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Now Hear This

Reviews of new releases by Bruce Lash, Johnny Cash, Bar Kokhba Sextet, Masada, Hackensaw Boys and The Dick Cavett Show DVD, plus local musicians Rex Richardson and Debra Wagoner.

Bruce Lash "Prozak for Lovers," Vols. I and II (Artificial Records)

Need a timed-release chill pill? Midwestern musician Bruce Lash takes "songs of alienation and disenfranchisement" and makes them warm and fuzzy by transforming rock classics into soothing bossa nova. Lash's mellow baritone delivery shares vocal duties with the sweet-voiced Maura Corey, while the pair uses a low-budget but effective accompaniment of acoustic guitar, congas, vibes and organ — kinda like Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra if they were a lounge act in a Caribbean casino.

Highlights on Vol. I include a stirring version of Joy Division's desperation classic, "Love Will Tear Us Apart," alongside a sultry "Don't Fear the Reaper," as well as a foreboding take on The Clash's "London Calling." Vol. II features a swanky, electronic rumba version on The Doors' "Alabama Song," a hardly recognizable version of Wall of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio," plus a cheerful, toe-tapping rendition of Nirvana's "Lithium." Some songs fare better than others, but all are interesting because Lash approaches them with sincerity and sturdy musicianship — which keeps the camp factor in check. *** — B.B.

Bar Kokhba Sextet

"John Zorn 50th Birthday Celebration Vol. 11"
(Tzadik) Masada "Sanhedrin" (Tzadik)

John Zorn "Masada" concept has grown from the original brilliant Quartet, with its unlikely and seamless blend of Klezmer and [Ornette] Coleman, to a swarm of varying styles and textures, all drawing on the same core material. The hundreds of compositions entered into his Masada notebooks are both a unique personal vision and a Semitic translation of the Great American Songbook.

After more than a decade of sustained creativity, the alto saxophonist's 50th birthday [in September 2003] provided an ideal opportunity to take stock. At current count there are 11 releases documenting the birthday concert series, including a solo set, some New York loft reunions, and a number focusing on the multiple faces of Masada.

The 11th, a three-CD set of performances by the Bar Kokhba sextet, may be the ideal place to start. The Masada Quartet rhythm section — Richmond native Joey Baron on drums and bassist Greg Cohen, augmented with percussionist Cyro Batista — provides a driving, complex foundation for violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander and guitarist Mark Ribot. (Zorn himself appears, giving an enthusiastic introduction to each set). The music dances between genres, sometimes propulsive, sometimes lush, and always engaging.

A strong selection of unreleased takes from the original Masada Quartet is collected in the beautifully packaged "Sanhedrin." The music, featuring the contrapuntal, twining solos of Zorn and trumpeter Dave Douglas (along with the aforementioned Cohen and Baron), is never less than tartly brilliant. Even the liner notes — a first for this band — are insightful and a bit humorous. Zorn's avant-garde distaste for appealing too easily to an audience is evident. But with music like this, he just couldn't help himself. Bar Kokhba Sextet *****; Masada ****

— Peter McElhinney

"The Dick Cavett Show: Rock Icons" (3-DVD set) Shout! Factory Records

Televised from 1969 to 1975, Dick Cavett was a likeable host who kept discerning TV viewers up late watching his intelligent brand of talk show that didn't shy from controversy. His formula was to allow several celebrity guests from different fields to remain on stage, and this provided interesting (sometimes surreal) conversation moments.

This collection focuses on his excellent musical acts: Janis Joplin and a flu-ridden Sly Stone, David Bowie, George Harrison, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and others, all in their prime. Each episode on the three-DVD set features the entire show with recently filmed intros from Cavett himself, so if you're looking for mostly musical performances, you should know there's a lot of talk too.

Taken as a whole, these segments offer a revealing, time-capsule glimpse of the period. You'll find an unpolished, unpretentious format where the likes of Janis Joplin and movie stars Raquel Welch and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. end up chatting together. While the legendary musical performances are great, the interviews are worthwhile as well, because Cavett asks real questions and the stars aren't primarily shilling product like they do nowadays. *** — B.B.

Local (and Local-ish) Bin

Hackensaw Boys "Love What You Do" (Nettwerk America)

Charlottesville's Young Turks of old mountain music release their fourth album since 1999, an alternating current of jittery string ballads, accordion-driven laments and an occasional high-speed burst of harmonizing with the old devil's banjo. Like former tour-mates Cake (whose musical formula is pleasantly changeless), the Hackensaws aren't pushing into any new territories with this offering: no cross-pollinating of bluegrass and hip-hop, no pop-culture antics. Heck, no drums. Also like Cake, the Boys' fun comes through in their carefree, long-afternoon spirit.

This album was forged out of a relentless touring schedule that spread recording over two years and four studios. Sound quality fluctuates a little, but because this kind of music seems best suited to scratchy, loud recordings, it beefs up the raw, front-porch sound.

The rear of the album is tight but unremarkable, but the front half is packed with surprises, from contemporary lyrical mentions like "the halls of Columbine" to the bluegrass blue material of "Kiss You Down There" (read it twice, kids, and head for them hills). *** — Brandon Reynolds

The Hackensaw Boys play Starr Hill in Charlottesville on Sept. 10.

Rex Richardson "Masks" (Summit)

Virginia Commonwealth University professor Rex Richardson is a phenomenal player, equally at home in modern jazz and classical contexts, with a virtuosic style that alloys emotional clarity with precision. Beautifully recorded and packaged, "Masks" may bring Richardson a wider audience. The CD collects a set of newly composed music that is challenging and engaging, comparable to some of the warmer works by the Kronos Quartet.

Starting with the title composition, which explores the manifold tonal personas of the trumpet, Richardson navigates with assured acrobatic grace through abstraction-tinged melodies. Most of the pieces are miniatures, or collections of short movements. The longer pieces are equally well-sustained. "Shadows of a Former Self" incorporates ghostly textures from computer-generated "virtual instruments;" and "Remembrance" is a lovely, mournful meditation. The closing piece, "I Remember," brings the recording full circle with a tribute to a quartet of great jazz trumpeters; Louis Armstrong, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. It is a shifting collage of affectionate impersonations that works as homage and self-expression, a final series of masks that shape, without obscuring, Richardson's brilliant individuality. **** — Peter McElhinney

Richardson's jazz group, the X-Ray Rextet, appears at Bogart's Back Room on Sept. 10.

Debra Wagoner "The Hopeful Romantic" (self-released)

A stand-out performer in dozens of local musicals, Richmond stage veteran Debra Wagoner knows how to fill every phrase of a song with meaning. Wagoner has a strong, supple voice memorable for its luxurious warmth and clarity. Her talent transfers splendidly from stage to studio on this debut CD, a collection of show tunes and standards with a stripped-down sound and innovative arrangements by pianist Ron Barnett.

Wagoner puts her own definitive stamp on such classics as "My Funny Valentine," but really shines while traversing the emotional roller coasters of lesser-known numbers, like the lullaby for grown-ups, "Lay Down Your Head," and the sultry, slow blues of "Happiness is a Thing Called Joe." There is some filler here — "It Had to Be You" goes nowhere special — but this is more than made up for by the heart-stopping conclusions of songs like "Maybe This Time." An evening with this "Hopeful Romantic" is time well-spent. (Available at **** — David Timberline

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