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January 2019


PICKS OF THE MONTH


Antoine de Févin
Missa Ave Maria & Salve sancte parens
Brabant Ensemble / Stephen Rice
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
CDA68265

Various Composers
In a Strange Land: Elizabethan Composers in Exile
Stile Antico
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 902266

For this issue I’ve selected two new releases as Picks of the Month. At first glance they may not seem to have much in common: the first offers what I believe to be world-premiere recordings of two Masses and several motets by the criminally under-recognized late-15th-century composer Antoine de Févin, including his magisterial parody Mass on Josquin’s motet Ave Maria… virgo serena; the second is a program of music composed during the following century by Catholic English composers in exile during the English Counter-reformation in the mid-to-late 1500s–gorgeous music by the likes of John Dowland, William Byrd, and Richard Dering, treating predictable themes of anguish (Dowland’s “Flow, My Tears” opens the program), displacement (Philippe de Monte’s setting of “Super flumina Babylonis”) and defiant Marian devotion (Peter Philips’ “Gaude Maria virgo”). It ends with Robert White’s heartbreakingly beautiful setting of Jeremiah’s Lamentations. These two albums could hardly be more different, so why put them together? Because of the singers. Stile Antico and the Brabant Ensemble are, in my view, the two finest ensembles currently working in the Oxbridge choral tradition (better to my ears than the Sixteen, and even edging out the Tallis Scholars, though not by much). And part of their secret is an actual overlap in personnel: both groups feature the sopranos Helen and Kate Ashby, and alto Emma Ashby, all of whom are sisters and whose voices contribute significantly to the rich, creamy blend that characterizes the sound of both groups. Both of these albums should be considered must-haves for any classical collection.


CLASSICAL


Various Composers
À portuguesa: Iberian Concertos & Sonatas
Orquestra barocca Casa da Música / Andreas Staier
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 902337

Looking at the program of this disc, an eagle-eyed observer may notice that of the five composers represented on this disc, only one has either a Spanish or a Portuguese name. (Of the other four, two are British and two are Italian.) So what makes these concertos and sonatas “Iberian” (and, more specifically, portuguesa)? Well, Domenico Scarlatti (represented here by three harpsichord sonatas) worked extensively for Spanish and Portuguese royalty, as did Luigi Boccherini (whose string quintettino is presented here in a modern transcription for strings and harpsichord). And the British composers Charles Avison and William Corbett were markedly influenced by Spanish and Portuguese musical styles, as is particularly evidenced in the concerti grossi offered here. That leaves the two concerti grossi by José António Carlos de Seixas, the sole Portuguese composer on the program, whose work is delightful but doesn’t catch the attention nearly as forcefully as the strikingly modern-sounding opening movement of Boccherini’s quintettino, or the slightly less startling dissonances of Corbett’s Concerto “Alla portuguesa”. This disc is as much a musicological treasure as it is a listening pleasure.


Kaija Saariaho
Saariaho X Koh
Jennifer Koh with various accompanists
Cedille (dist. Naxos)
CDR 90000 183
Rick’s Pick

For this album, violinist Jennifer Koh teams up with a shifting array of collaborators to perform chamber works by the celebrated Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. These works tread a careful line between the invitingly lyrical and the forbiddingly academic, offering plenty of structural complexity but also lots of accessible sonic beauty. Some pieces are spikier than others–the one-movement trio Light and Matter is particularly knotty–but all of them make powerful melodic as well as textural statements and coherently convey strong emotion as well as structural complexity. Light and Matter is presented here in its world-premiere recording, as is the violin/cello version of a brief piece titled Aure. Strongly recommended to all classical collections.


Various Composers
Resilience
Calidore String Quartet
Signum Classics (dist. Naxos)
SIGCD551

The overarching theme of the latest from the Calidore String Quartet is that of creating beauty in the midst of turmoil and despair. Opening with Prokofiev’s second string quartet (composed while he was in exile during WWII), then proceeding to Leoš Janáček’s “Kreutzer Sonata” quartet (written in anguish over his romantic troubles), then to Osvaldo Golijov’s one-movement Tenebrae (informed by his experiences of the Middle East conflict), and then concluding with Felix Mendelssohn’s wrenching sixth string quartet (written in the wake of his sister Fanny’s death), this album is both a meditation on human suffering and a celebration of what humans can produce in the midst of it–whether because or in spite of that suffering. The playing is magnificent, and is particularly impressive in the forbiddingly virtuosic final movement of the Mendelssohn.


Georg Philipp Telemann
The Concerti-en-suite
Tempesta di Mare
Chandos (dist. Naxos)
CHAN 0821
Rick’s Pick

Jean-Féry Rebel; Georg Philipp Telemann
Terpsichore: Apothéose de la danse baroque
Le Concert des Nations / Jordi Savall
AliaVox (dist. PIAS)
AVSA9929

German music of the late baroque period was characterized by what came to be called vermischter goût (itself a linguistically mixed term, amusingly enough)–meaning that elements of German, Italian, and French styles were intermixed to create a new and pleasing blend. Telemann took that concept further, into structural territory, by pioneering the “concerto-suite”: a format in which a soloist is featured in the opening movement, and subsequent movements follow the traditional format of a series of French-style dance movements. Three of his works in this vein are currently known to survive, and Tempesta di Mare (on period instruments) perform them with joyful panache on this wonderful disc. The natural-horn players are especially impressive here, delivering difficult lines with none of the watery tremulousness that so often mars performances on that fiendishly challenging instrument. The Concert des Nations disc alternates dance suites by the great French composer Jean-Féry Rebel with similarly-configured works by Telemann, one of them from his monumental Tafelmusik collection. As always, Jordi Savall leads the Concert des Nations in performances characterized by exuberance and infectious rhythmic vitality, and the sumptuousness of the recorded sound is particularly noteworthy on this deeply enjoyable disc. Both would make outstanding selections for any collection of baroque music, but the Telemann disc may be particularly noteworthy from a pedagogical point of view.


François Devienne
6 Trios for Flute, Viola and Cello
Sara Ligas; Salvatore Rea; Vladimiro Atzeni
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
95686

Discovering the flute music of François Devienne has been one of my great pleasures over the past few years. Up until now I’ve mostly heard the concertos, and this set of trios is something of a revelation. Playing on modern instruments, Sara Ligas, Salvatore Rea and Vladimiro Atzeni beautifully convey Devienne’s very French late-classical style, and do so without condescending to the relative simplicity of Devienne’s work. Instead, they showcase its melodic sumptuousness, reveling in the moments of counterpoint and development when they do arise. This music may not be terribly important in the grand scheme of things, but it’s tremendously enjoyable.


Various Composers
Clarinet Concertos (14 discs)
Various Performers
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
95787

Generally speaking, I’m a big fan of the Brilliant Classics label’s box sets–true, some of them may seem a bit thrown-together, but some of them are… er… brilliant, and the price is always right. (And yes, that does matter. This one lists at just over $50, or roughly $3.50 per disc.) But when there are problems, they can be serious. In the case of my review copy of the new Clarinet Concertos box, some kind of encoding error created a strange clicking sound that seems to come and go depending on the volume of the music on discs 2 and 3 (dedicated to the Louis Spohr concerti)–a glitch that, incidentally, is not present in the digital versions of the same tracks on Amazon, where the whole box can be downloaded for $8.99. Another problem, endemic to this kind of super-budget-line set, is the extremely schematic liner notes, which total seven pages. Otherwise, this set is a solid winner. It covers the history of clarinet concertos starting with Molter and Spohr in the classical period up through Stanford, Hindemith, and Nielsen in the 20th century, with predictable inclusions from Krommer, Stamitz, Crusell, and others in between. As best I can tell, the performances are all on modern instruments, and although Henk de Graaf’s clarinet is distractingly bright, even shrill, on the Molter concerti, for the most part everything sounds very good. The original recordings were made between 1982 and 2017.


Morten Lauridsen
Light Eternal
Chamber Choir of Europe; I Virtuosi Italiani / Nicol Matt
Deutsche Grammophon
483 5058
Rick’s Pick

Morten Lauridsen’s shimmeringly gorgeous Lux aeterna (or at least its middle movement, O nata lux) has become one of the most ubiquitous pieces of American choral music of the past 25 years, so it might be tempting to dismiss this album with a yawn. That would be a mistake, though, partly because of the unbelievably lovely performance of that work offered on this recording by the Chamber Choir of Europe, and partly because there’s so much else on offer here–notably world-premiere recordings of two recent works, Prayer and Ya eres mía. The program is rounded out by Lauridsen’s settings of poems by Rilke, Neruda, and Agee, an extract from his Madrigali, and his setting of the O magnum mysterium text. The singing, playing, and production are exquisite throughout, and I strongly recommend this release to all libraries.


JAZZ


Kristen Strom
Moving Day: The Music of John Shifflett
OA2
22161
Rick’s Pick

John Shifflett, who died prematurely in 2017, was one of the more in-demand bass players on the Bay Area jazz scene, very well-known to the cognoscenti there. What was less well-known was his tremendous gift as a composer. On this album, a shifting combo of his friends have gathered under the leadership of saxophonist/clarinetist/flutist Kristen Strom to pay tribute to Shifflett with a program of arrangements of his tunes, plus his setting of a pair of–get this–Stan Rogers songs. The album ends up being a revelation, not only due to the quality of the original compositions (which achieve that magical and always elusive balance between complexity and accessibility) but also due to the depth, warmth, and brilliance of the arrangements. All of the soloists are marvelous, but the album’s finest moments come during the ensemble passages, which are organized with palpable love and constantly-impressive harmonic insight. This is one of the sweetest and loveliest jazz albums I’ve heard all year.


Ted Piltzecker
Brindica
Zoho (dist. MVD)
ZM201810

Jazz is a dish for which there are a thousand recipes, and some of the most delicious ones include both a dash of humor and a broad range of stylistic influences. That’s the thought that has kept occurring to me while listening to the latest album from vibraphonist and composer Ted Piltzecker. Taking the listener on a “worldwide musical journey” while avoiding the twin pitfalls of either stylistic imperialism or shallow multi-culti piety, Piltzecker writes and arranges tunes that draw on tango, second-line, Afro-Cuban, South African, and even carnatic influences, always in an organic, fun, and respectful way. The result is a stylistic kaleidoscope of an album that reveals new combinations of rhythm and harmony at every turn and always sparkes with wit and good humor. Highly recommended.


Jeanne Lee with Ran Blake
The Newest Sound You Never Heard: European Recordings 1966/1967 (2 discs)
A-Side
0005

I’m not going to lie: I approached this album with trepidation. Two hours of otherwise unaccompanied vocal-piano jazz is not usually my idea of a good time. But I admire Ran Blake and had never heard of Jeanne Lee, and the program includes both bop standards and 1960s pop hits, so I was intrigued enough to cue it up–and I remained intrigued as I listened. Lee has a magnificent voice; not overpowering, but strong and supple, and she wields it with a rare combination of adventurousness and restraint, always doing interesting things but never doing weird things for the sake of weirdness. Blake’s playing gives her lots of space, while doing plenty of inventive stuff in the background, some of which you’ll have to listen for to catch. These tapes were made during studio and live performances in Belgium and have never been released prior to this. For all jazz collections.


Michael Dease
Bonafide
Posi-Tone
PR8188
Rick’s Pick

And I’ll be honest again: I knew I was going to love this one before I even opened it, and I was right. Michael Dease is one of the most gifted trombonists and composers working in jazz right now, and on his latest album as a leader he sweetens the pot by adding three more trombonists: Marshall Gilkes, Conrad Herwig, and Gina Benalcazar (the latter on bass trombone). Supported by tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon and a crack piano trio, this quartet of ‘bones delivers a joyful set of originals and standards, heavy on the originals. There are plenty of great charts here–note in particular the very fine ensemble writing on the long out-chorus of Phineas Newborn’s “Theme for Basie”–and it’s tons of fun to hear the unusual timbral textures created by massed trombones. Best of all, the whole group swings like nobody’s business. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Thomas Marriott
Romance Language
Origin
82765

Trumpeter Thomas Marriot delivers a lovely ballad program on this album, but it’s a ballad program with something of a twist. Although the focus is on romantic and contemplative slow and mid-tempo numbers (one of the loveliest of which is Marriott’s arrangement of Pat Metheny’s “Always and Forever”), there are also some surprising moments. Most obvious is “Piggyback,” with its rockish backbeat and synthesized beat-boxy percussion, which flirts with the dreaded epithet “smooth jazz”–but escapes it (or perhaps makes it irrelevant) by virtue of Marriott’s sweet muted trumpet sound. More subtle are the quietly percolating groove and slyly sidewinding chord changes of “Alibi Room.” Prettiest of all is the album-closing arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which proves that you can create new recipes out of even the oldest chestnuts.


FOLK/COUNTRY


SUSS
Ghost Box (expanded reissue)
Northern Spy
NS105
Rick’s Pick

This entry may ring a bell for the regular readers, since the original release of this album was covered in the May 2018 issue. At the time I wasn’t able to tell you much about it, since the disc had come in the mail with no accompanying information and the packaging included no information beyond the names of the musicians involved. Now comes an expanded reissue (with four additional tracks) on the Northern Spy label, in a package that includes a band photo that allows us to divine more about the instrumentation: in the photo we see five guys, two with guitars, one with a mandolin, one playing a pedal steel, and one sitting behind a laptop computer. Not your typical country/Americana lineup, certainly, and indeed this music is a strange, entrancing, and utterly unique blend of country elements and ambient electronica–imagine early Freedy Johnston as produced and radically remixed by Brian Eno and you might get a good idea of what to expect. No singing, no grooves, rarely even anything like a beat–and yet it’s completely compelling. Strongly recommended to all libraries.


Ebony Hillbillies
5 Miles from Town (digital only)
EH Music
No cat. no.

Billed as “the premier African-American String Band in America,” the Ebony Hillbillies demonstrate the deep debt that white Appalachian old-time music owes to African-American blues and gospel. This debt has always been acknowledged with words, but bands like Ebony Hillbillies and the Carolina Chocolate Drops make those words flesh with musical demonstration, and create a tremendous amount of excitement in doing so. Consider, in this case, how the band segues from a rollicking rendition of the classic fiddle tune “Hog Eyed Man” into a powerful, stomping performance of the blues party classic “Wang Dang Doodle”–or how they manage to make a Bonnie Raitt cover lead in perfectly naturally to a sashaying version of “Carroll County Blues.” Also notice how some of these old-sounding songs are actually brand-new protest numbers. Listen carefully; it’s worth it, and this album is more than merely fun.


Tom Brumley and the Buckaroos
Steelin’ the Show (compilation)
Omnivore
OVCD-318

In recent years the outstanding Omnivore label has, among other triumphs, brought a bunch of classic Buck Owens and the Buckaroos material back to market. In so doing, it has also brought new attention to some of Owens’ less-celebrated sidemen–notably Don Rich, and now the Buckaroos’ brilliant steel player Tom Brumley. Unlike the Don Rich titles, though, Steelin’ the Show isn’t actually a reissue; it’s a collection of instrumental tracks featuring Brumley, gathered from various Owens albums; Owens regularly recorded such instrumentals as a way of drawing audiences’ attention to the talents of his sidemen. The album closes with its only vocal number, the Owens classic “Together Again,” which features a solo by Brumley that has become famous for its taste and lyricism. Brumley was not a stunt musician; his playing is always tasteful rather than flashy, and this is a tremendously enjoyable album.


Nobody’s Girl
Waterline (EP)
Lucky Hound
No cat. no.

Rebecca Loebe, Grace Pettis, and BettySoo are all veterans of the Austin singer-songwriter scene, and each of them has been a winner of the “New Folk” award at the Kerrville Folk Festival. The music they make as a trio has little to do with folk, however; it’s country-pop with a rockish edge and a gentle lyrical bite, characterized by sweet and exceedingly tight harmonies and blockbuster melodic hooks. And there’s a great cover of Blondie’s “Call Me.” Give this one a listen and you’ll find yourself wishing it was more than six songs long (the seventh song on the program being a live acoustic version of the lead track). Especially given the $13 list price (only $6.99 if you buy it on Amazon instead).


ROCK/POP


Scuba
A Mutual Antipathy Revisited (digital-only reissue)
Hotflush
No cat. no.

OK, it’s important to pay attention here. Scuba, one of the pioneering producers/DJs of the early dubstep scene, is reissuing his 2008 debut album in remastered form with the addition of both a new bonus track and a handful vintage remixes by the likes of Surgeon and Marcel Dettmann. This is dark, grumbling EDM of the finest kind, with lots of off-kilter beats and a wealth of microscopically-detailed effects–exactly the kind of thing we’ve come to expect from this world-class artist. At roughly the same time, Scuba has also released a large collection of previously-unreleased tracks taken from the sessions that produced both A Mutual Antipathy and his second album, Triangulation. This collection is called SUB:STANCE in Retrograde (the title celebrating the five-year run of Scuba’s SUB:STANCE party at the Berghain club) and is also only available in digital form. Neither of these releases should be confused with Sounds of SUB:STANCE, which is a huge compilation of previously-unreleased and previously vinyl-only tracks from artists like Shackleton, Vex’d, and Sepalcure (plus Scuba himself, of course), now being made available in a single digital package. Do you want all three? Well, I do. But I have a seemingly limitless appetite for dark, grumbling EDM with off-kilter beats and a wealth of microscopically-detailed effects. My recommendation is that you start with the Mutual Antipathy reissue and see what you think–then delve further as deeply as you like.


Various Artists
Harmony in My Head: UK Power Pop & New Wave 1977-81 (3 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
CRCDBOX62
Rick’s Pick

In which we ponder the musical question: what are the parameters of “power pop,” anyway, and where do they intersect with those of “new wave”? And its corollary: are power pop and new wave defined differently in the UK than in the US? That the answer to the latter question might be “yes” is suggested by the title of this magnificent three-disc compilation, which is taken from a Buzzcocks song–one that I would be more likely to call “punk” than “new wave,” and certainly not “power pop.” It’s also suggested by the fact that the second song on the first disc is “You Belong to Me” by Elvis Costello — one that this Yank would consider to be neither power pop nor new wave, nor, certainly, punk. So if nothing else, this set provides a highly instructive window into the different ways cultures have thought about these happily under-defined and generally under-appreciated subgenres of pop music since the 1970s. And also a highly instructive window into bands that many of us (especially the Yanks) will never have heard of before, some of which contribute songs that are among the sharpest and most enjoyable power-pop/new-wave/whatever tracks I’ve ever heard. Highlights include the admirably crunchy “Howard Hughes” by the Tights, “Common Truth” by Amazorblades, and the joyfully driving “No Money” by The Freshies. Awesome.


Quanta
Dream Before You Sleep (2014; digital only)
Dubmission
CDDUBM039

Misled Convoy
Sixteen Sunsets
Dubmission
CDDUBM081

The musical genre known as “dub” got its start as a subgenre of reggae; back in the early 1970s, it emerged as a precursor to modern remix culture. The dub version of a song typically dropped all but occasional snippets of the vocal, while instruments fell unpredictably out of and back into the mix, augmented by generous dollops of echo and delay. Today, dub is a fully-developed genre all its own, though still deeply rooted in reggae tradition. Two releases from the outstanding Dubmission label illustrate how richly developed dub has become. Quanta’s Dream Before You Sleep (which I thought was a new release, but apparently actually dates from 2014 and is only available as a download; make sure you get the seven-track version here rather than the shorter version available on Amazon) is nowhere near as somnolent or meditative as its title would suggest; its instrumental textures are rich and deep, with bone-shuddering basslines underpinning occasional found-sound vocal samples and highly detailed chord changes and accents in the upper registers. The latest from Misled Convoy is operating in a more abstract, spacey realm: fewer heavyweight rhythms, more expansive soundscapes–but still plenty of groove. The term “avant-dub” was coined to describe music like this, though it’s by no means as “avant” as some; it’s just consistently interesting, subtly subverting expectations even as it pays respect to the old-school verities. Both of these albums are outstanding, as is virtually everything on the Dubmission label.


The Claudettes
Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium!
Yellow Dog
YDR 2465

Over the course of several albums, the Claudettes have forged a synthesis of blues, R&B, rockabilly and punk that succeeds at sounding simultaneously old and new. On their latest release the originality of their sound is deepened by the adoption of a truly strange instrumentation: pianos, drums, and a “bass VI” guitar–a bass guitar with six strings and a relatively short scale length that can function simultaneously as a bass and as a uniquely-voiced guitar. I explain this as a way of explaining the uniquely dark, muddy sound on the Claudettes’ new album; it reflects the seriousness that lurks beneath the party-ready mood on the surface of many of their songs. The best thing here is singer Berit Ulseth’s voice, which never seems to rise above a conversational level yet cuts effortlessly through the murk of the mix. This album really does sound unlike anything else you’ll hear this year.


Various Artists
3X4: The Bangles/The Three O’Clock/The Dream Syndicate/Rain Parade
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)
YEP-2596

Almost 40 years later, it’s easy to forget how remarkable the Paisley Underground movement was back in the early 1980s. In the immediate wake of punk’s inchoate rage and post-punk’s cold cynicism, a turn to the chiming guitars and heart-on-sleeve idealism of 1960s pop wasn’t something obviously to be expected at the time, but when the Bangs (later the Bangles), the Three O’Clock, and the Dream Syndicate emerged on the Los Angeles scene they got a strong response–and the Bangles, at least, went on to achieve major mainstream success. On this album, four bands from that scene take turns covering each other’s songs, and while for me personally one outcome is a reminder of why I was never able to warm up to the Dream Syndicate, others will surely enjoy this album more consistently than I did. And yes, there’s a tambura on one song.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Minor Empire
Uprooted
World Trip
WTR002

It’s always interesting to listen to politically-charged music written and sung in a language you don’t understand, and to try to see how much of the message you can intuit just from the music and the singing itself. In the case of this album by Turkish-Canadian duo Minor Empire, it was the emergence and then the brutal suppression of a youth movement back home that served as the catalyst for a set of songs and instrumental pieces that express their anger and disappointment with Turkey’s government. The melodies that Ozgu Ozman sings are sinuous and modal, while Ozan Boz’s guitar playing is as informed by psych-rock as it is by traditional Turkish music. The album’s title refers to Ozman’s feeling of despair that she no longer belongs in her home country–but her singing is restrained and carefully controlled, and without the lyric sheet one might never guess at the anger that simmers below the beautiful surface of her performance. All of it is exceptionally beautiful.


Black Uhuru
As the World Turns
Self-released
No cat. no.

Although technically a harmony trio in the same mold as the Meditations and the Mighty Diamonds, the classic lineup of Black Uhuru was different from their peers in at least two ways: first, a deeply dread lyrical worldview that wasted no time on love songs or nice-up-the-dance rhetoric; second, the presence of a woman in the group. Although the band began recording in the 1970s, it really made its mark beginning in 1980, with three blockbuster albums released in quick succession: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (previously issued as Showcase), Sinsemilla and Red. Lead singer Michael Rose left shortly thereafter to pursue a solo career, and Puma Jones was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to leave the group as well. Three decades and lots of changes later, baritone vocalist Duckie Simpson is the only remaining original member, but he continues to carry the torch and to do so quite capably. As the World Turns is the first Black Uhuru album in 15 years, and it’s solid if not world-changing. Backing vocalist Nikki Hurt provides an echo of the band’s sound from the Puma Jones days, but Duckie is wise enough to embrace his own unique voice rather than trying to channel Michael Rose (as Junior Reid did when he took over the lead-vocalist chair in 1986). The songs remain strictly conscious and are finely crafted–though Simpson’s decision to base his arrangement of “Police and Thieves” more on the Clash’s version than the Junior Murvin original is kind of curious. Recommended.


Te’Amir
Abyssinia & Abyssinia Rise (vinyl & digital only)
Tru Thoughts (dist. Redeye)
TRULP363

The title of this release and its cover art will lead the listener to expect Ethiopian music of some kind, and that expectation will be met–more or less. Te’Amir is actually a Los Angeles-based beatmaker, drummer, and producer whose father is Ethiopian and exposed him to the traditional and popular music of his home country throughout his childhood. On the two EPs that are brought together for this (at 29 minutes, still EP-length) vinyl/digital release, Te’Amir blends the influences of that music with contemporary and Western beats and styles–the jazzy, saxophone-centered “Randal in Addis,” the soulful “The Quest” and “All That You Need” (both featuring singer Dustin Warren), the glitchy and sampladelic “Back to Abyssinia.” This is a fascinating example of multicultural musical emulsion rather than fusion, and it’s lots of fun to listen to.


Minyeshu
Daa Dee
ARC Productions
EUCD2782
Rick’s Pick

Minyeshu Kifle Tedla is an Ethiopian singer and songwriter who has made her home in the Netherlands for the past 20 years or so. On her latest album, she celebrates coming to terms with her longstanding feelings of both personal and geographical displacement, writing a program of songs that draw deeply on both traditional Ethiopian styles and the “Ethio-jazz” she loved as a teenager growing up in Addis Ababa. The arrangements of these songs are complex and the rhythms are often knotty and difficult, but her soaring voice and joyful melodies make everything instantly accessible and fun. This is one of the most enjoyable albums I’ve heard in recent months.


Dhafer Youssef
Sounds of Mirrors
Ante Prima (dist. Bendo Music/Naxos)
No cat. no.

Dhafer Youssef is an oud player, singer, and composer from Tunisia who is descended from a long line of muezzins–the guys who sing the call to prayer at a mosque. His latest album evolved from his longstanding desire to incorporate Indian elements into his work, which led to a series of live collaborations with tabla player Zakir Hussain. This project in turn led to the addition of clarinetist Hüsnü Sęnlendirici and guitarist Eivind Aarset to the ensemble, and then to the recording of this wonderful album. Quiet, spacious songs alternate with jazzy and rhythmically complex instrumental explorations in which the combination of a north African lute and South Asian percussion seems to make perfect sense. The clarinet weaves modally in and out of the mix, while Aarset’s guitar mostly creates lush but subtle tapestries of chordal texture in the background. Highly recommended to all libraries.

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December 2018


PICK OF THE MONTH


Frank Kimbrough Quartet
Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk (6 discs)
Sunnyside
SSC4032

Thelonious Monk’s influence on jazz is way out of proportion to his productivity as a composer. He has only 70 known pieces to his name, but several of them–notably “I Mean You,” “Straight No Chaser,” “Epistrophy,” and especially “‘Round Midnight”–are such ubiquitous standards that there’s hardly a jazz fan anywhere who can’t sing one of Monk’s themes. And that brings up one of the other curious things about this very curious musician: despite the notoriously knotty and sometimes counterintuitive nature of his melodies, most of them are eminently singable. As I’ve been listening to this monumental collection by the brilliant Frank Kimbrough Quartet, I’ve frequently found myself singing along–and not only with the relatively lyrical numbers like “Let’s Cool One” and “I Mean You,” but even with more angular and boppish fare like “Criss Cross” and “Four in One.”

The thing about Monk having been a relatively parsimonious writer is that it makes possible a package like this, on which a single ensemble provides a survey of his entire known oeuvre. This has been done before, most recently by Alexander von Schlippenbach with his deeply quirky Monk’s Casino (now out of print). But whereas von Schlippenbach used Monk’s compositions as schemata over which to lay out his own personal musical vision, imposing a variety of strange arrangements on them, on this set pianist Frank Kimbrough deals with the tunes in a very straight-ahead manner, playing them respectfully while never hesitating to let his own personality shine through. You’ll hear subtle tributes to Monk’s notoriously angular piano style in both Kimbrough’s comping and his solos, but he never descends into mimicry, instead using Monk’s motifs and techniques as springboards for new ideas and gestures of his own. Saxophonist Scott Robinson plays a variety of instruments in order to provide a bit of textural variation (including bass saxophone on “Who Knows” and “Straight No Chaser” and alternating between tenor sax and trumpet on “Thelonious”), but even if he had stuck with tenor through the whole set it’s hard to imagine that it ever would have gotten boring. I’ve loved Monk’s music since I was a teenager, but this marvelous tribute has given me a deeper appreciation than I ever had before for the man’s melodic and harmonic genius. This set is a must for every library.


CLASSICAL


Josquin des Prez
Missa Gaudeamus; Missa L’ami Baudichon
Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips
Gimell (dist. PIAS)
CDGIM 050
Rick’s Pick

Josquin des Prez
Miserere mei Deus: Funeral Motets & Deplorations
Capella Amsterdam / Daniel Reuss
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 902620

Since its inception 45(!) years ago, the Tallis Scholars ensemble has shown a particular affinity for (and had notable commercial and critical success with) the music of the great Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prez. The group’s latest effort juxtaposes two very different Masses by that composer: the mathematically elaborate Missa Gaudeaumus and the much more simple and straightforward Missa L’ami Baudichon. Not only does the simplicity of the latter contrast with the sophistication of the former, but the source materials upon which the two pieces draw could hardly be more different: a melodically complex Gregorian chant in the first case, and a popular bawdy song in the second. Thus, this program offers not only the world-class singing we have long come to expect from the Tallis Scholars, but also a bracing demonstration of the stylistic range of one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance period. The Capella Amsterdam disc is a very different proposition: a collection of somber lamentations built around Josquin’s déploration on the death of Johannes Ockeghem, another of the Franco-Flemish masters and Josquin’s elder by several decades. Other pieces are intended more generically as funerary motets and expressions of sorrow–godly and otherwise. As always, the part-writing is absolutely exquisite, and the singing by Capella Amsterdam is gorgeous and warmly recorded. I have yet to hear a mediocre recording by this ensemble.


Nordic Affect
He(a)r (2 discs; Blu-Ray audio & CD)
Sono Luminus
DSL-92224

Nordic Affect is an Icelandic chamber ensemble consisting of violin, viola, cello, and harpsichord, played by musicians whose names I don’t have sufficient coding skills to render in HTML. The group’s third album for the Sono Luminus label consists of works by contemporary women composers (hence the program’s painfully punny title), all interspersed with a suite of soundscapes and spoken-word sections by the group’s violinist. Some of these pieces (notably Mirjam Tally’s Warm Life at the Foot of the Iceberg) are spiky and challenging, others abstract and minimal. The playing is consistently excellent, and everything here is well worth hearing.


Eraldo Bernocchi
Like a Fire That Consumes All Before It
RareNoise
34849
Rick’s Pick

This is a soundtrack album created for the film Cy Dear, a documentary about the brilliant American painter Cy Twombly. Eraldo Bernocchi is a guitarist and composer, and to create the music for this soundtrack he used a minimum of musical materials augmented by maximalist effects: lots and lots of echo, delay, and reverb applied to relatively few notes and melodic lines. The result is, of course, music the abstract nature of which nicely reflects that of Twombly’s art. But it also evokes a deep melancholy, and a sense of vast space filled with large but wispy clouds of melody. Rhythm begins to emerge by the program’s twelfth track (“Swirling Colors”), but we don’t hear an actual pulse until the final one, “Near by Distance.” Overall, this is a stunningly beautiful album and a more-than-fitting tribute to one of America’s great 20th-century painters.


Various Composers
The Sound of Science
Golden Hornet; Jeffrey Zeigler
National Sawdust
NS-026

Sometimes, when discussing art music, you have to put the word “classical” in scare quotes. For example, when breakbeats play a significant role in the composition (Graham Reynolds’ “The Brain”), or when the cello is distorted and played in a style that specifically invokes Jimi Hendrix (Foday Musa Suso’s “Salumba”) or when the piece is undergirded by a four-on-the-floor techno thud (Felipe Pérez Santiago’s “Quest”). But “classical” or not, this collection of pieces for cello and electronics are all most certainly art music: complex, composed, designed for listening rather than dancing. The project was organized by the Golden Hornet music lab, and involved asking seven different composers to write pieces inspired by the work of famous (and not-so-famous) scientists. The resulting program is as varied and strange as you might expect, and is frequently marvelous. Sometimes it’s just varied and strange, but it’s always interesting.


Various Composers
Discovering the Classical String Trio
The Vivaldi Project
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
MS 1622

This is the second volume in an ongoing series titled Discovering the Classical String Trio. It may seem strange for this repertoire to be championed by a group called the Vivaldi Project, but one of the ensemble’s stated purposes is to demonstrate the eighteenth-century string trio’s “relationship to the earlier baroque trio sonata (as exemplified by Vivaldi and his contemporaries) and of its role as an important genre in its own right, side-by-side with the emerging string quartet.” To that end, the group presents works by such eminent composers of the period as Haydn, Gossec, and J.C. Bach, as well as delightful obscurities from the likes of Johann Ignaz Klausek and Jean-Baptiste Bréval. And the program ends with a trio sonata by Vivaldi. The playing (on period instruments) is delightful and this disc, like its predecessor, would be a welcome addition to any library collection.


Various Composers
Then and There, Here and Now
Chanticleer
Warner Classics
0190295617783

The San Francisco-based male choir Chanticleer has, over its 40-year history, become perhaps the single most celebrated professional choral ensemble in the United States–and with good reason. The group’s luscious tone, seamless blend, and astonishing stylistic range have made it a major concert draw, and its recordings are among the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. Then and There, Here and Now is released as a celebration of the group’s 40th anniversary, and is fittingly eclectic in its program, with Renaissance motets, American Songbook standards, African-American spirituals, European folk song arrangements, and contemporary choral pieces (some written on commission) all gleefully rubbing shoulders. Expect demand from Chanticleer’s legion of fans.


Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Víkingur Ólafsson
Deutsche Grammophon
483 5022

Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach
Thomas Dunford
Alpha Classics (dist. Naxos)
ALPHA 361
Rick’s Pick

“Bach today generally sounds quite different from Bach 30 years ago, and still more different from Bach 50 years ago. In that sense his music is contemporary rather than classical.” So suggests pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, who delivers a magisterial set of Bach’s keyboard works on his second release for the Deutsche Grammophon label. Preludes and fugues, arias with variations, partitas, fantasias, and a concerto transcription are all tastefully arranged in a generous and deeply satisfying program. Ólafsson’s touch is light but authoritative, his use of dynamics personal but never merely idiosyncratic. Thomas Dunford’s new album is similarly titled but treats a different segment of Bach’s repertoire with a very different instrument: the theorbed lute. Dunford plays two of Bach’s cello suites (one in Bach’s own arrangement for lute, the other arranged by Dunford) and an arrangement of the second violin partita. The sound of Bach played on the lute is even softer and rounder than that of Bach on the piano, and in the hands of someone like Dunford these pieces positively caress the listener’s ears. Every line of implied counterpoint is clear (Dunford’s ability to play three-dimensionally, bringing individual lines to the fore, is exceptional) and he manages to imbue a gently aching emotional immediacy to everything he plays. Both of these marvelous albums are strongly recommended to all libraries.


JAZZ


David Friesen
My Faith, My Life (2 discs)
Origin
82768
Rick’s Pick

If you’re one of the many, many people for whom the prospect of a solo bass album sounds about as inviting as an evening with a boring uncle or an uninterrupted drive across northern Nevada, then I have to ask you to reserve judgement on the latest David Friesen album until you’ve given it a chance. For one thing, he frequently enriches his solo bass lines by mutitracking them or using extensive echo and delay, creating a much richer soundscape than you might expect; for another, he also plays the shakuhachi (an end-blown Japanese bamboo flute), which adds yet another sonic dimension to his work. And on this two-disc set, the second disc is actually a suite of solo piano pieces, which are quiet and contemplative. The whole album is a wonderful blend of the interesting and the relaxing–always a winning combination in my book.


Hot Club of San Francisco
30 Years
Hot Club
HCR 2705

Explicitly modeled on Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli’s Quintet du Hot Club de France, the Hot Club of San Francisco has now been purveying both classic 1930s-style Gypsy jazz and modern variants on it for 30 years. In celebration of that milestone, the group has self-released a survey that draws on its previous six recordings. (Unfortunately, no detailed information is provided in the liner notes about where each of the tracks came from.) The program nicely demonstrates both how good this group is at delivering straight-ahead old-school hot jazz and at the ways in which they’ve gotten creative with it: a sturdily swinging midtempo rendition of “‘Round Midnight” is something of a revelation, as is the vocal version of “Nuages.” There’s a wind arrangement of Reinhardt’s “Messe,” and a Gypsified version of the Beatles tune “Because.” If your library doesn’t already own all of this group’s previous albums, then consider this one as an introduction.


John Fedchock Quartet
Reminiscence
Summit
DCD 735

The trombone is notoriously difficult jazz instrument, because it has no valves–which means that the only way to get from one note to another is either by “lipping” up or down (adjusting one’s embouchure and breath pressure to change pitch) or by sliding. This makes complex melodies tricky, especially at fast tempos–making trombonists who are capable of playing bebop persuasively a relatively rare commodity. John Fedchock is one such player, although on this collection of live tracks (culled from a three-night stand in Virginia Beach) he focuses on midtempo grooves and ballads: three original tunes, three standards, and a composition by JJ Johnson–the man who proved that bop could actually be played on the trombone. (The Johnson tune is a Latin-inflected ballad, though.) Fedchock’s work is always worth hearing, and in this live setting he’s especially engaging.


Ernie Krivda and Swing City
A Bright and Shining Moment
Capri
74149-2

This is an unabashedly old-fashioned jazz album, led by a tenor saxophonist and composer with a big, juicy tone and a taste for the verities. You’ll hear more than a hint of Ben Webster and Lester Young in both his vibrato and his phrasing, and his choice of tunes like “Caravan,” “The Man I Love,” and a hard-charging “Lime House Blues” signal his reverence for the old school–as do vintage-style originals like the lovely title track and “Easter Blue.” But there are some surprising moments here as well, notably an idiosyncratically up-tempo setting of “Summertime,” and even at his most tradition-minded Krivda’s energy is so fresh and infectious that he makes every musical idea sound like it’s brand new. Recommended to all jazz collections.


Kenny Werner
The Space
Pirouet (dist. Naxos)
PIT3106
Rick’s Pick

Pianist Kenny Werner’s name is spoken with reverence in the jazz world: a sideman to such illustrious artists as Toots Thielemans, Joe Lovano, and Mel Lewis, he is also a deeply-respected composer and bandleader. His latest album is a solo project, a deeply introspective program that varies in style from the quiet and impressionistic title track to the harmonically adventurous “Fifth Movement,” a lovely rendition of Keith Jarrett’s sweetly dancing “Encore from Tokyo,” and a slightly abstract take on the standard “If I Should Lose You.” The program’s final track, “Fall from Grace,” is another very quiet and thoughtful one, and provides a lovely bookend to the disc alongside the opening piece. This disc is a gorgeous document of one man’s deeply expansive vision of jazz pianism.


Wayne Horvitz
Those Who Remain
National Sawdust Tracks
NS-024

Wayne Horvitz
The Snowghost Sessions
Songlines
SGL1627-2
Rick’s Pick

Keyboardist/composer Wayne Horvitz has been a mover and shaker for decades now, moving freely across the (admittedly porous) border that separate the jazz, experimental, classical, and avant-garde communities. His two most recent releases find him dancing blithely back and forth between them. Those Who Remain is a modern-classical recording with a twist: the title composition is a two-movement concerto for “orchestra and improvising soloist” (in this case the brilliant modern jazz guitarist Bill Frisell), and the second piece is These Hills of Glory, written for string quartet and improvising soloist (in this case clarinetist Beth Fleenor). Both pieces are big and at times aggressive, but also frequently lyrical, and make little explicit reference to jazz tradition. The Snowghost Sessions, however, marks Horvitz’s return to the jazz trio format after several decades working in other modes. But if you’re expecting a swinging set of standards or even of explicitly jazz-oriented originals, think again: in addition to piano, Horvitz uses a laptop to trigger samples, and the result is sometimes gloriously chaotic: “IMB” had me running to Wikipedia to refresh my memory as to whether Horvitz had been part of John Zorn’s original Naked City band (he was–as, of course, was Frisell). This isn’t to say that he and his trio never swing–they do on several tracks–nor that the proceedings are generally skronky and forbidding. On the contrary, the overall mood is contemplative, and some of these pieces (notably the gorgeous “Northampton”) are conventionally beautiful and soulful. It’s just to say that these albums are Wayne Horvitz joints, and Wayne Horvitz doesn’t do genre constraint. Both of them are excellent; the Snowghost set is essential.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Jonathan Byrd & the Pickup Cowboys
Pickup Cowboy
Waterbug
No cat. no.

There’s a sad backstory to this album, which was recorded several years ago. On the last day of the sessions, bassist/cellist (yes, cellist) Paul Ford called in to say he wasn’t feeling well. He went to the doctor that day and was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, from which he died within a year. The Pickup Cowboys never played together again, but bandleader Jonathan Byrd finally decided the time had come for those recordings to be released. And truly, they’re great: the group’s strange instrumentation (a guitarist/singer, a multi-instrumentalist whose axes include musical saw, and a cellist doubling on bass) yields a uniquely spare but powerful sound, and Byrd’s songwriting is very sharp: for some reason, the line that really jumped out at me was “Ranch hands learn to roughneck/And they’re all lined up to work” (“When the Well Runs Dry”), but there are lots of compelling moments here. This is music that pushes the boundaries of country conventions without ever giving the impression of being radical for radicalism’s sake.


Mickey Galyean & Cullen’s Bridge
Songs from the Blue Ridge
Rebel
REB-CD-1866

Mickey Galyean has one of the best voices in bluegrass right now: solid and clear, with just the right balance of richness and high-lonesome edge. His band is great as well–though listening to their second album for the Rebel label, I kept getting the feeling that there was something missing from the sound. At first I thought that I was hearing the lack of a mandolin, but as I kept listening I realized that the real issue was that I could barely hear the guitar, which meant that there was little to no audible chordal accompaniment. The very fine banjoist Rick Pardue fills up the space as best he can, and there’s something to be said for Galyean’s and Pardue’s tight harmonies getting so much room in the mix; the result really is a pretty unique sound for a bluegrass band. The terms “unique” and “bluegrass band” don’t appear that often in the same review, so this one is definitely worth checking out. Highlight track: “Too Late to Say Goodbye.”


Belle Plaine
Malice, Mercy, Grief and Wrath
Belle Plaine Music
BP 18-0727
Rick’s Pick

The title of Belle Plaine’s third album hints at a certain amount of emotional complexity, and the songs bear that out. Substantially informed by the experience of losing her parents a few years ago, Malice, Mercy, Grief and Wrath addresses questions of deep meaning and emotional resonance, all couched in arrangements that draw on the deepest musical traditions of mid-century country music. Song titles like “Texas and Death and You” and “Laila Sady Johnson Wasn’t Beaten By No Train” (the latter a tribute to Plaine’s grandmother, who was hit by a train and survived) also make it clear that there’s a strain of wry humor underneath these generally soft and serious songs–and when the tempo picks up you might catch her asking the eternal musical question: “Is it cheating if you don’t get laid?” There’s much more here than immediately meets the ear, so I recommend repeated listenings.


ROCK/POP


salt
invisible (digital/cassette only)
Ant-Zen
act399

There has been a small tsunami of avant/noise releases this season, quite a few of them from the redoutable Ant-Zen label. So far my favorite of them is this one, an album by a secretive musician who calls himself salt and hasn’t made an album in over ten years. Billed by the label as “noise pop beat massacre with a Japanese green tea infusion,” this album is definitely noisy, and can be called “pop” only in the most generous sense of the term. But that’s not to say it’s inaccessible; the static-driven skronk of “Beneath the Skin” gives way quickly to the funky and much more approachable “Inhale,” which is itself followed by the housey and sampladelic “After Diner[sic] Dip” and then the abrasively throbbing and minimalist “Cream Crackered.” Things just keep going that way: as soon as you think you’ve got a handle on what this album’s going to sound like, your expectations are upended. Some will find this exciting, others exhausting, and still others (like me) some combination of the two.


A Certain Ratio
acr:set (compilation)
Mute
CDMUTEL28

Bands like Gang of Four and Delta 5 emerged from the rubble of punk rock at the turn of the 1980s with a fresh take on the jagged aggressiveness of punk’s full-throttle aggro attack: danceability. The spare arrangements and off-kilter funk of those bands’ tunes caught a lot of people’s attention and spawned a generation of imitators. But for some reason A Certain Ratio never achieved quite as much penetration as (especially) Gang of Four did, possibly because they didn’t have quite the same knack for rhythmic or lyrical hooks. Maybe they’d have had more success if their singer didn’t sound like Ian Curtis at the bottom of an abandoned mineshaft. But as this career retrospective collection (which prominently features extended and 12″ single mixes) demonstrates, they were definitely good at generating solid, herky-jerk grooves, and given that we still seem to be in the midst of an ongoing postpunk revival, maybe this release will arouse the interest of a new generation. As someone who graduated from high school in 1983, I have to say that I find it tons of good nostalgic fun myself.


Flag of Democracy
No School, No Core
SRA (dist. MVD)
SRA045CD

If you need something to clear your sinuses, then Flag of Democracy are here for you. Active on the punk scene since 1982, this is their ninth album, and it it reflects a refreshing lack of musical development: 20 songs hurtle by over the course of 31 minutes, all of them rooted deeply in the old-school hardcore verities: supersonic speed and lots of shouting. You’ll hear the occasional hint of a Jello Biafra warble in the vocals and the occasional touch of Bob Mould complexity in the guitars, but mostly this is just good, old-fashioned, bludgeoning hardcore. Best song title: “Believe in Love.”


Paul Kelly
Nature
Cooking Vinyl
LC:7180

Here’s what struck me about the new Paul Kelly album: it opens with a joyful, jangle-pop setting of Dylan Thomas’s heavy and magisterial poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” and then segues directly into a dark and minor-key number called “With the One I Love,” about sticking with your partner no matter what. These are the kinds of balances it’s possible to strike when you’re a consummate pro, which is what Paull Kelly has been for decades. He’s one of those guys that the critics call “a songwriter’s songwriter,” and if his voice has gotten a bit thinner and weedier since he turned 60, he still has plenty of power and his lyrics are sharp enough that the weight of his voice is less important. Lyrically speaking, he draws on other heavyweights as well: in addition to Dylan Thomas, other poets set to music on this album include Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. That’s another thing you can get away with when you’re a consummate pro.


Belle Game
Fear/Nothing
Arts & Crafts
A&C134
Rick’s Pick

With a lot of dream-pop acts, the voice is basically used like a synthesizer–it may be singing words, but it’s often there primarily for the purpose of carrying melody rather than syntactic meaning. Also with a lot of dream-pop acts, there’s no muscle in the sound, just gauziness and mystery and maybe sweetness. Belle Plain bucks both of those tendencies: Andrea Lo sings words that you can understand and it’s clear that you’re supposed to, and the band’s sound has density as well as volume. So why does it sound like dream-pop? Um. I guess because it’s super pretty? Also there’s a lot of reverb. Anyway, doesn’t matter. Great band, great album.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Amira Medunjanin & TrondheimSolistene
Ascending
Town Hill Colony
THC001

Amira Medunjanin is a singer from Bosnia and Herzogovina who has been working in the sevdah tradition for the past 15 years or so. For her eighth album, she has teamed up with the renowned Norwegian ensemble TrondheimSolisten on a program that is partly a look back over her career, and partly a look forward. It includes new arrangements of several songs she has recorded before, a handful of songs that she has regularly performed but never recorded, and four songs that are new to her repertoire. The chamber-orchestral arrangements are modest and tight, but filled with controlled emotion, as is her singing. You’ll hear lots of crooked Balkan rhythms and keening modal melodies, but also some very quiet and reflective moments, and all of it is very lovely.


Kitka
Evening Star
Diaphonica
CD 2018

For a somewhat different take on Balkan vocal tradition, here’s the latest from the outstanding Bay Area women’s vocal ensemble Kitka. Evening Star is a collection of choral songs from the folk traditions of Bulgaria, Ukraine, Latvia, Serbia, and other Balkan and nearby regions, all of them organized around the idea of wintertime and its communal activities, pleasure, and challenges. Unless you’re more fluent in Georgian or Serbian than I am you may have trouble sussing out the lyrical themes here, but what you won’t have trouble doing is enjoying the tight and reedy harmonies, the sharp, clear voices, or the joyful complex rhythms. Like all of Kitka’s albums, this one should be considered essential for all libraries collecting in world or European traditional music.


Johnny Clarke
Creation Rebel (2 discs)
VP/17 North Parade
VP4220
Rick’s Pick

In the 1970s, Johnny Clarke was one of the most reliable hitmakers in Jamaica. He teamed up with producer Bunny Lee (whose unique “flying cymbals” sound was in the ascendant) to create indelible and very dread tracks like “Move Out of Babylon Rastaman” and “None Shall Escape the Judgement,” and while he stopped ruling the charts in the 1980s, his voice will still be familiar to anyone who has spent a lot of time listening to classic King Tubby dub mixes from the period. It’s always been a mystery to me why Clarke’s popularity hasn’t been more enduring; he has one of the sweetest tenor voices in the history of reggae music. There are lots of great compilations of his work out there, but this is one of the best and most carefully curated collections I’ve heard in a long time. It’s sweetened by the inclusion of several 12″ discomixes, on which the original vocal version of a song is appended seamlessly by a dub version. Recommended to all libraries.


Deva Premal
Deva
White Swan (dist. MVD)
WS-0185

Over the past 20 years, Deva Premal has emerged as one of the foremost (and certainly most popular) musical interpreters of Hindu and Buddhist mantras and a very popular recording artist–both as a soloist and with her partner Miten. Her latest album is bookended by two different mixes of her original setting of the “Seven Chakra Gayatri Mantra,” and also features devotional songs that celebrate the divine feminine, the love of Krishna and Radha, the presence of the Buddha, and invocations of Prabhuji and Ganesha. All of them are (as one would expect) deeply quiet and contemplative, with minimal instrumental accompaniment but rich harmonization. If you are one of the many people (myself included) who have a natural disinclination towards any music that can reasonably be characterized as “new age,” I would strongly recommend giving this album a listen.

November 2018


PICK OF THE MONTH


Champian Fulton
The Stylings of Champian (2 discs)
Champian Records
CR002

I think I’ve finally put my finger on what it is that I find so entrancing about Champian Fulton’s artistry: it’s how she manages, against all odds, to be so many things at once. Her vocal style is a unique amalgamation of the straight-ahead and the experimental, alternately declamatory and lyrical, off-beat and swinging, devoted to the song itself and determined to express her uniqueness–imagine listening simultaneously to Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone singing the same song, and you’ll get a general idea of what I’m talking about. There are very few singers who can make hoary standards like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “Body and Soul” entirely their own, and she is one of them. But then there’s her piano playing, which is every bit as playfully inventive and rhythmically surprising as her singing, while at the same time swinging so powerfully that it’s hard to sit still while listening. On her latest album she leads a brilliant trio that includes bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer Fukushi Tainaka, with her father Stephen on flugelhorn for several tracks as well. The program is all standards, with a focus on tunes by Oscar Peterson and Cedar Walton, and there’s not a weak track to be heard. Yet again, she delivers an essential purchase for all jazz collections.


CLASSICAL


Johann Sebastian Bach & Various Composers
Goldberg 1.5 (digital only)
Kondens
Footprint (dist. Naxos)
FR 097

Bach’s Goldberg Variations remains not only one of that composer’s most revered works, but also a fundamental pillar of the baroque edifice and one of the deepest and most thorough expressions ever realized of the concept of a theme with variations. It’s a work that has served as a touchstone for countless keyboard players over the centuries, but has also lent itself to other instrumental interpretations. This album offers a radically different approach to the music: the aria and five of its variations are presented here by Kondens, a duo consisting of recorder player My Eklund and organist Lisa Oscarsson, alongside modern interpretations of (or, perhaps more accurately, responses to) those variations composed by Lisa Ullén, Mattias Petersson, Ida Lundén, Jas Sanström, and Daniel Hjorth. The modern pieces are sometimes abstract and challenging, and sometimes more direct and accessible, but all are fascinating, and the playing of Eklund and Oscarsson is consistently excellent.


Various Composers
Gottschalk and Cuba
Antonio Iturrioz
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
30102
Rick’s Pick

W.A. Mozart; L. Van Beethoven; J. Harbison
Beethoven, Mozart, Harbison
David Deveau; Borromeo String Quartet; Jessica Bodner; Thomas van Dyck
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
30099

The only thing uniting these two albums is that both are piano recordings on the Steinway & Sons label, a brilliant marketing tool on the part of the famous piano manufacturer: not only do its recordings feature world-class performances by great pianists, but they also act as advertisements for the pianos being played. Anyway, the first album is a thoughtful and lovely program focusing on the underrated American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who was raised in New Orleans and spent several years in Cuba. Gottschalk and Cuba influenced each other mutually, and this album features works both by Gottschalk and by Cuban composers whom he influenced; several of these pieces are presented here in world-premiere recordings. This disc should be of particular interest to academic collections. The second disc juxtaposes chamber arrangements of orchestral works by Beethoven (his fourth piano concerto) and Mozart (his 14th concerto and his c-minor Fantasia), with, interestingly enough, a brief John Harbison piece. (Harbison also wrote the cadenzas for the Beethoven concerto.) This one also is of significant academic–and aesthetic!–interest. Great playing all around, and beautifully recorded in a warm, dry acoustic.


Maurice Ravel; Joseph Haydn; Igor Stravinsky
Haydn, Ravel, Stravinsky
Tesla Quartet
Orchid Classics (dist. Naxos)
ORC100085

Ravel, Haydn, and Stravinsky are not necessarily the most obvious composers to pull together for a string quartet program, but give this album a listen: it works really well. Apart from the fact that Ravel’s music constantly looked back over its shoulder to the classical era (and therefore really does juxtapose nicely with Haydn’s mature opus 54 quartet), there’s also simply the fact that Ravel and Haydn were both quartet composers of unusual genius–making it all the more regrettable that Ravel only wrote a single work in that format, and leading Tesla Quartet leader Ross Snyder to seek out several of the composer’s piano works to arrange for his group. This collection is augmented by Stravinsky’s brief and angular Concertino for String Quartet, creating a richly varied and thoroughly exciting album. The playing is magnificent.


Johannes Brahms; Toru Takemitsu; Ludwig Van Beethoven
Brahms, Takemitsu, Beethoven
Trio Isimsiz
Rubicon Classics
RCD1013

Here’s another interesting chamber-music lineup, this one by a piano trio: the program begins with the third piano trio of Brahms, followed by Toru Takemitsu’s Between Tides, and then Beethoven’s fifth trio (“Ghost”). The juxtapositions are very interesting: the journey from Brahms’ fiery, intense work (the last piano trio in his oeuvre) to Takemitsu’s deeply impressionistic, almost abstract one, and then to Beethoven’s explosive “Ghost” trio constitutes what ends up feeling like a world tour of emotion. Trio Isimsiz play with all the fire and panache one could ask for, and deliver a powerful listening experience.


Jean-Philippe Rameau
Pygmalion
Les Talens Lyriques; Arnold Schoenberg Choir / Christophe Rousset
Aparte Music (dist. PIAS)
AP155
Rick’s Pick

On this disc, Rameau’s wonderful one-act opera-ballet Pygmalion is paired with his orchestral suite Les fêtes de Polymnie to create a wonderfully satisfying program of French baroque stage music. For those unfamiliar with the form, an opéra-ballet is exactly what it sounds like: a theater work that combines the explicit narrative and through-composed vocal elements of opera with choreographed dance passages, sort of like an early stage musical, but without any spoken dialogue. The problem with an audio recording in this case is, of course, that you can’t see the dancers during those passages–but it’s a small price to pay when the music is this much fun. And both the soloists and the chorus are brilliant on this recording, as are Les Talens Lyriques on the instrumental passages. I really can’t recommend this one strongly enough.


Morton Feldman
For John Cage
Erik Carlson; Aleck Karis
Bridge (dist. Albany)
9498

Morton Feldman wrote a handful of compositions dedicated to other 20th-century artists, authors, and composers. It should come as no surprise that the one he wrote in honor of John Cage is austere, and filled with long reverberations and even silences. One of the things that makes this particular piece so interesting is that although it’s written for piano and violin, it is by no means a violin sonata or anything like it; instead, the two instruments are equal melodic partners (the piano part limited almost entirely to one stave and, during long passages, to individual notes without chords), often playing very similar parts. The tempo is consistently slow, at times nearly sodden; there is lots of repetition; the piece is over an hour long. So is it for everyone? No way. Is it an “important” piece? Certainly yes. How is the playing by violinist Erik Carlson and pianist Aleck Karis? Excellent.


Various Composers
Melancholia: Madrigals and Motets around 1600
Les cris de Paris / Geoffroy Jordain
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 902298

The “madrigals and motets” program has been a popular one for early-music releases for decades now, and I’ve never really understood why; the two forms seem so very different to me–which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be juxtaposed, of course; it just makes me wonder why this particular juxtaposition is so prevalent. In the case of this particular, very lovely program, there are two major uniting factors: first the theme of melancholy, and second the fact that all of these works are examples of musica reservata, a style of composition characterized by an unusual (for the time) complexity of harmony and dissonance. The most (in)famous exponent of this style is probably Carlo Gesualdo, whose vocal writing still sounds avant-garde today and who is represented by several selections here–but composers like William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, and Luca Marenzio were experimenting in this direction as well. It takes a particular level of vocal skill to sing these pieces convincingly, and Les cris de Paris do a magnificent job here–and are recorded in a perfectly warm but spacious acoustic.


Sarah Davachi
Gave in Rest
Ba Da Bing (dist. Revolver)
BING 137

For a very different take on early music, consider the latest from composer and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Davachi. On this collection of original compositions she plays flute, mellotron, organ, piano, and synthesizer, and sings–and the album is billed as “a modern reading of early music, reforming sacred and secular sentiments to fit her purview.” What you hear at first is nothing but a series of drones, but keep listening and the music unfolds like a blossoming flower: the drones pile up in consonant layers, sometimes wavering in pitch and sometimes fading in and out. Bottom line: this isn’t necessarily a great pick for actual early-music collections, but would make an outstanding addition to any library with a collecting interest in experimental or avant-garde music (or minimalism).


JAZZ


Sungjae Son
Near East Quartet
ECM
2568

Reedman and composer Sungjae Son leads (as one might expect from the title) a quartet on this album, one that features guitarist Suwuk Chung, vocalist/percussionist Yulhee Kim, and drummer Soojin Suh (with guest percussionist Sori Choi on one track). That’s an unusual instrumental lineup and as one might expect, the music is strange and inventive. Son’s compositions are impressionistic but never really abstract; they draw explicitly on elements of Korea’s gugak and pansori traditions, but also keep one foot in the melodic and instrumental textures of jazz. Drummer Suh is one of the most interesting and original players in this group, with a style that tends to create washes of pointillistic sound rather than generate a groove, and it works perfectly. This is a very impressive debut from a group of major young talents.


Fred Hersch Trio
Fred Hersch Trio ’97 @ The Village Vanguard
Palmetto
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

Aficionados of living treasure Fred Hersch think of his mid-1990s trio with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey as one of the best he’s led, and his 1993 and 1994 studio recordings with them are among his finest. But this is the only live recording to have surfaced of that group, and it’s significant in another way as well: it documents Hersch’s first performance at the legendary Village Vanguard as a leader (he had been playing there regularly as a sideman since 1979). It’s actually kind of startling to listen to this album and realize it was made 20 years ago–his style is just as simultaneously complex and accessible as it is today, and the level of communication with his trio (particularly with Gress, which strongly evokes the musical telepathy that existed between Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro) is exceptional. In other words, this is yet another completely essential Fred Hersch album, one that belongs in every library collection.


Gilad Hekselman
Ask for Chaos
Motéma Music
MTM0284

I don’t know how he feels about comparisons like this, but two tracks into his latest album I found myself thinking “Man, Gilad Hekselman would have sounded right at home on the ECM label around 1982.” Nor is that in any way a criticism: playing sometimes sharply and corrosively, sometimes gently and lyrically, everywhere Hekselman uses reverb to define a cathedral-sized sonic space and plays melodies that both surprise and delight. Interestingly, he performs with two different trio ensembles on this album: one (ZuperOctave) in a more prog/experimental/electronic vein, and the other (gHex Trio) in a more acoustic/straight-ahead style. But even at his most conventional, Hekselman is still making sounds and creating compositions that sound like nothing else you’ll hear in this decade–even if you’ll catch the occasional echo of John Abercrombie or Terje Rypdal from a long time ago. Highly recommended.


Oren Ambarchi & Jim O’Rourke (with U-Zhaan)
Hence (vinyl/digital only)
Editions Mego
EMEGO 249

Described by the label as “like a dream collaboration between David Behrman and Henry Kaiser,” the latest duo effort from keyboardist Jim O’Rourke and guitarist Oren Ambarchi also features contributions from tabla player U-Zhaan, and consists of two 20-minute-long expanses of abstraction. The music on both sides is quite glistening and pointillistic, with little that could be termed “harmonic movement” but plenty of shifting layers. At no point does the tabla lay down any real groove; instead, it pokes tiny holes in the shimmering clouds of sound generated by Ambarchi and O’Rourke. Those clouds consist of both vapor and ice crystals, with faint hints of overtone singing in the background and intimations of water dripping in a haunted cave. I guess you could call this ambient music, if the ambience you’re looking for is that of a cybernetic spelunking trip gone subtly but worryingly wrong. Great stuff.


Karl Strømme Quintet
Dynalyd
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
TUGCD1119

Trumpeter/composer/arranger Karl Strømme has a style that’s tough to pigeonhole: modern but not avant-garde, discursive but not undisciplined or indulgent. And his tone is really interesting: sometimes brightly burnished, sometimes smeary and abstract à la Jon Hassell, but always rich and pleasing. His quintet is a classic trumpet/tenor lineup (with a guitar where the piano would normally be), but the band never sounds classic or even typical; they go off in a variety of directions, often in time signatures that are substantially more complex than they sound at first listen, and following melodic lines that sometimes start off lyrically direct and then drift into a pleasingly quirky weirdness. Recommended.


Mark Masters Ensemble
Our Métier
Capri
74150-2
Rick’s Pick

Longtime readers of CD HotList will have recognized by now that I harbor a preference for jazz that is straight-ahead and swinging, with a peripheral (but real) interest in the abstract and impressionistic and a low tolerance for bombast and skronk-for-skronk’s-sake. Mark Masters has repeatedly caught and kept my attention by threading this needle, combining powerful swing with complex compositional structures and innovative arrangements. His latest is another triumph of compositional creativity and brilliant arranging, featuring a core sextet (including, among others, the great saxophonist Oliver Lake and the equally great drummer Andrew Cyrille) augmented by a shifting large ensemble that includes a big horn section, singer Anna Mjöll and vibraphonist Craig Fundyga. (Interestingly, Masters himself doesn’t play on the album.) The tunes often remind me of middle-period Charles Mingus–listen especially to the wonderfully light-footed jazz waltz “Ingvild’s Dance”–and his exploitation of instrumental color is just marvelous throughout. Highly recommended to all jazz collections.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Various Artists
Rough Guide to Scottish Folk
Rough Guides (dist. Redeye)
RGNET1368CD

I confess that whenever I encounter another entry in the Rough Guide series of recordings, I kind of roll my eyes a little bit. “Oh great,” I think to myself. “Another predigested collection of easy-listening entries in the [fill in the blank] genre for people who don’t really want to know much about it.” And virtually every time, I find myself eating my words. They’ve done it again with Rough Guide to Scottish Folk, which does an admirable job of surveying not just the surface but also some of the depths of the current Caledonian trad scene–not all of which is located in Scotland. Sure, you’ve got the obligatory Battlefield Band entry, and you’ve got a song that most people with even a glancing familiarity with the Scots repertoire will recognize (“Turn Ye to Me”), but you’ve also got an oustanding American singer, Kyle Carey, demonstrating the ancient art of puirt à beuil, you’ve got a tune from the Scots-Canadian diaspora (“Banks of Newfoundland”), and you’ve got your protest song (“Wire Burners”). All in all, a very fine overview that will probably offer some surprises even to the cognoscenti.


Rachael McShane & The Cartographers
When All Is Still
Topic (dist. Redeye)
TSCD596

Singer/cellist/violist/fiddler Rachael McShane made her name in the Britfolk scene as a founding member of Bellowhead, one of the most successful groups in that genre in recent years. Her second album as a solo artist finds her making thoughtful explorations of traditional songs and tunes, a few of which will likely be familiar to fans of the repertoire (“Barley and Rye,” “Two Sisters”), while others will come as a lovely surprise. My favorite is her arrangement of “Ploughman Lads,” the rhythm of which confused me slightly before I recognized it as a calypso beat. Nice one, Rachael! Her voice is lovely, and she has an outstanding core backing band in guitarist Matthew Ord and melodeon player Julian Sutton — with a few of her old Bellowhead colleagues joining in as well on several tunes. This would make a great addition to any folk collection.


JP Harris
Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing
Free Dirt
DIRT-CD-0090

A quick glance at the cover art and you might be forgiven for expecting this album to be some kind of gothic Southern death metal. (Except for the cute dogs, which are easy to miss.) But no: this is straight-up honky-tonk country-rock, written and performed by an eighth-grade dropout and runaway who considers himself “a carpenter who writes country songs.” JP Harris’ life story is stark enough to give him more than the usual level of authority when singing songs with titles like “Hard Road” and “Long Ways back,” but he never sounds in any way maudlin or self-pitying: the songs are tough and strong, even the ballads, and Harris’ voice is a deep, rich baritone supported by a crack team of sidepersons. Whether he’s rocking out or moaning quietly, JP Harris is consistently convincing and compelling.


Jim & Jesse McReynolds
The Old Dominion Masters (4 discs; reissue)
Pinecastle (dist. MVD)
PRC-9001

When this box arrived in the mail I thought “Dang, it looks familiar.” I checked the release date, and sure enough: this is a reissue of a collection that originally came to market 20 years ago — and that I actually reviewed in 1999 for the All-Music Guide. You can read that original review here; today I’ll just say that my four-and-a-half star AMG review stands: these are recordings made for the McReynolds’ own label in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when they were simultaneously pushing back against a music industry that wanted them to modernize their sound and creating genuine musical innovation on their own terms. Any library that collects bluegrass music should jump at the chance to take advantage of this box now that it’s available again.


ROCK/POP


Thomas Ragsdale
Honley Civic Archives, Vol. 1 (digital only EP)
Soundtracking the Void
STV001

For his latest album, Thomas Ragsdale used physical recording format to help dictate musical content. Using reel-to-reel tape machines through which he ran some of these musical passages multiple times, he incorporated both chance elements and what he called “machine luck” into the writing/producing process, ending up with a darkly contemplative set of tracks that draw on aural images of rural Yorkshire. “Draw on” is meant in an abstract sense–there are no Morris dance melodies or anything like that, just moods that are informed, however indirectly, by local horror stories and cultural traditions. The resulting music is eerie and quite lovely. (And for those who are deeply committed to format hipsterism, this digital-only release is accompanied by a strictly limited run of reel-to-reel tapes, each containing a piece of improvised music recorded exclusively onto that tape.)


Kode9 & Burial
Fabriclive 100
Fabric
200

All good things must come to an end, of course, and thus we have the 100th and final installment in the Fabric label’s often-brilliant series of Fabriclive DJ mixes. This one is a joint effort curated by celebrated London producers Kode9 and Burial, both of whom have contributed significantly over the past decade or so to the development of that city’s uniquely avant-garde and internationalist dance music scene. The program is willfully, not to say defiantly, eclectic, and shows how EDM, hip hop, gqom, grime, jungle, and even modern classical music can interact and overlap: across 39 continuously-mixed tracks you’ll hear overtone singer David Hykes rubbing up against Jungle Buddha, DJ Taye seguing into Jacob’s Optical Stairway, and Intense making way for Genecom, among many other strange and sometimes revelatory juxtapositions. Fans of Kode9 and Burial might be expecting something a bit darker and more abstract than what’s on offer here–it may be that the relatively sprightly and uptempo mood that pervades this mix is intended as a fond farewell to the series. But do bear in mind that “sprightly” and “uptempo” are relative terms here. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Reto A Ichi
The Lapse of the Exchange/Alone Moving Often
!K7 (dist. Redeye)
CD-K7-363

If you get a sense of déjà vu from this listing, there’s a reason for that: Reto A Ichi (the latest pseudonym of Scott Herren, better known as Prefuse 73) released The Lapse of the Exchange on LP a year ago, and it’s now available again, this time on CD and in tandem with his second release under that name, Alone Moving Often. Though he’s still widely considered one of the pioneers of glitch-hop, he’s gone far afield of that realm in recent years, often moving into deeper and more contemplative territory–not ambient music exactly (it’s too texturally varied and to frequently funky for that designation), but certainly experimental and arty. On both of these albums, which fit together very nicely as a unified statement, Herren draws on heavily manipulated found sounds, samples, composed keyboard sections, and (every so often) beats to create a quiet but intense sound palette that shifts steadily though not constantly. Well worth a listen.


Delia Derbyshire Appreciation Society
Wow and Flutter
Six Degrees
No cat. no.

And if what you want is pure, blissful electronic ambient music–the kind that soothes and uplifts without ever threatening to tip over into simpleminded New Age bathos–then a new album from the Delia Darbyshire Appreciation Society is always cause for celebration. Garry Hughes and Harvey Jones, who, between them, have worked with such artists as Björk, Sly & Robbie, Julian Cope, and Art of Noise, work as a duo to create unapologetically sweet and emotional instrumental ambient music that is also unapologetically British (Delia Darbyshire, you may recall, was the composer of the theme music for the original Dr Who TV show) and that harks back to electro-ambient heroes of the 1970s and 1980s like Tangerine Dream and Vangelis. Their latest album doesn’t quite live up to the standard set by their last (which I reviewed in these pages last year), but it’s very, very good. Patrons who checked out that one will definitely want to hear this one as well.


Less Bells
Solifuge
Kranky (dist. Forced Exposure/Revolver)
krank216

Here’s another one on the borderline-ambient tip: Less Bells is mainly Julie Carpenter, who writes all the music and plays most of the instruments, notably including violin and cello. Three of her confederates are credited with “mixing,” which might lead you (accurately, as it turns out) to expect a sound built heavily on texture and atmospherics. But Carpenter’s music doesn’t transform its component instrumental parts into unrecognizable washes or distortions: the violins, cellos, and keyboards are pretty consistently recognizable as such, and although everything is given varying levels of electronic tweaking, the result isn’t an undifferentiated cloud of pretty sound. Instead, the instruments are enveloped by attendant ambience and the harmonic structure moves, albeit slowly, in a variety of directions. All of it is exceptionally lovely.


Sieren
Fading Memory (EP, vinyl/digital only)
Apollo
AMB1810
Rick’s Pick

I don’t usually review EPs, and I rarely review vinyl/digital releases. But this latest five-track title from Sieren is just so freaking good that I feel it my obligation to bring it to your attention. Matthias Frick (a.k.a. Sieren) operates in what we’re apparently now calling the “post-bass” genre, which means off-kilter rhythms with microscopic textural detail, wicked deep basslines, and celestial chord washes floating over the top. It’s hard to find music that simultaneously supports contemplation and nudges you to the dancefloor, so we should be grateful for it whenever it appears. And as of this writing, you can snag the whole release on Amazon for $1.99.


Jimmy Somerville
For a Friend: The Best of Jimmy Somerville (2 discs)
Music Club (dist. MVD)
MCDLX100

To wrap up this month’s electronica-focused Rock/Pop coverage, let’s turn to something in a poppier vein: this collection of classic tracks from Jimmy Somerville, best known as the former lead singer for the Communards and Bronski Beat. His powerful, soaring falsetto voice, his penchant for politically sharp lyrics, and his post-disco rhythmic orientation combined to create a number of rather unlikely hits back in the 1980s: most listeners will probably recognize his version of the disco hit “I Feel Love,” the Bronski Beat hit “Smalltown Boy,” and perhaps the Communards cut “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” But Somerville had a number of hits as a solo artist as well, notably his version of “Comment te dire adieu?”. All of those are here and more, several of them in extended remixes, and this set makes a great introduction to several of the most influential synth pop acts–and one of the most unique voices–of the 80s and 90s.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Shashika Mooruth
Heart to Heart
Urja Music
HTH2018
Rick’s Pick

Indo-South African singer and composer Shashika Mooruth is one of the most exciting pop artists I’ve encountered in years. Although trained in the Hindustani classical tradition, she writes in a style that blends elements of classical, pop, kirtan, and Bollywood song to create something that sounds entirely new. Too often, classical/pop crossover or multi-genre fusions end up coming across as saccharine or superficial, but Mooruth’s songs manage instead simply to sound fully original while invoking lots of different stylistic touch-points, all of which are fully integrated into the music rather than feeling like ornamentation. And her voice is a thing of absolute wonder, simultaneously young and mature, supple and powerful.


Various Artists
Puffer’s Choice, Vol. 2
Scotch Bonnet
10
Rick’s Pick

Last year I heartily recommended the first volume in the Scotch Bonnet label’s Puffer’s Choice compilation series, and now the label is back with another absolute stunner of a collection. Leading off powerfully with a ponderously swinging remix of the late Bim Sherman’s “Lightning and Thunder,” the album then moves from strength to strength, with new tracks and remixes featuring the likes of Earl 16, Chief Rockas, Dreadsquad and Escape Roots. Throughout the program roots and early-dancehall vibes nestle cozily alongside elements of UK bass, dubstep, and soca, while the bass frequencies are consistently stomach-bumpingly powerful and the lyrical messages are strictly conscious. Highlights include Isha Bel’s “Locks Grow,” the aptly-titled “Space” by Dreadsquad, and a weirdly wonderful adaptation of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Earl 16 with Capital 1212. Strongly recommended.


Beres Hammond
Never Ending
VP/Harmony House
VP2584

It wouldn’t be right to say that Beres Hammond’s voice is ageless: at 63, he sounds like the elder statesman of reggae that he indisputably is. But he’s one of those singers whose voices just sound better and better as they get older. For one thing, his now-attenuated high range is no longer suited to the whiny melismas that have sometimes overburdened his work in the past; for another, his voice is just deeper and chestier now, and he still phrases his lovers rock tunes as masterfully as ever. The band on his latest album also consists of road-tested reggae veterans–Wire Lindo, Robbie Lyn, and Dean Fraser among them–and the grooves they generate are that perfect combination of tight and loose. This is an outstanding release from one of reggae music’s living treasures.

October 2018


PICK OF THE MONTH


Michael Price
Tender Symmetry
Erased Tapes (dist. Redeye)
ERATP112CD
Rick’s Pick

Michael Price is best known an Emmy Award-winning composer of music for television programs, but he also writes concert music and dance scores. This project was undertaken in collaboration with Britain’s National Trust, and consists of music performed and recorded in such historic locations as the ruins of Fountains Abbey and the Fan Bay bomb shelter (located inside the iconic chalk cliffs of Dover). As one might expect, the music–written for various combinations of orchestral strings and voices–is generally written to take advantage of warm, reverberant acoustics, and although much of it is gentle and quiet, there are moments of significant intensity and dissonance as well. Price’s writing for solo voice (note in particular the heartbreaking “Fan Bay”) is particularly attractive. For all libraries.


CLASSICAL


Various Composers
Secret Places
The Twiolins
Profil/Hänssler (dist. Naxos)
PH17002

The Twiolins is the cute name of a duo consisting of brother-and-sister violinists Marie-Luise and Christoph Dingler. Together they have become champions of what they call “progressive classical music,” which seems to mean modern art music that is relatively accessible, exciting, and tonal compared to other, more academic manifestations. They certainly play with great dynamism and stylistic range, and on their latest album they present thirteen brief works by contemporary composers from a variety of regions and traditions; all of these pieces were written for the Twiolins and are, in fact, winners of a competition the duo commissioned. The stylistic range is too great to do justice to in a brief review, but suffice it to say that the pieces are all well worth hearing and the playing is consistently thrilling.


Ólafur Arnalds
Re:Member
MercuryKX
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

Ólafur Arnalds is a genre-defying pianist, composer, and producer, whose latest album makes generous use of orchestral strings and electronic sound manipulation. (Honestly, I’m not entirely sure it belongs in the Classical section, but it certainly doesn’t belong in any of the others, so here we are.) On this album he employs an electro-acoustic musical system called Stratus, of which he is the co-inventor. It uses three pianos, two of which are self-playing but select notes in response to the ones he plays on the third piano–the result is semi-aleatory, but (on the evidence here) always consonant, and the piano parts are frequently augmented by various combinations of strings and sometimes by modest electronic beats. It’s hard to overstate how deeply, lusciously beautiful this music is.


Franz Joseph Haydn; Arnold Schoenberg
Transfigured Night
Alisa Weilerstein; Trondheim Soloists
Pentatone (dist. Naxos)
PTC 5186 717

What seems on the surface a frankly bizarre program–two cello concertos from the height of the classical period paired with a chamber work that famously uttered the one of the lasts gasp of European Romanticism before its composer turned away from tonality and towards serialism–is, of course, in reality simply a celebration of Vienna, an unbelievably varied and fecund city that probably gave birth to more world-changing music per square block than any other in Europe. Does that mean that the transition from Haydn’s foursquare classical architecture to Schoenberg’s aggressive post-Romantic abstraction isn’t jarring? Well, no. But the contrast is bracing, and cellist Alisa Weilerstein is a marvel. Highly recommended.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Josef Myslivicek
Flute Concertos
Ana de la Vega; English Chamber Orchestra / Stephanie Gonley
Pentatone (dist. Naxos)
PTC 5186 723

Mozart’s flute concertos are so familiar by now that just about any fan of music from the high classical period can sing along with them (or at least with the fast movements). But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with recording them again–and when they’re paired with a concerto by the unjustly neglected Bohemian composer Josef Myslivicek (of whom Mozart himself was a great fan and ardent supporter), then there’s even more reason to pay attention. Ana de la Vega plays with infectious joy and is beautifully accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra, all on modern instruments.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Ludwig Van Beethoven
Quintets for Piano and Winds
Ensemble Dialoghi
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 905296
Rick’s Pick

I can’t resist putting forward another Mozart pairing this month. This one brings together period-instrument recordings of wind-and-piano quintets by Mozart–genius midwife of the classical-to-Romantic transition–and Beethoven, who brought that transition to full flower. One strong reason to recommend this luminous recording is the horn playing Pierre-Antoine Tremblay; very few players of the fiendishly difficult natural horn are able to do so with such a sweet, burnished tone, and his playing is a joy to hear throughout this recording. Everyone else’s playing is great too, and the juxtaposition of these two works (Beethoven’s from his youth and apparently modeled on Mozart’s) is as instructive as it always is. Great music, beautifully recorded and sumptuously played.


Antonio Vivaldi
Vivaldi x2: Double Concertos for Horns, Oboes, Violin & Cello, Oboe & Bassoon
La Serenissima / Adrian Chandler
Avie
AV2392

Here’s the thing about Vivaldi’s concertos: listening to them is kind of like looking at the stars in the night sky: definitely a pleasurable and impressive experience, but there’s not always a lot of obvious difference between them. So this program of double concertos offers the twin benefits of lovely music beautifully played and an unusual instrumental format. The key to getting people interested in Vivaldi is energy: if you can’t play his music with real vim and fire, no one is going to want to listen. And despite their group name, the La Serenissima ensemble does just that, delivering these works not only with rigor and accuracy but also with audible joy. The last piece on the program is a large-scale multi-instrument concerto that features all of the soloists in one thrilling finale. Recommended to all classical collections.


Sébastien de Brossard; Pierre Bouteiller
Les maîtres du motet
Les Arts Florissants / Paul Agnew
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HAF 8905300
Rick’s Pick

Here we have a selection of grand works by very obscure 17th-century French composers, one of whom (Brossard) was also a keen collector of music by others. Brossard’s own setting of the Stabat Mater text is marvelous, and stands up nicely next to the centerpiece of this program, which is Bouteiller’s magisterial Requiem Mass. The latter work is characterized by particularly sophisticated use of counterpoint and canonic techniques, and is performed with utter perfection by Les Arts Florissants. This disc is a classic example of one that provides as much sheer aesthetic enjoyment as it does academic interest, and it is strongly recommended to all classical collections.


Various Composers
More Field Recordings (2 discs)
Bang on a Can All-Stars
Cantaloupe (dist. Naxos)
CA21136
Rick’s Pick

Field recordings–whether of environmental sounds or of music made in public spaces–have informed classical music ever since Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály went into the Hungarian countryside to record folk musicians and used those recordings as thematic sources for their compositions. Later on, Edgard Varèse would incorporate the sounds of industry and urban life directly into his own musique concrète, and later still Steve Reich would derive musical melodies from the pitches of spoken language, transcribing those melodies and having instruments play them against the original recordings. In the spirit of this now-longstanding tradition, the Bang on a Can All-Stars commissioned a series of work by contemporary composers, all of which were to be based on (or in some way interact with) field recordings of one kind or another. This is the second collection to result from that commissioning project, and it’s absolutely fascinating: from the charming piece that incorporates women talking about their quilting projects (Caroline Shaw’s Really Craft When You) to the Middle Eastern modalities of Glenn Kotche’s Time Spirals, there is great stylistic diversity here–and in many cases it’s difficult or impossible to tell where the field recordings end and the composed music begins, which is kind of a fascinating effect in its own right. Highly recommended to all libraries.


JAZZ


Tord Gustavsen Trio
The Other Side
ECM
2608
Rick’s Pick

Pianist/composer Tord Gustavsen has been releasing albums on the ECM label for fifteen years now. His earliest work was in the trio format, and later he experimented with other group configurations; now he’s back in a trio setting, and showing off how far he’s come as both a composer and an arranger. Fascinatingly, some of these melodies are actually taken from church chorales he learned during his youth in Norway, and some are old Nordic folk tunes. At times the results can be quite rhythmically abstract (notice in particular the ethereally floating intro to “Duality”) while other tunes swing gently but firmly. In all cases, the piano, bass, and drums function almost like a single musical unit; the bass hardly ever walks, and the drums rarely provide a pulse, and yet the band is always perfectly rhythmically coherent. And Gustavsen’s lines are simultaneously free and deeply lyrical. It’s like magic, honestly. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Andrea Brachfeld
If Not Now, When?
Jazzheads
JH1229

Flutist/composer Andrea Brachfeld comes out of the gate at a full sprint on her new album, with “The Listening Song,” a fast, harmonically complex, melodically wild tour de force that finds her taking turns with pianist Bill O’Connell to create head-spinning variations on a theme that was knotty enough to begin with. Then comes “Steppin’,” which evokes Thelonious Monk in its craggy syncopations and melodic twists, and which is taken at a similarly headlong tempo. And even when things slow down with the third track, the music remains complex and challenging, and it stays that way throughout the album. Which is not to say that it’s “out,” really–the quartet swings like nobody’s business and the harmonies are all conventional and tonal. It’s just to say that it’s complex and challenging–and exhilarating and deeply impressive and, to be honest, a bit exhausting.


Doug Webb
Fast Friends
Posi-Tone
PR8187
Rick’s Pick

Tenor saxophonist Doug Webb is back for his eighth release as a leader on the Posi-Tone label, a solid winner of a set on which he plays a variety of standards and originals at the head of a quintet that also features the brilliant trombonist Michael Dease, pianist Mitchel Forman, bassist Chris Colangelo, and drummer Roy McCurdy. In addition to bebop standbys like “Ah-Leu-Cha” and “Night in Tunisia” (the latter in an arrangement that, against all odds, actually sheds new and fresh light on that moldiest of bop chestnuts), there are also Webb’s lovely tribute to John Coltrane (“Last Trane to Georgia”), a gorgeous account of Lee Konitz’s Latin-flavored “Dream Stepper,” and a sweet and gentle rendition of the Jules Styne classic “The Things We Did Last Summer.” It’s hard to pick out highlights, though, as the album is so consistently first-rate. For all jazz collections.


Brad Whiteley
Presence
Destiny
DR-0017

Brad Whiteley is a young composer, pianist and organist (sticking with piano on this date) with a taste for tough, sinuous tunes with a powerful melodic core. On his sophomore effort he leads a piano-bass-drums-sax-guitar quintet that manages to stay tightly together throughout a widely varied set of compositions, from the contemplative midtempo meanderings of “Everything Changes” and “Presence” to the sassy strut of “Sunset Park” and the disconcerting 9/4 groove of “Demagogue.” It’s quite unusual for jazz this interesting and original to also be so instantly accessible and enjoyable.


Ayn Inserto Jazz Orchestra
Down a Rabbit Hole
Summit
DCD 732
Ricks’ Pick

Ayn Inserto is a breathtakingly gifted composer and big-band arranger, and her taste for big and luscious arrangements with a hard, crunchy center is beautifully on display with this album. Inserto established this group in 2001 and has since worked hard to cultivate a feeling of connection and intimacy within it, the fruits of which are clear: they play like a single organism, the brass blending creamily and the rhythm section pulsing as if it shares a heart. She draws deeply on jazz traditions (listen to the Ellingtonian intro to “Mister and Dudley”) but expands on them both subtly and assertively, and on the aptly-titled “Rabbit Hole” she creates a musical cyclone of phased repetitions and complex rhythms that are positively thrilling. No library with a jazz collection should pass this one up.


Count Basie Orchestra
All About That Basie
Concord Jazz
CJA00109

Question: 34 years after his death, is there still really a “Count Basie Orchestra” in any meaningful sense? Answer: Sure, why not? Especially when it’s a repertory group that focuses on Basie’s music and his arrangements. The latest from this group showcases not only the (predictably) world-class chops of the band, but also a fun array of guests that includes vocal ensemble Take 6, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, organist Joey DeFrancesco, and even Stevie Wonder (playing harmonica on a nice arrangement of his “My Cherie Amour”). There’s also an arrangement of “Tequila” and one of my least favorite song of all time, the unfortunately ubiquitous “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. All of this brings us back to the first question: given that the majority of the tunes on this particular album aren’t from the Basie book, in what sense is this the Count Basie Orchestra? And the answer remains the same: because why not? Man, they sound good.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles
Love’s Middle Name
Blue Corn Music
BCM1805

I’m putting this one in the Folk/Country section because, if you’ve been following her career up to now, that’s where you’ll expect to see mention of Sarah Borges’ latest album. But the fact is that Love’s Middle Name bears a similar relation to country music as the early work of X did: it draws on the traditions but stomps them lovingly into the ground. “House on a Hill” is downright punky (and not cowpunky either), and it takes two more tracks before you hear an acoustic guitar or a cowgirl vocal hiccup. But then you hear some more, and eventually you stop caring much about genre boundaries and you just give yourself up to the crunchy joy of Borges’ songs. For all libraries.


Buck Owens
Country Singer’s Prayer
Omnivore
OVCD-298

1975 was not a banner year for country music. For one thing, there was an awful lot of schlocky stuff on the market. For another, it marked Buck Owens’ final record for the Capitol label before he switched to Warner and made two not-very-successful albums and then effectively retired. The single (the album’s title track) didn’t even chart, so the album actually got shelved and is now being released for the first time, with two bonus tracks. How is it? Not great, frankly, but not bad. Owens’ version of “Battle of New Orleans” is slightly embarrassing–that jaw harp, oy–but the rest of it is good in the way that Buck Owens albums were always good: sharply written songs sung with deceptively effortless-sounding skill. Also, this album marks the final recordings of Owens’ genius sideman Don Rich, who was killed in a motorcycle accident during the sessions. All in all, this album has historical significance that, for libraries, will outweigh its somewhat more modest musical quality.


Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard
Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes, 1965-1969
Free Dirt
DIRT-CD-0087

Well, this one starts off with a bang: you hear a familiar driving chord progression played on an autoharp, and before you can sort through the musical disorientation the voices come in, and you realize that Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard are singing the Everly Brothers’ hit “Bye Bye Love.” What’s going on? Well, the two titans of the 1960s folk scene had been running into each other at jam sessions in the DC area and recognized a kinship, and soon were recording albums together. But they also taped their practice sessions at home, and some of those are preserved here and released for the first time. They are definitely rehearsals: there are false starts and snippets of discussion, and the sound quality ranges from crappy to so-so. But the singing is exactly what you’d expect from this powerhouse duo, and the songs are a great mix of gospel, blues, folk, bluegrass, and (yes) pop material. For all folk collections.


David Benedict
The Golden Angle
Shelton
DSB149
Rick’s Pick

When I was a teenager, they called this New Acoustic Music, and it changed my life. I remember running to the Harvard Coop after school so I could ask David Grisman and Darol Anger and Mike Marshall to autograph my orange nylon backpack (yes, I was one of the cool kids), and I listened to Tony Rice’s debut solo album until I could practically sing along with every solo. NAM has never really died, but mandolinist/composer David Benedict is now taking it into the 21st century–not by means of technology or wild experimentation, but simply by writing and performing music that takes the same formula (which can be summarized as “bluegrass instrumentation, jazz application”) and pulls it into deeper melodic and harmonic waters. The changes are jazzier, the tunes draw on more non-country influences, and the playing is maybe even a bit more virtuosic (check out Wes Corbett’s neo-Reno banjo solo on “Dorrigo,” for example, and the crooked time signatures on “8 Is My Favorite Color”). Benedict is a technically brilliant player, but he never just shows off. Every tune is an original composition and every one is worth hearing on its own, apart from the genius solos that are played everywhere. Strongly recommended to all libraries.


ROCK/POP


Mount Shrine
Winter Restlessness
Cryo Chamber
CRYO 099

Atrium Carceri
Codex
Cryo Chamber
CRYO 100

There’s ambient music, and then there’s dark ambient music, and then there’s “cinematic dark ambient music.” The latter is the stock in trade of the very fine Cryo Chamber label, and its two most recent releases are outstanding examples of the genre. Atrium Carceri’s latest is particularly dark: chords and even occasional (very slow) beats cut through dense clouds of sound that sometimes evoke wind in deep caves and sometimes bring to mind the warning growls of planet-sized beasts of prey. Mount Shrine’s album is interesting in that it’s somewhat misleadingly titled. Although its moods are dark, the music is also quite warm and much less foreboding than that of Atrium Carceri. Mount Shrine also makes use of a somewhat more varied textural palette–notice, for example, the juxtaposition of floating chords and drones with tiny, glitchy accents on the album’s title track. Both of these albums are well worth considering for your library’s collection of electronic music.


Mount Kimbie
DJ-Kicks
!K7 (dist. Redeye)
K7364CD

For those not familiar with Mount Kimbie, they are Kai Campos and Dominic Maker, who, over the past ten years, have been making original music that draws on dubstep, garage, electronica, and ambient styles to create a unique hybrid of electronic dance music that is maybe not quite so much about dancing as about listening. For their entry in the longstanding DJ-Kicks mix series, they focus more on the body than the mind, though, offering a continuous mix of pulsing midtempo house and techno numbers by artists like Severed Heads, Stanislav Tokachev, Taz & Meeks, and Watching Airplanes–with a handful of original tracks thrown in for good measure. These aren’t exactly club bangers, though: even the most beat-driven tunes are quite atmospheric and moody. It’s all really cool, and I say that as someone who doesn’t much care for house and techno generally.


Dead Can Dance
Dionysus
P.I.A.S.
3922565

Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Parry are back, nearly 40 years after first forming Dead Can Dance and inducing a collective swoon within what was then a nascent international Goth community. Unlike many of their colleagues, Dead Can Dance had a thing for medieval music, and in fact learned how to play a number of ancient instruments in order to indulge that fascination. The results were sometimes a bit pretentious, but frequently wonderful. This new album is outstanding (though, at 36 minutes, somewhat on the short side for a full-price release). On Dionysus the early-music influences are fully digested and the resulting music is both familiar-sounding and deeply original: a two-part, seven-theme program that draws on themes of ancient spring and harvest festivals and the continuity of their influences throughout time. But if you want, you can just luxuriate in the strange and wonderful music. Recommended to all library pop collections.


Richard Thompson
13 Rivers
New West (dist. Redeye)
NW6446

One of the things that’s amazing about Richard Thompson is that as he approaches age 70, his voice doesn’t sound noticeably different from the way it did when he was 30. Also amazing is that his guitar playing continues to be not only technically astounding, but also completely sui generis–there are maybe three guitarists in the world as immediately recognizable as Thompson. On his latest album he strips things down to the bare bones: him, a rhythm guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer. He chose to record in analog, and the sound is dry and close, the songs tense, and the guitar solos are among the strongest he’s ever recorded–just listen to “The Rattle Within” and “Her Love Was Meant for Me,” yeesh. At the same time, some of these songs are unusually complex: consider the structure of “Trying.” Anyway, this is all just a way of saying “here’s another in a jaw-droppingly long string of brilliant Richard Thompson albums.”


WORLD/ETHNIC


Out of Nations
Quest
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
TUGCD1115

Out of Nations is a Berlin-based band led by reed player Lety ElNaggar, whose vision is of “a future world where people take each other as humans before they see each other as members of a certain nation.” Accordingly, the music she and her bandmates make draws on a variety of European, Middle Eastern, Latin, and American traditions, sometimes focusing on one more closely (note the keening klezmerisms of “Feluka” and the straight-up jazz-rock fusion of “KurdMajor”) and sometimes blending all of them together. Everyone in this group is a virtuoso and the group’s playing is often thrilling; sometimes the politics gets a little heavy-handed (as on the spoken-word bits in “Out of Nations”), but the music is all well worth hearing.


International Observer
Free from the Dungeons of Dub
Dubmission (dist. MVD)
CDDUBM079
Rick’s Pick

To Those of a Certain Age (ahem), Tom Bailey is best known as the former co-leader of Thompson Twins, one of the most successful synth pop bands of the 1980s. Over the past 15 years or so he’s been operating under the name International Observer, indulging his love of dub and downtempo electronica with a series of albums characterized by lush, sweet soundscapes that feature occasional vocal samples, lots of reggae-based rhythms, and enormous sound fields filled with dubwise effects. It sounds like this is going to be his final release in this mode, and it consists of tracks previously released only in New Zealand, his home country (though it appears they were also internationally available via Bandcamp). All the familiar characteristics are here: a mix of rockers, one-drop, and steppers beats; the occasional infusion of a hammered dulcimer; an admirable ability to conjure hooks seemingly out of melodic thin air. Brilliant and entrancing, as always.


The Nextmen vs. Gentleman’s Dub Club
Pound for Pound
Pound for Pound (dist. Redeye)
P4PCD001

The artist format of this album is kind of hard to describe. The Nextmen are a production and remixing duo, but they also write original songs, and they operate in a variety of beat-based genres including reggae, hip hop, drum & bass, and soul. Gentleman’s Dub Club are a proper band, but on this collaborative album their chief vocalist steps aside to make room for guest singers and chatters like Kiko Bun, Gardna, Parly B, and (best of all) Hollie Cook. The result is an album that is built on a solid foundation of reggae rhythms but that explores hip hop, dancehall, lovers rock, and roots moods as well. The Nextmen’s involvement means that the production quality is always stellar: the grooves are deep and dark, but there’s lots of multicolored detail in the mix, and all the singers are presented in settings that show their skills off to maximum effect. Every track is a solid winner.


The Temple Rockers
Festival of Lights
Fresh Roots
FRR-001
Ricks’ Pick

Bassist David Gould first came to prominence as a founding member of the world-class American reggae band John Brown’s Body (and its offshoot, 10 Ft Ganja Plant). But for years now he’s been pursuing a somewhat lower-key personal project: the placement of traditional Jewish devotional song into a roots-reggae setting. His projects Adonai & I and Feast of the Passover (and their respective dubwise counterpart releases) found him starting that journey, and this latest effort represents its continuation with a new twist: the participation of roots-reggae founding fathers Linval Thompson, Wayne Jarrett, and Ansel Meditation. These singers gamely deliver songs in both English and Hebrew, adding their own Jamaican/Rastafarian twist (one that has always drawn deeply on Old Testament doctrine and imagery anyway). The word is that a dub version of this album will be released later in the year as well, and I can’t wait to hear it–the album is a monster, and should be snapped up by any library with a collecting interest in reggae, Jewish studies, or world music generally. [Update December 2018: Just out as a digital-only release is a magnificent and deeply dread dubwise version of this album. Titled Festival of Dub, it makes an outstanding companion to the regular version, and on several tracks leaves snippets of the original vocals in place–always the best recipe for a great dub mix. I just can’t stress enough how good David Gould is at this kind of thing. A must for all reggae collections.]

September 2018


PICK OF THE MONTH


Various Composers
Generation Harmonia Mundi, 1958-1988: The Age of Revolutions (16 discs)
Various Ensembles
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMX 2908904.19

Various Composers
Generation Harmonia Mundi, 1988-2018: The Family Spirit (18 discs)
Various Ensembles
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMX 2908920.37

Today it’s easy to forget how little attention the European and American classical-music establishments paid to baroque (let alone Renaissance and medieval) music in the early part of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the 1950s that composers of the baroque period began to be represented again on concert programs and LP recordings with any regularity–and the fact that they were is due, in significant part, to the work of a small French label called Harmonia Mundi. That label’s recordings of Alfred Deller reintroduced listeners–who were initially puzzled but eventually delighted–to the countertenor voice, and to the world of 17th-century song (notably the solo vocal music of Purcell) and opera. Then the floodgates opened: landmark recordings by Concerto Vocale, Les Arts Florissants, and the Clemencic Consort came in quick succession, as did period-instrument recordings of orchestral works by neglected composers like Michel-Richard de Lalande and Jacques Philidor. Harmonia Mundi would also eventually release pioneering period-instrument recordings of 19th-century works by Brahms and Fauré, eventually broadening its scope to include the whole panoply of European art music both ancient and modern. These two box sets celebrate the label’s rich history and offer a super-budget-priced overview of its work. Most of the featured works are presented in their entirety, which is always a big plus with survey recordings like this. From the very beginning Harmonia Mundi has been known for the sound quality of its releases, and for the magnificent talent it has been able to attract. Any library would benefit from owning these two boxes, but they will be particularly attractive to small collections with limited budgets for classical music.


CLASSICAL


Giulio Briccialdi
Flute Concertos
Ginevra Petrucci; I Virtuosi Italiani
Brilliant Clasics (dist. Naxos)
95767
Rick’s Pick

Though hardly known today, during his lifetime (1818-1881) Giulio Briccialdi was hailed as the “Paganini of the Flute” and served as a flute teacher to the Italian royal family. He also contributed directly to a number of important innovations in the mechanical design of the flute, some of which remain integral to the modern instrument. This disc is a remastered version of a recording originally made in 2008 (but never previously released, as far as I can determine); it represents the world-premiere recording of the only full concertos he ever wrote for flute and orchestra. The brilliant flutist Ginevra Petrucci is somewhat ill-served here by mic placement: it sounds as if she were recorded by a microphone at the back of a large and empty hall. But her playing (and that of I Virtuosi Italiani, on modern instruments) is lovely, and the music itself is both a revelation and a delight. For academic reasons alone, this album is a must-have for library collections.


Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Piano Concertos Vol. 5
Michael Rische; Berliner Barock Solisten
Hanssler Classic (dist. Naxos)
CD HC17034

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Cello Concertos; Symphony
Jean-Guihen Queyras; Ensemble Resonanz / Riccardo Minasi
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 902331

Here we have two modern-instrument accounts of orchestral music by C.P.E. Bach, the most celebrated of J.S. Bach’s many impressive musical offspring. The Harmonia Mundi album presents itself somewhat defensively, with text on the back cover asking “Why should music ‘before Mozart’ now be the sole preserve of period-instrument orchestras?”. (Why indeed? I’m not sure anyone believes it should be, but never mind.) But it does make the case for modern-instrument interpretations of this 18th-century music quite convincingly, with cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras a wonderfully dynamic presence and Ensemble Resonanz conveying the complexity and richness of the composer’s music with a perfect blend of warmth and sparkle. For those who do prefer period-instrument performance, the fifth volume in the Berliner Barock Solisten’s series of C.P.E. Bach’s piano concertos presents something of a compromise. Playing what they call “old but modernized instruments” (their accommodations for period practice mostly coming in the form of varying bows, depending on the repertoire), they are a smallish and self-conducted group who play standing up rather than seated. Michael Rische seems to be playing a modern piano on this outstanding recording. On this one the recorded sound is especially worth noting: it’s intimate and colorful, and the piano sounds particularly fine. Both discs are strongly recommended to classical collections.


Etienne Jaumet; Sonic Boom; Celinn Wadier
Infinite Music: A Tribute to La Monte Young
Fire (dist. Redeye)
FIRECD527

And speaking of modern instruments! For this project, three artists (saxophonist/singer Etienne Jaumet, synthesist Peter Kember [a.k.a. Sonic Boom], and singer/tanpura player Celinn Wadier) collaborated to craft a tribute to composer La Monte Young. Young was one of the first American composers to create music deeply informed by the various classical traditions of classical Indian music, notably the prominence of drones and the use of microtonic melodies and ornaments. By so doing he inspired a generation of modernist composers and pop musicians, and here a group of them return the favor by creating a sort of three-movement suite of droning, throbbing, shifting musical gestures built on a combination of acoustic instruments, analog synthesizers, and digital sound manipulation. If you want harmonic variety and meaningful chord progression, look elsewhere–but if you want an immersive sound experience that requires little of you beyond letting go of your conscious mind, this is definitely worth checking out.


Various Composers
Topping Tooters of the Town: Music of the London Waits 1580-1650
The City Musick / William Lyons
Avie (dist. Naxos)
AV2364
Rick’s Pick

At the turn of the 17th century in England, it was common for the larger cities to employ “waits”–municipal musicians–to provide musical accompaniment at civic occasions and celebrations; they were also frequently employed in the local theater, at dances, for private parties, and so forth. Unsurprisingly, the best of these groups was the one employed by the City of London, and top composers of the period wrote music specifically for them. This delightful collection brings together pavans, galliards, and even psalm settings (for vocalists as well as instrumental musicians) by the likes of Anthony Holborne, John Dowland, Thomas Morley, and John Playford. The instruments are all brass and winds: sackbut, cornett, shawm, dulcian, etc., but the vocal pieces are among the most lovely and moving on the program. A must for all classical collections.


W.A. Mozart; F. J. Haydn; L. Van Beethoven
Theme and Variations
Leslie Tung
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
MS 1683
Rick’s Pick

One of the most iconic forms of composition from the classical era is the theme with variations. Sometimes written formally and sometimes improvised in a live setting, this musical form involves taking a musical phrase–usually a relatively simple one–and creating a series of new musical ideas based upon it, often making them progressively more and more elaborate and complex. Three masters of the art are represented on this disc: first we have Mozart’s variations on “Unser dummer Pobel meint,” then Haydn’s variations on an original theme and Beethoven’s “Eroica” variations. All are performed on the fortepiano–a precursor of the modern pianoforte that was used commonly during the lifetime of these three composers–by the magnificant keyboardist Leslie Tung. The fortepiano’s relatively constricted tonal and dynamic range helps to keep the focus on the musical ideas themselves and Tung shows them off with an admirable sense of idiom and sensitivity. Highly recommended.


Michael Winter
lower limit
Various Performers
New World (dist. Albany)
80798-2

Mathematically-driven music has captured the imagination of composers since the early 20th century, but has never been notably successful at attracting the attention of listeners. This is largely, I think, because mathematical formulae can generate the kind of complexity that the human brain isn’t capable of parsing or even grasping at an auditory level. But it doesn’t have to be that way: formula-driven music can be both complex and accessible in the hands of a composer who is interested in communicating with people who aren’t fellow composers. Which brings us to this challenging but deeply beautiful recording of works by Michael Winter, who uses data sets and algorithms to create scores that are sometimes hypnotically repetitive and sometimes evolve steadily but slowly and in seemingly abstract ways. The performers play various combinations of guitar, virginal, and harp (sometimes, but not always, with electronic manipulation) and, helpfully, the liner notes include detailed explanation of how each composition works. (The album’s low point comes at the very end, with the unaccompanied version of the title work–a two-note composition in which the problem is over-simplicity rather than over-complexity.)


Various Composers
Fons Luminis: Codex Las Huelgas: Sacred Music from the 13th Century
Ensemble Gilles Binchois / Dominique Vellard
Evidence (dist. PIAS)
EVCD051

The manuscript known as Codex Las Huelgas, which contains 186 sacred and liturgical songs in a variety of styles for various combinations of voices, dates from the 1340s, though its content was already at least 100 years old when the extant copy was made. It was compiled for use by the nuns in the Las Huelgas Reales monastery, but the performances here by Ensemble Gilles Binchois reflect the fact that the nuns at Las Huelgas lived and worshipped alongside monks and male members of the monastery staff: thus, some of the pieces are sung by women, some by men, and some by a blended group. The program shifts back and forth between plainchant and two- and three-part harmony in an astringent ars nova style. The singing and the recorded sound are both marvelous throughout.


Various Composers
Maria! Maria!: 400 Years of Chant in the Birgittine Order
Ensemble Gemma
Sterling (dist. Naxos)
CDA 1828-2
Rick’s Pick

The Birgittine Order is the only female monastic order with origins in Scandinavia. Founded by Saint Birgitta in Rome in the 1350s, a Birgittine abbey opened 30 years later in Vadstena, Sweden. Under this monastic order monks and nuns lived separately in the same complex, and worshipped separately as well. This practice gave rise to a collection of liturgical plainchant known as cantus sororum (“chant of the sisters”), the only known liturgical chant repertoire compiled specifically for use by women; some pieces are Gregorian, but others exist only in this collection. The ones performed on this program have never been recorded before. Ensemble Gemma, a six-voice group, sings them with restrained luminosity in the acoustically lovely sanctuary of a church in Hemmesjö.


JAZZ


Tiffany Austin
Unbroken
Con Alma Music
CAM 002

Unbroken is an apt title for this eclectic collection of songs. They are drawn from a variety of sources: the standards repertoire (“You Must Believe in Spring”), the gospel tradition (“Aint No Grave Can Hold My Body Down”), the mid-20th-century blend of jazz and gospel music with defiant resistance (“Better Git It In Your Soul”), the Civil Rights songbook (“Someday We’ll All Be Free”), and others–including the creative mind of Austin herself. All convey a message celebrating the unbroken “African-American spirit,” and thus its diversity of styles is itself a demonstration and celebration of that spirit. Accompanied by a crack sextet of sidemen, including the great pianist Cyrus Chestnut, she delivers a rousing and inspiring set of songs that accomplish exactly what she set out to do.


Rob Dixon Trio
Coast to Crossroads
Self-released
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

If you like your jazz funky and greasy with a subtle underpinning of swinging refinement, then this is the album for you. Saxophonist/composer Rob Dixon has long straddled the (wide and fuzzy) line that separates straight-ahead jazz and funk, as have both of his supporters here: 7-string guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer Mike Clark. (They are also joined on several tracks by trombonist Ernest Stuart.) Hunter’s uniquely-designed guitar allows him to play basslines, chords, and melody simultaneously, just like a jazz organist, and he and Clark provide a variety of thick and sinuous grooves over which Dixon soars, honks, and/or growls as occasion requires. Surprises include arrangements of a Terence Trent D’Arby classic and of a Tupac Shakur song. Highly recommended to all jazz collections.


Jay T. Vonada
United
Summit
DCD 726

If there’s one thing the world definitely needs more of, it’s trombone-led jazz albums. Pennsylvania-based trombonist and composer Jay T. Vonada steps up to make his contribution on this very fine album of standards and originals, on which he is accompanied by the trio of pianist Kirk Reese, bassist Bob Hart and drummer Kevin Lowe. Vonado has a sweet, burnished tone and a deep love of melody, both of which are in ample evidence here — as is his love of bossa nova rhythms. And I confess that I’m completely charmed by the fact that the liner notes (in which he is, of course, profusely praised) were written by his wife. Strongly recommended.


Andrés Vial
Sphereology Volume One
Chromatic Audio
CHROMA111417
Rick’s Pick

Too often, interpreters of Thelonious Monk’s legendarily knotty and strange melodies have focused on the knottiness and strangeness. On this quartet date, pianist Andrés Vial does something different: he celebrates their grace. Listen to the way he interprets the head on “Think of One,” for example–instead of loping and staggering, his lines dance and twirl, casting a new light on this strange but familiar composition. Vial also gets extra points in my book for avoiding the obvious choices: here we get “Green Chimneys” instead of “Epistrophy,” “Coming on the Hudson” instead of “‘Round Midnight,” and, best of all, that rarest of things: a genuinely obscure Monk composition (“Bluehawk”) to open the album. An essential purchase for all jazz collections.


Lonnie McFadden
Live at the Green Lady Lounge
Jazz Daddy
No cat. no.

On the front cover you see trumpeter/singer Lonnie McFadden throwing his head back and laughing, looking for all the world like Louis Armstrong. Inside you see a photo of him tap dancing. The tracklist includes “Moten Swing” and “What a Wonderful World.” It’s enough to make you expect a trad-jazz exercise, isn’t it? But no. While McFadden and his quartet swing in a powerful and straightforward way, they can also deliver the funk, the slippery second-line New Orleans groove, and the discursive noodling like no one’s business. This live album is actually quite an adventure, going down multiple stylistic alleys but always coming out with a smile and a shout. And it retains the between-song patter, which is more fun than you’d think because McFadden is kind of a character.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Mandy Barnett
Strange Conversation
Dame Productions (dist. Thirty Tigers)
86474CD

I’ve been a fan of Mandy Barnett ever since I came across Winter Wonderland, a delightfully straightforward set of Christmas songs performed in a range of mid-century country and torch styles. Her most obvious stylistic influence is Patsy Cline, but make no mistake about it: she’s entirely her own singer and she’s never been willing to be constrained by genre boundaries. Hence her latest effort, which finds her veering from smoldering R&B (“More Lovin’,” “Strange Conversation”) to 1960s girl-group finger-snapping (“It’s All Right, You’re Just in Love”) to spooky country-soul (“Puttin’ on the Dog”). In fact, “spooky” is the common denominator on most of these songs. As is the smoky contralto wonder of her voice.


George Morgan
Singles Collection 1949-62 (2 discs)
Acrobat (dist. MVD)
ADDCD3257
Rick’s Pick

From the opening line of “Please Don’t Let Me Love You”–in which George Morgan’s velvety croon blossoms unexpectedly into a heartbroken and hair-raising yodel–I knew this one was going to get a Rick’s Pick designation. If you’ve never heard of him, join the club, though I’m kind of embarrassed to admit it. During his career Morgan was apparently greatly revered in the country-music establishment and he reportedly was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry before he had even released a record. Why? Because he sings like a cross between Gene Autry and Bing Crosby, and his style is something I can only describe as “refined honky-tonk.” It might be too refined for some ears, I guess: in the early years there’s minimal instrumentation and a very smooth surface to the production, and later on you start getting the occasional choral backing and tinkly piano (not to mention a couple of silly novelty numbers) that might cause a few listeners to roll their eyes. But the voice–focus on the voice. And the duets, with Rosemary Clooney and Shirley Dale. A must for all country collections.


Ronn McFarlane
The Celtic Lute
Sono Luminus (dist. Naxos)
DSL-92225

Back when the Sono Luminus label was called Dorian, lutenist Ronn McFarlane was regularly featured among its releases, whether as a solo artist or as a member of the Baltimore Consort. Some of his finest recordings have explored the intersection of early European art music and traditional Celtic fiddle tunes. Here he takes up that effort again, playing a wonderful array of Scottish and Irish tunes, some from lute books of the 17th century and others performed in his own arrangements. As always, he makes it sound easy (it isn’t), and the tunes are a pleasing blend of the familiar (“Banish Misfortune,” “The Flowers of Edinburgh,” “The Butterfly”) and the obscure.


Jim Lauderdale
Time Flies
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)
YEP-2594

Jim Lauderdale & Roland White
Jim Lauderdale & Roland White
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)
YEP-2597

Ah, Jim Lauderdale. Here’s the thing: not only is he a brilliant avant-neo-traditional country artist on his own, he’s also a deeply generous champion of other brilliant artists. Witness, for example, the Frank Newsome album I reviewed in these pages a couple of months ago–a project undertaken entirely by Lauderdale, and on which he kept a very low profile. Consider also the duo album he made in 1979 with Roland White, an album which has never been released until now. It tells you something about Lauderdale that when he was ready to make his mark on the musical world, he did it by seeking out one of his heroes (Roland White was a founding member of the pioneering Kentucky Colonels and later played with the Nashville Grass and Country Gazette) and asking if he could record with him. The result is an album of bluegrass standards and originals, recorded in Earl Scruggs’ basement and featuring (among others) a young Marty Stuart on lead guitar. Lauderdale’s newest solo album is a very different creature, one that draws deeply on the country verities but is unafraid to incorporate elements of roots rock, Tin Pan Alley, and swing. Both albums are outstanding.


ROCK/POP


Shirley Davis & the Silverbacks
Wishes and Wants
Tucxone
TXN-007

Here’s someone to keep an eye on. Shirley Davis is a soul/R&B singer in the neotraditional mode of Sharon Jones (a mentor and inspiration for her as she was coming up), but with something of a twist: woven in with her vintage soul-funk grooves are elements of Afrobeat, especially noticeable on the restlessly bubbling “Nightlife.” The songwriting on this debut effort isn’t always as strong as it could be and some listeners might find the aggressively lo-fi production quality annoying, but Davis’s is clearly a voice to be reckoned with, and her backing band is phenomenal. I’ll be watching her career with great interest.


Chris Russell
Echo
Spotted Peccary
SPM-3502

Not all ambient music has to be restful, contemplative, or bliss-inducing. Sometimes it can be dark and disturbing. Consider, for example, the latest from Chris Russell, a composer and sound sculptor who uses custom software and improvised tools to transform found sound, field recordings, and originally-created noises into soundscapes that rattle, shimmer, whir and throb. The textures on <em>Echo</em> are mostly dark and dense, but bright passages of tuned percussion make themselves heard from time to time as well, and there are also moments of gentle calm. As ambient albums go, this is an unusually complex and multifaceted one.


Hater
Siesta
Fire (dist. Redeye)
FIRECD529

The sophomore album from this Swedish group starts out unpromisingly, with a clunky 3/4 beat–but then, very quickly, the band’s attractions start to emerge: a blend of jangle- and dream-pop, a charming tendency towards unapologetic stylistic thievery (listen to that Joy Division-inspired bassline on “It’s So Easy”), an inclination towards ingenuous song titles (“I Wish I Gave You More Time Because I Love You,” “Things to Keep Up With”). The English-as-a-second-language lyrics are sometimes slightly painful, but the clumsy moments are quickly subsumed in all the surrounding loveliness.


Thomas Dolby
Hyperactive (compilation; 2 discs)
BMG
BMGCAT274DCD
Rick’s Pick

There have been lots of Thomas Dolby retrospectives–this isn’t even the first one titled Hyperactive–but this two-disc set, covering his output between 1981 and 2009, has one important advantage over the others: it’s currently in print. (As far as I can determine, only the 1992 one-disc compilation Retrospectacle is still commercially available.) This collection is being released in conjunction with a North American tour during which Dolby will tell stories and perform songs of his audiences’ choosing. It’s kind of surprising how fresh these songs still sound–though they have a definite 1980s flavor to them, Dolby’s take on synthpop was idiosyncratic then and still sounds unique today. Highlights include “Europa and the Pirate Twins” and the yearningly gorgeous “The Flat Earth.”


Various Artists
Air Texture VI (2 discs)
Air Texture
AIR006
Rick’s Pick

I’ve been following the Air Texture label’s series of curated compilations with great interest for some time now, and I’ve always loved them. This one, a generous two-disc set of electronica selected by respected DJs Steffi and Martyn, left me a bit cold on first listen–and then, the second time through, I was suddenly in love with it. I don’t entirely know how that works, but there it is. Dark, abstract, grumblingly funky tracks are gathered from artists like V.I.V.E.K., FaltyDL, Basic Soul Unit and Mosca, plus a couple of original tunes from Steffi and Martyn themselves. What unifies these rather disparate slabs of postmodern electronica is the fact that none of them fits perfectly into any pre-existing genre–which is kind of a big plus in itself. Strongly recommended to all libraries.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Lionel Loueke
The Journey
Little Tribeca (dist. PIAS)
AP184
Rick’s Pick

I keep seeing Lionel Loueke’s music categorized as “jazz,” but beyond his clear facility with extended chords I can’t hear anything about his music that suggests he belongs in that pigeonhole–capacious as it may be these days. Hailing originally from Benin, Loueke sings in a variety of languages and plays guitar in a variety of styles, some of which sound like they were invented by him. This album is a tribute to migrants the world over, and although some tunes are funky and some evoke flamenco or samba traditions, the overriding mood here is quiet and subdued. Instrumentation is minimal, and his singing voice is placed low in the mix, ensuring that the listening experience is something like sitting next to a quietly burbling brook–one that flows with subtly entrancing melodies. This is an exceptionally beautiful album that would make a great addition to any library collection.


RAM
August 1791
Willibelle Publishing & Sales
No cat. no.

August of 1791 is when the African population of the Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue rose up in rebellion against its French occupiers, eventually achieving independence in 1804–resulting in the creation of the first free republic of diasporic Africans in the Western hemisphere. That rebellion is commemorated and celebrated on this album by RAM, a project of Haitian-American musician Richard Morse. Morse put his group together in Port-au-Prince, creating songs and arrangements that combine traditional Haitian instrumentation and song forms with Western elements such as electric guitar and keyboard. The sound is big and dense, sometimes bordering on the chaotic and sometimes loping with a mid-tempo grace. There’s lots of call-and-response singing and tons of gorgeously soaring melodies. Recommended to all world music collections.


Linda Leonardo
Eterno Fado
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
EUCD2804

If you aren’t already familiar with fado–a uniquely Portuguese art form typified by intensely emotional songs mainly written in a mode of passionate longing, usually sung by a woman and almost always accompanied by a twelve-string Portuguese guitar–then it’s high time you caught up. Linda Leonardo is not only an accomplished fadista with a gorgeous voice, but also a poet and composer; she wrote either the music or the lyrics to several songs on this album. Although her voice is front and center here, her accompanists are also worth noting: throughout the album, the arrangements (though minimal in terms of instrumental forces) are both complex and deeply beautiful. Highly recommended.

August 2018


PICK OF THE MONTH


Bird Streets
Bird Streets
Omnivore
OV-294

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.


CLASSICAL


Jaan Rääts; Arvo Pärt; Henryk Górecki
Kaleidoscopic
Patrick Messina; Henri Demarquette; Fabrizio Chiovetta
Aparte Music (dist. PIAS)
AP187
Rick’s Pick

Alfred Schnittke; Arvo Pärt
Choral Works
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir / Kaspars Putnins
BIS (dist. Naxos)
BIS-2292

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)
CDA68211

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
Constellations
Innova (dist. Naxos)
1 006
Rick’s Pick

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.


Lou Harrison
Works for Percussion, Violin, and Piano
Percussion UVU
Albany
TROY1731
Rick’s Pick

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.


Various Composers
Aeternum: Music of the Elizabethan Avant Garde from Add. MS 31390
LeStrange Viols
Olde Focus Recordings (dist. Naxos)
FCR912

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)
SRCD-1022

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.


William Mundy
Sacred Choral Music
Choir of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh / Duncan Ferguson
Delphian (dist. Naxos)
DCD34204
Rick’s Pick

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.


Various Composers
Piano Music of Barber, Carter, Griffes, Ives & Zaimont
Drew Petersen
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
30095

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.


JAZZ


Steve Tibbetts
Life of
ECM
2599
Rick’s Pick

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.


Woody Shaw
Tokyo 1981
Elemental Music
5990429

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.


Masayoshi Fujita
Book of Life
Erased Tapes (dist. Redeye)
ERATP111CD

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
Western Soul
Self-released
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.


Mary Halvorson
The Maid with the Flaxen Hair
Tzadik (dist. Redeye)
TZ 4024
Rick’s Pick

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.


Dennis Lichtman
Just Cross the River: Jazz in Queens New York 1923 to the Present
Triple Treble Music
TTM-CD-007
Rick’s Pick

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.


Takaaki
New Kid in Town
Albany
TROY1689

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.


FOLK/COUNTRY


The Slocan Ramblers
Queen City Jubilee
Self-released
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.


High Fidelity
Hills and Home
Rebel
REB-CD-1864
Rick’s Pick

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.


Bluegrass Champs
Live from the Don Owens Show
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)
YEP-2555

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.


ROCK/POP


Ogikubo Station
We Can Pretend Like
Asian Man
AM 338
Rick’s Pick

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.


Paul Frick
Second Yard Botanicals (DIGITAL AND VINYL ONLY)
Apollo (dist. Redeye)
AMB1807

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
X-Altera (DIGITAL AND VINYL ONLY)
Ghostly International
GI-316
Rick’s Pick

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.


The Beat
Here We Go Love
Here We Go
HWG01CD

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.


The Rails
Other People
Thirty Tigers
88676

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
Closer Apart
Hyperdub (dist. Redeye)
HDBCD041

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.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Roberto Musci & Giovanni Venosta
Messages & Portraits (selective metareissue)
ReR MEGACORP (dist. MVD)
ReRMVCD

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)
BBE Music
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)
Nighthawk/Omnivore
OVCD-285

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.


The Gladiators
Symbol of Reality (reissue)
Nighthawk/Omnivore
OVCD-273
Rick’s Pick

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.

July 2018


PICK OF THE MONTH


Danny Green Trio Plus Strings
One Day It Will
OA2
22154

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.


CLASSICAL


Jean-Philippe Rameau
Le Temple de la gloire (2 discs)
Various soloists; Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale / Nicholas McGegan & Bruce Lamott
Philharmonia Baroque Productions
PBP-10

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.


Felix Mendelssohn
Complete Works for Cello & Piano
Marcy Rosen; Lydia Artymiw
Bridge (dist. Albany)
9501

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.


Anton Eberl
Concerto for Two Pianos; Sonatas for Piano Four Hands
Paolo Giacometti; Riko Fukuda; Kölner Akademie / Michael Alexander Willens
CPO (dist. Naxos)
777 733-3

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.


Elena Ruehr
Six String Quartets (2 discs)
Cypress String Quartet; Borromeo String Quartet; Stephen Salters
Avie (dist. Naxos)
AV2379
Rick’s Pick

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)
Auryn Quartet
Tacet (dist. Naxos)
972

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)
CDA68257
Rick’s Pick

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)
PH18023
Rick’s Pick

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.


Orazio Benevolo
Missa Si Deus pro nobis; Magnificat
Le Concert Spirituel / Hervé Niquet
Alpha (dist. Naxos)
400

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.


Peter Garland
Moon Viewing Music (Inscrutable Stillness Studies #1)
William Winant
Cold Blue Music
CB0052

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.


JAZZ


Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin
Awase
ECM
2603
Rick’s Pick

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.


Daan Kleijn
Passages
Self-released
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.


Paul Desmond
The Complete Albums Collection 1953-1963 (4 discs)
Enlightenment (dist. MVD)
EN4CD9146

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
Duologue
Arbors Jazz (dist. MVD)
ARCD 19460
Rick’s Pick

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.


Ken Fowser
Don’t Look Down
Posi-Tone
PR178

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.


Nina Simone
Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles
Bethlehem/BMG
538320282
Rick’s Pick

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.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Willie Nelson
Things to Remember: The Pamper Demos
Real Gone Music
651
Rick’s Pick

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.


Various Artists
Epilogue: A Tribute to John Duffey
Smithsonian Folkways
SFW 40228

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.


Cliff Westfall
Baby You Win
Self-released
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

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.


Frank Newsome
Gone Away with a Friend
Free Dirt
DIRT-CD-0084

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.


ROCK/POP


Wire
Pink Flag (reissue; 2 discs)
Pink Flag
11SE
Rick’s Pick

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.


Prefuse 73
Sacrifices
Lex
406

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.


Logistics
Hologram
Hospital (dist. Redeye)
NHS322CD

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.


East Man
Red, White & Zero
Planet Mu (dist. Redeye)
ZIQ395
Rick’s Pick

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.


R.E.M.
The Spirit of Radio: Classic Broadcast Recordings (3 discs)
Parallel Lines (dist. MVD)
PLCD027

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.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Lucibela
Laço Umbilical
Lusafrica (dist. MVD)
762562

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.


U Brown
Repatriation (reissue)
Burning Sounds (dist. MVD)
BSRCD935

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.


Nsimbi
Nsimbi
Imara/Baboon Forest
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

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.


Various Artists
Unit 137 Vol. 1
Unit 137
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

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.


Los Texmaniacs
Cruzando Borders
Smithsonian Folkways
SFW 40576

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.


Anandi Bhattacharya
Joys Abound
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
TUGCD1116
Rick’s Pick

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.