MAXWELL: From Bernstein to “Brick House’

12/3/2000 – Printed in the FLORIDIAN section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



Music lovers rejoice this holiday season with a bounty of beautiful box sets. To help you select, Times staff writers choose the best of the best of.

KEN BURNS, THE STORY OF AMERICA’S MUSIC (COLUMBIA/LEGACY) Any jazz lover would flip over this five-CD collection of America’s premier art form, lovingly put together by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. His 10-part Jazz: A Movie airs on PBS in January.

With 94 selections spanning from 1917 to 1995, from Dixieland and bebop to the late 1960s avant garde and 1970s fusion, Jazz kicks off with the wonderfully sublime and swingy Star Dust by Louis Armstrong. The set represents all the giants: Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, as well as the beloved singers: Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. There are a few notable neglects: where’s the innovative Sun Ra, for instance?

Later-day heroes such as Grover Washington, Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis are also included _ Hancock’s Rockit in the same package as Dizzy Gillespie’s Salt Peanuts? Neat! _ but representation of the contemporary jazz scene is underwhelming. A fabulous 48-page booklet chronicling the jazz movement adds to the collection’s charm. A fine, fine documentation, indeed.

_ GINA VIVINETTO, Times pop music critic

BERNSTEIN LIVE (NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC SPECIAL EDITIONS) Will the likes of Leonard Bernstein ever come along again? There have been plenty of pretenders since Bernstein’s death in 1990. Leonard Slatkin, David Zinman, Michael Tilson Thomas _ these and other worthy conductors with a touch of the salesman to them have all aspired to take his place as America’s village explainer and champion of classical music. But the times have changed, and, frankly, Bernstein was just more brilliant than anyone in the generation of conductors who followed him. Even the self-importance that finally overtook him _ so devastatingly skewered by Tom Wolfe in his classic magazine article that defined radical chic _ doesn’t seem so annoying anymore.

First and foremost, Bernstein was a gifted musician, as is so superbly chronicled by this 10-CD box set of live recordings of New York Philharmonic performances led by Bernstein, mainly during his time as music director from 1958 to 1969. It covers a remarkable range of well-chosen music, from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 (with Bernstein on harpsichord, violinist Isaac Stern and flutist John Wummer) to a concert of scenes from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung featuring Eileen Farrell.

There are rarities here, such as William Russo’s Symphony No. 2, with jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson as the soloist, and the 1951 premiere of Ives’ Symphony No. 2. One disc features Bernstein’s passionate, sometimes ambivalent discussions of cutting-edge 20th century music from the podium, followed by his conducting the works for an often resistant audience. In a perversely thrilling sort of way, the boos that ring out after the Philharmonic’s scintillating reading of John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis are downright bracing.

But for all the glamor and excitement that run through this tribute to Bernstein, what is most impressive is the conductor’s solid, committed grasp of the musical basics in works such as Britten’s Spring Symphony, Stravinsky’s Capriccio, Schumann’s Cello Concerto (with Jacqueline du Pre), Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto (with Vladimir Ashkenazy), Copland’s Dance Symphony and many more.

All 33 live performances have never been released commercially. Taken from reel-to-reel tapes, the sound quality is excellent. Two booklets include program notes by Alan Rich, interviews with Philharmonic members and soloists, vintage photographs and a comprehensive list of Bernstein’s Philharmonic recordings and concert programs.

Bernstein LIVE sells for $195. It may be ordered by calling (800) 557-8268 or through the Special Editions e-STORE at http://www.newyor

_ JOHN FLEMING, Times performing arts critic

ELTON JOHN, TO BE CONTINUED (UNI/MCA) What’s to discover with Elton John? I mean, we’ve heard everything on To Be Continued, the four-CD anthology, a million times on FM, right? Yeah, that’s what I thought as I slipped in disc one. Right there during the middle of it, however, during Your Song _ or was it Tiny Dancer, or Levon? _ I realized: This man is a genius. John and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin have a magic touch, and for three decades have been writing hit after hit, arranged chronologically on the aptly titled To Be Continued.

Amazingly, the collection cuts off at 1990. Just think of all the smashes our boy Elton has had this past decade.

But, here you get your Honky Cat, Bennie and the Jets, Crocodile Rock.

Rocket Man, anyone? Daniel. Did I mention Goodbye Yellow Brick Road? and (hit it, gang, “Saturday! Saturday! Saturday!”) Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting. Note: we’re not even out of the 1970s yet.

There’s a bunch more, including the tune with Kiki, a live Lennon duet and both the good 1980s hits _ I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues _ and the lousy ones _ um, Nikita.

_ G.V.

THE SUPREMES (MOTOWN) A five-CD anthology of the most successful 1960s American “girl group,” The Supremes chronicles the trio’s bumpy career, from its pre-Motown days when the ladies were known as the Primettes, to the big sugary hits of the early 1960s with Diana Ross out in front, to the edgier tunes such as Love Child and The Young Folks, when Ross, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong (Flo Ballard’s replacement) tackled issues like unwed motherhood and the youth revolution.

For a trio, the Supremes had more incarnations than a Hindu god. The lineup seemed to change on the hour: Diana, Flo, Mary.

Diana, Cindy, Mary.

Mary, Jean Terrell, Herve Villachez, Kevin Bacon _ whoa! (Wait, I’m not sure about those two.)

The Supremes also includes the sexier songs with a funky edge such as I’m Gonna Make You Love Me and The Weight, both recorded with the Temptations, as well as hits with Terrell: River Deep, Mountain High and Stoned Love. Disc five is entirely live performances, eleven hits with Miss Ross.

_ G.V.

RICHARD PRYOR, . . . AND IT’S DEEP TOO! (RHINO) African-Americans of my generation, who came of age during the 1960s, fell in love with Peoria’s own Richard Pryor, that skinny, funny guy with the neat conk. He brought a gut-wrenching vitality to the chitlin’ circuit. We thought he was crazy. He was crazy.

All of that craziness, the brilliant, irreverent humor, is ours to keep in Warner Bros.’ boxed-set treatment of the comedian’s work, Richard Pryor . . . And It’s Deep Too! (1968-1992). In nine CDs, all of Pryor’s heart, vulnerability, macho facade, brilliance, charisma, pain, joy, indulgences, passion and rage shine through. The early recordings show Pryor experimenting with what would become his staple: assuming the persona _ voice, patois, mannerisms _ of his characters. His lyrical obscenities and satirical assaults on conventions and smug values show why Pryor was a pioneer and one of the most important comic figures of the century.

The recordings, such as the live concert Here and Now, show Pryor bridging the gap between whites and blacks who dare to sit together in the same auditorium. We hear the audiences, in an elusive common ground, sharing laughter over interracial joking. We hear whites as creatures of faux superiority and blacks as earthy fools. The gags are raw and brutal, creating a hilarious world of black street language and keen observations that come with having lived on the underside of life.

These CDs represent social commentary at its best, demonstrating why Pryor is considered one of the greatest intellectual comedians _ a designation that was denied to African-Americans far too long. Because of his brilliance and stage presence, Pryor strongly influenced proteges such as Chris Rock, the new king of comedy.

“When I was a kid, nothing gave me more pleasure than waiting for my parents to leave the house so I could listen to a Richard Pryor album,” Rock said. “I didn’t know it then, but by listening to those albums, I was preparing myself for what I’m doing today. If I hadn’t listened to Richard as a kid, I’m sure I’d still be a comedian _ the only difference is I’d really suck. Richard Pryor is the greatest comedian of all time.”

Richard Pryor . . . And It’s Deep Too! is pure genius and non-stop hilarity. That’s on the real side.

_ BILL MAXWELL, Times staff writer

YOU’RE SENSATIONAL: COLE PORTER IN THE ’20s, ’40s & ’50s (KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS) Cole Porter was born and buried in Peru, Ind., but most of his 71 years were spent away from the Hoosier state busily turning out one great theater song after another. About 60 of them are featured in the wonderfully eclectic three-CD box set You’re Sensational: Cole Porter in the ’20s, ’40s’ & ’50s.

This is the follow-up to You’re the Top: Cole Porter in the 1930s, a 1992 Grammy nominee for best historical album and best liner notes.

The new set includes a generous selection of songs performed by Porter’s most famous interpreters, such as Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Ethel Merman, but there are plenty from off the beaten track, too, including rare performances by the composer himself on Two Little Babes in the Woods and C’est Magnifique. Among the scores of other artists featured are pianists Dave McKenna, Erroll Garner and Marian McPartland; singers Bobby Short, Rosemary Clooney, Sarah Vaughan, Mabel Mercer and Mel Torme.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the set is the opportunity to compare different versions of the same song, such as I’m in Love Again, first in a recording by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra from 1927, then a 1992 performance by pianist and vocalist Daryl Sherman. There are three renditions of What is This Thing Called Love?, including a wonderful instrumental trio led by Nat King Cole on piano.

Kiss Me, Kate, which opened in 1948, was Porter’s biggest hit musical, and there are nine numbers from the show, including the original cast’s leading man, Alfred Drake, in Where Is the Life That Late I Led and Were Thine That Special Face. Other Broadway stars in the collection are Elaine Stritch (Why Don’t We Try Staying Home?), Gordon MacRae (Wunderbar, with Jo Stafford) and Danny Kaye (Let’s Not Talk About Love).

The set includes a 158-page book full of photos, essays and anecdotes by jazz musician and historian Richard Sudhalter

_ J.F.

LOS LOBOS, EL CANCIONERO MAS Y MAS (RHINO) On their major-label debut in 1984, Los Lobos asked, Will the Wolf Survive? The answer turned out to be a resounding yes, and the proof is on this superb four-disc retrospective.

Best known for their chart-topping cover of Richie Valens’ La Bamba for the movie of the same name, the five members of Los Lobos have toured with U2, snagged a couple of Grammy awards and collaborated with everyone from blues legend Willie Dixon to pop hottie Sheryl Crow. While staying true to their east L.A. folk roots, the band often sounds like it has thrashed its way through the Rock ‘n’ Roll Time Tunnel and come out the other side.

This Rhino-produced package culls gems from all 11 of the band’s studio albums as well as offering superb cuts from the members’ side projects, their scene-stealing soundtrack work for Mambo Kings and Desperado and their contributions to various tribute albums, including a haunting version of Richard Thompson’s Down Where the Drunkards Roll. A 76-page booklet offers an insider’s look at the band’s history and an illuminating song-by-song commentary.

Los Lobos’ music conveys an amazing emotional range: the stoptime joy of Anselma, the bouncy blues of The Neighborhood, the surreal delicacy of Kiko and the Lavender Moon, the thumping disillusionment of Revolution. Now the question isn’t will the wolf survive, but how can Los Lobos possibly top itself next time?

_ CRAIG PITTMAN, Times staff writer

THE FUNK BOX (HIP-O RECORDS) _ The Funk Box begins with James Brown and just gets better.

Arranged chronologically, this four-disc box set covers every angle of the heyday of funk _ from 1970 to 1983 _ and everybody’s on it: Aretha, Curtis, Marvin, Barry, the Ohio Players, War and so many others. The Funk Box includes all the artists we know and love (and some we don’t know so well, like the Chakachas, whose only hit was the sexy Jungle Fever).

And they didn’t use all those tired old party anthems (as righteous as they are); funk isn’t just party music, it’s social commentary and emotion. The Box includes all the songs we don’t expect, and they’re as funky, if not funkier, than those that have been overplayed.

But two songs _ overplayed or not _ that virtually define funk are present: The Commodores’ Brick House and Parliament’s Give Up the Funk. No compilation could be complete without them.

Funk is timeless; these songs sound as good today as they did in 1975.

_ SAMANTHA PUCKETT, Times staff writer