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DECEMBER 13, 1999: 

Kenny Wheeler A Long Time Ago (ECM)

Canadian flugelhornist Wheeler has been living the expatriate life in London since the 1950s, building a sizable resume of noteworthy recordings over the years. A Long Time Ago is the latest addition to his impressive canon, showcasing his thoughtful playing and his superlative skills as a composer and arranger.

The album's subtitle, Music for Brass Ensemble and Soloists, succinctly sums up this work and recalls some of Wheeler's earlier, critically acclaimed ensemble albums. He surrounds himself with some of London's best musicians on this outing, including pianist John Taylor and guitarist John Parricelli. The brass ensemble consists of four trumpets, two trombones, and two bass trombones, the latter adding a deep resonance to the horn mix.

Essentially, this unit functions as a trio-plus-ensemble, with the brass adding harmony, gentle counterpoint, and soft embellishment to the work of the three engaging soloists. Wheeler's brass octet arrangements are deeply hued, ringing with a collective timbre that's pure and clear. While the horn charts recall the depth and complexity of Gil Evan's arrangements, particularly on the Miles Davis albums Sketches of Spain and Miles Ahead, Wheeler is no Evans clone but plays and writes with his own distinctive voice.

The central work is "The Long Time Ago Suite," a 32-minute composition that proceeds through a series of inviting passages. The flow is dramatic, moving along on a series of subtly wrought solos by Wheeler, Taylor, and Paricelli, with the delicate yet substantial voicings of the ensemble interacting with precise timing. Wheeler never allows the eight horns to become brassy or brash, often keeping them in the lower to middle registers, which produces a restrained depth and serene beauty. The interplay with the soloists provides gentle tensions that arise and resolve themselves with intelligence and an understated emotional urgency. In addition to the suite, the disc includes seven other selections, each varied in tone and approach, but each as equally interesting as the suite.

When I first heard this disc, some poor timing had landed me in Knoxville at the 5 o'clock rush hour. I was stuck in stop-and-start traffic on Interstate 40 on a cross-state jaunt -- a setting rarely conducive to serenity. I put Wheeler's A Long Time Ago in the disc player and was instantly transfixed. Suddenly, graceful soloists and captivating brass swept through my car, and before I knew it, an hour had passed and I was just leaving the snarl of Knoxville's notorious traffic jam. I immediately replayed the disc and was once again moved by this rare work's calming and peaceful air, while simultaneously being fully attentive to the skillful improvisers as they played along with and against the emotive ensemble passages. It was a wonderful musical escape, one I'll eagerly take again and again. -- Gene Hyde

Primus Antipop (Interscope)

More musical mischief and mayhem from the mavens of moronic merrymaking. Customarily, Primus leave a sizable segment of the record-buying public confused and somewhat annoyed. Happily, Antipop will surely do nothing whatsoever to alter that situation. This new CD is crammed with the same mongrel, bass-driven, grooveacious funk/metal/unclassifiable trackage Primus devotees have been digesting for well over a decade.

Antipop's sonics, though diverse, burst forth from the speakers in a fairly uniform way. Which is kind of surprising when you think about the parade of guest producers involved with the project. Fred Durst (of Limp Bizkit), Tom Waits, Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine), Stewart Copeland (best known as the ex-Police drummer), and even South Park co-creator Matt Stone had a go at the band's studio procedures (though press kit info indicates that Stone was more interested in the herb-powered recreational festivities that followed the session for the track he "produced" than he was in the track itself).

Clunkers: "Eclectic Electric," billed by Interscope propagandists as "an eight-minute epic whose taste and imagination puts most modern prog-rock to shame," doesn't -- quite a shortcoming, considering the shameful state of most modern prog-rock. And then there are the lame and strained political cuts, "Electric Uncle Sam" and "Power Mad." Who told these goofs to poetically pontificate upon extremely complex global issues, anyway? (Oh, wait Rage's Morello placed his heavy hand on these tracks; now I get it.)

Failings such as the three discussed above don't mean much when weighed against the glorious full-bore absurdity of songs like "Dirty Drowning Man." This is more like it: "I'm a dog/A dirty flying dog/I drink Campari with marinated wild hog/I've no sense/I lick electric fence/I put barbed wire in my pants and do a Celtic dance."

Now, who can argue with that?

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