Bringing you the issues since 1986

View Online Print Edition


Give mixed media, between the covers or on CD

December, 2010

Here are a few favourite musical gifts, between covers or on disc.

Frank: The Voice, James Kaplan (Doubleday)

As if Kaplan had inhabited Sinatra’s body and soul, this is a splendid biography that pitches personal and political contexts to create a complex portrait of ol’ Blue Eyes’ rise to stardom until 1954. The story is familiar – the womanizing, the doomed love affair with Ava Gardner, the mob connections and, above all, the sheer musicianship – but it hasn’t been told in such an intimate way. Kaplan takes liberties to get inside Sinatra’s head; this is New Journalism at its most useful.

Listen to This, Alex Ross (Farrar Straus Giroux)

A path-breaking, perceptive and accessible classical music critic offers his best long pieces (portraits of Dylan, Bjork, Marian Anderson as well as studies of Mozart and Verdi and Chinese music for the Olympics) written for The New Yorker since 1994. His opening salvo: “I hate ‘classical music’: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today.” Ross is the most powerful “classical” critic today because he connects with young and old music fans alike.

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, Stephen Sondheim (Alfred A. Knopf)

Exactly as billed, a rich archive that opens you up to backstage Broadway by a modern master of the musical.

Duke Ellington’s America, Harvey G. Cohen (University of Chicago)

The finest piece of jazz scholarship in years, offering the “how” and “why” of key moments in the Duke’s long career, as he reinvested in his orchestra, which he regarded as an instrument. From a master plan sprung from the Cotton Club to the disappointing reaction to his mid-40s opus Black, Brown and Beige to his role as U.S. musical ambassador to his late-career Sacred Concerts, this book examines in detail the social consequences of Ellington’s enormous musical contribution.

Mahler: The Complete Works – 150th Anniversary Edition (EMI Classics)

The world came late to Gustav Mahler, but he’s arguably the most popular – or, at least, intriguing – of the classical masters. The first great modernist (big, bold, torn between old and new forms) is conducted by the likes of Rattle, Klemperer, Szell, and more in great performances remastered to optimum sound.

This set, celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth and the 100th of his death, can be complemented by the newest biography, Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World, by Norman Lebrecht (Pantheon), who has combed previous bios and added an interpretative approach that gives his book the oft-delirious sense of urgency that was Mahler’s stock in trade. The symphony, Mahler said, “is like the world, it must accompany everything.” Lebrecht follows suit admirably.

Leonard Cohen, Songs From the Road (Sony)

At 74, Cohen is suave and sensitive in the most assured performance of his career – yes, despite the limited monotone, the poet can sing. Recorded on his most recent tour, this is a splendid overview of a singular songbook, backed by an imaginative band with overtones of European art music and American swing.

Juan’s stocking stuffers

One of the main effects of the Munich label ECM’s devotion to sound quality is its accent on conversational music, with utmost communication. To wit: Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden, Jasmine: A totally loving touch prevails in this piano and bass duet of standards. Another beauty is Ralph Towner & Paolo Fresu, Chiarosuro: Towner’s trademark acoustic guitar brocade inspires lean, haunting trumpet lines by Fresu.

If you want great music you’ve never heard before, the four-CD Jimi Hendrix collection West Coast Seattle Boy (Experience Hendrix/ Legacy) is a treat and a testament to the greatest rock guitarist. This set has shot up to the top of my vast Jimi collection, a reminder of why Hendrix has yet to be equaled, 40 years after his death.



Post a Comment