Zara Alexandrovna Levina, born 1906 in Alexandrovsk (Ukraine), witnessed two world wars, the Revolution as well as the collapse and totalitarian reconstruction of her homeland. She was under the constant ideological pressure of the existentially threatening state censorship, which was particularly exerted by the notorious RAPM (Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians) in the 1920s and 1930s, driving her to the brink of a creative and health disaster. However, Zara Levina was able to retain her own and unmistakable voice in her music.
The pieces featured here are performed by Maria Letterberg, including the expressionistic Op. 111, which was forgotten for decades until it was rediscovered and recorded for the first time in 1984.
Over the course of his tragically short life, Alexander Scriabin wrote monumental works of great import. In between these efforts he produced a steady torrent of miniatures – concentrated gems of this same expansive genius. Fascinatingly, the title Poème is applied both to symphonic works and to the extended series of thirty-four piano pieces recorded here. Their inspirations are as varied as their titles and they offer a key into their composer's inner world. Pianist Garrick Ohlsson is an acknowledged master of the genre, and this new Scriabin recording will only enhance his already admirable reputation.
The always eclectic Maria Muldaur, whose previous albums have paid tribute to Shirley Temple and blues women of the '20s, takes another musical detour in this collection of songs associated with Peggy Lee. In addition to her cool, sexy, relaxed voice, Lee was arguably more talented than other vocalists from her era. As a songwriter she co-penned some of her own material, including the swinging "I'm Gonna Go Fishin'" with Duke Ellington, which features the witty double entendres that spice several other songs. Muldaur possesses a similar ability to purr ("Some Cats Know") or sizzle (an opening tour de force of "Fever" and "Black Coffee") without breaking a sweat. So this collection of 12 tracks, backed by a talented yet restrained eight-piece band, is a natural extension of her vocal strengths. The stylish, retro arrangements include vibes and big-band-styled horn charts that sound as authentic as if they were recorded in the '30s. Even though there are some finger-popping swing numbers (a zippy duet with Dan Hicks on Ted Shapiro's "Winter Weather" is especially peppy), a late-night, languid blues-jazz vibe dominates.
At age 83, pianist/vocalist Jay McShann was still at the top of his game and providing many lessons for the younger "swing" cats and kittens. He is the epitome of what can be done when jazz and blues are mixed equally, especially when the fun factor is liberally added in. While some might find this typical, many others should revel in the sound of one of this music's last living legends who is still doing it, and doing it very well at that. The chemistry between McShann and guitarist/session leader Duke Robillard is considerable and undeniable, and makes Still Jumpin' the Blues enjoyable throughout. With such solid support from Robillard and the band, McShann has nothing to worry about. Everything you might want is here: classic versions of "Goin' to Chicago," "Ain't Nobody's Business," and "Trouble In Mind"; a nice rearrangement with tempo shift from mellow to mid-tempo on "Sunny Side of the Street"; Maria Muldaur's sultry singing on "Come on Over to My House," and especially the Bessie Smith evergreen "Backwater Blues"; wonderful instrumentals like "Moten Swing" and "Say Forward, I'll March"; and even a little Hawaiian slide accenting "Hootie's K.C. Christmas Prayer".
There are a number of arguments to be made for and against Maria Muldaur's 2008 antiwar statement Yes We Can! on Telarc (before actually listening to it; remember, we live in a cynical culture). The "perceived" negatives all relate to the intent of the recording and who it's supposed to reach (no doubt an expression of the same set of beliefs rooted in Muldaur's 1960s music), and the fact that it's loaded with guests (in all fairness, these star-studded affairs seldom work). On Yes We Can!, her guests include Muldaur's old friends (Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, Phoebe Snow, Jane Fonda, and Holly Near) and influences (Odetta) and new pals (writers/spiritual gurus Anne Lamott and Marianne Williamson, and Indian spiritual teacher Amma). Does it read as if it is yet another exercise in self-referential backslapping? Yep. But don't believe everything you read on the back of a CD jacket. The positives are all musical.
Passion rather than insouciance is Pires’s keynote. Here is no soft, moonlit option but an intensity and drama that scorn all complacent salon or drawing-room expectations. How she relishes Chopin’s central storms, creating a vivid and spectacular yet unhistrionic contrast with all surrounding serenity or ‘embalmed darkness’. The con fuoco of Op. 15 No. 1 erupts in a fine fury and in the first Nocturne, Op. 9 No. 1, Pires’s sharp observance of Chopin’s appassionato marking comes like a prophecy of the coda’s sudden blaze. Such resolution and psychological awareness make you realize that Chopin, like D. H. Lawrence, may well have thought that “there must be a bit of fear, and a bit of horror in your life”. Chopin, Pires informs us in no uncertain terms, was no sentimentalist.
From the sweet to the salacious to the poignant, Maria Muldaur's eponymous, strong debut features savvy studio vets, talented guests, strong tunes, and Muldaur's lissome pipes. The outstanding players include Ry Cooder, David Grisman, Clarence White, and Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John. A tasteful guitar solo by the underrated Amos Garrett elevates the charming surprise hit single "Midnight at the Oasis." Although she later gravitated to jazz and gospel, Muldaur's first outing is heavy on songs derived from country and blues. A rousing "Work Song," borrowed from Kate & Anna McGarrigle, is only one of several highlights.