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Arts & Entertainment Preview - February 1998

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

The Woodstock of the McCarthy Era

Paul Robeson at the Peace Arch, 1952

Although songs are usually lame vehicles for the serious examination of political issues, they do provide inspiration and fortitude when it's time to act. In American history nobody understood this power of music better than Paul Robeson. Next year is the centennial of his birth, and Folk Era (705 S. Washington St., Naperville, IL 60540-6654; 630-637-2303) is seizing the day by issuing The Peace Arch Concerts, a live recording of Robeson singing one foot from the Canadian border in 1952 and 1953, when the U.S. government had revoked his passport and forbidden him foreign travel. Previously available only to members of the Mine-Mill and Smelters Workers' Union in the early fifties, the concerts have been transferred from the original 78s to compact disc. The sound quality isn't perfect (Robeson was singing from the back of a pickup truck), but his amazing bass voice cuts through everything. "Ol' Man River" was written for him, after all, and nobody ever sang it better. Convinced of humanity's essential unity, Robeson sang songs from many lands (in twenty different languages) long before "world music" was even a concept. Here he shines most on the spirituals, with their obvious relevance to the nascent civil-rights movement, and on the labor anthem "Joe Hill." The final cut is one of Robeson's few recorded speeches, in which he discussed the FBI's largely successful attempts to destroy his performing career by threatening concert promoters. His defiance is exhilarating, and far more dangerous than anything the punk movement managed to snarl. --C.M.Y.

The Peace Arch Concerts, Paul Robeson, Copyright 1998 Folk Era Records

"Joe Hill," AU, Real Audio 28.8
"Ol' Man River," AU, Real Audio 28.8

Interpreting Monk

As a composer, Thelonious Monk was the master of jagged dissonance and inexorable swing. As a pianist, Fred Hersch is one of the most sensitive and genuinely lyrical players in jazz. This might imply that Thelonious: Fred Hersch Plays Monk (Nonesuch) is an oil-and-water affair. Instead this triumphant recital should convince any skeptics of the depth of both composer and performer.
Pianist Fred Hersch

Hersch decided to play this music his way rather than in direct imitation, which has produced uncommonly introspective readings of Monk's ballads. By employing his gentler touch and more impressionistic harmonic vocabulary, Hersch reinforces the melodic integrity of Monk's music while allowing it to accommodate a different range of colors. The compositions are also programmed to comment on one another and themselves, as Hersch applies five different slants to the blues "Misterioso," sets up one ballad with a snippet of another, and employs "'Round Midnight" as a parenthetical frame for the entire enterprise. Hersch is becoming something of a songbook king, having previously produced volumes of music by Billy Strayhorn and Rodgers & Hammerstein for Nonesuch. He is also jazz's most committed AIDS activist, and his second collection for Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS appeared at the close of last year. Fred Hersch and Friends: The Duo Album finds him interpreting standards with a dozen notable friends (including Gary Burton, Tommy Flanagan, Diana Krall, and Joe Lovano) and highlights one aspect of Hersch's talent that solo recordings by definition ignore: an affinity for other musicians. --B.B.

Thelonious: Fred Hersch Plays Monk, Fred Hersch, Copyright 1998 Nonesuch Records

"'Round Midnight," AU, Real Audio 28.8
"In Walked Bud," AU, Real Audio 28.8
"Let's Cool One," AU, Real Audio 28.8

Where Tubas Dare To Go

Getting down: Howard Johnson

Six tubas and a rhythm section may suggest some kind of raw, rambling joke. Under the direction of the prodigious Howard Johnson, however, they form Gravity, a conclave of low brass players that has been around in various forms since 1968. On Right Now! (Verve), Johnson and company deliver a spirited, wide-ranging program that proves that even the lowest instrumental voices can soar. Gravity's sonorous blend enhances all kinds of material, from the tender ballad "Tell Me a Bedtime Story" and the relaxed big-band staple "Frame for the Blues" to charging evocations of Gil Evans and hard bop. Taj Mahal, who toured with a smaller version of Gravity in 1971, adds gritty funk with vocals on three tracks. The tubas are the main story, however. Dave Bargeron, Joe Daley, Earl McIntyre, and Bob Stewart, musicians who are generally buried in the brass sections of the big bands, take eloquent solo turns, and the non-soloing Carl Kleinsteuber handles most of the lead playing with admirable warmth. Johnson is deservedly the star. He arranged all the music, spreading the voicings in a manner that best takes advantage of the range and dexterity of his partners, and he roars through his several tuba solos. For variety Johnson, who is one of jazz's most inventive multi-instrumentalists, even switches to penny whistle and baritone saxophone on two tracks. Not that changes of pace were required, with Gravity demonstrating just how much music can be found in the depths. --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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