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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Pop interludes

Music | Highbrow musicians do justice to songs that may surprise their fans

Issue: "At the wire," Nov. 6, 2010

From Walter Murphy's "A Fifth of Beethoven" to Sting's recent foray into Tudor-era minstrelsy, pop musicians have striven to increase their cultural clout by shaping "serious" music to their own ends. Seldom, however, do highbrow performers return the favor.

So it is that a trio of just such releases-by the American opera singer Jessye Norman, the German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff, and the Michigan-based Brass Band of Battle Creek-merits a double take. Better yet, they also merit a double, and maybe even a triple or quadruple, listen.

Plural exposures are definitely recommended for Jessye Norman's live Roots: My Life, My Song (Sony Classical). No matter how much fans may have marveled at her triumphs on the concert-hall stage, chances are that no one ever left one of her operas muttering, "Oh, her arias were all right, but I really wish she'd sunk her teeth into 'Mack the Knife' or 'My Baby Just Cares for Me.'"

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Yet "Mack the Knife" and "My Baby Just Cares for Me," along with over a dozen chestnuts from the gospel, jazz, and show-tune repertoires ("His Eye Is on the Sparrow," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," West Side Story's "Somewhere"), are exactly what Roots provides. And despite Norman's insisting in the blurb that the material "comprises [her] personal universe and allows [her] . . . to pay homage to the icons who created the music," hearing her invest her world-class talent in songs not originally tailored for a full-bodied soprano voice is at first a little like watching Mikhail Baryshnikov dance the Charleston.

But the strangeness wears off (well, most of it-it's still unusual to hear a "Somewhere" that can shatter glass), and what emerges is an unusually classy demonstration of both the richness and the commonality of putatively uncommon musical ground.

Thomas Quasthoff has tackled popular song before. But acquitting himself as he did on his 2007 album The Jazz Album: Watch What Happens with material compatible with his classically trained voice like "My Funny Valentine," "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," and Stevie Wonder's "You and I" was no guarantee that he'd know what to do with staples of the American soul soundtrack like "Rainy Night in Georgia," "Ain't No Sunshine," and "I Can't Stand the Rain," which he performs on his latest album, Tell It Like It Is (Deutsche Grammophon).

Perhaps Quasthoff himself had doubts and therefore, as a means of anchoring Tell It Like It Is to The Jazz Album, included a rendition of "The Seventh Son" that's more Mose Allison than Willie Dixon and a second consecutive Stevie Wonder composition ("Have a Talk with God").

He needn't have worried. Despite coming off at times a little too dignified for the Chitlin' Circuit, he sounds on the whole surprisingly at ease amid Deep South grooves, so much so that blindfold-test takers probably wouldn't guess his roots lay in Lower Saxony-or why his performance of Randy Newman's "Short People" qualifies as the musical joke of the year so far: Due to prenatal thalidomide exposure, Quasthoff stands only four feet tall.

The Brass Band of Battle Creek's live Music for Battle Creek (MSR) isn't a complete immersion in the mainstream, not with a Shostakovich composition opening the album, a Wagner composition closing it, and an Offenbach composition midway through. But at least one track will have even non--music majors pushing the "repeat" button: the BBBC's exuberant "Gonna Fly Now" (aka "Theme from Rocky"), which combines elements of the Maynard Ferguson version with the Bill Conti original and that, had it come out 33 years ago, could've easily been a contender.

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