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JANUARY 31, 2000: 

*** What We Live TRUMPETS (Soul Note)

The sax/bass/drums trio What We Live don't go after the avant-garde with full-on pummeling assault. Rather, they adhere to a kind of minimalism akin to Japanese calligraphy, where the relation of mark to ground is crucial and any single stroke can change the nature of the composition as a whole. For a collectively improvising ensemble, that can mean aimless meandering or, as one critic calls it, "dog-chasing-its-tail music."

But What We Live (the ROVA Sax Quartet's Larry Ochs with bassist Lisle Ellis and drummer Donald Robinson) are expert practitioners. I don't think they play anything you'd call a "groove" anywhere on this hour-plus album, and the opening piece is 20 minutes long. But the all-important free-jazz "pulse" is something they know inside out. An isolated syncopated three-note bass drone, a repeated, ringing cymbal pattern, the polyrhythmic roll of mallets against drumheads -- all contribute to the subtle tensions that keep these performances, though loose and "timeless," thoroughly engrossing. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith -- who practically invented this kind of playing, with its dramatic pauses and gestural horn figures -- is in fine, colorful form here. The somewhat more restless but no less astute Dave Douglas is the second trumpet, playing on the last three of the album's five cuts.

-- Jon Garelick


**1/2 Tara Jane O'Neil FRIENDS AND LOVERS (Columbia)

Tara Jane O'Neil's musical meditations on Peregrine are so dreamy and amorphous that listeners might want to reach into their stereos and just wrench the tunes out of there. That is, until the oblique, impressionistic music tows them into its altered, slo-mo state. Singer and multi-instrumentalist O'Neil was a force in the influential Louisville band Rodan, who spawned a number of other outfits, including O'Neil's next ensembles, Retsin and the Sonora Pine. She wanders an arty, folky path on this release, which was apparently taped at various apartments in New York City (including hers) in a fragmented manner consistent with her gauzy aural sensibilities. Layers of gently droning guitars, violin (from the Sonora Pine's Samara Lubelski), and other stringed instruments drift in and out of view and form the backdrop for O'Neil's plaintive but substantial vocals, which glimmer most alluringly on "The Fact of a Seraph." Percussive accents come from Andrew Barker's brush strokes on a drum set here and O'Neil's plinking thumb piano there.

-- Bill Kisliuk


*** Starflyer 59 EVERYBODY MAKES MISTAKES (Tooth & Nail)

If this album had been recorded in 1984 or 1986, it might well now be considered one of the better indie discs of that decade -- a shining example of everything that was right about college radio and, well, the otherwise scurrilous '80s in general. The hazy New Zealand-style dream pop of the disc's opening track, "Play the C Chord," is just one of a half-dozen or more signature '80s sounds that pop up on this California foursome's fifth full-length. Two tunes in, on the overtly New Order-ish (and tellingly titled) "No New Kinda Story," Starflyer 59 singer/guitarist Jason Martin may even be addressing his fetish for ornate retro sonic architecture. Over a lush bed of tremolo guitars, artfully scattered piano notes, and a radiant synth line, he claims that "this is what we want . . . this is what we need to breathe out all the love that we have." At least that's what I think he's saying. Martin buries his vocals underneath so many gauzy blankets of echo that it's hard to be sure. Heck, the guy could be singing the words to "Bizarre Love Triangle" for all I know.

-- Jonathan Perry


*** Ray Barretto & New World Spirit + 4 PORTRAITS IN JAZZ AND CLAVE (RCA Victor)

Latin percussionist Ray Barretto has plenty of chops and has proved his talent on scores of perfectly competent Latin jazz albums over the decades. It is all to the good that he wanted to stretch out on his new label, and the addition of big guns like saxman Joe Lovano, trombonist Steve Turre, and guitarist Kenny Burrell makes this arguably the best album of his long career.

The opening selection, a bizarre Latinizing of a seemingly resistant Duke Ellington tune, the dirge-like "The Mooche," is a bracing surprise. Breakneck drumming counterpoints horns that are carrying the melody in a lazy, hazy fashion. The Latin jazz treatments of Thelonious Monk ("I Mean You") and Wayne Shorter ("Go") are more conventionally synchronized, but solos by Lovano and Turre put some surprising spice into the program. Most ambitious is the jazz treatment of music by the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, who's best known to jazz fans for providing the infrastructure for the Miles/Gil Evans Sketches of Spain.

-- Norman Weinstein


***1/2 Michael Moore MONITOR (Between the Lines)

Reed player Michael Moore, cellist Tristan Honsinger, and keyboardist Cor Fuhler make music that is both witty and melancholy. This is a Dutch trio, so the emphasis is on focused compositions and vivid improvising. Each piece is like a different game with its own rules. "Gulls" pits a slow, bowed cello melody against frantic twitterings from Moore and Fuhler. "Five Bits" progresses through a series of cues that signal changes from one section to another. "Monitor" is a free improvisation.

Whatever the premise, the trio impose their individual sensibilities, reshaping and personalizing. Honsinger plays the cranky skeptic, agitating the music with fleet lines that test boundaries and the reflexes of the other band members. Fuhler, the youngest of the trio and one of the most exciting new players in Holland, is the good-natured practical joker, lobbing in unusual timbres on the Hammond B3 and keyolin, an keyboard instrument of his own invention. Moore is the pensive philosopher, offering rueful insights and proposing radically contrasting ideas that reverberate throughout a piece. With personalities this strong, any idea, whether written or improvised, is often no more than a suggestion that's open to acceptance, rejection, or transformation. Part of the fun is seeing where these collisions of spontaneous musicmaking and composition take this threesome.

-- Ed Hazell


*** Blue Man Group AUDIO (Virgin)

Music plays a much bigger role than you might generally assume in Tubes, Blue Man Group's long-running and hugely successful Off Broadway/Boston/Chicago theatrical production. Not only are the various invented instruments the Blue Men have built out of PVC piping and fiberglass rods a central, integral part of the show, but in the absence of a traditional narrative, it's music -- loud, percussive music -- that sets the pace and sustains the momentum for much of the performance. On the other hand, Tubes is an intensely visually oriented production, one that relies heavily on creating a synergy between sound and movement, drawing much of its compelling drama from the very physical interactions between Blue Man and machine. Plus, those odd, homemade PVC devices wouldn't sound half as cool if you didn't actually see them being used (whereas nothing is lost by having the familiar guitar/bass/drums backing band largely hidden away off stage). As a result, Blue Man Group rejected the notion of simply recording the music from a Tubes performance and marketing it as a traditional score in favor of writing and producing a collection of 14 new instrumentals that both draw on and are inspired by the music from the show.

There are parts you may recognize from Tubes, but on a whole Audio aims to stand on its own, with its spaghetti-western surf guitars (courtesy of the Ray Corvair Trio's Chris Dyas) offset by heavier, almost grungy power-chord assaults, thumping tribal rhythms (courtesy, in large part, of another Boston musician, drummer Todd Pearlmutter) bolstered by deep bass notes and Chapman Stick, and an array of conga- and marimba-like PVC percussion embellishments from the three original Blue Men themselves (Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton, and Chris Wink). There's still something lost in the translation from a visual to a purely audio medium. But Audio does succeed as something of a visceral alternative to the cerebral instrumental rock of bands like Tortoise and Trans Am, and the kind of album that ABC's Wide World of Sports would be happy to get its hands on.

-- Matt Ashare


**1/2 Big Bud INFINITY + INFINITY (Good Looking)

Since his seminal 1996 collection, Logical Progression, LTJ Bukem has released some great atmospheric drum 'n' bass recordings on his Good Looking imprint, all with one common fault: everything's cut from a similar-sounding, Bukem-mimicking cloth of head-nodding, ambient-leaning breakbeats. Big Bud continues in the Bukem tradition, offering 70 minutes of smoothly mixed drum 'n' bass on his full-length debut, with only a couple forays into downbeat territory and a very minimal tweaking of Logical Progression's atmospheric formula. The grooves here aren't totally unfriendly to the dance floor. But to judge from this artist's name, the new agey soundscapes and swirling atmospheres he seems to prefer, and the numerous weed references on Infinity + Infinity -- including song titles like "High Times" and "Blunt" -- Big Bud had spacing out on the couch in mind when he was working on these tracks, not nightclubbing.

-- Michael Endelman


***1/2 Bernard Butler FRIENDS AND LOVERS (Columbia)

Despite having helped define the attitude-heavy jangle of early-'90s British pop, former London Suede guitarist and songwriter Bernard Butler's solo debut, '98's People Move On, had a retro vibe that nodded toward the pre-guitar-hero rock of the late '60s and '70s. Friends and Lovers marks a return to pop for Butler, who tightens up without becoming uptight. Here, his sweet and serene voice (tonally similar to Suede's Brett Anderson) is pushed to the fore, his nevertheless keen guitar playing is muted in the mix, and his solos are kept pertinently short. Rather than hang in the shadows of Suede's suburban pop daydreams, however, Butler kicks off Friends and Lovers with two solid, cutely inventive, melodic pop anthems (the title track and "I'd Do It Again If I Could") that are his and his alone. And he doesn't ease up on the grab-you-by-the-shoulders hooks until mid album, when a softer tone begins to dominate. Call it a lull or a drag (the dirgy "No Easy Way Out" leans toward the latter). Either way, Friends and Lovers regains character with the astounding eight-minute-plus psychedelic stroll "Has Your Mind Got Away?", where his guitar takes a prog-rock detour and introduces Floydian highbrow drama to now-pop people.

-- Linda Laban


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