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Solitary Man, Again
By Carlo Wolff

Neil Diamond

12 Songs (American Recordings/Columbia)

Rick Rubin producing Neil Diamond quickens the pulse of those who value the notion of Americana. God knows Diamond, one of the last exponents of Brill Building craftsmanship, fits into the Americana concept; God only knew how well he would do under Rubin, who gave Johnny Cash his last, and arguably best, lease on musical life in the ’90s.

Rubin and Diamond work well together. 12 Songs sounds great—even the sappy tunes. There are especially creative touches, like the celesta that launches the gorgeous “Save Me A Saturday Night,” the organ that cushions “Man of God” and, in the deluxe version, the Brian Wilson overdubs that make the second take of “Delirious Love” so intoxicating.

Rubin has set Diamond’s reassuring voice in spare settings that showcase his penchant for drama and ascension. Most songs build predictably; from “Kentucky Woman” on, Diamond has deployed a winning formula, captivating the listener with the contrast between his plainsong, plaintive style and lush, driving arrangements. Unlike his earlier work, however, 12 Songs stresses leanness; even “Captain Of A Shipwreck,” the most “Spanish” tune here, is acoustic and easy and minimalist. It’s also well written.

Other tunes don’t fare so well lyrically, like “Hell Yeah,” the terminally vacuous “We” and “I’m On to You,” a song in which Diamond seems unwilling to act his age. Otherwise, 12 Songs wears well, confirming Diamond’s position as one of rock’s most enduring guilty pleasures.

Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini

Bach: Six Brandenburg Concertos (Naïve)

With hundreds of recordings of these works flowing in and out of print, it would seem to be enough. But classical musicians aren’t daunted by such statistics. Rinaldo Alessandrini claims a kinship with Bach because of the composer’s indebtedness to Italian musical forms and stylings, and turns his small ensemble loose on these pieces with an impressive sense of brio, enhancing their lean sound with quick tempos and a relentless sense of pulse.

These pieces are fairly indestructible, and have survived recordings by vast orchestral forces as well as plodding zombie walk-throughs. From the first bars of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, here performed by 13 players including a high-pitched piccolo violin, the mood is merry and infectious—that’s what this should sound like, you’ll say.

Or you should say. Although original-instruments forces have been pushing versions like that of the Berlin Philharmonic out of the catalogue, this one is leaner and grittier still than, for example, the recent set by Philip Pickett and the New London Consort. And while those are not necessarily commendable attributes, the Concerto Italiano recording also makes sure that these pieces sing.

As the accompanying DVD of the recording sessions shows, Alessandrini is a dedicated firebrand of a musician, and brings a wholehearted belief in his mission to these works. Although I’m not fond of some of his choices—his version of the well-known cadenza to the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 gets too self-conscious in its pauses—they still are valid choices to make.

Besides the DVD, the set has a couple of other bonuses: The original, shorter, virtually unknown cadenza to the BC5, along with Bach’s resetting of the first movement of BC3 in his Cantata No. 174, filled out with many more wind instruments. The Brandenburg Concertos should be a fundamental ingredient of any music collection, and this set is an excellent choice to occupy that spot.

—B.A. Nilsson


Simulated Progress (Pi Recordings)

Fieldwork are a collective ensemble of a sort who first came into their own in the ’60s. Scenes coalesced in New York City, Chicago and St. Louis, and with the advent of loft venues in the ’70s, places like New Haven. The trio have been an especially rich format, allowing three voices to remain distinct while sympathetically addressing the sound as a whole. Fieldwork are a worthy successor to the legacy of Air and the brief but bracing tenure of Oliver Lake’s trio with Pheeroan ak Laff and Michael Gregory Jackson. Anchored by pianist Vijay Iyer, now the only original member, this is the trio’s second offering. With a busy schedule of diverse solo and collaborative projects, Iyer has been clear in his commitment to maintaining an equal voice for all three members, in terms of the writing, arrangements and soloing. In addition, each of them write in ways that reflect a desire to bring forth important contributions from the others. On saxophonist Steve Lehman’s “Media Studies,” the piano’s angular chordal patterns define much of the shape of the piece. Drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee’s “Gaudi” charges forward like an engine of majestic and regal bearing, with the full assault of all three members making it ascend daringly, like its namesake’s Barcelonian spires.

—David Greenberger

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