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'Habitat' lives up to the nature of a jazz orchestra

| Saturday, May 3, 2014, 8:21 p.m.


Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra (Justin Time)

Christine Jensen leads her jazz orchestra on “Habitat” through six beautiful numbers that speak highly of her composing and arranging skills. But like the work of Maria Schneider or John Hollenbeck, Jensen's charts are more form-oriented than those from bands such as the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. But they all are lovely explorations of what a band can do. The length of the six pieces alone speaks to their nature. The shortest is just under eight minutes; four of them are in the 10- or 11-minute range; and one is 14 minutes long. All of them, naturally have plenty of solo space, but generally the solos are accompanied by orchestral background and not simply rhythm-section backup. Christine's sister, Ingrid, offers four wonderful trumpet solos, standing out on “Treeline” and “Intersection.” But the most remarkable solo effort is on “Nishiyuu,” where Chet Doxas dominates the 14-minute track with his tenor saxophone. There is a sense of the academic in Jensen's work, but that does not make it unpleasant.

— Bob Karlovits

‘Emancipation: Postmodern Spirituals'

Tyrone Birkett (Araminta)

‘Quiet Time'

John Brown (Brown Boulevard)

These two albums come close to creating a big “buyer's beware.” On these two albums, Tyrone Birkett and John Brown create vastly different sounds from groups that are similar-looking. They both are playing generally in traditionally shaped quintets, with Birkett being frequently joined by a singer on “Emancipation.” But his album is, as the subtitle says, a collection of “postmodern spirituals” that gives its listeners hints on ways to go through life. Titles such as “The Departure”, “The Struggle,” “Freedom Dreaming” tell that story; “The Postmodern Spiritual” has a spoken lyric about the need for a “21st Century Freedom Song.” Birkett's tenor saxophone wails with heart that always expresses fervor. Meanwhile, on “Quiet Time,” bassist Brown leads a group featuring saxophonist Brian Miller for a calm and relaxed look at songs from Barry Manilow's “When October Goes” to his own peaceful title track. This album is as pretty and relaxing as “Emancipation” is passionate and deeply felt. From the title to the selections, Brown's intent is obvious, and he has put together an album that is appropriate for some quiet time somewhere.

— Bob Karlovits

‘Most Messed Up'

Old 97's (Ato)

The new album from the Old 97's shows you don't have to be young and stupid to make great rock 'n' roll. Being middle-aged can work, too. “Most Messed Up” is a concept album, that rarity in these days of downloads, and frontman Rhett Miller's exuberant embrace of excess and escapism makes for 12 terrific tunes. Guitarist Ken Bethea's cheerfully frantic fret work helps establish the mood, and with ex-Replacements Tommy Stinson sitting in, several songs sound like 'Mats outtakes. This is ramshackle rock, but not carefree. Miller, 43, sings about oceans of alcohol, mountains of weed, the ups and downs of pill-popping and the charms of the road, such as motels with free ice. But he has one eye on the clock, noting that life's so short, there's barely time to cry. Make room for at least a few of these three-minute gems. The Old 97's will perform June 4 at Mr. Small's Theatre in Millvale.

— Associated Press

‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Soundtrack'

Various artists (Columbia Records/Madison Gate Records)

Even Oscar-winning composers can use a little help once in a while. So it makes sense that Hans Zimmer created his own band of superhero hitmakers, including white-hot Pharrell, to work on “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” soundtrack. The so-called Magnificent Six — which also includes Johnny Marr, Michael Einziger, Junkie XL, Andrew Kawczynski and Steve Mazzaro — works magic with Zimmer and helps him weave a strong musical accompaniment to the plot. The score matches the hero's character and journey — from the playful-yet-ominous “The Electro Suite” to the sinister orchestral-electro hybrid “My Enemy” to “We're Best Friends,” which is highlighted by its unusual tempo. The 20-track album's crowning glory is the Pharrell co-penned “It's on Again,” where Alicia Keys' warm vocals provide a stark contrast to Kendrick Lamar's growly tones. Phosphorescent's ballad “Song for Zula” is aided by cascades of violins, while Liz's impish funk “That's My Man” claps itself into a loop of joy. Pharrell's earnest vocals on the slow groove “Here” lull you into a sense of emotional security. Zimmer and the Magnificent Six's collaboration elevates the comic-book hero to heights he wouldn't get to by relying on his superpowers alone.

— Associated Press

‘Tarpaper Sky'

Rodney Crowell (New West)

In a 2005 interview, Rodney Crowell talked about how he had become interested in pursuing a “singular sensibility” rather than hit records. That may sound pretentious, but, at his best, Crowell has always melded artistry and accessibility. Now, coming off his Grammy-winning collaboration with Emmylou Harris on “Old Yellow Moon,” he has done it again. With “Tarpaper Sky,” Crowell wields his considerable skills to play everything from the voice of hard-won experience (the bookends “The Long Journey Home” and “Oh What a Beautiful World”) to a wounded lover (“God I'm Missing You”), to a wayward son (“Jesus Talk to Mama”) or a loving portraitist (“Grandma Loved That Old Man”). If the 63-year-old Crowell sounds like the sage elder amid all the tasteful Americana, well, he can still get pretty frisky: “Frankie Please” is pure adrenaline rush, a breakneck rocker with a Chuck Berryish tumble of words to match, and “Somebody's Shadow” is a blast of sax-fueled R&B that would be right at home in a rough-and-tumble roadhouse.

— Philadelphia Inquirer

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