New music

Reviews of this week's CD releases


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R&B Ledisi

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/08/2021 (525 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.



Ledisi Sings Nina (BMG)

It took 14 years and 13 nominations before New Orleans-born vocal fireball Ledisi finally won her first Grammy Award earlier this year.

Now 49, the glorious-voiced Ledisi was just eight when she made her singing debut with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra. She was barely 21 when she discovered the transcendent music of singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone, whose command of jazz, blues, gospel, pop and soul has inspired everyone from Jewel to Jay-Z.

Simone was 70 when she died in 2003 — the same year Ledisi discovered her music. In 2017, Ledisi performed classics from the Simone songbook at a Kennedy Center concert with the National Symphony Orchestra, and in December PBS aired the TV special Ledisi Live: A Tribute to Nina Simone.

The sublime Ledisi Sings Nina is both a heartfelt tribute to Simone’s singular artistic oeuvre and a bold extension. Ledisi simultaneously salutes Simone and puts her own stamp on songs that have long been synonymous with Simone’s name.

She brings deep gospel and blues feeling to the album-opening Feeling Good, then bounces delightfully through My Baby Just Cares for Me, which Simone recorded in 1958. Ledisi playfully updates the latter’s lyrics with references to Beyoncé, Halle Berry, RuPaul and Michelle Obama. She concludes the song with a wonderfully giddy burst of scat-singing that pays homage to Ella Fitzgerald.

Ledisi begins Jacques Brel’s gently pleading Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me) in French, then switches to English. Her impeccably nuanced vocals are a joy in either language. Wild Is the Wind, the album’s sole live recording, comes from the aforementioned 2020 PBS TV special. Its hushed intimacy makes Ledisi’s operatic vocal flourishes even more effective.

The Nat Adderly-penned Work Song is performed here as a big band romp that allows the members of Metropole Orkest to soar. Best of all, though, is Four Women, which Simone wrote in 1966 and quickly became a feminist anthem and an enduring ode to civil rights.

Ledisi Sings Nina falls short of the mark only in its unexpected brevity. At only seven songs, which clock in at under 31 minutes, it is simply too little of an exceptionally good thing. ★★★★1/2 out of five

STREAM THESE: Four Women, Ne Me Quitte Pas

— George Varga, San Diego Union-Tribune


Los Lobos

Native Sons (New West)

Native Sons comes as a welcome antidote to the self-conscious artiness that has come to characterize a lot of Los Lobos’ music. Here, they eschew originals (with one exception) to pay tribute to artists from their native Los Angeles.

Los Lobos don’t reinvent these numbers, but the heart and soul they bring to the performances, and the musical versatility they display, offer a thrilling reminder of why they are not “just another band from East L.A.,” to borrow the self-effacing title of an old compilation.

With his takes on Jackson Browne’s Jamaica Say You Will and the Beach Boys’ Sail On, Sailor, David Hidalgo again shows he’s one of the most expressive singers in pop. On Buffalo Springfield’s Bluebird/For What It’s Worth, the sweetness of his voice is offset by the sting of his guitar.

Cesar Rosas, who usually handles Los Lobos’ brawnier stuff, sounds right at home on Love Special Delivery by Thee Midniters and on Percy Mayfield’s Never No More (also a showcase for saxophonist Steve Berlin).

Los Lobos’ primary songwriting team of Hidalgo and Louie Perez are at their best on the lone original, Native Son, a poignant love letter to Los Angeles and its Mexican American heritage. ★★★1/2 out of five

STREAM THESE: Native Son, Never No More

— Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer


Alex Lefaivre

Naufragés (Arteboréal)

Bassist Alex Lefaivre is yet another example of the excellent jazz musicians across this country who are less well known than they should be.

Lefaivre has been an award-winning musician/composer and educator for years in the Montreal area. His new album was patiently assembled in April this year when the COVID rules relaxed enough to get the band into the studio. The title, Naufragés, means castaways, perhaps reflecting the realities of the last several years with the music business. The quartet here has Eric Hove on alto, Nicolas Ferron on guitar and Alain Bourgeois on drums, along with Lefaivre on bass. It features three covers and five original compositions with a consistent energy and funky style. It’s possible that Hove might be the best known of the group, and while his solos are excellent (especially perhaps on Sin City), they are not any more substantial than the offerings of the other members. Guitarist Ferron is also very impressive.

It’s always fun to be pleasantly surprised by a playlist. The original compositions here offer excellent scope and variety, with nudges into a funky rock groove at times. Several of the cover choices are interesting. Time of the Barracudas is a Gil Evans/Miles Davis tune that explores the modal world of the era, while Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song is a straight-up, no-apologies tribute to the original. A very bouncy and perky original tune is Hommage Jazz á Passe-Partout (a tribute to a Quebec children’s TV show called Passe-Partout.)

This is a fine quartet that offers a perfect blend with the each of its players, and as a result the album is extremely enjoyable throughout. These castaways have found a way home. ★★★★ out of five

STREAM THESE: Reset, Time of the Barracudas

— Keith Black


Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto no.1 / Tragic Overture

Cherubini: Éliza (Overture)

Alexander Melnikov, Sinfonieorchester Basel, Ivor Bolton (Harmonia Mundi)

Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov tackles one of the great Romantic concertos in the repertoire, Brahms’ mighty Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15, written in the wake of Beethoven and Schumann’s epic-scaled works.

British conductor Ivor Bolton skilfully leads the Sinfonieorchester Basel through the three-movement work that has tested the mettle of concert artists since first penned in 1858, including its own composer, who performed its première the following year.

Melnikov immediately displays his sensitive pianism and technical prowess during an emotionally charged opening movement, with a sense of just where to pull out all the stopsand then pull back again that infuses his overall performance with a compelling dramatic arc.

The subsequent Adagio further allow listeners to hear his careful voicing of chords, with Bolton matching the soloist note for note. Finally, a high-spirited capper Rondo drives forward with its rollicking syncopated rhythms, although it would have fared better with a sharper attack by the pianist, rather than his softer, more romantic overtones. Melnikov’s choice to bring this 163-year-old chestnut to life on a period 1859 Blüthner piano is also noteworthy, instilling greater historical authenticity throughout his performance.

The album is bookended by the same composer’s Tragic Overture, Op. 81, a concert overture written during the summer of 1880, as well as, somewhat oddly, album interloper Luigi Cherubini’s Overture to Éliza (the Italian opera composer was greatly admired by Brahms). Despite serving as an effective counterfoil to the other tumultuous offerings, it still appears somewhat misplaced in an otherwise fulsome celebration of this quintessential, immortal Romantic. ★★★★ out of five

STREAM THIS: Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15, by Johannes Brahms, performed by Alexander Melnikov

— Holly Harris

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