Ralph Sharon Trio
Portrait of Harold

Even if you've never heard of the Ralph Sharon Trio, chances are good that you've actually heard it. As Tony Bennett's secret weapon for more than 40 years, Sharon's feather-dusted piano style and musical direction was integral to the success of Bennett's 1994 Grammy-garnering, platinum-selling unplugged release. Now Sharon returns with a new, all-instrumental release, Portrait of Harold. Mood music with substance is a rarity, but that's precisely what this threesome conjures up on its second CD, which is a nod to composer Harold Arlen (the first was a tribute to the late Sammy Cahn).

Still, to simply tag this carefree jazz as "mood music" would be doing it a disservice. The trick with Sharon's arrangements is how they hold steadfast to the original work while giving the appearance of whimsical, improvisational jam sessions. Sharon and company achieve this by adhering to the compositions' original melody lines. Where many jazz noodlers go off into nowhere land and come back ten minutes later to remind you that you were, indeed, listening to a song, Sharon selflessly keeps his music restrained and, consequently, instantly memorable. -- Sam Weller

DJ Krush

With a critical dash of overstatement, you might say rappers were in danger of writing themselves out of their own music. Thematic redundancy and a dearth of talent are making lyrics increasingly irrelevant to great hip-hop. Besides, DJs such as Krush don't make it easy for emcees to keep rap music primarily a tapestry for vocalists. Krush doesn't write lyrics, he doesn't rap -- hell, he doesn't even understand English. But this renowned Japanese turntable maestro creates richly detailed and expansive tracks that, vocals or not, ooze hip-hop.

Meiso, DJ Krush's third release, is one of two CDs (along with Beastie Boys sideman Money Mark's solo debut) that introduce the U.S. market to the music of Mo'Wax, a British label that's fast becoming the premier launching pad for a progressive, internationalist beat often (if somewhat reluctantly) called trip-hop. Perhaps to gel with American notions of what constitutes hip-hop, Meiso features guest appearances by well-known rappers C.L. Smooth, Guru and the Roots on four of the CD's 14 otherwise instrumental cuts. Though the emcees perform admirably, and perhaps provide welcome human contact, the raps are mostly an afterthought -- and, at times, even a hindrance to the music's ebb and flow. There's never any doubt that the star of Meiso is Krush, who imbues his electronic collages with a mystical soul. There's no telling where the music will take you, and that keeps Krush's groove exciting where others are often monotonous. That Krush comes totally detached from hip-hop tradition makes the possibilities even more endless.

-- Roni Sarig

Red Prysock
The Best of Red Prysock

Plow this CD with a double shovel, and if you decide you don't dig that crazy boogie-woogie saxophone and piano, you're a cube, daddy-o -- a square from every direction. We're dancing the high edge between roots-rock and anchor-jazz; this is wild, demented small-combo jazz-rock from the late '50s, courtesy of one of the all-time masters of the tenor sax.

-- Jim Sherman

The Cardigans
Minty Fresh

These days, it's getting hard to tell the real pop twerps from the hip parodists -- both of whom have been known to make music sweeter and more dizzying than cherry wine. Take Sweden's newest hit-makers, the Cardigans, for example. On the one hand, they work the same delicious Bacharach lounge jazz and gooey '60s girl swoons as Pizzicato Five, a group whose retro-kitsch and overstated fabulousness is delivered with a big, fake-eyelashed wink. On the other hand, the Cardigans come from the land that gave us Abba and Ace of Base -- two bands as sincere as pop legends get. The Cardigans, it seems, could go either way, and their subtle blend of pop for pop's sake with pop for a laugh's sake makes their first American release, Life, all the more a gem.

There's no use digging below the surface of Life's amazingly catchy opening quartet of tunes; all the joy to be extracted lies right on the surface. The loopy organ and punchy beat of "Carnival" is all cotton candy and merry-go-rounds; "Daddy's Car" is a fun-fun-fun ride to the up-up-and-away; "Fine" soars heavenward; and "Rise & Shine" is mile-a-minute perk-me-up.

From there, though, things venture deeper, occasionally into dark and moody atmospherics. Singer Nina Persson's crystalline lullaby voice keeps it all sounding innocent as hell, but when she sinks her teeth into a Black Sabbath cover ("Sabbath Bloody Sabbath"), she exposes a few sinister cavities. And by the time Persson closes the CD, exulting "No one can be happier than me!" the mood is eerie in David Lynch-ian proportions.

-- Roni Sarig

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