John Pizzarelli (Telarc Jazz)

From the first few bars of its rollicking opener, "From Monday On" (cowritten by Bing Crosby), it's clear that jazzman John Pizzarelli aims here to capture the spontaneity and sophistication of the nightclubs his trio frequently plays. Armed with selections from the Great American Songbook (Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Van Heusen et al) as well as some tasty originals (such as "A Lifetime or Two," cowritten by Pizzarelli and his wife, Jessica Molaskey), this drummerless trio isn't afraid to tinker with the pop standards they hold dear. On "I Got Rhythm," Pizzarelli (backed by his brother Martin on bass and the rocking Ray Kennedy on piano) scat-sings while improvising a lightning-quick guitar solo. And when it's time to mellow out, Pizzarelli's delicate, haunting vocal on "I'm in the Mood for Love" gives that Jimmy McHugh-Dorothy Fields ballad its melancholy due. For pure pop sweetness, Pizzarelli serves up Nat King Cole's delicious '40s hit "When I Take My Sugar to Tea."

Bottom Line: Timeless Kisses

Toni Braxton (LaFace/Arista)

There's both maturity and comfort in Toni Braxton's voice. The 33-year-old Maryland native and multiplatinum R&B superstar has a rich, resonant alto etched with smoky shadings that belie her youthful appeal. That voice (along with some killer songs) helped make Braxton one of the most successful singers of the '90s. Beset with very public financial problems and contractual hassles, though, Braxton has been AWOL for four years. In that time a wave of younger (albeit less substantial) R&B performers has seized the spotlight. So it isn't surprising that Braxton's comeback single, "He Wasn't Man Enough," carries a sassy, hip-hop-flavored sound and a bitchy, biting attitude. As fun as the track is, Braxton's moody voice is better served by lush ballads and more dramatic midtempo songs. Unfortunately much of the material on The Heat never rises to the heights of previous hits like "Breathe Again" and "Love Shoulda Brought You Home." Indeed, the outstanding track here is the spare "The Art of Love." Sinewy and seductive, it is infused with the grown-up elegance and ease of Braxton at her best.

Bottom Line: Tepid Toni

Neil Young (Reprise)

Album of the week

Like your favorite flannel shirt, Neil Young improves with wear and tear. But like that same old shirt, he's a bit threadbare in spots. It's the same with Young's engaging new album Silver & Gold, a low-key, scattershot collection of folk-rock songs written and recorded over three years but mostly reminiscent—for better, and for worse—of his melodic but slightly bland 1972 classic Harvest. Through four decades, Young, 54, has stuck to his guns, delivering his deceptively simple songs in a sweet, wavering high voice, regardless of current fashion. This CD is no exception. Young originally conceived this album as his simplest yet—an unplugged set in which he would play all the instruments. Then he decided to add backing musicians for a few songs. Meanwhile, last year's Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion album, Looking Forward, siphoned off some of the songs from this project. What's left is a grab bag that provides an appealing, if sometimes contradictory, portrait of the artist as an older man. "Red Sun" is a glistening raindrop of a country-rock tune. But others, like "Buffalo Springfield Again," a plodding look at the band that propelled him to stardom in the 1960s, sound downright dopey. Still, anyone who has enjoyed even one of Young's wonderfully careworn songs knows that risk-taking is part of his creative process, even if it sometimes makes him seem a bit foolish.

Bottom Line: Consistent folk rocker in all his ragged glory

BR5-49 (Arista)

Famous for getting their start playing gigs at Robert's Western World, a boot-selling bar, BR5-49 dress like extras on Hee-Haw (BR5-49 is a phone number in a skit from the show). But don't let that bother you. Judging by Coast to Coast, recorded live during last year's concert tour, this hard-driving young honky-tonk band is the real deal. There isn't much on country-music radio these days that matches the greasy, down-home flavor of "Tell Me Mama" (sung with gusto by Chuck Mead) and "Better than This" (spit out with bone-dry wit by Gary Bennett). Even stacked up against tunes by country icons Bob Wills and Charlie Daniels, the music written by this band's members sounds heartfelt and authentic. So put on your Stetson and your string tie and get out those dancin' shoes.

Bottom Line: Old-style country served up nice and fresh

>APPALACHIAN JOURNEY Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Mark O'Connor (Sony Classical) James Taylor and Alison Krauss join these cross-pollinating classical and country performers as they search for the holy, haunted heart of American music.

TIME TO DISCOVER Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise (RCA) And a most pleasant Surprise it is. Growly soul man Bradley gives the blues a fresh and funky urban twist. Detroit smart-mouth rapper Kid Rock guests on two hot tracks.

THE PIZZA TAPES Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Tony Rice (Acoustic Disc) The late Grateful Dead-head picks and sings in his high, lonesome wail as he and pals revisit such folk and country oldies as "Long Black Veil."

  • Contributors:
  • Joseph V. Tirella,
  • Amy Linden,
  • Alec Foege.