Tony Bennett and k.d. lang: A Wonderful World (Columbia)
Bennett and lang toured successfully together in 2001 and the chemistry between them was palpable, so it makes sense that a CD would eventually come from this union. A Wonderful World is a collection of 12 songs recorded by Louis Armstrong during his storied career, though several are numbers more associated with other singers. Most of what's here is easy-going romantic pop delivered with a jazz intonation; it's hard to think of two people who could do it better. Bennett and lang seem to really communicate on these tracks, whether they're trading lines or entire verses or harmonizing beautifully; they're always in character for each song, and you can hear the affection they have for each other and for the material. The arrangements go from a spare quartet (Bennett's regular touring band) to a lush 50-piece string section, but the voices are always kept out front. The CD's first half is relentlessly sunny, almost to a fault, but a little darkness and doubt creeps into some of the later tracks, significantly adding to the project's overall richness. Among my favorites are “What a Wonderful World,” “You Can Depend on Me,” “You Can't Lose a Broken Heart” and “That Lucky Old Sun” (which is the lone song that is not a duet; it's sung solo by lang). The album was cut live in the (empty) Harms Theater in Englewood, N.J., with Bennett's son Dae engineering from Tony's studio down the street.
Producer: T Bone Burnett. Engineer: Dae Bennett. Studio: Bennett Studios (Englewood, N.J.). Mastering: Greg Calbi (Sterling Sound).
— Blair Jackson
Weather Report: Live and Unreleased (Columbia)
Considering how influential and popular Weather Report were during the group's 15-year history in the '70s and '80s, it's remarkable how little archival material has come out since their demise; indeed, this is billed as the first “new” Weather Report release in nearly 20 years. It's also the first live WR CD to incorporate several of the group's different, but top-notch lineups. Even though the different bassists (Alphonso Johnson, the incomparable Jaco Pastorius and Victor Bailey) and drummers (Chester Thompson, Alex Acuña, Peter Erskine and Omar Hakim) bring distinct personalities to the music, it is keyboardist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter — the founding members and leaders — who drive the music and provide the glue that holds it all together; they are truly among the giants of post-World War II music. Weather Report was world fusion music at its absolute best, and this set shows them at full strength, moving easily between Latin-influenced numbers to more African textures to driving rock-ish jams, post-bop jazz explorations and big band flourishes that really swing. There are beautiful quiet passages (including a surprisingly restrained Jaco solo) and tracks that just build and build until they just explode cathartically. This group was one of a kind, and this set stands as a wonderful celebration of their brilliance.
Original recordings produced by Zawinul and Shorter. Compilation produced by Zawinul, Bob Belden and Ivan Zawinul. Mixers: Zawinul, Jim Anderson. Recorded live on the road; mixed at The Music Room, Sony Studios, Avatar Studios (all in New York City). Mastering: Mark Wilder and Seth Foster/Sony.
— Blair Jackson
Mark O'Connor's Hot Swing Trio: In Full Swing (Odyssey/Sony)
Violinist Mark O'Connor has become Mr. Eclectic the past several years, making albums that fuse classical with Americana and playing with all sorts of interesting people, from Yo-Yo Ma to Wynton Marsalis. Of course, he's also done hundreds of Nashville sessions through the years, too. But deep down, you can tell he really wants to swing like his mentor and hero — the late Stephane Grappelli (with whom he toured nearly 20 years ago). This album gives O'Connor a chance to capture some of the improvisational fire and lyrical grace of the groundbreaking Quintette du Hot Club de Paris of the '30s, with O'Connor in the Grappelli role, guitarist Frank Vignola in the Django Reinhardt part and bassist Jon Burr rounding out the “hot” trio. Check out how they blaze through the title track (written by O'Connor) — these guys have chops to spare! O'Connor's “Stephane and Django” is another fine tribute to the original masters of this idiom, as is Vignola's “One Beautiful Evening,” which opens with a jaw-dropping solo by the virtuoso guitarist. Marsalis helps out on a few tracks — the best is a romp on “Tiger Rag” — and Jane Monheit adds some sultry vocals to four standards, including The Gershwins' “Fascinating Rhythm” and Herman Hupfeld's “As Time Goes By.” However, I would be happy to never hear “Misty” again in any form.
Producers: Steven Epstein, O'Connor. Engineer: Richard King. Studio: Right Track (New York City). No mastering credit.
— Blair Jackson