Meredith Monk - Volcano Songs (ECM New Series): Landscape, transformation, and forces of nature are among the themes of this splendid collection, which captures an enormous range of feelings and textures through the simple yet soaring brand of vocalizing that composer-performer Meredith Monk has been refining for years. The title pieces are solos by Monk and duets with Katie Geissinger, with the poignant "New York Requiem" nestled between them. "Three Heavens and Hells" is a vocal quartet set to a whimsical poem by an 11-year-old girl. Other offerings include a piano solo called "St. Petersburg Waltz" and excerpts from "Light Songs," the earliest works on the disc. A treat from a self-defined maverick still making utterly unique contributions to the American music scene.
- David Sterritt
Chick Corea & Friends - Remembering Bud Powell (Stretch): One of our best jazz pianists weighs in with a tribute to a legendary predecessor, certainly the most influential jazz pianist of the be-bop era. Aided by an all-star gallery of supporting players, including Roy Haynes (who played with Powell) on drums, Kenny Garret and Joshua Redman on sax, Christian McBride on bass, and Wallace Roney on trumpet, Corea works his way through such classics of the Powell repertoire as "Bouncing With Bud," "Mediocre," and "Willow Grove." The players here manage to be faithful to the spirit of Powell's highly original and idiosyncratic music without being slavishly imitative.
- Frank Scheck
Ahmad Jamal - Big Byrd (Verve): Each of the six tunes of this release is a highlight and represents what could be pianist Ahmad Jamal's best in recent years. All Jamal's trademark ingredients are here, including the near telepathic communication between the musicians and Jamal's sparkling right hand playing the melody, punctuated by his forceful left. Violinist Joe Kennedy Jr. adds a very special touch with his solo over the rhythmic Latin "Manhattan Reflections." Veteran trumpeter Donald Byrd is featured muted on "Big Byrd," a 15-minute masterpiece of shifting tempo and mood. All the above rely on the distinctive rhythm section of bassists James Cammack and Jamil Nasser, drummer Idris Muhammad, and percussionist Manolo Badrena.
- Dick Bogle
Blur - Blur (Virgin Records): Long the darling of Anglophiles on both sides of the Atlantic, Blur has severed its ties to such quintessentially English acts as The Kinks and The Jam to embrace the ragged brand of pop purveyed by Pavement and other decidedly low-fi, minimalist American bands. Frontman Damon Albarn dabbles in neologism ("Beetlebum") and ambiguity ("Country Sad Ballad Man"), abandoning polished narratives for lyrics that convey mood rather than content. Not everything has changed: Two-part harmonies, a penchant for satire, and the refusal to stray far from a groove continue to characterize Blur's distinct brand of guitar-based pop. Stripped down or adorned, Blur connects.
- Ron Fletcher
Luciano - Messenger (Island Jamaica): This Jamaican singer's debut album, "Where There Is Life," was one of the most acclaimed reggae releases of 1995. His follow-up is equally good, containing 11 original songs that, unlike many other contemporary reggae albums, never sacrifice melody for rhythm's sake. The young performer has a gentle, lilting voice that does full justice to the songs' spiritually uplifting lyrical content. Weaving various musical styles (Latin, R&B) into the mix, "Messenger" also benefits from top-flight production and the presence of such great musicians as Sly Dunbar and Dean Fraser.
- Frank Scheck