Philly Classics: Boasting frothy melody lines and intimate orchestrations, Baroque-era chamber music is the perfect entry drug to the world of classical. And nobody does it finer than the 22-member-strong Tempesta di Mare, the Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra. Just out, their premiere recording of "Orchestral Works, Volume 2" (A) by Johann Friedrich Fasch, an 18th-century Germanic court composer whose work bore such kinship to the better-known Georg Philipp Telemann that Fasch could pass his off as the other's, just for fun. Several local foundations - Pew, William Penn, Beneficial Foundation and the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia - helped in making this sparkling, high-resolution recording, captured at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill.
Countrypolitan Times: We can understand Norah Jones' affinity to country music - she grew up in Texas. But her co-vocalist in the Little Willies? Richard Julian hails from Arden, Del. Nonetheless, they pair perfectly, and on an especially even plane on the latest Little Willies project, "For the Good Times" (Milking Bull, B+). The concept is country classics retooled for urban ears, mildly de-twanging (and de-yodeling) the likes of "Lovesick Blues," "Jolene" and "For the Good Times."
Welcome Returns: On her big-'n'-bold-sounding "Voyageur," (Rounder, B+) Canadian-spawned singer songwriter Kathleen Edwards warns she's "moving to America" (well, we know what she means) even though "it's an empty threat." Edwards still aligns herself with fellow Canadian Neil Young as a rough-hewn folk-rocking seeker-of-truth, sharing dry, sardonic sagas with a voyeur's dispassion and a slow-burning band sound. Edwards reaches a full boil on the likes of "Change the Sheets," the spunky split personality "Chameleon/Comedian" and the big creative statement, "For the Record."
With role model Pete Seeger along for the ride on the updated (now Wall Street-challenging) title track, Ani Di Franco is back on her soap box for the first time in three years asking "Which Side Are You On?" (Righteous Babe, A-).
No mistaking her point of view, from the opening saga ("Lifeboat") of a homeless soul to the priorities-setting "Hearse" and the pro-choice rights-espousing "Amendment." DiFranco dishes agit. pop with courage, discipline and logic, plus lofty, ambitious tunes that veer often (and well) from the breathless "DiFranco sound" of yore.
Giving the World a Whirl: "Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Friends" (Listen 2/Razor & Tie, A-) has to be the South African singing troupe's most diverse and compelling collection ever. It gathers tracks recorded with other artists who clamored to work with LBM after their U.S. breakout on Paul Simon's "Graceland." We're talking everyone from Dolly Parton ("Knocking on Heaven's Door") to Josh Groban ("Weeping") to Lou Rawls (redoing Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang").
On the second disc are Sarah McLachlan ("Homeless"), Taj Mahal ("Mbube" also known as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"), and Phoebe Snow ("People Get Ready"). A couple of hits scored with Simon are present and accounted for, too.
Jazz Notes: Too bad Charlie Haden and Hank Jones' bass and piano collaboration "Come Sunday" (Decca, B) missed the Christmas album rush, with its prominent positioning of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman." But the set is really jazz gospel for all seasons, from "Going Home" to "Give Me That Old Time Religion."
The jazz community recently lost a great one in drummer/composer Paul Motian. But his work lives on, in a double-disc concert set with keyboardist Chick Corea and bassist Eddie Gomez, "Further Explorations" (Concord, B+). First volume is more mainstream, the second more free-spirited/experimental.