Shorter's risks are high-reward
‘Without a Net'
Wayne Shorter (Blue Note)
Wayne Shorter still works in the manner indicated by the title of his new album: “Without a Net.” Whether it was with Art Blakey, Weather Report or Miles Davis, Shorter never was willing to hunt for safety in his work. “Without a Net” is full of the same kind of music. His work on tenor and soprano saxes is dramatic and risky, straying to the edge of tonality but pulling back to avoid dissonance. It includes a deconstruction of “Flying Down to Rio” while “Myrrh” sounds like a series of bugle calls for soprano. The album goes from a forceful version of Davis' “Orbits” to “Pegasus,” a 23-minute suite with his quartet and the Imani Winds ensemble. The quartet includes pianist Danilo Perez, drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Patitucci. Except for the woodwind suite, recorded at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2010, the album is made up of recordings from the band's European tour in 2011. Shorter will be 80 later this month, but has more energy than many half his age.
— Bob Karlovits
‘Something to Remember'
Sandy Stewart and Bill Charlap (Razor & Tie)
‘Lock My Heart'
Heather Masse and Dick Hyman (Red House)
When singers and pianists get together, their approach to song can vary greatly, even though they are working in similar duos. Sandy Stewart and her son, pianist Bill Charlap, examine 15 songs on “Something to Remember,” never straying far from the way the songs were written. The result is a beautiful, cabaret-style presentation, with the sophisticated Charlap providing rich and dignified accompaniment. The album includes a great version of the little-known gem, “Stars,” as well as dignified looks at favorites such as “I Thought About You,” “Somebody Loves Me” and “Two for the Road.” In a jazzier manner, pianist Dick Hyman leads Heather Masse through a lively collection of 12 songs ranging from Billy Strayhorn's “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” to a swinging “Lullaby of Birdland.” Masse and Hyman are as jazz-oriented as Stewart and Charlap are structured in their work, but both singers have extraordinary voices and create convincing albums.
— Bob Karlovits
‘Set You Free'
Gary Allan (MCA Nashville)
Gary Allan is one country star who's not afraid to hit his fans with a lot of downbeat material (perhaps not surprising for a singer who lost his wife to suicide). That refusal to sugar-coat life is pretty country, and it has helped make the Southern Californian consistently satisfying, even as he has gradually progressed to a more mainstream, radio-ready sound. On “Set You Free,” Allan shows again that he can hit pretty hard, whether he's delivering a venom-dipped warning in “Bones,” admitting that “It Ain't the Whiskey” (“that's killing me”); or trying to come to grips with “You Without Me” (“Don't think you've ever looked more beautiful/ And you've never been more gone”). Juxtaposed with numbers such as these, the more upbeat offerings take on greater heft. “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain),” “No Worries,” and “Good as New” are not just formulaic banalities. Rather, the optimism and happiness they express come across as hard-earned and genuine.
— The Philadelphia Inquirer
‘Two Lanes of Freedom'
Tim McGraw (Big Machine)
“Two Lanes of Freedom” is Tim McGraw's first album since he announced that he gave up alcohol five years ago. It's also his first record for Big Machine — appropriately, also Taylor Swift's home label, given her single “Tim McGraw” — and he looks hale and hearty in the album's accompanying videos. It all signals a major new start for McGraw, one of pop-country's bestselling but critically assailed figures. If only the songs on “Two Lanes” were as honed and wiry as their singer. The album should keep him atop the country commercial firmament, but doesn't really advance him as an artist. The record is brawnier than most of McGraw's catalog, with lead single “One of Those Nights” built on the rock-guitar riffing that McGraw and Co. showcased on a recent stadium tour with Kenny Chesney. But the writing is as modern-country-boilerplate as it comes — an ode to drinking away a heartbreak in Mexico (“Mexicoma”), a paean to hillbilly life (“Truck Yeah”) that's flagrant in its attempt to coin a party slogan. “Highway Don't Care,” McGraw's collaboration with Swift and Keith Urban, is a blowout of a send-off ballad, and we're glad McGraw beat his demons and is looking great. But it's a shame he didn't take the musical chances that can also mark a new beginning.
— Los Angeles Times
‘All That Echoes'
Josh Groban (Reprise)
It's a strange twist of Josh Groban's artistic fate that he is now seen as far more charming and adventurous in his extracurricular activities — fill-in talk-show host, quirky brother on “The Office,” comedian on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” — than in his music. With “All That Echoes,” he hopes to change that. Groban teamed with Green Day producer Rob Cavallo for the new album, and there certainly are new rock-ish trappings here, starting with the Coldplayesque first single, “Brave.” The move toward pop and rock seems to be a response to the sales slide of Groban's 2010 album, “Illuminations,” his first not to go multiplatinum. It's a good idea on paper, but in practice, Groban doesn't quite fit in with his new surroundings. On “Brave,” his classically trained, powerful vocals compete with the extra drama of the orchestral arrangements. His booming take on Stevie Wonder's “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” feels a little forced, though he fares much better on his version of “Falling Slowly,” the ballad from the movie and Broadway musical “Once,” where his strong voice is the sole focus. “All That Echoes” may not be the major shift that Groban was hoping for, but it is an interesting first step into styles he can try to master as much as the “popera” that launched him.