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New music from Tony Bennett, Natalia Lafourcade and SK Kakraba




Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap perform
Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap perform "Look For the Silver Lining."
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If you love new music, but you don't have the time to keep up with what's hip and new, we've got the perfect segment for you: Tuesday Reviewsday. Every week our music experts bring in their top picks, which we promise, will keep you and your musical tastes relevant. This week music journalist Steve Hochman joins host A Martinez in the studio to talk about his selections.

Artist: Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap
Album: “The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern
Songs: “I’m Old Fashioned,” “Look For the Silver Lining”

There is only one Tony Bennett. Yet for the last couple of decades, his remarkable resurgence has been mostly noted for its twos — the various duets projects, from the Grammy-winning turn with k.d. lang to last year’s album and this year’s tour teaming him with Lady Gaga. All good, even great, Bennett as still-vital performer and gracious collaborator-mentor.

Through all this, though, it can be easy to overlook, or take for granted, the wonder that is, well, Tony Bennett. So it’s a welcome turn that on his new album, “The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern,” the only voice is that of… Tony Bennett.

And that voice, at 89, still carries the same qualities that have marked his entire, era-spanning career: warmth, a natural and almost conversational ease and, yes, grace. The choice of Kern’s catalog is perfect, allowing Bennett to shape the nuanced contours of the melodies and trickling delights of the words in a way both true to the composer and the singer. “All the Things You Are,” I Won’t Dance” and “The Way You Look Tonight” are enduring classics for good reason. Ditto for Bennett. No matter how many times we’ve heard these songs, no matter how many times we’ve heard his voice, this is a freshly vibrant listen.

But then, it's not really a solo album, as there’s a second name in the billing, Bennett once again sharing the spotlight with a younger artist. That name is Bill Charlap, a veteran jazz pianist who has worked with a number of greats (Bennett included) in addition to leading his own noted trio. His nimble touch, innate musicality and avoidance of overstatement are perfect matches both for the singer and the songs, whether on tracks featuring just the two of them, or with Charlap’s trio partners or on a couple that add a second pianist, Charlap’s accomplished wife, Renee Rosnes.

Throughout there’s a thread of spontaneity and trust that is crucial to any such venture, Bennett and Charlap playing off each other, spurring each other on, clearly taking great joy in the partnership. As easygoing as it all is, there are some daunting things to such a project. For one thing, it comes just months after the death of Ralph Sharon, Bennett’s primary piano partner for more than 50 years until his retirement a decade ago. The Bennett sound was defined nearly as much by Sharon as by the singer. He’s even credited with finding “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which became Bennett’s signature song.

And this album also comes 40 years after Bennett’s collaboration with pianist Bill Evans, a landmark meeting that stands today as an essential in nearly any jazz catalog. That this new album doesn’t suffer by comparison is quite the statement.

It’s a set at some turns fun and frisky, at others somber and pointed. The two clearly are having fun with “I’m Old Fashioned,” a mission statement if there ever was one for the glorification of this music, and of the style Bennett represents. But with the closing “Look For the Silver Lining,” just the two of them performing, the implicit cloud is very present — but the determination to find reasons for optimism is the driving force. And that’s a Bennett mission statement too.

Artist: SK Kakraba
Album: “Paapieye”
Songs: “Darifu,” “Banyere Yo”

Here’s a guess as to your reaction if you’ve never heard this kind of music, or this instrument before: “What the heck is that?” Or something to that effect.

Hopefully that will be a nicely curious inquiry. Though it might not be. The sound of the gyil (pronounced JILL) is certainly unfamiliar to most American ears and may strike some as abrasive. But those with ears open to such things will want to hear more of the gyil, as played by one of its masters, Ghanaian musicians SK Kakraba.

Basically, the gyil it’s a west African marimba, with blocks of wood suspended over hollow gourds, which have dried spider-egg sacs stretched over them to give that buzzing sound to the notes when the wood blocks are struck with mallets. Yes. Spider-egg sacs. To which we’ll just assume your reaction is, “Cool!!”

Those dried sacs, by the way, are called Paapieye (pronounced PAA-pea-yay, like the French papier, from which the word is derived).

The music is of the Lobi people of Ghana, as is the artist, who showed his proficiency on the instrument as a boy of just 10 in the late 1980s, living in the small farming village of Saru in the nation’s northern region. Most of this music is geared to ceremonies and special occasions, not least (but last) of which are funerals. The song “Darifu” traditionally opens funeral ceremonies and was one of the first Kakraba learned and remains core to his repertoire. There’s a video we’ve included here that shows him playing this, and watching it is the best way to appreciate the great skill and artistry involved.

Kakraba recently moved to Los Angeles, of all places. And the album was recorded in San Francisco — all solo performances, no overdubs. It’s being released by Awesome Tapes From Africa, a web site that specializes in just what the name implies: Sharing music from some rather awesome cassette tapes bought by its proprietor (committed fan Brian Shimkowitz) and various friends in trips to, uh, Africa. This is largely rare and pretty much unavailable music, much now lost in the global switch to digital media. It’s a great service to we true fanatics. But using that as a platform, Shimkowitz has also launched a label, with several prior releases of material licensed from the artists or their estates. This, though, is the first ATFA album of newly recorded music, and it’s worthy of that primary status.

Aside from the ceremonial music, there are songs telling tales (perhaps tall, perhaps not) about various characters of Lobi life. Some celebratory, some cautionary. “Banyere Yo” is kind of both, the musical portrayal of blind man who got so drunk on the local spirits, called pito, that he couldn’t find his way home. For all that, it’s usually played at weddings or festivals, where a lot of people might find themselves blind drunk.

Artist: Natalia Lafourcade
Album: “Hasta la Raiz”
Songs: “Mi Lugar Favorito,” “Nunca Es Suficiente”

If you happened to be perusing the Latin Grammy nominations that came out the other day, you might have noticed the name Natalia Lafourcade with an impressive six nods — three for her album “Hasta la Raiz” (including album of the year) and three for its title song (including both record and song of the year). It’s hardly news, as the Veracruz native has been a Latin rock and pop star since her debut album 12 years ago, when she was still in her teens.

Well, hardly news for those familiar with the Latin rock and pop world, of course. For those with less familiarity, including this critic, the nominations and the official U.S. release of the album just now provide good occasion to check out her delightful, engaging yet distinctive music.

The dreamy title track is a terrific introduction, wistful, romantic and lush yet with a lightness. But it’s the next song, “Mi Lugar Favorito,” that might be the more immediate grabber. There’s a spring to the beat, matching her poetic paean to her favorite place, as she wakes up to the morning sun — with the warmth of a companion as well, as choruses of rich strings accent the musical picture.

Of course, it’s not all satisfaction. There’s the opposite in several tracks: the anxiety-ridden “Antes de huir” (“Before Fleeing”), the dismissal “Yo no te puedo quere” (“I Can’t Love You Anymore”). And in “Nunca Es Suficiente” (“It’s Never Enough”) she matches her distress at the lack of returned devotion with a strangely fitting touch of loping oompah in the rhythm track. It’s an odd mix that not anyone could pull off.

But the now-mature Lafourcade has melded the various elements that had been in her music in the past — from straight pop to bossa nova — into an integrated sound all her own. A sound it’s time to get to know.