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Three great artists, three fine albums

(CNN) -- Longevity may be the most elusive goal musicians set. Great songs? Sure. Hit records? OK. But maturing into an artist who has the ability to hit consistent creative plateaus? That might not be in the cards.

But some do. Artists like Mark Knopfler, John Hiatt and Andy Summers prove that there is such a thing as aging gracefully in rock 'n' roll.

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"Sailing to Philadelphia" (with James Taylor)

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"Do America"

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"Tonight At Noon"

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"Goodbye Pork Pie Hat/Where Can A Man Find Peace?"

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"Lincoln Town"

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"Crossing Muddy Waters"

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Knopfler mines familiar sonic ground in his latest offering, while Hiatt and Summers push into new territory. Each artist seems as vital and more comfortable with the art of music than ever before.

  • Mark Knopfler, "Sailing to Philadelphia" (Warner Bros. Records). He got his first taste of real success in his 16 years as frontman for the Dire Straits, creating a unique sound with his haunting vocals and guitar lines. Since the band's last offering in 1993, Knopfler has scored a handful of films, and released his debut solo in 1996.

    His work features a consistent sound that borders on redundancy, so what comes across on "Sailing to Philadelphia" is not much of a surprise. What gives the album a variety of textures are the guest stars, including Van Morrison, James Taylor and Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford.

    Knopfler's strength has been his ability to combine songwriting and story telling. This remains true to form with the songs "Sailing to Philadelphia," "Prairie Wedding" and the poignant, blues-soaked "Junkie Doll." Knopfler also stretches successfully into old-style soul music with "The Last Laugh" and reaches back to a signature Dire Straits feel on "Do America."

    This album will please longtime fans and act as a suitable primer for those wondering what Knopfler did before "I want my MTV" became a buzz phrase.

  • Andy Summers, "Peggy's Blue Skylight" (RCA Records). It's rare for a musician to outgrow the shadow of pop-music success, especially in the case of Summers, who was the soul to Sting's heart in The Police. Along with drummer Stewart Copeland, the trio stood atop the pop music world until the group's demise in 1986.

    Since then Summers has jumped headfirst into the sometime intimidating world of jazz. His most recent 1999 jazz offering, "Green Chimneys - The Music of Thelonious Monk," made fans and critics sit up and take notice. With "Peggy's Blue Skylight" he offers listeners his take on a handful of the works of jazz raconteur Charles Mingus. Fans should clamor for more.

    His guitar playing gently pushes moods and tempos of songs such as "Boogie Stop Shuffle" and "Tonight At Noon" His songs also are augmented with an inspired choice of guest stars.

    Debbie Harry, for all her punk roots, has simply one of the most devastating jazz voices on the planet. And picking hip-hop star Q-Tip to read the Mingus poem "Where Can A Man Find Peace?" while Summers and his band play "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" in the background is stunning.

    Summers seems to thrive in Mingus' aural complexity. It's important to point out, though, that he's part of a great whole here: His regular sidemen, drummer Joel Carpenter and bassist Dave Carpenter, are as noteworthy as he.

  • John Hiatt, "Crossing Muddy Waters" (Vanguard Records). Given Hiatt's iconoclastic, gritty vocal approach, the acoustic folk-blues of "Crossing Muddy Waters" is a natural. Hiatt, who has enjoyed a modicum of success in his career with a signature blend of rock, folk and blues, seems to come to life in this stripped-down, intimate setting. This album, which also features his longtime sidemen, multi-instrumentalist David Immergluck and bassist/producer Davey Faragher, is one of Hiatt's best.

    From the campfire feel of "Lincoln Town" to the mandolin-drenched, blues-laced title track (it's about a relationship's demise), "Crossing Muddy Waters" is an album full of desperation and real-life melancholy.

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    "Lift Up Every Stone" is a gospel-flavored take on a story that sounds vaguely reminiscent of the film"To Kill a Mockingbird." "Take It Down" is another eerie look at a relationship ending. (Contrary to the album's theme, Hiatt has been happily married for over a dozen years.) "Before I Go," the album's closing, uptempo tune, offers some redemption.

    Lyrically, Hiatt is as poetic as ever: "Redtail hawk shooting down the canyon/put me on that wind he rides/I will be your true companion/when we reach the other side."

    Hiatt, it appears, is already there.

    Warner Bros. Records, which produced Mark Knopfler's "Sailing to Philadelphia," is owned by Time Warner, which is the parent company of CNN.



    RELATED SITES:
    Warner Bros. Records: Mark Knopfler
    Andy Summers
    Vanguard Records: John Hiatt

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