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Arts & Entertainment Preview - May 1999

Popular Music and Jazz
B Y   B O B   B L U M E N T H A L   &   C H A R L E S   M.   Y O U N G

Beck is Back

Jeff Beck -- Who Else?   

One of the formative influences on heavy metal when he joined the Yardbirds, in 1965, Jeff Beck has gone through almost as many changes of sound as David Bowie has costumes. The one constant in his career has been a unique capacity to yank overwhelmingly intense emotion out of the electric guitar. Indeed, of the great sixties guitar heroes, he's probably the only one still at his peak, still challenging the long-deceased Jimi Hendrix for MVP. On Who Else! (Epic), Beck dazzles us again with his versatility, ranging from techno ("THX138") to traditional Irish ("Declan") to solo fingerpicking ("Another Place") to jazz/metal ("What Mama Said") to jazz/Arabic ("Blast From the East"). Eleven cuts, and they're all devastating, which is really something to say about an album with no vocals. Even Hendrix took time off to sing. The secret of Beck's sustained musical imagination is his note bending. Just when you think he's wrung the last possible drop of emotion from a note, he gives the string another vibrato yank and your critical faculties are reduced to an inarticulate hippie exclamation such as "Wuhhh!!!" He's also pressing all the right buttons on his computer and hiring all the right backup musicians, among them Tony Hymas and Jan Hammer on keyboards, Jennifer Batten (formerly with Michael Jackson) on second guitar, and the fabulous rhythm section Randy Hope-Taylor on bass and Steve Alexander on drums. Beck has scheduled a tour this spring. That may or may not mean he"s actually going to play it, but buying a ticket is a chance worth taking. --C.M.Y.

Duke's Decades

   Forty-six years of the Duke

The hundredth anniversary of Duke Ellington's birth, on April 29, has generated an avalanche of activity. The largest and most comprehensive effort is The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings 1927-1973, a collection with the advantage of both size -- twenty-four compact discs -- and scope. Seven discs cover the period 1927-1934, in which Ellington established his unique orchestral blends, introduced such long-term band members as the trumpeter Cootie Williams and the saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, and wrote a slew of classic compositions. An even larger cache of material, from the 1940s, is highlighted by six CDs from the 1940-1942 band (including the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and the bassist Jimmy Blanton), which is acknowledged as Ellington's greatest. The resurgent late-sixties orchestra is represented by such classic works as "The Far East Suite" and the tribute to collaborator Billy Strayhorn, "And His Mother Called Him Bill"; all three Concerts of Sacred Music, which Ellington considered his most important efforts, are included in their entirety. Although the collection contains enough failed attempts at hit records to confirm Ellington's mortality, the overall impression is of an artist with a bottomless well of melodic eloquence, orchestral nuance, and empathy for his musicians and their milieu. Claims that Ellington was both America's and the twentieth century's greatest composer can be staked on this imposing tribute. --B.B.

Rivers Known and Unknown

Myra Melford  

One lesson to be gleaned from Duke Ellington's oeuvre is that the great jazz composers benefit from extended exposure to the sound and character of particular musicians. Given the limited opportunities to perform challenging music, such longstanding working relationships are hard to sustain at the millennium's end; yet the pianist and composer Myra Melford has enjoyed the luxury of consistent personnel in the quintet she calls The Same River, Twice, and is turning that familiarity to her advantage. Above Blue (Arabesque), the band's second album, shows just how astute Melford has grown in deploying the mercurial inflections of Dave Douglas's trumpet, the grainy tenor-sax convolutions and contrasting warm clarinet ruminations of Chris Speed, the darting patterns of Michael Sarin's drums, and the light-yet-grounded pulse of Erik Friedlander's cello. These ingredients plus her own complex piano work are joined in service to Melford's compositions, in which thematic trajectories are always coherent and source points can shift from late Romanticism to boogie-woogie to free-form energy. Some might call The Same River, Twice avant-garde in its structural complexities; but Melford ensures that the music sings (and dances) more than it squalls, and tempers abstract interludes with passages of sheer beauty. The results, to cite Ellington's highest accolade, are beyond category. --B.B.

Bob Blumenthal is a jazz critic for The Boston Globe.

Charles M. Young reviews popular music for Playboy, Musician, and other publications.

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Photo credits -- Duke Ellington Boxed-set: RCA Victor. Myra Melford: Valerie Trucchia. Jeff Beck: Olaf Heine.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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