CD reviews

By Jon Caramanica and Nate Chinen  /  NY Times News Service

Thu, Sep 05, 2013 - Page 11

HALL OF FAME, Big Sean, G.O.O.D./Def Jam

How hard is Big Sean working? Big Sean is working very hard. You can hear it in the deliberateness of his rhymes, which sound labored and dense, rarely smooth. And you can hear it in the content of the rhymes, too: On Hall of Fame, his second album, he’s constantly reiterating just how much effort a career like his takes: “I’m even working half days on my day off,” “I woke up working like I’m Mexican” (ugh). On First Chain, he raps about achieving his dreams:

I’m on the highway to heaven, look at all the tolls I paid

I done gave my city drive, all the roads I’ve paved

No matter which way I turn, things go my way

I’m rocking chains every day so you know I slave

It’s very much like Big Sean to rap so eagerly about success that he doesn’t stop to think about the potential awkwardness — or, for that matter, the potential richness — of likening that success to slavery. He’s a rapper obsessed with syllables and trickery and structure, but not much more. Hall of Fame is full of rhymes like this — intricate on paper, but grating on the ear. Partly that’s because Big Sean has a bouncy, gum-snapping voice that makes him sound as if he were teasing someone on the schoolyard — he raps like a kid clamoring for attention — and partly it’s because he sounds forever impressed with his own cleverness.

Where Big Sean ends up being right about his wit is when he turns his attention to the opposite sex — there’s an unprintably titled track with Nicki Minaj here, rapped as if to the child of his lover, that’s hilarious and classless. And Ashley addresses the opposite problem, with Big Sean timidly accepting his role in the dissolution of something that had once been beautiful: “Sorry for when you had to cry yourself to sleep/Tried to count on me and I made you count sheep.”

Ashley features bracing guest vocals from the elegant young R&B star Miguel, and it’s one of several lush songs on this album. Apart from Drake, no other modern rapper has as firm a grip on the central role that melody has taken in hip-hop as Big Sean does. Fire recalls early Kanye West productions; 10 2 10 rumbles with menacing thunder; and Toyota Music has an ethereal charm that suggests a cleaned-up Clams Casino beat: all together, that makes Hall of Fame beautiful more often than it’s interesting, because Big Sean’s ear is working smarter than his mouth.

TOOTIE’S TEMPO, Albert Heath, Ethan Iverson, Ben Street, Sunnyside

The drummer Albert Heath — known throughout the jazz world as Tootie Heath — was born in 1935, so bebop was something he could approach as a recent breakthrough, a new language to be mastered. By the time he played on his first recording session in 1957, for the Prestige album Coltrane, bebop had become an orthodoxy, and the challenge wasn’t fluency so much as flexibility within the style.

One tune from that Coltrane album, the songbook ballad Violets for Your Furs, also appears on Heath’s new release, Tootie’s Tempo.But Heath, working with the pianist Ethan Iverson and the bassist Ben Street, who are both in their 40s, disarms any urge to compare the two versions: The trio gives the song’s stately melody an air of slow-drag rapture, evoking not Coltrane so much as Sinatra with the Dorsey band. It’s the product of small but savvy decisions, which could also be said of the album as a whole.

If you know anything about Iverson — who, in addition to his work with the Bad Plus, maintains a high bar for jazz-historical veneration on the bandstand and on the Web — you’ll recognize his fingerprints all over Tootie’s Tempo. He’s the likeliest culprit behind some straight-faced drollery in the repertory: The Charleston, Cute, Stompin’ at the Savoy. He’s the one most inclined toward the stark decorum in this reading of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s How Insensitive. Then there’s the rustling ballad It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago, by Paul Motian, one of Iverson’s saints.

But it would be a mistake to consider this an Ethan Iverson Trio recording by default. (That’s maybe a little truer of this group’s previous album, Live at Smalls, released on the SmallsLIVE label in 2010.) For one thing, Heath conveys an unshakable authority in his beat, notably on a polyrhythmic workout like Mal Waldron’s Fire Waltz.

And his own spirit of play suffuses the session, often in subtle touches: a laconic snare-drum fill, the back-in-the-saddle pull of his ride cymbal pattern. When you hear his easy but serious rapport with the other players, Street in particular makes you want to track the action in real time.

And hearing the album’s title track (not to be confused with the title track of an album from the 1970s by the blind Catalan pianist Tete Montoliu, on which Heath also played) will possibly make you want to revisit his playing on record, going back through the discographies of the Heath Brothers, Yusef Lateef and many others. The track consists of Heath alone, playing the form of Frank Foster’s Shiny Stockings. So it’s nothing more than a swing beat — but also, it’s worth saying, nothing less.