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Wednesday, Dec 9 1998
Cecil Taylor Quartet
Qu'a: Live at the Iridium Vol. 1
(Cadence Jazz)

Veteran pianist Cecil Taylor has a reputation for playing with the kind of relentless power and energy that can at times be overwhelming. As a result, for more than four decades his pioneering improvisational concepts, which often involve stacking a barrage of tones and rhythms with a towering intensity, have drawn a wide range of reactions from jazz fans of varying temperaments.

Daring concertgoers who've been riveted to each full-fisted crash on the keyboard have been rewarded with transcendent musical experiences rivaling few in contemporary performance. More conventional jazzheads, perhaps impressed by the artist's awesome technique, are often put off by the music's full-on force, instead of being swept away. The most timid listeners have been known to flee the room from sheer emotional drain. And even staunch avant-gardists have criticized recent Taylor shows for their monotonous lack of dynamic variation. It's true that in an effort to reach what the pianist calls "a state of the highest elevation ... a conjugation of spirit," he occasionally neglects the audience's attention span. But that's not always the case.

Recorded this spring at the Iridium nightclub in New York City, Qu'a is the first stateside recording of Taylor's contemporary work in years, and a testament to his enduring distinction as one of jazz's boldest explorers. Accompanied by his regular rhythm section of Dominic Duval (bass) and Jackson Krall (drums), plus soprano saxophonist Harri Sjsstrsm, the pianist proves that he's still in peak form at the age of 69.

The album's hourlong title track is arranged with a remarkable spaciousness that in no way undermines the music's constant forward momentum. Sjsstrsm is silent for nearly half the proceedings, and when he does contribute, it's often as tasteful timbral embellishment to Taylor's elaborate harmonic scaffold. Krall and Duval also take their cues from the pianist: Rather than driving the music from the bottom end, the drummer augments the leader's percussive keyboard movements with a rhythmic splatter of cymbals, while the bassist completes the pianist's melodic fragments with uncanny intuition.

Quite a few breathtaking solo sections underscore Taylor's shamanistic ambitions and his underrecognized, lyrical sixth sense. As if the music were playing him (rather than the other way around), he flows with its strange organic logic, from torrential tonal clusters -- often sounding more like an African percussionist than a jazz pianist -- to quiet, melodic ruminations. Plenty of dynamic ebb and flow maintains listener interest throughout. This is the Cecil Taylor all jazz fans should know.

-- Sam Prestianni

Whitney Houston
My Love Is Your Love

Although she never really disappeared from public view, Whitney Houston's My Love Is Your Love marks a comeback of sorts. For her first non-soundtrack recording in eight years, she consolidates some important changes in her style. Apart from the power ballads that showcased her commanding voice, Houston always owed her reputation to perky pop hits like "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" and "How Will I Know," and often it seemed as though the funk and grit of the R&B and hip hop that followed were a deliberate response to Houston's pristine, almost soulless sound. As a rebuttal, Houston's contributions to 1996's The Preacher's Wife soundtrack found her singing gospel tracks with down-home abandon. Some of her secular tunes hinted at a move toward a hip-hop soul sound.

She continues in this direction on My Love. The album features collaborations with producers and singers like Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, and Rodney Jerkins (producer of the Brandy-Monica duet "The Boy Is Mine"), but the star-studded affair was originally meant to be a greatest-hits package sweetened with "When You Believe," Houston's duet with Mariah Carey for the soundtrack of The Prince of Egypt. The record that did result was done in barely six weeks, and while there are telltale signs of rush (both of Elliott's tracks are uncharacteristically lean), there's a lot of polish for such quick work. On a cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her," Houston reverses the song's gender (lest the rumor mill go crazy, since her marriage to Bobby Brown always raised eyebrows), and sings it with poise and vehemence. She's similarly amped on the Jean-produced title track, but her duet with Carey is, surprisingly, one of the weakest songs. Both women spend most of the song staying out of each other's way, which misses the point, but Houston's other vocal collaboration, "Heartbreak Hotel," which features Kelly Price and Faith Evans, works well.

Her new associates have inspired her: Save for Dianne Warren's "I Learned From the Best," Houston's singing on the mall-fodder pop tracks is less committed than on the songs by her youthful guests. In addition to being Houston's most rhythmically aggressive work, My Love is also her most revealing -- at least by her reclusive standards. In interviews, she's come off as brittle and angry, and songs like "In My Business" and "It's Not Right But It's Okay" reflect these feelings. What she doesn't do -- in contrast to her new associates -- is explain where she's coming from. Whether it's drinking Cristal and driving fancy cars or studying spirituality, most current pop stars are very open about their lives, but Houston is still restrained. It is as if Houston wants to change, yet still preserve the ivory tower privilege accorded by her manufactured stardom in the '80s. She's opened up some, but she's still not open.

--Martin Johnson

Live -- Omaha to Osaka
(Man's Ruin)

Considering L7 outlived grunge and out-grrred riot grrrl, perhaps it's time to consider the band on its own terms, rather than as part of those movements. Mixed up in the early '90s grunge whirlwind, L7's sheer rock monstrosity seemed too heavy, too metal, and too plodding. Sure, the 1992 debut Bricks Are Heavy scored alternative hits with "Pretend We're Dead" and "Shitlist," but unlike some former Sub Pop labelmates, L7 couldn't quite break into the pop mainstream.

Instead, the group was lumped into the then-burgeoning neo-feminist riot grrrl garage-punk movement, and the L.A. foursome was expected to share the artistic minimalism and politically charged gestures of groups like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. But L7 was too polished, too individualistic, and too much fun. The band didn't write manifestoes -- it made shitlists.

L7's focus has always been the riff. Like Motsrhead, AC/DC, and the Runaways, Suzi Gardner's and Donita Sparks' guitars chug, while the behemoth rhythm section of Jennifer Finch and Dee Plakas forms a punk rock juggernaut. With Gail Greenwood replacing Finch in 1996, this live album captures performances from Omaha, Neb., and Osaka, Japan. The disc's 16 tracks rely on the newer -- and heavier -- side of L7's oeuvre, sounding as murky and powerful as Nirvana's ode to the detuned guitar, Bleach.

The John Marshall High School Marching Band opens the Omaha set by blurting out a perky medley of L7 favorites before the ladies storm the stage, growling about their urge for trouble with the driving anthem "Bad Things." "Must Have More" drops the pace to a silken slur with the guitars tuned down to something like L; the verse subsists on Gardner's guitar girth, while vocalist/guitarist Sparks' repetitive, zombie-vocal hook breaks the mudfest. "Drama" continues the slothful ruction, featuring a wildly squealing hair-metal guitar solo played on an electronic toy guitar with button-preset string bends, scale climbs, and arpeggio freakouts.

The five songs from the Osaka show are even wilder, with enthusiastic crowd scream- and sing-alongs. Gardner's and Sparks' guitars are heavier, and Plakas continues to stomp out her mechanical 4/4 beat throughout. The crowd microphones are cranked up to capture the group's pugilistic thud reverberating from the stage, so heavier songs like "Fast and Frightening" sound massive and distant.

"How many of you here in Omaha like to ... 'party'?" mocks Sparks in between guitar lashings. She obliterates the macho rock posturing and seemingly obligatory audience-pandering chatter of most hard rock live albums without a hint of indie rock's sociopolitical diatribe. Tough and revolutionary, sure, but not riot grrrls.

-- Dave Clifford

Bobby Shew
Salsa Caliente

Given the controlled exuberance of the playing on this ravishing disc of Latin jazz, Salsa Caliente could well have been named after its second number, Harold Ousley's "Elation." The ever-enthusiastic trumpeter Bobby Shew sounds similarly elated in the stories in his liner notes to the album, in which he tells of growing up in New Mexico, playing Latin dances in his teens, listening to the Riverside Orchestra of Havana, and later working with the legendary Cuban bassist Cachao. As Shew puts it, "Man, what a buzz!"

Of course, Shew isn't best known for salsa, and he wants us to know he takes the assignment seriously. A veteran trumpeter whose sweet tone and daunting facility have been heard in the Toshiko Akiyoshi Band, with Art Pepper, and on his own bebop records, Shew's a thorough professional who worked for years playing behind singers and stage shows in Los Angeles. Somehow he's maintained his fire, and across Salsa Caliente one can hear the joy -- as well as the professionalism.

With every strand distinct and carefully balanced, the album features the arrangements of pianist Mark Levine as well as one of the best rhythm sections in jazz salsa. They're precise and inventive, shifting their textures with the music seamlessly; as saxophonist Justo Almario solos on the opening "Cubano Chant," we hear the gradual building of intensity, as the cowbells and cymbals come into play, and timbale player Ricardo Pasillas uses his stick on what sounds like the side of his drum. Almost instantly as Levine's piano solo starts, the metal instruments drop out, the heaviest accents melt away, and we are left with the intimate sound of Michito Sanchez's congas and Jose Rodriguez's bongos.

Shew himself plays elegantly and dramatically throughout. His solos have the logic of great jazz and his own special lyricism. His trumpet tone is offset by Arturo Velasco's braying trombone steeped in salsa tradition, and by the hoarse tenor saxophone of Almario. But as with all great salsa sessions, the rhythm players are the heroes on Salsa Caliente. What a buzz.

-- Michael Ullman


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