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Great Guitars and More

*** 1/2 JIM HALL AND PAT METHENY, "Jim Hall & Pat Metheny", Telarc

** 1/2 CHUCK MANGIONE, "The Feeling Is Back", Chesky

*** GATO BARBIERI, "Che Corazon", Columbia

April 25, 1999|DON HECKMAN

Hall, Mangione and Barbieri would have to place high on any list of artists capable of producing jazz that is both improvisationally fascinating and emotionally touching. Those qualities are amply present in these three new releases, two of which--Barbieri's and Mangione's--are part of recent comeback efforts by each player after a decade of relative inactivity. Hall, on the other hand, has been as busy as ever, especially since signing with Telarc in the early '90s and releasing five highly acclaimed collections ranging from solo guitar work to orchestral compositions.

Hall's work with Paul Desmond and Sonny Rollins, among many others, was a classic example of the capacity of a jazz artist to simultaneously swing with great subtlety while maintaining a warm, communicative quality--which is exactly what he does in this lovely set of duos with Metheny, the versatile favorite of young guitarists everywhere.

Despite the imposing individual abilities and that the duo plays together with consummate skill,there are too few moments in which a flash point seems to take place between the two. When it does, the results are fascinating. The ruminative passages, for example, especially in the five individual "Improvisations," have a marvelously serene quality. One, the brief but compelling "Improvisation No. 2," builds a roiling passage of "noise"--tinged elements that deserved further development--and "Into the Dream" makes effective use of the plangent sounds of Metheny's unusual 42-string guitar.

More often, the album appeals for the personal artistry of each player. Metheny's vision encompasses a wide range of guitars, both acoustic and electric. When he settles into a single perspective, he is a compelling improviser, his fundamental jazz approach clearly influenced by Hall. Bouncing around on more contemporary-sounding instruments, he reveals more of the electric style that has made him one of the world's most successful jazz players.

But it is fascinating to hear how Hall, playing only his longtime electric guitar, generates every bit as much musical interest (if not as many different aural timbres) as Metheny does. And if Metheny sometimes sounds a bit more reserved than usual, it's not hard to understand why. He's in the presence of a master.

Mangione's album is aptly titled. Always one of the most melodic of jazz artists, he concentrates on that aspect of his skills in this romantic, kick-back-by-the-fire collection of tunes, his first in more than a decade. Playing the mellow-sounding fluegelhorn exclusively, he moves with consummate lyricism through a selection of lovely melodies, among them his own "Consuelo's Love Theme," Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Fotografia," Luis Bonfa's "Manha~ de Carnaval" and the classic "La Vie en Rose."

Mangione wisely offsets the potential for sameness by underscoring everything with simmering Latin percussion from drummer Paulo Braga and percussionist Cafe. In some of the numbers--the Bonfa, for example--he stirs things up by adding sensual and climactic rhythmic vamps. Other tunes--Dorival Caymmi's "Maracangalha" is one--swing with the foot-tapping energies of Brazil.

*

In a decade in which so much jazz has a cookie-cutter quality, Barbieri has that most valuable of qualities--an immediately identifiable sound and style, particularly memorable in his music for "Last Tango in Paris." But Barbieri was silent for a decade in the '80s and '90s, undergoing triple-bypass surgery and enduring the death of his wife Michelle (he has since remarried). In 1997, he reemerged with the highly successful "Que Pasa," his first new album since 1982.

Obviously no one wanted to mess with a formula that had kept the earlier album on the Billboard contemporary jazz chart for more than 50 weeks. And what emerges here is similar: a carpet of warm textured sound, an undercurrent of rhythm and Barbieri's throaty tenor saxophone dramatically stating the melody.

The problem is that Barbieri's skills as a composer are not nearly as unique as his identity as a player. And his originals tend to blur into one another, with the primary jazz interest coming from brief passages from producer Chuck Loeb's guitar and--on the one hard-swinging track, "Sweet Glenda"--pianist Bill O'Connell. In his earlier years, Barbieri, 64, created some of the most passionate sax playing in jazz. This time out, he serves primarily as a kind of instrumental vocalist, laying down the melodies with characteristic elan, but without the fiery passion of his early work.

It's a safe bet, however, that his hot rendering of "Auld Lang Syne"--a smart marketing decision--will keep at least one track on this album alive until the dawning day of the next millennium.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four (excellent).

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