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Frank Sinatra - The Very Best of Frank Sinatra (Reprise): On this compilation of 40 of his best-known hits, Frank Sinatra strikes familiar chords of memories stretching back decades. Some will recall where they were when they heard a 1961 version of "Night and Day," or 1966's "Summer Wind." Most of the Sinatra classics, such as "My Kind of Town," "Nancy," and "My Way" are here, and Sinatra is in strong voice, with impeccable phrasing, making even the most subtle nuance catch the ear. Adding to the timeless quality of this two-disc set are the wonderful arrangements of Nelson Riddle, Neal Hefti, Don Costa, and Quincy Jones.
- Dick Bogle
Dinah Washington - What a Difference a Day Made (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab): Sometimes vocalists can be unfairly typecast as singers of only one genre of songs. Such may be the case of the late Dinah Washington, who was unofficially crowned queen of the blues. However, this re-release on an audiophile-quality gold-coated CD highlights another side of Washington. No gritty lyrics here as she uses her unparalleled phrasing to interpret 12 top-notch pop ballads. Backed by a full orchestra conducted by Belford Hendricks, she breathes new life into old standards such as "Time After Time," "I Remember You," and "I Won't Cry Anymore."
- Dick Bogle
Chris Thile - Stealing Second (Sugar Hill): To call Chris Thile a "Mozart of the Mandolin" isn't hyperbole. This is the teenager's second disc, revealing an astonishing technical virtuosity as well as an abundance of original compositions based on youthful themes (baseball, fence hopping, the "Star Wars" films). He shines in the good company of many of the most innovative players of recent times. It is a tribute to the quality of Thile's picking that so distinguished a mandolinist as Sam Bush, long Emmylou Harris's accompanist, is content to back the "new kid on the block" on guitar.
- Norman Weinstein
Archie Shepp - Four for Trane (Impulse!): This turbulent tribute to jazz great John Coltrane by tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp sounds current, though it was recorded 33 years ago. It is fascinating to hear how the gutsy, gruff-toned Shepp maintains probing, improvised dialogues with three hornmen: alto saxophonist John Tchicai, trumpeter Alan Shorter, and most memorably, trombonist Roswell Rudd. They're supported through complex rhythmic variations by bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Charles Moffett. Four of the five tunes covered are lyrical Coltrane compositions, portraits of friends and family. Shepp's saxophone solos make you feel you know them intimately.
- Norman Weinstein
Jelly Roll Morton - The Piano Rolls (Nonesuch): In the mid-1920s, jazz giant Jelly Roll Morton made a number of recordings on the paper rolls used by "pianolas" or player pianos. The great advantage of piano rolls is that they directly record the finger movements of the performer; the great disadvantage is that they only capture the mechanical aspects of the playing, not the poetic and expressive side. In making this excellent CD, producer Artis Wodehouse minimized the limitations of player-piano technology by comparing Morton's rolls with his phonograph recordings and then enhancing the rolls with nuances of tempo, rhythm, and dynamics through computer techniques.
The result, recorded from a nine-foot Disklavier piano, combines the authenticity of pianola rolls with the sensitivity of phonograph records and the clarity of modern audio technology. Listening to these renditions of a dozen impeccably jived-up tunes, from "Midnight Mama" and "Stratford Hunch" to "King Porter Stomp" and "Tom Cat Blues," is surely the next-best thing to hearing the late master in the flesh.
- David Sterritt
Dwight Yoakam - Under the Covers (Reprise): One of country music's most compelling artists gets on the cover bandwagon with this sterling collection of classic songs, many reinvigorated by startling stylistic changes. Thus, the Clash's "Train in Vain" becomes a rollicking bluegrass tune (with a guest turn by banjo legend Ralph Stanley), and the Kinks' "Tired of Waiting for You" is performed in big-band jazz style. Other highlights include Sheryl Crow performing on a winning version of Sonny and Cher's "Baby Don't Go" and a tougher-than-usual take on "Wichita Lineman." Be sure to listen for the hidden bonus track, a stirring rendition of Jimmie Rodgers' 1927 tune, "T for Texas."
- Frank Scheck