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  Listen Up! 7/22/03 Listen Up!

Wednesday, July 22

B. B. King, “Reflections,” MCA Records. On the one hand, it’s legitimate to wonder why B. B. King would be asked to record material outside his 50 years experience of blues. On another hand, however, you can think about the majority of King’s recent releases, in which he has subsumed his persona alongside too many guest stars to count, and say, why not try something different? King has nothing more to prove. He’s still a magnificent live performer, still the most distinctive blues guitar stylist in the world today, still the authoritative and powerful blues singer he’s been for so long. But, he hasn’t been deaf to other genres all these years, and these pop standards, most of which date back to the years of King’s youth, are sung here by a man obviously intimately familiar with them. Most of these songs aren’t overly familiar, either, so this isn’t some simple run-through in the studio of a bunch of obvious choices. King’s blues vocal style is a gruff, powerful, fist-slapping approach. There’s some of that here, but it’s interesting to hear him stretch a bit, allow the melodies to shape his staccato attack, and let the words reveal their truths to him. He’s bringing these songs to new life. Yeah, his range isn’t exactly that of Tony Bennett, to use the only standards singer still alive whose career goes back as far or further than King’s, but he never flinches in the face of notes that might ask him to push that range. (Speaking of Bennett, I just realized a year or two back, he did an album of blues; it does make sense then, that King should tackle Bennett’s forte.) One more point and I’ll stop; the arrangements on this record are pitch perfect. King leads a crack small band – with Joe Sample on keyboards, no less – and his guitar playing is tasty and concise even in this new context. The horns and strings are never obtrusive, but always adding to the music’s power. Alright, I’m done. Go out and listen to this record, why don’t ya? (Wait, I lied. I forgot to mention the cover of “What a Wonderful World,” the world’s most sentimental song. Louis Armstrong made it famous (25 or so years after he recorded it, but that’s the case), and then Joey Ramone made me actually choke up listening to it. King’s version isn’t as sublime as Armstrong’s, nor as desperate as Ramone’s, but it’s a mighty sweet valediction from a man who has spent five decades adding to the beauties of this wonderful world.)

Emmanuel Pahud & Jacky Terrasson, “Into the Blue,” EMI Classics. I should have avoided this record as soon as I saw the instruments were listed in English, German, and French (you know, drums, schlagzeug, batterie). This is a light classical record made ponderous because it’s got jazz musicians who want to borrow some sort of respect that they long ago earned for themselves. Pahud plays flute with no sense of dance, and Terrasson follows along gamely on piano on a set of Saint-Saens, Ravel, Faure, Vivaldi, Debussy, Mozart, Schumann, Paganini, Rimsky-Korakov, and Bolling. If you’re not familiar with any of those names, and this was all you heard, you’d never want to know anything more.

--Steve Pick

For more columns by Steve Pick click here



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