RSS Feed

December 2019


PICK OF THE MONTH


Steve Reich
Drumming
Kuniko
Linn (dist. Naxos)
CKD 582

Drumming is one of the undisputed masterworks of Steve Reich’s oeuvre, a long and complex percussion composition that thoroughly explores his early ideas of rhythmic phasing in the context of simple harmony and highly complex multilayered polyrhythms. The piece is written in four movements, which are played in continuous sequence: the first for tuned bongos, the second for marimbas and voice, the third for glockenspiels, voices, and piccolo; and the fourth for all of the instruments and voices together. Since there is some flexibility to the score (players get to decide how many repeats to follow), a performance can last anywhere from 55 to 75 minutes. Traditionally, of course, Drumming has been played by an ensemble of musicians. But for this recording percussionist Kuniko elected to perform the entire thing herself, using overdubbing techniques in the studio to create all of the necessary parts. As always–and she has already demonstrated an impressive affinity for Reich’s music–she plays with both an intensity of focus and a virtuosic precision that are unmatched in her field; under her mallets, sticks, and fingers, this music shimmers with brilliant clarity and the dense beauty of Reich’s patterns is revealed as never before. An essential purchase for all library collections.


CLASSICAL


Various Composers
A Spanish Nativity
Stile Antico
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 902312
Rick’s Pick

Because holiday music is politically complicated, I generally avoid covering it in CD HotList. But when the album in question is the latest release from the magnificent Stile Antico choir, I have to make an exception to that general rule. With A Spanish Nativity, the group has put together a thoroughly winning program of Christmas compositions both familiar (Victoria’s deathless O Magnum mysterium, the charming carol “Riu, riu, chiu”) and less so (Alonso Lobo’s wonderful Missa Beata Dei genitrix Maria) to create a listening experience that simultaneously celebrates both the birth of the Christ child and the remarkable musical efflorescence that occurred during Spain’s “Golden Age” of the 16th century. Motets by Francisco Guerrero, Cristóbal de Morales, and Pedro Rimonte are here as well, and the singing is as sweet, powerful, and luminous as always. Every new release from Stile Antico has been a must-have for libraries, and this one is no different.


Various Composers
The Enlightened Trumpet
Paul Merkelo; Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Marios Papadopoulos
Sony Classical (dist. Naxos)

Trumpeter Paul Merkelo offers a thoroughly delightful program of trumpet concertos spanning the late baroque, classical, and early Romantic eras (hence the title). The album features concertos by Haydn, Telemann, Mozart, and Hummel–the latter a particularly interesting choice as he is known mainly as a piano composer, though the trumpet concerto featured here is a showcase of bravura technique. Merkelo’s tone is sweet and golden, and the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra (playing on modern instruments) provides rich and nuanced accompaniment. Apart from what sounds like a small intonation problem in the final movement of the Telemann concerto, the album is flawless and richly enjoyable from start to finish.


Jan Garbarek; The Hilliard Ensemble
Remember Me, My Dear
ECM
2625

Soprano saxophone and all-male vocal quartet is not an obvious combination, but in 1993 jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble were invited by ECM label head Manfred Eicher to get together and try out some collaborative music. The resulting album (Officium) was something of an unexpected hit, and the quintet toured together regularly during the following two decades. This album was recorded live during the group’s farewell tour in 2014, and finds them continuing to explore the strange but successful blending of ancient and modern vocal polyphony and eerie reed melismas that attracted so many listeners to the original album. The music won’t be to everyone’s taste, but you can certainly see why so many feel it worked so well, and there’s no questioning the deep connection between the performers on these highly unusual and frequently gorgeous pieces.


Johann Sebastian Bach
6 Flute Sonatas BWV 1030-1035
Michala Petri; Hille Perl; Mahan Esfahani
OUR Recordings (dist. Naxos)
6.220673

Bach’s flute sonatas are not new repertoire, of course; they’ve been widely interpreted in a variety of presentations. But the fact that recorder virtuoso Michala Petri has turned her attention to them (again, following her widely-praised 1998 recording alongside Keith Jarrett, without a cello or gamba player) is certainly good news. And this time she’s brought along harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani and viola da gamba player Hille Perl, filling out the sound nicely. As always, Petri’s playing is exceptionally lovely, and she manages to shed new light on these evergreen works–partly through the harder timbre of the recorder, and partly through her own deep knowledge and love of Bach’s music. Recommended to all libraries.


Sarah Pagé
Dose Curves
Backward Music (dist. Redeye)
BKWRD020

Harpist Sarah Pagé steps out as a composer on this debut album, which consists of five pieces written for harp using various extended techniques. Using pickups, pedals, loops, bows, and apparently even electrical fans(!), Pagé creates sounds that range from abrasive scraping to ethereal drones, harmonic pulses to floating washes of sound, with occasional passages of lyrical melody emerging as well. Not only is Pagé’s command of her instrument impressive, but so is her ability to coax sounds from it by means of outboard equipment in ways that expand enormously the harp’s expressive potential. Any library supporting a program of harp pedagogy or experimental music should seriously consider adding this release to the collection.


Domenico Scarlatti
52 Sonatas (4 discs)
Lucas Debargue
Sony Classical (dist. Naxos)
19075944462

If, like me, you love the keyboard music of the baroque and early classical periods but tire quickly of the sound of the harpsichord, then this four-disc set of Domenico Scarlatti’s 52 sonatas for keyboard may be the perfect gift for you (or your library collection). The music is performed on modern piano by Lucas Debargue, with what sounds to me like a perfect balance between accuracy and restraint. I say “restraint” because the modern piano permits all kinds of dynamic elaborations that would not have been in the mind of a composer writing for the harpsichord, and Debargue does a fine job of incorporating such elaborations tastefully and in ways that illuminate rather than distract from Scarlatti’s brilliant writing–notably, for example, by bringing out some surprising and lovely syncopations in the A major sonata K 113. I’m not sure how many people will want to listen to all four discs end to end, but it’s certainly an impressive accomplishment–and taken in reasonable chunks, it’s a marvelous listening experience as well.


Johannes Ockeghem
Complete Songs Volume 1
Blue Heron / Scott Metcalfe
Blue Heron (dist. Naxos)
BHCD1010
Rick’s Pick

Hot on the heels of their triumphant world-premiere recording of Cipriano de Rore’s five-voice madrigals, the magnificent Blue Heron ensemble has now released the first in what will be a two-volume set of chansons by Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem–the first complete recording of his songs in 40 years. These recordings are part of a larger Blue Heron project, called Ockeghem@600: between 2015 and 2021, the group will perform all of Ockeghem’s known music. This program of chansons is a revelation, from the delicate two-voice texture of “Aultre Venus estes sans faille” to the darker hues of “Mort tu as navré de ton dart” and the five-voice Marian motet-chanson “Permanent vierge/Pulcra es/Sancta dei genitrix.” As always, the ensemble masterfully combines a colorful vocal blend with exquisite intonation and creates a sumptuously lovely listening experience. Recommended to all libraries.


Matt Sargent
Separation Songs
Eclipse Quartet
Cold Blue Music
CB0055
Rick’s Pick

Separation Songs consists of 54 variations on hymn melodies written by the pioneering American composer William Billings in the 18th century and published in his 1770 collection New England Psalm Singer. Using two string quartets (in this case, the excellent Eclipse Quartet playing against itself by means of studio overdubbing), the composer pulls melodic fragments apart, sending them from one quartet to the other, creating a constantly-shifting array of new melodies and harmonies. Like a kaleidoscope, the music is always changing and yet always staying the same: its fundamental elements move constantly but consistently within predetermined boundaries. Its strange blend of uplift and melancholy made me think of some of Gavin Bryar’s best work. Strongly recommended.


JAZZ


Matthew Halsall
Oneness
Gondwana (dist. Redeye)
GONDCD033

Interestingly, the latest album from trumpeter Matthew Halsall consists of recordings made more than ten years ago. It was 2008, and Halsall was in an experimental mode, trying out ideas that were more contemplative and spiritual in nature than what was typical for him. Over the course of three sessions in January, March, and September of that year he led a sextet (including harp and saxophone in addition to his trumpet and a piano trio; I sometimes also hear a tambura, though no tambura player is credited) and a quartet (with sitar, bass, and tabla) through a variety of compositions that are sometimes compellingly restrained, and that occasionally teeter dangerously on the edge of aimless meandering; few regular rhythms, very abstract harmonic movement. My favorite tracks are the more explicitly Indian-flavored ones, but at all points this is a worthy experiment, and the music regularly achieves significant beauty.


Johnny Griffin & Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis
Ow!: Live at the Penthouse
Reel to Real (dist. MVD)
RTR-CD-003

This album documents a summit meeting of tenor-saxophone titans. For two weeks in 1962 (in early March and then again in early June), Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis commanded the stage at Seattle’s Penthouse club, jointly leading a quintet that also featured pianist Horace Parlan, bassist Buddy Catlett and drummer Art Taylor. The hour’s worth of tracks (along with a few slightly annoying intros, outros, and brief riffs) are absolutely fierce, except when they’re tender and soulful. But even on the ballads there’s a tremendous energy: notice, for example, the frenetic bebop workouts “Second Balcony Jump” and “Ow!”, and then compare them to the sweet and gentle opening to “Sophisticated Lady,” a rendition that keeps erupting into edgy double-time passages. This is not easy-listening jazz; it’s jazz for other musicians, though just about any fan will be able to enjoy it. The sound is quite good; only the bass lacks definition, which is par for the course with live recordings from this period.


Carmen Sandim
Play Doh
Pathways Jazz
RAD-521

Brazilian-American pianist and composer Carmen Sandim has gathered an outstanding septet to perform a set of her original compositions on this album, in arrangements that range from the complex (note the fun hocketing passages on “Aruru, Juju” and the abstract rhythmic structure and sometimes duodecaphonic melodies of “Undergrowth”) to straightforwardly swinging (the liltingly lovely jazz waltzes “Aura-Celia” and “Isaura”) and that regularly lapse into sheer lyrical loveliness (“Waiting for Art,” “Free Wilbie”). It’s hard to say whether Sandim’s compositions or her arrangements are the more impressive, but both are outstanding, as is the support she gets from her ensemble. For all jazz collections.


Michael Dease
Never More Here
Posi-Tone
PR8201

Although the program features no Charlie Parker compositions, trombonist Michael Dease’s latest album as a leader is presented as “a reflection of the influence of Charlie Parker on my life,” and is marked with an epigram from Parker: “Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom.” Interestingly, the album also only features a single Dease original (the lovely and bustling bop workout “Blue Jay”), while focusing on tunes by the likes of John Lewis, Jackie McLean, and bebop trombone pioneer J.J. Johnson. The overall mood is warm and laid-back, with lots of loping midtempo numbers, highlights of which include the strutting, gospel-flavored Billy Taylor composition “I Wish I Knew” and a restrained but strongly swinging take on J.J. Johnson’s “Lament.” This is yet another solid and deeply enjoyable outing from one of the jazz scene’s leading trombonists.


Champian Fulton & Cory Weeds
Dream a Little Dream
Cellar Live (dist. MVD)
CL022519
Rick’s Pick

Recorded in an intimate setting (a house concert in Vancouver earlier this year), the latest release from national treasure Champian Fulton finds her in duet with the excellent saxophonist Cory Weeds–no rhythm section, no nothing except piano, voice, and sax. And because Fulton is equally entrancing as a vocalist and a pianist, and Weeds is a marvelously intuitive and tasteful player himself, every track would count as a highlight on any other artist’s album. Unsurprisingly, the set focuses on ballads, and even tends to treat normally uptempo numbers with a slow, smoldering intensity that manages somehow to sound light and casual: their take on “Fly Me to the Moon” is a great example of this approach, as is their torchy version of “I Thought about You.” (Conversely, though, they take “Secret Love” at an unusually sprightly tempo.) Like every album by the wonderful Champian Fulton, this one is strongly recommended to all libraries.


Ramsey Lewis & Urban Knights
VII
Ropeadope
RAD-498

If you’re in the mood for jazz-funk fusion, then Ramsey Lewis is your man–as, indeed, he has been for, lo, these 63 (count ’em) years. Technically, of course, jazz-funk fusion itself hasn’t been around for 60-plus years, but the point is that ever since the genre began to emerge in the 1970s, Lewis was there helping to shape it. On his latest album as a leader (and, if the liner notes are to be believed, his last, as he now intends to retire at age 84) he goes deep into the groove, showing that there’s no reason to believe that the Greatest Generation can’t also be the Funkiest Generation. Leading his quintet Urban Knights, he offers a very nice set of modern jazz that appears to consist mainly of original compositions, though the lack of composer credits makes it hard to say for sure. (Certainly he’s not the composer of the album-closing tribute to his father, “Trees,” nor of “And I Love Her.”) The production is flawed–there’s noticeable distortion during louder passages, especially in the drums and especially on “Tequila Mockingbird”–but the playing isn’t.


FOLK/COUNTRY


SUSS
High Line
Northern Spy (dist. Redeye)
NS 120
Rick’s Pick

Nobody else is making music like SUSS, an instrumental band whose work I can only characterize as “ambient country.” Why “ambient”? Because their music mostly floats, sighs, and shimmers rather than loping, moseying, or honky tonking. Why “country”? Because from the middle of SUSS’s constantly-shifting clouds of sound, wails of steel guitar and twangy bass licks keep emerging, like dollops of Nashville flavoring in an otherwise otherworldly concoction. And here’s what they do that sets them apart from every other artist or group I’ve heard in any genre: they deploy basslines not to create groove, but to suddenly resolve chords that you hadn’t even realized were in tension. In its spaciousness and warmth, their music sounds like it could have been produced by Daniel Lanois; beyond that, I can’t tell you whom to compare it to. Just give it a listen.


The Revelers
At the End of the River
Self-released
No cat. no.

One of the great things about Cajun music is that while it has its own stylistic parameters (two-step rhythms, accordion-and-fiddle instrumentation, certain laissez les bons temps rouler lyrical tendencies) it can also easily adapt itself to other styles, infecting them with a distinctive South Louisiana vibe: basically, if you sing a blues or R&B song in Cajun French, it’s going to sound like Cajun music. The Revelers make the most of that flexibility on their latest album, delivering the expected rollicking genre exercises (“Au bout de la rivière,” “Pendant”) along with honky-tonk country (“She’s a Woman,” “You’re Not to Blame”), horn-heavy torch songs (“I Wouldn’t Do That to You”), and more. The main quality criterion for a Cajun album is how fun it is, and this one is tons of fun.


Jake La Botz
They’re Coming for Me
Hi-Style/Free Dirt
HSD82701

Jake La Botz came up busking in the Chicago subway, eventually breaking into stage, TV, and film acting. (You may have seen him in the arthouse film Ghostworld or playing Conway Twitty on the TV show True Detective.) But now he’s based in Nashville and writing dark, gritty, and sometimes faintly creepy (in a good way) songs informed by the often difficult life he’s lived, and for this album he returned home to Chicago and worked with producer Jimmy Sutton and JD McPherson’s backup band. What they produced is a sharply observed and dryly-produced set of songs that frequently draws on blues and country flavors and occasionally invokes Tin Pan Alley–and sometimes does all at the same time. La Botz’s voice is all the more powerful for being generally understated and plainspoken. This is great nighttime driving music.


ROCK/POP


Various Artists
Nina Kraviz Presents MASSEDUCTION Rewired (digital & vinyl only)
Loma Vista
No cat. no.

The strange nexus of dance music and the avant-garde has long been a fun and intellectually stimulating territory, and never more so than on this generous collection of remixes, all drawing on St. Vincent’s celebrated 2017 album MASSEDUCTION. The remix collection is “curated” by Russian DJ and producer Nina Kraviz, who lends her own impressive remixing skills to several of the entries; other producers represented include Jlin, ChicagoPhonic Sound System, Steffi, and Pearson Sound (whose dark and slippery take on “Dancing with a Ghost” is one of the collection’s highlights). There’s a bit too much techno for me, but since the program consists of 22 tracks and two hours of music, there’s plenty of other tracks that are more up my alley–and besides, I understand that lots of people really enjoy that four-on-the-floor thump-thump-thump stuff.
What makes the album more than just a typical remix collection is that in addition to the techno, IDM, and footwork treatments there’s also plenty of straight-up experimental weirdness that keeps things spicy. Recommended.


Various Artists
Dreams to Fill the Vacuum: The Sound of Sheffield 1978-1988 (4 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
CRCDBOX83
Rick’s Pick

Impressions of Sheffield’s music scene from the postpunk era will probably forever be shaped by the success of its most notable artists: Human League, Heaven 17, Thompson Twins. Unfortunately, this suggests that what Sheffield mostly produced was synthpop — frequently edgy and intriguing synthpop, of course, but synthpop nonetheless. The reality is much, much more complex and interesting than that, as this lavishly packaged and annotated four-disc compilation demonstrates. Indeed, much of the music produced in 1980s Sheffield reflected the city’s then-current industrial decline: these songs are often snarky and cynical, and the music tends to be scrappy, jagged around the edges, and at times brazenly progressive. You’ll hear more guitars than synthesizers here, and you’ll hear a startling amount of what sounds like experimental jazz. When punk rock flamed out quickly only a couple of years after its initial eruption, it left behind a much more open field for pop music, and it was places like Sheffield that quickly rushed in to claim the new territory; the sound of this city doing so is both bracing and exhilarating. For all libraries.


Wobbly
Monitress
Hausu Mountain (dist. Redeye)
HAUSMO96

If you’re up for an even more intensive dose of bracing experimental weirdness, consider the latest release from Jon Leidecker, who is a touring member of both Negativland and the Thurston Moore Ensemble, and who records on his own under the pseudonym Wobbly. He runs a podcast called Variations, which focuses on the history of sampling and collage music, and in the past has collaborated with such eminent avant-gardists as Fred Frith, David Toop, and Zeena Parkins. On his latest album he creates weird, glitchy, and sometimes slightly disturbing soundscapes by feeding analog samples into a MIDI device and then manipulating the digital outputs. There are sometimes regular rhythms, but never anything that could reasonably be called a “groove”; the sounds have an enormous breadth of both pitch and amplitude, creating dense and colorful sonic panoramas that often bring to mind the “action painting” of Jackson Pollock.


Various Artists
WXAXRXP Sessions (10 discs; vinyl only)
Warp (dist. Redeye)
WARPLP300

This lavish box set documents the Warp label’s history of sponsoring special radio sessions by its large stable of artists. Each of the selected sessions is reproduced on a 12″ vinyl disc, and the artists represented read like a who’s-who list of forward-thinking pop music from the past 20 years: they include Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Flying Lotus, Seefeel, and Mount Kimbie, among others. Listening through these sessions, one is immediately struck by how diverse the Warp stable has been during its 30-year history: over the course of this box set’s three-plus hours of music you’ll hear acoustic reveries, thumping techno, swinging nu jazz, floating ambient soundscapes, and tracks that fit no genre definition at all. Much of this music has never been released in any other collection or on any other album. (Each disc is also available separately in either vinyl or MP3 format. But in either of those cases you miss out on all the fun stickers and art prints that come with the full box set.)


FLOW
Promise
LMB Music
LMB201901

Are you leery of New Age music? Me, too. But I try to keep an open mind, and as long as the music in question doesn’t plunder other cultures in order to create a fake sense of spiritual exoticism or align itself with spurious health claims, I’m willing to give it a listen. FLOW is a quartet consisting of pianist Fiona Joy Hawkins, guitarist Lawrence Blatt, flugelhorn player Jeff Oster, and guitarist Will Ackerman (the latter arguably one of the architects of the New Age genre), and the music they make together is an example of everything that can be right about New Age music: yes, it’s uncomplicatedly pretty, but it’s not cloying or saccharine (though the flugelhorn part on “Last Light” does give that track just a bit of the air of a 1970s bike-safety film). The musicians are all virtuosos, but they bridle their virtuosity and keep it in service to the mood, which is consistently quiet and meditative, but not soporific. Recommended.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Various Artists
Down in Jamaica: 40 Years of VP Records (4 CDs & 8 vinyl singles)
VP
VP4224
Rick’s Pick

Reggae fans will be well aware of the VP label, one of the few that has stayed continuously in business since the music’s 1970s heyday. This 40th-anniversary celebration gives a slightly misleading impression of how far back the label actually goes (several of its earliest and best inclusions predate the founding of the label by several years), but still provides a sumptuously rich overview of VP’s wide-ranging output and, thereby, an excellent introduction to the whole spectrum of reggae styles since the late-1970s roots-and-culture period. Absolutely essential and foundational tracks by the likes of Johnny Clarke and Gregory Isaacs lead into classic early dancehall material by Yellowman, Buju Banton, Spragga Benz and others, which in turn take us into the modern sounds of Mavado, Queen Ifrica, and Raging Fyah. Along with four CDs and extensive photos and liner notes, the package also includes four vinyl 7″ singles and four vinyl 12″ singles, the latter consisting of “discomix” versions of songs–double-length tracks that include the original vocal mix followed seamless by a dub version. If your library needs a good overview of the modern history of reggae, this box would make an excellent choice.


Lee “Scratch” Perry
Heavy Rain
On-U Sound (dist. Redeye)
ONUCD145
Rick’s Pick

Legendary (not to say infamous) reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry has worked with hundreds of artists over the past 50-plus years, and with quite a few other producers. Many of his more recent projects have been lackluster affairs, but whenever he gets together with On-U Sound label head (and avant-dub producer extraordinaire) Adrian Sherwood, the results are electrifying. Earlier this year Sherwood produced Perry’s latest album, Rainford, which was strongly recommended here in CD HotList. Now comes the dub version of that album, and honestly it’s every bit as good as the original (and it even features a couple of tracks of new material). For these sometimes radical remixes, Perry and Sherwood recruited guest contributors Brian Eno and old-school reggae trombone legend Vin Gordon, but the main attraction is Sherwood’s deeply creative and very dread mixing. He is often cited as the foremost stylistic descendent of Perry’s own highly distinctive dub style, and you can see why on this outstanding collection. If your library was wise enough to acquire Rainford, you should absolutely pick up Heavy Rain as well.


Illbilly Hitec
King Size Dub Special (Overdubbed by Dub Pistols)
Echo Beach
EB142
Rick’s Pick

Noiseshaper
King Size Dub Special
Echo Beach
EB139

The King Size Dub series is one of the best recurring offerings of Germany’s outstanding Echo Beach label, a chance for artists and producers to flex their mixing chops and indulge some of their most far-out musical fantasies. The two most recent installments feature the music of Illbilly Hitec (a magnificent “reggaetronic” ensemble with a terrible band name) and Noiseshaper. The Illbilly Hitec album is a continuous mix of previously-released songs presented in new mixes by Dub Pistols; you’ll hear a variety of beats from one-drop to jungle, and an equally broad variety of singers and chatters performing in many different languages. Sadly, this recording is apparently going to be Illbilly Hitec’s swan song. The Viennese duo that records as Noisehaper has made some of the sharpest albums in the Echo Beach catalog (in addition to providing soundtrack music for the TV series CSI: Miami), and their entry in the King Size Dub series is somewhat different in that it appears to be basically a “greatest hits” collection, bringing together tracks from their previous albums in their original versions. As such, it’s a very good album but not an essential one for anyone (or any library) that has been collecting their work as it has emerged.


Lt. Stitchie
Masterclass
X-Ray Production
XRPCD1901

We close out this month’s all-reggae World/Ethnic section with something quite different: the latest album from dancehall veteran Lt. Stitchie. What makes this release different from our previous entries is its extreme hardness: this is not roots-and-culture reggae, but tough-as-nails dancehall from a chatter with a voice of steel–the toughness of whose delivery is leavened by the appearance of sweet-voiced guest singers like Lukie D, Fantan Mojah and Ricky Stereo. Another thing that separates Stitchie from the pack is his outspoken Christianity–something of a rarity in the context of both roots reggae (which is almost always Rastafarian in religious orientation) and dancehall (which tends to be aggressively secular, not to say profane). The latest from this accomplished artist is a solid, if ultimately rather exhausting, musical triumph.

November 2019


PICK OF THE MONTH


Fred Hersch Trio
10 Years/6 Discs
Palmetto
No cat. no.

Fred Hersch’s status as one of the greatest living jazz pianists, composers, and bandleaders is, I think, no longer in question (if it ever was). Although he’s easily compared to Bill Evans, with whom he shares an expansive and sometimes impressionistic pianism, he also has a completely unique and easily recognizable voice, and a piercing musical intelligence that always leaves room for wit and romance. On this boxed set of albums originally released on the Palmetto label between 2010 and 2018, we get to hear him building a deep and powerful musical relationship with the outstanding bassist John Hébert and the subtle and brilliant drummer Eric McPherson. Listening to these discs in sequence, I noticed again both how much I love Hersch’s playing on the uptempo numbers, and also the fact that I love it most on the ballads: listen, for example, to the way he stretches out on “Tristesse” (a dedication to Paul Motion), sounding like a blend of Chopin, Debussy, and Evans. But also check out the wonderfully contrapuntal piano solo on his off-kilter Latin-waltz setting of “You and the Night and the Music,” and his thoughtful solo deconstruction of Thelonious Monk’s “Played Twice”–not to mention his own complex, beautiful compositions, such as the aptly titled “Serpentine.” Hersch constantly acknowledges but never surrenders to the tension between complexity and beauty, and what makes his playing so unique is not so much that he can do things others can’t with their fingers, but rather that he thinks things others don’t with their brains–and then he communicates those things so effectively. Hersch is a national treasure and this box is a treasure chest, one that belongs in every library collection.


CLASSICAL


Various Composers
Works for Solo Piano
Miyako Arishima
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
30118

Miyako Arishima is an outstanding young pianist whose debut album presents a bold and unusual program: a brief piece by the great 20th-century composer Toru Takemitsu (Rain Tree Sketch) followed by various works by Polish composers both famous (Frédéric Chopin, Karl Szymanowski) and obscure (Kazimierz Serocki). Chopin occupies the center of the program, in terms of both placement and allocated space; his Barcarolle in F sharp, his Mazurkas Op. 33 and his E-major Scherzo Op. 54 are surrounded by the Takemitsu piece, a selection from Szymanowski’s Métopes Op. 29, his Two Mazurkas Op. 62, and Serocki’s quirky and bracing Suite of Preludes. What unites the program is a sense of formal openness and expressionism (both of which are notable and paradoxical characteristics of Serocki’s duodecaphonically-inclined preludes), and of course the sparkling brilliance of Arishima’s playing. Recommended to all classical collections.


Various Composers
Northern Fantasies: Selected Works for Clarinet and Piano 1850-1890
Matthew Nelson; Jason Hardink
Soundset Recordings (dist. Albany)
SR 1111
Rick’s Pick

Michèl Yost; Johann Christoph Vogel
Three Clarinet Concertos; Symphony in D
Susanne Heilig; Kurpfälzisches Kammerorchester / Marek Štilec
CPO (dist. Naxos)
555 191-2

The first of these two very different but equally lovely clarinet albums features works by four 19th-century composers of relatively little reputation: Felix Draeseke (1835-1913), August Winding (1835-1899), Niels Gade (1817-1890), and Carl Loewe (1796-1869). On all of these works, the silken-toned clarinetist Matthew Nelson and pianist Jason Hardink showcase the aching beauty and lyricism that typified the best music of the Romantic era, and make a powerful case for these fairly obscure composers. The second disc features three clarinet concertos co-written by the early French virtuoso Michèl Yost and his friend Johann Christoph Vogel, a German composer who spent part of the mid-18th century in Paris. (The program also includes one of Vogel’s symphonies.) Both men died tragically young, but their work stands as a model of high-classical writing, and the playing by soloist Susanne Heilig and the Kurpfälzisches Kammerorchester (on modern instruments) is wonderful. Both albums are strongly recommended, but the Northern Fantasies collection is perhaps the more historically significant of the two.


Philip Glass
Annunciation
Paul Barnes; Brooklyn Rider
Orange Mountain Music (dist. PIAS)
OMM 0144

Like several other composers associated with the Minimalist school, over the course of his long and distinguished career Philip Glass has gradually
broadened his stylistic palette, eventually arriving at a point where the previously forbidding repetitiveness of his music has been replaced with expansive harmonic movement and an almost Romantic sense of melodicism and emotionality. Of course, he’s still Philip Glass, so you’ve still got your immediately-recognizable arpeggiated repetitions–it’s just that the chords change more often, and those passages of repetition are broken up much more frequently by long and lyrical lines of melody. On this collection of pieces written between 2010 and 2018, the outstanding Brooklyn Rider string quartet teams up with pianist Paul Barnes to deliver performances of deep warmth and sympathy, carefully but powerfully wringing every drop of emotion out of Glass’s eighth string quartet, his two-movement Annunciation piano quintet, and two briefer chamber works. Recommended.


François-Joseph Gossec
Symphonies, Op. IV
Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss / Simon Gaudenz
CPO (dist. Naxos)
555 263-2

Franz Joseph Haydn is generally credited with pioneering the symphony as a modern musical form. But at roughly the same time as Haydn there was the French composer François-Joseph Gossec, who, some argue, was actually writing works recognizably in the symphonic genre prior to Haydn’s innovations. (One theory goes that the reason Gossec wasn’t recognized earlier is that he didn’t have access to orchestras capable of realizing his vision.) Those who would like to decide for themselves are advised to check out this lovely performance of the six symphonies in Gossec’s Opus 4, performed with audible joy by the marvelous Deutsche Kammerorchester Neuss under the baton of Simon Gaudenz. Honestly, I’ll let others argue over questions of priority and even over whether Haydn’s early symphonies or Gossec’s are superior in quality. While they argue, I’ll just luxuriate in this hour-plus of pure high-classical pleasure.


Various Composers
Free America!: Early Songs of Resistance and Rebellion
Boston Camerata / Anne Azéma
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 902628
Rick’s Pick

I grew up in the Boston area and spent my adolescence playing in the Menotomy Fifes and Drums, so it may have been a foregone conclusion that I’d give this collection of Revolutionary War-era songs, hymns, and fife tunes a Rick’s Pick designation. But you don’t have to have been steeped in the culture or the repertoire to recognize both the rough-hewn beauty of this music and the bracing power of its messages of resistance to tyranny. Invariably, there are moments when the classically-trained instrumentalists and singers seem to be smoothing out the rough edges just a bit too much, but that’s rare–and they get extra points for playing the ancient version of “Yankee Doodle,” rather than the more popular modern one. As always with the Boston Camerata, the program is carefully and thematically arranged, and the album is a pleasure from start to finish.


Cipriano de Rore
I madrigali a cinque voci (2 discs)
Blue Heron / Scott Metcalfe
Self-released
BHCD 1009

Cipriano de Rore
Missa “Vivat Felix Hercules”; Motets
Weser-Renaissance / Manfred Cordes
CPO (dist. Naxos)
777 989-2

These are two very different collections of vocal music by Cipriano de Rore, one of the pivotal composers of the Italian Renaissance. Though he was from the Franco-Flemish region originally, he made his career mainly at court in Venice and Ferrara, where he attracted attention both for his madrigals and his sacred music. The latest album by the outstanding Blue Heron ensemble is a world-premiere recording of de Rore’s first book of five-voice madrigals, and for that reason alone should be considered a must-have for any serious early music collection. The quality of the singing almost goes without saying, given the group’s tremendous track record. Another group with a long-established reputation for Renaissance singing is Weser-Renaissance, whose new album brings together de Rore’s Mass Vivat Felix Hercules (a tribute to his patron Ercole Il d’Este) with various motets, which are distributed before and among the Mass sections. The vocal texture varies from a spare one-voice-per-part approach in the motets to a lusher ten-voice arrangement in the Mass sections, and as always Manfred Cordes pulls beautiful and powerful performances from his ensemble.


Daniel Lentz
Ending(s)
Twilight String Orchestra; Fahad Siadat / Nicholas Deyoe
New World (dist. Albany)
80815-2

It’s rare to find a contemporary composer who can write music that is accessible without pandering, and that is complex without being forbidding. Over the course of a decades-long career, Daniel Lentz has been exploring ways of striking that balance, and he has arrived at multiple different stylistic solutions. On his latest album, two works reveal his latest strategies: first, on the orchestral work Continental Divide, he uses frankly programmatic techniques to convey a sense of travel across great distances, specifically across the American continent; the music pleasingly recalls some of the middle-period works of John Adams. On the title work, for double string quintet and tenor soloist, he draws on Japanese haiku, on text from the Latin Requiem, and on a prose summary of an atomic explosion, linking those texts to music that is by turns reflective, somber, and even confrontational. Each in a very different way, these are two very powerful pieces, both performed beautifully.


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Lamentations: Book 2
Cinquecento
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
CDA68284

The lamentations of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, expressing his anguish over the destruction of Jerusalem and pleading with its people to return to God, has been one of the most irresistible sources of lyrical inspiration for choral composers throughout the ages. Palestrina’s setting of these texts is fittingly austere and dark, and even more so when sung by the all-male Cinquecento quintet. At times the composer makes use of only three or four voices, creating a mood of somber restraint leavened only by the sweetness of his part-writing. As always, Cinquecento sing with peerless intonation and a careful but not homogeneous blend, and are beautifully recorded.


JAZZ


Nat King Cole
Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943) (7 discs)
Resonance
HCD 2042
Rick’s Pick

This magnificent box set was just barely edged out for Pick of the Month by the Fred Hersch retrospective, but it’s arguably an equally great musical treasure, and arguably a more important piece of jazz history. Seven discs of material (much of which has been previously reissued only in inferior bootleg versions, and some of which has never been reissued at all) spanning the first seven years of Nat “King” Cole’s career, along with a generous booklet including historical notes and tributes from other jazz legends along with tons of photos make up this package. One of the first things you’ll notice when cuing up the first disc is the pristine quality of the remastering: rarely has digitized 1930s shellac sounded this clear and clean. You’ll also notice how much pure fun these early recordings are–there are lots of silly novelty tunes, but even the more serious material is played with an effervescent sense of fun that is irresistible. Most of these recordings are made with Cole’s classic trio (guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince, later replaced by Johnny Miller), but there are guest players and singers on a good number of them. An essential selection for all jazz collections.


Frank Wess
The Savoy & Prestige Collection (4 discs)
Enlightenment (dist. MVD)
EN4CD9169
Rick’s Pick

Frank Wess may not have been a household name, but he was well known and well regarded among his colleagues for his work both as a leader and as a member of Count Basie’s orchestra–and as one of the pioneers of jazz flute. He was also an accomplished saxophonist, but unlike too many saxophonists who assume that being a sax player automatically means you know how to play the flute, he had an academic degree in the latter instrument. You can hear that training in his playing throughout these eight wonderful albums from the 1950s and 1960s, all packaged together in a single four-disc package here. The albums included are Flutes & Reeds (1955), North, South, East… Wess (1956), Opus in Swing (1956), Jazz for Playboys (1957), Opus de Blues (1959), The Frank Wess Quartet (1960), Southern Comfort (1962), and Yo Ho! Poor You, Little Me (1963). In a welcome departure from past practice, the label chose to include a list of all musicians under the title of each album in the booklet, and that list is revelatory: alongside Wess we get to hear pianists Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan, guitarists Kenny Burrell and Grant Green, drummers Roy Haynes and Ed Thigpen, and many others. The sound quality is very good, considering the fact that these discs were almost certainly “mastered” from vinyl recordings, and the music is consistently marvelous.


Haruna Fukazawa
Departure
Summit
DCD 750
Rick’s Pick

For a more modern take on jazz flute, check out the latest from the outstanding bandleader and composer Haruna Fukazawa, whose Departure is a fiery and brilliant take on modern straight-ahead jazz for the instrument. Here she leads a quintet that also includes saxophonist/flutist Steve Wilson, pianist David Demotta, bassist Bill Moring, and drummer Steve Johns. Fukazawa’s original compositions are especially impressive on this very fine outing and they fit snugly alongside standards like Horace Silver’s “Juicy Lucy,” Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” and Fain/Hilliard’s evergreen “Alice in Wonderland.” (Her arrangements of those tunes are outstanding as well.) Perhaps best of all is her warm, woody, swinging tone. This is one of the best jazz flute albums I’ve heard in a long time.


Rodney Whitaker
All Too Soon: The Music of Duke Ellington
Origin
82789

Doing an album of Duke Ellington tunes isn’t a tough decision, and any number of fine artists have made perfectly lovely Ellington tribute albums. But from the very first track, bassist and arranger Rodney Whitaker makes it clear that while he’s operating in a mode of love and reverence for America’s greatest jazz composer, he’s not going to be a slavish imitator. Leading a crack sextet, he instead puts his personal imprint on every selection, from the riotous New Orleans-style group improvisation on “Cotton Tail” to the bass solos that precede the heads on “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Just Squeeze Me” and the rhythmically idiosyncratic treatment of “Caravan” that closes the program. That’s not to say that this is an avant-garde project, by any means; the group plays in a solidly straight-ahead style throughout, and Whitaker’s arrangements are always respectful. It’s just that they’re also unique and personal, and except for the gentle funk setting of “Mood Indigo,” which didn’t seem entirely successful to me, they’re all brilliant. Whitaker’s daughter Rockelle sings on most tracks, and she’s dynamite. Great album altogether.


Joshua Breakstone Trio
Children of Art
Capri
74151-2

Having never been a big fan of hard bop, I’ve never spent much time listening to Art Blakey. But when this tribute album came in the mail I sat up and took notice, because it’s by one of my favorite jazz guitarists. On Children of Art, Joshua Breakstone and his trio (bassist Martin Wind, drummer Eliot Zigmund) interpret some of the most popular tunes associated with Blakey and his band, the Jazz Messengers: Benny Golson’s “Stablemates,” Lee Morgan’s “The Witch Doctor,” and Horace Silver’s heartbreakingly lovely “Lonely Woman” are all on the program, which ends with a personal dedication from Breakstone himself, the original composition “Children of Art.” As always, Breakstone’s tone is warm and soft even as his playing is sharp and incisive, and his rhythm section supports him beautifully.


Adrian Cunningham & His Friends
Play Lerner & Loewe
Arbors
ARCD19470

Here’s another brilliant album featuring the Fred Hersch Trio. But this one is led by the equally wonderful reedman Adrian Cunningham, and offers a program consisting entirely of compositions by American Songbook legends Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. This duo was responsible for the songs from such musicals as Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, and Camelot, and here Cunningham and crew subject songs from that repertoire to a host of unusual (but always loving) revisions. For example, “I Could Have Danced All Night” is given a slippery second-line feel (complete with greasy trombone work by Wycliffe Gordon); “The Rain in Spain” gets a sort of Latin-Caribbean arrangement with flute; “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” moves from a herky-jerk head to a powerfully swinging solos section (on which guest Randy Brecker plays some honey-smooth flugelhorn). Cunningham himself jumps from tenor sax to flute to clarinet with grace and always plays with both wit and insight. This is an unusual and really quite wonderful album.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Dick Gaughan
The “Harvard” Tapes: Definitive Gaughan Concert from 1982
Greentrax (dist. MVD)
CDTRAX406

Scottish folksinger Dick Gaughan has been a legend in Celtic-music circles since his recording career began in 1970; adepts will remember him as a former member of Boys of the Lough as well as a distinguished solo artist. His sharp, reedy voice and his advanced guitar technique (easy to overlook if you aren’t paying close attention, because he rarely intentionally draws attention to it) make him an unusually compelling performer in a solo acoustic setting, as you can hear from this concert recorded at the Cambridge Old Baptist Church in 1982 and never previously released. Highlights include the utterly heartbreaking “Song for Ireland” and the ballad “Glenlogie” (“the only ballad I’ve ever heard that had a happy ending”), and there’s even a medley of instrumental reels on which you can really get a sense of his guitar chops. Recommended to all folk collections.


Larry Sparks
New Moon over My Shoulder
Rebel
REB-CD-1870

“This year 2019 I am celebrating 50 years with my band Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers… As always, I keep my music and singing on the old path and do it my way.” That’s the slightly defiant statement that you see printed inside the package of this, the 72-year-old bluegrass legend’s latest album, and it tells you exactly what to expect. Does his voice cut through in quite the same way it did when he was singing lead for Ralph Stanley’s band in the 1960s? Well, no–but it still carries plenty of soulful punch, and those aging fingers can still spin out a mean flatpicking solo break. And the songs he’s chosen here are excellent: a nod to his old boss (“I Only Exist”), some great gospel numbers (“New Highway,” “Green Pastures in the Sky”), and the absolutely perfect romantic lament “I Was Wrong.” Yes, Sparks is indeed keeping his music and singing “on the old path,” but he still does it in a unique style.


The Mavericks
Play the Hits
Mono Mundo (dist. Thirty Tigers)
MMR005-CD
Rick’s Pick

About 20 years ago, my wife and I were idly flipping TV channels one night when we saw something that stopped us dead: it was a live performance by a band that was dressed kind of like Cuban cowboys, playing something that sounded like country music except that they had a big horn section–and the rhythm of the song they were performing sounded an awful lot like… well, ska. We were completely intrigued, but the show ended before we could figure out who the band was. A few days later we were at dinner with some friends and described what we’d seen. “Oh,” one of them said, his face lighting up, “I bet that was the Mavericks.” And sure enough, that’s who it was, and our whole family have been fans ever since. The aptly-named band has now been irritating country radio programmers for a full three decades, and is celebrating that milestone with a covers album. The repertoire is just as eclectic as you’d expect, with songs by John Anderson (“Swingin'”) and Bruce Springsteen (“Hungry Heart,” in a swing-ska arrangement) rubbing up against Outlaw Country classics (“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain”) and an Elvis cover (“Don’t Be Cruel”). Raul Malo’s chesty baritone voice remains a force of nature, and the whole album is exactly the party you’d expect it to be. For all collections.


ROCK/POP


The Blasters
Dark Night: Live in Philly (2 discs)
Liberation Hall (dist. MVD)
LIB-5000
Rick’s Pick

If you listen to the Blasters’ live albums from the 2000s, you’re witness to one of the great tragedies of American rock’n’roll: the destruction of Phil Alvin’s voice. Alvin’s singing was one of the wonders of 1980s popular music, and his unapologetic celebration of rockabilly, the blues, and vintage R&B (alongside his brother, the brilliant guitarist and songwriter Dave Alvin, and the crack rhythm section of bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman) resulted in some of the most exciting rock recordings of that period. But by the 2000s, decades of cigarette smoking had taken their toll and he could no longer hit the high notes on wonderful songs like “Marie, Marie” and “Blue Shadows.” So this live recording from a Philadelphia date in 1986 is particularly welcome; it finds Alvin still in his full vocal glory, and the band as tight and energetic as ever (though Dave had sadly left the band by then, replaced on lead guitar by the excellent Hollywood Fats). The live sound is clean and rich, and although the package would have benefited from the editing-out of a bit more between-song noodling, it’s a magnificent recording overall.


R.E.M.
Monster: 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (5 CD/1 Blu-Ray)
Craft
CR00237
Rick’s Pick

Few bands have been able to repackage their music with the kind of savvy shown by R.E.M. At this point, all of their seminal albums have been reissued in deluxe boxes that include demos, live sets, posters, postcards, and the other little bits of realia that their fans treasure. But this super-deluxe reissue package for their 1995 album Monster really sets a new standard of wild elaboration. Disc 1 contains the original album; Disc 2 consists of previously-unreleased demos–not of the songs that would eventually be included, but odds and ends (mostly instrumental) that didn’t make the final cut. Disc 3 is the original album in a remixed version; Discs 4 and 5 document a Chicago concert from the Monster tour, and the sixth is a Blu-Ray disc that offers surround-sound and hi-def audio versions of the album plus a concert film and six videos that were released in conjunction with the original version. Is it more than anyone except diehard fans would need? Eh, maybe. But there are a lot of diehard R.E.M. fans out there–and, conveniently for libraries, the package is only slightly larger around than a standard CD case, so you can shelve it easily for circulation. Oh, and the music is great, of course–highlight tracks include the hits “What’s the Frequency , Kenneth?” and “Bang and Blame,” both of which find the band delivering a much more aggressive and rockish sound than its previous few albums would have led one to expect. Very highly recommended.


Various Artists
No Other Love: Midwest Gospel (1965-1978)
Tompkins Square
TSQ 5661

This strange, eerie, and engaging compilation was put together by Ramona Stout, who came into possession of the fourteen very rare 45-RPM singles that make up this program between 2006 and 2011 while crate-digging in Chicago record shops. Some of them were recorded as vanity projects and released in fewer than 100 copies; none of these except one has ever been commercially issued since its original release. Some of the songs are by working groups, others by church congregations or family bands. Some of the studio tracks have the sound quality of field recordings, and all of them are made spooky by the combination of religious hope and faith expressed in the music and the hollow, flat sonic quality of the vinyl-mastered sound. This may not be music that you’ll cue up when you’re in the mood for an infusion of gospel exuberance, but for libraries supporting a curriculum in American popular music in general or in African-American gospel music in particular, these songs (and the track-by-track notes that accompany them) are a treasure trove.


Big Star
In Space (reissue)
Omnivore
DVCD-338
Rick’s Pick

Given their outsized influence on the world of rock and pop music, it’s weird to contemplate that Big Star (led by legendary singer and songwriter Alex Chilton) only existed for four years and only recorded three albums in the early 1970s. Of course, the story is a bit more complicated than that: in 1989 the group re-formed and went on tour, and kept touring for several years. Then in 2005 they made this album, which is now being reissued on CD with six bonus tracks (most of which are demos and unreleased songs that will be of interest only to the hardest of the hardcore Big Star fanbase). I mean it as a compliment when I say that this 2005 album sounds like it could have been recorded in 1974, when Chilton and crew were still creating the architecture of what would eventually come to be called power pop and were releasing songs that would inspire a generation of popsters and punk rockers alike. I have to confess that I’ve never paid Big Star the attention I should have, and that this album has convinced me to go back and remedy that mistake. For all libraries.


Steffi X Virginia
Work a Change (vinyl & digital only)
Ostgut Ton
o-ton122

Any music that characterizes itself as “dancefloor melancholy” is going to attract my attention, and even if I find myself puzzled by the description of this release as a “double EP” (er, how is that not just an LP?), I’m definitely engaged by the music. Dancefloor? Definitely: there’s no denying the funky immediacy of tracks like the bustling “Help Me Understand” and the disjointedly chugging “Until You’re Begging.” Melancholy? You bet: everywhere the mood is dark, spacey, and kind of grumpy, though I mean that in a good way. That mood is partly created by the modes and textures of the music itself, and partly by the way in which the vocals are obscured and smeared in the production process. All in all, this is very nifty avant-garde-ish dance music that rewards repeated listening.


Terror Danjah
Invasion (vinyl & digital only)
Tru Thoughts (dist. Redeye)
TRUCD373

While we who are his fans await word on Terror Danjah’s health (he’s been in a coma since August, and further information about his condition has been sparse to nonexistent), we can take some comfort in the release of the album he was working on before his decline, and on the fact that his label has committed to donate all of its share of royalties to him and his family in support of his medical costs. The music itself? Brilliant in the usual Terror way: dark, dank, and gritty instrumental grooves that demonstrate, once again, his complete mastery of the grime genre. Every track churns and grinds with the slow but inexorable intensity of a herd of elephants, leavened with the occasional fragment of sunny melody, string-section flourish, and his trademark maniacal laugh sample. If anyone has ever asked you “What’s the big deal about grime, anyway?”, play them this. Or any other Terror album, frankly. Here’s hoping that by the time you read this he’ll be out of the hospital.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Lakou Mizik
HaitiaNola
Cumbancha
CMB-CD-122

The cultural connections between New Orleans and Haiti run deep, and those connections are celebrated on the latest album from Haitian ensemble Lakou Mizik, for which they invited along such Crescent City guests as Trombone Shorty, Cyril Neville, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Raja Kassis, among others. The result is just as joyous and rollicking as you’d imagine: a creole version of the New Orleans standard “Iko Iko,” a celebration of mothers (“Manman Lavi”), a glimpse of vodou liturgical ritual (“Lakou Dogwe”), a medley of traditional Haitian songs served up as a steaming bowl of Southern Louisiana gumbo, etc. The predominant musical flavor here is Haitian, with the tangy merengue elements of compas peeking through everywhere, but the New Orleans influences create new and complex flavors throughout the album. Highly recommended.


Cornel Campbell
I Man a the Stal-a-Watt (2 discs)
VP/17 North Parade
VP4221
Rick’s Pick

Cornel Campbell is a singer I can’t stop talking about. In a crowded population of outstanding falsettists (Junior Murvin, Johnny Clarke, Cedric Myton) he has always stood out for his sweetness tone and his sureness of intonation; in a crowded population of rootswise cultural commentators, he has always stood out as especially serious and dread (“Lion of Judah,” “I Shall Not Remove,” “Conscious Rastaman”); and in a crowded population of romantic lover-men, he has always been particularly silver-tongued (“Girl of My Dreams,” “Give Me Love”). His work with producer Bunny Lee in the 1970s and 1980s is among the finest reggae ever recorded, and much of it is brought together in this excellent two-disc compilation. Longtime fans like myself already own much of this material, but even I encountered some new tracks, and those who need an introduction won’t find a better one than this. (Yes, you can find lots of other Campbell compilations out there, some of them very cheap, but most of them sound like crap. The mastering on this collection is consistently outstanding. Start here.)


Mao Ya et al.
Moon over City Ruins
Rhymoi Music
RMCD-G063

About 1500 years ago, a particularly intense period of cultural exchange between the Chinese Tang Dynasty and Japan resulted in Japan eventually becoming an important repository of various aspects of Tang culture, including musical traditions. This album brings together folk songs and melodies from Japan and China that draw on ancient Tang instrumentation and song structures, prominently featuring ensemble leader and guzheng player Mao Ya–though on many tracks, the most prominent instrument is the shakuhachi, an end-blown bamboo flute. The melodies themselves tend to be simple and pentatonic, while the ornaments around them and the timbral articulations of them are deeply complex. The album is beautifully packaged in a casebound book with extensive liner notes, and would make a fine addition to any library collection. (Unfortunately, I can’t find any evidence that it’s available for purchase in the physical format that was sent to me–if that changes, I’ll update the information here.)


Faygo
Together
Fawaka Production (dist. Inouïe)
FP-CD01

Clinton Fearon
History Say
Boogie Brown Productions/Baco
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

France may seem like an unlikely source for world-class roots reggae, but then again, a few years ago one might have said the same thing about Germany–and that country has now emerged as a major world center for the music. The first of these two recent releases features Faygo, a Rennes-based band whose sophomore effort delves deep into the classic roots-and-culture vibe (complete with a tight four-piece horn section) and explores themes of slavery, immigration, waste, and consumption. Lead vocalist Mister Roots sings in English, in a voice accented both by his French heritage and an adopted Jamaican patois; the songs are solid and the band is excellent. The second album, although it comes to us from a French label and production house, is actually by one of the real legends of Jamaican music: Clinton Fearon, who first achieved fame as bass player and vocalist with the Gladiators in the 1970s and 1980s and has had a reasonably successful career since then as a solo artist and as leader of the Boogie Brown Band. On History Say, he teams up with A-list friends like Mike Love (who contributes lush harmonies on “Mr. Pretender”) and African reggae great Alpha Blondy, delivering a set of songs that rival the best of his work from the 1970s. He sounds older, but in a good way, his voice tough and wizened like the roots of an ancient tree. The grooves are mostly dark, heavy, and ponderous, contrasting nicely with the soaring melodies, but there are also excursions into calypso and dub-funk. History Say is as fine a slice of modern roots reggae as you could ask for.

October 2019


PICK OF THE MONTH


Josquin des Prés; Noel Bauldeweyn
Missa Mater Patris; Missa da pacem
Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips
Gimell (dist. PIAS)
CDGIM 052

“Our project to record all of Josquin’s Masses now runs into controversy,” says Peter Phillips in the accompanying materials to the latest recording from the always-magnificent Tallis Scholars, leading exponents of the Oxbridge school of Renaissance choral performance. And in fact, the musicological controversy here is real: Missa Mater Patris is strikingly different from most of Josquin’s oeuvre, simultaneously so simple in construction and so unusual in textural organization that some scholars have questioned whether it’s correctly attributed to him. In acknowledgement of this controversy, for this recording the group has paired that Mass with one that was for many years attributed to Josquin–indeed, was seen as one of the most perfect examples of his style–but that is now generally attributed to his virtually unknown Flemish near-contemporary Noel Bauldeweyn. This is one of those recordings that simultaneously provides exceptional scholarly value and a ravishing listening experience.


CLASSICAL


Eric Sessler
The Curtis Session: Dreams of Life Awake
Dover Quartet
Bimperl Entertainment & Media
No cat. no.

Eric Sessler’s Dreams from Life Awake is a four-movement work commissioned by the brilliant and dynamic young Dover Quartet. This recording was made in a single take at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, back in 2013, and it finds the Dovers successfully, even joyfully, negotiating a work that is by turns romantically expressive and bustlingly modernistic. I use the word “bustling” advisedly; after the gentle second movement and the astringent third, the fourth brings to mind mental images of a busy mid-century New York avenue. Sessler’s particular genius is to blend forward-thinking harmonic innovation with genuine accessibility, and the Dovers’ genius is to bring it to engaging, exciting life. This recording is yet another triumph for one of the most exciting chamber ensembles in the country. (Note: Although this recording is being released in CD format, it’s currently only available as a download. Watch the space to which I’ve linked above, and hopefully the CD will become available there shortly.)


Anton Reicha
Quatuor scientifique
Reicha Quartet
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
95857
Rick’s Pick

Musicologists tend to think of Anton Reicha as a theorist, while contemporary listeners are more likely to think of him as a composer of wind quintets. On this recording we get to experience him both as a theoretician pushing boundaries and developing new structural ideas and as a chamber-music composer. Opening with an eleven-minute fantasy for string quartet called La Pantomime, the remainder of the program consists of a twelve-section exploration of fugal forms, with eight fugues inserted among the standard four movements of a string quartet. (The work’s overall title represents Reicha’s belief that the fugue itself is a “scientific” form.) Neither of the two works presented here was ever published; both exist only in manuscript form, and this is the world-premiere recording of both. The playing (on modern instruments) is excellent. Highly recommended to all classical collections.


Ludwig Van Beethoven
A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 6
James Brawn
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
MS 1470

This is the sixth volume in pianist James Brawn’s ongoing survey of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and on this one he focuses on three “Grand” sonatas composed between 1796 and 1801: number 4, op. 7; number 11, op. 22; and number 12, op. 26. The first sonata in the program is grand indeed: clocking in at almost 30 minutes in length, it’s Beethoven’s second-longest (after the “Hammerklavier”). The sonata number 12 is one of his more unusually-structured pieces, and number 11 is one of which Beethoven was particularly proud. On all of them Brawn plays with that particular balance of fire and elegance that is uniquely necessary to effectively convey Beethoven’s genius. All classical collections would be well advised to follow the progress of this series.


Various Composers
New World
Sirius Quartet
Zoho (dist. MVD)
ZM201908

New York’s Sirius Quartet put together this program as an “artistic reaction to the seismic disruptions caused by the election of US President Trump in 2016.” It consists of works either written or arranged by members of the quartet, and includes arrangements of pop songs by the Beatles (“Eleanor Rigby”) and Radiohead (“Knives Out”). Stylistically, the music tends to be veer from tense and angry to elegiac, as one might expect: violinist Fung Chern Hwei’s arrangement of Stanley Myers’ “Cavatina” is simple, lovely, and deeply sad; violinist Gregor Huebner’s arrangement of “Knives Out” is a frenetic, herky-jerk splutter of rage and frustration. The original compositions are the biggest draw here, though, and are stylistically varied and passionately rendered.


Various Composers
Mare Balticum Vol. 2: Medieval Finland and Sweden
Ensemble Peregrina (Basel) / Agnieszka Budzińska-Bennett
Tacet (dist. Naxos)
S 248

The first volume in this series, the stated purpose of which is to explore the medieval music of the Baltic Sea region (and which garnered a Rick’s Pick designation in the May 2018 issue of CD HotList), was devoted to music from Denmark. The second one focuses on Finland and Sweden, with a particular emphasis on chants that were unique to the Birgittine Order in the 14th century or that were composed in praise of St. Birgitta, patron saint of Sweden. Other selections come from the Åbo Gradual and Piae cantiones ecclesiastical et scholastic veteran episcoporum collections, and the program offers a nicely varied array of plainchant, part songs, hymns, antiphons, and sequences, all sung with magnificent clarity and purity by the members of Ensemble Pelegrina. For all collections.


Francisco Peñalosa; Pedro de Escobar; Francisco Guerrero
Lamentationes
New York Polyphony
BIS (dist. Naxos)
BIS-2407
Rick’s Pick

There are lots of Biblical texts that have attracted the attention of composers throughout history, and one of the most irresistible has been the Book of Lamentations–a set of five poems in which the prophet Jeremiah deplores the destruction of Jerusalem, calling on its people to repent. This absolutely stunning recording gathers together settings of those texts, alongside related ones, from three pillars of the Spanish Renaissance: Francisco Peñalosa, Pedro de Escobar, and Francisco Guerrero. As one would expect, the music is somber, dark, and deeply sad. As one might not expect, the four-voice, all-male ensemble New York Polyphony somehow manage to sound like a much larger and more diverse choir; I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a richer sound from such a small single-gender ensemble. Much of this music has been very rarely recorded, and this album should be considered a must-purchase for any library with a collecting interest in Renaissance music.


Johann Friedrich Fasch
Quartets and Concertos (reissue)
Ensemble Marsyas; Peter Whelan; Pamela Thorby
Linn (dist. Naxos)
CKR 467

Fasch is not a name that usually comes up in conversations about the baroque masters, but during his 36-year career at the court of Anhalt-Zerbst during the first part of the 18th century he composed music that was both well-loved and influential throughout Europe. This is a nicely organized program of chamber music for various combinations of wind and string instruments, including a remarkably virtuosic bassoon concerto and an unusual quartet scored for horn, oboe, violin, and continuo. Although the quartet for recorder, oboe, violin, and continuo is one of Fasch’s more popular compositions, much of the rest of this music will be unfamiliar to most listeners, and the playing by Ensemble Marsyas (on period instruments) is exemplary. (Originally issued in 2014.)


Pauline Kim Harris
Heroine
Sono Luminus (dist. Naxos)
DSL-92235
Rick’s Pick

Almost 45 years ago, Brian Eno released a foundational recording in the genre of ambient music. It was titled Discreet Music, and the first side of the album featured a long, soothing composition of the same title. But side 2 offered something different and much more radical: its “Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel” was a violent (though gentle-sounding) deconstruction of that popular work, accomplished by instructing a string ensemble to play its parts at shifting tempos, creating wild dissonances and other unpredictable effects. With the two pieces presented on her solo debut album, violinist and composer Pauline Kim Harris has closed the circle that Eno opened in 1975, creating two more-or-less ambient works based on deconstructions of baroque and Renaissance masterworks: the chaconne from Bach’s D-minor partita, and a 15th-century canon by Johannes Ockeghem. In collaboration with Spencer Topel, she created a process in which a live performer and an electronic feedback system interact with each other, generating new tones and textures as the work unfolds. The resulting music is eerie, unpredictable, and deeply moving. Highly recommended to all libraries.


JAZZ


Noah Preminger Group
Zigsaw: Music of Steve Lampert
Self-released
No cat. no.

Tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger is always worth hearing, and this is an unusually unique and ambitious project, even by his standards. The album consists of a single track, a 49-minute-long piece by composer Steve Lampert. It’s built on a knotty, almost dodecaphonic-sounding melody that unspools quickly and in highly regular time before giving way to three succeeding sections: an instrumental solo, a brief recapitulation of the melody, and then what he calls a “fantasy section” before the process begins again; the process repeats 12 times. Preminger leads a septet of uncommon virtuosity (as the piece requires), but his solos are particularly impressive. This recording is a prime example of how well jazz and modern classical traditions can blend, in the right hands.


Carmen Sandim
Play Doh
Ropeadope
RAD-521
Rick’s Pick

This is the first recording I’ve heard from pianist/composer Carmen Sandim, and I found it to be something of a revelation. Each one of these tunes (written for a septet of trumpet, trombone, reeds, guitar, and piano trio) led me to take note of something different about her writing: the subtle but fun hocketing on “Aruru, Juju”; the ways she plays with triple meters on “Aura-Cecilia”; the way that “Undergrowth” felt a bit like art-for-art’s-sake to me; the lovely and counterintuitive way that “Isaura” was a ballad that somehow grooved at midtempo; the way the head to “Me Gusta la Angustia” crept slowly and angularly into a lyrical and relaxed piano solo, etc. The playing is all beautiful, and the digital version of the album includes two bonus tracks (both featuring vocals). Very, very nice.


Chick Corea Trio
Trilogy 2 (2 discs)
Concord Jazz
CJA00183

Say what you want about his fusion work in the 1970s–like many fusioneers, pianist/composer Chick Corea is also a master of straight-ahead jazz, and his second outing at the head of a trio featuring bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade (the first was 2014’s three-disc extravaganza Trilogy) is a masterwork of standards interpretation, beautifully recorded over the course of the group’s recent world tour. The twelve tunes on the program include three Corea originals that can today fairly be called standards (“500 Miles High,” “La Fiesta,” and “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs”), as well as two Thelonious Monk compositions (“Crepuscule with Nellie,” “Work”) and American Songbook classics like “How Deep Is the Ocean” and “But Beautiful.” What makes the playing of this group special is the way that each player harnesses his virtuosity so effectively and tastefully–stepping out and blowing when appropriate, but always serving the song first, and making respectful room for everyone else. For all jazz collections.


Florian Hoefner Trio
First Spring
ALMA (dist. MVD)
ACD83092

I’ve been following Florian Hoefner’s career for some time now, and his latest album took me a bit by surprise. This time out he’s leading a piano trio rather than his usual quartet, and while you might expect that to mean a more traditional sound, you’d be mistaken. Yes, the group swings hard when it wants to, but they’re just as likely to play in a more impressionistic, less rhythmically-driven style–and while there are three Hoefner compositions on the program, the focus is on other people’s tunes, and on settings of folk songs: “Maid on the Shore,” “Rain and Snow,” and the Armenian folk song “Yoosin Yelav” (based on a setting by Luciano Berio). There’s a bit more arco bass than you’d normally expect on a jazz recording, often employed to approximate the sound of a fiddle, and generally speaking this is a remarkably and fresh and original-sounding album. Highly recommended.


John Yao’s Triceratops
How We Do (digital only)
See Tao Recordings
003

If you’re going to write about music in a useful and intelligent way, one of the things you have to do is figure out how to maintain a certain amount of separation between your personal tastes and your critical faculties. Can you recognize great music even if you don’t personally enjoy it that much? This is something I have to do all the time, and one of the personal tastes that I have to try to keep separate from my analysis is my strong preference for jazz combos that feature at least one chordal instrument. John Yao’s Triceratops is a quintet led by trombonist and composer John Yao, alongside saxophonists Billy Drewes and Jon Irabagon, bassist Peter Brendler, and drummer Mark Ferber. Having multiple wind instruments helps to fill the harmonic space left empty by the absence of a keyboard or guitar, of course, but in this case what’s more important is the fact that Yao writes music that actually benefits from the lack of chordal thickening: it’s frequently and significantly contrapuntal, and the relatively spare instrumental textures help keep those multiple intertwining lines clear. Yao and his group also have a winning way of being tight and boppy (or funky) one minute, free and skronky the next, and then snapping back into tight formation. This is fairly challenging, but highly rewarding music.


Mike Pachelli
High Standards
Fullblast Recordings
FBR2219
Rick’s Pick

There are lots of things to like about the playing of guitarist Mike Pachelli. The way he often sounds like he can barely restrain himself from sliding into blues phrasing, for example–or his exuberant tendency to suddenly and brilliantly overplay, not in a way that communicates show-offiness, but rather that feels like an organic expression of musical joy. (It’s hard to tell what he loves more: chord solos or sudden bursts of chromatic 32nd-note runs.) Then there’s his powerful sense of swing and the palpable love he brings to this program of genuinely hoary standards: “When You’re Smiling,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “What a Wonderful World”–these are the moldiest of jazz chestnuts, and he makes them all sound fresh and new. Oh, and let’s not forget his choice of sidemen, which is jaw-dropping: bassist Tony Levin (yes, that Tony Levin) and drummer Danny Gottlieb. What it all adds up to is a disc of pure, unadulterated jazz pleasure. For all collections.


Ola Onabulé
Point Less
Rugged Ram
RRAMCD15

We’ll call this one “jazz,” though singer-songwriter Ola Onabulé has long bestrode multiple genre categories. His background includes extensive gigging with small combos and big bands around Europe, and although it’s clear that jazz remains foundational to his art, on Point Less he is putting jazz tropes to use in promoting a vision that is at least as much social and political as musical. With his warm, grainy voice, he tells stories about the aftermath of violence, the effects of prejudice, and the spiritual gravity exerted by one’s homeland. The messages, however well-intentioned, would be ineffective if the music were less compelling, but these songs are powerful both musically and lyrically, and his voice is a consistent joy to hear. He’s performing a few select dates on the US east coast this fall, so keep an eye out for him–I’m willing to bet that he’s a powerhouse in concert.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Debra Cowan
Greening the Dark
Muzzy House Music
MHM 819
Rick’s Pick

Debra Cowan has selected an oustanding (if, at six tracks and 23 minutes, far too brief) program of new and old folk and folk-rock tunes for her latest collaborative project with drummer, producer, and arranger Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson Band). Traditional songs and modern compositions by Lal Waterson, John Tams, Richard Thompson and others all rub shoulders companionably, ably served by Cowan’s rich and powerful voice and by Mattacks’ gently-but-sturdily rocking arrangements. Highlights include a wonderful rendition of Thompson’s “The Old Changing Way” and Emily Portman’s update of the traditional song “Bones and Feathers.” There’s just something special about this album, which is recommended to all collections.


Jason James
Seems Like Tears Ago
Melodyville
No cat. no.

To call this music traditional honky-tonk country would be to understate things considerably: when Jason James started singing on the album’s title track, I had to double-check and make sure I hadn’t accidentally cued up an old George Jones disc. But as the program goes on, his individuality gradually makes itself more clearly felt: yes, his style is deeply traditional, not to say derivative, but James is putting old-school tropes to work in service of an organic and personal vision. A couplet like “Lovin’ you is like sleeping on the tracks/I’m just waiting around to die” is worthy of Hank Williams, and if he sounds a bit like Johnny Cash on that song and a bit like Big Sandy on “We’re Gonna Honky Tonk Tonight,” there’s nothing wrong with that. All of the songs are originals, and every one takes old musical ideas and brings them to new life. An outstanding debut from a major talent.


Dori Freeman
Every Single Star
Blue Hens Music
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

There ought to be a word for the particular feeling of delight I get when I open a package and see that it contains a new album from Dori Freeman. One of the most consistently brilliant practitioners of contemporary folk/country music, her albums are always filled with songs both affecting and powerful, anchored by perfect arrangements and always given a burnished sheen by the natural wonder that is Freeman’s voice: smooth but not off-puttingly polished, clear but imbued with color; strong but never aggressive. This one, produced again by the equally brilliant Teddy Thompson, is filled with delights as always: note the subtly crooked rhythms on “That’s How I Feel” and “Like I Do”; the subtly Caribbean lilt of “All I Ever Wanted” (which reminds me of “Blue Bayou” as reimagined by Eleni Mandel); the gentle dream-polka backbeat of “Another Time”; the constant thread of wonder as she contemplates parenthood and new love. For all collections.


ROCK/POP


Azam Ali
Phantoms (digital only)
Terrestrial Lane Productions
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

Iranian-American singer Azam Ali has had a long recording career already, mainly at the helm of the bands VAS and Niyaz, with whom she has explored various ways of blending American and European electro-pop sounds with the musical traditions of the Middle East and South Asia. But on her latest solo effort she moves from Middle Eastern electro-pop into defiantly 1980s-flavored shoegaze synth pop (a move made explicit by her cover of Cocteau Twins’ “Shallow Then Halo”). There are still certainly hints of Middle Eastern influence here–the occasional modal melody, the occasional shimmering santour–but the overall flavor is very European, quite Goth, and frequently funky. The album is actually something of a paean to the music of her adolescence, when she was steeped not only in various world-music traditions but also the recordings of Dead Can Dance, Joy Division, Nine Inch Nails, and Ministry. This album is a dark-hued but utterly engrossing delight from start to finish.


Middlemarch
The Mirror and the Light
Carpe Sonum
SEIZE-XLVI

About five years ago, Dimitris Avramidis and Ross Baker released the album Wolf Hall under the collective name Middlemarch. It consisted of piano pieces, recorded with heavy echo and sounding like they’d been played on an old and not terribly well-tuned upright piano. That combination of dense reverb and slightly questionable intonation gave the music an elegiac and slightly otherworldly flavor–like something that might have been played by the ghost of Harold Budd. Even more interesting is The Mirror and the Light, which consists of remixed versions of the tracks from Wolf Hall. Remix albums are more commonly a feature of the dance-music realm, so this project is pretty unusual. The producers involved (who include Riz Maslen, Zinovia Arvanitidi, and Shain Entezami) take a variety of approaches, some of them altering the original tracks fairly minimally, while others create eerie and abstract ambient soundscapes (Brian Dougans, on “The Dead Complain of Their Burial”) and others take small fragments of the orginal tracks and build new compositions around them (Tim Dwyer’s gorgeous take on “Angels”) or incorporate subtle elements of electronic funk (Arvanitidi’s mix of “The Dead Complain of Their Burial”). Both discs are great, but I have to say that the remix collection is quite special.


Fastball
The Help Machine
33 1/3 (dist. Redeye)
FBL-002
Rick’s Pick

You can always count on Fastball. You may love them or not, but you can always count on them: you can count on Tony Scalzo to write heart-stoppingly beautiful songs with lots of chords, and you can count on Miles Zuniga to write solid meat-and-potatoes rockers that will keep your foot tapping and keep you trying to harmonize while you drive around listening in your car. And on their latest album you can count on producer Steve Berlin (of Los Lobos fame) to create a consistently crisp and crunchy soundfield for those songs, rendering as nearly perfect a modern rock album as you could ask for.


Meemo Comma
Sleepmoss (vinyl/digital only)
Planet Mu (dist. Redeye)
ZIQ409

The prize for Artist Pseudonym of the Year goes to Lara Rix-Martin, a producer based in Brighton, England who records under the name Meemo Comma. This is her second release, and it’s something of a concept album: all of its abstract, eerie, and often deeply weird soundscapes are intended to reflect “the glory of solitude and the richness of romance that can be found in nature.” This isn’t program music; you’re not going to hear anything as specific as a musical evocation of the sound of the wind over the South Downs or the crash and murmur of waves on the beach. Instead, Rix-Martin is interested in exploring the human feelings that are created in our interactions with nature, and especially with nature at its wildest, most lonely, and most uncontrollable. Some of this music is quiet and contemplative, but sometimes it’s downright disturbing, which is exactly what she intends. Highly recommended.


The Well Wishers
The Lost Soundtrack
thatwasmyskullmusic
No cat. no.

Yet another slab of world-class power pop from Jeff Shelton, former frontman for Bay Area favorites the Spinning Jennies and now the guy who plays all the guitars, the bass, and the drums, and who sings all the vocal parts for the Well Wishers. His latest album has a pretty interesting back story: in 2014, Shelton was commissioned to write songs for a movie soundtrack. He worked on the project for more than a year, but then things started going sideways–and, as they often do, the film ended up being shelved. A few years later, Shelton decided that the songs shouldn’t suffer the same fate; thus, this album. And sure enough, the songs are great, in the way Well Wishers songs always are: dense without being heavy, crunchy without being painful, sweet without being saccharine. It’s fun to listen and try to figure out what the movie would have been about.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Rez Abbasi Silent Ensemble
A Throw of Dice
Whirlwind
WR4741

For this unusual and truly wonderful recording, guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi created a soundtrack for a 1929 Indian-German silent film called A Throw of Dice: A Romance of India. Instead of writing music that might sound like it came from the 1920s (some early hot jazz, say, or Indian classical music), Abbasi wrote music that draws on jazz and on Indian music, but that also takes freely from whatever traditions are necessary in order to support and amplify the emotions and events taking place on the screen. The result is a coherent but constantly shifting array of elements: sitar-guitar, saxophones, bansuri, Indian percussion, modern drum set, upright bass, etc. Heard separately from the movie, the music feels at once organic and mysterious, faintly programmatic but not fully tethered to any specific visual narrative. It must be even better in the context of the film, but it’s consistently interesting and enjoyable as a listening experience.


Origin One
Deeply Rooted (digital & vinyl only)
Nice Up!
NUPLP005
Rick’s Pick

This is a nicely varied collection of modern reggae (and reggae-adjacent) tracks from Nottingham artist Kevin Thomson, who records under the name Origin One. He’s the writer and producer, but what you hear front and center is a succession of A-list guest vocalists representing various facets of the UK scene, including Parly B (“Mi Bredren”), Soom T (“Jah Jah”), and Gardna (on “Nice & Easy,” a lovely combination track with the sweet-voiced singer Nanci Correia). And you’ve got the requisite horticultural anthem (“High Grade”), a sturdy reggae/hip-hop fusion tune featuring singjay K.O.G. Thomson keeps his sound solidly centered in vintage UK roots tradition, but also delves into jungle, bashment, and grime sounds, making this not only a wonderfully engaging listening experience but also an outstanding survey of what’s happening in the UK reggae universe at the moment. Highly recommended.


Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party
Live at WOMAD 1985
Real World (dist. PIAS)
CDRW225
Rick’s Pick

For anyone who thinks devotional music can’t be fun, I have four words: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Perhaps the greatest (and certainly the most famous) exponent of qawwali, a style of Sufi Muslim praise singing that is hugely popular in Pakistan and North India, Khan was not yet world famous in 1985, but this performance would launch him to global acclaim. That year, Khan and his group were invited to perform at Peter Gabriel’s annual World of Music, Art, and Dance (WOMAD) festival in England. At about midnight on a Saturday night, they set up onstage: two rows of men and one young boy, two of them playing the harmonium (a bellows-driven keyboard), one playing tabla, and everyone clapping and singing along in response as Khan wove complex and ecstatic melismas out of melodies that were complicated to begin with. The performance was astounding, and frankly still is, and the recording of it has never been commercially released before–so this album is both a surprise and a treasure.


Go: Organic Orchestra and Brooklyn Raga Massive
Ragmala: A Garland of Ragas (2 discs)
Meta/BRM
023

Occupying a liminal space somewhere in the fuzzy borderlands that separate classical Indian music, big band jazz, and contemporary Western art music, this two-disc album is an expression of the unique “future orchestra” vision of Adam Rudolph, founder of Go: Organic Orchestra. For this project he got his group together with Brooklyn Raga Massive, a collective that celebrates Indian classical tradition while also pushing it in unusual directions, and he created a program consisting of 20 pieces that rely on a blend of notated music and improvisation and that draw on musical genres and traditions from around the globe–Gnawa singing, jazzy horn charts, Afro-funk, Indian ragas, klezmer clarinets, Afro-Cuban rhythms, etc. The result could have been a chaotic mess of self-conscious multiculturalism, but instead it comes across as a brilliantly colored kaleidoscope of sounds and textures–not always completely compelling (how could it be?) but frequently brilliant and at certain points tremendously fun.


Hope Masike
The Exorcism of a Spinster
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
TUGCD1122
Rick’s Pick

Mmmmmmm… Hope Masike. Not only is she one of the most impressive singers on the African continent and a pioneer as a female player of the mbira (traditionally an instrument played only by men), she’s also got an amazing melodic gift. A new album from her is always an event to be cherished, and her latest is no exception. Throughout The Exorcism of a Spinster, she blends African and Western musical elements seamlessly, and to beautiful effect: listen to the interweaving guitar lines on “Ndoitasei,” the complex call-and-response harmonies on “Zunde,” and the gently propulsive and complex polyrhythms on the title track. Every song has little revelations to offer, and the album is yet another triumph from this outstanding artist.

September 2019


PICK OF THE MONTH


Art Pepper
Promise Kept: The Complete Artists House Recordings (reissue; 5 discs)
Omnivore
OVCD-333

First, the backstory: back in the early 1970s, Art Pepper was emerging from a long period of drug addiction and periodic incarceration and trying to get back into the jazz scene. Producer John Snyder had wanted to record him for years, and got him booked at the Village Vanguard for a week–but Pepper’s contractual obligations to the Contemporary label made it impossible for Snyder to release the resulting live recordings on his label, so Pepper promised to record an album in the studio for Snyder. When the time came to do so, they ended up making four albums together: So in Love, Artworks, New York Album, and Stardust. The rhythm sections Snyder assembled are jaw-droppping: Hank Jones, Ron Carter, and Al Foster on two albums; George Cables, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins on the other two. Much of this material has been released previously in a variety of physical and online formats, but in addition to the original albums, this set contains 19 tracks from the sessions that have never been released in any form previously. There are so many treasures here: Pepper’s relaxed, agile navigation of “Anthropology” on the clarinet, in a piano-less trio setting; a beautifully affecting solo saxophone rendition of “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be)” (and another solo rendition of the same tune on clarinet). You can hear Pepper starting to stretch out his style a bit here, expanding from the straight-ahead West Coast cool approach that characterized his 1950s recordings and moving in the more adventurous directions of his late-1970s and early-1980s work. This is a treasure trove for library jazz collections.


CLASSICAL


Claude Debussy
Of Motion and Dance: Piano Music of Claude Debussy
Jerry Wong
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
MS 1678

Because he’s such a household name–one of a handful of composers that virtually anyone can name, no matter how little attention they pay to classical music–it’s easy to forget how deeply weird Debussy’s music could be. Often characterized as “impressionistic,” it might be more accurate to say that Debussy did for piano music what Mahler did for orchestral music, in that he effectively served as the midwife for the Romantic era’s delivery of its modernistic child. This collection is organized around the idea of physical movement and dance, and finds pianist Jerry Wong interpreting a wide variety of brief pieces in a program centered on Debussy’s celebrated Suite bergamasque (which is patterned on the baroque dance suite). Wong never argues the dance idea too strenuously, but he does make clear the connections between the pieces in this highly varied set. Highly recommended.


Johann Sebastian Bach
Sonatas & Partitas for Violin (2 discs)
Johnny Gandelsman
In a Circle
ICR010
Rick’s Pick

Recognizing that solo violin music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and recognizing further that solo violin music by Bach can reasonably be expected to sound dry and academic, I nevertheless encourage anyone who’s skeptical to seriously consider this outstanding account of Bach’s magisterial set of three sonatas and three partitas for unaccompanied violin. Are these works virtuosic? Yes, of course they are. But they are also by turns fun, dark, contemplative, sprightly, thrilling, and knotty. There moments where the virtuosity is technical and will leave you disbelieving that only one violin is being played; at other moments, the virtuosity is that of invention and harmonic mastery, as the violinist manages to create virtual chords out of single lines (and, of course, double-stops). Johnny Gandelsman’s playing is exquisite, and the production is centrally important: the sound is dry-ish and intimate, but still rich with color. For all classical collections.


Various Composers
Treasures of Devotion: European Spiritual Song ca. 1500
Boston Camerata / Anne Azéma
Music & Arts (dist. Naxos)
CD-1296

For 65(!) years now, the Boston Camerata has been one of America’s most beloved and respected early-music ensembles, known not only for its musical expertise but also for the innovation and creativity of its concert and recording programming. The group’s latest release is a collection of sacred music written not for liturgical or ceremonial (or even public) events such as worship services or ritual celebration, but rather for private devotion. These are songs by which the devout, whether alone or in a family setting, would call for intercession from various saints, or celebrate the Christmas season, or encourage themselves and each other to greater piety and religious dedication. Some were written to the tunes of popular (even bawdy) songs of the period, while others are original songs written by such familiar names as Alexander Agricola, Josquin Desprez, Claudin de Sermisy, and Ludwig Senfl. Most of them are monodic, a single voice being accompanied by varying combinations of lute, viols, harp, and hurdy gurdy. The singing is pure and lovely, and the recorded sound is warm and clear. For all early music collections.


Francesco Tristano
Tokyo Stories
Sony Classical
19075927602

It’s fun to see more and more recordings coming out that blur the lines between the classical, jazz, and electronic genres. This release is by pianist/composer Francesco Tristano, who fell in love with the city of Tokyo while he was a teenaged Juilliard student, and has since returned to the city over and over again. The pieces collected here are intended to reflect his experiences there; it’s not tone poetry exactly, but rather a program of musical treatments of very subjective impressions and feelings about the place. The piano is central to each track, but contributions from other musicians are included as well (notably saxophonist Michel Portal and tabla player U-zhaan) and subtle electronic elements are threaded throughout the compositions. This is very lovely, deeply reflective music.


Carl Stone
Himalaya
Unseen Worlds
UW028CD

And speaking of musicians whose work spans genres, here’s another intriguing, engrossing, and slightly exhausting album from Carl Stone (whose Baroo I recommended here just a few months ago). As with his previous release, on this one he takes previously-existing recordings and chops and loops them up into something completely new–though this time, his source material comes from various parts of Asia. The music is characterized by a steady pulse and often by an actual groove, but the kaleidoscopic variety and relentless energy of sounds contained within that rhythmic framework are dizzyingly complex. Don’t try to do anything else while you’re listening to this music, but do listen to it.


Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach Reworks (LP and digital only)
Víkingur Ólafsson
Deutsche Grammophon
0 28948 35831 1
Rick’s Pick

And, gosh, I guess there’s no reason to let this thread die–here’s yet another outstanding (and also completely different) example of how classical and electronic remix culture can interact. What we have here is a collection of Bach transcriptions performed by the exceptional Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson–but with a difference. His recordings of these pieces have been reconfigured, remixed, and generally reconceived to varying degrees of radicalness by such contemporary artists as Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ben Frost, Valgeir Sigurðsson, and Peter Gregson. In most cases the reworkings are quite gentle and unintrusive, and the mood of the whole album is generally quiet and contemplative. But there is some serious weirdness here: Frost’s “Ladder Mix” of the Prelude BWV 855a is almost entirely unrecognizable and quite dark, while Valgeir Sigurðsson treatment of the same track turns it into glitchy near-synthpop; Sakamoto’s rework of the adagio movement from BWV974 (Bach’s keyboard arrangement of Marcello’s oboe concerto) is both chilly and sonically enormous. The whole thing is gorgeous and strange and really quite wonderful.


Edith Hemenway
To Paradise for Onions
Claron McFadden; Roberta Alexander, et al.
Etcetera (dist. MVD)
KTC 1632

These six sets of songs and instrumental chamber works by American composer Edith Hemenway (arranged for varying combinations of voice, clarinet, cello, and piano) are all presented here in world-premiere recordings. Hemenway began her musical career as an organist, but soon discovered that she had a particular talent for composing art song; she later went on to write several children’s operas as well. The songs on this program are performed by sopranos Claron McFadden and Roberta Alexander, who are excellent, but what really grabbed me were the pieces written for clarinetist Nancy Braithwaite–who is also the performer on these recordings, alongside cellist Michael Stirling and pianist Vaughan Schlepp. Hemenway’s writing navigates beautifully that narrow space between bracing modernism and aching lyricism–Asian Figures has a particularly vinegary loveliness–and the performances on this disc are outstanding. For all classical collections.


Maryanne Amacher
Petra
Marianne Schroeder; Stefan Tcherepnin
Blank Forms Editions
BF-005

Maryanne Amacher (1938-2009) was better known as a sound-installation artist and explorer of psychoacoustics than as a conventional composer, and this is the first-ever commercial recording of one of her pieces for musical instruments other than tape or installed machines. Written for two pianos, Petra was commissioned for the ISCM World Music Days in Switzerland back in 1991, and while it has been publicly performed several times, this is the first time it’s been recorded for release. It’s a very interesting work, one that is characterized less by harmonic than by textural progression, with passages of spiky dissonance flowing into moments of pulsing, consonant repetition and sections of near-silence. Libraries collecting heavily in 20th-century music should definitely consider picking this one up.


Various Composers
Florilegium Portense: Motets & Hymns (Selection)
Vocal Concert Dresden; Capella Sagttariana Dresden / Peter Kopp
Carus (dist. Naxos)
83.492

The Florilegium Portense is a collection of sacred motets compiled from the work of such composers as Hieronymus Praetorius, Hans Leo Hassler, Giovanni Gabrieli, and Jacobus Gallus (as well as relatively obscure figures like Sethus Calvisius and Andreas Pevernage) and printed in 1618. Distributed widely to church and school choirs and court chapels at the time, it was important not only as a collection of significant musical works but also as a distribution method for Lutheran doctrinal teaching, principles of which are embedded throughout the sung texts–this despite the fact that the composers represented here include notable Catholics. As one might expect, the grandeur of these songs is somewhat restrained, though Orlando di Lasso’s Confitebor tibi Domine and Adam Gumpelhaimer’s magnificent Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum are certainly not lacking in intensity. The vocal performances here are outstanding, and the Lukaskirche of Dresden provides a perfect acoustic–just reverberant enough, without muddying the music.


JAZZ


Eliane Elias
Love Stories
Concord Jazz
CJA00140

The title says it all: this is a smooth, sweet, lush, and gently rolling collection of jazz and pop love songs, all delivered with a bossa flavor by one of the smoothest and lushest of all jazz singers–and a very fine pianist, to boot. The track that will induce a chuckle is her bossa version of the 1970s bedroom-schlock classic “Baby Come to Me,” a song that Elias makes attractive without downplaying its schlockiness. Instead she inhabits and elevates it (somewhat, anyway) with restraint and a whispering sexiness. Elsewhere she delivers a similarly gentle and lovely rendition of “Come Fly With Me” and several fine originals. I’m not sure the orchestral strings were necessary, or at least not on every track, but this is a great album overall.


Ateshkhan Yuseinov
Strange Suite
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
TUGCD1123

Here we move from the smooth, gentle and lush to the sharply challenging and virtuosic. Ateshkhan Yuseinov is a guitarist of truly jaw-dropping virtuosity, one whose lightning-fast solo lines bring to mind a young John McLaughlin–though one less interested in India and more interested in the Balkans. Yuseinov hails from Bulgaria, and you can hear it everywhere in his compositions, which feature not only lightning tempos but also vinegary melodies and complex rhythmic structures. Too often hotshot guitarist satisfy themselves with showing off, but Yuseinov is doing much more than that: he’s demonstrating what can happen when jazz fuses with Balkan folk music, and how much fun it can be–especially when you team up with a world-class beatboxer. I don’t recommend listening to this one in the car unless you want to get a ticket.


Mathias Lévy
Unis Vers
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 902506

Eagle-eyed observers will see the details of this disc–an album by an accomplished jazz violinist, playing the instrument famously owned by the late Stéphane Grappelli, accompanied mainly by an acoustic guitarist and a bassist–and will think “Ah! Another celebration of the Gypsy/Manouche jazz tradition.” It’s a reasonable expectation, one that is completely undermined within the first couple of minutes of music. While the Gypsy jazz tradition is certainly being honored here, Lévy’s compositions can only be called “jazz” in the most abstract sense. The music is both lyrical and astringent, by turns soaringly tuneful and sharply dissonant, while always expressng that aching sense of longing that so often characterized the best of Django Reinhardt’s and Stéphane Grappelli’s compositions and performances. There is usually a regular meter, but rarely anything that could reasonably be called a groove. In short, this is modern and expressionistic music that gains meaning from its positioning in a jazz context, but expresses something very different from what we expect jazz to express. Highly recommended.


David Finck
BASSically Jazz
Green Hill Music/Burton Avenue Music
GHD6210
Rick’s Pick

A great album with a terrible title, this release is led by bassist David Finck, who has played behind everyone from Phil Woods and Paquito D’Rivera to George Michael and Kenny Rankin. Here he steps out as a leader and arranger, creating wonderful versions of both familiar standards and surprising newer tunes (the theme from Narcos, anyone?), constantly demonstrating not only his virtuosity but also–even more importantly–his taste. Check out, for example, his utterly lovely arco rendition of “When I Look in Your Eyes,” which is noteworthy: too few jazz bassists can convincing pull off an arco solo, especially on a ballad that features long sustained tones and brutally exposes any weaknesses of intonation. There are several vocal tunes here, the best of which is “Bluesette,” featuring the rich and smoky voice of Alexis Cole. But really, it’s hard to pick highlights when every track is so good. Strongly recommended to all jazz collections.


Fred Frith
Woodwork: Live aux Ateliers Claus
KlangGalerie (dist. MVD)
GG308
Rick’s Pick

I wish I could say what it is that has always so completely entranced me about Fred Frith’s prepared guitar and guitar-on-the-table recordings. Heaven knows I would understand if someone else were to run screaming from the room immediately upon hearing the scrapes, clicks, whines, howls, and near-human babblings Frith creates using these extended techniques. And yet I find that I can listen to this stuff for hours. Maybe it’s the sheer, luscious sensual variety of the noises; maybe it’s the fact that for the most part, the music ends up being gentle and thoughtful rather than noisy and assaultive (though it can be that as well). Maybe it’s just the intellectual stimulation of constantly wondering “How on earth did he make that sound using a guitar?” Most likely, it’s a combination of all of them. Anyway, check this one out, and if it captivates you the way it does me, then start working backwards: find a copy (if you can) of his magisterial Live in Japan set, then go back even further to his groundbreaking Guitar Solos album (ideally the 1991 East Side Digital reissue, with ten bonus tracks). You’re welcome. Or I’m sorry, whichever you feel applies.


John Zorn
Netzach: Masada Book 3, The Book Beri’ah (reissue)
Gnostic Trio
Tzadik (dist. Redeye)
TZ 5107

Those familiar with the work of John Zorn–the man for whom the musical designation “skronk” may as well have been invented–will be expecting something very different from what’s offered here on this delicately beautiful recording. Originally issued as part of Zorn’s monumental The Book Beri’ah box set (itself the final installment of his 25-year Masada project, and available only by mail order due to a financial disaster involving its original distribution company), Netzach features the trio of Bill Frisell (guitar), Carol Emanuel (harp), and Kenny Wollesen (vibes) playing nine modal melodies in what sound like varying degrees of composed and improvised harmony. The music progresses slowly and mainly in a circular manner, but is never still; the interplay between the instruments is fascinating even as the music is relaxing and essentially trance-inducing. Gorgeous.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Martin Hayes & Brooklyn Rider
The Butterfly
In a Circle
ICR012
Rick’s Pick

In a genre dominated by show-offs, Martin Hayes is something rare: a fiddler of deep thoughtfulness and exquisite taste. (Having seen him live, I can attest that he’s as technically accomplished as any other world-class Irish fiddler; what makes him different is that he generally resists the temptation to show off, especially in the studio.) On his latest album he teams up with the genre-transgressing string quartet Brooklyn Rider to perform arrangements of ten classic session tunes, one Hayes original, and one new tune by composer Peadar Ó Riada. Some of the arrangements are by members of the ensemble, and all of them are both intelligent and fun. Their take on “Mulqueen’s,” normally played as a reel, is given a particularly hard-swinging hornpipe treatment here, and their version of the title track, a lovely slip jig, is complex and exquisitely beautiful. Recommended to all libraries.


Hot Club of Cowtown
Wild Kingdom
Gold Strike
GS006
Rick’s Pick

And speaking of hard-swinging, here’s a treat: the first new album of original material in ten years from Austin’s always-brilliant Hot Club of Cowtown. The trio’s name reflects the particular stylistic fusion that has been its calling card for 25 years: Western swing and hot jazz. Fiddler and singer Elana James is the dominant voice this time out: of the album’s 11 original songs, seven are James compositions. (There are also three covers: an arrangement of the Scottish tune “Loch Lomond,” and versions of “Three Little Words” and “How High the Moon.”) It’s hard to say which elements of this group’s sound are the most winning: James’ fiddle, Whit Smith’s guitar, Jake Erwin’s virtuosic slap bass, or all of their vocals. What they all add up to is a band that has not made a weak album yet, and this one is among their best.


Eilen Jewell
Gypsy
Signature Sounds (dist. Redeye)
SIG-CD-2115

Idaho singer-songwriter Eilen Jewell has been making top-notch country and roots-rock music for years now, but this is her first album of original material since 2015. It was worth waiting for. The songs are informed by her experience as a new parent (“Witness”), by political frustration (“Beat the Drum”), and by the constant grind of sexism (“79 Cents [The Meow Song]”). The mood is generally dark and the songs are mostly in minor keys, but there’s defiance peeking out from every shadow–and often more than just defiance: genuine hope. One of Jewell’s strengths as a songwriter is that she never mistakes snark for insight, and she always reaches for the latter. And her band positively cooks.


ROCK/POP


Smoking Popes
Into the Agony
Asian Man
AM-318
Rick’s Pick

The Chicagoland pop-punk group Smoking Popes have had an interesting history: after achieving significant regional success in the early 1990s, they went on hiatus when frontman Josh Caterer stepped away from music to focus on his spiritual life. Seven years later the band reformed and started recording and playing out again, and if anything their sound is sharper and more focused than ever before. Caterer’s voice remains central and distinctive, an incongruously mellow croon that nicely complements the band’s dense, crunchy sound. Pull quote, from the opening track: “I don’t wanna simmer down/Oh-oh-oh-oh-oooooh.” Indeed they don’t, and we don’t want them to. Highly recommended to all pop collections.


Rubinoos
From Home
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)
YEP-2650

It’s now been 40 years since the Rubinoos first burst onto the power-pop scene with their debut album, and although the group has technically persisted since its original incarnation broke up in 1980, this is the first release by the original lineup since 1979’s Back to the Drawing Board. And members of their reasonably large and unreasonably patient worldwide cult will be very happy to know that From Home sounds like it could have been made in 1978: crunchy and jangly guitars, tight harmonies, swooning melodies, and lead vocals that remain unaccountably clear and high-pitched (given these guys’ ages). They’ve still got that perfect balance of looseness and tightness working for them, and the hooks just fall like rain. Recommended to all pop collections.


Re-Flex
The Politics of Dancing: Revised Expanded Edition (reissue; 2 discs)
Warner/Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
WCRPOPD211

And while we’re harking back a few decades, I can’t resist recommending this little slice of early-80s synthpop, now reissued with a bonus disc of alternate and extended mixes. To be very clear: what makes this reissue interesting is not that it sheds any new insight on the genre–rather, it’s the fact that Re-Flex represented more or less the distilled essence of it. From John Baxter’s chesty, pre-industrial vocals to the machinelike drums and alternately lush and bleepy synths, these guys designed the buliding that other, more successful bands would occupy for a decade to come. This album produced one big hit, the title track, and then they were basically done–their second album was recorded in 1985 but wasn’t released until 2010. Other material was recorded over the years, but never released, or released much later, or used for movie soundtracks. Given the quality of their debut album, though, it’s surprising that it’s taken so long for a deluxe reissue to come out.


Those Pretty Wrongs
Zed for Zulu
Burger (dist. Redeye)
BRGR1412

Luther Russell
Medium Cool
Fluff & Gravy
FNG056

Those Pretty Wrongs are a duo consisting of Memphis-based singer-songwriter Jody Stephens (formerly of Big Star) and Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Luther Russell. Together they make quiet but sturdy acoustic-based jangle pop wth occasional hints of subtle humor (the slightly exaggerated phase shifting on “The Carousel,” for example) and cultural complexity (the Klezmer-y clarinet on “Hurricane of Love”). The vocals are generally workmanlike and unassuming, until the harmonies kick in, at which point the hair will start rising on your neck. Russell records by himself as well, and his most recent solo album has a much rawer, more rockish (and sometimes almost psychedelic) feel to it than his work with Stephens. Here he plays a list of instruments as long as your arm and is assisted only by a bassist and drummer and a couple of one-track-each guests. Poking through the sprawling, crunchy guitar-rock sound are lyrics that probe deep concerns around aging, social acceptance, and not being able to go home again, and if the whole thing doesn’t feel quite like a cri de coeur, it’s not quite not a cri de coeur either. Both albums are excellent, though each in a very different way.


Datach’i
Bones
Timesig (dist. Redeye)
010
Rick’s Pick

Joseph Fraioli, who records under the name Datach’i, has recorded rarely over the past 20 years, releasing his first album in a decade back in 2016 and now following it up with this wonderful and complex new collection of tracks. While he works in the normally quite chilly and forbidding genre of drill’n’bass (imagine drum’n’bass, only faster, colder, and more robotic), on Bones his sound is a bit warmer and more emotionally intense. The music was composed in the wake of his father’s death, and consists in part of sounds that he sampled using a guitar he bought for his father during the latter’s cancer treatments. There is actually great beauty here among the blips, glitches, snaps and pops, and it’s not even that difficult to access–floating chords and lovely, bittersweet harmonic progressions are everywhere. Highly recommended.


Pitch Black
Third Light
Dubmission
CDDUB089

I’ve been championing the Dubmission label and its many wonderful artists for years, and the latest from New Zealand’s Pitch Black provides just one more reason why. Third Light sways between techno, downbeat, dub, and drum’n’bass styles while delivering everything with the group’s trademarked expansive and and deeply bassy signature. One of the things I’ve always loved about these guys is how soft they sound on the surface, and how weird and gritty and progressive their music is when you listen a bit more closely. See if you can catch the political subtexts on this one while you’re dancing!


WORLD/ETHNIC


Various Artists
Under Frustration Vol. 2 (LP  & digital only)
InFiné/Shouka
iF1053
Rick’s Pick

Though billed as a various-artists collection, which it truly is, in order to understand the second installment in the Under Frustration series you need to know that it’s the product of a specific group of musicians–a Tunisian collaborative called the Arabstazy Collective. Founded and led by someone who goes by the name Mettani, this collective is “a medium to keep questioning the meaning and the relevance of the supposed Arab unity, by exploring and facing the way the Arab world is perceived, but also how it perceives itself, perceives others and perceives its own perception of itself.” If that sounds like a heavy agenda, be warned that the music is heavy as well–but not in an oppressive way. The artists involved tend to favor cyclic repetition and the simultaneous invocation and subversion of explicitly Arabic cultural tropes in ways that are consistently fascinating. I’ll be filing these collections next to my Muslimgauze albums, where they’ll fit in nicely.


Mungo’s Hi Fi X Eva Lazarus
More Fyah
Scotch Bonnet
SCOBCD012
Rick’s Pick

The latest release from Glasgow, Scotland’s world-class reggae soundsystem and production crew Mungo’s Hi Fi is also a feature vehicle for up-and-coming singer Eva Lazarus, and truly it’s a match made in heaven. She turns a cover of Beats International’s “Dub Be Good to Me” (itself a refix of the S.O.S. Band’s “Just Be Good to Me”) into a Mungo’s tribute dubplate, she expertly rides a horn-heavy neo-ska rhythm on “We Weren’t Made for This,” and then she works a booming, jungly future-bass groove with equal aplomb on the title track. As always, the Mungo’s Hi Fi rhythms are simultaneously forward-looking and tradition-celebrating, and this combination creates yet another in an ongoing string of utterly essential modern reggae albums. I simply can’t recommend this one in strong enough terms.


Mariachi los Camperos
De ayer para siempre
Smithsonian Folkways
SFW 40582
Rick’s Pick

This venerable mariachi ensemble got its start in 1950 in the city of Mexicali, when the young arranger Nati Cano joined a local band and eventually took over, relocating the group to Los Angeles and founding a musical dynasty that continues to this day. (If you’ve listened to Linda Ronstadt’s two dynamite mariachi albums, Canciones de mi padre volumes 1 and 2, then you heard these guys backing her up.) Cano passed away in 2014 and passed the torch to Jesús “Chuy” Guzmán, who now leads the group, and on their tenth studio album they continue to explore the son, ranchera, and bolero traditions with the expertise and soul we’ve come to expect from them. Also with an unbelievably, preternatural tightness and a richness of vocal tone that have to be heard to be believed. Highly recommended to all libraries.

August 2019


PICK OF THE MONTH


Jóhann Jóhannsson
Retrospective 1 (7 discs)
Various artists and ensembles
Deutsche Grammophon
00289 483 6582

Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson died tragically and senselessly at the age of 48, but not before leaving behind a rich catalog of music. He was known primarily for his work as a film and theater composer, but he also produced quite a bit of solo work that was not connected or related to other media. He famously said that he had “a strong belief in the power of simplicity and emotional directness,” but that should not lead one to expect his work to actually be simple, though it sometimes comes across that way as the result of careful and even complex design. This seven-disc box contains two freestanding solo releases and five film scores, one of them (White Black Boy) previously unreleased. While his style–often characterized by varied repetition alternating with silence or near-silence and utilizing a mix of orchesral and electronic instruments–is recognizable across most of these albums, one of them is a clear stylistic outlier: Dís is straight-up synth pop, written to accompany a comedic film about life in Jóhannsson’s native Iceland. Another interesting anomaly is The Miners’ Hymns, which was written as the score to a film that did not yet actually exist; American filmmaker Bill Morrison ended up actually creating a movie to suit the soundtrack. Jóhannsson’s soundtrack to Free the Mind is the one that perhaps sounds most like a conventional film score. With the exception of Dís, which is good fun but not particularly exceptional musically, everything here is deeply beautiful. I’m very much looking forward to the next installment in what looks to be planned as an ongoing series of catalog reissues from this composer.


CLASSICAL


Johann Sebastian Bach
The Well-tempered Clavier (2 discs)
Keith Jarrett
ECM
2627/28
Rick’s Pick

Though this may look like a reissue of Keith Jarrett’s acclaimed 1988 recording of Bach’s iconic collection of preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys, in fact it’s something different: a previously-unreleased recording of a concert he gave at the famous Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in March of 1987, prior to the release of the studio albums (which are still available in two separate volumes). For this lucky audience he performed the entire work in a single evening, and the sound quality of the recording is absolutely wonderful: clear, rich, and just reverberant enough. But it’s the quality of the playing that makes this album so special. Though in the mid-1980s Jarrett had begun making classical recordings (most notably, at this point, his monumental performance of Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa with Gidon Kremer), he was still known primarily as a jazz and improvising pianist. His sureness of touch and the combination of intellectual and spiritual connection that he clearly felt to this music caught the attention of the classical punditocracy of the moment, and he has gone from strength to strength as a classical pianist since then. This release should be considered an essential purchase for all classical collections.


Various Composers
Clarinet Classics at Riversdale
Robert DiLutis; Mellifera Quartet
Delos (dist. Naxos)
DE 3561

This is a nicely stylistically varied celebration both of a musical concept–chamber music for clarinet with (or mostly with) strings–and of a venue: the Riversdale House Museum in Maryland, which boasts a restored carriage house that has served as an intimate concert hall in recent years. The program consists of relatively familiar fare, such as Weber’s B-flat quintet for clarinet and strings, as well as more modern and obscure pieces, notable among them Miklós Rósza’s Sonatina and Willson Osborne’s Rhapsody for Clarinet, both of them written for the instrument without accompaniment. The aching lyricism of the Webern work (and of the adagio by Heinrich Joseph Baermann) are nicely complemented by the slightly more angular modernism of the Rósza and Osborne pieces, and everyone’s playing is exemplary.


Various Composers
Messe du Roi Soleil
Marguerite Louise / Gaétan Jarry
Château de Versailles Spectacles (dist. Naxos)
CVS008

Imaginative recreations of major royal or liturgical events have become a common feature of the baroque-music landscape in recent decades, and this recording offers “an imaginary service” that combines the various features of “high” and “low” Masses during the reign of the famously musical and devout King Louis XIV–this despite the fact that this performance (recorded live) doesn’t actually feature any Mass content at all; instead, it consists of psalm settings, motets, and organ works by a variety of important composers of the period, including François Couperin, Michel-Richard Delalande, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and François-André Dabican Philidor, in settings ranging from full choir with orchestra to solo, duo, and trio vocalists. The music is exactly as glorious as one would expect, and the live recorded sound is better than one would expect. Perhaps not essential for all classical collections, but recommended nevertheless.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Sonatas
David Fung
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
30107

As a young budding virtuoso, David Fung gravitated towards the music of Mozart–but his teachers (while encouraging him to master it) warned him not to play it publicly. Maybe they were intentionally using reverse psychology; in any event, at age 22 Fung won the Mozart Prize at the Rubinstein Piano Competition, playing Mozart’s piano concerto number 25. And now we have this very fine recording of Mozart sonatas–an interesting program consisting of three early works (sonatas numbers 2, 4, and 5) and a late one (number 17), allowing us to see in one breathtaking transition the progress that Mozart had made as a keyboard composer between the ages of 19 and 33. Of course, some of what one might call “progress” was simply stylistic change; the early sonatas were written during the early- to mid-classical period, while number 17 came as that period was getting ready to give way to the Romantic era. Fung’s playing is stunning, his sense of line and emotional narrative exceptional. Highly recommended to all classical collections.


Jean de Sainte-Colombe
Le monde de Sainte-Colombe: Une sélection de Concerts à deux violes esgales
Les Voix Humaines
ATMA Classique (dist. Naxos)
ACD2 3021

Leonora Duarte
The Complete Works
Sonnambula / Elizabeth Weinfield
Centaur (dist. Naxos)
CRC 3685

Here are two very different recordings featuring the viola da gamba in an ensemble setting. Jean de Sainte-Colombe was the teacher of Marin Marais, and the gamba duo Les Voix Humaines presents here a release that features his works for two bass viols. As one would expect given the instrumentation, it’s quite dark and sober in tone. The 67 Concerts a deux violes esgales (twelve of which are presented here) take the form of suites in which the viols take turns functioning as soloist and accompanist, and although the pieces consist mainly of dance movements the tone is still more ponderous and careful than sprightly–but in a good way. As always, the Les Voix Humaines play with brilliant, dark-hued elegance. While Sainte-Colombe is not as famous as his student Marin Marais, he is nevertheless a known quantity among serious fans of early music; Leonora Duarte is a different matter. A Jewish convert to Catholicism living in 17th-century Antwerp, she is the only known woman composer of viol music in that century. All that has survived of her work is a set of seven sinfonias, which survive in a single manuscript copy, and which are presented here in a program that also includes consort and keyboard music by John Bull and Alfonso Ferrabasco, plus one song by Juan del Encina (beautifully sung by the group’s keyboardist, James Kennerley). This program also includes the reading of an essay by Teju Cole; it’s a fine essay, but it’s also included in the liner notes and would have been just fine if left there rather than interrupting the musical program. Both albums are recommended to early music collections.


Various Composers
Freedom & Faith
PUBLIQuartet
Bright Shiny Things
BSTC-0126

Ths is a highly unusual album of works for string quartet, organized around the theme of “artists whose music represents resilience, resistance, and subversion; all of (whom) also happen to be women.” It opens with the world-premiere recording a relatively conventional string quartet by Jessica Meyer titled “Get into the Now”; “conventional,” that is in its three-movement structure, but wildly less so in its stylistic elasticity, which finds it veering from spiky dissonance to funky joyfulness. One segment of the program is titled Sancta Femina and consists of arrangements of sacred songs by Hildegard of Bingen, Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, and Francesca Caccini; another section is devoted to quirky arrangements of songs associated with Nina Simone, and there’s a very fun vocal-and-strings arrangement of the pop song “A Tisket a Tasket,” based on Ella Fitzgerald’s iconic recording. It ends with a truly lovely one-movement work by Shelley Washington titled “Middleground.” The whole album manages to be simultaneously a hoot and quite thought-provoking, and it evokes some of the Kronos Quartet’s best work of the 1990s.


Johannes de Lymburgia
Gaude felix Padua
Le Miroir de Musique / Baptiste Romain
Ricercar (dist. Naxos)
RIC 402
Rick’s Pick

Johannes de Lymburgia is a somewhat mysterious figure; historical records place a musician by that name in more places within the same period in the early 1400s than could easily have been occupied by a single person, and there is little trace of him in those records after 1435. What remains of his career output is contained in manuscript Q15 in the International Museum and Library of Music in Bologna–a manuscript that was so damaged over time that it was considered illegible until its recent restoration using digital technology. That restoration made possible this exceptional recording, which shows the composer to have been highly inventive in his approach to harmony and to have been a significant contributor to the development of the motet, which was emerging in his region at the height of his career. The compact Miroir de Musique ensemble performs these sacred songs with restrained intensity, voices twining gorgeously around each other as lutes, harps, viols and citterns provide quiet accompaniment. A must for all early music collections.


JAZZ


Doug MacDonald
Califournia Quartet
Dmacmusic
DM15

Guitarist/composer Doug MacDonald leads this crackerjack quartet of first-call Los Angeles session players, which includes saxophonist Kim Richmond, bassist Harvey Newmark and drummer Paul Kreibich. “The group is about straight ahead swinging, warm solos and exciting ensembles,” say the press materials, and that’s true–but it doesn’t mean that the group is rehashing old sounds or approaches. Listen to the head on the MacDonald original “Malapropisms,” for example, and you may never guess that it’s a blues; try to follow the changes on his jazz waltz “San Rafael” and you’ll be challenged. On the other hand, Newmark turns those changes into that rarest of things, a genuinely lyrical and compelling bass solo (no mail, please; I’m a bass player myself). And the group’s swing is indeed warm and constant, as is its sense of humor and fun–just take a listen to “I Want It,” MacDonald’s whimsical take on “I Want to Be Happy.” And speaking of warm, MacDonald’s tone is like melted butter.


Charlie Apicella & Iron City
Groove Machine
OA2
22166

For a very different take on a guitar-led quartet, consider this, Charlie Apicella & Iron City’s third recording. As its title suggests, these guys are mining a vein that was first discovered by similarly-configured ensembles during the “hard bop” era of the early 1960s: whenever you see a group that consists of guitar (Apicella), tenor sax (Gene Ghee), organ (Radam Schwartz) and drums (Alan Corzin), you can reasonably expect to be in for a funky time. But in this case it’s not just funky: there’s a very fun calypso number written by the organist and a gorgeous ballad featuring violinist Amy Bateman, and one or two numbers (including the brilliant “Ironcity”) that feel more like straight-ahead old-school bebop than hard bop or 1960s soul-jazz. But there’s no point in worrying about genre boundaries; Apicella and his crew are simply making great jazz, both new and old.


Larry Fuller
Overjoyed
Capri
74155-2
Rick’s Pick

The New York Times says that pianist Larry Fuller “sprinkles stardust on whatever song he plays,” and while that could come across as a bit condescending, it’s actually a very apt metaphor: there is, quite simply, something magical about the combination of lightness and power in his playing and about his ability to make every line sound as if it’s sparkling. On his latest album as a leader, Fuller and his trio offer a mixed program of standards and obscurities, plus one original (the utterly delightful “The Mooch,” not to be confused with “Moose the Mooche”). There’s a lot of subtlety at work here: he plays “How Long Has This Been Going On” as a sort of slow drag, for example, playing the gentlest possible stride figures with his left hand while exploring the melody deeply with his right, and his take on the Muddy Waters blues classic “Got My Mojo Workin'” is a second-line arrangement with a typically slippery drum part that takes the program out in fine style. A must for all jazz collections.


Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin
Live (reissue)
Ronin Rhythm (dist. Naxos)
RON 004

In feudal Japan, a ronin was a samurai without a master. It’s an apt metaphor for the group that keyboardist and composer Nik Bärtsch has been leading for the last 20 years or so. Well, maybe it’s partly apt; Bärtsch and his team clearly owe no stylistic allegiance to anyone–however, his band most definitely has a leader. Anyway, Bärtsch himself characterizes their music as “zen-funk,” which implies just what you might think: repetition, syncopation, and freedom. Although you’re likely to find their recordings in the jazz section of a record store and they often perform in what looks like a standard piano-trio format, the music they make has as much to do with African, gamelan, minimalism, and, yes, funk as it does with jazz. This reissue of a 2006 live album (actually recorded in 2002) by the band finds them at their most repetitious, and yet strangely also at their most compelling. No one this side of Steve Reich makes such thorough and creative use of a single pattern, and the group is incredibly tight without ever sounding rigid. (Two other early albums, REA and Ritual Groove Music, are being reissued at the same time on Bärtsch’s Ronin Rhythm label.)


Peter Beets
Our Love Is Here to Stay: Gershwin Reimagined
Magic Ball Jazz/Challenge (dist. Naxos)
MBJ 74609
Rick’s Pick

Dutch pianist Peter Beets has become a star of the international swing scene, playing alongside the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Johnny Griffin, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Elvin Jones. His latest album features the melodies of George Gershwin, “reimagined” in that he places them in a variety of rhythmic and stylistic settings: “Embraceable You” as a gentle bossa, “‘S Wonderful” as a sprightly bop workout, and perhaps most surprisingly, “Summertime” as an upbeat swinger. (Watch for the “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” quote during Beets’ solo on “Lady, Be Good!” too.) Bassist Tom Baldwin and drummer Eric Kennedy follow Beets faithfully wherever he goes, and this whole album is just a ton of good, straight-ahead fun.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Tui
Pretty Little Mister
Self-released
No cat. no.

Nothing else sounds quite like a straight fiddle-and-banjo album, and I’ve never heard a fiddle-and-banjo album that sounds quite like this one. Tui is fiddler Libby Weitnauer and Jake Blount, who plays a fretless, nylon-string banjo (and sometimes a five-string fiddle). The music they offer here is a mix of familiar tunes (“Sugar Babe,” “Eighth of January,” “Whoa Mule”) with obscurities dug up in archives and discovered in digital copies of field recordings, many of them drawing on African-American string band traditions that are too often overlooked. (The band’s progressive commitments are signaled by the cleverly punning title, which references the classic fiddle tune “Pretty Little Miss.”) Both are fine singers, and this album offers a great mix of instrumental and vocal tunes. They have an exceptional drive and groove, and as someone who is often skeptical of the nylon-string banjo sound, I have to say that Blount has convinced me–not enough to restring my own instruments, but definitely enough to listen to more like this.


Hank Williams
The Complete Health & Happiness Recordings (2 discs)
BMG
538470942

The early- to mid-20th century was the heyday of the sponsored, live-performance radio show. You know the format: the host introduces the band and praises the sponsor’s product (Prince Albert Tobacco, Texas Crystals, Jim Walter Homes), then the band plays a few tunes and praises the sponsor’s product, maybe even playing a live jingle. Flatt & Scruggs’ arrangement with Martha White Flour was perhaps the archetypal example of this relationship, and another was Hadacol’s sponsorship of Hank Williams’ Health & Happiness Show, a radio program established in 1949 when he was at the height of his commercial success. The program itself was short-lived: eight shows, all of which aired in October of that year, and each of which followed a strict format (specific kinds of songs, always in the same order, interspered with commercial breaks). This two-disc set brings together all eight of those shows, and while its repetitive nature undermines its enjoyability as a pure listening experience–no one really really needs to hear eight renditions each of “Happy Rovin’ Cowboy” and “Sally Goodin”–it’s hugely important as a historic document; these are the earliest recordings of Williams’ legendary Drifting Cowboys band. Williams’ voice, of course, is hair-raisingly perfect throughout. (And while that of his wife Audrey is often dismissed as unlistenable, I have to say that I think she sounds just fine when she and Hank are singing in harmony.) The new mastering from the original 16″ shellac transcription discs is excellent. For all country music collections.


Hackensaw Boys
A Fireproof House of Sunshine (EP)
Free Dirt
DIRT-CD-0095

The Lynchburg, Virginia-based Hackensaw Boys have been ploughing the field of punk-edged alt-country for over twenty years now, but the version of the band that made this five-song EP is an entirely new one, except for bandleader David Sickmen. And the music they’re making sounds fresh and new: you’ll still hear echoes of Steve Earle and Bob Dylan in Sickmen’s slightly ragged drawl, while the songs range in style from relatively quiet Americana (“Let’s Us Take a Night Ride”) to straight-up acoustic honky-tonk (“Factory Blues”). There’s a bit more politics in there than usual, but it’s incorporated pretty gracefully. Nice stuff.


ROCK/POP


The Dollyrots
Daydream Explosion
Wicked Cool
WKC-68974-2

I’ve been a fan of this band ever since their 2004 debut, which I raved about in the All-Music Guide. Seeing them live at a dive bar in Louisville, Kentucky just solidified my love for them. And now with their seventh full-length album, I can happily report that their sound hasn’t “progressed” at all; it’s maybe a bit more densely packed here, but the core remains what it has always been: bratty, catchy, crunchy pop-punk. Their lyrics are deepening, though. Raising kids and dealing with the loss of a parent has given songs like “Everything” and “I Love You Instead” a dimension that goes beyond cuteness and catchiness and touches on some of the deepest aspects of family life. But they’re still plenty bratty, just as one would hope. And catchier than ever.


Richard Thompson
Across a Crowded Room: Live at Barrymore’s 1985 (2 discs)
Real Gone Music (dist. Redeye)
RGM-0909
Rick’s Pick

Let’s consider the things that make this album amazing: first of all, it could be argued that Richard Thompson was at the peak of his sharpness as both a songwriter and a guitarist in the mid-1980s. (Not everyone would agree, but it could plausibly be argued.) Second of all, look at the band that he had with him on this tour: Clive Gregson and Christine Collister singing harmonies and playing guitars, bassist Rory McFarlane, and drummer Gerry Conway. Now consider the live production by Al Cooper, which borders on studio quality. Then there are the songs themselves: Thompson was touring behind his new album of the same name, which contains some of his tightest, most concise, and frankly angriest songs–songs that pushed him to some of his most explosive live guitar solos. Gregson and Collister sound amazing on “You Don’t Say” and “The Wrong Heartbeat,” and these versions of “Shoot Out the Lights” and “Wall of Death” are nearly definitive. This is not only a very fine live album; it’s one of Richard Thompson’s best albums, period.


Proem
Until Here for Years
n5MD (dist. Redeye)
MD274

The fuzzy borderlands that separate avant-garde electronic classical music from experimental electronic pop have always been a fascinating territory to explore, and while one might think that the line isn’t really so fuzzy–that it can be clearly discerned wherever a beat, let alone a groove, is apparent–should give a close listen to the latest from Richard Bailey, a.k.a. Proem. While his burbling, occasionally funky, and always complex… songs? compositions? pieces? whatever… are invariably characterized by a steady beat, they are also based on conceptual sources that are far more sophisticated than what undergirds typical electro-pop, and his production style is characterized by an almost microscopic level of rhythmic and textual detail that rewards close listening. As dark and grumbly as it is, this music is gentle enough that you could let it fade into the background if you want. But if you do, you’ll miss a lot.


Bluetech
Liquid Geometries in Dub
Liquid Sound Design
LSD116CD

For an interesting juxtaposition to the Proem album, consider this remix treatment of Bluetech’s 2018 album Liquid Geometries. Here the sound is a bit more shiny, and quite a bit less conceptually dense–but every bit as listenable, and sometimes downright fascinating. Producers and electronic artists as diverse as the Desert Dwellers, David Last, the Saafi Brothers, and Gaudi have taken tracks from that album and remixed them to create newly spacious and echo-laden soundscapes. Some of the mixes explore ambient and beatless formats, others create newly reggaefied grooves, and still others hint at dubstep (check out the drop on YOUTH’s remix of “Resonating Heart”). The overall tendency is in the direction of four-on-the-floor house and techno beats, which some listeners will welcome and others may find tedious, but the album is consistently interesting and occasionally transcendent.


Chris Stamey
New Songs for the 20th Century (2 discs)
Omnivore
OVCD-335
Rick’s Pick

OK, this one is pretty remarkable. People of a certain age may immediately recognize Christ Stamey’s name–a founding member of the dBs, he also played with Alex Chilton before the latter formed Big Star. But he’s best known as a producer, having helped to shape the sounds of artists like Pylon, Le Tigre, and Whiskeytown. So basically, he’s one of the foundational architects of alt-pop. But on this album, he assumes a new identity: the long-lost songwriting peer of mid-century pop composers like Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, and Henry Mancini. As he tells the story, in 2015 “an old piano arrived at my home, with a bench full of magic“–i.e., sheet music of songs by those and other writers. He immersed himself in them, and when he came up for air he had written a bunch of new material “under the influence.” So he put together a jazz orchestra that included Bill Frisell and Branford Marsalis, among other luminaries, and invited a bunch of his favorite singers to perform them. The result is an unabashedly derivative and completely delightful program of the kind of pop songs that some of us may have heard our grandparents complain that “no one writes anymore”: sophisticated, complex, tuneful, accessible. For all libraries.


Sverre Knut Johansen with Robert Rich
Precambrian
Spotted Peccary
SPM-3004

“Sonic visions of a planet in constant change.” That’s the press materials’ characterization of this eerie, rich, complex exercise in ambient tone poetry, a suite of pieces divided by periods of the Earth’s geologic history: there are tracks titled “Hadean Eon,” “Cenozoic Era,” “Anthropocene,” etc. Johansen’s idea was to “create an album around the concept of the Earth’s geological timescale,” trying “to convey with nature sounds what might have hapened on Earth, creating moods around certain events that have taken place.” Johansen is a master at creating the impression of sonic space, and he fills that space with chords, pulses, chirps, otherworldly moans and sighs, and sounds of dripping water and soughing wind. This is the kind of thing that tends to get marketed as ambient music, but I’m not sure it really fits that description; it’s more like complex sound sculpture, and it’s very well done.


noaccordion
Surrender
Self-released
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

If you think that the accordion makes a less-than-obvious bedfellow for trap beats and dubwise electronic production, then I’d have to say that I agree with you. But I would then immediately recommend that you listen to the consistently compelling work of Onah Indigo, who records under the name noaccordion, and who brings a slightly New Agey lyrical orientation to a dense and pungent sonic mix that sometimes evokes African Head Charge (check out the compressed choral vocals on “Allies”), sometimes straddles trap and hip hop (“The Cure”), and sometimes shakes your bones with sub-bass heavyosity (“Grow”). On her latest album she also collaborates fruitfully with reggae star Indubious (“Goodness Rise Again,” in two mixes) and lets her accordion take the lead on the funky-but-wistful “Mars.” As was the case on her previous album (which I recommended back in December 2017), everything here is unique, often surprising, and consistently compelling.


The Rails
Cancel the Sun
Thirty Tigers/Psychonaut Sounds
PSYCHED011CD

The third album from this outstanding British folk-rock outfit finds the duo continuing to expand its stylistic palette–to the point that the designator “folk-rock” may not really make much sense anymore. Yes, there are still jangly and acoustic-based (or at least acoustic-adjacent) songs, like “Dictator” and “Something Is Slipping My Mind.” But they are increasingly being displaced by sardonic rockers like “Ball and Chain,” “Waiting on Something,” and “Save the Planet” (next line: “Kill yourself”; later in the song comes the charming couplet “This is your chance to be a good guy/No one likes you and you know why”). As always, the vocal harmonies of Kami Thompson and James Walbourne are tight and astringently lovely, and the combination of those harmonies with the pair’s deeply winning melodies is a consistent and solid winner.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Various Composers
Spinning in the Wheel
Projeto Arcomusical
National Sawdust Tracks
NS-028

The berimbau is a musical bow, an instrument common (in many variants) throughout sub-Saharan African and brought to Brazil centuries ago as a result of the slave trade. It has since been adopted as a Brazilian instrument and plays an important role in traditional music there. Projeto Arcomusical is an Illinois-based ensemble dedicated to raising the profile of the berimbau by commissioning and performing new music for the instrument, and on the group’s second album they perform eight works by four composers, the centerpiece being Elliot Cole’s brilliant and lovely four-movement Roda. Briefer works by Alexis C. Lamb, Gregory Beyer, and Kyle Flens are also featured, and in all cases it’s interesting to hear what the composers do with the instrument’s sonic parameters–which include, for example, a drastically limited pitch range (the members of the group use customized, tunable instruments that increase their melodic flexibility). As on the group’s first album, the sounds are both delicate and percussive, a simplicity of musical means giving rise to significant complexity.


Soulsha
Carry It On
Fresh Haggis
FH002

At this point it’s no longer particularly innovative to blend African, Celtic, and funk styles together (cf. Afro Celt Sound System, Mouthmusic, Black 47). But that doesn’t mean you can’t make fresh new sounds using that formula, and indeed Soulsha doesn’t sound like any other band. This is partly because the overriding element of their sound is vintage funk rather than electronica or rock; most of the songs on their debut album are built on a solid foundation of James-Brown-style 1960s funk and soul, with occasional irruptions of Celtic tunes (like the interpolation of “Johnny Wilmot’s Fiddle” into the middle of “Rhythm’s in the Melody”) or African elements (like the Wolof rap interlude in “Come on Down”). What it all adds up to is one of the most effective party albums I’ve heard in years–one that will not only have your guests dancing, but will also lead to them asking you “What on earth is this?”.


Errol Brown & the Revolutionaries
Culture Dub/Medley Dub (2 discs)
Doctor Bird/Cherry Red
DBCDD-038

What looks at first glance like just another two-LPs-on-one-CD reggae reissue reveals itself, upon closer examination, to be something much more exciting. On disc 1, we have the 1977 release Culture Dub (also released during that period by a different label under the title Culture in Dub). This consists of dub remixes of tracks by the legendary harmony trio Culture; for this reissue, the original eight-track program is augmented by nine bonus tracks, creating a wealth of Culture dubs that fans will be thrilled to have; despite the fact that all but the tiniest snippets of vocals have been removed, those fans will quickly recognize the rhythms to songs like “Iron Sharpen Iron” and “Dog a Nyam Dog” (not to mention several tracks that have been previously been released on Virgin Front Line reissues under different titles, such as “Natty Dub”–a.k.a. “Citizen as a Peaceful Dub”). The second disc in this package, however, consists entirely of material that has either been long out of print or has never been issued on CD before. These are dub versions of popular tracks from Sonia Pottinger’s legendary High Note label, which released some of the most important music of the rock-steady-to-reggae transitional period. You’ll hear outstanding dub versions of classic tracks like “Say You,” “Swing and Dine,” and “Let the Power Fall,” all dubbed up in fine style by producer Errol Brown. This is an outstanding dub collection altogether.

July 2019


PICK OF THE MONTH


Meat Beat Manifesto
Opaque Couché
Flexidisc
FLX014CD

Here’s the mystery: why is it that as soon as the beat drops, I would be able to tell you even if blindfolded that this is a Meat Beat Manifesto album? It’s not that the beats are especially unique (though they’re unfailingly crisp, creative, and fun), and it’s not that the production style is completely unlike anyone else’s. I honestly can’t put my finger on it. But if you, like me, have been a Jack Dangers fan for years, following not only his work with Meat Beat Manifesto but also his beatcrafting under the guise of Tino, then you’ll recognize that sound immediately too—and you’ll be as thrilled as I am that the two years of waiting since his last MBM album are finally at an end. On this one the most obvious unifying theme is jungle, but of course it’s not quite that simple: though the album opens with the skittering jump-up workout “Pin Drop,” it then proceeds to get darker, denser, and deeper by turns. “Ear-Lips” is funky but also mildly unsettling with its richly distorted vocal samples, “Call Sign” somehow manages to invoke Aphex Twin and Gang Starr in nearly equal measure (listen to those jazzy chordal swells), and “Forced to Lie” resurrects the late and lamented Andy Fairley and gives him a vintage big beat break over which to declaim. There is not a single track on this album that isn’t tremendous, and honestly, it took the exercise of active discipline for me to listen to the other albums I needed to review this month instead of spinning this one repeatedly. For all libraries.


CLASSICAL


Jacques Morel
Premier livre de pièces de violle
La Spagna
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
95962

Even as obscure 18th-century composers go, Jacques Morel is one of the most mysterious. Scholars don’t know his exact birthdate or where he was born, and little is known of his life beyond the fact that he studied under the great master of the viola da gamba, Marin Marais. Of the four suites presented on this album, only one has ever been recorded before. So this recording is a boon to early-music collections as well as to anyone who loves the viola da gamba or baroque chamber music generally. The soloist is Alejandro Marías, and the quality of both his playing and the production are superb; he plays these lovely pieces with genuine affection, and the recorded sound is warm and lively. Recommended to all early music collections.


Various Composers
Twentieth Century Oboe Sonatas
Alex Klein; Phillip Bush
Cedille (dist. Naxos)
CDR 90000 186

Recently I came to a startling realization: I’m now old enough that in my mind, the term “20th century music” has always been more or less synonymous with “contemporary music.” Now that we’re a couple of decades into the 21st century, that temporal dysjunction is becoming more apparent—and the rather old-fashioned sound of these six sonatas for oboe and piano just makes it more so. “Old-fashioned” isn’t a criticism; these works by York Bowen, Petr Eben, Henri Dutilleux, Eugène Bozza, Francis Poulenc, and Camille Saint-Saens are all wonderful, each in a somewhat different way—but they definitely all sound like products of an earlier time, which of course they are. Notable among them is Eben’s piece, which is both distinctly modern and stunningly, lyrically gorgeous; the Saint-Saens work is even more so. The program is balanced out by drier and more astringent pieces by Bozza and Dutilleux, and makes a very satisfying album overall. The playing is sensitive and unassumingly virtuosic.


Johann Sebastian Bach
Goldberg Variations: New Arrangement for Baroque Ensemble
Repast Baroque Ensemble
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
MS1661

Although many people think of Bach as being somewhat rigid and mathematical, one of the wonderful things about his music is its flexibility—it can be (and has been) adapted with almost limitless creativity without any loss in its appeal or dilution of its musical brilliance. The Goldberg Variations, a collection of 32 variations on an original theme, were written for the keyboard and are still most commonly played that way. But for this recording the Repast Baroque Ensemble has created a new arrangement for violin, cello, flute, bassoon, and harpsichord—a version in which sections are played alternately by solo harpsichord and by various combinations of the larger ensemble. Anyone who has tried to listen all the way through a solo harpsichord performance of this monumental work will immediately appreciate this approach; not only does it provide welcome aural relief, but it also facilitates hearing and understanding the music’s contrapuntal complexity. In this case, a dry and intimate production sound aids in that project as well. Recommended.


Michael Jon Fink
Celesta
Cold Blue Music (dist. Naxos)
CB0053

Michael Byron
Fabric for String Noise
Cold Blue Music (dist. Naxos)
CB0054

You may not know exactly what a celesta is, but you’ve heard it—and you’ve probably thought “Oh, a toy piano.” (You also might have thought that when you saw one onstage; celestas are often quite small and are regularly seen in pit orchestras, usually balanced on top of another keyboard.) But in fact the celesta is a serious instrument that has long had an important place in concert music. In the hands of Michael Jon Fink, the celesta is a medium for extended meditations on the nature of repetition and development; the composition that he named after the instrument consists of twelve brief, quiet, and very beautiful pieces linked by their exploration of those themes. Michael Byron’s Fabric for String Noise is quite difference, a two-part duet for violins that sounds chaotic at first until you register the complexity of its contrapuntal structure, at which point it becomes completely fascinating. While it’s energetic and harmonically astringent, the work is not at all aggressive or shrill; instead, it flickers and twinkles with restless energy. The second work on this album is for four double basses (multitracked by a single player for this recording), and is much quieter, darker, and more foreboding—though no less beautiful. My only complaint about these two lovely albums is their price: each offers roughly 30 minutes of music, but has a list price of $15.


Johann Baptist Cramer
Piano Concertos nos. 4 & 5
Howard Shelley; London Mozart Players
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
CDA68270
Rick’s Pick

This album is the fifth entry in the Hyperion label’s The Classical Piano Concerto series, all of which feature pianist Howard Shelley with a variety of modern-instrument orchestras performing concertos from outside the standard repertoire of monumental works—pieces by the likes of Leopold Kozeluch, Daniel Steibelt, and (this time) the wonderful Johann Baptist Cramer. Transplanted from his native Mannheim to London as a youngster, Cramer was briefly a student of Muzio Clementi and was touring Europe as a concert pianist by the age of 20. The eight concerti he wrote were largely intended as a showing-off vehicle, allowing him to demonstrate his remarkable keyboard facility. But on the evidence provided here, they weren’t just exhibitionistic displays of bravura technique; they were also structurally innovative and melodically gorgeous. As always, Shelley is a powerful advocate for these works and a performer of tremendous charm and facility. Highly recommended to all classical collections.


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Missa Tu es Petrus
Choir of St. Luke in the Fields / David Shuler
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
MS 1698

Orazio Colombano
Psalms for Six Voices
Cappella Musicale della Cattedrale di Vercelli / Denis Silano
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
95839
Rick’s Pick

Here we have works by two Italian composers who were rough contemporaries, both working as house composers at important cathedrals—one of them destined to become world-famous, the other bound for obscurity. Palestrina’s Tu es Petrus Mass is one of the most celebrated choral works of the Italian Renaissance, and is beautifully sung in the sympathetic setting of New York’s Church of St. Mary the Virgin; this repertoire is the Choir of St. Luke in the Fields’ home base, and they are magnificent on this recording (which also includes a handful of motets). Orazio Colombano’s Harmonia super vespertinos omnium solemnitatum psalmos sex vocibus decantanda, by contrast, has never been recorded before. The Cappella Musicale della Cathedrale di Vercelli is, as its name suggests, a group dedicated to “reviv(ing) the Vercelli Cathedral’s 16th- and 17th-century heritage of manuscripts and printed music,” and to that end its director, Denis Silano, produced his own edition of these liturgical psalms for his small mixed-voice choir to perform. They recorded in the chapel of the Archiepiscopal Seminary of Vercelli, which is a remarkably reverberant space that seems to expand the choir’s size. This one get’s a Rick’s Pick both for its quality and for its historical significance.


Giovanni Benedetto Platti
Flute Sonatas, Op. 3
Alexa Raine-Wright; Camille Paquette-Roy; Sylvain Bergeron; Rona Nadler
Leaf Music (dist. Naxos)
LM224

Ever since the period-instrument movement really started coming of age in the early 1980s, I’ve been a huge fan of the sound of the baroque flute. Unlike its modern counterpart, the baroque flute is made of wood and has a soft-edged tone that naturally complements the gut-strung violins and cellos of the period—as well, of course, as the relatively quiet and sharp-toned harpsichord. Giovanni Benedetto Platti was not really a baroque composer, however, but something of a transitional figure between the baroque and classical eras, and one of the contributors to the development of the sonata form. Much of his work has been lost, so this collection of all six pieces from his Opus 3 is a very welcome event, and Alexa Raine-Wright’s playing is simply luminous. Wisely, she varies the texture of the continuo on this recording, using varying combinations of cello, guitar, lute, and harpsichord. Recommended to all classical collections.


JAZZ


Stan Getz Quartet
Getz at the Gate (2 discs)
Verve
UCCV-1175/76
Rick’s Pick

If you wonder why Stan Getz was known to his fellow musicians (especially other saxophonists) by the simple nickname “The Sound,” just take a listen to this 1961 live date recorded at New York’s Village Gate. The recording quality is not outstanding: it sounds like the band was miked somewhat haphazardly, or even like the recording was made in the crowd by a fan (though that seems relatively unlikely given that there’s clear stereo separation in the mix, with the drums deep in the right channel). But despite the overall sonic mediocrity of the recording, Getz’s tenor sax booms through the mix, rich and deep and clear. On this date his quartet was an all-star crew: it included pianist Steve Kuhn, drummer Roy Haynes, and bassist John Neves, and together they play a marvelous standards set that features such favorites as “Stella by Starlight,” “Airegin,” and “Woody ‘n’ You” along with some more obscure fare—and the band finishes up with a rollicking midtempo (and nearly unrecognizable) rendition of the swing classic “Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid.” For all jazz collections.


Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet
The Rhythm of Invention
Patois
PRCD023

If you want a sense of what to expect from this album, don’t look at the lineup of trombonist/composer/arranger Wayne Wallace’s quintet; instead, look at the list of 18 guest musicians, who appear in varying permutations throughout the program. That way you won’t be surprised by, for example, the wonderful string arrangements that complicate Wallace’s settings of “All the Things You Are” and “In a Mist” (yes, the Bix Beiderbecke tune) or the rich horn charts that crop up here and there all the way through. Also, don’t be fooled by the word “Latin” in the band’s name; while Latin rhythms are a constant thread throughout the album (note in particular the mathematical slyness with which Wallace incorporates that element into his arrangement of “Take Five”), this is not a “Latin jazz” album; it’s a Wayne Wallace album, which means the music goes wherever he wants to take it, and does so with joy and wit. This album is a pleasure from start to finish.


Alexa Tarantino
Winds of Change
Posi-tone
PR8197
Rick’s Pick

It’s not unusual to find a young saxophone player who consistently makes interesting note choices, nor is it hard to find one who is a master of varied and creative phrasing. Finding one who consistently does both, however, is something of a cause for celebration. Listen, for example, to the way in which Alexa Tarantino leads into her solo on the original composition “Face Value,” with fragmentary and slightly harmonically sideways phrases that eventually coalesce into long, fluid melodic statements. But don’t let her solos distract you from the quality of her writing itself. The harmonically knotty bop of “Face Value,” the lovely (and aptly titled) midtempo “Breeze,” the quietly complex “Square One”—these are all products of a major creative talent. And her facility on a variety of reeds and woodwinds makes this album, her debut as a leader, all the more impressive. Also, don’t miss trombonist Nick Finzer’s dynamite solo on the burning “Ready or Not.” Strongly recommended to all jazz collections.


Larry Koonse
New Jazz Standards Vol. 4
Summit
DCD 740
Rick’s Pick

Every time I receive a copy of an album in the New Jazz Standards series, I know I’m going to be in for a treat—and I haven’t been wrong yet. Some context: New Jazz Standards is the title of a collection of jazz compositions by Carl Saunders. The series of recordings under that name consists of albums by soloists hand-picked by Saunders, who has produced all of the albums so far as well. Each album features a different leader; in this case, it’s guitarst Larry Koonse, who leads a quartet that also includes pianist Josh Nelson, bassist Tom Warrington, and legendary drummer Joe LaBarbera. It might seem a bit arrogant to call a collection of one’s own work “new jazz standards,” but Saunder has more than demonstrated that he has the right; his tunes are straight-ahead in style but modern and creative (note in particular his sly structural innovations on “Baby Blues”), and his melodic creativity is really without peer. Koonse himself is clearly in love with these compositions, and his performances are filled with new ideas of his own while never losing touch with the essence of the tunes. This is one of the best jazz albums I’ve heard all year.


Mark Turner & Gary Foster
Mark Turner Meets Gary Foster (2 discs)
Capri
74156-2

Occupying the stylistic borderland between bebop and cool lies an ill-defined territory that I think of as “fast cool” or “dry bop.” Artists like Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh worked in this area, writing tunes that were relatively fast and complex like bop, but often somewhat melodically arid, and sometimes really harmonically difficult. On this two-disc live album, saxophonists Gary Foster and Mark Turner explore music along these lines, adding to the aridity of the sound by excluding any chordal instruments from the lineup: this is a quartet date featuring two saxes, bass, and drums. That’s not a configuration that normally interests me, but because I’ve so rarely heard a bad album on the Capri label I decided to give it a shot, and I’m very glad I did. Although the bass solos tend to be completely unaccompanied and therefore not much fun to listen to, overall these performances are hugely enjoyable; they swing mightily, and when the two saxes are playing the heads in harmony you may not even notice the lack of a piano or guitar. For all jazz collections.


Eyal Vilner Big Band
Swing Out!
Self-released
No cat. no.

The title of this album tells you most of what you might want to know about it: the focus is on classic swing (“In a Mellow Tone,” “Bei mir bist du schön”) and trad (“Do You Know What It Means,” “St. Louis Blues”) tunes in luscious big-band arrangements, all of them crafted with dancers in mind. Bandleader and reedman Eyal Vilner is the arranger, and I have to say he’s something of a genius. In order to keep the band’s focus correct during the recording sessions, they recorded live in the studio in a space big enough to accommodate dancers, who helped keep that swing feel powerful—and it worked. Some of the key moments on the album are the vocal tracks, though, particularly a slow and powerful rendition of the gospel classic “I’m on My Way to Canaan Land” featuring singer Brianna Thomas. All in all, this is a joyfully virtuosic album that is tough to listen to without dancing.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Various Artists
Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records (compilation; 2 discs)
Topic (dist. Redeye)
TXCD597
Rick’s Pick

For an independent label to be able to celebrate its 80th birthday is a remarkable thing. (Well, let’s be honest—in this day and age, for an independent label to celebrate its 20th birthday is a remarkable thing. An 80th birthday is downright astounding.) Topic is, believe it or not, the oldest independent label in the world; it has been recording and releasing British folk music since 1939. And while you might expect that this two-disc retrospective would draw on the label’s incredibly deep and rich vault of previously-released material, instead it turns out not really to be a retrospective at all, but rather a modern celebration: it consists of songs newly recorded by contemporary folk artists in tribute to the label, the only rule being that their selections had to all have been included on a Topic release at some point in the past. The result is a marvelous collection that includes new performances by the likes of Martin Simpson, Oysterband, Richard Thompson, Eliza Carthy, and Peggy Seeger. Some of the arrangements are a bit adventurous, but the focus, as one would expect, is on small acoustic settings—mainly voice and guitar. Given that the two discs together contain only 20 songs and clock in at 83 minutes in total, one is left to wonder at some of the omissions; could they not get June Tabor to contribute? Or the Battlefield Band? No matter; this collection is a treasure.


The Get Ahead
Deepest Light
Jullian
No cat. no.

I’m not entirely sure of the right genre designation for this band, which is probably part of the point. You could call their music gospel-inflected soul Americana, or maybe country-R&B, or maybe there just isn’t a good term. And that’s fine, of course. The vocals are strongly gospel-inflected, but the fiddle and steel guitar that emerge from time to time in the mix are definitely making a nod towards Nashville. The factor that unifies all of this Portland quintet’s songs is groove, and a penchant for tight harmonies on the chorus. There’s also quite a bit of tasty guitar picking, though most of it is designed to sink seamlessly into the mix. And if there are occasional moments of questionable vocal pitch, those are easy to overlook given the lusciousness of the melodies. Recommended.


Resonant Rogues
Autumn of the World
Sassafras Sounds
No cat. no.

Here’s another one that is charmingly difficult to pigeonhole, genre-wise. Resonant Rogues are a duo consisting of guitarist/singer Keith J. Smith and accordionist/banjoist Sparrow, and on their third album they continue to play fast and loose with the musical boundaries that separate country, old-time, Gypsy jazz, and Tin Pan Alley. Also Balkan music. That they do this without ever sounding precious or self-consciously postmodern is a major achievement–but the fact that they write great songs is what really matters. The old-timey sound of this album belies its topicality—whether dealing with issues of depression and addiction or slyly commenting on income inequality, these are songs that don’t hesitate to touch on both the universal and the particular. Very nice.


ROCK/POP


Johnny Shines
The Blues Came Falling Down
Nighthawk/Omnivore
OV-328
Rick’s Pick

Leroy Jodie Pierson
Rusty Nail (reissue)
Nighthawk/Omnivore
OV-329

These are two very different blues albums, one of them a reissue with an expanded playlist and the other a previously-unreleased live set dating from 1973. Leroy Jodie Pierson is the founder of Nighthawk Records, a St. Louis-based label that is better known for releasing reggae than the blues. But Pierson himself is an accomplished blues guitarist and singer, and he made this stripped-down recording (accompanied by just a drummer and bass player) about ten years after he founded the label. The original album is very good, and prominently features his expert acoustic and electric slide playing as well as his perfectly serviceable singing voice. Thirty years after its original release, some of the program (including the title track) will sound abrasively politically incorrect to modern ears, but if you want to listen to vintage blues that’s a risk you’re going to take. The bonus tracks are the real surprise: they include covers of songs by the Clash and by Hank Williams, and recordings made with a larger band in a wider variety of styles. It’s a fine album, but the Johnny Shines release is something really special. (Pierson actually makes an appearance on this one as second guitarist on several tracks.) Like Pierson, Shines was also an accomplished slide player, and he opens his set with a fun instrumental tune. But what will make you sit up straight is his voice: if your hair doesn’t stand on end the moment he opens his mouth at the beginning of “Seems a Million Years,” go to the doctor and have your pulse checked. He doesn’t hit that peak of intensity again, but he gets close enough to hold your attention unceasingly through the album’s full 80 minutes. Highly recommended to all collections.


Burnt Friedman
Musical Traditions in Central Europe (Explorer Series Vol. 4)
Nonplace
NON48

So here’s the joke: despite its anthromusicological title, this is not an album of field recordings of Central European folk music. Friedman is tweaking our nose, albeit gently, pointing out that contemporary European club music shares much in common with what we traditionally have understood folk music to be: it’s unconcerned with issues of music theory, it’s made largely by amateurs, and it’s designed to appeal to a very broad audience. Friedman being Friedman, that last characteristic should be taken with a grain of salt: the third track on this album, “Schwebende Himmelsbrücke,” is written in a time signature that I genuinely can’t figure out, for example. (It might actually be 6/8, but the accents are so screwy it’s hard to tell for certain.) Musicological considerations aside, this is yet another bracing, knotty, but thoroughly enjoyable instrumental outing from one of Europe’s most durably fascinating weirdos.


Pitch Black X Uncle Fester on Acid
No Sense Unfiltered
Dubmission
CDDUBM087
Rick’s Pick

Dub has its genesis in reggae music: in the late 1960s producers began to figure out that it was cheaper to put an instrumental version of the A side on the B side of a single than to record a whole new song, and eventually the remixing of those instrumental tracks became a highly developed art form—one that led directly to modern remix culture. But dub has since broken free of the reggae template, and has given rise to organic forms of its own—and there is no more advanced practitioner of that form than New Zealand duo Pitch Black. This album, however, is only partially credited to them; it’s actually a radical re-envisioning of their 2016 album Filtered Senses, the deconstruction being done at the hands of Uncle Fester on Acid (a.k.a. Doctor Dub, whose day job is as archivist to the mighty On-U Sound label). As one might expect, he brings an Adrian-Sherwood-style sense of ruthlessness in his approach to these tracks, folding, spindling, and mutilating them to within an inch of their lives and creating dense, dark, and massive new sound sculptures from the raw material. This makes an outstanding companion piece to the original album, which is also highly recommended to all libraries.


Buzzcocks
A Different Kind of Tension (reissue)
Domino
REWIGCD128

Buzzcocks
Singles Going Steady (reissue)
Domino
REWIGCD129

A Different Kind of Tension was the Buzzcocks third album proper, and the last one to feature the band’s original lineup. It finds them continuing to refine their sound, edging out of punk and into power-pop territory—though with songs like “Hollow Inside” and “I Don’t Know What to Do with My Life,” they still wouldn’t have made a comfortable double bill with, say, the Rubinoos. Singles Going Steady is very different: it wasn’t actually an organically-conceived album at all, but rather a compilation consisting (on Side 1) of eight of the band’s UK singles (including the deathless, if rather nasty, “Orgasm Addict”) along with (on Side 2) all of those singles’ B sides. It was put together as an U.S.-only release, put out originally on the I.R.S. label in hopes of arousing American interest in this rather bratty and abrasive Manchester band. For these reissues, both albums have been remastered from the original tapes; unfortunately, there is no bonus material.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Steel Pulse
Mass Manipulation
Rootfire Cooperative/Wiseman Doctrine
RFC013

Lead singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist David Hinds has always been the shaping personality behind Birmingham’s best reggae band, but with Mass Manipulation it appears that Steel Pulse has effectively become a solo project. (Fellow founding member Selwyn Brown is there in the band photo, but is not credited as a musician on the album.) Sonically, what does this mean? Not much, frankly: Hinds’ songs are as catchy, topical, and beautifully sung as always. His jazz tendencies are less pronounced than they have been in the past, which is a good thing frankly, and as time has gone on his politics have become sharper and more specific: consider the difference between, say, “A Who Responsible?” from 1982 and “Justice in Jena” from 2019. I miss the late drummer Steve “Grizzly” Nesbitt, but Hinds has assembled a crack team of session players for this very fine album. Recommended to all libraries that collect reggae.


Lee “Scratch” Perry
Rainford
On-U Sound (dist. Redeye)
ONUCD144
Rick’s Pick

Legendary producer Lee “Scratch” Perry has long bragged about being a “madman,” and his various exploits over the years would tend to support his self-diagnosis. The most distressing of those was his destruction of the Black Ark studio, where he recorded some of the most strange, astonishing, and deeply dread songs and albums of reggae’s roots-and-culture period. Since then he has worked with a variety of friends and acolytes, few of them anywhere near as inspired as he was during his heyday. But Adrian Sherwood, head honcho at the great On-U Sound label, is one of the very few producers who can keep up with Perry at his craziest, and some of the best work Perry has recorded in recent decades has been with Sherwood at the board. This latest effort is one of the best: as usual, it features Perry intoning warnings, imprecations, and nonsense lyrics over rhythms crafted and produced by Sherwood–but since they’ve been friends and have worked together off and on for decades, Sherwood knows better than most how to craft a track that will bring out the best in Perry. Without trying explicitly to ape the dense, splashy sound of the Black Ark, Sherwood pays homage to it while bringing his own strong production personality to the mix as well, and the result is consistently brilliant.


Marcia Griffiths
Timeless
Tad’s
TRCD1227

Marcia Griffiths, former member of the I-Threes (Bob Marley’s backing vocal trio) and solo artist of peerless reputation, is going to turn 70 this year. Think about that while you’re listening to her rich, clear, chesty voice on this, her latest solo album. She still has pipes that any 25-year-old would envy, and she still delivers roots reggae and lovers rock with all the confidence and power she showed on her best solo albums in the 1970s. The material chosen here is a cross-section of classic songs from Studio One, where she began her career, so many of the tracks will be familiar to longstanding reggae fans: “Baby Be True,” “My Guiding Star,” “What Kind of World,” etc. But the arrangements are innovative and her take on them is fresh, and this album is yet another solid winner from the woman widely and appropriately known as the Queen of Reggae.


Little Harry
Youngest Veteron (Remixed) (digital only)
Top Smile
TSR-LP-001

Youngest Veteron, originally released digitally and on LP in 2018, marked the belated return of a gifted reggae singjay whose last album was a 1983 DJ clash with fellow child star Billy Boyo. On Youngest Veteron Little Harry chatted over 90s-style digital dancehall rhythms provided by the estimable High Smile HiFi crew, and he showed himself still to be a powerful force on the mic. This remix compilation brings together twelve reworks of four tracks from the original album, and while it has some outstanding moments it’s not as consistently compelling as the album itself. Producers like Warrior Dread, Interrupt, and Puppa Djoul put their fingerprints on “Hard Life,” “Kingston City,” and “Nah Lef di Earth” respectively, but the fireworks don’t really start until 6Blocc turns “So Many Hot Girls” into a brilliant jungle workout. Still, both of these releases are worthwhile and would be of interest to any reggae collection.

June 2019


PICK OF THE MONTH


Youssou N’Dour
History
Naïve (dist. Naxos)
7026

It’s kind of hard to believe that Youssou N’Dour has been making albums for roughly 40 years now–though his early career as a recording artist consisted mainly of selling homemade cassette tapes on the streets of Dakar. 35 albums later, he’s a huge international star, and his latest release will show you why (if you don’t already know). A remarkable talent for soaring, infectious melody and a voice that is as sweet and powerful at age 60 as it was when he was 20 combine to make a singer and songwriter with the ability to engage audiences nearly universally whether he’s delivering his compositions in English, French, or Wolof. On History he makes a particular point to pay tribute to his late bass player Habib Faye and to the great drummer and singer Babatunde Olatunji, two of whose songs D’Dour performs here. N’Dour’s musical background is in the mbalax genre of his native Senegal, and its influence is still everywhere in his music, but his style has matured and expanded far beyond any regional designation. He’s truly an international treasure, and History would make a great starting point for anyone who is not yet familiar with his rich catalog of work.


CLASSICAL


Jennifer Higdon; Samuel Barber; Patrick Harlin
American Rapture
Yolanda Kondonassis; Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra / Ward Stare
Azica (dist. Naxos)
AXA-71327
Rick’s Pick

Jennifer Higdon’s marvelous harp concerto (of which this is the world-premiere recording) would be enough to give this album a Rick’s Pick designation; it’s grand and lyrical, humorous and complex, and completely enthralling–and as always, Yolanda Kondonassis’ playing is brilliant. Samuel Barber’s one-movement Symphony No. 1 isn’t really my favorite piece of the pre-war American repertoire, but Patrick Harlin’s Rapture (another world-premiere recording) is quite lovely. All in all, this is an outstanding album and would make an excellent addition to any library collection.


Ferdinand Ries
Flute Quartets Vol. 2
Ardinghello Ensemble
CPO (dist. Naxos)
555 231-2
Rick’s Pick

Ferdinand Ries
String Quartets Vol. 3
Schuppanzigh Quartett
CPO (dist. Naxos)
777 305-2

It has been interesting and gratifying to see the work of little-known German composer Ferdinand Ries beginning to attract more attention in recent years. A contemporary (and friend) of Beethoven, Ries occupies a similar place in the transitional period between the classical and the Romantic periods, and his chamber music is particularly attractive, carrying that faintly melancholy and bittersweet flavor that characterizes so much of the music of the time. The Ardinghello Ensemble’s ongoing exploration of Ries’ music for string trio with and without flute (using a wooden flute but modern stringed instruments) is absolutely gorgeous, the unique tone of Karl Kaiser’s flute bringing a particular poignancy to the music. The three works featured on the Schuppanzigh Quartett’s recording actually include two string quartets and one quintet, and represent two periods of Ries’ career: the quintet op. 68 was published in 1816 (and was his first composition scored entirely for strings), the same year as his op. 70 quartet. The c-minor quartet op. 168 was published eight years later while Ries was living and working in London. These pieces have a slightly more sturmlich-und-dranglich flavor to them, but are equally fine–and the Schuppanzighs’ playing is electrifying. Both discs are wonderful.


Johan Helmich Roman
The Golovin Music
Höör Barock / Dan Laurin
BIS (dist. Naxos)
BIS-2355

Czar Peter II was crowned at age 12, in 1728. In preparation for the event, a local orchestra leader named Johan Helmich Roman was charged with (quickly) composing some appropriately grand and celebratory music for the occasion. The result was this portfolio of no fewer than 45 brief pieces (several of them less than one minute in length) for varying–and not always specified–instrumentation. Also unspecified, in many cases, were tempos. So for an ensemble to record this collection today requires not exactly skills of strict reconstruction, but rather of creative interpretation. This marks the first time all of these pieces have been recorded together, and while the somewhat fragmentary nature of the work makes it a less than completely satisfying listening experiences from beginning to end, this recording definitely has important academic uses–and the performances themselves are excellent throughout.


Various Composers
Perpetulum (2 discs)
Third Coast Percussion
Orange Mountain Music (dist. PIAS)
0132

Steve Reich
Colin Currie & Steve Reich: Live at Foundation Louis Vuitton
Colin Currie Group; Synergy Vocals
Colin Currie Records (dist. PIAS)
CCR0003

Third Coast Percussion is responsible for some of the most interesting and exciting recordings of the past few years. Those who hear “percussion” and think “drums and woodblocks and gongs” need to understand that TCP’s primary instruments are mallet keyboards and other tuned instruments, which means that most of what you hear when they’re playing is melody and harmony, not just rhythm. And on their latest album, a two-disc collection of works by TCP’s members as well as by Gavin Bryars and Philip Glass (whose Perpetulum was commissioned for the group) you’ll hear a glorious variety of styles and sounds, perhaps the most consistently enjoyable of them being David Skidmore’s Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities. Another outstanding percussion group on the scene right now is the Colin Currie Group, who are captured here in concert performing works by the legendary composer Steve Reich. Reich himself joins Currie to perform the delightful Clapping Music, and the rest of the program includes Proverb, Mallet Quartet (which Reich wrote for the group), Pulse, and Music for Pieces of Wood. These works provide a career-length overview of Rech’s writing for small ensembles, and though some of these pieces are quite familiar they are played with such freshness and energy here that they sound brand new. Both of these recordings are highly recommended.


Franz Joseph Haydn; Thomas Haigh; Christian Ignatius Latrobe
Joseph Haydn and His London Disciples
Rebecca Maurer
Genuin (dist. Naxos)
GEN 19650

The several years that Haydn spent in London in the early- to mid-1790s are well documented and resulted not only in a series of hugely successful concerts, but also in the production of some of his most celebrated works. While there, he lived in the Piccadilly area near the Broadwood piano factory, and it’s a Broadwood fortepiano (one built just a few years after Haydn’s London sojourn) that the marvelous keyboardist Rebecca Maurer plays on this recording of pieces by Haydn himself and by two of his English admirers. It’s worth noting that several of these are world-premiere recordings, but the primary attraction of this disc is Maurer’s lovely, sensitive playing–followed closely by the unusual and sometimes slightly bizarre characteristics of the pieces written in tribute to Haydn. For all libraries supporting a keyboard program.


Alonso Lobo
Sacred Vocal Music
Coro Victoria / Ana Fernández-Vega
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
95789

A disciple of Francisco Guerrero and colleague of Tomás Luis de Victoria, Alonso Lobo de Borja spent most of his career at the cathedral in Seville. He was largely forgotten from the 18th to the 20th centuries, before being rediscovered during the surge of interest in early music in the 1960s and 1970s. This collection of sacred works, performed by the Coro Victoria of Madrid, is designed to demonstrate the wide range of styles Lobo employed in his Latin liturgical works, and it includes motets alongside Mass extracts (sadly no complete Masses, though space would have allowed at least one in its entirety). Coro Victoria sing with a lovely, colorful blend, and this album would make an excellent introduction to to the work of a sadly underrated composer.


Jacob Kirkegaard
Phonurgia Metallis
Important
IMPREC462

Jacob Kirkegaard is one of the most consistently interesting practitioners of conceptual sound sculpture on the current scene. Having previously created music out of source material like radioactivity at Chernobyl and melting ice in the Arctic, for this project he has chosen a much less dramatic (and politically charged) conceptual medium: three large hanging metal plates, one of iron, one of copper, and one of brass. By putting a piezo sensor and a contact speaker on each one, he was able to create music using their naturally occurring vibrations, tempered and shaped by the differing physical properties of each material. What emerges is an ebbing and flowing of drones with overtones and other subtle sonic features that become more apparent the harder you listen, which is a fascinating process. For all libraries supporting programs in experimental composition or installation art.


JAZZ


Bill Evans
Evans in England (2 discs)
Resonance
HCD-2037

The Resonance label continues steadily to unearth, restore, and release previously-unheard live performances by the legendary Bill Evans, and they keep being wonderful. This latest release documents performances by Evans and his trio (at the time consisting of bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell) at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London during a residency in December 1969. The tapes were made, without Evans’ knowledge, by a French fan who had been following Evans on tour around Europe and who recorded the music on a small handheld tape machine. As a result, the sound quality isn’t stellar–it’s clear and well defined, but somewhat brittle and trebly, as one might expect. But the music is glorious, as one would also expect; Evans was at the height of his powers at this time. Recommended to all jazz collections.


Fred Hersch & The WDR Big Band
Begin Again
Palmetto
No cat. no.

I don’t usually make much space in my life for big band jazz–I respect the tradition but generally find the music too overbearing, too bombastic–but one of the rules that govern my life as a listener can be summarized as “Does it involve Fred Hersch? Then yes.” So I gave this album a spin. It finds Hersch at the head of an outstanding German ensemble, playing a set of his own compositions as arranged (and conducted) by the legendary Vince Mendoza. Mendoza is brilliant at locating and amplifying the subtleties and complexities of Hersch’s writing, expanding them into glorious elaborations. And Hersch himself does an amazing job of moving forward and backward in the arrangements, taking center stage when called upon to do so and supporting the ensemble modestly but powerfully otherwise. Like all of Hersch’s albums, this one is highly recommended to all libraries.


Yoko Miwa Trio
Keep Talkin’
Ocean Blue Tear Music
OBTM-0011
Rick’s Pick

Yoko Miwa is another pianist to whom I’m always willing to dedicate some time and concentration–ever since I heard (and rapturously reviewed) her album Fadeless Flower fifteen years ago, I have never yet been disappointed by one of her trio recordings, and this one continues her winning streak. Opening with the funky title track and then sliding into a subtly subversive arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud” (check out drummer Scott Goulding’s slippery, second-line-inflected accompaniment during her solo) Miwa takes the listener on a thrilling and uplifting journey through a program of originals, standards, and even a Beatles medley. Miwa remains one of the real standouts in the crowded field of A-list jazz pianists working today.


Ramsey Lewis Trio
The Early Years: 1956-59 (2 discs)
Acrobat (dist. MVD)
ADDCD3294

Pianist and composer Ramsey Lewis achieved fame and fortune in the 1960s with a series of jazz-pop crossover recordings, several years before the concept of jazz-rock “fusion” became popular. But even in the 1950s he was experimenting with unusual and pop-inflected arrangements, for example taking a popular theme from the opera Carmen and giving it an unusual setting with bluesy interludes. This two-disc set brings together material from his trio’s first four albums (Gentlemen of Swing, Gentlement of Jazz, Down to Earth, and An Hour with the Ramsey Lewis Trio)–though, annoyingly, it doesn’t include the entirety of those albums. Instead, it adds several tracks that were released at the time as singles. The result is an interesting and enjoyable but slightly frustrating collection.


Nicki Parrott
From New York to Paris
Arbors Jazz
ARCD 19466

Bassist and singer Nicki Parrott is always a delight to hear, whether she’s singing or playing bass or (astonishingly, to me) doing both simultaneously. Her latest is a quartet date that focuses on what we call the American Song Book–basically, songs by the likes of Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Cahn and Styne, and one of more of the Gershwins. These are songs that usually were first heard in stage musicals in the 1920s and 1930s, and that have since become jazz standards (as well as providing the chord changes for additional jazz tunes). So the repertoire on which Parrott is drawing here is pretty familiar: “I Love Paris,” “Manhattan,” “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” etc. But she sings and plays them with such warmth and with such a tender yet firm sense of swing that you don’t mind whatsoever hearing them again. Kudos also to reedman Harry Allen, who brings his own powerful sense of warmth and swing to the proceedings. For all jazz collections.


RPE Duo
Bananas
Wave Folder
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

RPE Duo consists of Matt Postle (trumpet, keyboards) and Radek Rudnicki (electronics), who collaborate internationally by combining in-person work with remote file-swapping to create their strange, ethereal, and sometimes eerie compositions. Their latest album was created while the two were resident artists at EMS Studios in Sweden between 2015 and 2018, where they worked with vintage modular synthesizers to create source material with which they worked over the course of the following year, sometimes at great distance from each other. Fans of Jon Hassell will find much to enjoy here, as will anyone who loves sonic experimentation generally.


FOLK/COUNTRY


April Verch
Once a Day
Slab Town
STR19CD01
Rick’s Pick

Look, I love a country revival album as much as anyone, but sometimes you want something more than a slavish imitation of 1950s and 1960s styles. And if you agree with me, then run, don’t walk, to your closest meat-space or online record store to pick up a copy of the latest album from Canadian fiddler, stepdancer, and singer April Verch, which is both a sincere tribute to the vintage country sound and a sly expansion of that tradition. Yes, there are nods to legendary singers like Connie Francis and Loretta Lynn and to producers like Billy Sherrill (listen to the piano and the backing chorus on the title track, for example). But there are also plenty of lovely surprises, like a touching duet with her dad on “Let’s Make a Fair Trade” and her reverent rendition of Lucille Star’s “The French Song.” And come on–a crooked-rhythm version of “Durham’s Bull,” with a Redd Volkaert Tele solo in the middle? Ouais! Git it, girl! This album is a pure delight from start to finish.


Leo Bud Welch
The Angels in Heaven Done Signed My Name
Easy Eye Sound
EES-007

Leo Bud Welch’s career as a gospel/blues musician began in 1945, when he was 13 years old and began playing and singing professionally at Sabougla Missionary Baptist Church in Mississippi. But his debut recording was released in 2014, when he was 82, and at that improbable age he began a new life as a touring musician. (His career has been chronicled in a documentary film aptly titled Late Blossom Blues.) He passed away in late 2017. This album draws on his final studio recordings, and consists entirely of traditional gospel songs performed in a raw, gutbucket blues style. If it weren’t such a stingy program (ten songs and just over 26 minutes, despite drawing on a reported 25-30 studio recordings) it would get a Rick’s Pick designation. Highly recommended nevertheless.


ESOEBO
VI
Knot Reel
No cat. no.

This duo’s ungainly name is an acronym that stands for “Eclectic Selections of Everything but Opera,” and despite both its awkwardness and the stylistic sprawl it suggests, this music is neither awkward nor particularly stylistically wide-ranging. The songs are gentle, sly, and graceful, and they generally fall comfortably within an acoustic-pop framework. Guitarist/singer/songwriter Chuck McDowell and singer/cellist Gail Burnett are the core of this group, and they’re joined by an array of sidepersons who provide tasteful accompaniment. The album opens with the wry “Airplane” (a song whose chord changes are startlingly reminiscent of “Makin’ Whoopee”) and then delivers a series of country-ish, Tin Pan Alley-ish, bluesy, and folky songs that remark on life, love, and women’s shoes with gentle good humor and impressive tunefulness.


Chuck Mead
Close to Home
Plowboy
PLO-CD-1051

This disc came to me out of the blue, with no contact information and no one-sheet to tell me who this guy is. And I guess that’s helpful, in a way, because it meant I listened to the album without any preconceptions beyond the impression that he kind of looks like Bryan Ferry on the album cover. The music is sometimes kind of rockish (“Big Bear in the Sky”), sometimes a sort of Mavericks-meet-James-Hunter bluebeat (“I’m Not the Man for the Job”), and sometimes acoustic honky-tonk (“My Baby’s Holding It Down”)–and that’s just in the first three songs! Mead’s songwriting is unassuming but clever if you listen (best/worst line: “daddy worked the pole so mama wouldn’t have to”); his voice is attractive but tends to be just a bit buried in the mix, so you have to listen for that too. On the whole, this album is something of a curiosity but a really fun one.


ROCK/POP


Kitty Kat Fan Club
Dreamy Little You
Asian Man
AM 346
Rick’s Pick

The latest wonderful disc from the wonderful independent Asian Man label is the full-length debut from Kitty Kat Fan Club, a (wonderful) band consisting entirely of members from label owner Mike Park’s hometown of San Jose, California. It started out as just a way of hanging out with musical friends and having fun, but when great songs started emerging from the hang, the group of friends turned into a band. And those songs really are great: punky in the “energetic” sense, but thoroughly imbued with pure pop hooks and unassumingly sharp song structure. The dual lead vocals by Casey Jones and Brianda Nocheazul are a complete delight, and the whole album is just absolutely, er, wonderful from start to finish. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Ioanna Gika
Thalassa
Sargent House (dist. Redeye)
SH 202

Formerly known as IO Echo, with this album Ionna Gika steps out under her given name for the first time, releasing a collection of original songs that draw subtly on her Greek heritage to explore themes of grief and romantic disappointment in a dark electropop style. From the glitchy atmospherics of “Out of Focus” to the more rockish groove of “New Geometry” and the multitracked choral wash of the title track, Zika explores what seems like a world of musical variety within what is actually a fairly constricted stylistic palette. At times both her vocals and her sung melodies strongly bring to mind Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins, but ultimately the totality of her sound is quite unlike anything else you’ll hear this year. This is a beautiful album that would make a fine addition to any pop collection.


Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers
No Good Deed
Pretty Good for a Girl
PGCD-04

For their third studio album, blues-rocker Mindi Abair and her band settled into the studio and stayed there, together, for five days. Playing largely live and with minimal takes in order to capture as much raw energy as possible, they ended up producing a rich and winning set of original songs and covers, among them a crisply funky take on Storyville’s “Good Day for the Blues,” and a fine version of the Etta James hit “Seven Day Fool.” “Mess I’m In” is another highlight track, and I think it’s an original, but since the album provides no songwriting credits it’s hard to know for sure. Anyway, Abair and her band rock hard and with undeniable soul, and it’s a treat whenever she takes a saxophone solo. Recommended.


More Rockers
Dubplate Selection Vol. 1 (reissue)
Echo Beach
EB138
Rick’s Pick

Ever since it emerged in the underground dance clubs of London as a new genre in the mid-1990s, jungle at its best has been characterized by the balancing of opposites: light and skittery double-time breakbeats with slow, heavyweight basslines; vintage roots reggae vocals with modern electronic production; smoky dubwise production with intense, high-energy tempos. Eventually jungle would harden into drum’n’bass, which (to my ears) was never as fun or interesting–but luckily, old-school jungle has never completely gone away. It’s still purveyed by, for example, More Rockers, a duo consisting of Rob Smith (of Smith & Mighty) and Peter Rose (of Massive Attack). They’re not as prolific as I’d like, so this reissue of their long-out-of-print 1995 debut album is a very, very welcome development. If you’re not familiar with the genre, snap it up quickly–there will be only 555 CD copies pressed.


Morcheeba
Blaze Away (deluxe reissue; digital only)
Fly Agaric
No cat. no.

One of the bands most closely associated with the trip hop genre, Morcheeba has been recording irregularly (and with decreasing frequency) since 1996. This release is a digital-only deluxe reissue of their most recent album, 2018’s Blaze Away. Libraries will likely prefer the original release in CD format, but here I’m recommending the deluxe reissue because it includes a full album’s worth of additional remixes by the likes of Djrum, FaltyDL, De Lata, and Yimino–and as of this writing, the whole package is available for only $6.99. Both the band name and the album title hint slyly at what to expect: basically, stoner beats with languid vocals. But Morcheeba has always been able to imbue its highly genre-specific songs with enough substrata of originality to allow them to stand apart from the pack, and this album is among their best efforts. Highly recommended.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Stephan Micus
White Night
ECM
2639

A new album from multi-instrumentalist and singer Stephan Micus is always an exciting event, and trying to figure out how to categorize each of his new albums is always a frustrating one. Which, of course, speaks well for him as a creative musician. He’s a master of a seemingly endless list of instruments from a wide variety of world cultures: the kalimba (or thumb piano), the duduk, the nay, various kinds of guitars, the sinding, etc. And the music he makes with these instruments sounds like it comes from a faraway and possibly mythical country: the keening, plaintive tone of the duduk contains hints of Armenia and the Balkans while the gentle burbling of the kalimba evokes sub-Saharan Africa, and his vocals (sung in an unidentified language) could come from just about anywhere. As always, the music on his album is quiet and intense and, often, deeply sad. Highly recommended.


Various Artists
Nostalgique Kongo: Rumbas Lingala, Swahili, Kikongo & Douala 1950-1960
Buda Musique (dist. MVD)
860339

International trade has resulted in many wonderful (and some not-so-wonderful) things over the past several centuries, but surely one outcome that we can all agree to be grateful for is Congolese rumba. Emerging in the late 1930s in the Brazzaville/Kinshasa area, the development of this form of urban dance music was sparked by the interaction of Congolese port workers and sailors from the Caribbean, especially Cuba. A commercial music industry was coming into its own at the same time, and the result was an expansion of musical styles and a flood of recordings, 23 of which are gathered here on this excellent collection. The sound quality is better than one might reasonably expect, and the songs themselves are a consistent delight.


Michael Palmer
Angella/Michael Palmer Meets Kelly Ranks
Burning Sounds (dist. MVD)
BSRCD910

Over the past several years, the Burning Sounds label has been steadily reissuing classic and long-out-of-print reggae albums in two-LPs-on-one-CD format, and this is one of the best so far. The label has (wisely) been focusing on vintage roots and early dancehall releases, and these two stellar efforts from singer Michael Palmer are from the early 1980s, when the nascent dancehall style was really taking hold. Both albums feature the mighty Roots Radics band, who give the sweet-voiced Palmer their typically deep and powerful backing. Palmer’s rather shaky rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” is the only disappointment on the first album; the second one is even better, complicated only slightly by the confusing inclusion of one Kelly Ranks on the masthead–how he was actually involved in the album is something of a mystery.


Suns of Arqa
Heart of the Suns 1979-2019 (compilation)
Interchill
ICHILLCD058
Rick’s Pick

Today, the idea of blending Indian classical music with dub and electronica may not sound particularly strange or even innovative. But Suns of Arqa–a rotating cast of musicians that orbits around founder Michael Wadada–has now been doing that for 40 years. I promise you, it was a much wilder idea in 1979. Anyway, over the course of those four decades Wadada and his collaborators have produced an extensive catalog of some of the deepest cross-cultural grooves you can imagine, and this beautifully-selected retrospective offers a perfect introduction to the group’s unique art. You’ve got your techno-flavored stompers, your floating dub blissouts, and your electro-funk drones, all shot through with various kinds of pancultural textures and melodies and all of it done respectfully and insightfully. Here’s hoping for another couple of decades of output from this band, at the very least.