Who's There?

Irby plays his horn in a similar way. One of the few young leaders to make that long walk from Smalls to the Vanguard, he remains somewhat shrouded audience-wise. But his singularity is beginning to be noticed. Big Mama's Biscuits (Blue Note) made it to several best-of lists last year, and commentary stressed the cunning simplicity of Irby's lines. Like Arthur Blythe before him, the Tuscaloosa homeboy is tickled by Ali's butterfly/bee dichotomy; with the kind of deliberate grace that's usually part of an older player's lingo, he proves himself different from his peers by often opting for the mariposas. Last week's otherwise urgent "Call To Order" contained a floating passage where his alto lithely drifted in tempo. It was startling, radical, and gorgeous.

The current party line says James Carter's bluster brings avant-garde elements to the mainstream. Trading sensationalism for stealth, Irby does too. Thursday's most tantalizing moments came on a "Take the 'A' Train" duet with bassist Gerald Cannon. Reminiscent of Air's spin on "Buddy Bolden's Blues," it demonstrated that abstract thinking is key to Irby's sound. Insinuation is a powerful tool, and the saxophonist's authority stems from the way he sweetens his drama with a gripping nonchalance. Moving slow might just put him in the fast lane. — Jim Macnie

All Bridge, No Chorus

Crank up John Hudak's Brooklyn Bridge (Shirocoal), and the warbling hiss and buzz you'll hear won't be what your ears pick up as you stand on the bridge, but the vibrations you feel in your bones as you touch it: the wind playing the cables like a colossal lyre, the constant procession of cars and their grinding hum, the hollow resonance of the anchorage, the entire structure pulsating and readjusting itself, a wave that grows more wrinkled the more closely it's observed. The disc's four long pieces are the sound of the bridge itself, processed into blurry, hovering rumbles and overtone-rich whistles. They aren't exactly drones— they have a lot of variation, moment-to-moment— but they're essentially static, like time-lapse photography.

Hudak's been living near the bridge for seven years, and recorded its support wires, piping, and boardwalk with contact microphones last January. "They pick up much more of the vibrational quality," he says. "It gives you more of an intense sound, like using a stethoscope to listen to somebody talking." The pieces that ended up on the disc are constructed from short samples, stretched and magnified to play up the particular timbres and textures he likes. You have to step back from their meditative duration (the shortest is an 11-minute recording of a low, metallic tone, like a dying gong) to notice their patterns: a periodic bass hum from a deep creak in the beams, moments of emphasis that must be from passing cars. Hudak's also released recordings of weather, insects, trees, and a pond, all of which bear his stamp as much as their sources'. Brooklyn Bridge is essentially a nature recording, too— you don't hear the noises of people and their machines directly, but the presence of a permanent and complicated fixture. — Douglas Wolk

The Bold Soprano

From Teresa Stratas to Kiri Te Kanawa to Bryn Terfel, the road to Broadway is littered with classically trained singers who deluded themselves into thinking that if they could do Verdi, they could do Cole Porter as well. If only it were that simple. . . . But Dawn Upshaw is a rare exception, negotiating both classical and American music theater repertoires with consummate grace and empathy.

The ever-enterprising singer (she may have been the first soprano to roll on the floor during her Carnegie Hall recital debut) ventured to Joe's Pub to perform songs from her latest CD, Dawn Upshaw Sings Vernon Duke. Vernon who? Upshaw acknowledged she hadn't even heard of the composer until producer Tommy Krasker brought him up. Duke was closer in sensibility to European art song composers than to his jazz-influenced American contemporaries— not only is tapping your foot to his tunes an exercise in futility, you can't really hum along either. But he wasn't much of a challenge to Upshaw: as celestial in voice as she is earthbound in demeanor (no temper tantrums or marrying Greek tycoons for her), the singer made everything sound utterly easy. Opting for understanding over grandstanding, Upshaw demonstrated a flawless technique that never overpowered delicate songs like "Round About." Her stage presence was economical as well— a cocked eyebrow and a sly sideways glance were enough to act out Ogden Nash's goofy "The Sea-Gull and the Ea-Gull," for instance. Guest pianist Fred Hersch gamely piped up on "I Like the Likes of You." Whether the soprano was smiling at Hersch's fumbling suitor or his fumbling singing wasn't clear; after all she herself looked endearingly nervous at times, as if she'd just realized that performing to a couple of hundred people sprawled out on velvet cushions is as hard as facing anonymous thousands at the Met.

Though Upshaw didn't quite muster enough wistful joy on "Taking a Chance on Love" (from Cabin in the Sky), she concluded her set on a sublime note as she strayed from Duke's arid songbook. For three minutes, Marc Blitzstein's "I Wish It So" was the most poignant song ever written. Time suddenly stood still, and it felt as if even the subway, which until then had been audibly rumbling under Joe's Pub, was holding its breath. — Elisabeth Vincentelli

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