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Sax player's quartet is liberated by dropping piano

| Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, 8:56 p.m.


‘Live Work & Play'

Caroline Davis Quartet (Ears & Eyes)

“Live Work & Play' is a clear example of the advantages of not using a piano in jazz. Those words are not offered as an insult. But the recording by the Caroline Davis Quartet show the harmonic structure imposed by a piano can dominate the sound and structure of an ensemble so much it eliminates freedom. This quartet led by alto saxophonist Davis has a lighter feeling because the only chordal instrument is Mike Allemana's guitar. The band offers six originals by Davis, all of which are mainstream but new in their structure; one by Allemana; and two classics by Billy Strayhorn and Charlie Parker. A drum solo by Jeremy Cunningham rounds out the set. Davis's playing is crisp and tends to stay in the upper register, also adding to the bright feeling of the disc. Because of that sound, her look at Strayhorn's “Blood Count” avoids the song's somberness. One of the best songs is “The Academic Freedom Suite, Part 1,” which is full implied tension.

— Bob Karlovits

‘Deep in the Shed: A Blues Suite'

Marcus Roberts Nonet (J-Master)

With a largely different group of musicians, Marcus Roberts revises a 22-year-old composition on “Deep in the Shed: A Blues Suite.” Its worth as a composition stands out immediately: Although it is two decades old, the collection of blues tunes is still fresh and could have been written three weeks ago. On the notes, the pianist writes in serious analytical ways about the structure of the suite and how it isn't unusual for a composer to seriously revise a work. Don't let the talk be scary. While this is an ambitious work and pays attention to structure, it never gets too heavy. It is mostly a good bit of work with such players as trumpeter Marcus Printup, alto saxophonist Wess Anderson, trombonist Ron Westray and the two current members of Roberts' trio, bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis.

— Bob Karlovits

‘Unorthodox Jukebox'

Bruno Mars (Atlantic)

Bruno Mars was no innocent when he dropped his 2010 debut, “Doo-Wops & Hooligans.” As a writer, Mars had cowritten hooks for hits by Flo Rida and such. As a Hooligan, though, he proposed marriage and willingly took grenades for l'amour; he had whiskey oozing from his pores. But on “Unorthodox Jukebox,” when Mars sings “Got a bottle full of liquor with a cocaine kicker / I'm feeling like I'm 30 feet tall” on the sly “Gorilla,” it's apparent he's toughened up.

Good. Mars' newfound grime gives the club-a-dub “Money Make Her Smile” its couch-dancing subtext, while a dark dance-hall vibe clings to “Show Me” like skin on bologna. Beyond Mars' revelation of nastiness — lyrically, sonically — “Unorthodox Jukebox” is, like its predecessor, a slab of pop perfection to be cherished as one would a Bacharach tune. There's a Burt-like cosmopolitan sensibility on the torchy “When I Was Your Man,” the smolderingly soulful “If I Knew,” and the doleful disco-fied “Treasure.” Still, this is slick 21st-century pop. Throughout “Unorthodox's” genre-shifting proceedings, Mars, the singer, finds the sweet spot every time.

— The Philadelphia Inquirer


Green Day (Reprise)

Not everyone believes this year's “¡Uno!,” “¡Dos!” and “¡Tre!” trilogy marks a comeback, but the Green Day now associated with Broadway musicals took a major hit in the pithy-lyric and clever- chord-change departments. The right-wing apocalypse “21st Century Breakdown” was unthinkably banal. Now, they've spent almost three hours just trying to show they can put likable, normal songs together again. But, over three discs, they proved only that they can sound like a convincing imitation of themselves. So it's the surprises on “¡Tre!” where the stale trio tries hardest: the gorgeous canned-soul opener “Brutal Love” and the six-minute Celtic-country pastiche “Dirty Rotten Bastards.” On the more Green Day-esque peaks, “Missing You” and “Kid,” they prove they can still make power pop — if they strain themselves.

— The Philadelphia Inquirer

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