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Rainer Maria, Countdown Quartet Return With Solid Releases

Passages -- Europe 2000


Jazz, for many of us, is mysterious and somewhat daunting musical territory. It falls into a darkly romantic category of the collective American consciousness -- a category everyone is curious about but simultaneously a little intimidated by.

Do you like jazz? The correct answer is to mumble apologetically "Uhh, umm, 'Kind of Blue,' yeah, that's pretty good, uh, but I don't know all that, uh, much about it ..."

Okay, Hep Cats. Lay your inhibitions aside, because it's time to jump on the blue train. Whether it's the current PBS series "Jazz" by Ken Burns or the thriving community of musicians here on the UNC campus, jazz is in.

In fact, UNC's jazz studies program has just released a new compact disc recording, Passages -- Europe 2000. Even if you haven't yet taken advantage of UNC's jazz bands and combos or the annual Carolina Jazz Festival, here's a chance to acquaint yourself with the local stuff.

UNC jazz musicians performed the music on Passages at three of Europe's most prestigious jazz festivals, Jazz A Vienne (Vienne, France), The Montreux Jazz Festival (Montreux, Switzerland) and The North Sea Jazz Festival (The Hague, Netherlands.)

As soon as you listen to this CD, you realize why these musicians were selected to attend these European festivals. The recordings of the UNC Jazz Band, directed by Professor James Ketch and three of the UNC Jazz Combos, directed by Professor Scott Warner are polished and spirited. These are clearly top-notch musicians.

But even better, it's a very accessible selection of music. Mostly upbeat, with easily to follow melodic structure, you don't have to be a jazz aficionado to appreciate this music.

UNC jazz takes some of the masters like John Coltrane and the Gershwins, and then works in several compositions and arrangements by students. Overall, it's a nice mix, both of styles and of familiar with new works.

Some of the best tracks include original compositions like "Granada" by David Cosper and "Keeping it Real" by Kent Brooks. Another treat is vocalist Rebecca Garner, who contributes some incredible jazz vocals to old favorites "Love Is Here to Stay" and "Teach Me Tonight."

After listening to Passages, you get the feeling these UNC musicians love playing jazz, and their enthusiasm is contagious rather than intimidating.

Put away your "Jazz for Dummies" book and enjoy it.

By Joanna Pearson

Rainer Maria

A Better Version of Me

HHH 1/2

The indie-pop trio Rainer Maria's third full-length release, A Better Version of Me, is an album of hits and misses. Some songs I found myself humming on the walk to class. Others left me scrambling for the remote on my stereo, or better yet, a delete button.

Make no mistake about it -- I have a weak spot for bands with female vocals. That's why I was so stoked to hear this album. But while we're on confessions, I have another: Sometimes Caithlin De Marrais' vocals just don't cut it. Often she sings low notes out of her range.

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It's sort of like when you're searching through the registration book and see classes like Anthropology 133, "Peoples of the Caribbean." On paper it looks promising, but in real life you hunted down the nearest computer and dropped it.

Take the first track, "Artificial Light," for example. Marrais bursts in singing "No one defies artificial light" in a grossly repetitious drone that eventually starts sounding like a sample. Then, in a pleasantly surprising shift, she finally hits the sweet spot as she breaks into the verse of the song and one of the most beautiful melodies on the album.

Speaking of beautiful melodies, "Ceremony" is such a brilliant mix of mellow and rocking guitar, bass and background vocals that it alone makes this CD worth buying. Maybe that's why it was put right next to the album's weakest track, "The Seven Sisters," a noisy song which appears to be little more than filler. And the pattern continues: track five -- rockin', track six --weak, seven -- solid, mellow jam.

The quality of the lyrics is subject to the same variations. The last two tracks are the most lyrically and musically sound: "Hell and High Water" tells of a girl who's "a better version of me," and "Spit and Fire" describes a person's insides as "smooth as porcelain, and it flakes away like red dust." Since the band is named after 20th century poet Rainer Maria Wilke, the album's odd but creative poeticism come as no surprise.

Although Kyle Fischer's voice doesn't do much for me (he puts more emphasis on hitting the right notes than sounding good), his guitar riffs and sound are very smooth and often catchy. A full sound like Fischer's is only achieved after spending hours experimenting with pedals, effects and old guitars.

Fischer's songwriting blends well with drummer William Kuehn's creative drumming (the two played in a band together before adding Marrais to the roster).

Given the title of this album, the bottom line here is ironic: there are bands that are a better version of Rainer Maria that have bragging rights in areas like songwriting, dynamics and vocal harmonies (Ida and Jejune come to mind). But the band's potential is forcefully exhibited here and I look forward to what they will offer in the future.

By Jason Arthurs

Countdown Quartet

Party With!

HHH 1/2

The Triangle's own Countdown Quartet follows up its 1999 debut with a tasty party tray of Southern-fried, horn-steeped hot jazz.

But with any assortment of hors d'ouevres there are yummy ones and not-so-yummy ones, and Party With! is no exception.

The band, conceived in Raleigh in 1998, calls its sound "super horn rock." Party With! kicks off the f

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