Photo by Dorothy Darr


Hyperion With Higgins (ECM)

In the last years of Billy Higgins’ life, saxist Charles Lloyd got together with his old drummer friend as much as he could, and the fruits have been especially sweet: Voice in the Night (1999), The Water Is Wide (2000) and now Hyperion With Higgins (from the same sessions as Water), the first to be released after Master Higgins’ crossover.

Mainstream jazz fans will find Hyperion easy to love. It opens with the samba-inflected lyricism of “Dancing Waters, Big Sur to Bahia.” Then comes “Bharati,” its thumping bass and joyful praise stirring memories of Coltrane. “Secret Life of the Forbidden City” is a spotlight for pianist Brad Mehldau, who begins with one of his classic chordal-overlay introductions and later gets into a hesitating rhythmic chase with Lloyd — the whole thing sounds like a flock of butterflies.

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Hyperion is full of understated surprises. The title cut begins as an improvised duet between Lloyd and Higgins, but one by one everybody joins in for a fully composed finale driven by Larry Grenadier’s bass. “Darkness on the Delta Suite” exudes many moods, including a fast, tight rhythmic/melodic round and an intense, sparse string-bending solo from John Abercrombie.

Higgins – you hardly notice him, because he is the music, inside and around everything. He is its wholeness. Similarly, you could miss Lloyd’s perfect technique, because it’s used exclusively at the service of the deepest, truest feelings. And that, lest we forget, is why people learn to play in the first place.

Toward the end of “The Caravan Moves On,” the wonderful modal blowing piece that concludes the album, everyone drops out except Higgins and Lloyd, who’s getting gorgeous woody tones from a taragato, a soprano-sax-like instrument the Gypsies gave him. Then Higgins ushers himself out. Sounding a little lost, Lloyd walks ahead alone. (Greg Burk)


II: Power of Moonlite (HellCat)

Psychobilly — the mating of ’50s rockabilly with early-’80s hardcore — is generally a tuneless matter. Endless reverb and slap-back delay over hyper-revved-up rhythms with barked vocals atop is the rule of thumb, subject matter optional. Problem is, as in most subgenres, its adepts adhere to the form without writing real songs, save the occasional goofball novelty number (not unlike mother rockabilly itself).

What makes psych outfit Tiger Army different from the others is that they are songsmiths (or, more specifically, singer Nick 13 is). Obsessed with the noir undercurrent that is the meat of all Americana, from the music of the Misfits to the movies of David Lynch or John Ford, N13 and Tiger Army ride those minor chords and bleak themes like a steed into the final battle. From the semi-instrumental that opens this record, through the anthemic “Towards Destiny,” sing-alongs like “Incorporeal,” and the Danzig-meets-the-Clash title track, this disc plays like a soundtrack to a thousand imagined Westerns.

Stripped down and to the point, with shapely songs that don’t turn their themes into mush, Tiger Army are a mishmash of some of the best music of the last 45 years, from Eddie Cochran to the Damned to the Meteors. Fans of the twang will be in ecstasy, the rest of the world pleased onlookers. (Johnny Angel)



Big Drum Small World (Shakti)


Realize (Six Degrees)

Whether it’s ragatronica, dhol-’n’-bass loops or tabla-hop, the audiospheric spiraling of the Asian Underground interconnects several paths to musical enlightenment. These explorers seek the infinite possibilities of silicon-based programming and gizmos, then enrich the digital with the analog megalegacy of Indian-Pakistani trad, punching in other groovalicious globalisms that inspire them. Of course, when it comes to that fusion thing, Ravi Shankar, Shakti and the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have been there, while pop styles like filmi and bhangra have also been blending like nobody’s business. In recent years, innovators like Talvin Singh, Asian Dub Foundation and Bally Sagoo — mostly based in the U.K. — have massively embraced the microchip muse and brought the latest Asian wave crashing down into the dance clubs.

Enter two Underground dwellers sporting their first full releases: Johnny Kalsi and his Dhol Foundation, and NYC-based Karsh Kale. Both are killer players — Kalsi on dhol, a double-headed barrel drum, and Kale on tabla, both acoustic and electronic. Both know their way around a MIDI setup and have lots of talented friends who join them on their recordings. Kalsi’s Big Drum Small World pummels and purrs. The title track and “Drummer’s Reel” summon enough visceral power to make your wattle wiggle, bringing to mind such monster drum corps as the Brazilian samba and Afro-bloco schools. “Tere Bina” couples Natacha Atlas and Shin DCS in a passion ballad, with that goatskin thwack bubbling like a pheromone dispenser. For those slaves to the segue, tracking Kale’s “Distance” after “Tere Bina” will put you in good stead with the chill-out contingent. Falguni Shah’s vocals echo in and out of the void chased by the disembodied poetics of Kale’s tuned drums, Steve Gorn’s and Ajay Prasanna’s lotus-blossom bansuri flutes, and glossalalic technobabble. On Realize, Kale and his pals tend more to a lower-density, etherealized noise than Kalsi’s crew. Elements expand and contract on “Empty Hands” and “Fabric” like the quantum breathing of the multiverse, akin to the works of Kale’s fellow omnivore Talvin Singh. Kale also cruises the urban alleyways and crowded underpasses of the junglist soundscape, as his wind sprints on “Tour Guide” and “One Step Beyond” attest.

Kale has said he no longer thinks of his Eastern and Western musical worlds as separate — they’ve become one to him. Idealistic, yes, but a dance floor throbbing to the likes of Kalsi and Kale might transcend, albeit temporarily, that bit of maya that keeps us apart. (Tom Cheyney)



Underneath the Surface (Giant/Reprise)

Sweden’s Prime sth offer a welcome injection of intelligent adrenaline into an increasingly anemic alternative-rock soundscape. Ever since Matchbox 20 whimpered their way into our consciousness, underwhelming with their oversincerity, we’ve been burdened with a genre that serves up way more cheese than meat. Underneath the Surface, Prime’s major-label debut, is a rare instance when being slightly behind the times is an absolute blessing.

With their magnified dynamics and sudden sonic shifts, Prime sth (sth = Stockholm, if you’re interested) recall the very best of the immediate post-grunge era — back when blustering Bush songs grew on trees and the catherine wheel briefly melded melody and production into something impossibly ear-catching. Like these acts, Prime have an enviable ability to mold material at once melodramatic and melancholy, glum yet glittering. And whenever things are threatening to get generic, they’ll toss a curve-ball harmony or unlikely interval — those little badges of rank that separate the men from the boys, the inspired from the insipid, in rock’s pantheon. Sadly but predictably, though, the album doesn’t fulfill the considerable promise of its first five or six songs, and the flavor fades to a familiar blandness as the disc chews on. However, packing the good stuff into the front of an album has become par for the course, and Prime do serve up more choice cuts than most.

Underneath the Surface isn’t going to change the world, but it’s proof that there’s more to Sweden than ABBA and teen-pop. Prime’s obsession with stateside success is ironic, as it’s their somewhat detached Scandinavian perspective that may well prove their musical trump card. Let’s just hope they can retain their identity now that they’re up to their neck in the major-label machine this side of the pond. (Paul Rogers)


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