PICK OF THE MONTH
Best-ever opening line for a bemused kiss-off song: “You must be alive, because you cashed the check.” (Second best line on the album, from a different song: “Candy-coat it if you will/But you’re no cure, you’re just another pill.”) So who is Bird Streets? In the grand tradition of one-person power-pop bands (cf. Wishing Wells, Field Study, St. Vincent more or less), it’s a guy named John Brodeur, better known to the cognoscenti as a sideman to the likes of Freedy Johnston and White Hills and as a prolific producer of TV soundtrack music. But here he’s indulging his taste for 1960s guitar jangle, 1970s guitar crunch, sharp lyrical wordplay, and hooks hooks hooks. And it’s glorious. He writes some of the best chord changes since Tony Scalzo, and his voice is lovely without being cloyingly sweet. This is a summer album, and summer’s almost over, so you’ll want to get it into the stacks as soon as you can.
Jaan Rääts; Arvo Pärt; Henryk Górecki
Patrick Messina; Henri Demarquette; Fabrizio Chiovetta
Aparte Music (dist. PIAS)
Alfred Schnittke; Arvo Pärt
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir / Kaspars Putnins
BIS (dist. Naxos)
For the past 30 years or so, there has been a steady stream of brilliant and groundbreaking music flowing from both northern and eastern Europe. These two discs bring together two of the most important headwaters of those streams: Estonia (home of Jaan Rääts and Arvo Pärt) and post-Soviet eastern Europe (home of the Polish composer Henryk Górecki and the Russo-German Alfred Schnittke). While each of these composers has a very distinct voice, each of them is also very clearly a product of his time and place. Kaleidoscopic is a program of pieces for clarinet, cello, and piano; the Rääts work is an etude, and a somewhat spiky but still quite beautiful one, whereas the Pärt composition is a fascinating rearrangement of the middle movement of a Mozart piano sonata. The concluding work is Górecki’s intensely involving Lerchenmusik: Recitatives and Ariosos, which beautifully alternates aggression with contemplation. The Rääts and Pärt compositions are presented here in world-premiere recordings. The disc by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir treads more familiar ground, but is no less beautiful and engaging; Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance are lovely but challenging, sometimes soft and remorseful but then regularly rising in intensity to barely-controlled beseeching shrieks. And then the two Pärt compositions, both of them familiar by now (his settings of the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis texts) and both of them soothing as a balm after the fiery devotion of the Schnittke. These are both outstanding albums.
Jan Ladislav Dussek
Piano Concertos opp. 3, 14, 49
Howard Shelley; Ulster Orchestra
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
I know it must be getting monotonous for you, dear readers: like clockwork, Hyperion’s Classical Piano Concerto series keeps pumping out little-known masterpieces by the likes of Steibelt, Clementi, Kozeluch, and Dussek, and like clockwork, I keep recommending them in CD HotList. I hope it’s not too tedious, but I do feel an obligation to let my fellow librarians know whenever a new installment arrives, because they’ve been so consistently wonderful. Once again, Howard Shelley’s playing sparkles, and his ability to lead the Ulster Orchestra (playing modern instruments) from the keybocdunivard continues to impress. Dussek’s piano concertos are not nearly as well-known as they should be, making this volume (and the series overall) highly valuable in both academic and aesthetic terms.
Jane Antonia Cornish
Innova (dist. Naxos)
In October of last year I gave Jane Antonia Cornish’s album Into Silence the “Pick of the Month” designation, expressing irritation that my duties had required me to spend part of the previous month listening to other albums as well as that one. I’m having kind of a similar experience now with Constellations–a shimmeringly gorgeous and aptly titled collection of pieces scored for piano, strings, and electronics, one that I could happily put on repeat and spend an entire day with. When I say the album is aptly titled, what I mean is that Cornish’s music aurally approximates the visual experience of looking at a clear night sky: it defines a vast space that is filled with twinkling, glittering points of light. A must for every library collection.
Works for Percussion, Violin, and Piano
Lou Harrison was one of America’s great weird composers. Like Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, and John Cage, he delighted in using highly unconventional objects as sound-production mechanisms, and the pieces performed on this utterly delightful album call for the use of such items as washtubs, brake drums, and ocarina in addition to more traditional instruments. What keeps Harrison’s music from sounding like a classical remix of Spike Jones performances is the fact that he uses his strange instruments so carefully and wisely–sometimes invoking the sounds of a gamelan (a lifelong interest for him), sometimes nestling them gently against simple and lyrical melodic lines, sometimes marshalling them in support of traditional musical forms (like the Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra, performed here). The results are generally quite direct and accessible, but also often surprising, and this recording of these works by the percussion ensemble of Utah Valley University is consistently outstanding. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Aeternum: Music of the Elizabethan Avant Garde from Add. MS 31390
Olde Focus Recordings (dist. Naxos)
Those who are familiar with music of the Elizabethan era might respond with bemusement to the subtitle of this recording, but obviously, context is everything. in 1578 (when most of the material in this tablebook was copied), the composer William Byrd had recently replaced Robert Parsons at the Chapel Royal and was writing music that incorporated techniques and styles previously unheard: even to 21st-century ears, the dissonances created by his canonic technique in O salutaris hostia are startling. But among his forward-looking pieces are plenty of familiar works for the viol consort, by the likes of Parsons, Christpher Tye, John Sheppard, and others. All of the playing is excellent, and the recorded sound is pleasingly warm and close. Recommended to all early music collections.
Electronic Chamber Music
Otso Lähdeoja; Alejandro Montes de Oca; Aino Eerola; Nathan Riki Thomson
Siba (dist. Naxos)
The ensemble that made this recording seems to have no name; the musicians are simply billed individually: Lahdeoja plays guitar and electronics, Montes de Oca plays modular synthesizer, Eerola plays various violins and electronics, and Thomson plays prepared double bass and electronics. There is also no information about how the music was created, so we are left to assume that it consists of group compositions and/or improvisations. The result–which would be more accurately characterized as “electroacoustic chamber music”–is actually really quite nice. The ten untitled tracks, inscrutibly grouped into two sets titled “ADC” and “DAC,” vary from highly abstract to classically modernist, with occasional digressions into what can only be called a groove. It’s a great example of how fun and exciting electro-acoustic art music can be.
Sacred Choral Music
Choir of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh / Duncan Ferguson
Delphian (dist. Naxos)
Though not quite as widely celebrated as his fellow Tudor masters John Sheppard and (especially) Thomas Tallis, William Mundy is responsible for some of the most breathtakingly beautiful choral music of 16th-century England. And on this program, glowingly performed by the choir of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, we get not only a handful of his more-familiar pieces, but also three world-premiere recordings, among them a reconstructed version of his obscure motet Maria virgo sanctissima (from which the tenor part had been entirely lost). There is also an unusual entry in the motet In exitu Israel, which was actually a collaboration between Mundy, Sheppard, and a very young William Byrd. The recorded sound is excellent, and the music is sumptuous. Recommended to all library collections.
Piano Music of Barber, Carter, Griffes, Ives & Zaimont
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
All too often, piano recital programs are predictable: they tend to focus on popular favorites (Chopin, Brahms, Bach, etc.) or on virtuosic display (Scriabin, Liszt, Bach, etc.), or both. This one, by the impressive young pianist Drew Petersen, does neither. Instead, it focuses on works by American composers–some of them more familiar (Charles Ives’ “Concord” sonata; Samuel Barber’s E-flat sonata) and some of them less so (Elliott Carter’s only piano sonata, played here with hardheaded brilliance, and the premiere recording of Judith Lang Zaimont’s Attars, in which she proves that “bracing” and “impressionistic” aren’t necessarily a contradiction in terms). Here the focus is on Americanness, and the kaleidoscopic manifestation of that quality across a diverse spectrum of compositional voices during the past century. As a pianist, Petersen is a wonder–but he keeps the focus on the pieces themselves, and in so doing makes a powerful argument for what might seem at first to be a rather idiosyncratic program.
There are very few guitarists out there with an immediately recognizable style, but Steve Tibbetts is one of them. And these are what I think of as the defining characteristics of his approach: an aversion to pulse, and a tendency to take note-bending one step further into genuine melisma. Put those two tendencies together, and what you get is a floating cloud of sound that unpredictably delights when a note suddenly (but subtly) blossoms into three or four others. On his latest, Tibbetts is joined by percussionist Marc Anderson and cellist Michelle Kinney–but don’t be listening for beats (there are none) or for anything that sounds particularly like a cello (Kinney mostly creates drones that fade in and out of the mix so subtly that they often sound like echoes of the guitar). This is music that moves in irregular waves and to which it makes the most sense simply to abandon yourself. Luxuriate in the pulselessness. Listen to what Tibbetts is doing–it’s always interesting and very often technically impressive–but don’t let it distract you from the gestalt.
This disc consists of a live recording made in 1981 and never before released. Woody Shaw’s name is not as well known as it should be–not because he was unsuccessful, but because he died young and never had a chance to fully establish his legacy. This live set shows us what we missed out on: a fiery and sensitive player with stunning technique and great skills as a bandleader. Here he leads an unusual ensemble: the front line consist of trumpet and trombone (played by Steve Turre), along with a rhythm section that features pianist Mulgrew Miller. The sound quality is not excellent but it’s quite good, and Shaw’s interaction with his band is consistently exciting–they often sound like a much bigger group than they are. Note in particular the thrilling performance of Miller’s composition “Apex.” Recommended to all jazz collections.
Book of Life
Erased Tapes (dist. Redeye)
Masayoshi Fujita’s music straddles the mist-filled valley that separates classical music from jazz. A vibraphonist and composer, he writes music that often shimmers and pulses like modernist minimalism (note in particar the Steve Reich-flavored “Mountain Deer” and the Harold Budd-flavored “Misty Avalanche”), but also sometimes swings (though very gently) and often flows like turn-of-the-century impressionism. Here he is accompanied by a violinist, a flutist, and two cellists, as well as by a very subtly wielded chorus of voices. Everything is not only soothing and beautiful but also consistently interesting, with textures that move in kaleidoscopic fashion much as the music’s harmonic progression does. I’ll be seeking out more by this gifted composer.
Birch Pereira & the Gin Joints
No cat. no.
This Seattle-based band has gotten jazz awards in the past, but on their second album they move a bit forward in time, into the golden era of mid-century blues, R&B and early rock’n’roll. Frontman and bassist/singer Birch Pereira reps his hometown with the album’s opener, an original titled “How Long (Until I See the Sun Again)?”, but after that the focus is on classics: “St. James Infirmary,” “I Don’t Like I Did Before,” “Lulu’s Back in Town.” But Pereira and crew stamp their unique vision on all of them–notice how slow and lugubrious their take on “St. James Infirmary” is, for example. But also notice how traditionally the Pereira original “A Love I Can’t Explain” swings. And it’s that frequency of traditional swingingness that landed this wonderful album in the Jazz section, despite the fact that it doesn’t fit there any better than it does anywhere else. Good for them, I say.
The Maid with the Flaxen Hair
Tzadik (dist. Redeye)
OK, pay close attention: this album is credited to Mary Halvorson, but it’s really a duo project with fellow guitar innovator Bill Frisell. And what the two of them are doing with this album is paying tribute to a third guitarist, the legendary Johnny Smith (known mainly for his hugely popular composition “Walk Don’t Run”). All of the pieces presented here are duets, some of them (like the album-opening “Moonlight in Vermont”) featuring bizarre electronic echoes that lurk, sort of zombie-like, behind the main guitar voice and shouldn’t enhance the music but somehow do. It’s worth noting that only “Walk Don’t Run” is a Smith composition; the others, including the Claude Debussy-composed title track, are tunes that were associated with Smith or that Smith arranged. Halvorson and Frisell are very different guitarists, but what they share is an ability to thoroughly deconstruct tunes in a way that is simultaneously radical and gentle, and that inevitably results in deep beauty.
Just Cross the River: Jazz in Queens New York 1923 to the Present
Triple Treble Music
Whenever you’re in the mood for some vintage hot jazz, clarinetist and composer Dennis Lichtman is there for you. But his latest release puts a twist on jazz traditionalism: its 14 tracks consist of five classic tunes and nine brand-new ones in a traditional style, written in response to a grant provided by the Queens Council on the Arts in support of a concert that was put on in the backyard of Louis Armstrong’s old house in that borough. Listen all the way through and see if you can guess which ones are which original and which are hot-jazz standards; I couldn’t, but it was sure fun to try. Along with the swinging, piping-hot instrumentals there are several very fine vocal turns featuring Mazz Swift and Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton. All of it is a complete blast.
New Kid in Town
Takaaki Otomo is not actually a “new kid in town”; on the contrary, since 2008 he has released several albums as both a leader and a sideman, and he’s been a fixture on the New York jazz scene since his move there from Japan in 2014. His latest as a leader finds him exploring jazz styles both old and new, alternating between swinging post-bop standards (“Django,” “In Your Own Sweet Way”), modern originals (including bassist Noriko Ueda’s “LullWater” and Otomo’s own very lovely “Evening Glow”), and surprising adaptations (two movements from Gustav Holst’s suite The Planets). All of it showcases his tremendous range and melodic inventiveness, as well as the startlingly impressive level of communication he enjoys with this only-recently-established trio. Highly recommended.
The Slocan Ramblers
Queen City Jubilee
No cat. no.
The geographical giveaways are two: the album title, and the original fiddle tune called “Down in the Sugarbush,” a reference that will only make sense to eastern Canadians and northern New Englanders. This Toronto-based bluegrass band makes no attempt to pass themselves off as Appalachian: they’ve happily adapted the forms of bluegrass and old-time music (banjo player Frank Evans alternates between clawhammer, Keith, and Scruggs styles with impressive amazon ease) to their own lyrical and stylistic agenda, which combines locally-influenced lyrics with hard-driving, virtuosic traditional bluegrass praxis. What it all adds up to is an exciting and beautiful album of old-school modernity, beautifully sung and thrillingly played.
Hills and Home
I’m on the record as being against musical purism as an ideology. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with great music that happens to be purist. Consider this album by the young and thrillingly virtuosic High Fidelity band, who look like a bunch of Mormon missionaries and sound like earthbound angels. Named for the annotation often seen on classic bluegrass albums of the 1950s and 1960s, these guys are unapologetic revivalists, drawing on the lesser-known repertoire of artists like the Louvin Brothers, Reno & Smiley, and Jim & Jesse McReynolds. They have a particular affection for gospel songs and deliver them beautifully (note in particular the tight harmony singing on “I’ve Changed My Mind”), but they are also incredibly hot pickers (note in particular the twin-banjo Reno-style workout “Follow the Leader”). Having worked individually with an impressive roster of A-list bluegrass artists, these guys are now something of a trad-bluegrass supergroup, and are clearly poised to make a big noise. It’s going to be fun to watch and listen.
Live from the Don Owens Show
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)
So there’s bluegrass revivalism and then there’s bluegrass reissueism. This album is a hardcore example of the latter. It’s a moderately good-sounding transcription of an episode of the Don Owens TV show, recorded sometime in the late 1950s (very little information is provided) and featuring the legendary Scott Stoneman and his family band. The Stonemans were the house band for the Owens show, and as such had to be utility players: they could do just about anything, regularly switching between bluegrass, rockabilly, and honky-tonk country music, often playing backup for singers who were guests on the program. Their wide-ranging skills are on full display here, as they veer crazily from the straight-up country of “Goin’ Crazy” to a countrified version of “Tequila” and from the classic weeper “Dark Hollow” to “Rock-a-Bye Boogie.” The energy is raw and maybe a little bit shaggy, but it’s real and it’s tons of fun.
We Can Pretend Like
Ogikubo Station is a duo consisting of Asian Man Records label head Mike Park and singer-songwriter Maura Weaver, and they have a mission statement: “Simple chords with simple melodies with the simple goal of having fun playing music.” And that’s fair enough, but don’t let them fool you: the songs are fun, and they’re definitely straightforward (alt-guitar-pop at varying levels of noisiness), but I’m not sure they can really be characterized as “simple.” They succeed at coming across that way because they’re so artfully crafted, and even when the distortion is messy and the vocal harmonies are really just octaves, the lyrics are sharp and thoughtful and the chord progressions are often subtly surprising. And dang if “Weak Souls Walk around Here” doesn’t strongly evoke middle-period R.E.M. (cf. “Driver 8”). Strongly recommended to all pop music collections.
Second Yard Botanicals (DIGITAL AND VINYL ONLY)
Apollo (dist. Redeye)
When someone has classical training but a lot of experience in hip hop and trip hop, you can expect his debut album to be a little weird. And of course, “a little weird” can go either way–it can be delightfully eclectic or eye-rollingly pretentious. To Paul Frick’s credit, Second Yard Botanicals is almost entirely the former and never the latter. It is, however, sometimes pretty dang weird. “Bankhaus August Lenz” is mostly a drone, with occasional incursions of something that sounds like a cross between dripping water and pizzicato cello; “Great Song Title 9” is a groovy, bustling pile of layered samples; “3000 Euro” flirts with house, but seems to be doing it ironically somehow. All of it is gentle enough to fade into the background if you let it, but that would be a shame–there’s tons there to pay attention to.
X-Altera (DIGITAL AND VINYL ONLY)
I have not been able to get enough of this album ever since I got my review copy a couple of months ago. Tadd Mullinix is one of those producer/composers who (annoyingly) records under a variety of aliases, and (conveniently) creates different types of music depending on which one he’s using. Thus: if you’re into acid and techno, check out his work as JTC; if you prefer hip hop, look for what he does under the name Dabrye. But if, like me, you’re a fan of weird jungly bass music with a rich variety of textures and moods, then his new X-Altera moniker is the brand to look for. His self-titled debut album under that name is an absolute delight, a constantly-shifting array of beats, samples, and tunes. Mullinix has absorbed and metabolized so many kinds of dance music over the years that he is now able to create sounds that look simultaneously forward and back, and that never fail to grab your attention. Here’s hoping he does more like this in the very near future.
Here We Go Love
Here We Go
Over 30 years ago the Beat (known in the US as the English Beat) helped to define what came to be called the 2 Tone sound–an amalgam of pop, ska, and punk that took England and then the rest of the world by storm: named for the label that was home to the Specials, Madness, the Bodysnatchers and the Selecter, 2 Tone grew in the early 1980s to encompass other bands and labels until it flamed out about halfway through the decade before a new ska revival hit in the 1990s. Today the Beat is original lead singer and songwriter Dave Wakeling with a bunch of other guys who are adept at the old-school sound, and the band’s first new album in several decades sounds as if those decades never happened: it continues to be a political, whip-smart, hooks-laden blend of ska backbeats and professional pop song structure. Wakeling is cursing a bit more than he used to (check out the truly nasty title track, yikes), but he still writes a sing-along chorus like nobody’s business. It’s great to have him back.
With a sound centered on acoustic guitars and a tendency to lean in the direction of Fairport Convention-style folk-rock when the larger band kicks in, the latest album from the Rails (James Walbourne and Kami Thompson) could almost as easily fit in the Folk/Country category as Rock/Pop. Not that it matters; what matters are the songs and the singing of them, and in that regard Thompson and Walbourne are a match made in pop music heaven. I’ll make the de rigeur observation that Kami Thompson is the daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson, and therefore comes by her lovely voice and her songwriting ability honestly, but I don’t want to take away from either her accomplishment or that of Walbourne, who is a wonderful guitarist and a fantastic songwriting partner to Thompson. And if “Shame” sounds like a magnificent outtake from a late Fairport album, and “Brick and Mortar” sounds like a song Tom Waits might have written if he were a Brit, so be it–the world needs more of that kind of thing. This is great stuff.
Okzharp & Manthe Ribane
Hyperdub (dist. Redeye)
It’s always fun to hear the tropes of hip-hop being twisted and reused to other effects–especially when the result is something truly unique and exciting. In the collaborative work of producer Okzharp and co-producer/singer Manthe Ribane, the beats are muted and darkened, while the samples that are central to hip hop tradition and the conspicuous Autotuning that is everywhere in modern pop and R&B are used for artistic, almost ironic purposes. When vocals are used in modern bass music it’s very often for textural effect, but Ribane’s lyrics are mostly comprehensible and generally carry real propositional content, making this album simultaneously experimental, abstract, and straightforward. And the beats are magnificent. This is what avant-pop sounds like in the 21st century, and it’s great.
Roberto Musci & Giovanni Venosta
Messages & Portraits (selective metareissue)
ReR MEGACORP (dist. MVD)
I have described this release as a “selective metareissue” because it brings together most (but not all) of the content from two ReR albums originally issued on LP, and both actually still in print in that format: Water Messages on Desert Sand by Roberto Musci (RR C28) and Urban and Tribal Portraits by Giovanni Venosta (ReR 37). It’s “selective” because five tracks are missing from the original programs due to the space limitations of a single CD; it’s a “metareissue” because this is actually a reissue of the original reissue, which was released in 1990. Anyway, enough with the colophon — how about the music? It’s wild and wonderful, in both cases incorporating field recordings from Asia and Africa (a Burundi story-teller, a pygmy chant, a Balinese monkey-chant, an Ethiopian cow-seller’s patter, etc.) mashed up with both electronic and acoustic instruments and treatments. The concept may sound a bit like My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, but nothing here sounds remotely like that album. Too weird to be called “pop” and too accessible to be called “avant garde,” this disc is recommended to all adventurous library collections.
Bagar a.k.a. Tricky D
Tricky Dubs (DIGITAL ONLY)
No cat. no.
With a title like Tricky Dubs, you might reasonably expect the latest collection of remixes by celebrated producer Dean Bagar (doing business as Tricky D) to be pretty reggae-centric. And you wouldn’t be far wrong: Tippa Irie makes an appearance on an impressive dubstep-inflected recut of the classic “Conquering Lion” rhythm, and artists like Aldubb and Jah Seal make an appearance as well. But Bagar is about fusion: what you hear as much as anything else on these tracks is the Latin groove in its many varieties (notice in particular the “Tabla Rmx” of Lianna’s gorgeous “Inspiration”), and he’s happy to take a techno excursion or two as well. If you love reggae and bass music but also love variety, this very fine collection should make you quite happy.
Ethiopian & Gladiators
Dread Prophecy (reissue)
For roots reggae fans, an album title like Dread Prophecy generates a little frisson of excitement, as it conjures up images of dire imprecations against Babylon delivered over thick, bass-heavy grooves with maybe some dub versions thrown in. And yes, that’s exactly what you get here with this crucial reissue from the Nighthawk Records vaults. Now, I feel duty-bound to point out that in this case the term “album” is something of an exaggeration–the program consists of four songs, each with an accompanying dub version, the whole thing clocking in at around 24 minutes in length. But every minute counts. When these sessions were recorded in the mid-1980s, Leonard Dillon’s voice was at its peak of richness and power, and the Gladiators’ rhythms are exactly what you’d want them to be: slow, deep, and as unstoppable as an elephant charge. Utterly brilliant, if way too short.
Symbol of Reality (reissue)
And speaking of the Gladiators, they made several outstanding albums of their own for the Nighthawk label during the 1980s and 1990s, and those are now being brought back to market as well. Symbol of Reality (1982) was the first, followed by Serious Thing in 1984 and Full Time in 1992. All of them are now being given loving reissue treatment by the outstanding Omnivore label, with additional content, much of which has not been issued before. All three of these albums are excellent, but Symbol of Reality is the logical place to start, and its combination of hip-swaying rhythms, strictly conscious lyrics, vinegary harmonies, and abundant dub versions makes it a solid winner and an essential addition to any reggae collection.
PICK OF THE MONTH
Danny Green Trio Plus Strings
One Day It Will
I’ve become a passionate fan of pianist and composer Danny Green, whose trio albums have been among my favorite jazz releases of the last five years or so. On his latest, he combines his trio with a string quartet to brilliant effect. This is not actually his first foray into the trio-plus-quartet format–several tracks on the group’s last album, Altered Narratives, were similarly configured–and it was his previous experiments along this line that led him to want to explore the format further. Jazz-with-strings is treacherous terrain; all too often, the result is either ponderous or silly, and sometimes it’s both, as the composer (who doesn’t usually know enough about classical music to make effective use of an orchestra) tries ineffectually to write something that sounds fancy, or the arranger (who only knows that jazz is supposed to feature flat-9 chords and “swing”) tries clumsily to make the orchestra sound too jazzy. Green avoids these problems in two ways: by keeping the string forces small and nimble, and by being not only a brilliant jazz composer and player but also an exceptionally gifted arranger. The piano trio and the string quartet are integrated beautifully–this doesn’t sound like a jazz combo with strings added on, but like what it is: an organically-conceived chamber septet for which Green has written utterly beautiful pieces that sometimes swing, sometime float, and always shimmer with multicolored light. I can’t overemphasize what a fine album this is. A must for all library collections.
Le Temple de la gloire (2 discs)
Various soloists; Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale / Nicholas McGegan & Bruce Lamott
Philharmonia Baroque Productions
Rameau’s infamously political opera Le Temple de la gloire is not exactly a lost work–it has been well known for centuries and multiple recordings of the opera itself and of suites drawn from its orchestral music are available. But this is the world-premiere recording of the original, 1745 version, the version that had to be edited after it both failed commercially and succeeded at offending King Louis XV (criticism of whom had been woven allegorically into Voltaire’s libretto). The original version was lost for centuries, and resurfaced only recently in the library at the University of California, Berkeley. This recording was made live at Cal Performances in 2017, and although the sound quality is a bit dry and shallow and the performances maybe just slightly ragged in places, the music itself is glorious and the historical significance of the recording is beyond question.
Complete Works for Cello & Piano
Marcy Rosen; Lydia Artymiw
Bridge (dist. Albany)
Cellist Marcy Rosen and pianist Lydia Artymiw are experienced and widely celebrated artists who bring a particular depth of insight to the chamber music of the 19th century. And nothing rewards that insight and sensitivity quite like the chamber music of Mendelssohn, whose sonatas for cello and piano are among the most lusciously beautiful pieces in the reportoire for those instruments. If only he had written more. This disc includes all of his known works: two sonatas, bookended on the program by the utterly delightful Variations concertantes, op. 17 and the beloved Lied ohne Worte, followed by a brief but transcendent Assai tranquillo. Rosen and Artymiw play with a sense of aching grace and brilliant intercommunication, and are beautifully recorded–the cello, in particular, sounds the way it might if you were sitting inside of it. Highly recommended.
Concerto for Two Pianos; Sonatas for Piano Four Hands
Paolo Giacometti; Riko Fukuda; Kölner Akademie / Michael Alexander Willens
CPO (dist. Naxos)
Anton Eberl is another of the legion of composers whose fame during their lifetimes is now matched by their obscurity in modern times; though his name is hardly familiar today, at the height of his career (a brief one; he died of scarlet fever at 41) it was being mentioned in the same breath as Beethoven’s and he was the talk of Vienna. On this disc we get two very different kinds of keyboard works: a concerto for two pianos and orchestra, and two sonatas for piano four hands. All are played on fortepianos by the excellent Paolo Giacometti and Riko Fukuda, and all showcase Eberl’s unusual inventiveness and restrained sense of drama. The Kölner Akademie sound wonderful on the concerto; more recordings by this group of Eberl’s large-scale works would be very welcome — there is at least one other of which I’m aware.
Six String Quartets (2 discs)
Cypress String Quartet; Borromeo String Quartet; Stephen Salters
Avie (dist. Naxos)
One of the most delightful and refreshing things about the work of Elena Ruehr is her unwillingness to be bound: her compositions are largely tonal, but draw on serial techniques both to create tension and as a source-bed for lyrical melodic ideas. She uses drones in a manner deeply informed by her education in classical Indian music, and repetition in a way that reflects her experience as a gamelan player. And she writes melodies than can make you weep: just listen to the opening section of her first quartet and see if it doesn’t make your heart soar. Her music is served beautifully by the playing of the Cypress and Borromeo String Quartets here, who were recorded in sessions separated by 10 years. A must for all classical collections.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
“Haydn Quartets” (3 discs)
Tacet (dist. Naxos)
Since we often think of Franz Joseph Haydn as a secondary figure to Mozart in the classical era, it’s easy to forget what an impact Haydn (who was 24 years his senior) had on the young Mozart–notably in the area of quartet writing. In 1780, Haydn hadn’t written any string quartets in ten years; he returned to the form with his earthshaking opus 33, a set of six pieces that completely changed the way the world would think about the form. Mozart was so impressed that he subsequently wrote six string quartets in tribute, dedicating them to Haydn–and sending them to him under cover of a truly touching letter, in which he referred to the pieces as his “children” and addressed Haydn as “great Man and dearest Friend.” Mozart himself was a mature composer at this point, and these works rank among his finest. Most libraries are likely to own recordings of these monumental pieces already, but the account here by the Auryn Quartet is outstanding and would make a worthy addition to any collection.
Sebastián de Vivanco
Missa Assumpsit Jesus
De Profundis / Robert Hollingworth
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
Here is an utterly gorgeous disc of choral music by a relatively unknown master of Spanish polyphony. Sebastián de Vivanco was born in Ávila sometime in the mid-16th century and started his career as a boy chorister in the cathedral there. His career eventually took him to several different cities around Spain, and three large collections of his work survive today. The Mass performed here is based on Vivanco’s own motet Assumpsit Jesus Petrum, and it’s presented along with several other motets as well; the program closes with a magisterial Magnificat setting. De Profundis is an all-male choir without trebles, but their sound is rich and full despite the lack of voices above the alto range. Beautiful music, beautifully sung.
Johann Joachim Quantz
Four Concertos for Flute & Strings
Eric Lamb; Die Kölner Akademie / Michael Alexander Willens
Profil/Hänssler (dist. Naxos)
There’s nothing quite like a good baroque flute concerto, and few composers wrote more delightful ones than Johann Joachim Quantz, who studied counterpoint under Jan Dismas Zelenka (a criminally underappreciated giant of the period) and flute under Pierre Gabriel Buffardin, and served as flute teacher to Frederick the Great. On this wonderful recording, flutist Eric Lamb performs on an unusually sweet-toned transverse flute and is accompanied by the very fine Kölner Akademie (also on period instruments). There’s much more where this came from–Quantz wrote hundreds of chamber and orchestral works for flute–so here’s hoping we’ll hear more of this repertoire from this outstanding soloist and ensemble.
Missa Si Deus pro nobis; Magnificat
Le Concert Spirituel / Hervé Niquet
Alpha (dist. Naxos)
The package is a little bit misleading here: this recording consists not only of the indicated Mass and Magnificat setting from a neglected master of polychoral Renaissance music (apparently both of them in world-premiere recordings), but also selections from Monteverdi and Palestrina and a brief organ piece by Frescobaldi–all of it organized in such a way as to approximate what an actual church service might have been like during the composer’s time at the Capella Giulia in St. Peter’s Cathedral. To call this music “sumptuous” doesn’t quite do it justice: at some points, no fewer than eight choirs are involved, along with full instrumental forces. As always, Niquet and the Concert Spirituel are magnificent, and this disc can be confidently recommended to all libraries with a collecting interest in Renaissance music.
Moon Viewing Music (Inscrutable Stillness Studies #1)
Cold Blue Music
Moving from the sumptuously sublime to the exquisitely quiet, we close out the Classical section with this deeply contemplative work by American composer Peter Garland. Since the piece is written entirely for gongs and tam-tam, you might expect it to be rhythm-based or at least percussive-sounding, but in fact the work consists almost entirely of resonance, with occasional irruptions of arpeggio. To be clear, there is rhythm here, but it’s very slow; there is also pitch, but it is invariably quite low. This is the best kind of minimal music–the kind that draws you in and invites you to hear things you would miss without paying close attention, while at the same time allowing you to simply float and luxuriate in the sound if that’s all you want to do.
Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin
Pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch has been leading this boundary-busting quartet (originally a quintet) for about 16 years now, and the group’s work continues to surprise and delight. It now consists of Bärtsch on piano, bassist Thomy Jordi, drummer Kaspar Rast, and bass clarinetist/alto saxophonist Sha, and while the group’s instrumental configuration may seem to place it more or less within the jazz mainstream, the music they play most certainly does not. You’ll rarely, if ever, hear any kind of verse/solos/verse structure in these compositions; instead, they evolve in ways that make it unclear where strict composition ends and improvisation begins. At times you’ll hear echoes of Steve Reich or King Crimson (notice the interlocking odd-time passages throughout “Modul 58,” for example), but mostly what you hear is instantly recognizable as Bärtsch and only Bärtsch. Sometimes hypnotizing, often funky, and sometimes brilliantly disorienting, this is utterly unique and deeply beautiful music.
No cat. no.
One of the things I love about guitarist Daan Kleijn is how easily, naturally, and gently he moves between a straight-ahead swing and a sort of jazzily abstract impressionism. He never plays “out,” exactly, but he can take his melodic explorations and rhythmic elaborations out to the edge in such a subtle way that sometimes you only notice the transition when he and his trio suddenly start swinging and you say to yourself “Oh, they weren’t doing that a minute ago.” His tone is warm without being soft around the edges, and he writes a great tune–on his latest album his two originals nestle with complete comfort into a program that consists otherwise of standards. Another triumph for one of jazz’s major young talents.
The Complete Albums Collection 1953-1963 (4 discs)
Enlightenment (dist. MVD)
Alto saxophonist Paul Desmond was a pillar of the “cool” jazz community (he came to greatest prominence as a member of Dave Brubeck’s quartet, for which he wrote one of the most popular of all jazz standards, “Take Five”), and the albums he recorded as a leader during the 1950s and early 1960s are among the finest in that style. This four-disc set brings together eight titles from the period, and listening through them one is struck yet again by Desmond’s tone: sweet and soft but firm in the middle, equally informed by the bebop innovations of the previous decade and by the more crooning, vibrato-laden styles of tenor men like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young in the 1930s. Some of the finest moments here come on his collaborations with baritone saxophonist (and fellow “cool” giant) Gerry Mulligan, but the whole collection is fantastic. As always with these Enlightenment sets, the strength is in the quality of the music and the weakness is in the accompanying materials, which bury musician credits in the liner notes. And some listeners might be slightly nonplussed by the near absence of any break between tracks on the first two discs (due to their overall length–nearly 83 minutes in both cases). Still, the music is marvelous.
Adrian Cunningham & Ken Peplowski
Arbors Jazz (dist. MVD)
One solid measure of a good month, for me, is whether it includes the receipt of a new album by Ken Peplowski. And with this one I get a bonus: an introduction to the equally fine clarinetist/saxophonist Adrian Cunningham. Supported by the crack rhythm section of pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Martin Wind, and drummer Matt Wilson, they romp their way through an assortment of standards, originals, and should-be-standards (notably Warne Marsh’s wickedly challenging and tremendously fun “Background Music”), some at breakneck bebop tempos and some at a stately midtempo swing, all of them played with audible delight and good humor. Normally I credit a rhythm section most when I notice it least (please understand that I say this as a bassist myself), but in the case of this album I kept finding myself noticing little things that Rosnes, Wind, and (especially) Wilson were doing that very briefly drew attention to themselves–but always in ways that strengthened the tune rather than distracting from it. The liner notes indicate that most of these songs were recorded in only one or two takes, which I find astounding; the whole band sounds like it’s been playing together for decades. Strongly recommended to all jazz collections.
Don’t Look Down
Another strong outing by saxophonist and composer Ken Fowser, here operating in the classic tenor-and-trumpet quintet format. Don’t Look Down is an all-originals program, delivered in a strong hard bop style with the occasional excursion into bossa nova (“You’re Better Than That”) and straight bebop (“Top to Bottom”) territories. Highlights include the loping “Divided State,” which reflects its title by alternating between waltz time and a funky 4/4, and the lovely midtempo swinger “I’ll Take It from Here.” As always, Fowser’s sweet-but-powerful tone and his sense of phrasing are central to the band’s appeal, but (as with the Cunningham/Peplowski album recommended above) the rhythm section deserves special credit as well.
Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles
Nina Simone was, as they say, a piece of work–a fiercely independent, disturbingly violent and very possibly crazy musician of astounding talent and wide-ranging style. At age 25 she entered the studio at Bethlehem Records and recorded fourteen songs that established her as a one-of-a-kind talent: turning her solo on “Love Me or Leave Me” into a baroque-style fugue, inserting a quote from “Good King Wenceslas” into a heartbreaking rendition of “Little Girl Blue,” singing the title track with a strutting confidence that belies her neophyte status at the time. Eleven of the tracks for that session were released as the album Little Girl Blue, and several ended up being released as singles. When “Porgy (I Loves You Porgy)” became a hit, the label started releasing other non-album tracks from the session as singles too, generally in shortened versions. This compilation brings together all fourteen of those songs, and they are a marvel. Bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer “Tootie” Heath appear on several tracks, but many of them are just Simone with her voice and piano. For all libraries.
Things to Remember: The Pamper Demos
Real Gone Music
Before Willie Nelson was a country music superstar in his own right, he was a Nashville song-factory writer. Employed by the unfortunately-named Pamper Music publishing company (this was in 1960, before disposable diapers existed), Nelson churned out songs at a rate of nearly one per day. He would then call on session players who didn’t have jobs on a particular day and record demos of the songs so that they could be shopped to other singers by Pamper. These demos represent the first-ever recordings of classics like “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” and “Funny (How Time Slips Away).” Most have been released previously, mainly on quickly thrown-together budget compilations, but this marks the first time they’ve been carefully gathered and curated, with historical information included. The sound quality is surprisingly high for acetate masters, and Nelson is in fine voice on all tracks. This disc’s combination of historical interest and top-notch musical quality makes it a cinch for a Rick’s Pick. For all libraries.
Epilogue: A Tribute to John Duffey
As a founding member of both the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene, mandolinist and singer John Duffey was one of the architects of “progressive bluegrass,” a subgenre characterized by expansive repertoire (often drawing on pop and modern folk music) and a jazz-influenced approach to soloing. He was also an outsized personality, a physically large man with an acerbic wit and a tendency to launch into Elvis impersonations while onstage. His death in 1996 left a large and unique hole in the bluegrass community, and this collection is the result of friends gathering in a variety of configurations over the past 16 years to record songs associated with Duffey: “Poor Ellen Smith,” “If I Were a Carpenter,” “Reason for Being,” “Sunrise”–all songs and tunes that his legion of fans will remember with fondness. The performances are all heartfelt and expert, and contributors include Dudley Connell, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, Ronnie Bowman, and even (get this) Nils Lofgren.
Baby You Win
No cat. no.
The press materials characterize Cliff Westfall’s new album as “Americana outside the box,” but it sure sounds like straight-up old-school honky-tonk country music to me. And more power to him, I say. Every once in a while I’ll hear a modern country song while I’m grocery shopping or something, and I ask myself whether the only difference between pop and country is the hat the singer’s wearing and the accent s/he sings with. Westfall himself asks a different question on the same topic: “Hey, does anybody remember laughter?” So he writes songs that partake of the clever wordplay and sharp romantic wit that were the stock in trade of country songwriters 60 years ago, and he plays and sings them (accompanied by the cream of New York City’s Americana session-player crop) in a sweet, clear voice that you could listen to all day. What this is, is country music. The very best kind of country music.
Gone Away with a Friend
Like everyone else in the world, you’re probably a fan of the late, great Ralph Stanley–a singer whose style transcended bluegrass and harked back to the deepest traditions of mountain hymnody. It was one of his great characteristics that even when singing a silly novelty song, he could make it sound like there was something deeper behind it. Which, of course, there was: there was Stanley’s faith in God, which was nurtured throughout his adult life by his attendance at the Little David Church, which is presided over by Frank Newsome. Old Regular Baptist singing is in the “lined-out” style (in which the preacher sings a line of the hymn, which is then repeated back by the congregation), and Old Regular Baptist preaching cannot be entirely separated from singing. This recording of Frank Newsome–singing alone without accompaniment or congregation, except on one song–was made over the course of a summer evening at his church in 2006, and it is hair-raisingly eerie and beautiful. The program closes with prayer–which, inevitably, eventually lapses into song. For all folk collections.
Pink Flag (reissue; 2 discs)
A wise person once said “beware of ‘important’ albums; they’re like ‘interesting’ people.” Fair enough, and point taken, but here’s the thing: the first three albums by Wire are important, and interesting, and also really, really great. They basically laid out the conceptual map not only for post-punk, but also for art punk–a map that would later be followed in a variety of ways by equally important/interesting bands like Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, and R.E.M. (who covered “Strange” on their blockbuster Document album). Pink Flag (1977), Chairs Missing (1978), and 154 (1979) have been reissued before, but never like this: in multi-disc editions (featuring the predictable generous grab-bag of demos and alternative versions) packaged with hardback books filled with photos and essays. I didn’t get to see the full packages, but I’m sure they’re great. The music is phenomenal, and for those who are hearing Wire for the first time it will be a revelation: sharp, angular, simultaneously weird and very tightly focused–most songs on Pink Flag clock in at under two minutes, and several are shorter than one minute. By the third album the band was getting much stranger and more experimental; if you have to pick only one, Pink Flag is definitely the place to start.
I’m not sure I totally believe Wikipedia that Prefuse 73’s birth name is Guillermo Scott Herren–it seems too perfect and convenient somehow–but who knows; the universe is full of surprises. One thing is clear, though: the days when we could glibly categorize his music as “instrumental hip hop” are long over. On Sacrifices, he gets deep into the abstract sampladelic weirdness–which isn’t to say that the music isn’t rhythmic, and even sometimes genuinely funky, only that it’s consistently too weird and not funky enough to bear anything but the most passing resemblance to hip hop. On this album it’s consistently gentle, fascinating, and beautiful, constantly upending your expectations and replacing them with something better than what you expected (a small bass clarinet here, a soully vocal there, a steel guitar over there). Best song title: “We Lost Our Beat Tapes in Mecca.” Highly recommended to all pop collections.
Hospital (dist. Redeye)
People use lots of different words to describe drum’n’bass (intense, frenetic, busy) but “gorgeous” isn’t usually one of them. Even the subgenre known as “liquid drum’n’bass” is usually more about being chill than about generating actual beauty. But listen to the latest outing from Hospital Records mainstay Logistics, and see if you don’t find yourself actually responding to tracks like “The Light without You” (featuring vocalist Salt Ashes) and “In Your Eyes” with something very much like a swoon. Now as for me personally, I wouldn’t have minded an amen break or two somewhere in the mix to break things up a bit and give the proceedings a bit more busyness and intensity–but that’s just me. And that’s not to take anything away from this album, which is gorgeous.
Red, White & Zero
Planet Mu (dist. Redeye)
We tend to think of hip hop as an American art form that has spread around the world, which of course it is. But it’s important to remember that while American-style hip hop has been adopted internationally, it’s also true that hip hop has been adapted worldwide, and in some places has evolved separately into something uniquely local. This is definitely the case in London, where grime has turned from a variant of hip hop into, basically, a local response to it. Inevitably, grime itself has spawned a million children and the term itself is now almost as much a cliché as “rap” is. One of those children is what Anthoney Hart (producing as East Man) calls “hi tek”: it’s a grime varietal notable for its dark atmospheres, its booming starkness, and its ability to attract A-list MC talent that most Americans have never heard of: Killa P, Darkos Strife, Eklipse, Kwam. These are rappers who amble around the rhythm more than they ride it, who mumble rather than spit, who talk about a reality that I can’t even pretend to know anything about. It’s powerful despite, and maybe even because of, its narrow cultural focus. A must for pop collections.
The Spirit of Radio: Classic Broadcast Recordings (3 discs)
Parallel Lines (dist. MVD)
This box is actually a cobbled-together set of three discs, each originally released on a different label: two are radio broadcasts of live performances (the first from 1984, the second from 1989) and one is a collection of interview snippets gathered from various points in the band’s history. The interview disc will be of interest to hardcore fans only; it’s the first two discs that make this box particularly interesting for libraries. The first one (titled Right on Target) documents a New Jersey show early in the band’s career and showcases a scrappy, talented, and deeply idiosyncratic college band just starting to hit its stride. The second (Songs for a Green World), from 1989, reveals one of the finest rock’n’roll bands in American history–probably the only one to ever cover both Pylon and Mission of Burma in the same set. The contrast is startling and thrilling, and both concerts are well recorded.
Lusafrica (dist. MVD)
Frequently cited as heir apparent to the tradition of the great Cabo Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, Lucibela Freitas Dos Santos is actually an artist with a powerful style and voice all her own, one who embraces traditional song genres like morna and coladera while not hesitating to incorporate elements of samba or whatever else will serve the song. Her voice is an utter delight–supple and flexible and clear–but she never indulges in emotional dramatics or look-at-me technical gymnastics; arranger Toy Vieira follows her lead in that regard, creating subtle, jewel-box-like arrangements for these heart-tuggingly beautiful songs. Highly recommended to all collections.
Burning Sounds (dist. MVD)
The Burning Sounds label is doing righteous work in bringing long-out-of-print reggae recordings back to market, often with generous portions of bonus material appended. This isn’t the first time U Brown’s 1979 deejay classic Repatriation has gotten the deluxe-reissue treatment (a 2000 issue on the French Patate label included a whole different set of bonus tracks), but it’s the only such version currently available in a circulatable format. In addition to the album’s original ten tracks, this one adds material from a 10″ EP by deejay named Dickie Ranking. The latter worked in a more 1980s dancehall style (with occasional incursions of America hip hop flavor), and the pairing of these two releases doesn’t make much obvious sense–but both of them are quite good. Honestly, I came to this disc as an established U Brown fan and came away from it wanting to know much more about Dickie Ranking.
No cat. no.
This album is the fruit of a romantic and musical partnership between Ugandan hip-hop artist and storyteller GNL Zamba and American singer-songwriter Miriam Tamar, who met in a Ugandan recording studio and have since become globe-trotting ambassadors for social uplift. Each of the songs on their debut album is built around a different Swahili proverb and is sung and/or rapped in a variety of languages, over a bed of musical backing that draws variously on soukous, hip hop, griot, and other stylistic elements. The sound ripples and flows like a stream over a rock bed, warm and cool at the same time, and the quiet intensity of Zamba’s declamations contrasts beautifully with the lilting beauty of Tamar’s singing. Highly recommended to all collections.
Unit 137 Vol. 1
No cat. no.
Not really a band, not exactly a label, only sort of a sound system, Unit 137 is a musical collective based in Southeast London and dedicated to creating culturally conscious roots and dancehall reggae, showcasing a wide variety of vocal talent. The collective has released lots of singles over the past couple of years, and their debut full-length album (which features some of those singles) features star turns by artists we’ve come to recognize and love: OnlyJoe, Ed West, Sleepy Time Ghost, Jago, and a few new faces, and honestly there is not a single weak track here. These guys show conclusively that you can make deep roots reggae that simultaneously celebrates the heritage of that music and expands its boundaries. This one is an absolute must for any library with even the slightest collecting interest in reggae.
Few living musicians are as well-situated to convey the richness of the conjunto tradition as Max Baca, who came up as the son of a leading accordion player in Albuquerque and eventually picked up the bajo sexto, becoming so accomplished on that instrument that he was tapped to tour behind such legends as Freddy Fender, Doug Sahm, and even Flaco Jimenez. On Cruzando Borders he and his band deliver a solid set of polkas, rancheras, redovas, corridos and more, sometimes singing in English and sometimes in Spanish, sometimes nodding to country music and sometimes digging as deeply as possible into the conjunto verities. And there’s even a cameo appearance by Lyle Lovett.
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
I first encountered singer Anandi Bhattacharya when she made a guest appearance on an album by her father, the legendary Indian slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya a few years ago (you can also see them perform together in a magnificent NPR Tiny Desk Concert). In my review of that album, I characterized her singing as “dumbfoundingly beautiful,” and I remember wishing at the time that she’d make a solo album. Well, now she has, and of course it’s spectacular. It’s not a performance of classical ragas, but rather a collection of songs both old and new that explore her musical roots while at the same time ranging well beyond traditional musical boundaries. Her voice remains a thing of wonder, and she is accompanied by the cream of India’s crop of traditional musicians, including her father. A must for all world-music collections.
PICK OF THE MONTH
Music for Installations (6 discs)
Brian Eno is generally credited with coining the term “ambient music” (and to have pioneered it, more or less, with the groundbreaking 1975 album Discreet Music), but more recently he has shifted focus a little bit and started referring to his compositions in this mode as “generative”–which is to say, created by a system that generates a constantly-changing array of sounds. His generative works tend to be more or less ambient in nature (quiet, soft, and intended to be used almost as aural “furniture” in the Erik Satie sense), and accordingly they are often created to accompany art installations. This voluptuously-packaged six-disc set brings together compositions created for that purpose between 1986 and the present; some are new pieces, some are older but previously unreleased, and some were previously available on a very limited basis. The final disc is titled Music for Future Installations, and consists of unreleased music compiled specifically for this set. Fans of Eno’s ambient/generative music know exactly what to expect, and will luxuriate in the generous helpings of floating, ethereal, contemplative sound painting on offer here, and since Eno’s work has long straddled multiple genre boundaries this box will be of interest to libraries that collect in either popular or avant-garde classical music.
Englabörn & Variations (reissue; 2 discs)
00289 479 9841
Jóhann Jóhannson died suddenly (and, so far, inexplicably) at age 48 just a few months ago, depriving the world of one of its most promising young film composers. In his honor, Deutsche Grammophon has released a remastered version of Jóhannsson’s 2002 debut album with a companion disc of “variations”–not remixes, exactly, but re-realizations of the original pieces created by the likes of Theatre of Voices, Alex Somers, and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Englabörn was a fascinating album to begin with, one that took acoustic recordings of piano and strings and ran them (often very delicately and subtly) through digital filters of various kinds; as one might anticipate, the “reworks” on the second disc tend to take these sound manipulations even further, but always with deep respect for the original works. This is a deeply beautiful and (given the circumstances) unusually melancholy album.
To Brahms, With Love: From the Cello of Pablo Casals
Amit Peled; Noreen Polera
Gah, Brahms. Here’s the thing: most of the time I find his music too emotional and bombastic. But then he’ll suddenly come across with a melodic passage so achingly perfect that I forgive him everything else. And I find that I encounter those moments more often with his chamber music, so I gravitate towards these smaller-scale works, and I haven’t even yet mentioned the fact that one of the selling points of this disc is the fact that Amit Peled (a magnificent cellist) is playing the 1733 Goffriller cello that Casals used for his own recording of these same pieces in the 1930s. So there are all kinds of reasons for a library to jump at the chance to buy this recording, which I can promise you will be especially beloved by the many listeners who love Brahms much more straightforwardly than I do.
Mind Out of Matter
Alarm Will Sound / Alan Pierson
Tzadik (dist. Redeye)
Scott Johnson is not the first composer to use the musical pitches of conversational speech as a melodic source, but he’s probably the one who has developed that technique most fully. His latest album is an eight-part suite for large ensemble that takes spliced and cut-up recordings of talks on atheism by the late philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, transcribes the pitches generated by Dennett’s voice, and uses both the sound of his voice and the pitches it creates as the basis for a sprawling, complex, and enormously fun piece of classical music. “Sprawling, complex, and enormously fun” has long been the musical wheelhouse of the new-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, and that group has long championed music that spans the worlds of avant-garde classical and pop music–never more effectively than on this magnificent recording of a magisterial (if polemically heavy-handed) work.
Symphonies & Concertos Vol. 1 & 2 (reissue, 2 discs)
Hamburger Symphoniker / Johannes Moesus
Dabringhaus und Grimm (dist. Naxos)
If Antonio Rosetti’s music doesn’t sound as Italian as his name would lead you to expect, it’s probably because his real name was Franz Anton Rösler, he was born in Bohemia, and he spent the entirety of his all-too-brief life working in Germany. He was a contemporary of Mozart and a likely influence on him, though of course Rosetti’s genius–substantial though it was–ended up being eclipsed by Mozart’s, as just about everyone else’s has been. This package brings together two discs of concertos and symphonies originally released in 2001 and 2003, performed by the outstanding modern-instrument ensemble Hamburger Symphoniker. In addition to the five symphonies on the program, there are concertos for flute and for oboe, and a symphonie concertante for two violins and orchestra. The playing sparkles and the recorded sound is excellent, and all of the music is purely delightful.
NFM Wrocaw Philharmonic / Tõnu Kaljuste
Lamentate; These Words
Bruckner Orchester Linz; Make Namekawa / Dennis Russell Davies
Orange Mountain Music (dist. PAIS)
These days we mostly think of Arvo Pärt as a choral composer, and with good reason; even if his works for chorus weren’t what first catapulted him to international acclaim in the 1980s, those are the ones that have really cemented his reputation as a pillar of the “sacred minimalism” school in the decades since. These two discs remind us that Pärt is also an orchestral composer par excellence–and that his work has not only not always been minimalist, but has also not always been tonal. Before he fully developed his personal voice, he composed in more or less the standard mid-century style: atonal, serial. The ECM disc presents all four of Pärt’s symphonies, which were written in 1963, 1966, 1971, and 2008 — and the stylistic changes you hear between them are fascinating to track. Two of his 21st-century orchestral works are presented on the Wroclaw Philharmonic album, and these will sound more familiar (and, let’s just say it, more comfortable) to those who have become Pärt fans within the past twenty years–though the opening sections of Lamentate have a whiff of the Wagnerian to them that some might find startling. All of the performances are excellent.
The Dark Lord’s Music
Music and Media
No, this isn’t a Norwegian black metal album. (If it were, the title would be in Harry Potter-style faux Latin — something like Faeculum mordandum or Crucifixium infante innocenti). To my relief, it turned out to be a generous selection of pieces for lute from a collection owned by the musician and religious philosopher Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury. In this collection are works by (as one might expect) John Dowland and Robert Johnson, but also by such otherwise little-known composers as Du Cast, Cuthbert Hely, and Diomedes Cato–and the program concludes with a pavan by Edward himself. Martin Eastwell plays all of them with grace and panache, no mean feat given the technical difficulties some of them pose. And the production quality is remarkable: I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a lute so clearly and carefully rendered in a recording.
Préludes, Books I & II (2 discs)
Terry Lynn Hudson
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
You know that feeling you get when you suddenly realize that someone is still talking to you, when you thought they had stopped talking several minutes ago? I have to confess that I get that feeling often when listening to Debussy’s piano music. (“Oh, was that piece not over yet?”) So I approached this complete set of his preludes with — well, not trepidation exactly, but certainly low expectations of engagement. But pianist Terry Lynn Hudson makes a strong argument for these pieces. She doesn’t try to turn them into anything more exciting than what they are, but through her deep feeling for them and her understated virtuosity she shows how Debussy’s musical impressionism can be deeply engaging on its own terms. Her playing makes me feel like I need to explore further, and she’s the first pianist to achieve that. With me, anyway.
Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette
After the Fall (2 discs)
These guys have now been playing together as the Standards Trio for roughly 30 years, and of course it shows. Each of them is not only a first-order musical genius in his own right, but also a walking encyclopedia of the jazz repertoire, and when the three of them play together the feeling is uniquely warm and alive. Their most recent recording has an interesting backstory: it was recorded live in concert in 1998, on the occasion of Jarrett’s return to performing after a two-year pause in his career brought on by chronic fatigue syndrome. The concert was never intended to be recorded for commercial release, but it went so well that Jarrett sought out the board tape and found it to be “not really bad at all.” Indeed, it’s really quite good in terms of sound quality, and the playing is electric. It’s an all-bop program: “Doxy,” “Scrapple from the Apple,” “Autumn Leaves,” etc., with some love ballads thrown in. And Jarrett’s habitual vocal noises–usually so intrusive and distracting on his trio recordings–are barely audible most of the time, which makes this set a particularly good introduction to this group’s remarkable art.
Thelonious Sphere Monk
World Galaxy/Alpha Pup
The thing about Thelonious Monk is that while his compositions were hugely influential and continue to loom large in the book of jazz standards (“‘Round Midnight,” “Epistrophy,” “Straight, No Chaser,” “Well You Needn’t,” etc.) he just didn’t write that many of them. This means that artists who want to pay tribute to his genius tend to try to differentiate themselves from the pack by means of creative settings and arrangements, and no ensemble has yet done so as winningly as MAST. This stylistically sprawling disc consists of a continuously-mixed assortment of Monk tunes presented as everything from Latin funk to glitchy jungle to noir atmospherics–and some of them in styles that are completely unidentifiable. This album’s clearest antecedent is the long out-of-print Hal Willner project titled That’s the Way I Feel Now (and if you own a copy, could you burn me one? My 1985 cassette version is no longer fit for purpose), which was similarly wide-ranging and affectionate. A must for all jazz collections.
Roger Kellaway Trio
New Jazz Standards, Vol. 3
Each volume in this series so far has earned a Rick’s Pick designation, and the streak continues. New Jazz Standards is the title of a collection of compositions by the great jazz trumpeter Carl Saunders, and on the third installment in this series of recordings drawing from that collection we have a stellar trio led by pianist Roger Kellaway and also featuring bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer’s drummer Peter Erskine. It may seem slightly arrogant for a composer to refer to his own pieces as “new standards,” but honestly, if he didn’t do it himself everyone else would: these are tunes with the kind of rich melodic appeal and timeless, straight-ahead structure that characterizes all of the traditional jazz standards, and it’s difficult to imagine a more compelling advocate for them than Kellaway.
The Django Festival AllStars
Resilience Music Alliance
No cat. no.
The term “gypsy jazz” has reference to a very specific musical subgenre: a fast, virtuosic, hard-driving style of hot jazz that emerged in France in the 1920s and 1930s among the Manouche population. Guitarist Django Reinhardt and his Quintette du Hot Club de France (featuring violinist Stéphane Grapelli) are generally considered the apotheosis of this style, and for this reason the name “Django” is invoked frequently in the names and album titles of contemporary bands that continue to foster and expand on the gypsy jazz style. The latest by the Django Festival AllStars finds the ensemble doing both–celebrating the music’s roots and enlarging its borders–and doing it in fine style, with both traditional headlong rave-ups and slow, sometimes dark and brooding balladry (notably a moving arrangement of John Williams’ main theme from Schindler’s List). Purists might find this album a bit too forward-thinking, but that’s why we don’t usually pay much attention to purists here at CD HotList. Recommended to all jazz collections.
Glenn Crytzer Orchestra
Ain’t It Grand?
No cat. no.
If you find the purists getting up in arms over the innovations of the Django Festival AllStars disc, then soothe them with this: a generous set of 1930s hot-jazz and swing standards (and originals crafted in the finest old-school style) recorded in such a manner as to approximate the sound of vintage 78 rpm shellac records (monophonic, natch) but without the intrusive surface noise and with a greater level of sonic detail and clarity. The overall sound is still a bit muted–little if any high end, hardly any bass definition–but the effect is charming and the tunes themselves are fantastic; good luck guessing which ones are new and which ones are old without peeking at the liner notes. Formalism, you say? Eh, maybe. But I’ll tell the anti-purists the same thing I’ll tell the purists: it’s the music itself that matters, not the degree to which it either preserves tradition or expands it. This music is a blast.
You Eat My Food, You Drink My Wine, You Steal My Girl!
About a year and a half ago I called Leslie Pintchik “one of the finest bandleaders in the field of straight-ahead jazz right now,” someone who “plays piano like a combination of Bud Powell and Bill Evans.” That’s about the highest praise I know how to muster, and her latest outing just reaffirms my longstanding impression of her talents. This one focuses on originals, with two standard ballads (one of them, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” played charmingly as a samba) tucked into the program near the beginning. This time out what I’m noticing more than usual is her phenomenally sure-footed sense of rhythm, which stands her in very good stead on the complicated title track and on the agitated, boppish fifth track (the humorous title of which is too long to cite here). In fact, both of those tracks suggest another compositional point of comparison: Thelonious Monk. Anyway, this album is a must-have for all jazz collections.
It Might As Well Be Swing
Arbors (dist. MVD)
Well-executed small-ensemble swing is one of the great pleasures of life, and few are as well equipped to bestow that pleasure on the world as clarinetist and bandleader Allen Vaché, who has been on the scene doing just that for over forty years now. Here he delivers a wonderful meat-and-potatoes set of standards accompanied by pianist Mark McKee, bassist Charlie Silva, and drummer Walt Hubbard, with guest appearances by two other clarinetists: Erin Davis-Guiles and Vaché’s daughter Vanessa. There’s nothing groundbreaking or innovative here, just lots of world-class jazz played in a time-honored style by someone whose range, flexibility, and powerful sense of swing are unsurpassed.
Is there any country-music instrument more widely beloved and commonly disparaged than the pedal steel guitar? (Well, maybe the banjo.) Its unique sound is disparaged as whiny and maudlin by some, and celebrated as soulful by others. One thing is certain, though: in the hands of a tasteful player, the steel guitar can bring a new flavor to just about any genre of pop music, and that’s part of what Joe Goldmark is doing here. Yes, you’ve got your country weepers (“A Love So Beautiful,” “Look What Thoughts Will Do”) but there’s also a cover version of Graham Parker’s reggae-flavored “A Howling Wind” and a calypso version of Bob Marley’s “Natty Dread,” not to mention some R&B, blues, and even a tango (well, sort of). Goldmark isn’t a stunt guitarist; his playing is restrained and tasteful throughout. Very nice.
Pharis and Jason Romero
Sweet Old Religion
There are lots of husband-and-wife folk duos out there these days, but I can’t think of a single one that hits the sweet spot of songwriting quality, playing skill, and perfect vocal compatibility as solidly as the Romeros do. They write their songs together, and both are fine players; Jason is also an extremely accomplished banjo builder and he plays two of his own instruments here, one an open-back model for clawhammer style and the other a resonator model for the more bluegrassy numbers. There’s an admirable stylistic range here: straight-up honky-tonk country (“The Salesman,” “Come On Love”), straight-up bluegrass (“Salt & Powder”), gently jazzy neo-Tin Pan Alley (“You Are the Shining Light”), quiet acoustic singer-songriter fare (much of the rest of the album), and all of it is both beautifully sung and deeply emotionally resonant.
Topic (dist. Redeye)
“Vanilla” is a pretty funny title for this album, because as Britfolk groups go, Blowzabella has never been anything like vanilla. Their sound is a bracing and rollicking mix of British and European folk traditions, one that draws on songs and tunes from all over the Continent and mixes them up with gleeful disregard for stylistic borders. This long-out-of-print album (originally issued in 1990) is being reissued now in honor of the group’s 40th anniversary, and finds them frequently sounding quite a bit like the Breton folk-rock group Malicorne: lots of hurdy-gurdy and stomping polka tunes, but with accordions and saxophones instead of crumhorns. The folks at Topic missed an opportunity to add some additional material to the reissue (this CD offers four more tracks than the original LP, but is identical to the original CD version), but it still weighs in at over an hour of outstanding music. Recommended to all folk collections.
Unzip the Horizon
No cat. no.
If what you’re looking for is “folk music” in the sense of traditional songs and tunes rendered in a style recognizably connected to a specific culture or ethnic community, then you’ll want to look elsewhere than the latest album from Moira Smiley. Instead, what you get here is a strange and magnificent collection of mostly original songs performed in a wide variety of mostly uncategorizable styles with mostly acoustic accompaniment. Sometimes there are clear stylistic influences: the strong Celtic undercurrent of “Wise Man,” the hint of Van Morrison in her word repetitions on “World Will Not Pause,” the Appalachian call-and-response feel of “Dressed in Yellow.” But everything somehow also sounds completely unique, and this is one of the most strangely beautiful and compelling albums I’ve heard this year in any genre (or none).
Sonar with David Torn
If the opening bars of this quartet album sound familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve recently been listening to King Crimson circa 1980: those interlocking arpeggiations in odd time signatures, those tritones, those rhythmic patterns going in and out of phase. And that’s not a criticism, by any means: we need more, much more, exploration of these ideas. What Sonar brings to them that is particularly new on this album is the guest presence of David Torn, who contributes a distinctly different element to the band’s established voice–an element of dark intensity and sonic wildness that contrasts vividly and illuminatingly with the main group’s studied formal discipline. This is marvelous music that sounds like nothing else on the market right now.
Webb Wilder & the Beatnecks
Prejudice disclaimer: there are lots of things that tend to push an album to the bottom of my “to listen” pile. Two of them are: guys making goofy faces on the cover, and the phrase “Southern rock” in the press materials. This one has both, but for some reason I slung it into the player anyway. (OK, I’ll be honest: I gave it a listen because I thought I might be able to classify it as “country,” and I always struggle to populate the Folk/Country section.) The bad news, sort of, was that it’s definitely not country; the good news is that it’s brilliantly fun and catchy R&B-flavored roots rock of a kind that I would not characterize as “Southern rock” except in the way that, say, Carl Perkins and Stevie Ray Vaughn were. The program is actually a crazy-quilt of live and studio recordings made in a variety of locations between 1985 and 1993. Alternately funky, greasy, rockish, chugging, and, yes, even occasionally goofy, this album will appeal to anyone who wished the Fabulous Thunderbirds had a bit more oomph. If you don’t remember the Fabulous Thunderbirds, then take my word for it: this one’s a blast. I can only imagine what Wilder and his band must be like live.
Venetian Snares and Daniel Lanois
Venetian Snares x Daniel Lanois
Timesig/Planet Mu (dist. Redeye)
Challenge Me Foolish
Planet Mu (dist. Redeye)
Aaron Funk (a.k.a. Venetian Snares) and Mike Paradinas (a.k.a. μ-Ziq) are both pioneers of experimental beat-based subgenres of electronica: Funk helped to create and define breakcore, and Paradinas did the same with drill’n’bass. What unites them is a tendency towards the extremely complex, the funky, and the sonically assaultive. For that reason, both of these albums represent notable departures. Funk’s collaboration with noted producer and solo artist Daniel Lanois finds him wedding his intricate beatmaking to Lanois’ dreamy and atmospheric steel guitar playing, which together create a constant sonic push-me-pull-you dynamic, with Funk’s breakbeats and samples skittering and smacking up against Lanois’ floating chordal clouds. The new μ-Ziq album is actually not a new one at all, but a collection of material that was originally written and recorded in the late 1990s and never got released. If that makes it sound like a random and off-hand grab-bag of second-rate music, you’re about 30% right: random, yes, but off-hand and second-rate, no. This is remarkably wide-ranging music: the low-key jungle frenzy of “Bassbins” segues directly into the beatless and orchestral “Robin Hood Gate,” and “Durian” is composed mainly of multitracked wordless vocals layered with cheesy synths. There’s some silliness, notably in the form of ironic 1970s keyboard noodling, but overall this is a highly enjoyable album.
Sunset Blvd (dist. Redeye)
This album is just what it says: a collection of covers by the Smithereens, the premier meat-and-potatoes rock band of the 1990s, all performed by the group’s original lineup. Most of these tracks have appeared before in scattered locations — the B side of a single here, a tribute or soundtrack album there — but several are released here for the first time ever. As one might expect, it’s something of a mixed bag: covering Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs (“Wooly Bully”) was a great idea; covering Irma Thomas (“Ruler of My Heart”) was a gutsy move that didn’t pay off. Their version of the Clash’s “Up in Heaven” looks like a strange choice on paper, but the song ends up sounding like it was written for them. On balance, the album will make a great choice for libraries with strong pop collections — or for individuals still mourning the untimely death of Pat DiNizio, the band’s lead singer.
I’ve been a fan of Indian/Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia for a long time and I’ve listened to a lot of her work. Unless there’s something I’ve missed in her catalogue, I’d say that 7 Billion is by far the most rockish of her albums to date. That’s not to say that it’s “rock,” by any means: over the course of these six long tracks her lovely, sinuous voice weaves in and around instrumental arrangements that incorporate elements of Malian desert blues, hints of fado, intimations of Southern rock, and more than a hint here and there of Punjabi folk music. Her partner Rez Abassi, a brilliant guitarist and composer himself, produced the album and helped with the arrangements, and the end result is something both beautiful and unique. Highly recommended to all libraries.
The Ghost You Love Most
No cat. no.
And speaking of rockish (and also jazzish), consider the latest album from composer and rabab player Qais Essar. Hailing from Afghanistan, Essar pieced together The Ghost You Love Most from recordings he made during various travels around the world, all of it based on his original compositions and featuring guest artists on instruments like fretless guitar, harp, kaval, bass veena, organ, and others. The sound is not exactly a fusion, but more of an emulsion: fully Indian and Afghan and Iranian tonalities emerging in conjunction with (but not fused into) Western rhythmic structures and chord progressions. Very, very nice.
Are you planning a party? Want some music that is guaranteed to get people up on their feet, even while they’re turning to each other and saying “What the heck IS this?”? Then grab the new album by the Turbans, a seven-or-so-piece pan-European folk/dance/rock group that plays unapologetically mongrel music with palpable and infectious glee. The melodies you hear are often astringently modal, the rhythms are complex and multilayered, and the vocals are sung in a variety of languages. You’ll hear influences from Turkey, Bulgaria, Morocco, Israel, Greece, Spain, England, and France here: gypsy violin, North African percussion, Indian raga, American funk, whatever. As regular readers of CDHL will know by now, I can bestow no higher honor on an album than to say it’s “tons of fun.” Well, the fun of this one is measured by the megaton.
Cedric Congo Meets Mad Professor
Ariwa Dub Showcase
Ariwa/Proper (dist. Redeye)
By billing himself as “Cedric Congo,” roots reggae legend Cedric Mytton is reminding you of his former role as lead singer for one of the most hair-raisingly dread harmony groups of the 1970s. The Congos’ album Heart of the Congos remains a monument of the roots-and-culture period and arguably the high point of creativity at Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark studio. On his new album, Mytton teams up with English producer Mad Professor, himself a pillar and architect of the UK roots sound; using a blend of old and new backing tracks, they create a new classic, nicely balancing digital smoothness with roots-and-culture heaviness — thanks in part to the Professor’s well-advised use of human musicians (including Horseman, Black Steel, and Leroy “Mafia” Heywood) instead of digital rhythm tracks. Each song is presented in “showcase” style, with a dub version following. A must for all reggae collections.
PICK OF THE MONTH
You say that Reggae Forever is a startlingly dumb album title–one that will inevitably lead people who don’t know better to assume that this is just another generic exercise in reggae formalism. Fair enough; I agree. But the key words in that sentence are “people who don’t know better.” Those who have encountered the modern-roots juggernaut that is Etana will see past the title and expect to hear exactly what the album actually offers: smooth-but-powerful production, impeccably written songs, irresistible hooks, and a voice as strong and assured that of any reggae singer in the past 30 years. What these listeners will also notice is how completely comfortable Etana is working in every reggae subgenre: swinging big-band ska (“You’re the One”); dubby lovers rock (“Sprung”); calypso-inflected gospel reggae (“Free”); rockish pop reggae (“Burned”); digital dancehall (“No Money, No Love”). The rhythms are all great, but on every track the chief attractant is her magnificent voice, which never draws undue attention to itself with acrobatic melismas or other look-at-me trickery, but which is at all times both strong and sweet and always perfectly assured. If you were to ask me at any point during the past ten years “What was this year’s best reggae album?” the chances would have been very high that I’d have pointed to a 1970s reissue. This year the answer would be Etana’s Reggae Forever.
String Quartet, Serenade & Sextet
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
The Nash Ensemble have done something rather sly with this recording: they lure potential listeners in with Hungarian composer Ernö Dohnányi’s popular serenade for string trio (the first selection on the program) and then sneak up on them with the rarely-recorded third string quartet and sextet for piano, clarinet, horn, and string trio. The quartet and sextet are knottier and more challenging than the serenade, but all of them are quite stunningly beautiful, particularly in these performances. I was particularly struck by the alternately lyrical and stately middle movement of the string quartet, labeled “Andante religioso con variazioni,” and by the majestic opening theme of the sextet. Recommended to all libraries.
Mare Balticum, Vol. 1: Music in Medieval Denmark
Ensemble Peregrina / Agnieszka Budzinska-Bennett & Benjamin Bagby
Tacet (dist. Naxos)
This is the first in a projected four-volume series of recordings that will present medieval music of the Baltic Sea region, each entry intended to explore “the local character of a different coastal region of Balticum.” The first installment deals with Denmark, presenting both vocal and instrumental music from a variety of manuscript sources: there are songs about regicide, some hymns and sequences and antiphons, and a smattering of instrumental pieces. The vocal works are sometimes sung by a solo voice and sometimes in unison by the wonderful Ensemble Peregrina; the liner notes are extensive and informative, and all of this will be of great interest to libraries that collect early music.
Cello Concertino; Solo Cello Sonata; Solo Cello Suite
Matthew Sharp; English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods
Avie (dist. Naxos)
Franz Joseph Haydn
Zuill Bailey; Philharmonia Orchestra / Robin O’Neill
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
Just for fun, I decided to review two very different cello recordings together. The first features works by Hans Gál, a relatively obscure Austrian composer of the early- to mid-twentieth century, one whose music fell out of favor during the prime of his life, a time when tonal composition was considered retrograde and non-academic. The fact that he remains substantially unknown says something about the continued suspicion towards tonal music of that period, but these recordings–of a cello “concertino” and two solo works for cello–make clear how much we’ve been missing out on. The solo pieces are outstanding, but the concertino (a term that Gál used somewhat idiosyncratically) is a tour de force, and is presented here in its world-premiere recording. Matthew Sharp’s playing is brilliant throughout. Zuill Bailey’s recording of Haydn’s two cello concertos (not counting the lost one and the two misattributed ones) doesn’t offer any of the musical surprises of the Gál recording, but it is no less rewarding: although the works themselves are familiar, he plays with enough fire and passion to make them sound fresh and new. The live setting undoubtedly contributes to the vitality of this recording, but mostly it’s Bailey’s natural talent and energy. Both of these disc are highly recommended.
Tomás Luis de Victoria
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
I await a new release from stile antico the way a seven-year-old awaits Christmas. And so far, I’ve never been disappointed. The group’s latest was released, appropriately enough, around Eastertide: it features the Responses for Holy Week by the greatest composer of the Spanish Renaissance, Tomás Luis de Victoria. These pieces are generally considered to be among Victoria’s finest achievements, and recordings of them are not exactly rare, so what justifies yet another? The unparalleled richness of stile antico’s blend, their flawless intonation, and their unsurpassed ability to balance intensity and inwardness, that’s what. Over the past ten years this group has emerged as the supreme exponent of the Oxbridge sound, and every one of their recordings belongs in every library that collects classical music.
Fred Frith; Hardy Fox
A Day Hanging Dead Between Heaven and Earth
Klang Galerie (dist. MVD)
One of the most beloved and admired members of the avant-rock community since his early days in Henry Cow and his much longer career as a solo artist, Fred Frith has long made music that completely defies genre categorization. Something similar could be said of Hardy Fox, who for over 40 years has been the prime mover behind the Residents, a Bay Area avant-pop collective that kept its membership almost entirely secret until recently (when Fox came clean about his role as primary composer for the group). This disc is the long-delayed result of a collaboration between Frith and Fox that has its origins in a recording Fox made of Frith singing melodies to himself while the two of them sat naked on a rise above the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur. Long story short, Fox turned the recordings into a sonic collage, Frith later used a MIDI violin to turn them into something different, Fox took those recordings and messed around with them some more, the resulting recordings were filed away and forgotten for years, and then they were found–at which piont Fox contacted Frith, they reworked the material some more with new lyrics and vocalists, and the result is this weird, charming, sprawling work that — wait for it — completely defies genre categorization. Filed under “Classical” because the music is composed, and because it can’t possibly be called “jazz” or anything else.
6 Flute Quartets
Ensemble Il Demetrio
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
Sometimes, I confess, I feel guilty for loving the music of the classical period so much–kind of the same way I feel guilty for liking cake. It can feel like empty calories: all form and grace and prettiness, and not much in the way of meaning or substance. (Not all of it, obviously, but a lot of it.) And yet here we are, contemplating this delightful recording of flute quartets by an Italian composer known far more for his violin compositions and methods than for his flute writing. Ensemble Il Demetrio (on period instruments, including a keyed chromatic wooden flute) give these pieces a very fine presentation here, and flutist Gabriele Formenti is particularly to be commended for his tone. If you think you might feel guilty indulging, then maybe listen to an early Beethoven symphony first and have these lovely Italian pastries for dessert.
Anthony Paul De Ritis
Electroacoustic Music: In Memoriam David Wessel
When synthesizers first started really coming on the scene in the 1960s and 1970s, one of the reactions against them was rooted in the concern that they would take the place of analog and acoustic instruments. But to me, what always made synthesizers interesting wasn’t how good they were at imitating other instruments, but the enormous variety of sounds they could create that couldn’t possibly be made by any other instrument. And when synthesizers actually interact with acoustic instruments–well, the sky’s the limit. In the mid- to late-20th century, some of the most interesting avant-garde music consisted of exactly such interactions, and over the past 25 years composer Anthony Paul De Ritis has continued developing that tradition. This disc brings together a large and varied assortment of electroacoustic pieces for such instruments as piano, alto saxophone, kalimba, trombone, and Chinese instruments like the erhu, pipa, and sheng. The music is sometimes whimsical and sometimes stark, and always interesting.
Fred Hersch Trio
Live in Europe
Are we now at the point where we can say that Fred Hersch is our greatest living jazz pianist? I don’t know. I can tell you that I listen to many, many jazz pianists over the course of any given year, and I have yet to encounter another one with his combination of bravura technique, deep sense of structure, capacity for invention, and pure taste. And in a live setting, he and his trio (which includes bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson) move together like a well-oiled machine. No, that’s not the right simile: they move together like a cloud of starlings, shifting into unpredictable but beautiful patterns in response to cues that the listener can’t hear or comprehend. On this set, recorded in Brussels just a few months ago, the group plays two Monk tunes (one of them a Hersch solo encore), two Wayne Shorter tunes, and six originals–sometimes swinging, sometimes floating delicately, sometimes growling and thrashing, but always singing. For any library with a jazz collection, every Fred Hersch album is quite simply a must-buy.
The Classic Collaborations 1957-1963 (4 discs)
Enlightenment (dist. MVD)
As classic jazz recordings of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s pass out of copyright in the UK, labels like Real Gone Jazz and Enlightenment are putting them out in super-budget multidisc packages and selling them internationally–including in the US, where the recordings are often (though not always) still under copyright. Is this legal? Technically yes, partly because there’s no such thing as international copyright law. Is it ethical? Eh. Your mileage may vary. When the artists involved are long dead and their labels no longer exist, I tend to feel better about it. (Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone isn’t getting cheated out of royalties, whether it’s an artist’s descendants or the new owner of the defunct label’s catalog.) For right now let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there are no legal or ethical impediments to buying the latest box from Enlightenment, this one focusing on recordings made by tenor saxophone legend John Coltrane alongside various co-leaders during what I consider his best period. It includes eight albums he made with Thelonious Monk, Red Garland, Kenny Burrell, Tadd Dameron, Paul Quinichette, Duke Ellington, Milt Jackson, and Johnny Hartman, and finds him mastering the hard bop language and then expanding it–a process that would continue into the mid-1960s (a period that many other people consider to be his best). It’s hard to exaggerate both the quality and the historical importance of the music he made on these albums, and if your library doesn’t already own them in CD format this is a great opportunity to beef up your collection at minimal cost in terms of both dollars and shelf space.
No cat. no.
This disc came to me in the mail with no additional information: no press sheet, no bios, no contact info beyond the return address on the envelope. Inside the disc package there’s little more: the musicians are credited (Bob Holmes, Gary Leib, Pat Irwin, Jonathan Gregg and William Garrett), but no indication is given as to what instruments they play. Pop in the disc and it becomes clear that their instruments include guitar, bass, and steel guitar–but what remains unclear is exactly what kind of music this is supposed to be. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The guitars float and shimmer, the bass provides a sometimes-steady pulse if rarely anything that one might call a “beat,” and the steel swoops in with countryish moans from time to time. There may some keyboard in there too, but the difference between keys and strings can be hard to suss out these days (see what I did there)? Anyway, it’s all very pretty and very weird, and that’s a winning combination in my book.
The Future Is Female
Saxophonist and composer Roxy Coss has always projected a strong, independent image as a woman in jazz, so in light of events of the past couple of years it should come as no surprise that her feminism is coming more to the forefront of her self-presentation. With song titles like “Nasty Women Grab Back,” “Females Are Strong As Hell,” and “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” Coss is not making a subtle statement here. But beyond those titles, she’s doing it entirely musically, writing powerfully swinging and complex jazz compositions and leading a crack quintet in nimble but muscular performances. These are tunes that veer back and forth between straightforwardly lyrical and knottily chromatic, often within a single chorus; her solos are master classes in structure and tone. Coss has that rarest of qualities in a jazz composer: the ability to surprise you with a line or gesture that sounds perfectly inevitable. For all jazz collections.
Ken Peplowski Big Band
Arbors Jazz (dist. MVD)
I don’t listen to big band music very much, I guess because I usually find it either anodyne or tiresome, and as a result I don’t review it very much either. But I’ll listen to any project that involves Ken Peplowski in any way, so when I saw he’d released a big band album as a leader I knew I had to get my hands on it. And it’s wonderful, as anyone familiar with his work would expect. The program is all standards, and one of the pieces is a world premiere: an arrangement of “When You Wish upon a Star” by the song’s composer, Alec Wilder, that was written for the Benny Goodman orchestra but never played or recorded before now. Peplowski is not only a brilliant clarinetist but also a generous and subtle bandleader, and this album is absolutely full of lovely moments and joyful swing. Strongly recommended to all libraries.
Hotsy Totsy Gang 1930 Plus Some Whoopee Makers
Retrieval/Challenge (dist. Naxos)
Let’s close out this month’s jazz section with some pure fun: a bunch of exquisitely restored 78s recorded between 1928 and 1930 by Irving Mills and his various hot bands. Mills was not only a bandleader and songwriter, but also served as Duke Ellington’s business manager for fourteen years and worked tirelessly to promote jazz music. Not only is the music on this disc every bit as fun as you’d expect, with lots of up-tempo swing, charmingly anachronistic singing, and fruity radio-announcer voices, but it’s also historically significant: these tracks feature early performances by the likes of Benny Goodman, Bix Beiderbecke, Hoagy Carmichael (as both pianist and vocalist), Jack Teagarden, and Joe Venuti. As always with Retrieval releases you get a wealth of historical info as well, complete with matrix numbers, historical context and complete personnel notes. Another perfect library purchase.
Les blues du Richmond: Demos & Outtakes 1973-1979
A legendary fingerstyle guitarist, Richard Royall “Duck” Baker IV distinguished himself from other hotshot guitarists in the Post-Folk Scare period by, among other things, devoting just as much energy to ragtime and hot jazz arrangements as to fiddle tunes, and also by fusing free jazz approaches to folk forms and techniques. This disc brings together previously unreleased demo tracks from early in his career along with some rare recordings in a variety of styles. You’ll hear renditions of “Charleston” and “Doing the Raccoon” alongside free improvisations and heart-tuggingly beautiful arrangements of contradance favorites like “Sandy River Belle” and “The Humors of Whiskey.” When he sings, which he does on several tracks (despite the incorrect annotation on the back cover), his voice is charmingly plainspoken and he delivers the silly jazz-era lyrics without any noticeable irony. For all folk collections.
Buck Owens and the Buckaroos
The Complete Capitol Singles: 1967-1970 (2 discs)
By the late 1960s, Buck Owens–architect and avatar of what was by that point known as the Bakersfield Sound–was starting to get stylistically restless. Listen to the difference between, on one hand, the affable novelty song “Sam’s Place” and the standard-issue weeper “What A Liar I Am” (1965 and 1966, respectively) and, on the other, the psychedelic-rock-inflected “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass?” and the infamously rocking live-in-London version of “Johnny B. Goode” (1968 and 1969). The crowd loved that last one, but Owens’ hometown audience wasn’t so sure that he was strictly honoring the Country Music Pledge he had made just a few years earlier. He would continue courting musical controversy over the next few years, pushing the boundaries of traditional country music in ways that might sound quaint 50 years later, but were genuinely startling at the time. And no matter what he did, he sang almost as thrillingly as George Jones.
Outside Music/Neilson (dist. Redeye)
Canadian-born, New Zealand-based singer-songwriter Tami Neilson has never been willing to confine herself to a single country subgenre, and on her latest album she breaks out in all kinds of different directions, directions that converge in a sort of tiki-torch sway and rockabilly swagger that is simultaneously familiar-sounding and weirdly unique. On <em>Sassafrass!</em> you’ll hear hints of Roseanne Cash and Bobbie Gentry, but they’re both influences, not sources. Neilson’s voice remains an absolute wonder: it can be hard and brassy or sweet and lyrical, and its power is enough to rock you back in your seat. And she writes a great–really great–kiss-off song.
Age of Remix (3 discs)
Cherry Red/Strike First Entertainment (dist. MVD)
You thought they were dead? Think again. Bronski Beat has never really gone away since the group’s heyday in the 1980s, and Steve Bronski continues to put out solid electro-disco under that moniker 35 years later. The most recent release is The Age of Reason–which is itself a modern remake of the band’s debut The Age of Consent–and this three-disc remix extravaganza takes that album and folds, spindles, and mutilates it into a sprawling array of neo-disco reconfigurations. Mixes by the likes of Laether Strip, Jose Jimenez, and Scandall ‘n’ Ros fill up the first two discs, and the third consists of a selection of tracks from those discs presented in a continuous mix for maximum dance floor pressure. It’s important to note that while each producer gives his or her assigned track a unique flavor, there is a strong rhythmic consistency here: this is all about the house banger, with only rare and brief forays away from the familiar four-on-the-floor thump. But when it comes to that neo-disco sound, there’s hardly anyone better.
OK, let’s get this out of the way right up front: yes, Miniatures sound an awful lot like Cocteau Twins. You’ve got your massed harsh-soft guitars, your inscrutable and barely audible (but gorgeous) female vocals, your beats that are much more aggressive than you think they are at first blush. What you don’t have quite as much of are the unexpected flights of melismatic melody that stop your heart for just a moment, but still, Miniatures bring back to the music scene a vein of dreamy, analog experimental pop music that never did get fully mined back during the shoegaze heyday. Is it innovative, strictly speaking? Nah. But it sure is pretty, and isn’t that what really counts?
The Well Wishers
A View from Above
That Was My Skull Music
No cat. no.
Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Shelton built his early career as the frontman for Bay Area power-pop favorites Spinning Jennies, but since 2003 he’s been the talent behind the Well Wishers, which is for all intents and purposes a one-man band. On this, his ninth album under that name, he sings all the parts and plays virtually all of the instruments (guest guitarist Pete Bohan contributes a sharp solo on “Never Let You Down”). As always, he delivers everything that fans of the genre ask for: dense, crunchy guitars; cathartic chord changes; soaring melodies with gorgeous vocal harmonies. This is absolutely perfect music for driving just a little too fast with the windows open on a summer evening.
Burning Britain: A Story of Independent UK Punk 1980-1983 (4 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
Following on from the label’s similarly-configured collection of 1970s UK punk (Action Time Vision, 2016), this set is a jaw-dropping collection of both rare and familiar material, much of it never before released on CD and much of it long out of print. Essential bands like the Damned, UK Subs, Discharge, and Cockney Rejects are here, but so are some that only the most dedicated punk-rock crate-diggers are likely to recognize: the Varukers, Demob, the A-Heads. Some of these tracks were originally released commercially, but a few are demos (some of truly atrocious sonic quality, which seems completely appropriate). Aficionados will, inevitably, note some regrettable lacunae (where’s Crass? or anything from the Crass family?) and will wonder why space was given over to silly pseudo-punk nonsense like Toy Dolls. But playing that game is half the fun of collections like this, and no one will come away without having discovered something new in this sprawling compilation of 30-year-old punk treasures. (And besides, the title is “_A_ Story of Independent UK Punk,” not “_The_ Story.”) The box comes with a booklet that I didn’t get to see, but that I’m sure is wonderful. For all pop and rock collections.
The Book Room (digital only)
No cat. no.
Benjamin Kilchhofer is a Swiss musician and graphic designer who has vacillated throughout his life between focusing on music and on visual art. Furthemore, a constant discontentment with the instruments available to him for music-making led him finally to build his own modular synthesizer, on which he spent fifteen years making music that he never shared with anyone else. If all of this sounds like the recipe for the eventual emergence of a truly idiosyncratic talent, well, that’s exactly right. On this, his first full-length album under his own name, he shares twenty tracks of instrumental music that never settles into an identifiable genre: it’s sometimes funky, often glitchy, sometimes very quiet, sometimes probingly melodic, and always truly unique. It’s also never less than strikingly beautiful, even at its subtlest. I’ve listened to it over and over, in part because I’ve really never heard anything quite like it. Highly recommended to all libraries; it’s really too bad that it hasn’t been released in a more convenient collecting format. (The extremely limited-edition vinyl version sold out long ago.)
Birds of Passage
Death of Our Invention
Birds of Passage is New Zealand-based Alicia Merz, who composes songs that move like glaciers and shimmer like broken ice in the freezing-cold moonlight. So, no — I wouldn’t characterize her sound as “warm.” But good heavens, it sure is pretty. Don’t worry about the words; you won’t be able to really hear them, and that’s fine. Her voice is the point, as is the way in which she weaves it in and around the layers of white noise, synthesizer wash, and bottomless echo. The overall effect is simultaneously distant and immediate, effortlessly accessible and deeply mysterious. Definitely not for dancing, this is an album that should be hand-sold to anyone you see in your library wearing very, very dark eyeliner.
Treasures from the Temple
This is a companion album to the last Thievery Corporation release (2017’s Temple of I & I, which I recommended in the February issue of that year). It features a mix of previously-unreleased material from those same sessions, along with some remixes of tracks from that album. And unlike the previous release, which constituted a full-on deep dive into reggae, this one goes further afield, exploring club, soul, and hip hop flavors are well, everything being filtered through the Thievery Corporation’s uniquely laid-back, smoky groove. These guys have always been musical polymaths, equally adept at invoking the grooves of acid jazz, dub, samba, bossa nova, and soul, and you can almost hear the buildup of tension when they try to stay focused for too long on a single genre; Treasures from the Temple is the sound of that tension being released.
The #1 Sound from the Vaults, Vol. 1
Studio One (dist. Redeye)
Studio One was perhaps the most important single recording operation in Jamaica during the middle to late 20th century. The rhythms (or instrumental tracks) recorded there in the 1970s are still used by reggae artists today, and artists as influential as the Ethiopians, Burning Spear, and Bob Marley recorded early work there. Most compilations of Studio One tracks lean heavily on familiar and popular tunes, but this one collects rare singles by artists both famous (Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis) and obscure (The Officials, Bop and the Beltones), spanning the rock steady and roots reggae eras. None of the tracks featured here have been previously released on CD, so libraries with a collecting interest in reggae should definitely pick this one up.
Disco Gecko (dist. MVD)
Dr trippy characterizes his style as “Punjabi swamp music,” which I think is pretty accurate as far as it goes, but doesn’t go far enough. For one thing, American readers are likely to associate “swamp music” with Southern Louisiana and its various flavors of Cajun and Zydeco music. There’s nothing like that here. The swamp that dr trippy has in mind is more conceptual, and more globally eclectic: at any given moment you’ll hear elements of Punjabi bhangra, Jamaican skank, R&B horns, techno beats, dubwise breakdowns, and more. It’s global dance music, I guess, but with a pretty specifically South Asian (or at least East London) flavor, and it’s all lots of fun.
Emel Mathlouthi is a Tunisian singer and songwriter whose song “Kemti Horra (My Word Is Free)” went viral on YouTube eventually became known as the unofficial anthem of the Arab Spring. However, that song might not prepare you well for this, her second album, which is just as musically radical and uncompromising as her politics. She works with producer Valgeir Sigurðson to create a wide variety of settings for songs that alternate and blend traditional melodies and rhythms with modern electronic beats and textures. Wisely, Sigurðson keeps Mathlouthi’s voice front and center, even as he embellishes it tastefully with electronic effects, and the two of them blend acoustic and digital percussion sounds seamlessly. This is thrilling and inspiring music. (This month a digital-only collection of remixes, titled Ensenity, will be released as a complement to the original album; featuring reworks by the likes of Muudra, Free the Robots, and Cubenx, it takes things in an even wilder and darker direction. Both albums are highly recommended to libraries.)
Jeux de vérité (digital only)
No cat. no.
There’s quite a bit of good roots reggae coming out of France these days, but what sets both of these artists apart from the competition (apart from the sheer quality of their work) is the fact that they perform almost excusively in French. Good for them, I say–all too often, when people write lyrics in a second language the results are embarrassing, and when they try to approximate a Jamaican patois the results are even worse. So with both Ryon and Wach’da, there’s nothing to distract you from the deep, solid rhythms and the great songs. Ryon is a band whose lyrics suggest a deep religiosity–and perhaps even specifically Christianity. Their sound on this album is deeply traditional, with a great horn section and lots of thick, heavyweight one-drop and rockers grooves and dubwise production flourishes–they frequently remind me of early-period John Brown’s Body. Wach’da (born Joseph Rano) is an Antillean artist whose approach to reggae is a bit more oblique than Ryon’s; he makes use of African and Latin elements from time to time, with particularly interesting effect on “Leave a Chance for Life” (case in point), an acoustic and Nyabinghi-flavored tune that features a guest appearance by reggae legend Winston McAnuff. Elsewhere his sound is sharp and direct, with a strong 1980s roots flavor. Both of these albums would fit equally well in a world music or reggae collection.
Masters Legacy Series Volume 2, Featuring Ron Carter
Cellar Live (dist. MVD)
I had the good fortune recently of seeing Emmet Cohen perform alongside bassist Christian McBride in an intimate setting. I was less astounded by the youngster’s technical skill (young hotshots are not that hard to find) than I was by his wit, warmth, and incredible taste; he knows when to go big and he knows when to stay small, and he knows how to compose a line. All of his talents are on ample display here on this trio date organized as a tribute to bassist Ron Carter, and they are never more impressive than when they’re put to use in keeping the focus on Carter. (Drummer Evan Sherman is an avatar of taste as well.) Cohen’s ongoing Masters Legacy Series project is itself an exercise in turning the spotlight on others, a sign of professional maturity that is almost as impressive as his musicianship. A must for all jazz collections.
Antoine Forqueray; Jean-Baptiste Forqueray
Forqueray… ou les tourments de l’âme (5 discs)
Michèle Dévérité et al.
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
Both Antoine Forqueray and his son Jean-Baptiste were famous players of the viola da gamba, but they were also accomplished and somewhat idiosyncratic composers for the harpsichord. This four-disc set brings together all of the known works of Forqueray père et fils, most of them either composed for harpsichord or transcribed for that instrument from viol pieces. The potentially monotonous continuity of timbre is broken up by a scattering of pieces for viol and continuo. The fifth, bonus disc features a biographical narrative of the Forqueray family read by Nicolas Lormeau (in French, no translation provided) and accompanied by music. For all libraries with a collecting interest in music of the baroque period.
Ceremony of Dreams: Studio Sessions and Outtakes, 1972-1977 (3 discs)
If, like me, you have difficult childhood memories of the 1960s and 1970s, you might find yourself initially put off by the cover image: flowing hair, flowing bellbottoms, a gong, interpretive dancers, a surfeit of unfortunate facial hair. You could easily be forgiven for expecting an onslaught of hippie-dippy musical twaddle masquerading as mystical spirituality. But that’s not what Entourage created during its run of several years (and two albums) in the early-to-mid-1970s: yes, this music can fairly be characterized as dreamy at times, but it is also frequently tightly structured and disciplined, and surprisingly varied in tone and texture–minimalist in the way that minimalism might sound if Terry Riley and Steve Reich had collaborated. These three discs include a wealth of previously unreleased material, including outtakes from those two albums (which are not included here). The remastered sound is rich and pristine. Highly recommended to all libraries.
For Glenn Gould
Sono Luminus (dist. Naxos)
Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear here pays tribute to one of his heroes, the legendarily idiosyncratic Glenn Gould. For this disc Goodyear plays the same program that Gould played for his American debut: a weird-looking but actually deeply logical assortment of works by Gibbons, Sweelinck, Bach, Brahms, and Berg. This program allowed Gould to express both his deep love of counterpoint and polyphony, and the streak of Romanticism that always ran just beneath his sometimes dry-sounding articulation. Goodyear’s tribute to Gould is loving but not slavish, and brings new light and insight to this strange but wonderful recital program. For all libraries.
Missa Galeazescha: Music for the Duke of Milan
Odhecaton / Paolo da Col
Arcana (dist. Naxos)
Guillaume de Machaut
Vienna Vocal Consort
Klanglogo (dist. Naxos)
Here we have music by a giant of the late Medieval period (Machaut) and a somewhat lesser-known giant of the early Renaissance (Compère). In each case the program is built around a centrally important Mass from that composer’s repertoire: Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame (the first known setting of a complete Mass Ordinary) and Compère’s Missa Galeazescha (of which, as far as I can tell, this seems to be the world-premiere recording). Machaut’s work has been widely recorded, but rarely by a mixed-voice ensemble like the Vienna Vocal Consort. In another interesting move, the group has chosen to juxtapose Machaut’s vinegary, stark-sounding piece of early polyphony with much more consonant later works by the likes of Victoria, Du Fay, and Palestrina–all of them united by a similarly Marian focus. This makes for a nicely varied array of flavors and harmonic textures. On the Compère disc, the sections of his Mass setting are interspersed with brief instrumental works by his contemporaries, most of which seem to have been recorded at a different time from the vocal parts (the original recordings took place in 2005, but seem to be released here for the first time). As one might expect of music written in the mid-15th rather than the late-14th century, the harmonies are sweeter and lusher than those of the Machaut work, but still quite somber and dark. Both of these recordings are outstanding and should find a place in any early-music collection.
Music with Changing Parts
Salt Lake Electric Ensemble
Orange Mountain Music (dist. PIAS)
Ever since it emerged as a new musical style in the 1960s, minimalism has faced a fundamental challenge: how to maintain the listener’s interest while deploying a minimum of harmonic and/or melodic and/or textural elements? Sometimes the answer has been “Who cares whether the user is interested?,” and the composer has used sheer, bludgeoning repetition as a musical statement (see Steve Reich’s Four Organs, and the reaction to it). But more often the answer has been to use selected elements minimally and others more generously: consider, for example, the way Reich’s Drumming creates constantly-shifting rhythmic tessellation from the phased repetition of a single pattern. Another answer is to leave certain options open: a work like Terry Riley’s In C may be spare or dense, depending on how one interprets the score. The same is true of Philip Glass’s Music for Changing Parts, which can be played by any number of differently-configured ensembles. Here the work is realized by the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble, almost all of whose members employ laptops as well as such instruments as electric guitar, trumpet, cello, saxophone, and flugelhorn. The organic instrumental sounds are generally processed electronically, imparting a tight digital atmosphere to the overall performance and also creating a kaleidoscopic variety of sounds and textures within the piece’s minimal harmonic pallette. The result is, quite simply, gorgeous–and I say that as someone who isn’t a particularly big Glass fan. Strongly recommended to all libraries.
Complete Consort Music
Linn (dist. Naxos)
Although those mainly familiar with his vocal works might be surprised to learn this, Christopher Tye was a strange, strange dude. His eccentricity is most clearly on display in his instrumental music, particularly his compositions for consort of viols. This lovely disc by the outstanding Phantasm ensemble (right up there with Fretwork in the pantheon of English viol consorts) brings together all of Tye’s work in that medium, showing off his unparalleled ability to gleefully fling aside the most basic rules of rhythm and counterpoint while still creating sounds of sumptuous beauty. Whether you’re listening to laugh with glee at his rule-breaking or simply to luxuriate in his melodic invention, this disc is sure to please.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Missa Confitebor tibi Domine
Yale Schola Cantorum / David Hill
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
Palestrina wrote the motet Confitebor tibi Domine around 1572, and then published a parody Mass based on it a few years later. Although it would have been performed mainly in the Sistine Chapel (where a separation of choirs was not physically possible), the work is written in the classic Italian polychoral style, with separate parts for two groups of singers facing each other across the room. The Yale Schola Cantorum recorded this Mass (along with several instrumental renditions of motets and canzonas arranged for organ and cornett) in the sonically rich and spacious Christ Church of New Haven, lending the already majestic part-writing an even deeper resonance and an air of deep solemnity. This also, unfortunately, somewhat undermines the clarity of the parts, but the overall effect is magnificent.
Like so many of us, guitarist Bill Frisell has gotten less skronky with age. And yet, in his sweetest and most lyrical moments there is very often an echo of weirdness–an off-kilter arpeggiation here, the quiet yowl of a strangely bent note there–that hints at something deeper, just as his most noisy excursions in the past were so often leavened by hints of the gentle but sharply intelligent sweetness that is at the core of everything he plays. His latest album is a pure solo project, on which the only instruments you hear are played by him (often in multitracked layers). The mood is generally quiet and, as has been his tendency over the past decade or two, rustic. It’s instantly accessible–as I was listening in my office this morning, the janitor who walks by every morning and often stops to say hello, but has never ever asked about the music she hears coming over my speakers, turned around as she passed my office and said “Who are you listening to?”–but it’s never simple even when it sounds that way at first. For all libraries.
Here Comes the Sun (reissue)
MPS (dist. Naxos)
When he was coming up, pianist Monty Alexander was often compared to Oscar Peterson, and listening to this reissue of a 1971 quartet date, you can see why: there are those big chords, the quick musical wit, and maybe (let’s be honest here) the tendency to show off a bit more than is strictly necessary. But Alexander brought something uniquely his own to the mix: a Jamaican heritage, which led him quite naturally to incorporate both Latin beats and Afro-Caribbean inflections into his playing, both of which we hear on this very fun session. Notice the full-on calpyso of “Brown-Skin Girl,” and the bizarre “Good King Wenceslaus” quote on the outro to “Where Is Love?”. Also note that the astonishing drummer Duffy Jackson was 18 years old at the time of these sessions. Try to ignore the awkward Latin funk of the title track, which probably seemed like it made sense in 1971.
Miguel de Armas Quartet
What’s to Come
No cat. no.
For his debut album as a leader, the Ottawa-based, Cuban-born pianist and composer Miguel de Armas has chosen to present original compositions in a wide variety of styles, from the straight Afro-Latin groove of “Yasmina” to the more fusion-inflected “A Song for My Little Son” and the ska-with-tabla feel of “His Bass and Him.” But the sounds of Cuba, collectively, are the thread that binds all of these multifarious tunes together: sometimes those sounds are at the forefront (as on the delightful “Pam Pim Pam Pum” and, well, “Rumba on Kent St.”) but often they are present more subtly. Personally, I found the two tracks featuring rockish electric guitar to sound a bit out of place, but not fatally so. Very nice overall.
Kalamazoo: An Evening with Delfeayo Marsalis
Trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis leads a quartet that includes his father, the living treasure Ellis Marsalis, on this concert program that focuses on rollicking standards and makes inevitable references to New Orleans–both in the Marsalis’ playing styles and in the inclusion of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” as a show-closer. It also pays particular attention to the blues: not only does the program open with a blues number, but it also includes “Blue Kalamazoo,” a tune that was composed spontaneously during the concert. He asked the audience what key the band should play in, and away they went–with guest vocalist Christian O’Neill Diaz scatting along. (Using the twelve-bar blues structure kept the bandmembers from going too far off the free-jazz tracks.) Anyway, the whole thing is tons of fun.
Dave Liebman; John Stowell
Petite fleur: The Music of Sidney Bechet
And speaking of New Orleans, here is a quiet and heartfelt tribute to one of the four or five most influential musicians of that city’s early jazz scene: the soprano saxophonist, clarinettist, and composer Sidney Bechet. The tribute is quiet because the music is played by only two people: reedman Dave Liebman and guitarist John Stowell. Early jazz is often raucous, but here the musicians treat these melodies like jewels–not stinting on energy or passion, but presenting them with a rare blend of gentleness and glee. The title tune is recorded in three versions: once as a duet and once as a solo by each muscian. This is really quite a special album and should find a place in any library’s jazz collection.
Acoustic Music Seminar: Selections from 2012-2016
Adventure Music (dist. Burnside)
The Acoustic Music Seminar takes place every year in connection with the Savannah Music Festival in Georgia. It’s run by Mike Marshall (one of the architects of the “new acoustic music” sound back in the 1970s and 1980s), and brings together sixteen outstanding young musicians for a week, during which they write compositions that are premiered at a concert at the end of the week. This selection of recordings draws on five years of those concerts, and features banjo players, mandolinists, fiddlers, and cellists, among others, as well as an early performance by the amazing Kaia Kater. The music tends to be jazzy and sometimes almost neoclassical, but it also frequently draws on folk and bluegrass elements. Very, very nice.
The Art of Forgetting
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
On her latest solo album, the angel-voiced Kyle Carey continues to explore the intersections of Celtic folk and Americana, only now she’s doing so in a somewhat more jazzy and swinging style. This approach is most startling on her unique arrangement of the popular favorite “Siubhail a Rùin,” which is normally played as a slow lament but is taken here at a loping medium-swing tempo. “Sweet Damnation” is similarly jazzy, and features the lovely combination of a horn section and an Irish flute. Dirk Powell’s production is careful and brilliant–as is his clawhammer banjo playing on “Tillie Sage.” And of course, Carey’s singing is a wonder as it always is. Recommended to all folk collections.
Waffles, Triangles & Jesus
People in a Place to Know
There’s alt-country, and then there’s just flat-out weirdo country. That’s what you should expect when the press materials describe the artist in question as an “enigmatic Southern gothic anatomist.” Although as weirdness goes, Jim White’s is much less forbidding than some (for example, when Nick Cave gets countryish the results may leave you doubting the existence of God, if you didn’t already). Here the weirdness tends towards the whimsical (for example, “Playing Guitars,” which is a humorously straight-ahead lament undermined in its straight-aheadness by the Ali Farka Touré cameo), but there’s plenty of emotional depth here as well–particularly on the album-closing “Sweet Bird of Mystery,” a song that White wrote for his unborn daughter 20 years ago and only recently revealed to her.
No cat. no.
The album title says it all: this is singer and songwriter Amy Black’s tribute to the city that has shaped her so much as an artist. It can be seen as a continuation of her equally-revealingly-titled previous effort, The Muscle Shoals Sessions. Both her original songs and her selection of covers show her to be richly steeped in the traditions of 1950s and 1960s Memphis soul, and her voice is a rich, honeyed treasure. The sidemen she enlisted for these sessions deliver plenty of good greasy groove without recourse to tired clichés or lo-fi affectation. The album sounds great, the songs are great, and Black is (did I mention this?) a great singer.
“Wælder are moving between ambient, industrial and pop. Their rhythms and soundscapes of voices, obscure samples and distorted field-recordings build spaces of barren material and soft ground, which teem and crawl – strange and harmonious.” That’s not a bad description of this Viennese duo’s weird instrumental post-rock, but I would suggest that it overstates both the music’s creepiness and its relationship to pop. In fact, this music is generally quite pleasant; in fact, it has nothing to do with pop. And I should probably add that by “pleasant” I don’t mean that its sonic contours are comfortingly familiar, that there are any real melodies, or that its occasionally-regular rhythms ever approximate a groove. I just mean that it’s pleasant, and that it’s consistently interesting. For adventurous rock collections.
Shuta Hasunuma & U-zhaan
Birdwatcher (dist. Redeye)
Composer/multimedia artist Shuta Hasunuma regularly incorporates environmental and found sounds into his music, which in turn he often incorporates into his art installations and sculptures. For this album he teams up with electronic artist U-zhaan and some startlingly A-list vocalists (Arto Lindsay, Devendra Banhart) and even with famed pop and soundtrack composer Ryuichi Sakamoto to create a crazy quilt of softly bizarre but completely lovely pieces of experimental groove music. A tabla player is featured prominently (the press materials provide no musician credits, so I can’t tell you much more than that), and the rhythms are frequently deeply complex even as the overall mood remains gentle and soft. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Lingering Day: Anatomy of a Daydream
Spotted Peccary Music (dist. MVD)
The Chroma Plateau
Spotted Peccary Music (dist. MVD)
You want instrumental pop music that’s even gentler and softer, and maybe a bit less bizarre? Then you can always count on the Spotted Peccary label, which is often (inaccurately, I think) characterized as a purveyor of New Age music. I would instead say that it releases ambient music, and in response to the obvious question (“What’s the difference?”) I would say: if it sounds better the more closely and critically you listen, it’s ambient rather than New Age. Now, Michael Allison (who records under the moniker Darshan Ambient) can sometimes be accused of flirting with the line that separates the pleasant from the cloying, but to his credit he generally stays on the right side of it. Occasional incursions of glitchy electro percussion and dubwise sound effects help; so does his solid basis in rock’n’roll (including a stint in Richard Hell & the Voidoids). The work of Numina (Jesse Sola), on the other hand, is almost entirely abstract and ethereal. It’s less tuneful–by which I mean it’s not tuneful at all–but in some ways it’s also more engaging. Don’t be discouraged by track titles like “Intergalactic Traveler” and “Mosaic of Whispers”; none of this music is dippy or silly, and in fact much of it is so abstract that you experience it more in terms of color and texture than melody or shape. A good point of reference is Brian and Roger Eno’s Apollo soundtrack from 1983. Both of these are recommended, with the edge going to the Numina album.
Hidden Dimensions (digital only)
No cat. no.
Being, as I am, a total sucker for glitchy electronic funk with lots of wobbly sub-bass frequencies, I was delighted to stumble across the work of Bermuda-based husband-wife duo H+ a few weeks ago. Malcolm Brian Swan is a bassist, composer, and producer, and his wife Nicola contributes vocals–usually mixed in such a way that the words are more or less indistinct, and her voice basically becomes another instrument in the rich, heady mix. Hidden Dimensions leans towards the glitchy-dubstep side of things, but listen for the Latin-funk track as well. All of it is wonderful.
Hidekazu Katoh & Richard Stagg
Masters of the Shakuhachi (reissue)
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
The shakuhachi, a Japanese end-blown bamboo flute, has a long an honored history in that country. This disc focuses on duets for the instrument written by living Japanese composers, each of them demonstrating a different mix of abstract modernism and engagement with the past. There is also one ancient piece, an anonymous 18th-century work entitled “The Braying of the Deer.” Nothing here is really avant-garde–no extended techniques or microtonal weirdness–but the instrument’s naturally complex tone creates lots of timbral interest, and Katoh and Stagg both play with an impressive intensity and emotional range.
The Rough Guide to Acoustic India
World Music Network (dist. Redeye)
As usual from the Rough Guides crew, this disc presents a broad but still nicely compact overview of various musical traditions from the Indian subcontinent–the modifier “acoustic” signaling that this will not be Bollywood pop music or Mumbai disco, but rather that the collection will focus on classical and folk traditions unmodified by electric or electronic instruments. The musical and religious sources presented here are diverse: Sufi religious poetry sung by Noor Alam, Carnatic violin music by Jyotsna Srikanth, a gypsy brass band from Jaipur, slide guitar music from the brilliant Debashish Bhattacharya. Unfortunately the disc package includes only the most schematic liner notes; a website is provided for those who want full musician credits and other additional information. But for libraries in need of a single-disc overview of various Indian musical styles, this is a great option.
Ruff Guide to Ariwa Sounds (reissue)
Ariwa (dist. Redeye)
It would be hard to exaggerate the influence that Neil “Mad Professor” Fraser has had in shaping the sound of British reggae. His Ariwa Sounds label has been in operation for more than three decades now, providing an outlet for both up-and-coming artists and established legends–and his smooth, digital production style is a major ingredient in the lovers rock sound that emerged in London during the 1980s. And as a producer, his aggressive and fun-loving approach to dub remixing has influenced two generations. This is an outstanding collection of classic tracks from the Ariwa studio, opening with the deathless “Kunta Kinte” rhythm and then proceeding to deejay tracks from the likes of U Roy and Big Youth, as well as plenty of dubs and straight vocal tracks from singers like Sister Audrey, Aisha, and Max Romeo. A perfect choice for library collections.
Justin Hinds & The Dominoes
Travel with Love (reissue)
Know Jah Better (reissue)
And speaking of essential reggae reissues, don’t overlook the continued stream of long-awaited re-releases that are emerging thanks to the Omnivore label’s recent acquisition of the Nighthawk Records catalog. Nighthawk’s vaults aren’t especially deep by reggae standards, but the music it released during the 1980s and early 1990s is almost all fantastic. Among the best titles in that list is the utterly brilliant Travel with Love by ska/rocksteady/reggae legend Justin Hinds, with his band the Dominoes. This reissue adds ten bonus tracks (mostly dub versions) seven of which are previously unreleased. Less essential but still not bad is Hinds’ Know Jah Better, which has a slightly antiseptic digital production sound, but features more outstanding singing from Hinds. Both should be seriously considered by libraries with a strong collecting interest in reggae; those that collect reggae more selectively should opt for Travel with Love.
Well, this is fun: ancient Kabbalistic invocations of the Divine Feminine intended to open the Friday Shabbat service are blended with modern electro-funk and hip hop, complete with rapping and singing in English, Hebrew, and Aramaic, as well as smatterings of beat-boxing and even–get this–vocalized turntable scratching. (Roll your eyes if you want, but they nail it.) Basya Schechter has a gorgeous, bell-like voice, and she alternates vocal duties with “neo-Hassidic” rapper MC ePRHYME to deliver messages of spiritual uplift, cultural exhortation, and inscrutable mysticism, all with a beat and with plenty of lovely, sinuous melodies. For all libraries.
Po Drum Mode (A Girl on the Road)
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
About 30 years ago the Western world fell in love with Bulgarian folk song via the Mystère de voix bulgares album, originally issued on Nonesuch and later reissued on the 4AD label, which was already an established favorite of mopey postpunk hipsters everywhere, and for which the album was, surprisingly enough, actually perfectly suited. That album (and its subsequent volumes) focused on choral arrangements of these melodically astringent and rhythmically knotty songs. The debut album by Eugenia Georgieva draws on a similar repertoire, but presents them in arrangements for solo voice and a variety of acoustic instruments. Georgieva sings with joyful energy but also sharp precision, and if you want to challenge yourself, count the time-signature changes while listening. This one is a pure blast.
PICK OF THE MONTH
Baltic Voices (reissue; 3 discs)
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir / Paul Hillier
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
First of all, let’s be very clear on what this package is: it’s a straight reissue of three discs originally released individually as volumes one through three in the series Baltic Voices. There’s no new content here, and the packaging has been only minimally changed (the original discs, with new tray cards but the original booklets, are bundled together in a cardboard slipcase). And it’s basically a super-budget reissue, the whole thing listing at about $18.
Now, let’s talk about the music. Here are some things that I think we can say about contemporary choral music from the Baltic states, based on the recorded evidence: for one thing, it tends to be tonal. For another thing, it tends to be religious (an interesting though perhaps not shocking characteristic, given that region’s modern political history). And for yet another thing, it is very often clearly indebted to the music of Arvo Pärt, a pioneer of what has come to be called “sacred minimalism.” I’m sure several of the composers represented here would bristle at that statement; nevertheless, there is not a single piece on these three discs that I wouldn’t confidently recommend to someone who is an established Arvo Pärt fan. Or a John Tavener fan, for that matter. Some of these pieces–notably Galina Grigorjeva’s Odes–draw very explicitly on the music of the Russian Orthodox liturgy. Some of it is deeply sad; other pieces are luminously but quietly joyful; most fall somewhere in between. (And most of the more difficult pieces are concentrated on the third disc.) All of it is gorgeous, and brilliantly sung. If your library doesn’t already own these discs in their original releases, here is an opportunity to have them now at a fraction of the original price.
Thomas Strønen/Time Is a Blind Guide
Like many of the best releases on the ECM label, this latest from drummer/composer Thomas Strønen and his ensemble Time Is a Blind Guide stoutly resists genre designation. His group consists of piano, violin, cello, string bass, and Strønen’s drums and percussion, so in strictly instrumental terms the line between classical and jazz has already been fuzzified. But Strønen’s music fuzzifies the line in much more interesting and crucial ways: here the music floats and wobbles, never swinging but also never turning purely abstract; much of it is improvised, but the improvisation is bounded by compositional structure. There are moments of more-aggressive rhythm, but the overall feel is one of light and openness. Highly recommended.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Sonates pour flûte et clavecin (download only)
Marc Hantaï; Pierre Hantaï
Mirare (dist. PIAS)
Johann Sebastian Bach
Sonatas for Flute and Harpsichord
Stephen Schults; Jory Vinikour
Music & Arts (dist. Naxos)
Bach’s flute sonatas are recorded with some regularity, but are always worth hearing again. It had actually been some time since I’d last given them a listen, and then these two releases (both on period instruments) came across my desk, and I was reminded again how remarkably lovely these works are. I have to confess that one reason I’d neglected them for so long is that, with age, I’ve found that my tolerance for the harpsichord has declined a bit. But these very fine recordings have convinced me that I’m not ready to give up on that instrument yet, particularly when paired with the transverse flute (one of my very favorite instruments) and even more particularly in the context of Bach’s chamber music. Both of these discs are well worth recommending, but if you must pick only one I’d go with the Hantaï brothers’ album; not only does it contain five sonatas (one of them for flute alone, whereas the Schultz/Vinikour disc focuses strictly on the four works for flute with continuo), but it also offers a greater range of keyboard tonalities and a slightly more springy sense of rhythm. Still, Schultz and Vinikour play with admirable energy and élan as well, and any library that wants multiple interpretations of these works would do well to grab both of these.
German Film Orchestra Babelsberg
Village Green (dist. Redeye)
Composer and pianist Matt Dunkley’s first solo album was titled Six Cycles, so this one is clearly intended as a continuation of the ideas found on that release–but it’s also an extension of them, with a greatly expanded sound (achieved both by the use of a symphony orchestra and by the use of multiple pianos). Dunkley’s compositions often make use of repeated arpeggiations that bring to mind Philip Glass, but there’s a sweeping cinematic flavor to them that is definitely more maximalist than minimalist, even as the emotion is frequently subdued. This is deceptively soft-sounding but ultimately quite intense music, beautifully played and recorded.
Flute Concertos from Vienna
Sieglinde Grössinger; Ensemble Klingekunst
CPO (dist. Naxos)
The flute was not a popular solo instrument during the latter years of the Hapsburg dynasty, when Empress Maria Theresia ruled at court in Vienna. So flute concertos from this time and place are rare, and this disc (which consists entirely of world-premiere recordings) is thus not only a delight to hear but also a gold mine for anyone interested in the history of the flute in the high classical period. Sieglinde Glössinger is both the soloist and the leader of this fine ensemble, and their period-instrument accounts of concertos by Georg Christoph Wagenseil, Giuseppe Bonno, Florian Leopold Gassmann, and Georg Matthias Monn are as lovely as one would expect, and are beautifully recorded. Highly recommended to all classical collections.
Francesc Valls; Henry Desmarest
In excelsis Deo: au temps de la guerre de succession d’Espagne (2 discs)
La Capella Reial de Catalonia; Le Concert des Nations / Jordi Savall
Alia Vox (dist. PIAS)
There are basically two broad categories of baroque sacred music: you’ve got your Quiet Reverential music, and your Glorious Exuberant music. These two Masses, both written at the turn of the 18th century, and separated on this program by a nice little suite of wartime songs by anonymous composers, are from composers on both sides of the War of the Spanish Succession which had begun only a few years prior. That war was a truly awful one, but this music is absolutely transcendent, and solidly in the Glorious Exuberant category. As always, Jordi Savall leads his ensembles in warm, bright, and rhythmically dynamic performances that perfectly balance joy and reverence. This is the kind of thing Savall does best, and frankly no one does it better. For all early music collections.
Electronic Music for Piano
Tania Chen; Thurston Moore; David Toop; Jon Leidecker
Because John Cage’s scores were often so non-prescriptive, recordings of his compositions often resist real criticism: when the score consists of cryptic notes written on hotel stationery, indicating that an earlier piece should be realized using various electronic means, how does one talk about any particular performance of it? In this case, one can simply describe the recording process, which involved having pianist Tania Chen interact with several different collaborators (including Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore) and the manipulation of the resulting recordings using chance processes. As is so often the case with Cage’s compositions, the result is more interesting conceptually than musically, but it is actually quite musically interesting and Moore’s involvement guarantees a certain amount of demand.
Ave Maria, ancilla Trinitatis; Missa Videte miraculum
Choir of Westminster Abbey / James O’Donnell
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
The worship of Mary was at its peak in England during the brief reign of Mary Tudor, and while Nicholas Ludford was employed in the Palace of Westminster. The program on this disc reflects that devotion, with three sets of works: a typical Lady Mass, a votive antiphon, and a festal Mass for the Marian feast day. Ludford is one of those Tudor composers who really deserves more attention than he typically gets, and the Westminster Abbey choir has never sounded better than they do on this recording: their blend is unusually creamy and sweet, and the acoustics of the All Hallows church are absolutely perfect for this music of hushed reverential devotion. A must for all classical collections.
The Medieval Piper
Silke Gwendolyn Schulze
Brilliannt Classics (dist. Naxos)
The social and ceremonial roles of the traveling piper during the European Middle Ages are fascinating in themselves, but the music that would have been a part of his repertoire is perhaps even more so. Some tunes would have been traditional or anonymous, others derived from sacred melodies by the likes of Guillaume de Machaut and Hildegard von Bongen, and still others might be popular dance tunes. On this winning recording, multi-instrumentalist Silke Gwendolyn Schulze offers a plethora of such melodies, alternating between the pipe, the six-holed flute, various kinds of recorders, the shawm, and the douçaine. On some tracks she is overdubbed playing small hand drums of various kinds. This is not only a very useful recording for academic purposes, but also a very fun listen.
Colin Currie Group; Synergy Vocals
Colin Currie (dist. PIAS)
Drumming is one of the foundational texts of the minimalist movement, though to call it “minimalist” seems a bit strange: it’s incredibly dense and complex, its only “minimal” aspect being its harmonic movement. Well, that and the fact that the entire piece is built on a single twelve-note phrase, one that is repeated by different instruments beginning at different points, such that the pattern goes in and out of phase depending on choices made by the ensemble’s designated leader. It’s honestly one of the most thrilling pieces of music written in the 1970s, and no two performances of it are ever exactly alike. This one, by the Colin Currie Group, is one of the most exciting versions I’ve heard; even libraries that already own multiple recordings of this monumental work should pick this one up.
The makeup of this trio is quite unusual: in addition to Surman on reeds, it features pianist Nelson Ayres and vibraphonist/marimbist Rob Waring. In the hands of less thoughtful and careful musicians, it’s a configuration that could easily result in a very crowded middle lane, but these guys are all about giving each other space. And the result, as always with Surman’s projects, is blissfully lovely: “Autumn Nocturne” has a slightly tango-y flavor and “Pitanga Potomba” skips along nicely, but most of these compositions evolve dreamily, impressionistically. That’s not to say without defined melody: there are beautiful melodies here, but they generally float at you rather than drive at you. I don’t know if everyone would call it “jazz,” but I call it gorgeous.
Andy Sheppard Quartet
Similarly lovely and similarly impressionistic (and similarly on ECM, the world’s top source of lovely, impressionistic, genre-boundary-transgressing music) is this latest from pianist Andy Sheppard’s quartet, which includes the always-wonderful Eivind Aarset on guitar, bassist Michael Benita, and drummer Sebastian Rochford. These guys are more interested in swinging, though, and here much of the beauty that arises comes from the juxtaposition of steady-flowing rhythm and dreamy melody–though at times these guys do get a little more “out,” with intersecting melodic lines that don’t seem to be coordinated with each other and do seem to be flirting with free-jazz chaos–until suddenly they harmonize again. This is a release that will appeal more directly to the jazz-oriented patron.
Mike Jones & Penn Jillette
The Show Before the Show: Live at the Penn & Teller Theater
So let’s get the novelty aspect out of the way first: yes, that’s Penn Jillette of famed magic duo Penn & Teller on bass. Here’s the backstory: Mike Jones, who is one of the true living geniuses of swing piano, has been Penn & Teller’s musical director for years, and he plays both before and (when called upon) during their performances. Jillette is a musician as well, a longtime electric bassist who took up the upright bass about 15 years ago and now regularly plays a duo set with Jones during that pre-show show. So how do they sound together? Good. Jones is, as I said, a genius, and Jillette is a fine bass player. I wish his instrument were miked a little bit less mushily (a transducer pickup feeding into a good amp would do the trick nicely), but his time is impeccable and his solos are both appropriately rare and quite tasteful. Together, they perform a very fine set of standards to an audience that we practically never hear, but that I suspect appreciated their playing as much as I did. (The final track is a jaw-dropping solo rendition of “Exactly Like You,” on which Jones takes a variety of swing-era piano techniques to a frenetic, almost deconstructed logical extreme.)
A Circle Has No Beginning
No cat. no.
Guillaume Barraud Quartet
Arcana: The Indo-Jazz Sessions
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
Classical Indian music and American jazz have such obvious commonalities (rhythmic complexity, chromaticism, a strong reliance on virtuosic improvisation) that it’s really kind of surprising how rarely we see Indian-jazz fusion projects. Of course, part of the explanation probably lies in the deep differences that underly those surface commonalities–for example, while jazz is a highly chromatic music by Western standards, its melodic repertoire is almost entirely limited to the twelve-tone scale, while Indian music makes extensive melodic use of microtones, and while jazz is rhythmically complex by Western standards, Indian music is hugely more so; on the other hand, the harmonic complexity of jazz is entirely missing from classical and vernacular Indian music. Anyway, the point is, here are two very interesting examples of jazz-Indian fusion, both of which work but one of which is absolutely thrilling. Drummer Sameer Gupta’s A Circle Has No Beginning finds him working with a septet that includes strings, bansuri, bass, and keyboards, and the resulting music is quite lovely but often sounds a bit like 1970s jazz fusion with an overlay of Indian sonorities. Guillaume Barraud’s project, however, is quite different: Barraud himself is a bansuri player, and a student of the legendary Hariprasad Chaurasia, and his approach is to interpret raga melodies as if they were jazz compositions, resulting in music that is both fascinating and grooving. Notice how “Kalavati” evolves from its boppish opening section into a looser, more melodically complex middle section, and how nicely the nearly infinite flexibility of the flute couples with the highly structured funk of the rhythm section. (This juxtaposition is even more dramatic on “Giant Leap,” in which a languorous flute line snakes around the drummer’s jittery, jungle-inflected beats.) The whole album is like this, and it’s absolutely wonderful.
Block Party (A Saint Louis Connection)
Tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Dan Block is a living treasure of traditional swing and straight-ahead jazz, and on this album he leads his quintet in exploring a range of tunes from that broad category, including classic material like Gigi Gryce’s “Smoke Signal” and Walter Donaldson’s “Ain’t No Land Like Dixieland” alongside more forward-looking mid-century compositions like Thelonious Monk’s awkwardly lovely “Light Blue.” Everything is played with fleet-fingered grace and palpable joy, and frequently invokes the spirit of New Orleans. (The “connection” referred to in the title seems to be that between those two great Mississippi cities.) It’s a joy from start to finish.
Call Me Lucky (2 discs)
Signature Sounds (dist. Redeye)
SIG CD 2093
In the Legendary Singer-Songwriter Department this month, we have a new album from Chris Smither–who’s been in this game for upwards of 50 years now, and whose New Orleans upbringing deeply informs his frequent forays into greasy blues, but whose general songwriting sounds (to me, anyway) more deeply influenced by his longtime association with the New England folk scene. Here he gives significant time to others’ work, delivering a haunting minor-key version of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” and a suitably whistling-past-the-graveyard rendition of the blues classic “Sittin’ On Top of the World,” as well as plenty of fine originals. As always, his voice sounds like a well-tuned junk car and his guitar playing is worth paying close attention to. This album is also another entry in the growing field of Inexplicable Double-Disc Sets: you know, the ones that provide roughly an hour’s worth of music but spread it across two discs for no apparent reason. (It’s priced like a single, though, so no harm done.)
The Asylum Years
Those who know Chris Hillman primarily as the frontman for the very mainstream Desert Rose Band may be surprised to know what a remarkably innovative figure he’s been in country and country-rock for decades. A founding member of both the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers (two of the most influential bands in the development of American roots rock), Hillman was steeped in bluegrass as a young man and has never been content to let the arbitrary boundaries of country music fence him in. Take these two long-deleted mid-70s solo albums, for example, both of which are included in their entirety on this single-disc package: Slippin’ Away includes both the explicitly reggae-inflected “Down in the Churchyard” and a gloriously harmonized take on the bluegrass gospel classic “(Take Me in Your) Lifeboat).” Clear Sailin’ opens with the New Orleans funk of “Nothing Gets Through” and proceeds to the rollicking country-rock of “Hot Dusty Roads” and then to a cover of Marvin Gaye’s hit “Ain’t That Peculiar.” If you want to argue about whether any of this is “real” country, music, go ahead. Hillman has never much cared to answer that question, and I say good for him.
No cat. no.
I’ve been a fan of Mark Erelli for some time now, and was excited to see this new album of covers that he self-released in January. I love his voice and I love his playing (he makes part of his living as a sideman, working with the likes of Kelly Willis and John Ritter and as a member of bands in various rootsy genres), and hearing both of those put to work in the interpretation of other great songwriters is tons of fun. In this case, those songwriters include Richard Thompson (“I Feel So Good”), Don Henley (“The Boys of Summer”), and–get this–Phil Collins, whose “Take a Look at Me Now” is given a relatively restrained, 6/8 treatment that is truly lovely. Strongly recommended to all libraries.
Too Real (Remixes) (download only)
Late last year, Charlie Yin (a.k.a. Giraffage) released a wonderful slab of electro-pop titled Too Real. In December he released this download-only remix EP, and it makes a great companion piece to the original album. Chin’s got a master producer’s sense of how to juxtapose light and darkness and how to give his tracks rhythmic solidity without weighing them down. And he’s not afraid of a little kitsch, either: an 808 cowbell here, a twee breathy vocal there. His remixers on this four-track EP honor his original intent without letting themselves be constrained by it, and as a result the beats tend to be more muscular and the soundscapes a bit more abrasive, but always in a good way. Both releases are strongly recommended to pop collections.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
The Punishment of Luxury
Of course, when it comes to electro-pop, there’s no school like the old school. Case in point: the latest album by 1980s superstars Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, who have been back on the scene since 2006. The Punishment of Luxury sounds, in a word, awesome: very definitely a product of an eighties band, but given how much eighties revivalism we’ve seen on the part of young whippersnappers over the past decade or two, that’s just another way of saying that it sounds remarkably up-to-the-moment. What matter, of course, are the songs, and they’re outstanding: opening with the title track (which nicely juxtaposes a candy-coated synth basis with a sort of sanitized Oi! “hey hey hey” shoutalong in the chorus) and then proceeding to offer a solid program of bleepy, bloopy pop tunes, this album is like a cool drink after a long walk in the desert of derivative music. And there’s a remixes and B-sides collection too! Highly recommended to all libraries.
Daemmerlicht (download and vinyl only)
Lorenz Brunner, a.k.a. Recondite, is a Bavarian musician who specializes creating electronic soundscapes that are often simultaneously spacious, dark, and funky. Well, maybe not “often” funky; mostly they’re spacious and dark, and once in a while they’re funky. But what they always do is make very careful and tasteful use of elements both small and large: big basslines that rumble and groan, tiny tinklings and tweets that float off into the darkness. And then sometimes you get orchestral strings, English horns, and kettledrums. A couple of these tracks kind of sound like collaborations between Mahler and Distance. It’s all very interesting and quite beautiful, and this album should find a home in any library with a collecting interest in modern electronic music.
Candyrat (dist. Redeye)
Luca Stricagnoli is doing a couple of things here: yes, he’s drastically, even radically, expanding the idea of what we consider technically possible when it comes to the acoustic guitar. (Check out this video of him playing Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” for an eye-rubbing example of what I’m talking about.) But it would be very easy, and a very big mistake, to dismiss him as a mere stunt guitarist. He’s also a player and interpreter of unusual thoughtfulness and emotional depth. Consider what he says about why he tends to play cover versions rather than original compositions: “I see the arrangements as a way to invent new technical solutions; they are a way not to bend the music to the technique… but to put the technique at the service of the music instead.” If you never imagined you’d hear a compelling acoustic version of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” or Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Can’t Stop,” then you owe it to yourself to check out this album–and urge it on your patrons.
James Hunter Six
Whatever It Takes
Daptone (dist. Redeye)
James Hunter, leading exponent of old school, small-combo rhythm-and-soul, is back for a third album with the James Hunter Six, and on this one you can detect a subtle change: he’s recently married, and his love songs have deepened as a result. But let’s be clear about this: the change is subtle. He still specializes in groovy, shuffling midtempo songs that sound like they could have been recorded in the mid-1960s (thanks in part to his unapologetically mid-1960s approach to recording technology, not to mention album length), and his band still plays with that paradoxically loose-but-tight vibe. His voice is stronger than it was on the first JH6 album, with none of the occasional pitch failures that kept that one from being an unalloyed success, and his songs continue to be marvelous. Wisely, he prefers to record live in the studio for maximum band communication in real time. I mentioned album length earlier: the only thing that keeps this one from getting a Rick’s Pick designation is its exceeding stinginess: under 28 minutes of music in total.
By the time they went into John Peel’s BBC studio to do participate in his famous “live-in-the-studio” recording program, The Slits were no longer the feral cats of English punk that they had been a year earlier: they genuinely knew how to play their instruments (if not virtuosically) and they definitely knew how to write a song. These performances (taken from recording sessions in 1977, 1978, and 1981, plus one track from a 2006 reunion show) find them ragged but right, delivering songs that Rancid would die for and providing a forum for Ari Up’s suitcase full of inimitable voices. Any library with a collecting interest in vintage punk rock should not miss the opportunity to get all of these sessions on a single disc.
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
Generally speaking–and regular readers of CD HotList will vouch for me on this–I’m a pretty big fan of cross-cultural fusion experiments. Not all of them make as much sense on paper as others, but even when they seem crazy they sometimes yield music of genius and beauty. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t approach the crazy-sounding ones with a bit of trepidation, and I confess that the prospect of a fusion of classical Indian and Scandinavian folk music had me raising my eyebrows. The group that calls itself Nordic Ragga consists of Swedish fiddler Mats Edén and Indian violinist Jyotsna Srikanth, alongside percussionist Dan Svensson and saxophonist/flutist/didjeridoo player Pär Moberg. For the most part, they don’t try to actually blend Scandinavian and Indian music into some third musical entity; instead, they create something of a musical emulsion, in which Edén’s droning, diatonic melodies generally alternate with Srikanth’s more complex and sinuous ones, and Svensson and Moberg create lines and rhythmic patterns that complement what’s going on. The result is both fun and fascinating.
The Black Star Tracks
Black Star Foundation
No cat. no.
This is the third album from Amsterdam-based reggae chanteuse Leah Rosier, and it finds her working with the famed Firehouse Crew on a solid set of modern roots reggae with a notable focus on the horticultural (the fiercely unapologetic weed anthem “Make It Burn” being only the most overt example). Rosier’s slightly rough-edged alto voice is lovely, and her songwriting is even better: melodic hooks are everywhere, and her producers have favored her with solid but nimble rhythms that beautifully showcase both her voice and her writing. (And her own multitracked backing vocals are impressive throughout.) For libraries that collect reggae music, this album will make a very solid selection.
Queens of Fado: The Next Generation
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
I have a confession to make: I’m generally not a big fan of emotionally overwrought music. The grander the sentiment, the more dramatic the delivery, the more likely I am to switch it off. But about ten years ago I fell in love with fado, the Portuguese song tradition that generally features a single female singer accompanied by a Portuguese guitar (which sounds very different from the Spanish version of the instrument with which we’re all familiar). I don’t know why it is that fado affects me the way it does: maybe it’s the bittersweet melodies, maybe it’s the wonderful shimmer of the guitar, maybe it’s just that the fadistas who get recording contracts are all such magnificent singers. But it grabs me every time, and this survey of songs by some of the top young singers in the genre right now would make a perfect addition to every library collection.
Over the past eight years Gappy Ranks has emerged as a leading voice in modern roots reggae, keeping his lyrics conscious and generally keeping his sound traditional. But on Pure Badness he seems to be making a stylistic move into the reggae-as-R&B territory, with soca-derived rhythms, liberal applications of Autotune, and a uniformly slick, digital production style. Nevertheless, his lyrics remain focused on social uplift and righteousness (with, it must be acknowledged, the occasional detour into the bedroom). And he still writes great hooks and sings like an angel. So trad-minded listeners shouldn’t see this as a betrayal of his roots, but an expansion of them. I mean, come on, it’s his eight album–you’ve got to evolve sometime.