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Tressler gives small-group jazz a wake-up call

| Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, 6:29 p.m.

‘Center Song'

Steve Tressler Group (CMA)

Saxophonist-clarinetist Steve Tressler takes small-group jazz beyond its usual form on “Center Song.” The sounds of his instruments and those of trumpeter Ingrid Jensen are the dominant ones on this album, but the band also uses a cellist on five of its 13 tracks. The band alternates between acoustic and electric bass, providing varying sounds. But the most striking difference is the music, which ranges from post-modern jazz to the folk-influenced melody of Tressler's “At Home.” One of the best pieces is Jensen's “Center Song,” which, appropriately, is the middle of the selections. Like Tressler's “Painted Trail,” it is forward-looking, improvisation-oriented jazz that never strays from its definition. As a result, it has a form that makes it comfortable for the listener, but has enough creativity to be challenging. Amid this changing range of music are six pieces of about a minute in length with appropriately vague names such as “Interlude” and two parts of “Inner Sounds.” They are instrumental inquiries that are held wisely brief. Taken further, they could have weakened this strong effort.

— Bob Karlovits

‘The Joshua Shneider Love Speaks Orchestra'

The Joshua Shneider Love Speaks Orchestra (bjurecords)

Even when a big band is put together with the usual combination and relationship of instruments, the results can be greatly different. The 18-piece Joshua Shneider Love Speaks Orchestra looks like the average big band — with the exception of its one French horn — but is goes more in the direction of the ensembles of Maria Schneider or John Hollenbeck. The band is not going to thrill devotees of Woody Herman or Stan Kenton, but it has a forward-looking, listenable originality. On the band's self-titled album, numbers such as the mid-tempo “Dark Energy” are centered around the cohesive play of the group. It differs greatly from the 10-minute “Lover's Leap,” which is a little more aggressive — although still centered on unit play. The album consists of 10 Shneider originals and a version of Kurt Weill's “Lost in the Stars” with a vocal by Lucy Woodward. The album features a guest visit from guitarist Dave Stryker on “Function,” a piece that is a combination of funk and modern wind-ensemble work.

— Bob Karlovits

‘Dizzy Heights'

Neil Finn (Lester)

Neil Finn has written effortless pop songs since the 1970s, both in Split Enz and, especially, in Crowded House. He also has a penchant for working with family: with brother Tim in Split Enz and the Finn Brothers; with wife Sharon in the Pajama Club; and, on “Dizzy Heights,” his third solo album, with sons Liam (a successful singer-songwriter in his own right) and Elroy as well as his wife. “Dizzy Heights” steps away from the perfectly crafted guitar pop that has usually been Finn's specialty. At times, it's more abstract and experimental (the grandiose, falsetto “Divebomber” and the ominous “White Lies and Alibis,” with its disruptive electronics), and these tracks display the fingerprints of producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev). Elsewhere, Finn tries his hand at blue-eyed soul (the slinky, string-kissed title track and the Hall & Oates-like “Flying in the Face of Love”). The latter style works better than the former, but Finn too often sounds like he's working hard to stretch outside of what he does best.

— The Philadelphia Inquirer

‘Love, Marriage & Divorce'

Toni Braxton and Babyface (Motown)

Toni Braxton and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds have had more hits between them than the testimony in a Philly mob trial. Teary, weary and smooth, Edmonds pretty much invented the new-school/old-school sleek (but not slick) romantic adult R&B genre when he penned “Grown & Sexy.” Braxton's powerfully tender, pleading voice could summon rain on the sunshiniest day. One thing that unites the pair is that each has gone through the pain of public divorce. That's why, 22 years after their “Give U My Heart” duet, Braxton and Babyface return with a bold, soul-soaked take on the state of separation. Hark back to Motown's Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell glory days, the duo simmer through love's troubles (“Where Did We Go Wrong”) and steam up the guilt-ridden “Hurt You” as if having a conversation over snifters of Drambuie. The wrung-out emotionalism of “Roller Coaster” is matched by the seductive swerve of “Sweat.” These two are masters at such romantic rope-a-dope. Each singer goes it alone (BabyFace's “I Hope That You're Okay” and Braxton's “I'd Rather Be Broke” are best), but dramatic duets such as the pleading “Take It Back” cut deepest.

— The Philadelphia Inquirer

‘The Outsiders'

Eric Church (EMI Nashville)

When Eric Church became the king of “bro country,” coined for his party-ready mix of country, rock and hip-hop's appeal to young dudes, with his album “Chief,” it was pretty clear that wouldn't last. Church's rep is built on being a rebel, and you can't really rage against the machine when you are the machine. So, on his new album, “The Outsiders,” Church consciously tries to move outside the mainstream again, looking to be more artistic. And, for the most part, he succeeds. His eight-minute epic “Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness)” combines a spoken-word allusion to Charlie Daniels with a catchy bit of gospel-tinged rock. On “That's Damn Rock 'n' Roll,” he raps, kind of, over an AC/DC guitar riff mixed with some Rolling Stones grooves. “The Joint” is a must-hear if only for the low, rumbling grumble he uses to tell the story of his mama's arsonist streak. Church may want to be an “Outsider,” but he's destined for a mainstream embrace, whether he likes it or not.

— Newsday

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