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CD reviews: Stern's latest blends jazz riffs with soul and funk

| Saturday, June 16, 2012, 4:52 p.m.
Sara Gazarek, 'Blossom & Bee'
Mike Stern, ‘All Over the Place’
Usher, “Looking 4 Myself”
Bobby Womack, “The Bravest Man in the Universe”
Chellie Rose, “Ghost of Browder Holler”
Patti Smith, 'Banga'

‘All Over the Place'

Mike Stern (Heads Up)

From his days with Blood Sweat & Tears through a stint with Miles Davis, guitarist Mike Stern has created a sound that is always individual but has worked with any project. In "All Over the Place," he again goes those directions with a strong and shifting backup cast. The material goes from a funky "Blues for Al," which features drummer Al Foster, another Davis alumnus, to a reflective "You Never Told Me." On the latter piece, Stern plays on acoustic guitar with a synthetic string section that is not half-bad. The guitarist's wife, Leni, and trumpeter Randy Brecker join in on an up-tempo "Out of the Blue," which gives Stern space for a solo that is devoid of the funk that is the strongest sound on the release. The album also features work by saxophonists Chris Potter and Kenny Garrett (another Davis vet), drummer Dave Weckl, and a battalion of bassists from Dave Holland to Esperenza Spalding. Once again, Stern is sort of a Pat Metheny with soul. The CD is available Tuesday.

- Bob Karlovits

‘Blossom & Bee'

Sara Gazarek (Palmetto)

Someday, Sara Gazarek is going to be respected as one of the best singers in jazz instead of being a person whose great work sparks a "Who's that?" Her new album "Blossom & Bee" shows why that will be with its mixture of songs from Leonard Bernstein's "Lucky to Be Me" to Ben Folds' "The Luckiest." In between are versions of Richard Rodgers' and Lorenz Hart's "Everything I've Got" and even a version of "Tea for Two" that is worth hearing. All of these songs are products of Gazarek's wonderful voice and her sense of lyric. She does things with songs that never take them in inappropriate directions, but give them new life. She is joined by a group led by the piano work of Josh Nelson, a usual partner, but also features some work by Larry Goldings on organ and two visits by John Pizzarelli on guitar and voice. The CD is available Tuesday.

- Bob Karlovits

‘Banga'

Patti Smith (Columbia)

To properly enjoy this, Patti Smith's first album of new songs in eight years and her best in a good deal longer than that, it's not compulsory to be familiar with the work of the Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky or the late British singer Amy Winehouse. It might help, though. "Banga," named after Pontius Pilate's dog in Mikhail Bulgakov's 1928 novel "The Master and Margarita," is inspired by source material various and sundry, with one song about Amerigo Vespucci and another penned in honor of Johnny Depp. All that might seem like a recipe for hopeless pretension, but the 65-year-old Smith's songs of sorrow for the departed - "This Is the Girl" eulogizes Winehouse and "Maria" is about actress Maria Schneider, who died in 2011 - are sweet and lovely. And the surging rockers that celebrate exploration and artistic daring, such as "Mosaic" and the 10-minute epic "Constantine's Dream," are carried by sturdy melodies, confident, affecting vocals and lots of effective guitar work from longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye. The only misstep is the closing, complete with children's chorus, of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush," which cloys.

- The Philadelphia Inquirer

‘Looking 4 Myself'

Usher (RCA)

Listeners have spent so much time trying to guess who the next Michael Jackson might be (Bieber? Chris Brown?), they've ignored the obvious: Usher Raymond. Making soul-inflected pop since childhood, Usher has matured into a challenging, provocative crooner on "Looking 4 Myself," with a hip-hopping hiccup in his throat, a cool, high vibrato for punctuation and enough nuanced passion to turn robotic Auto-Tuned trickery into something deeply human. He also can do the traditional, finger-snapping R&B thing, albeit with his weird spin on the torrid "Twisted." Usher works with future-forward, dance-centric producers like David Guetta in collaborations that bring out the most adventurous sides of both parties. It's commercial stuff, too: Check out the contagiously searing "Climax" with Philly's Diplo. Plus, Usher shakes a mean tail feather, baby. For all of this album's urgent inventiveness, Usher sounds casual within the maelstrom. "Scream" has a peculiarly poppy feel - a ringing melody; a sprightly, rocking groove - through which Usher just riffs, a scat vibe with a sensual message. Against Rick Ross' rough rap on "Lemme See," Usher's so relaxed it's as if he's on Xanax and Drambuie. Now that's smooth.

- The Philadelphia Inquirer

‘The Bravest Man in the Universe'

Bobby Womack (XL)

As a singer, songwriter and guitar player, Bobby Womack was integral to some of the greatest achievements of Sam Cooke, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Sly Stone and Janis Joplin, and in the '70s and '80s he had R&B hits of his own such as "Across 110th Street" and "I Wish He Didn't Trust Me So Much." Now 68, he's been quiet for most of the last two decades, but Damon Albarn coaxed him back to appear on Gorillaz's 2010 album "Plastic Beach" and for its subsequent tour, and Albarn is partly behind "The Bravest Man in the Universe," Womack's first album of new material since 1994. "Bravest Man" isn't an attempt to recapture glory days; it's a modern re-creation, akin to the recent work that co-producer Richard Russell did with the late Gil Scott-Heron. Womack's peerless, gritty voice mingles with loping Gorillaz-like beats and electronics on coolly soulful ballads ("Dayglo Reflection," a duet with Lana Del Rey) or thumping celebrations ("Jubilee," one of two gospel numbers). Womack may not be the bravest man in the universe, but he's hands-down one of the most soulful.

- The Philadelphia Inquirer

‘Ghost of Browder Holler'

Chelle Rose (Lil' Damsel)

Ray Wylie Hubbard has another great album out right now, "The Grifter's Hymnal." But the long-in-the-tooth Texas tunesmith also produced this equally potent debut by Chelle Rose, a young singer and songwriter out of East Tennessee who's now based in Nashville. It's immediately apparent why Hubbard was attracted to Rose. She calls her music "Appalachian rock 'n' roll," and it's as elemental and evocative as Hubbard's rawboned Americana, with a deep, rural-rooted sense of place, as evidenced by its tales of miners and preacher men. You can hear echoes of forbears such as Bobbie Gentry and Lucinda Williams (especially in her tart drawl), and she delivers a driving, riff-heavy take on Julie Miller's "I Need You." But Rose's own songs - from the opening "Browder Holler Boy," about a first love who died young, to the closing "Wild Violets Pretty" (with Elizabeth Cook), about the death of an unborn child - pack a visceral punch of their own.

- The Philadelphia Inquirer

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