifty, so I compromised above. Each miniature is a 14-note figure having something to do with a Hebrew letter, but they've been glommed together for seven pieces ranging from 3:53 to 6:26. Quintet is Friedlander on cello, Jennifer Choi on violin, Sylvie Courvoisier on piano, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Michael Sarin on drums. String sounds dominate, but they have a cutting edge, and while the miniatures can break abstractly they can also flow together powerfully. B+(**)

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra With Wynton Marsalis: Vitoria Suite (2009 [2010], Decca, 2CD): Cover also adds: Featuring Paco de Lucia. That would be the famous flamenco guitarist, a sop to the home crowd as Marsalis takes LCJO on the road to Spain, and tries his hand at writing his own "Sketches of Spain." It sprawls over two discs, slipping into occasional dull stretches but mostly feeding clever arrangement details to what's become a very imposing big band -- the all-star trumpet section is if anything topped by the reed section (Sherman Irby, Ted Nash, Walter Blanding Jr., Victor Goines, Joe Temperley). B+(***)

Stacey Kent: Raconte-Moi . . . (2010, Blue Note): Singer, b. 1966 in South Orange, NJ; lives in England, and (this time at least) sings in French. Thirteenth album since 1997. Light touch, an elegant stylist. Starts with a particularly charming translation of Jobim. B+(*)

Irene Kral: Second Chance (1975 [2010], Jazzed Media): Singer, b. 1932 in Chicago, younger sister of Roy Kral (pianist-vocalist, mostly of Jackie & Roy fame); bounced through several big bands, getting her name first on a 1958 album with Herb Pomeroy (The Band and I). Most of her recordings cluster around 1974-77, just before she died in 1978 of breast cancer. This is the second 1975 live session the label has come up with (after 2004's Just for Now). Accompanied by pianist Alan Broadbent, superb in this context. Some standards, some pop songs of more recent vintage, mostly ballads which she nails, but ends on a very upbeat "Nobody Else but Me" and nails it too. Never heard her before -- just a name I recognized but couldn't place. B+(***)

Russell Malone: Triple Play (2010, MaxJazz): Guitarist, tenth album since 1992. Strikes me as about midway between Wes Montgomery's fluidity and Bill Frisell's poise on standard American fare, which is a pretty neat trick when no one gets in the way, or when he lets things get too complicated. No problems on either count with this guitar-bass-drums trio. B+(***)

Ted Nash: Portrait in Seven Shades (2010, Jazz at Lincoln Center): Saxophonist, b. 1959, played mostly alto early on but (I think) mostly tenor now. Uncle was a well known saxophonist, also named Ted Nash; father played trombone. Broke in with Quincy Jones at age 17, played in big bandsa (Louie Bellson, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Don Ellis, Gerry Mulligan, Mel Lewis, most recently the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, while knocking out ten or so albums under his own name, some quite good. It's real hard to judge this one by streaming it: the sound isn't coming through loud or clear enough to catch the details, so I'm tend to give Nash credit for things I can't quite follow, but perhaps not as much as he deserves. Pretty impressive sax player when he bothers to get out front. Also, I'm a little confused about those shades, since the seven pieces are named for actual painters: Monet, Dali, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, Chagall, Pollock. B+(**)

Danilo Pérez: Providencia (2010, Mack Avenue): Pianist, b. 1966 in Panama; father was a bandleader; studied and now teaches at Berklee. Not someone I've followed closely, but has a solid reputation, with ten or so albums since 1992, including one dedicated to Monk. Mixed bag: impressive enough solo or trio, especially memorable when Rudresh Mahanthappa joins in on alto sax, but some cuts add classical orch instruments (flute, oboe, French horn, bassoon) and/or Sara Serpa vocalizing. The one with flute and Serpa would be unlistenable except for Pérez fighting back with his most bracing piano. B+(*)

Jay Phelps: Jay Walkin' (2010, Specific Jazz): Canadian trumpet player, been in UK since he was 17; first album at 28, which I guess would make him b. 1982. Kind of a hard bop throwback, with piano-bass-drums and Shabaka Hutchings on tenor sax, clarinet, and bass clarinet. A couple of hipster vocals by Michael Mwenso, and occasional guests, all reinforcing the band feel. B+(**)

Tommy Smith/Scottish National Jazz Orchestra: Torah (2010, Spartacus): Five pieces, each named for a book of the Torah or Bible, performed by a conventional big band (four trumpet, four trombones, five reeds, piano, bass, drums) led and dominated by Smith's exceptional tenor sax. One stretch where he plays solo is mesmerizing, rising to magnificent when the band joins in. But mostly the band camouflages the leader, making this one of his less distinctive albums. B+(**)

The Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra: Exploration (2007, Spartacus): A Scottish big band, organized by Smith after he returned to his homeland in 2002. Don't know how young the players are -- no one I recognize other than the guests, notably vibraphonist Joe Locke, who gets a "featuring" credit on the cover. Smith conducts and arranges but doesn't play. The best known cuts are the best by far: a rollicking "A Night in Tunisia" and a spiffy "Cottontail," with Locke in particularly good form on the former. B+(*)

Chucho Valdes & the Afro-Cuban Messengers: Chucho's Steps (2009 [2010], Four Quarters): Cuban pianist, b. 1941, son of famed pianist Bebo Valdés, now in his 90s and at least recently active; led Irakere from 1972, and has released a steady stream of records under his own name since 1986 including several on Blue Note. He is still a spectacular pianist, the kind that reminds one of Art Tatum although Tatum never tackled such tricky rhythms. With trumpet and tenor sax that don't often add much, lots of percussion, a chorus for one song. Swept the Voice poll's Latin Jazz category -- an obvious choice although it strikes me as a bit out of sorts. B+(***)

Matt Wilson: Matt Wilson's Christmas Tree-O (2010, Palmetto): Read the end of the title as a pun on Trio, which is what Wilson assembled here: Paul Sikivie on bass; Jeff Lederer on various saxes, clarinets, piccolo, and toy piano; the leader on drums. Songs are mostly trad, but Wilson (like myself) is just the right age to include Dr. Seuss and "The Chipmunk Song" among the classics, and for good measure he works in a solemn "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." Not so solemn are the classics, with "Angels We Have Heard on High" warming to a free sax freakout, and "Hallelujah Chorus" full of squawk and tympani. Can't recall hearing this at the mall this year; for one thing, it would have lifted my spirits. B+(**)

John Zorn: What Thou Wilt (2009 [2010], Tzadik): Composition only, no Zorn playing. Main group consists of piano, three celli, and viola, but there's also the Tanglewood Orchestra on the 13:37 opener, "Contes de Fées," with more violins than I can count, another phalanx of celli, and the occasional oboe, bassoon, or flute. Demands a high tolerance for abstract string sounds, especially on the first piece. The remaining two pieces bounce the piano off the strings, which is more entertaining to say the least. B