Review: A look at some overlooked albums of 2013

First Published      Last Updated Jan 15 2014 01:01 pm
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Eighty-eight keys are a handful, but when jazz pianist Eldar Djangirov holds down the sustain pedal at the end of his original composition "In Pursuit," every note seems to linger. Like a great home-run hitter, Djangirov touches 'em all, and often.

His spectacular technique has never been displayed more impressively than on "Breakthrough," a trio album that can barely contain the many ideas at Djangirov's fingertips. Notes rise and fall in torrents, but his playing is always headed downhill. There's astounding rhythmic complexity, with bassist Armando Gola and drummer Ludwig Afonso joining their bandleader in more stops and starts than a car chase.

Djangirov's hardly a showboat, however. The 26-year-old Soviet emigrant tackles the Great American Songbook on Gershwin's "Somebody Loves Me" and Berlin's "What'll I Do," never straying far from the melody but squeezing plenty of beauty from both chestnuts.

Elsewhere there are hints of Ravel and Prokofiev, no surprise because Djangirov also released a fine classical solo album in 2013. This is jazz rooted in Europe, rather than the blues, but there's nothing austere or conservative about these performances. Djangirov will pause over a sumptuous chord, then bolt in pursuit of another idea. On "Breakthrough," he swings hard — and connects.

Stryper, "No More Hell to Pay" (Frontiers)

For 30 years now, Stryper has been mixing solos and scripture, volume and veneration, head-banging and hallelujahs, and the Christian rockers are at it again on an album that preserves their classic '80s-metal sound while spreading the word to a new generation. You don't have to be a Christian to love the wall-smashing power chords, rapid-fire guitar solos and ground-pounding drums on "No More Hell to Pay." Nor do you have to be a heavy metal fan to connect with the band's message.

Most of this album is pure, distilled Stryper, circa 1986, as a number of tracks would have been as at home on "To Hell With the Devil" as they are here. That's not to say Stryper's music hasn't evolved; it most certainly has. "Sympathy" is more complex than anything the band has attempted in a while. But Stryper remains true to a sound and substance that made it the darling of MTV during the hair-metal days.

Where other bands would be content to play a power chord, Michael Sweet and lead guitarist Oz Fox play dueling, harmonic riffs to create an instantly recognizable sound that has become their trademark. "Saved by Love" is a full-speed-ahead rocker fueled by tasty solos from Fox, truly one of the most underrated metal guitarists of all time, and the obligatory power ballad "The One" has the same spirit as their '80s hit "Honestly."

Kim Richey, "Thorn in My Heart" (Yep Roc)

Kim Richey's latest album finds beauty in heartbreak. The lovely melodies throb with sadness, and the slight twang in Richey's gentle alto adds to the ache.

While the tempos are mostly slow on "Thorn in My Heart," the music has an appealing variety, thanks to imaginative instrumentation. Trumpet, banjo, keyboards, mandolin, clarinet, fiddle and pedal steel take turns altering the mood.

The blend is so sparse and carefully considered that on "Angels' Share" even the bass drum plays a pivotal role. The vocal arrangements are distinctive, too, with harmonies on most of the 12 songs, ranging from two-part to a gospel chorus on "Take Me to the Other Side."

Richey sings about pledging allegiance, separation, parting and bouncing back. Third-rate romance is the reality on "No Means Yes," while first-rate romance is the elusive goal elsewhere. "Thorn in My Heart" provides a seductive soundtrack for the search.

Craig Taborn Trio, "Chants" (ECM)

A musician's musician, pianist Craig Taborn has appeared on more than 70 albums as a sideman in a 20-plus-year career, working with adventurous jazz musicians from saxophonists Tim Berne, Chris Potter, James Carter and David Binney to bassists Dave Holland and Michael Formanek. He stepped into the spotlight with his stunning 2011 ECM label debut, "Avenging Angel," a risk-taking, spontaneously composed solo piano CD on which he coaxed all kinds of sounds out of his instrument.

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