CD reviews

By Jon Caramanica; Ben Ratliff and Nate Chinen  /  NY Times News Service

Tue, Mar 19, 2013 - Page 12

What about now, Bon Jovi, Island

Bon Jovi is a big band, but which kind? Neutrality has been its bag for most of its mature period, which spans roughly the past decade, and followed its early days of thin-leather arena-rock, notional gestures to hair metal and power ballads.

But aging elegantly is still an option for this group, which has a platform but rarely a firm idea of what to use it for. What About Now suggests a few paths for progress, and an ambivalence about committing to any one of them, all under a haze of undifferentiated, low-ambition, lightly rootsy hard rock.

Take album closer The Fighter, which is a vote for Jon Bon Jovi – frontman, primary songwriter, moral center as introspective troubadour. It’s gentle, but maybe not quite sad enough. Or What About Now, which is a step in the maybe inevitable Springsteen-ization of Bon Jovi. “You want to start a fight, you’ve got to take a swing / You got to get your hands in the dirt to see what the harvest will bring,” Bon Jovi groans, though not altogether convincingly. (Age alone can’t turn Bon Jovi into the Boss.)

Maybe pulpy emotion is the way, as on I’m With You, which has a very blatant nod to the morbid cover of Tears for Fears’ Mad World by Gary Jules that was a hit a few years back following its inclusion in Donnie Darko. Or perhaps motivational-speaker positivity is the path, as on the banal Because We Can.

Bon Jovi is all of these bands, and therefore none of them. Even when it’s pushing itself, it remains extremely legible. Its most natural analogues in contemporary pop lie in country, a connection the group made literal a few years ago with the Sugarland collaboration Who Says You Can’t Go Home.

To that end on this album is What’s Left Of Me, which follows a familiar country-songwriting shtick, with each verse detailing the trials of a different character who all suffer in similar ways. But there are curveballs here — one character is a former newspaper reporter who became a Marine, and then came home to find himself unappreciated. Another is an ex-punk rocker who curses. Is this a protest song? A modern folk ballad? In different musical hands, perhaps, but Bon Jovi is not any of those kinds of bands. Or at least, it will never let itself be.

— JON CARAMANICA, NY Times News Service

Rumba de la isla, Pedrito Martinez, Calle54/Sony Music

There’s rumba in Afro-Cuban music, and there’s rumba in Andalusian flamenco. They’re not the same thing; they don’t denote the same rhythms. But the word indicates a connection between two musical cultures, and that may be enough for Rumba de la Isla, an album of songs associated with the great Spanish cantaor Camaron de la Isla, who died in 1992, and reworked by Pedrito Martinez, a 39-year-old Cuban-born, New York-based percussionist, singer and progressive rumbero.

What’s fine on paper turns out to be profound in the ear. Martinez doesn’t try to incorporate the rough tremors or hard semaphore shouting of the flamenco cante jondo style into his singing; he’s a Cuban rumba singer, floating unbroken, fluid melodic lines over busy polyrhythms underneath. And as these musicians find a consensual rhythmic center, Camaron’s songs become deeply reworked, rhythmically and harmonically, with improvisations trickling out from the tangle.

The band on Rumba de La Isla, recorded in a New York studio a few years ago, weighs more toward new-world than old: besides Martinez it includes the percussionist-singer Roman Diaz and the violinist Alfredo de la Fe, both Cubans, as well as the Puerto Rican electric bassist John Benitez. They’re set up alongside two Spanish virtuosos, the percussionist Pirana (playing the cajon, the box-shaped wooden instrument used in a lot of modern flamenco) and the guitarist Nino Josele, whose sudden alert shifts and filigreed picking sometimes gets eclipsed by the sheer volume of other fascinating things happening at the same time, at different rhythms, coming from different languages and imperatives.

Gitana te Quiero is a good example of the transformation process. Camaron’s original was a 12-beat buleria, sung from the beginning with fractured passion over percussively strummed guitar and hand claps; the band on Rumba de La Isla turns it into a two-beat rumba, woven collectively between tumbadora and bata drums and cajon; as a singer, Martinez changes the mood completely, making it serene and centered until halfway through, when he starts improvising against a vocal chorus.

The album is produced by Fernando Trueba and Nat Chediak, the same team that helped put together Lagrimas Negras, the 2003 collaboration between the Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes and the Gitano singer Diego el Cigala, as well as other albums experimentally connecting the traditions of Cuban music, Spanish music and jazz. But they weren’t the first to impose a transcultural idea on traditional rumba; one of the greatest recording rumberos, Totico, was playing rumba-ized versions of Brazilian pop and doo-wop back in the late 1960s. And for decades, flamenco has been absorbing everything – Cuban music, Middle Eastern music, rock, dance music. This record may have an imposed concept, but it’s far from arbitrary, and the musicians transform the material to their own ends.

— BEN RATLIFF, NY Times News Service

The soundtrack of things to come, Jaleel Shaw, Changu

Jaleel Shaw has a warm, frank tone on alto saxophone, and an attraction to music of earthy enlightenment. He isn’t automatically drawn to lofty concept or structural convolution, which can make him seem old-fashioned relative to his peer group. (He just turned 35.) But the essential trait of Shaw’s music is a sense of balance: between the internal and the external, intellect and emotion, fealty and license. Listen close enough and you realize that he has considered his aesthetic from every angle.

His first two albums — Perspective, from 2004, and Optimism, from 2008 — tracked his shift from a post-bop foundation to a sleeker, more groove-centered style. (The pianist Robert Glasper and the guitarist Lage Lund, featured on both those albums, had a lot to do with this impression.) On his third effort, The Soundtrack of Things to Come, Shaw integrates those prior advances in a way that feels soulful and unlabored.

It registers clearly that he made the album with a working band, breaking in his new music before entering a studio. His quartet features the powerfully expressive drummer Johnathan Blake — another former Philadelphian, and his steadiest musical partner — as well as the bassist Boris Kozlov and the pianist Lawrence Fields. On a track like Leel’s Tune, which rides a shifting and often asymmetrical pulse, the rhythm section’s dynamic exchange is both bracing and matter-of-fact.

Throughout the album Shaw plays with commanding narrative logic and pull. He’s never less than engaging on alto, applying his room-filling sound as much on a mournful ballad like Sister as on a coolly skittering piece like Conclusions or a beseeching exercise like Faith. (He plays soprano on two tracks, sounding lovely but less distinctive on that instrument: His tone betrays a close study of Branford Marsalis, which is mainly a problem if you’re primed to notice it.)

In his liner notes, Shaw observes that he drew inspiration from a range of sources for this album: deaths in the family, a televised ballet performance, works of art from the Brooklyn and Rubin Museums. But the album’s cover is more telling: It features a snapshot of Shaw holding a toy saxophone at age 2, implying that the “things to come” in the title are actually now in the process of becoming.

— NATE CHINEN, NY Times News Service