IMPULSIVE! REVOLUTIONARY JAZZ REWORKED
For years, the big jazz labels ignored the musical possibilities of opening their vaults to enterprising producers and DJs eager to put their own spin on the classics. While hip-hop groups such as A Tribe Called Quest, Stetsasonic, and Gang Starr incorporated jazz textures into their music, it wasn't until Us3's groundbreaking 1994 ''Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)," a reworking of Herbie Hancock's ''Cantaloupe Island," that listeners finally got a taste of legendary jazz combined with technological innovation. This latest effort to contemporize jazz works by various luminaries never tries to overwhelm the songs, as much as add modern touches to their already-abundant ambience. That's most apparent with Gerardo Frisina's take on Dizzy Gillespie's whimsical ''Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac." In its original form, the song explored the great trumpeter's Afro-Cuban sound; Frisina, a DJ whose specialty is Latin jazz, makes the song really fly. He slices and dices rhythms, until Gillespie's vocals float above a roiling sea of percussion. Just as good is the RZA's version of Charles Mingus's ''II B.S.", or what the founding Wu-Tang Clan member calls his ''Mingus Bounce Mix." He takes Mingus's original bass line and seasons it with dubby elements, until the song blossoms into a full-on swing. Like Frisina and Gillespie, RZA works with Mingus, and it's a collaboration, not just an opportunity to mess around with an old jazz song. And that approach makes this set a winner.
Sun Kil Moon
Caldo Verde Records
Considering that Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek has previously covered everyone from the Cars and Kiss to John Denver and AC/DC, his decision to record an album of songs by fellow indie-rock mavens Modest Mouse could have come off as a relatively conventional project. But as fans of Kozelek's former band, Red House Painters, can attest, he has a gift for taking even the simplest ideas and arrangements and injecting them with fresh zeal. Kozelek first embarked on this project after seeing Modest Mouse perform two years ago, and it includes only one song from the band's 2004 breakout album, ''Good News for People Who Love Bad News" -- the post-punk strut of ''Ocean Breaths Salty," which he has stripped into a hushed, acoustic guitar-driven rumination. He ranges freely over the band's nearly decade-long career, reworking their eclectic output with lovely economy. The bright, alt-disco bounce of ''Tiny Cities Made of Ashes," becomes a guitar-dappled ballad with a dark heart. Here, the shuffling wildness and careening fiddle of ''Jesus Christ Was an Only Child" is a gentle, string-drenched ballad that evokes Neil Young. A testament to both the power of the songs themselves and Kozelek's supple vision, this album should be a pleasure to fans of both artists. But it also stands alone as a testament to the power of a good song lovingly rendered.
THANKS FOR THE MEMORY: THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK, VOL. IV
Having abandoned entirely all pretense of mod, Rod Stewart has been releasing increasingly tiresome collections of pop standards every October for four years running. The latest installment in the wildly successful series is as innocuous and dull as the album's title. To distract from the abundance of violins and dearth of imagination, Stewart lined up all sorts of boldface vocal duets and classy instrumentalists, among them guitarist George Benson and trumpeter Chris Botti. Elton John is fabulously unrecognizable crooning every other couplet on ''Makin' Whoopee," but Chaka Khan, usually a reliable show-stopper, opted to lower her personal performance bar in order to meet her singing partner on his own pleasantly bland turf for ''You Send Me." Diana Ross does a wonderful job on the opening track, ''I've Got a Crush on You," and yet her warm, Billie Holiday-esque phrasing is a double-edged sword, highlighting the surprisingly soulless rasp of the main act at every handoff. It's especially disheartening to hear Stewart, once upon a time a great rock singer, mangle a moody gem like ''My Funny Valentine" with forced vibrato, a jaunty beat, and elevator strings. This is cocktail music dressed up as something classier and more credible, performed by an artist ill-suited to the material but hellbent on milking a marketplace full of aging rock fans in the mood for something mellow.
HIT THE FLOOR
In most cities or college towns there's a reigning funk band, a knot of groovesters who open for national acts and host their own weeknight party at some hip local club. For all their talent, these bands rarely make it big themselves. Not so the Breakestra, which has spiced up the Los Angeles scene for eight years with its tight funk covers and old-school breakbeat jams. On ''Hit the Floor," the loose-knit collective convened by founder and multi-instrumentalist Miles Tackett steps forward with a set of the members' own compositions, impeccably rendered, that echo pretty much every classic funk band you can think of. The posse of mainly white dudes channels more than a little blue-eyed soul and blues too, from the Steely Dan echoes of the extended jam ''How Do You Really Feel?" to the sometimes Claptonish vibe of tracks like the excellent ''Hiding," where Tackett shows he's no slouch in the writing department. The Breakestra players are at their best, in fact, when they use their own words and lyrical cameos to plant a flag in the music. By contrast, the instrumental tracks run a bit into each other; though the disc brims with energy and fun, they're still best suited for the dance floor.
AT THIS TIME
The world is going to hell in a handbasket, so why not pour a martini and mull it over to the soothing strains of some cutting-edge lounge music? With ''At This Time," 77-year-old pop tunesmith Burt Bacharach may have made the first protest album -- or any sort of album -- featuring the triple-threat combo of flugelhorn, Greek chorus, and Dr. Dre beats. Disillusioned by war and inflamed by the political right, Bacharach was inspired to write lyrics for the first time in his five-decade career, and the artist's outrage fueled a suite of songs that are undeniably heartfelt and an aesthetic crapshoot. Bacharach is a terrifically tasteful arranger, but Hal David he's not. ''Now I have a boy who's twelve/ And a girl who's nine/ And a son in college/ And I worry all the time," Bacharach sort of sings on ''Where Did It Go?" to a crystalline track that is best described as highbrow Quiet Storm. Elsewhere, frequent collaborator Elvis Costello and Rufus Wainwright each take a lead on a pair of lush orchestral-pop pieces: ''Who Are These People?" and ''Go Ask Shakespeare," respectively. Song structures are unconventional -- more than once a trio of voices arrives deep into minute three, just in time to deliver a slogan-strewn coda. Atonal string sections waft in mildly ambitious counterpoint to Bacharach's urbane melodicism, evoking the contemporary theater work of Stephen Sondheim, while Dre's docile drum and bass loops add an element of fashion and Chris Botti plays comfort trumpet. Despite plenty of compelling elements -- or perhaps because of them all -- ''At This Time" winds up in a fuzzy middle ground between smooth jazz, vintage pop, and art song.