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May 2022

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CLASSICAL


Luís de Freitas Branco; Maurice Ravel; Heitor Villa-Lobos
Violin Sonatas
Bruno Monteiro; João Paulo Santos
Etcetera
KTC 1750

This program by violinist Bruno Monteiro and pianist João Paulo Santos brings together two little-known works of turn-of-the-century Romanticism by a Portuguese and a Brazilian composer, along with a more familiar work from the same period by Ravel. The Branco sonata created some controversy when it was published in 1908; the composer was only 17 at the time, but the piece won first prize in a national competition despite discomfiting many in the Portuguese musical establishment with its forward-thinking harmonic vision and odd structure. The second violin sonata of Villa-Lobos is less challenging stylistically but certainly a virtuosic piece, while Ravel’s second sonata serves as something of a soothing palate cleanser between them. Monteiro and Santos play with empathy and passion.


Lou Harrison et al.
6 Pieces for Gamelan Slendro
Eklekto; ensemble 0
Mode (dist. Naxos)
MOD-CD-330

Gamelan music has fascinated European and American composers since the turn of the 20th century, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that a Western composer actually started composing music for gamelan ensemble, and that — famously — was Lou Harrison. This new recording, a collaborative effort by the Swiss percussion ensemble Eklekto and the French Gamelan Oksitan, is bracketed by Harrison compositions but also includes works by Larry Polanski, Peter Klanac, Billy Martin, and Roland Dahinden. The composers all demonstrate respect for the harmonic and structural conventions of gamelan music, but are also quite fearless in pushing those conventions and bringing in other compositional elements; Polansky’s Voice Canon no. 7 is particularly indebted to 1960s minimalism, for example. This is a fascinating and beautiful release.


Various Composers
Cachua serranita: Music, Dance, and Our Lady on the Far Side of the World
Collegium Marianum
Supraphon (dist. Naxos)
SU 4309-2

The novel theme for this recording is the musical “line (connecting) Central Europe and South America,” a line that was largely drawn by Catholic missionaries who came to South America from Czechoslovakia in the 17th and 18th centuries and brought with them European musical training and liturgical practices, and then adapted them to the musical traditions of the populations they sought to convert. The music of European composers like Josef Brentner was brought to the Chiquitano and Moxos peoples by Jesuit missionaries, among whom were such accomplished composers as Domenico Zipoli and Martin Schmid. The music on this delightful recording features both juxtapositions and fusions of rhythms and melodies from European cities and mountain regions, South American instrumentation, secular songs, and liturgical texts. The Collegium Marianum play these pieces with the perfect balance of lighthearted delight and devotional decorum, and the album should find a home in any library supporting the study of either early music or ethnomusicology.


Carlo Gesualdo; Thomas Tallis;
Tenebrae Responsories: Feria quinta
The Gesualdo Six / Owain Park
Hyperion (dist. Integral)
CDA68348

The music of 16th-century composer Carlo Gesualdo has exerted a broad fascination ever since the beginning of the early-music movement, in part because his compositions sound so little like early music. They involved a level of chromaticism unique for the period, and evoked an intensity of emotion that mirrored his tortured psyche: famously, he had caught his wife and her lover in bed and murdered them both, and then spent the rest of his life in moral and spiritual torment. Thus, his setting of the Tenebrae Responses for Maundy Thursday is, shall we say, unusually intense for the period — as is illustrated by its pairing with the notably cooler (though no less brilliant) setting of Jeremiah’s Lamentations by Gesualdo’s rough contemporary Thomas Tallis (and Judith Bingham’s stark and intense “Watch with Me,” which serves as a transitional piece between the Tallis and the Gesualdo). The all-male Gesualdo Six ensemble — which includes the finest countertenors I’ve heard outside of Chanticleer — perform all of these works with carefully restrained passion and an almost unearthly blend, handily establishing their right to use the composer’s name.


Carlo Monza
Opera in musica: Carlo Monza Quartets (digital only)
Europa Galante / Fabio Bondi
Naïve (dist. Naxos)
V 7541

Apart from the fact that it’s not being released on CD, this is exactly the kind of release for which CD HotList was invented: world-premiere recordings of top-notch works by a forgotten composer, performed by a world-class group. Fabio Bondi, violinist and leader of the Europa Galante ensemble, discovered these string quartets by the Milanese composer Carlo Monza while he was doing research on Mozart’s travels in Milan. Monza was apparently a fairly important figure in that city during the 18th century, but his works are almost entirely lost today. Bondi came across a manuscript volume of his string quartets in a private library but was denied extended access to them; only later, when he found another copy in the French National Library, was he able to organize these recordings. The works themselves are lovely, deeply influenced by the conventions of opera, and Europa Galante (on period instruments) deliver them with admirable panache. For all classical collections.


JAZZ


Tapani Rinne & Juha Mäki-Patola
Open
Hush Hush
HH144

This is jazz of a rather unusual type. Billed as “ambient/jazz,” Open is a collaboration between reedman Tapani Rinne and producer/multi-instrumentalist Juha Mäki-Patola; Rinne is a well-regarded veteran of the adventurous Helsinki jazz scene, while Mäki-Patola is more of an up-and-comer, but they sound like soul brothers on this utterly beautiful album. There are no beats here, only slowly developing compositions that, despite their quietude, can be described neither as “abstract” nor as “ethereal.” Rinne’s reed instruments create a gentle but solid thread that brings obvious coherence to the cloudlike soundscapes created for them by Mäki-Patola — I say “obvious coherence” because the structural integrity of those soundscapes is actually there all the time, but it’s Rinne’s parts that make that integrity aurally clear. Sometimes those are solo parts, and sometimes he’s multitracked, and the overall listening experience is absolutely lovely. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Chet Baker Trio
Live in Paris: The Radio France Recordings 1983-1984 (2 discs)
Elemental Music
5990442

This is not one of those albums about which one is going to say “here is the artist at the peak of his powers.” In the mid-1980s, Chet Baker was not in a particularly good place, as the cover and other accompanying photos suggest — he looks haggard and strung-out. Back on heroin and coke again, he would die a few years later from a fall out of his hotel window. But despite it all he was playing well at this time, and his performance here is actually quite good; his singing voice is weaker than it had been in the past, but his intonation is still accurate and he remains an inventive scat singer. And on trumpet, his tone is as smooth and golden as ever. The three dates documented on these two discs find him in a drummerless trio with pianist Michel Grailler and an alternating cast of bass players, focusing on standards. The group is really stretching out here; average track length is about 13 minutes, but they never sound like they’re wandering or filling time. The sound quality is generally very good, though the mix is a bit unfortunate on the 1983 date, on which the bass is barely audible, and when he sings Baker is somewhat hard to hear as well. Overall, though, these previously unreleased recordings are a treasure trove.


Keith Oxman
This One’s for Joey
Capri
74168-2

This excellent album has a heartbreaking backstory. Tenor saxophonist Keith Oxman teaches high school in Denver, and recently learned that one of his former students, Joey Pearlman, had died tragically at a very young age. This One’s for Joey is a tribute to the young man, who was an exceptionally talented bassist (as documented on the album’s final track, a rendition of John Coltrane’s “John Paul Jones” that Oxman recorded in 2014 with Joey on bass and his twin brother Stevie on drums). Pearlman was also a gifted writer, as illustrated by his lovely composition “Garden Song,” which Oxman plays here with his quartet. The rest of the program consists of several original compositions, some written in explicit tribute to Joey, and a couple of standards. The emotion in these recordings is palpable, as one would expect — but perhaps less predictably, the overarching emotion is one of joy.


Lynne Arriale Trio
The Lights Are Always On
Challenge (dist. Naxos)
CR73532

With her expansive harmonic vocabulary, her impressionistic approach to chord voicing, and her controlled but intense emotionalism, it would seem like the most obvious stylistic comparison pianist and composer Lynne Arriale would be Bill Evans. And yet she really sounds nothing like him: listen to the title track of her new album (conceived as a tribute to heroes of health care provision and truth-telling during a time of both political and medical crisis), and you’ll hear glorious cascading melody overlaid on straight rhythms; this then segues into “Sisters,” a jazz waltz that struts with a shoulders-back/chin-up sense of swing. Arriale is not just a double threat but a quadruple one: a virtuosic pianist and improviser and a brilliant composer whose conceptual brilliance never overpowers the accessibility of her compositions. This had made every one of her albums a must-hear, and The Lights Are Always On is among her best.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Mark Joseph
Vegas Motel
Self-released
No cat. no.

Singer-songwriter Mark Joseph is one of those artists who tricks you into thinking he’s a straight-ahead honky-tonk country guy and then surprises you when you notice some of the song structures and listen more carefully to the lyrics. Sure, songs like “Nate’s Garage” and “Vegas Motel” make a definite play for the PBR-and-muddy-tires constituency, but “The Life of a Pipe Welder” is more complex both melodically and lyrically (and clocks in at six minutes — not exactly a typical country move), while “Early Riser” is a lovely fiddle and guitar instrumental that somehow manages not to sound very country at all; in fact, it might actually be more accurate to call it a violin and guitar instrumental. And dang if the Hammond organ and horns on “I Love You ‘Till I Die” don’t sound more like… R&B. Categorize it in whatever way you want, this album’s a solid winner.


Nicki Bluhm
Avondale Drive
Compass
7 4786 2

Here’s a solid slab of bluesy, soully country-rock from the former frontperson of Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers. It features a production style simultaneously forward- and backward-looking (note the saturated mic sound on “Feel”), some horns, some Hammond B3, an occasional whiff of ’60s girl group, and lots and lots of rock-solid songcraft. Bluhm’s voice is gritty but sweet, and her lyrics are full of regret and disappointment but devoid of self-pity. The COVID pandemic meant that most of her sidemen had to record their parts remotely, while she performed hers in her living room, but there’s nothing in either the sound quality or the intimate ensemble sound that would lead you to think they weren’t all gathered around a kitchen table the whole time.


The Slocan Ramblers
Up the Hill and Through the Fog
Self-released
SRO-CD-004

Here’s the first thing to understand about the Slocan Ramblers: despite their guitar-mandolin-banjo instrumentation, they are not a bluegrass band. Well, they’re not exactly a bluegrass band. I mean, “You Said Goodbye” is straight-up acid grass, so they certainly can be a bluegrass band when they want. But “I Don’t Know” is a sort of bluesy country acoustic pop, and “A Mind with a Heart of Its Own” is rock’n’roll by any reasonable definition of the term (despite its lack of any drums or electric instruments). “Snow Owl” is a lovely example of jazzy New Acoustic Music of the 1980s variety, à la David Grisman and Tony Rice — but with “Bill Fernie” they’re back in bluegrass territory, and “Platform Four” is a sort of avant-old-time instrumental. So maybe it’s not really accurate to say that the Slocan Ramblers aren’t a bluegrass band; it’s better to say that they’re about five kinds of band, including bluegrass. Great album.


ROCK/POP


Badrich
Forensics
Ohm Resistance
65K OHM

Generally speaking, I’d say I’m a pretty cheerful person. So it’s surprising to me how much of the music I love can reasonably be characterized as “grumpy.” Case in point: the new album from Jason Goodrich (a.k.a. Badrich), whose new album is a dense, bustling, dark, and, yes, grumpy exploration of the musical borderlands that divide glitch, drill’n’bass, industrial, and IDM. The release’s 15 tracks are remarkably consistent in tone and texture, but constantly shift to reveal new patterns and ideas in a kaleidoscopic fashion. One reviewer described Badrich’s overall sound as “fractured fluidity,” and that’s actually not bad at all. Rhythmically, there’s actually pretty consistent continuity — everything else is up in the air, which means you can either pay close attention to this album or let it run in the background while you read a book. Either way, it works great. (Though if I were assigning grades, I’d dock it one grade for the cover image.)


MAITA
I Just Want to Be Wild for You
Kill Rock Stars (dist. Redeye)
KRS664

Here’s what the label copy says: “Over the course of 11 tracks, the record hones [sic] in on the passion that exists within moments of extreme disconnect, crafting a sonic portrait that grows and shifts with each singular emotion. MAITA allows for the heavier, cathartic moments to reach new intensities…” etc. etc. Here’s what you’ll hear: clever and hooky pop music, not lightweight but not particularly heavy either, driven by guitars and pianos and supporting the gentle, clear voice of Maria Maita-Keppeler. The lyrics tend a bit toward Millennial irony, but not aggressively so. I’m not really hearing much in the way of “extreme disconnect” or, frankly, passion, though it may be that I’m not listening hard enough. What I am hearing are brilliant pop songs, wonderfully sung and produced with subtle effectiveness.


Steve Roach
Zones, Drones & Atmospheres
Projekt (dist. MVD)
393

Steve Roach/Jeffrey Fayman
Trance Spirits (reissue)
Projekt
395

I’ve been watching guitarist and composer Steve Roach’s career for decades now. His music has often been just a little bit too New Agey for me, but this new release and reissue of a 20-year-old album have me reconsidering my assessment of his work. Trance Spirits is a remastered release of an album he made in 2002 with percussionist Jeffrey Fayman; guitarist Robert Fripp (!) and percussionist Momodou Kah. Here it’s actually drums that occupy center stage: Kah and Fayman build steady, rippling patterns under which Roach and Fripp create floating clouds of chordal ambience that shift slowly under the busy drumming. On Roach’s new solo album Zones, Drones & Atmospheres, he delivers ambient music that hits the sweet spot for me: pleasant but not cloying; contemplative but not faux-mystical; unobtrusive but interesting — and sometimes downright eerie, which is always fun. Interestingly, while the CD version of this album is nicely packed with music, the digital version is even more so — clocking in at a startlingly generous three and a half hours. That version adds the 73-minute-long dark ambient track “Submerged,” and an additional hour-long track (similarly dark and immersive) called “Isolation Station.”


The Slackers
Don’t Let the Sunlight Fool Ya
Pirates Press (dist. MVD)
PPR319

As ska bands often do if they stay active long enough, the Slackers have drifted somewhat from their stylistic roots — not that there’s anything at all wrong with that. The opening track on their latest album is a sort of Latin-soul bubbler with a faint whiff of Broadway lingering around it, while the title track is vintage R&B with a slippery rock steady backbeat. But they skank it up old-school style on “Hangin’ On” and ride a gentle one-drop rhythm on “I Almost Lost You.” And those are only the first four tracks. Throughout the album, this veteran band flexes the songwriting muscles that have kept them active and in demand on the national scene for 30 years, with particular kudos due to frontman and primary songwriter Vic Ruggiero and charter members Dave Hillyard (saxophone) and “Agent Jay” Nugent (guitar).


Hater
Sincere
Fire
FIRE584

“Your next Scandinavian indie pop obsession,” said Flood magazine, and I have to agree. Though honestly, Hater could turn out to be your next global indie pop obsession — though if the term “indie pop” evokes for you images of candy-coated guitars and weird-but-sunny melodic hooks, you might need to expand that definition a bit to accommodate this group, which has more in common with My Bloody Valentine and, occasionally, Cocteau Twins than it does with Jukebox the Ghost or, I don’t know, Autoharp. You’ve got your guitars that are so distorted and layered that they sound soft; you’ve got your female singer mixed so far back that you can’t understand what she’s saying; you’ve got your sudden irruptions of aching tunefulness. Sing along if you can or just let it throb in the background while you read a book — this is an outstanding all-purpose album.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Club d’Elf
You Never Know
Face Pelt
FP 2201

Club d’Elf is an odd ensemble, and You Never Know is an odd and intriguing release. The album is based on a traumatizing event in bandleader Mike Rivard’s recent past, a health crisis that led to an extended period of depression and PTSD. Rivard’s escape from the emotional morass came through his immersion in the trance-inducing gnawa music of North Africa. While You Never Know is not really a gnawa album, it draws deeply on the idea of transcendence through repetition and incorporates elements of that music (as well as Sufi and classical Indian traditions) into the band’s semi-free fusion-ish jazz. You’ll hear funk, turntablism, and Weather Report in there as well — and the program ends with an extended Frank Zappa tune. So, yeah — odd. And intriguing.


Various Artists
The Rough Guide to Spiritual India
Rough Guides/World Music Network (dist. Redeye)
RGNET1394CD

Granted, the title is a bit off-putting — there’s a longstanding tendency in the West to characterize any music that seems “exotic” (especially if it comes from the Indian subcontinent) as “spiritual,” regardless of its actual content. That misgiving aside, there’s no questioning the content of this album, which includes glorious selections from both singer Anandi Bhattacharya and her father, the legendary slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya (not to mention from her tabla-playing uncle Subhasis), from Bengali Sufi mystic Babu Fakir, and from Baul singer Paban Das Baul. It also includes several examples of West-East fusion music from the likes of Guy Buttery and the Guillaume Barraud Quartet. As with most Rough Guide titles, one of the great benefits of this collection is that it can lead you to dig deeper in any number of musical directions.


Soom T
Good
RM/X-Ray Productions
XRPCD2202

Indian by ethnic heritage, Glaswegian by birth and upbringing, Soon T is maybe not the most obvious person to have become a dancehall reggae MC. And yet, as my kids used to say, here we are. Her new album is perhaps her best work yet: supported by rock-hard rhythms laid down by her band The StoneMonks, she delivers strictly conscious lyrics in her trademarked charmingly gritty voice, and she consistently goes entirely her own way. “World We Live In” is unfashionably straight-up ska; “Yes My People” is startlingly specific in what sounds very much like a Christian witness (“And the Lord, he came down one day and he gave us his life/And he told us he’s the only way that we could follow, find light”); “Don’t Stand for Dis” and “Steps” find her collaborating with the brilliant Neo-dub producer Gaudi, who brings out some of her best and most impassioned vocals. This is one of the best reggae releases I’ve heard so far this year.

April 2022


CLASSICAL


Various Composers
Now the Green Blade Riseth: Choral Music for Easter
The Choir of King’s College / Daniel Hyde
King’s College Recordings (dist. Integral)
KGS0065

I normally avoid reviewing holiday-specific recordings, but this one is just too good. The men and boys of the King’s College Choir have a uniquely luscious sound — the trebles are never shrill, the blend is always luxurious. And this collection of choral pieces, most of them relatively modern, is magnificent. While I find Rossini’s O salutaris Hostia a bit bombastic (especially coming immediately after Duruflé’s delicately gorgeous Ubi caritas setting), it’s only a brief jarring moment in what is otherwise a consistently uplifting and transcendent program. In addition to the Duruflé, other highlights include the traditional hymns “Ride On! Ride On in Majesty!” and “There Is a Green Hill Far Away,” John Ireland’s “Greater Love Hath No Man,” Edward Elgar’s “Light of the World,” and of course William Byrd’s Civitas sancti tui setting, which is taken here at a careful and deliberate tempo and delivered with a burnished golden tone. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Various Composers
Fastes de la Grande Écurie
Syntagma Amici & Giourdina
Ricercar (dist. Naxos)
RIC439

Wind bands were of particular importance in the French court from the reign of Henri IV to that of Louis XIV: oboes, bassoons, recorders, cornets, trumpets, sackbuts and drums all combined to create majestic music to accompany both ceremonial occasions and royal entertainments. For this recording, members of the Syntagma Amici and Giourdina ensembles got together to recreate the Bande de Grands Hautbois that was attached to the royal stables (the écurie) and enjoyed significant prestige at court (despite being lower in status than the musicians of the chapel and the royal chamber). This recording is significant not only for the music it contains — dances, fantasies, and fanfares by the likes of Louis Couperin, Eustache du Caurroy, André Danican Philidor and Jean-Baptiste Lully — but also for the unique timbres and textures created by the various combinations of instruments that enjoyed royal favor at this unique point in French history, sounds that haven’t been heard, in some cases, for several centuries.


Paul Hindemith
Wind Sonatas
Les Vents Français; Eric le Sage
Warner Classics
0190295044411

Les Vents Français is something of a “supergroup” of French wind players, who normally play as a quintet. But on this album they take turns as soloists, accompanied by pianist Eric le Sage, each playing a Paul Hindemith sonata written for his individual instrument. One of the most important German composers of the 20th century, Hindemith wrote in a style that sounds simultaneously classical and modern — clear and logical structures underly melodies that often feel oddly dry and arid, though not in a bad way. His music is tonal, but his harmonic progressions are often slippery and surprising. Hindemith himself was known as an extremely gifted multi-instrumentalist (having been concertmaster of the Frankfurt Opera at a young age) and his facility with the instruments for which he wrote allowed him to write with unusual sympathy for many — including the wind instruments featured in these five sonatas. The playing is exceptional, as one would expect from members of this ensemble.


Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Concertos nos. 1 & 3
Kristian Bezuidenhout; Freiburger Barockorchester / Pablo Heras-Casado
Harmonia Mundi (dist. Integral)
HMM 902412

When it comes to period-instrument performance, the late classical and early Romantic periods offer particular challenges: the instruments still in common use during those periods were structurally very different from those of today, but the music was becoming more modern and emotionally expansive, with greater dynamic range. This meant that the instruments of the period were often being pushed to their expressive limits. Which brings us to this thrilling recording of Beethoven piano concertos by fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, alongside the Freiburger Barockorchester — a period-instrument ensemble that has never sounded bigger, richer, or more powerful than it does here. Even the natural horns sound wonderful, and Bezuidenhout himself plays with both fire and tenderness as well as a deep affinity for Beethoven’s emotional sound world. This is an altogether magnificent recording and it’s highly recommended to all library collections.


Various Composers
Ice Land: The Eternal Music
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; The Dmitri Ensemble / Graham Ross
Harmonia Mundi (dist. Integral)
HMM 905330

This stunningly beautiful collection of choral pieces by Icelandic composers (plus an orchestral arrangement of a Sigur Rós song) is centered on Sigurdur Sævarsson’s Magnificat and Requiem, both presented here in world-premiere recordings. Iceland has emerged in recent years as a major force in contemporary choral music, and if anyone is wondering why, a listen to this collection will explain everything. It would not be true to say that all of these ten composers sound the same — but it would be equally untrue to deny that there’s a certain unity of mood and style here: spare, generally ethereal (though sometimes intense), consonant, cool (though not cold). The Choir of Clare College have clearly been at pains to perform this music idiomatically, and their performances are quietly thrilling. And I simply can’t praise Sævarsson’s Requiem setting highly enough; although the piece is thoroughly modern, it nevertheless invokes a timeless sense of reverence, regret, and devotion. A must-have for all library collections.


JAZZ


Bill Evans
Morning Glory (2 discs)
Resonance
HCD-2061

Bill Evans
Inner Spirit (2 discs)
Resonance
HCD-2062

I received these releases a couple of months ago, while they were still under embargo, and ever since then I’ve been waiting giddily for the opportunity to recommend them to my library colleagues. Both sets are products of an ongoing collaboration between the Bill Evans estate and the Resonance label that has now resulted in the commercial release of seven previously unavailable live recordings, most of them with exceptional sound and all of them featuring extensive and informative liner notes and photos. Morning Glory documents a 1973 performance in Buenos Aires of the Evans trio with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell; Inner Spirit finds Evans back in the same city in 1979, though at a different venue, with his celebrated lineup of bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe Labarbera. Whoever miked and mixed these performances knew exactly what s/he was doing: the interplay between Evans and his bassist was always central to his musical project, and the basses are given just the right level here — Gomez’s instrument sounds particularly full and rich on the Morning Glory set. Evans himself is brilliant during both concerts, wielding his unique combination of solid swing and impressionistic bravura thrillingly. No jazz collection can afford to sleep on either of these essential releases.


Matt Hall
I Hope to My Never
Summit (dist. MVD)
DCD 791

Trombonist and composer Matt Hall’s debut as a leader is a tremendously satisfying program of originals, plus one standard. Hall leads a dynamite quintet that shows itself adept at grooving in a variety of styles: “Biscuits & Gravy” is a refined blues that never quite tips over into funk, but consistently nods at it; the title track is loping, midtempo hard bop; “Charlie’s Harley” is a Charlie Parker tribute written on the “Cherokee” changes; “Spearhead” has a slightly greasy, second-line feel to it in the head, but then settles into a relaxed swing for the solos. Hall has that most enviable skill in trombonists: the ability to play bop at tempo and without any loss of clarity or note separation. And his sidemen are all absolutely killing it here as well. This album would find a welcome home in any library’s jazz collection.


Nina Simone
Feeling Good: Her Greatest Hits & Remixes (2 discs)
Verve
B0034595-02

I confess that for me, Nina Simone has always fallen into the “I recognize the genius but don’t much enjoy listening to the music” category. But I love creative remixes, so this two-disc collection of greatest hits plus remixes by the likes of Hot Chip, Sofi Tukker, and Rudimental caught my attention. And as it turned out, I came for the remixes but stayed for original tracks that hadn’t really sunk in for me before: Simone’s boogie-woogie take on “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” her gritty-but-slinky “I Put a Spell on You,” her absolutely eerie arrangement of the traditional song “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” — and, of course, her resignedly jaunty “Love Me or Leave Me” (her piano solo on that track is worth the price of the whole package). And the remixes? Oh, right, the remixes. Frankly, they tend to be too house/techno for me — though Rudimental’s juddering jungle remix of “Take Care of Business” activates all my bass-related pleasure centers.


Gordon Grdina’s Haram with Marc Ribot
Night’s Quietest Hour
Attaboygirl
ABG-3

Gordon Grdina
Oddly Enough: The Music of Tim Berne
Attaboygirl
ABG-4

Guitarist and oud player Gordon Grdina is out with two simultaneous releases on his own Attaboygirl label, neither of which is quite a jazz album but which I wanted to review together and this seemed like the right section for them as a unit. Night’s Quietest Hour finds him working with Haram, his ensemble for contemporary music rooted in Iraqi and Arabic tradition. Here he plays the oud exclusively, alongside a large group that includes violins, trumpet, nay, darbuka, and avant-jazz-rock guitarist Marc Ribot. As one might expect, the music is a bracing blend of Middle Eastern modalities, communal improvisation, and complex time signatures. Oddly Enough is a solo album on which he plays compositions that resulted from a back-and-forth correspondence with the legendary Downtown saxophonist/composer Time Berne. During the COVID lockdown, Berne sent Grdina a piece he had written; Grdina responded with his recording of the piece; Berne sent another one; and so forth. The result is this collection of pieces, which Grdina plays using acoustic and electric guitars and a MIDI sampler. This music tends not to be noisy or skronky, but is definitely post-tonal and harmonically strange, with lots of spidery side-stepping melodies and irregular rhythms. While not “fun,” exactly, these pieces are nevertheless consistently interesting and pleasantly challenging.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Surge and the Swell
Offering
Self-released
No cat. no.

Indie-folk singer/songwriter Aaron Cabbage records under the name Surge and the Swell, and his debut release is a remarkably assured and fully-realized album for such a new artist. His sound here is actually more rockish than one might expect; resonator guitar and mandolin are there in the mix, and there are lots of twangy country licks and acoustic strumming, but on tracks like “Gravity Boots” and the soully “Hard Work” (not to mention “Full in the Now,” which actually evokes the Police in its opening section) the mood is more roots-rock than folk-pop. But genre designations are a waste of time anyway — what matter here are the songs, and they’re consistently outstanding, as is Cabbage’s delivery. Soaring choruses, tight grooves, undeniable hooks — this is the kind of album that leaves you impatient for the next one. Here’s hoping Offering marks the beginning of a long string of releases like this.


Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves
Hurricane Clarice
Free Dirt (dist. Redeye)
DIRT-CD-0104

Fiddle-and-banjo duo Allison de Groot and Tatiana Hargreaves aren’t exactly traditionalists — but they aren’t exactly not traditionalists, either. Yes, they play reels and breakdowns and dance tunes (their latest album includes the traditional tunes “Brushy Fork of John’s Creek” and “Hen Cackled,” both of them old-time session favorites, as well as the beautifully driving “Nancy Blevins”), but as time goes on their concept is expanding to include both original compositions and more explicit expressions of political, social and environmental concern. Hence their rendition of the early-20th-century Patrick Hurley composition “Banks of the Miramichi,” delivered here as an anthem of environmental protest, as well as the title tune, an instrumental written with the Jewish diaspora in mind. As always, Hargreaves and de Groot are perfectly matched both as players and as singers, and sound amazing together.


ROCK/POP


Michael Scott Dawson
Music for Listening (vinyl & digital only)
We Are Busy Bodies (dist. Redeye)
WABB-115

Since receiving a promo download of this album I’ve found myself going back to it over and over. It’s the second release from Michael Scott Dawson, a set of twelve compositions written and recorded during the pandemic. The basic tracks were made on a rented piano, and he later overdubbed guitar parts, environmental sounds (you’ll hear birds tweeting in the background on several tracks), and other elements created using “DIY instruments” and tape loops. Most of the instruments are rendered unrecognizable: the piano parts have virtually no attack, meaning that the notes and chords seem to fade in out of silence; guitar parts are similarly softened and altered, though they are often also significantly distorted. The resulting music is both deeply relaxing and ineffably sad, and at times it reminds me of Brian Eno’s Discreet Music in both its self-effacement and its melancholy. It’s utterly beautiful.


Pastor Champion
I Just Want to Be a Good Man
Luaka Bop (dist. Redeye)
6 80899 0096-5-2

Pastor Wiley Champion, originally of Louisiana (though he was notoriously unwilling to discuss his pre-ministry past), spent the last 40 years of his life as something of a circuit preacher in Northern California’s East Bay area, delivering the gospel message by both song and sermon. For this recording, he set up at the 37th Street Baptist Church in Oakland, invited in a few friends and family to act as an audience and contribute a little call-and-response, and settled in with his electric guitar to play and sing original compositions like “I Know That You’ve Been Wounded,” “Who Do Men Say I Am?”, and the deeply moving “I Just Want to Be a Good Man (to Be Used, by You).” On some tracks he’s joined by a few other local musicians — his son Sam on drums, a bass player he’d met the day before the sessions, etc. He passed away just a few years after these direct-to-tape recordings were made, leaving behind a powerful document of testimony and spiritual encouragement.


Sonic Area
Ki (Remixes) (digital only)
Ant-Zen
dig-089

Sonic Area is an electronica artist based in Strasbourg, France. Last year he released an album titled Ki, the Japanese word signifying the life force of the universe, that which animates the human being and endows him or her with vigor and courage. The music he created for this album is intended as an homage to various aspects of Japanese culture, both musical and spiritual/philosophical, and it incorporates field recordings, live instruments, electronic samples and beats, and other sonic ephemera to create an idiosyncratic but ultimately warm and deeply involving soundscape. This year a remix album was released, on which colleagues and collaborators like Zero Gravity, Chevalien, Nocto, and Noire Antidote took turns reimagining tracks from Ki and putting their own stylistic stamps on them. If anything, the results are even more compelling — if often quite a bit darker. Chevalien gives “Gongwar” a slowly thumping sub-house treatment, for example, while Rainh takes “Lotus” into murkier, glitchier territory than the original version occupied. Both albums are highly recommended.


Skeleton Crew
Free Dirt (Live) (2 discs)
Klanggalerie (dist. MVD)
GG389

Skeleton Crew didn’t last long, but they sure had a lot of fun while they did. The core membership was guitarist Fred Frith and cellist Tom Cora; for the 1982-83 concerts documented on disc 1 of this set their third member was reedman/keyboardist/percussionist Dave Newhouse; for the 1984-86 concerts on disc 2, they were joined by harpist/keyboardist/percussionist Zeena Parkins for what is now generally considered (or at least what I consider) the classic lineup. In reality, to call Frith a guitarist and Cora a cellist is to oversimplify things dramatically: both played a wild variety of homemade instruments that defy category, as indeed their music did: grooves and melodies frequently give way to scratches and caterwauls, and freely improvised noise lapses regularly into traditional folk tunes. One of the wonderful things about Fred Frith is that even when he’s making horrible noise, he does it with such obvious delight and with such a well-communicated sense of warmth and invitation that you find yourself just going with it and having a wonderful time. Cora, Newhouse, and Parkins all contribute to that same vibe on these delightful recordings.


Deadlights
Eleven Step Intervention
Thatwasmyskull Music
No cat. no.

Just a few months ago I recommended the eponymous debut album from Deadlights, which had come out earlier in 2021. When the second album arrived a few weeks ago I figured I probably wouldn’t cover it since I’d just recommended the previous album so recently — but it’s too good to let pass without comment. Once again, Jeff Shelton (who is essentially a one-man band here, as he is with his ongoing power pop project The Well Wishers) conjures a thoroughly winning fusion of shoegaze, dreampop, and 1990s Brit pop, creating a dense sonic structure through which lovely hooks emerge like whales breaching the surface of a beautiful but turbulent ocean. There are no weak tracks here, but the one that has me continually hitting “repeat” so I can sing harmonies in my car is “Dead Again.” Shelton is a once-in-a-generation talent, and he just keeps releasing outstanding albums no matter what name he’s recording under. For all libraries.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Various Artists
Our Island
Small Island Big Song
No cat. no.

Small Island Big Song is a multimedia project that has ongoing since 2015, and so far has resulted in a documentary film, a concert tour, various local outreach programs, and now a compilation album. The featured artists all represent “seafaring cultures of the Pacific and Indian Oceans”: indigenous music from Mauritius, New Zealand, Taiwan, Marshall Island, Tahiti, etc. The recordings were all made outdoors, and there’s a strong message of environmental reform and political protest throughout the program, though since the songs are performed in a wide variety of languages that message may not be immediately clear to most listeners. The music itself is stylistically varied but consistently very attractive: the packaging is eco-glamorous but unwieldy and frustrating, making it hard to tell who is performing which track, but if you’re just listening for pleasure there’s a lot of that to be had here.


Johrise Jojoba
Amourissime (digital only)
Self-released
No cat. no.

Irie Ites x Zenzile feat. Trinity
Can’t Blame the Youth
Dub It Up
DIU CD 01

As Jamaica has lost interest in producing roots reggae music — favoring instead bashment and R&B-inflected dancehall sounds — other regions have stepped up to provide it to a world audience still hungry for conscious lyrics accompanied by old-school rockers and one-drop rhythms. Berlin, Vienna, and (of course) London have long nurtured roots reggae scenes, but it’s important not to overlook the fertile reggae communities in Paris, Marseilles, and other areas of France. From the western city of Angers comes the gifted singer and songwriter Johrise Jojoba, whose new album Amourissime is replete with hooky melodies, tight harmonies, and uplifting messages about love and unity sung in both English and French. There’s a funky edge to tunes like “Good Vibes” and the soca-inflected “Auprès de toi,” but all the songs are solidly grounded in the roots-and-culture verities. The same can be said of the latest album from Zenzile, another Angers-based band; in 2019, the producer Irie Ites proposed to Zenzile that they all join with legendary Jamaican singer and toaster Trinity to record some new material while he was on tour in Europe. The project resulted in four songs; oddly enough, they’re presented here both in discomixes (in which a dub mix is appended seamlessly to the end of the regular vocal version) and in separate dub mixes. But the music is so good you won’t mind the rather idiosyncratic presentation. Trinity himself is as articulate and fluent in his delivery as he was during the roots-reggae heyday of the 1970s, and Zenzile’s steppers and rockers grooves are deep and powerful. Both albums are highly recommended.


WEMA
WEMA
!K7 (dist. Redeye)
K7403CD

“Wema” is a Swahili word that means “kindness and benevolence,” a concept that underlies the lyrical messages throughout the stylistically varied and rhythmically complex debut album from this Tanzanian group. While they sing mostly in Swahili (with occasional detours into Spanish), WEMA’s musical genre is much harder to pin down: their sound is texturally dense but light-footed at the same time, shifting nimbly from Latin to Afrobeat to a sort of pancultural electrodisco. Producer Photay creates richly orchestrated grooves punctuated with found-sound and environmental oddities, resulting in colorful and funky mixes that blend dark and light, human and electronic, and modern and ancient elements beautifully. Highlight tracks include “Kande” (with its charming samples of children singing) and the chugging “Bendir Bendir!”. (The digital copy provided to me for review purposes had some pretty significant sound-quality issues that I presume will not be present on the CD version.)


March 2022


CLASSICAL


Felix Mendelssohn
Violin Sonatas
Alina Ibragimova; Cédric Tiberghien
Hyperion (dist. Integral)
CDA68322

Although in musical terms he was a titan of the German Romantic tradition, in another very real sense we could consider Mendelssohn a Rennaissance man — an accomplished artist, poet, and polyglot as well as a once-in-generation composer, keyboardist, and conductor. And also, as it turns out, an excellent violinist and violist. He published one violin sonata during his life, but upon his untimely death he left behind unpublished manuscripts of two additional completed sonatas and one fragment. All of those works, including the fragment, are performed here by a pair of astoundingly virtuosic and tasteful young musicians whose fiery and exuberant style breathes fresh life into these works.


John Jenkins
Four-part Consorts
Phantasm; Daniel Hyde
Linn (dist. Naxos)
CKD677

Matthew Locke
The Flat Consort
Fretwork
Signum Classics (dist. Naxos)
SIGCD696

These two recent releases both focus on consort music for viols written by 17th-century English composers who are unjustly neglected today, but whose music was groundbreaking in its time. Jenkins in particular was known for his dedication to the idea that all voices in the consort should have equal status, and his harmonic writing was restless and highly dynamic. Locke, too, wrote music that had a distinctively bustling energy, and Fretwork’s recording of his “flat consorts” (a term for which I can’t seem to find a definition anywhere) is as vibrant as one would expect from this august group. Both of these recordings are highly recommended to all libraries with a collecting interest in English Renaissance music.


Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
The Complete Vocal Works (17 discs; reissue)
Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam / Harry van der Kamp
Glossa (dist. Naxos)
GCD922411

Sweelinck’s most significant musical contributions were as a keyboardist and organ composer — he was a pioneer of fugal composition before Bach — but his rich output of vocal music should not be overlooked. This magisterial collection brings together recordings made by the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam between 2003 and 2009 (and originally issued in separate sets) of his sacred and secular vocal compositions, including a full twelve discs of psalm settings. Chansons, madrigals, motets, and “sacred songs” are included as well, demonstrating both Sweelinck’s breathtaking productivity and his genius for rhythmic and contrapuntal invention. The Gesualdo Consort sing with impeccable intonation and a colorful blend, and are recorded in a dry, intimate acoustic that effectively showcases both the quality of their individual voices and the brilliance of Sweelinck’s part-writing. Any library that hasn’t already acquired these recordings in their original issues should seriously consider picking up this reasonably-priced box.


Robert Schumann
David Hyun-su Kim Plays Schumann
David Hyun-su Kim
Centaur (dist. Naxos)
CRC 3877

There are two notable things about this program of piano works by Robert Schumann. The first is the exceptional sensitivity and insight of David Hyun-su Kim’s playing; his delicacy of touch, his sense of dynamics, and his use of rubato set a standard for the performance of music by this 19th-century master. The second thing is the instrument: Kim plays a modern replica of a mid-century Graf fortepiano much like the one gifted to Robert and Clara Schumann at their wedding, and on which Schumann wrote the Carnaval suite of character pieces that is the centerpiece of this program. These works are clearly written with the Graf piano’s unique tonal qualities in mind, and Kim showcases both the brilliance of the music and those unique qualities beautifully. Highly recommended to all libraries.


JAZZ


Jason Wayne Sneed & Toshinori Kondo
Guardians of the Most Cosmic Shrine
Chant
CR2202JA

This was the last recording made by legendary jazz/avant-garde trumpeter Toshinori Kondo before his death in late 2020. It came about after Kondo met bassist and producer Jason Wayne Sneed at a show in Chicago in 2019; they decided to collaborate remotely on some music, and Sneed set to work creating backing tracks, over which Kondo played; shortly after the parts had been written, Kondo passed away. Sneed subsequently mixed the various parts together and created with them a richly impressionistic tapestry of sounds that brings to mind some of the dub projects of Bill Laswell. This is complex and gorgeous stuff, and it’s a shame that Sneed and Kondo were only able to produce 38 minutes of music together.


Lara Downes
Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered
Rising Sun (dist. Integral)
RS016

Ragtime music is something of an odd duck in the history of American art and jazz music. Unlike jazz it’s fully arranged and features no improvisation; unlike European classical music its rhythmic foundation is deeply rooted in Africa — and yet its harmonic structure is entirely European. In her interpretation of a program of works by the great ragtime composer Scott Joplin, pianist Lara Downes explores many of the stylistic ambiguities of this music, freely interpreting such familiar pieces as “Maple Leaf Rag” and “Solace,” while introducing us to lesser-known works as well, some of them in chamber-orchestral settings. Her playing is exquisitely sensitive, and she makes a powerful case here for Joplin’s genius.


Martin Wind/New York Bass Quartet
Air
Laika
3510401.2

There is every reason to expect a jazz album by a quartet of bass players to be unsuccessful. The bass is an instrument designed to do some things exceptionally well, but is not very well suited to other things — and some of those things are central to the success of a jazz album. Also, it has to be said that one intrinsic weakness of the instrument is how difficult it is to make it sound in tune when playing arco in higher positions. And yet, if there’s any bandleader who could make a project like this work, it’s Martin Wind, and sure enough he pulls it off. Throughout a highly diverse program that includes familiar works by Bach, Lennon/McCartney, and Joe Zawinul, he and his crew of fellow bassists (plus a few guests) coax fun and musically compelling arrangements out of this unusual and unlikely instrumental configuration. This album will be of particular interest to any library supporting a program of string pedagogy.


Fred Hersch
Breath by Breath
Palmetto
PM2198

I know I always rant and rave about every Fred Hersch album, but honestly, this one is truly special. It consists of pieces written for a combination of his usual piano trio and a string quartet, and stylistically it kind of ranges everywhere — from heartbreakingly sweet neoclassicism (“Awakened Heart”) to agitated near-avant-gardism (“Monkey Mind”) to fugue-based Third Stream jazz/classical fusion. Hersch being Hersch, the writing is of otherworldly beauty, and his ability to shift from hard-swinging grooves to ethereal impressionism remains both astounding and inspiring. Bassist Drew Gess and drummer Jochen Rueckert join the Crosby Street String Quartet on this date, and their ensemble sound is just tremendous. I can’t recommend this one highly enough.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Del McCoury Band
Almost Proud
Self-released (dist. Redeye)
MCM0022

I’ve pretty much gotten used to the idea that the whole first generation of bluegrass stars has left us. But it’s startling now to realize how few of the second generation are left. Del McCoury was a little boy when Bill Monroe was changing the whole stylistic calculus of country music, and starting in the late 1950s McCoury began a career that led to him becoming one of the preeminent torch-carriers of traditional bluegrass. At age 83 his voice is still improbably sharp and penetrating, and his sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo) still support him expertly. This album is exactly what you should be able to expect: hardcore tradgrass sung in a high-lonesome style and played and sung with tasteful virtuosity. (And with a little piano, but don’t hold it against them.)


The Cactus Blossoms
One Day
Walkie Talkie (dist. Redeye)
WT03

The obvious stylistic referent here would be the Everly Brothers (two guitar-playing guys sharing singing and songwriting duties on hook-filled pop/folk/country songs with tight harmonies), but the comparison is too facile. (Comparing them to the Louvin Brothers, as some have, is even more wrongheaded.) In fact, Jack Torrey and Page Burkum sound more like a time-stranded product of Laurel Canyon, with maybe a slight hint of Bakersfield. And that’s a compliment. The songs are gentle but firm, the lyrics sometimes subtly barbed; the arrangements are minimal and consistently perfect. Best couplet: “He was alive when I found him/His eyes were sad.”


Hank Williams
I’m Gonna Sing: The Mother’s Best Gospel Radio Recordings (2 discs)
BMG
538693070

A couple of years ago, I recommended a six-disc box set (with massive accompanying hardbound book) that brought together all of the recordings Hank Williams made for his short-lived Mother’s Best radio show in 1951. This two-disc extract brings together the gospel songs from that collection, in surprisingly good sound quality (considering that the original recordings were acetate discs rescued from a dumpster). Williams was a particularly effective gospel singer, and this collection of both original and traditional gospel tunes (some of them several centuries old) consists of recordings made when he was at the peak of his considerable vocal powers. Any library with a collecting interest in either country or gospel music (and that doesn’t already own the comprehensive Mother’s Best set) should seriously consider picking this up.


ROCK/POP


Jesse Norell
Aorta Borealis
Self-released
No cat. no.

The debut full-length by indie pop singer/songwriter Jesse Norell is a concept album of sorts, dealing with the emotional odyssey of having a child with trisomy 21 (a.k.a. Down syndrome) who has needed multiple heart surgeries. The lyrics are direct; there’s not much coy metaphor here. (“Another phone call from Cardiology/They told me little ones need nourishment for brain functionality,” he sings on “Lullaby for the Frail.”) The mood varies from anguished to celebratory, but what are consistent are the sweetness of his voice, the tunefulness of the songs, and the colorful brilliance of the production. Aorta Borealis will have you dancing around the room and singing along when it doesn’t have you crying on the couch. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Choked Up
Dichoso Corazon
Don Giovanni (dist. Redeye)
DG-259

If you, as I do, miss the days of meat-and-potatoes melodic pop punk, then the new album from Choked Up will come as a refreshing blast of slightly sweat-tinged fresh air. Listening to the bruising guitars and the tight vocals (and noticing the handful of Spanish-language songs), your first thought might be either “East Bay,” or “East L.A.,” but in fact this quartet is from Brooklyn. This isn’t technically their debut, but it’s their first with an entirely new lineup backing frontwoman Cristy Road, and they do sound reborn. One commenter on their Amazon page says this: “The lines I can make out are mainly about crushing on cute queers against a backdrop of fascist dystopia.” So there you go. Eleven songs, 30 minutes, no ballads — you know the drill.


Mōshonsensu
A Strange Dystopian Tundra
Rednetic
No cat. no.

There’s not much background information I can provide on this strange and beautiful album. Mōshonsensu is the pseudonym of Daryl Robinson, a producer based in Newcastle upon Tyne who describes his musical project like this: “I make music for strange ornaments, feathered animals and secret cults of people with strange minds.” A Strange Dystopian Tundra is the product of a period of serious depression, though it doesn’t necessarily sound that way. Floating atmospherics and distorted found-sound vocals are punctuated by funky grooves, field recordings (note the rhythmic use of a crow on “The Detectives Walk”), glitchy beat patterns, and even actual singing. The music is weird and unsettling and yet sometimes oddly comforting at the same time.


Josh Caterer
The SPACE Sessions
Pravda (dist. MVD)
PR6423

Josh Caterer, best known as the leader of the celebrated Chicago punk band Smoking Popes (and less known as the frontman for the less celebrated but equally fine Christian punk band Duvall) is back with a ripping live-in-the-studio set featuring a mix of original songs and covers, two of them featuring guest vocals by his daughter Phoebe. As always, his sweet tenor voice is like frosting on the crunchy core of his band’s aggro sound, and as always, he writes great tunes. It’s really fun to hear the band segue without a hitch from the sweet longing of “Something’ Stupid” to the anthemic guitar bombast of “Don’t Be Afraid,” and when Caterer jumps into “Smile” (yes, that “Smile“) it’s not nearly as disorienting as you might expect. Great stuff.


Jukebox the Ghost
Everything Under the Sun (10th anniversary vinyl reissue)
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)
YEP-2224X

My son introduced me to this stellar alt-pop band in the best way possible: by convincing his mom and me to accompany him and his girlfriend to a concert. It was the first time I’d ever heard Jukebox the Ghost’s music, and it was the perfect venue: their joyful, high-energy, hook-filled songs (and the crowd’s blissful response) threatened to lift the venue off its foundations. Now their second album, originally released in 2010 (and still available on CD), is being reissued on vinyl. And in the studio their sound is hardly any less energetic and thrilling than it is live. Pianist Ben Thornewill and guitarist Tommy Siegel share the vocals, while drummer Jesse Kristin lays down nimble but solid beats behind them; the tunes are absolutely sublime, as is the singing. It’s hard to overstate how much fun this album is. For all libraries.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Sussan Deyhim & Richard Horowitz
Desert Equations: Azax Attra (reissue)
Crammed Discs
MTM 8 CD

I think Iranian singer Sussan Deyhim is one of the most interesting and exciting vocalists in the world — I’ve never heard an album of hers that wasn’t both fascinating and entrancing. Desert Equations was originally released in 1986 and is now being reissued as part of the Crammed Discs label’s Made to Measure series. It finds Deyhim working with regular collaborator Richard Horowitz, who provides electronic accompaniment to Deyhim’s multitracked and frequently wordless vocals. Persian tradition, New York avant-gardism, minimalist repetition, and electro-funk are all put into a blender to create something that is unlike anything else you’ve heard before. Although the music is wildly different, this puts me in mind of the early work of Mouth Music, which took a somewhat similar approach to Celtic tradition, and with similarly thrilling results.


Uday Bhawalker; Hathor Consort; Romina Lischka
Dhrupad Fantasia
Fuga Libera (dist. Naxos)
FYG 783

Here’s one that I approached with some trepidation. I love classical Indian music and I love early European music — but I love ice cream and I love arugula, and that doesn’t mean I’d put them in the same bowl. But after spending some time with it, I found this to be both an intriguing concept (dhrupad singing achieved its peak of development at the same time that consort music was most popular in England) and a compelling musical experience. The vocal raga sections segue seamlessly into and out of works for varying combinations of flute and viols by the likes of Tobias Hume, Robert Parsons, and John Dowland; as per the strictures of Indian classical music, the program is divided into works for morning, afternoon, and night. It can be a bit unsettling to hear a dhrupad singer accompanied by a broken Renaissance consort — but unsettling isn’t always bad. Recommended to all adventurous classical and world-music library collections.


Mamak Khadem
Remembrance
Six Degrees
657036131422

Iranian singer/composer/educator Mamak Khadem has been called “one of the wonders of world trance music” by a major American newspaper, but I think that characterization does her and her music a disservice. The songs on Remembrance are not designed to help you enter a trance state; written in the wake of her father’s death during the COVID pandemic, they express grief and mourning and, ultimately, healing. They do so by fusing ancient poetry with contemporary music that sounds simultaneously modern and ancient, using a blend of traditional and Western instruments. Khadem’s voice is the central feature here, and her quavering melismas seem to express the grief that all of us have felt at various times during the past two dreadful years. For all collections.


Yungchen Lhamo
Awakening
Tibetan Arts Management (dist. Six Degrees)
No cat. no.

Singer/songwriter Yungchen Lhamo is originally from Tibet, but over the years has migrated to India, Australia, and New York, where she is currently based. Her globetrotting history has brought her into contact with many musicians from varying traditions, and her latest album is a collaboration with Spanish producer Julio García. He and her other musical collaborators bring a Spanish influence to the music that one might expect to clash somewhat with Lhamo’s very Tibetan melodies and singing style, but in fact the result of their project is music that seamlessly fuses multiple traditions — not into a featureless “world music” but into a polymorphous style that is instantly recognizable as Lhamo’s own. This is intense but also oddly relaxing music, and it’s very lovely.


February 2022


CLASSICAL


Various Composers
Pomerania: Music from Northern Germany and Poland (14th-15th Centuries)
Ensemble Peregrina / Agnieszka Budzińska-Bennett
Tacet (dist. Naxos)
TACET273

This is the fourth and (sadly) final volume in the Tacet label’s Mare Balticum series, which celebrates obscure early music from the Baltic region. As on the previous three volumes, which featured music from Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and northern Germany, Agnieszka Budzińska-Bennett leads the Ensemble Peregrina in a survey of forgotten and previously lost works found in various archives around the German-Polish region once known as Pomerania. Some of them have been preserved only incompletely, requiring Budzińska-Bennett to fill in a few musical blanks herself; many have never been recorded before or even heard in centuries. All of the music consists of single sung melodic lines, but this isn’t “plainchant” in the usual sense — it’s discursive, sometimes simple and sometimes elaborate, and occasionally almost ecstatic, in a style that those familiar with the music of Hildegard von Bingen will likely recognize. Like the previous volumes in this series, this one should be considered an essential purchase for any library that collects pre-baroque music.


Adriaen Willaert
Adriano 2 (digital/vinyl only)
Dionysos Now! / Tore Tom Denys
Evil Penguin

Creeping forward in time about 100 years, we have this absolutely luscious recording of Adriaen Willaert’s Missa Benedicta es along with a handful of motets and chansons. Willaert was one of the great Franco-Flemish masters, but one who has been relegated largely to the shadows of history in comparison to his more illustrious contemporaries like Josquin and de la Rue. The six-voice male Dionysos Now! ensemble seeks to remedy that with these sonically and musically sumptuous recordings (Adriano 1 was released last year), which not only showcase heartbreakingly beautiful compositions but also a surprisingly rich vocal sound; normally a small-force male ensemble isn’t my favorite, but this one sounds amazing. Sadly for library collections, the Evil Penguin label doesn’t release CDs, but these recordings will be available on vinyl as well as digitally.


Max Stern
Retrospective
Various Ensembles
Israel Music Institute
IMI-CD-64

Israeli composer Max Stern has been focused on producing what he calls “Biblical compositions” for many years. On this collection of works written between 1979 and 2009, he draws on themes both explicitly and implicitly related to the Bible and Bible history: on the more implicit side, there is a suite titled Three Ancient Pieces for flute and guitar (which draws on Davidic musical ideas), while a lovely large-scale work for orchestra titled Song of the Morning Stars celebrates the Biblical account of the creation. Hannah’s Song of Praise sets to music a beautiful text from the Book of Samuel, while the brief cantata Prophecy for the End of Days brings a more somber mood to the proceedings. All of the music is tonal and quite approachable, but departs in marked ways from some of the stylistic conventions of Western European classical music. Fascinating and lovely stuff, for all libraries.


Johann David Heinichen
Dresden Vespers
Ensemble Polyharmonique; Wrocław Baroque Orchestra / Jarosław Thiel
Accent (dist. Naxos)
ACC 24381

Various Composers
Gloria Dresdensis
Dresdner Barockorchester
CPO (dist. Naxos)
777 782-2

When the religiopolitical winds changed at the Dresden court with the (Protestant) Elector Prince’s marriage to (the very Catholic) Maria Josepha in 1719, its music had to change as well. Luckily for the court and its newlywed prince, the composer they had on hand was Johann David Heinichen, who was particularly well suited to creating the kind of sumptuous liturgical music that Maria Josepha had come to love in Vienna. This vespers service includes Dixit Dominus and Magnificat settings among other festal pieces, and is performed joyfully and colorfully by the always outstanding Ensemble Polyharmonique. During the same period, secular instrumental and theater music was flourishing in Dresden as well, and the Dresdner Barockorchester was formed 30 years ago to keep alive the flame of that unusually fertile musical time and place. Gloria Dresdensis brings together chamber and orchestral works from Dresden composers of the early- to mid-18th century including G.F. Händel, Antonio Caldara, Johann Adolf Hasse, and Giuseppe Pisendel: sonatas, sinfonias, overtures, and incidental music from an oratorio all rub shoulders on this crowded but consistently delightful program. The playing and the recorded sound are outstanding on both releases.


Leo Sowerby
Paul Whiteman Commissions & Other Early Works
Andy Baker Orchestra; Avalon String Quartet
Cedille (dist. Naxos)
CDR 90000 205

American composer Leo Sowerby is best known for his religious music (and has been called, in fact, the Dean of American Church Music). But between 1916 and 1925 he wrote a number of neoclassical and jazz-derived pieces, two of them direct commissions from Paul Whiteman intended to be played by members of his jazz orchestra. These works — Synconata and Symphony for Jazz Orchestra — bracket the program, which also includes two pieces for string quartet and one for piano and strings. All represent world-premiere recordings. The music is not nearly as jazzy as one might expect (particularly given the cover photo of Whiteman and his band). There are elements of jazz here, especially in the Symphony, but this is not jazz; it’s reasonably straight-up art music, and definitely art music of its time and place. This recording will be a fascinating resource for any library supporting the study of American music. For that purpose, the liner notes alone are almost worth the price of the disc.


JAZZ


Sylvie Courvoisier; Mary Halvorson
Searching for the Disappeared Hour
Pyroclastic
PR 17

“We both have an affinity towards darkening things,” says guitarist Mary Halvorson of her ongoing duo project with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, “which is great because you can start with a joyous melody and there’s all kinds of room to mess with it. We’re both really open to that.” You hear that happening all over the place on this challenging, complex, and ultimately (though not simply) joyous album. Halvorson’ unique tone and often unsettling approach to effects are on full display here: she’ll be playing a lyrical, clean-toned line that suddenly wobbles off into pitch-altered cartoon weirdness. Courvoisier, similarly, can switch from neoclassical decorousness to spiky atonality and back again at a moment’s notice. Together, they respond to each other’s subtlest gestures quickly and nimbly and always with a sense of clear musical logic, even when improvising in an entirely free style. Highly recommended.


Pete Malinverni
On the Town: Peter Malinverni Plays Leonard Bernstein
Planet Arts
302124

This recording was released at a fortuitous moment: a time when the general public’s attention had been turned once again to the music of one of America’s national treasures, composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein (thanks to Steven Spielberg’s reimagined film version of West Side Story). Here pianist Malinverni leads bassist Ugonna Okegwo and the magnificent drummer Jeff Hamilton through a respectful but still adventurous program of Bernstein show tunes including “I Feel Pretty,” “Somewhere,” and “Lonely Town.” (At the end of the album is a Malinverni original, a tribute titled “A Night on the Town.”) Malinverni’s style is an impressive blend of the lyrical and the off-kilter — long lines that evoke Bud Powell will suddenly give way to Monkish rhythmic dysjunction. Hamilton’s brush work is a quiet and subtle highlight, as it always is. For all jazz collections.


Piet Verbist
Secret Exit to Another Dimension
Origin
82838

I’ll be completely candid here: this isn’t my favorite jazz album of the year, or even the month. But I’m recommending it because I don’t see it as my job simply to share what I like — it’s my job to hip you to good music, and this album is objectively excellent, in terms of both the playing and (even more so) its structure and conception. Bassist Piet Verbist leads a trio that includes guitarist Hendrik Braeckman and drummer Lionel Beuvens, and they play a mixed program of originals and standards that shows off the group’s exceptional skill at arranging, as well as its impressive cohesiveness as a musical unit. Braeckman’s “Map Map” is an unusually complex chart, but wears its complexity lightly; Verbist’s arrangement of Charlie Parker’s “Cheryl” makes the tune entirely his own, and Beuvens’ “Bridge House” is a lovely, floating jazz waltz with a chord progression that stays just on the right side of predictable. Verbist keeps his solos to a minimum — always a wise choice for a bass player.


Chris Dingman
Journeys Vol. 1
Self-released
No cat. no.

The meditative pieces on the latest album from vibraphonist Chris Dingman have their roots in his Peace project, which I recommended in 2020. That five-disc set consisted of improvised pieces he played for his father while the latter was in hospice care. Journeys Vol. 1 is also a set of improvisations for solo vibraphone, but these were originally created for his weekly Bandcamp subscription; subscribers helped him to choose which tracks to include on the album. They find him continuing to explore ways in which music can heal and can take you on a journey; they are also informed by his study of other instruments, notably the mbira or thumb-piano. (In fact, once you know to listen for it, you’ll hear that instrument’s influence throughout the album.) As with Peace, the music is certainly soothing and pleasant — but because Dingman is a genuinely brilliant musician, it’s also much more.


FOLK/COUNTRY


The Pine Hearts
Lost Love Songs
Self-released
No cat. no.

When we think of the music scene in Olympia, Washington, what normally come to mind are the early days of grunge and the thriving local indie label K Records. And indeed, the Pine Hearts’ frontman Joey Capoccia came from the underground punk scene in that area — not that you’ll hear much of that influence in the Pine Hearts’ music. This is gentle, acoustic, folk- and bluegrass-derived pop music of the kind now generally called “Americana.” Guitar and mandolin are the instrumental foundation of these songs, with fiddle and banjo making regular appearances (notably on “Darling Don’t the Sunlight in Your Eyes,” which is not a typo, and “Ocean in Your Veins”); Capoccia’s reedy tenor is at the center, and his tendency to combine poetic lyrics with simple and straightforward melodies is what makes the songs such consistent winners. Very nice stuff.


Sarah Borges
Together Alone
Blue Corn Music
BCM2201

The title of Sarah Borges’ latest signals its context: this is a straight-up COVID album. She recorded it by remote means, sending voice-and-guitar demos to her producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, who then recruited session players who he knew would not only do a good job, but would be able to record their parts effectively at home. What Borges and Ambel have assembled from those disparate parts is an album that not only keenly reflects the anguish of the past two years (“It’s been a while now since I’ve seen my friends/Don’t know when I’m gonna see them again,” she sings) but also, improbably enough, sounds fantastic. Highlights include “Lucky Day,” a particularly hooky slab of country-rock, and “Wouldn’t Know You,” a powerful mid-tempo burner with through-composed harmonies. Borges is always impressive, and this is one of her best efforts so far.


ROCK/POP


Rhi & Telemachus
Dead Silk I & II (EPs; digital only)
Tru Thoughts
No cat. no.

Back in January 2018 I recommended Rhi’s album Reverie, which I hailed as basically a return of classic trip-hop informed by intervening developments in both bass music and R&B. Her latest is actually two releases, each of them billed as a “three-track single” featuring three songs alongside instrumental and a cappella versions, for a total of eighteen tracks across both EPs. Her general modus operandi hasn’t changed much: booming but not crushing basslines; slow tempos; huge sonic spaces; a voice that floats murkily rather than asserting itself in the mix and that declaims quietly rather than emoting. Producer Telemachus sounds like her musical soulmate here, and giving him equal billing seems only fair given how important his particular approach to sound is to these final products. The songs are brilliant and unsettling in equal measure.


Pip Blom
Welcome Break
Heavenly (dist. Integral)
HVNLP187CD

Opening with the absolutely perfect “You Don’t Want This,” the sophomore effort from Amsterdam’s Pip Blom builds on the success of their 2019 debut, Boat. This is guitar-based indie rock of a type that would have been called “post punk” in the 1980s and wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place in that decade: a vocal style that evokes the Sundays, and a tight but slightly messy guitar sound that falls somewhere between the Buzzcocks and Wire. The hooks aren’t quite as plentiful across the album as that opening track might lead you to expect, but the songwriting is a consistent pleasure and songwriter/lead singer Pip Blom (after whom the band is named) delivers everything with solid authority. For all pop collections.


Bev Lee Harling
Little Anchor
Wah Wah 45s
WAHCD039

Bev Lee Harling is a songwriter, singer, and violinist, and this only her second release since 2012. In the intervening period she’s become a mother, and Little Anchor finds her reflecting musically on the adventures of parenthood and all of the joys, frustrations, disappointments, and euphoria that experience can bring (sometimes within the space of an hour). The sound is multi-layered, mostly built on acoustic instrumentation (often her violin, played in a variety of ways) and mutitracked vocals, though electronic beats and samples find their way into the mix too. “Is it OK that I don’t know what I’m doing?” she asks on one song, and on another she pays tender tribute to her recently deceased mother. Nothing here sounds like anything else currently on the market, but it’s all perfectly accessible. In fact, rarely has an album as willfully odd as this one been so effortlessly enjoyable.


The Living Earth Show & Danny Clay
Music for Hard Times
Earthy
No cat. no.

Charles Richard
Sonic Earth
Glacial Movements
GM046

I have pretty broad musical tastes, but at every point on the spectrum of those tastes my criteria are very particular. I love reggae, but mainly roots-and-culture reggae from the 1970s; I love punk rock, but it has to be “I’m angry because I want the world to be better” punk rock rather than “no future” punk rock. I love classical music, but mainly classical music written between 1500 and 1820 or so; and so forth. I mention all of that by way of saying that I love ambient music, but it can’t just be wispy and pretty; it must also be interesting. Both of these releases hit that target cleanly. Music for Hard Times is a collaborative project between composer Danny Clark and an ensemble called the Living Earth Show, conceived during the COVID lockdown and designed to answer the question: “Is it possible for us to use the tools of classical art music to make people feel better?”. Your mileage will vary in that regard, of course, but I have a hard time imagining anyone failing to feel better while listening to heart-tuggingly gentle “Book 1, Part 4” or the beautiful but distinctly odd backwards instruments on “Book 2, Part 1.” On a very different tip is Charles Richard’s Sonic Earth LP, an album on which Richard seeks — no joking — to “synthesize the sound of rocks.” Here’s how it works, in his words: “My recording process starts with a prepared mineral stylus that scores the surface of the material. Recording this with a piezo electric contact mic, this long recording serves as the generator. The next stage is to play this recording back into the material via a vibrational surface speaker. This means that the material is vibrating to its own resonance and the surface noise is heard less and what you hear is a cleaner amplified version of the rocks resonance.” What’s the result? Music of serene, floating, and sometimes spooky beauty — music that is not so much about making you feel better as about helping you think about your natural environment in entirely new ways. (And as a bonus, it may also make you feel better.)


WORLD/ETHNIC


DJ Drez
The Parahamsa Mixes: White Swan Taking Flight (digital only)
White Swan
WS-0172

Producer DJ Drez (often in collaboration with his spouse, singer Marti Nikko) has been creating exceptionally groovy music for many years now, in a variety of styles that orbit around hip hop and dub reggae. To call it “club music” wouldn’t be quite accurate; his music generally comes very explicitly from a place of yogic/Hindu devotion, and that’s certainly the case with this new collection of remixes based on tracks from his labelmates at White Swan. “Abundant Jungle” is a slow, syrupy take on Zaire Black’s “Abundance,” while “Radha’s Paint” remixes a track from Stevin McNamara’s album Shakti Guitar and “Govinda Echoes” takes Masood Ali Khan’s “Govinda Gopala” and twists it gently into a dubbed-out space jam. Nikko makes several appearances on the program, and as always her contributions are highlights.


Artikal Sound System
Welcome to Florida
Controlled Substance Sound Labs
No cat. no.

On their first full-length release, Florida’s Artikal Sound System hit that elusive sweet spot: balancing pop hooks with old-school reggae rhythms, balancing a deep and bassy groove with a clean and modern sound, and balancing serious roots-and-culture messages with laments over romance gone wrong. Their sound is tight and clean and singer Logan Rex has a voice that sounds light at first but shows its core strength as you keep listening. “One with You” delivers a powerful message of unity, and segues nicely into the dancehall groove of “Too Soon,” with its gently anthemic chorus; “Dissolve” is a regretful kiss-off song, and “Cops and Robbers” is a jaunty ska workout with a sharp social message. Rarely do modern reggae albums deliver this nice a blend of thoughtfulness and fun. Highly recommended.


Gary Stroutsos & Stevin McNamara
Moonlight Meditations: Instrumental Sound Bath (digital only)
White Swan
WS238

I confess that I approached this release with interest, but also with a bit of trepidation. The title led me to be cautious about the depth/density of the musical content, and what looked like a rather casual invocation of yoga concepts in the track titles led me to wonder about its overall seriousness. But I can happily report that this is an interesting and musically satisfying album, one that draws on Indian classical tradition without using it as a shallow scrim of spiritual exotica, and that guitarist Stevin McNamara and flutist Gary Stroutsos (playing a bass flute, which brings an unusual and lovely tonality to the proceedings) create music that is both unique and oddly universal. Or maybe not “universal” but rather “nonspecific.” As the artists themselves put it, this album “doesn’t bridge two worlds; it creates its own.”




January 2022


CLASSICAL


Henri Hardouin
Complete Four-part Masses, Volume 2
St. Martin’s Chamber Choir / Timothy J. Krueger
Toccata Classics (dist. Naxos)
TOCC0423

I was deeply impressed by these world-premiere recordings of a cappella masses written just before the French Revolution. Henri Hardouin was maitre de chapelle at Rheims Cathedral until the Revolution forced him into hiding (as a priest, he was in serious danger); he remains deeply obscure, and his works are rarely published or recorded. But these Masses are absolutely gorgeous: simple and straightforward in structure, but melodically sweet and imbued with a golden light of devotion. The St. Martin’s Chamber Choir’s delivery is maybe slightly ragged in a few places, but the group performs these works with a hushed intensity and in a reverberant acoustic that showcase the music perfectly. Every library with a classical music collection should consider picking up this disc, as well as Volume 1.


Franz Anton Dimler
Three Clarinet Concertos
Nikolaus Friedrich; Kurpfälzisches Kammerorchester Mannheim / Johannes Willig
CPO (dist. Naxos)
555 209-2

Also from the height of the classical era comes this delightful set of three clarinet concertos written by Franz Anton Dimler, horn player (later double bassist) and composer at the court of Carl Theodor of the Palatinate. These pieces were written near the end of the 18th century, and were probably intended to be played by Dimler’s son, who was a musician in the court at Munich at the time. There are some interesting formal innovations in this music, but the casual listener will be struck primarily by its melodic sweetness with that slight edge of melancholy that is the unique province of the clarinet. Three of the pieces on this outstanding disc represent world-premiere recordings; soloist Nikolaus Friedrich displays consistently lovely tone.


Jacob Regnart
Missa Christ ist erstanden
Cinquecento
Hyperion (dist. Integral)
CDA68369

Various Composers
Josquin’s Legacy
The Gesualdo Six / Owain Park
Hyperion
CDA68379

Throughout 2021 — the 500th anniversary of the death of Josquin des Prez — I kept expecting a bumper crop of new recordings of music by that towering figure in the Franco-Flemish choral tradition. It never really materialized, though that doesn’t mean there weren’t some fine recordings from that tradition. Jacob Regnart is one of the less fully appreciated inheritors of Josquin’s legacy, a Douai-born composer who flourished at the Innsbruck Court of Archduke Ferdinand II. There he used music (notably these two Easter Masses) to help advance the cause of revitalizing Catholicism in Germany in the wake of the Lutheran Reformation. The music is gorgeous, and this recording should help bring more recognition to Regnart’s significant contribution to the development of Renaissance choral music. Other Franco-Flemish composers who followed in Josquin’s footsteps include Adrian Willaert, Jean l’Héritier, Antoine de Févin, and Antoine Brumel, all of whom are featured on the Josquin’s Legacy collection by the Gesualdo Six, which focuses particularly on the influence Josquin had at the court of Ferrara during the late 15th and early 16th century. There are no Mass settings here; instead, the program explores a wide range of motets; some are lamentations on the deaths of fellow composers, some are Latin texts with political overtones; some are works of Marian devotion. Both of these recordings are by small, all-male ensembles, and both feature a surprisingly rich and creamy ensemble sound. Both are highly recommended to all libraries.


Various Composers
Fresca Barocca
Jared Hauser; Christopher Stenstrom; Francis Perry; Polly Brecht
Blue Griffin (dist. Albany)
BGR573

This is a beautifully recorded and sweetly performed collection of oboe sonatas by Handel, Vivaldi, Geminiani, Telemann, and a dance suite by François Couperin. Playing on what seems to be a mix of modern and period instruments, cellist Christopher Stenstrom, lutenist Francis Perry, and harpsichordist Polly Brecht provide support to the outstanding oboist Jared Hauser, whose lightness of touch and purity of tone are a delight throughout. The quality of the compositions themselves is noteworthy too, of course — Telemann’s wonderful F-major sonata is a particular standout, as is the liltingly beautiful sixth suite from Couperin’s Concerts royaux. This would make a fine addition to any library with a collecting interest in baroque music.


JAZZ


Mareike Wiening
Future Memories
Greenleaf Music
GRE-CD-1088

As regular readers will have gathered by now, my tastes in jazz run to the straight-ahead: I tend to favor jazz that swings powerfully, that is melodically tight and coherent, and that works within relatively traditional structures. But there are exceptions, and drummer/composer Mareike Wiening’s second album as a leader is one such. It’s not that her music is “out,” at least in any fundamental sense: it swings (mostly), and it follows well-structured chord progressions. But her progressions are intriguingly impressionistic, often following unusual paths that slip and slide and leave you unsure where she’ll go next. She and her sidemen play with such confident communication, though, that you’ll never be left feeling lost or confused; on a tune like “Dance into July” or the aptly titled ballad “An Idea Is Unpredictable,” you can listen with relaxed confidence that no matter where the changes take you, it will be someplace interesting and lovely. As unusual as it is, this is one of my favorite jazz releases of the year.


Mathias Eick
When We Leave
ECM
2660

Even by ECM standards, this is an unusually lovely and lyrical album of contemporary jazz. Norwegian trumpeter and composer Mathias Eick has become a major figure on the scene in recent years, and on his newest album he leads a septet that, unusually, features two drummers and a steel guitar along with violin, piano, and bass. While this could reasonably lead one to expect cacophony or at least gentle chaos, Eick’s arrangements create just the opposite: the music floats and flows, every musician creating something unique but leaving the others plenty of room to move. There’s a deep melancholy here, reflecting events of the past year, but an equally deep joy. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Eva Cassidy
Live at Blues Alley: 25th Anniversary Edition (reissue)
Blix Street (dist. ADA)
G2-10218

This is a remastered reissue of a landmark album, one that was recorded for the purpose of giving the hair-raisingly talented singer Eva Cassidy something that she and her band could sell at gigs to raise extra money. Several months later she had died of cancer; posthumously, her star rose and she became a multi-platinum-selling artist who found a particularly enthusiastic audience in the UK. If you’re not already familiar with her work, this album clearly demonstrates what all the fuss was about: her voice is one of the wonders of nature. On this set she glides, shouts, and croons her way through jazz standards (“Cheek to Cheek,” “Autumn Leaves,” “What a Wonderful World”), blues burners (“Stormy Monday”), R&B (“Take Me to the River”) and pop (jaw-dropping versions of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Fields of Gold”), leaving her personal stamp on every familiar tune. I can’t say enough about how gorgeous her voice is and how beautifully her band supports her. And the remastered sound is amazing.


Michael Bakan; Brian Hall; Longineu Parsons
A History of the Future (digital only)
Tribal
TR33

Not normally a big fan of jazz ensembles that don’t include a chordal instrument, I nevertheless found myself really enjoying this unusual set by trio Michael Bakan (drums), Brian Hall (bass), and Longineu Parsons (trumpet, cornet, flute, recorder). As tune titles like “St. James Infirm,” “Creole,” and “New Orleans Twisted” would suggest, the compositions tend to be centered on slippery, second-line rhythms, and structurally they don’t seem to hew very consistently to the usual head-solos-head approach: they’re certainly not unstructured, but there’s a looseness to the arrangements that adds to the general sense of fun and extemporaneity — another way in which the spirit of New Orleans imbues this whole album. For all jazz collections.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Valerie Smith
Renaissance
Bell Buckle
BBR4042

There are lots of ways to modernize the bluegrass formula: you can add jazz chord changes, you can add drums and/or electric bass, you can cover pop songs. Or you can do what Valerie Smith does, which is simply use bluegrass instrumentation to accompany rootsy songs that may or may not come from the strict folk or bluegrass tradition, sometimes playing them with that familiar drive and energy and sometimes harnessing the instruments to a more mellow and introspective style. And when you do it with this much skill, the results are consistently impressive — note in particular her take on Jude Johnstone’s gorgeously regretful “On That Train,” and the honky-tonking “Dancing with the Stars.” The intense, bluesy gospel number “The Great I Am” is a highlight, too. Smith’s voice is clear and strong, with a pleasantly grainy edge to it. Highly recommended.


Julie Christensen
11 from Kevin: Songs of Kevin Gordon
Wirebird
No cat. no.

I confess that I had never heard of Kevin Gordon before receiving a copy of this disc for review. But singer/songwriter Julie Christensen has admired her Nashville colleague for years, and now we can all hear why. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop program (where he earned a master’s degree in poetry), Gordon is unusually gifted at crafting evocative and thought-provoking lyrics: on “Fire at the End of the World” his verbal cadence and lyrical imagery intensely recall middle-period Tom Waits, while “Gloryland” is a dark-hued condemnation of religious hypocrisy, which Christensen delivers with prophetic intensity. Christensen’s voice is gritty and her intonation occasionally wavers, but the strength of her delivery is undeniable and the arrangements are both rootsy and rocking.


ROCK/POP


Various Artists
Sacred Soul: The D-Vine Spirituals Records Story, Volumes 1 & 2
Bible & Tire Recording Co.
BTRC018

Juan D. Phipps grew up in Memphis in the 1940s and 1950s, playing music on the sly and swearing he’d never become a preacher like his father. He actually did — but his musical background took him in a slightly different direction. He also started the D-Vine Spirituals label, recording local talent like the Gospelaires, Elizabeth King & the Gospel Souls, the Shaw Singers, and the Pure Heart Travelers and garnering significant local airplay and winning regional competitions. Now 28 of his label’s original 45s are gathered together on these two CDs, and I can promise you they sound different from anything you’ve heard before. This isn’t smooth, tight-harmony gospel music; it’s raw-boned, rocking, occasionally slightly scary gospel music, music that sometimes sounds exactly like 50s and 60s R&B except for the lyrical subject matter. For all pop music collections.


Oneiros Way
The Dawn Is Near (digital only)
Dischi del Minollo
No cat. no.

I keep wanting to say this album is “fun,” but that’s entirely the wrong word. Oneiros Way makes music that explores a dark region between dream pop, trip-hop, synthpop, and shoegaze. Maybe the word “fun” keeps popping into my mind because I love the juddering basslines, or maybe I’m tickled by the group’s occasional language shifts (from Italian to English and back), or maybe it’s the subtle puckishness that emerges from time to time, like with the 6/8 rhythms and synthesized banjo sounds on “Glass Bell” ; I don’t know. I do know that the debut album by this duo, presented only as “Regina” and “Claudio,” contains some of the more engaging pop and pop-adjacent music I heard in 2021.


Robert Görl & DAF
Nur noch Einer
Grönland
CDGRON227

Let’s be very clear about this one, though: the word “fun” will not enter your mind while listening to it. That’s partly because the music of Deutsch Amerikanische Freundshaft (DAF) has been edgy and intense throughout the duo’s 40-year on-and-off career, and it’s partly because the circumstances under which this album was created were sad and disappointing. Multi-instrumentalist Robert Görl and singer/lyricist Gabriel Delgado were scheduled to go back into the studio together after a long hiatus, when Delgado died suddenly of a heart attack. Görl moved forward with recording plans, in large part as a tribute to Delgado, but the shape of the project changed: he and Delgado had been digging through the DAF archives and finding previously-unreleased instrumental tracks, to which the latter was planning to add improvised lyrics in the studio. Instead, Görl wrote and recorded his own. The resulting sound is vintage 1980s electro pop, maybe less “pop” than “electro,” with stiff but energetic beats and lyrics that are declaimed more than sung. To paraphrase David Thomas, this is just the sort of thing for people who like this sort of thing. And I do.


Birds of Passage
The Last Garden
Denovali
DEN366

This is Alicia Merz’s fifth album under the name Birds of Passage, and her first in three years. As always, her music explores a deep inner space that the reclusive artist shares with the world only in this way. Her voice is hushed, breathy, and multi-tracked, making the words a bit hard to discern; the music itself is similarly soft and layered, often invoking artists like Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine, but with less edge (in the latter case) and less melodic hookiness (in the former). There’s a deeply appealing beauty to it, though, and at her best Mertz demonstrates how much you can do with atmosphere and texture. Highly recommended.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Céu
Um Gosto del Sol (digital only)
Urban Jungle/Warner
No cat. no.

The latest from Brazilian singer/songwriter Céu finds her returning to her roots — which is to say, cover versions. This is actually her first cover album, but when she was first getting started as a singer, living in New York and working day jobs, it was performing covers that helped her establish her voice. And now, a couple of decades into a successful career recording her own songs, she’s looking back and interpreting songs by others that have been meaningful to her. They range from the very familiar (“Feelings,” which she manages, against all odds, to make entirely her own, and João Gilberto’s pioneering “Bim Bom”) to songs that only adepts of Brazilian pop are likely to recognize (Ismael Silva’s samba “Ao Romper de Aurora,” Carlos & Jocafi’s “Teimosa”). The settings are all simple but elegant, and largely acoustic, the better to showcase Céu’s delicately gorgeous voice.


Dom la Nena
Tempo
Six Degrees
No cat. no.

And speaking of delicately gorgeous, check out the latest from another top-notch Brazilian talent. Dom La Nena is a singer, songwriter, producer, and cellist originally from Brazil but currently based in Paris. Her latest album is quiet but complex, both musically and emotionally; there’s a sunniness to her songs, but a gentle melancholy as well. All of the sounds were produced by her, including the percussion parts (which were created by tapping on her cello). On songs like “No Tengas Miedo” the parts are gently but densely layered, whereas on others (notably the butterfly-light “Moreno”) every sound feels like it could blow away at any moment. She writes subtle but lovely melodies and sings them in a slightly breathy voice that never feels in any way insubstantial. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Rachel Magoola
Resilience: Songs of Uganda
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
EUCD2948

On her latest album, legendary Ugandan singer and songwriter Rachel Magoola makes a triumphant return to the world stage with a set of songs that are much more serious than they sound at first listen. If you don’t speak Lusoga, Acholi, Gisu, Ateso, or Rukiga (the languages in which she performs on this album), you’d be hard put to hear the anguish that underlies songs like the sweet and sprightly “Bufuubi” or the frantically bumping and horn-driven “Maama Mutesi.” The theme of “resilience” is very important here; it explains how these songs can be simultaneously so celebratory and so concerned with tribulation and hardship. The music itself is a wonderful, uplifting mix of modern and traditional instruments with beautiful call-and-response vocals. I can’t recommend this one strongly enough.

December 2021


CLASSICAL


Philip Glass
Maya Beiser x Philip Glass
Maya Beiser
Islandia Music
No cat. no.

For those who think Philip Glass’s music is mostly a bunch of endless arpeggios, cellist/arranger/producer Maya Beiser is here to set you straight. On this album she has arranged several of Glass’s piano etudes, the concert pieces Mad Rush and Music in Similar Motion, and selections from his opera scores for multitracked cello, and her arrangements demonstrate not only the complexity of Glass’s music but also his gradual evolution from repetitive minimalism into a sort of neo-Romantic expressivism. Those familiar with her work won’t be surprised by the virtuosity or the richness of her tone, but the inventivenss of her arrangements is also exceptional. A release for all libraries with a collecting interest in contemporary classical music.


Šimon Brixi
Music from Eighteenth-century Prague
Hipocondria Ensemble / Jan Hádek
Supraphon (dist. Naxos)
SU 4293-2

I’m really a sucker for world-premiere recordings of relatively ancient music — I love listening to music and thinking about the fact that it hasn’t been previously heard by anyone currently alive. And when the music is exceptionally beautiful, that makes the experience even more exciting. Šimon Brixi was a member of a distinguished Bohemian musical family (with genealogical connections to the celebrated Bendas); born at the end of the 17th century, he settled in Prague in his early 20s and began studying the law. But he abandoned the law for music and established himself as a church organist and composer. Despite significant regional renown, fewer than 40 of his works have survived. This outstanding recording features a Mass and a Magnificat setting, along with several briefer sacred works. All but the Magnificat are recorded here for the first time; the Hipocondria Ensemble (on period instruments) play with a lovely balance of lightness and solidity, and the singing of soloists Hana Blažíková and Jaromír Nosek is particularly noteworthy. For all collections.


Georg Benda
Piano Concertos
Howard Shelley; London Mozart Players
Hyperion (dist. Integral)
CDA68361

And speaking of the Benda family: I’ve been monitoring the Hyperion label’s The Classical Piano Concerto series with great delight ever since it was instituted in 2014. Now on its eighth volume, the series brings us four concertos by Georg Benda, a contemporary of C.P.E. Bach and Johann Stamitz better known today for his theatrical work than for his concert pieces. But pianist Howard Shelley and the London Mozart Players (all playing on modern instruments) make a powerful case here for Benda’s skill and even his importance in the latter arena, demonstrating how he helped build the bridge that linked the end of the baroque era with the beginning of the classical. Playing with relatively small forces (strings only apart from the piano soloist), Shelley and his group demonstrate Benda’s mastery of idiom and his forward-thinking structural ideas, and the entire album is a delight. Highly recommended to all classical collections, along with the previous volumes in the series.


Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin
Flute Sonatas & Concerto
Le Petit Trianon
Ricercar/Outhere (dist. Naxos)
RIC 428

These completely delightful chamber works for flute and strings (plus bassoon) come from the pen of celebrated flutist Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin, who is believed to have traded flute lessons for composition training from Johann Jacob Bach, brother of Johann Sebastian. He was a musician in the Dresden court in the early 18th century, and later spent many years in service to the King of Poland. This program features three sonatas and one chamber concerto, all of which showcase Buffardin’s unusually sweet lyricism and are exquisitely played by the Geneva-based ensemble Le Petit Trianon, featuring flute soloist Olivier Riehl. Strongly recommended to all classical collections.


Louis de Caix d’Hervelois
Dans le sillage de Marin Marais: Pièces de viole et autres oeuvres
La Rêveuse
Harmonia Mundi (dist. Integral)
HMM 902352

Henry Purcell
Fantazias
Chelys Consort of Viols
BIS (dist. Naxos)
BIS-2583

Henry Purcell, one of England’s greatest composers, was only 20 years old when he composed his set of fantasias and In Nomines for an unspecified consort of instruments. He was creating surprisingly old-fashioned music for a young court composer, and it’s possible that these pieces served primarily as compositional exercises for him; nevertheless, they show his budding genius and are exceptionally lovely. The Chelys Consort of Viols makes a strong case both for their significance in Purcell’s oeuvre and for their attractiveness as chamber music. A few years later, across the Channel, the viol was still in fashion as a solo instrument and as a featured element in a “broken” consort (an ensemble of different instruments). In France, Marin Marais was the undisputed king of the viol, and a new recording by the La Rêveuse ensemble features the work of one of Marais’ little-known students: Louis de Caix d’Hervelois. He came into his own in the Regency period of the early 18th century, and wrote for both the five-string pardessus de viole and for the transverse flute, which was just coming into fashion. This program consists primarily of suites written for viol and continuo (the latter played by varying combinations of bass viol, theorbed lute, and harpsichord) plus one suite for traverso and continuo and several brief transcriptions for viol and for solo lute and guitar. This is gentle music, elegant in a rather self-effacing way, but quite inventive and beautifully played. I might have wished for a slightly warmer and more colorful recorded sound, but this is an excellent album overall.


JAZZ


Dave Miller Trio
The Mask-erade Is Over
Summit (dist. MVD)
DCD 784

One of the things I love about pianist Dave Miller is the way he combines disciplined, fleet-fingered linear technique with a lush, almost orchestral sound. Not as lush as Errol Garner or Bill Evans, and not as linear as, say, Bud Powell, but Miller’s style hovers somewhere on the spectrum between those artists, moving easily along that spectrum, sometimes in the course of a single tune. His latest album (with its somewhat prematurely optimistic title) is a joyful romp through a program of standards including several classic bop tunes (he opens with a thrilling take on Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology”), American Songbook standbys, and a couple of relatively obscure numbers. Bassist Andrew Higgins and drummer Bill Belasco accompany him more than ably, and Belasco’s subtle brushwork is a particular highlight.


Gordon Grdina
Pendulum
Attaboygirl
ABG-1

Gordon Grdina is back with a third solo album of pieces for guitar and oud (a fretless lute used in many Middle Eastern cultures). The music is a mix of fully composed and improvised pieces. On some of them you can hear jazzy and even bluesy influences poke through (most notably about halfway through “Benbow Blues”), and on others he explores more Arabic melodic ideas (“Wayward”). But much of the time this music is culturally unidentifiable, functioning as an expression of Grdina’s unique and unbelievably nimble musical mind. It’s not that he doesn’t respect or acknowledge his musical debts, just that he takes his influences and runs with them in a variety of directions, none of which can easily or accurately be pigeonholed as an expression of any one particular musical genre. You’ll find him in the Jazz section because that’s where he’s tended to be in the past, but jazz fans will scratch their heads at this release. And I mean that in a good way.


Futari
Underground
Libra
202-069

And while we’re exploring the misty borders of jazz/no-jazz, let’s check out the most recent release from pianist/composer Satoko Fujii. Futari is the name of her duo project with vibraphonist and marimba player Taiko Saito, and they’ve been working together for some years now as an improvising duo. When COVID forced the cancellation of a planned tour last year, they decided to create music together remotely, by exchanging sound files. Interestingly, this led to a creative process that was still improvisational, and yet allowed the possibility of multiple takes for each musician before the final version was settled upon. How’s the music itself? As gorgeous and complex as one would expect from these two players, sometimes knotty but mostly highly approachable. Saito plays with a bow quite a bit, and some of the album’s most delightful moments (such as the exceptional “Break in the Clouds”) are defined significantly by the contrast between Saito’s floating vibes chords and Fujii’s gentle, pointillistic piano lines. This is a marvelous album overall and would make a welcome addition to any serious jazz collection.


Doug MacDonald
Serenade to Highland Park
DMACMUSIC
No cat. no.

Leading a trio that also includes bassist Mike Flick and drummer Paul Kreibich, guitarist Doug MacDonald takes us through a lovely set that focuses on standards, and takes a couple of detours into original compositions. MacDonald is showing off his stylistic range here, veering happily from Latin classics (“Manhã de Carbaval,” “Brazil”) to subtly funky blues (“Next Time You See Me”), to fierce midtempo burners (“Dearly Beloved”). He’s also showing off his unusual facility for chord solos, which are everywhere and always fun. Flick and Kreibich give him the best and most solid support any leader could ask for. This is a great album all around.


FOLK/COUNTRY


George Jackson
Hair & Hide
Self-released
GJ-02

There is hardly a sound more archetypally American than the combination of fiddle and banjo, and on this album fiddler George Jackson celebrates that sound with a variety of A-list banjo players including Jake Blount, Brad Kolodner, and Catherine “BB” Bowness. He plays two tunes with each of them: a traditional number and a tune that he wrote for each banjoist with his or her particular playing style in mind. The result is an absolutely delightful kaleidoscope of tunes that shifts constantly from hardcore Appalachian mountain tonalities to the jazzier realms of newgrass — though it’s sometimes difficult to tell which tune is old and which one is new (except in the case of “Food, Coffee & Kisses,” which sounds a bit like, er, freejazzgrass). Notable here are the sounds of different kinds of banjos played in different styles: resonator-backed instruments played in Scruggs style, open-back banjos played using clawhammer technique, fretless gourd banjos, etc. This is a thoroughly delightful album.


Legendary Shack Shakers
Cockadoodledeux
Alternative Tentacles
VIRUS 508

As someone who grew up buying Dead Kennedys albums, it’s a little disorienting to be reviewing what amounts to a neo-country album released on the Alternative Tentacles label (and one that features former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra as a guest vocalist, no less). The music veers from relatively traditional bluegrass (“Tickle Yore Innards”) to chugging honky-tonk (“They Won’t Let Me Forget”) to a sort of queasy norteño (“Godforsaken Town”) to rollicking rockabilly (“U-Can-Be-a-Star”). And it does all of that within the first five tracks. Then we get a Texas polka. All of it is delivered with a deceptively loose-sounding tightness, and the lyrics are slyly subversive. Overall, this album is a real hoot.


SUSS
Night Suite (EP; digital only)
Northern Spy (dist. Redeye)
NS147

The world’s best (likely the world’s only) country-ambient supergroup is back again, this time with a digital-only EP of what has now become the band’s unique stock in trade: long-form instrumentals that employ classic country-music tropes (gently whining pedal steel, deeply twangy Telecaster licks, etc.) to create gorgeously abstract soundscapes — think of Brian and Roger Eno’s Apollo soundtrack, but wearing cowboy boots rather than a spacesuit. Don’t be fooled, though; this is music of significant sophistication no matter how easy it may be on the ear. My only quibble is that albums like this shouldn’t be EPs — they should be at least 70 minutes long. Once you’re in this mood you don’t want to come up to the surface again after only 19 minutes.


ROCK/POP


Deadlights
Deadlights
Thatwasmyskull Music
No cat. no.

Well Wishers
Spare Parts (digital only)
Thatwasmyskull Music
No cat. no.

Well Wishers is the nom de power pop of singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Shelton, also known as the frontman for the similarly-inclined Bay Area band Spinning Jennies, who broke up in 2004. Shelton has since released over a dozen albums under the name Well Wishers, and the most recent is a digital-only compilation of outtakes and unreleased tracks spanning a period of ten years. As always, Shelton’s feel for a hook and his love of multi-layered guitars (not to mention his fine voice and skillful harmony singing) create a perfect crunchy-pop listening experience. Interestingly, he’s established a musical side hustle as well: a dreampop/Britpop project called Deadlights. On Deadlights’ eponymous debut album Shelton’s sound is a bit denser and also a bit softer around the edges than his Well Wishers music. There’s a somewhat shoegaze-y vibe here on some of these songs — I sometimes get a lovely whiff of Cocteau Twins mixed with the Sundays — but the pure pop sensibility is still strong and Shelton’s voice is easily recognizable. Both of these albums would make a welcome addition to any library’s pop music collection.


Garza
Daydream Accelerator (digital only)
Magnetic Moon
No cat. no.

Rob Garza is better known as half of the legendary downtempo electronica duo Thievery Corporation, with whom for over 25 years he’s been the architect of a groundbreaking club vibe that fuses elements of Brazilian, lounge, dub, and trip hop sounds. Now breaking out as a solo artist, Garza has put together a wide-ranging album of club and dreampop tunes in collaboration with vocalists including Enemy Planes, Racquel Jones, and EMELINE. None of the music here will shock or startle a Thievery Corporation fan, but Garza is definitely charting his own territory here: you might expect a song titled “We Want Blood” to be somewhat aggro, but in fact it’s gently bumping dream-house; “Talkin” is solid but soft-edged dancehall, while “Swim to Shore” is dubbed-up synth pop with a gently insistent hook. Very nice stuff.


VILIFY
Illusion of Self (digital/vinyl only)
Ohm Resistance
63M OHM

The Ohm Resistance label bills itself as “specialists in subsonic grief-bass programming,” and if that description sounds a bit tongue-in-cheek, well, listen to a few of its releases and you’ll get it. That being said, the new Ohm Resistance release by Berlin-based artist Villify takes a somewhat softer and kinder tack than that of many other musicians on the label’s roster. This is definitely bass music, and it’s definitely dark and moody, but it’s also restrained and very carefully orchestrated. “Road to Eleusis” flirts with a drill’n’bass tempo but keeps the focus on floating chords and ethereal textures, and the title track does something similar, also incorporating unidentifiable shards of vocals; “Ultimate Complexity” brings a somewhat tribal flavor to the proceedings. All of it is deeply enjoyable and only slightly unsettling (and only in the best way). Highly recommended.


Birds of Passage
The Last Garden
Denovali (dist. Redeye)
No cat. no.

Alicia Merz is a New Zealander who records — quite sporadically — under the name Birds of Passage. She doesn’t share much with the public about her personal life, but based purely on the evidence of this, her fifth album, she’s not necessarily a life-of-the-party type. Song titles like “It’s Too Late Now,” “Worship My Flaws,” and “Petite mort” give you an idea of what to expect: shimmering soundscapes built out of exceeding subtle chord progressions played by radically fuzzed-out instruments; vocals whispered as much as sung; melodies that pile up as gently and quietly as feathers falling. Hooks? Eh, no. And yet the album is tremendously engaging and richly rewards a close listen.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Shjujaat Husain Khan; Katayoun Goudarzi; Shaho Andalibi; Shariq Mustafa
This Pale
Lycopod
LR 002109

This album was recorded with, in part, a non-musical purpose: to try to come to an understanding of how the United States — where 13th-century Sufi mystic Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi has been the best-selling poet for almost 20 years — could have succumbed to such broad and powerful anti-Muslim sentiment over the past several years. Katayioun Goudarzi (voice), Shujaat Khan (sitar), Shaho Andalibi (ney), and Shariq Mustafa (tabla) decided to make an album consisting entirely of setting of Rumi’s love poems, and the result is this quietly intense and utterly gorgeous recording. The COVID pandemic forced the quartet to record mostly asynchronously, but the production is so fine and the performances so empathic that you would swear they were all in the same room with you. And Goudarzi’s voice is a wonder. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Marcus Gad Meets Tamal
Brave New World (digital & vinyl only)
Easy Star/Baco
No cat. no.

Marcus Gad hails from New Caledonia, a French protectorate in the South Pacific; for several years now, he’s been engaged in an ongoing collaboration with French producer Tamal. The latest fruit of that collaboration is this outstanding album of music that could loosely be called reggae but that regularly strays far from the usual reggae formulas. “Sunshine,” for example, is written in 6/8, while “Break the Spell” is a sort of hip hop fusion and “Treasure” is more R&B than anything else. Gad’s adopted Jamaican accent provides the only link to reggae tradition in many cases, but it also serves as the continuous thread that holds the album’s many stylistic excursions together. Very nice overall.


Jhelisa
7 Keys, Vol. 2 (digital only)
Dorado
No cat. no.

If you recognize Jhelisa Anderson’s name, there’s a good chance it’s from her 1990s work as a funk-soul diva, releasing acclaimed solo work while also appearing alongside the likes of the Shamen, Massive Attack, Soul Family Sensation, and even Björk. in 2018, after a long hiatus from solo recording, she made an album of drone-based music for meditation titled 7 Keys. Now she’s back with 7 Keys Vol. 2 (the first volume is being reissued simultaneously), and on these two albums she creates tracks at different frequencies designed to activate different chakras (bodily centers of focus during meditation, as outlined in mystical strains of Hinduism). Thus, each track is named according to a particular frequency, and each is built on a single droned pitch, sung by Anderson — though other pitches are often layered quietly around the central one. Beats enter the picture as well, from time to time, and occasional melodic melismas. The result is an album that those so inclined can use as an aid to meditation, but can also serve as deeply relaxing New Age/ambient mood music.

November 2021


CLASSICAL


Johann Sebastian Bach
The Overtures: Original Versions
Concerto Copenhagen / Lars Ulrich Mortensen
CPO (dist. Naxos)
555 346-2

Bach’s four overtures BWV 1066-1069 (also known as the Orchestral Suites) are most commonly played in late arrangements that include tympani and trumpets. But there is evidence to suggest that the earliest versions were written for strings and minimal winds, with no percussion, and that these elements were added later when Bach was working in Leipzig and had more musicians available to him. This is the premise on which the Concerto Copenhagen’s performance is based; the use of a single musician on each part further pares down the sound. The result is a crisp and sprightly recording and an interesting musicological argument, one that will certainly be of interest to libraries supporting a curriculum in early music practice. For sheer listening pleasure, some will prefer this to more traditional, larger-scale arrangements, but that feeling won’t be universal.


Unknown Composers
Messes anonymes
Cut Circle / Rodin
Musique en Wallonie (dist. Naxos)
MEW2097

In making this world-premiere recording of two 15th-century Masses by unknown Belgian composers, the Cut Circle ensemble (under the direction of Jesse Rodin) made a bold decision: given the supreme rhythmic and contrapuntal difficulty of these works, they would avoid the obvious performing choice (camouflaging potential errors with large vocal forces and a reverberant acoustic) and instead lean into the difficulty, recording in a dry acoustic with only four voices. The result is a breathtakingly impressive and beautiful musical document, one that lays the complexity of the music out for all to hear while also making clear how exceptionally beautiful it is. As they always do, Cut Circle perform with a bracing mix of precision and passion. What a shame that the composers of these Mass settings are unknown; I’d love to hear more from them. For all classical collections.


Arvo Pärt
Stabat Mater
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Münchner Rundfunksorchester / Repušić
BR-Klassik (dist. Naxos)
900335

Arvo Pärt
Tabula Rasa
Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne / Capuçon
Erato/Warner Classics
No cat. no.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is celebrated for both his choral and his instrumental music, and these two discs offer an attractive entree into both. Each of these albums features a different version of one of Pärt’s more popular pieces, Fratres, which was originally written for an unspecified combination of instruments but is most often played on violin and piano. Under the direction of violinist Renaud Capuçon, the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra plays a relatively lush 1992 arrangement for strings and percussion, whereas the one conducted by Ivan Repušić is a sparer version that leaves out the violin soloist. Repušić uses Fratres as an introduction to an album that builds through several orchestral pieces before culminating in Pärt’s dramatic setting of the Stabat Mater text, which is sung with hushed intensity by the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks. The Capuçon album consists entirely of chamber and orchestral works, including the title composition, the very popular Spiegel im Spiegel, and the less-frequently recorded Für Lennart in memoriam. I find that conductors and musicians who take on this music tend to love it quite intensely, and that love is well in evidence on both of these excellent recordings.


Various Composers
Royal Requiem (compilation; 5 discs)
Various Ensembles
Alpha Classics/Outhere (dist. Naxos)
ALPHA 779

Court composers wrote both sacred and secular music in honor of their royal patrons, and regularly that meant writing funeral music for them. The Requiem (a Mass setting written explicitly for funerary purposes) was one of the most important commissions a court composer could receive, and this five-disc set brings together previously released albums that document such compositions across several centuries. It begins with the 15th-century Requiem d’Anne de Bretagne by the under-recognized Antoine de Févin (performed exquisitely by the Doulce Mémoire ensemble), then proceeds to the mid-18th century with Nicoló Jommelli’s Requiem for Princess Maria Augusta von Thurn und Taxis (a work reputedly written in three days). Then we jump to nearly the turn of the 19th century with Sigismund Neukomm’s and Luigi Cherubini’s Requiems for Louis XVI, which are followed by the setting in honor of Marie Antoinette by Charles-Henri Plantade. With the final disc we jump back to the baroque period with funerary Masses by Gilles Henri Hayne (for Marie de Medici) and Johann Joseph Fux (for Emperor Leopold I’s widow Eleonora of Neubeurg), which bracket Henry Purcell’s Funeral Sentences for the Death of Queen Mary II. This set nicely documents one of the most centrally important manifestations of sacred music across European history, in very fine recordings. Libraries that don’t already own the original issues would do well to pick up this conveniently-packaged box.


JAZZ


Andrew Cyrille Quartet
The News
ECM
2681

Having seen this group live at the Village Vanguard a few years ago, I can testify to what they’re capable of; drummer/leader Andrew Cyrille plays with an unusual sensitivity and an incredible sonic palette, which makes him a perfect match with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Ben Street. Regular keyboardist/synthesist Richard Teitenbaum has been sidelined by health issues, but he is ably replaced on this album by David Virelles, whose pianism in particular brings a new and lovely dimension to the group’s sound. Some of this music is conventionally jazzy (the blues-based Frisell composition “Go Happy Lucky” is particularly delightful), but there’s lots of abstract avant-gardism as well (note in particular the freewheeling title track). Creating abstract avant-gardism of undeniable beauty is the Andrew Cyrille Quartet’s stock in trade, and they do it with aplomb on this remarkable album.


Josh Werner
Mode for Titan
M.O.D. Reloaded
MODRL00105

Bassist Josh Werner has created something difficult to categorize with his first full solo album. I’m slotting it into the Jazz section because I suspect it’s jazz fans that will find it most interesting, but the music itself is quite unique. Utilizing multitracking and various electronic effects (and the highly varied tones and timbres of sitar bass, seven-string bass, and fretless bass), Werner creates compositions that define large sonic spaces but that are always warm and often groovy even though there’s no percussion and no chordal instruments involved. This is a guy who has worked with artists as diverse as Ghostface Killah, Cibo Matto, CocoRosie, and PopCaan — so it won’t come as a surprise that his influences are widely varied. And with production by Bill Laswell, you know the recorded sound will be rich and deep. Very interesting and very cool.


Jacqueline Kerrod
17 Days in December: Solo Improvisations for Acoustic & Electric Harp
Orenda
0093

Harpist Jacqueline Kerrod is classically trained — and extensively so, having begun her studies at age nine — but over the years her approach to the instrument has branched out into a variety of extended techniques and musical styles. Her résumé includes work with artists as diverse as Kanye West, Rufus Wainwright, and avant-jazz legend Anthony Braxton, as well as more traditional classical gigs. On her solo debut, she dives into the world of solo improvisation, alternating between acoustic harp (sometimes treated with mechanical alterations) and an electric instrument (with the addition of electronic effects). The music she creates here is sometimes a bit abrasive and difficult, and sometimes immediately accessible and conventionally beautiful. Interestingly, some of the most lovely tracks are those that are least recognizable as having been produced by a harp; “Glare,” with its extensive use of volume pedals, distortion, and reverb, is one such, as is the pulsing “Strummed I.” The electro-acoustic “Glassy Fingers” and “Broken: In 3” both evoke John Cage’s sonatas and interludes for prepared piano, but with much more melodic interest. All of it is fascinating and well worth hearing.


Errol Garner
Symphony Hall Concert
Octave Music/Mack Avenue
MAC1189

To celebrate the 100th birthday of legendary pianist and composer Erroll Garner, the University of Pittsburgh (where Garner’s archives are housed) and the Erroll Garner Project have collaborated to created a three-tiered release of commemorative recordings. At the top of the pyramid is this one-disc recording of his concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall in January, 1959. Leading a trio that includes bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin, Garner walks us through the history of jazz, looking back to the days of stride and barrelhouse piano on “I Can’t Get Started” and to the bebop era on “Bernie’s Tune,” while (as drummer Terri Lyne Carrington points out in the liner notes) also anticipating pianistic styles to come during the 1960s. His ability to conjure an entire orchestra on the piano is everywhere evident, but nowhere more so than on his bravura rendition of “Dreamy.” This is a magnificent recording that should find a home in every library’s jazz collection. (Those with deeper pockets should consider one of the deluxe box-set versions of this album that are also being made available.)


FOLK/COUNTRY


Twisted Pine
Right Now
Signature Sounds
SIG CD 2121

Twisted Pine apparently used to be a bluegrass band, though I have to say, as a latecomer to this band’s music, that I’m having a hard time imagining it. Yes, singer/fiddler Kathleen Parks definitely plays in a style with roots in Appalachia, and the same for jazzy mandolinist Dan Bui. But flutist Anh Phung is coming more from a Celtic place and also from a jazz place (check her solo on “Amadeus Party”), while Chris Satori’s bass is jazzy/funky all the way down. Which, I guess, is another way of saying that these guys represent the new generation of New Acoustic Music, alongside artists like the Punch Brothers, Nickel Creek, and Crooked Still. The best way to enjoy this thoroughly charming album, though, is to try and forget genre boundaries and just give yourself up to the funky, folky, poppy fun.


Felice Brothers
From Dreams to Dust
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)
YEP-2779

It takes a minute to get used to Ian Felice’s singing — he’s got that Dylan-y tendency to swipe at notes rather than hit them — but that doesn’t really matter much of the time, because some of these songs are practically spoken-word pieces, while others (like “Inferno”) alternate between verses and sung choruses. When these guys do write tunes, they tend to be really nice ones; the Felices have a real way with a melody, and they support the melodies with sturdy roots-folk-rock grooves. And then you notice the topical lyrics (“Tick tock goes the doomsday clock,” etc.) and the wryly absurdist ones (“Once spent over two months stuck in a painting by Bruegel the Elder,” etc.), and then you notice the production: rich, gritty, spacious but not airy. This album was my first introduction to the Felice Brothers, and I have to say I’m intrigued.


Marina Allen
Candlepower (EP)
Fire (dist. Redeye)
FIRE633

Lucy Gooch
Rain’s Break (EP)
Fire
FIRE636

Marina Allen’s seven-song EP evokes a lost era of folk-pop by women; you’ll hear stylistic echoes of Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, and Judee Sill, but don’t be fooled — this music is 100% modern, with carefully elaborate production (“Believer”) bumping up alongside minimalist, acoustic singer-songwriter fare (“Ophelia”). Don’t be fooled by her voice, either; it’s light but not soft, tender but not wispy. I kind of wish Candlepower were a full-length album. Same goes for Rain’s Break by Lucy Gooch, an even shorter EP that I admit doesn’t really fit the Folk/Country category but seemed like a good companion entry anyway. Gooch is working in a more cinematic/ambient mode, with quiet and wispy vocals layered over floating synths and occasional very subtle beats (“Chained to a Woman”). Her influences include not only classic film but also the sounds of women’s choirs from the 1930s, church music, and weather. Again, this is the kind of album that would ideally be about 75 minutes long, rather than 19.



ROCK/POP


Aztec Camera
Backwards and Forwards: The WEA Recordings 1984-1995 (compilation; 9 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
QCRCDBOX112

If you weren’t around and paying attention to alternative pop music in the early- to mid-1980s, there’s a good chance you don’t have any (or much) memory of Aztec Camera. The band was really singer/songwriter Roddy Frame and a shifting array of sidemen, until he dropped the group moniker and started recording under his own name in the late 1990s. This luxurious nine-disc set (containing Aztec Camera’s five Warner albums plus four discs of live performances, alternate takes, remixes, etc.) can’t be said to contain everything you might need, because it leaves out his debut album, the triumphantly perfect High Land, Hard Rain. And it can’t be characterized as “all killer, no filler,” because it does at times devolve into superfluity (no fewer than seven mixes of “Good Morning, Britain,” a great song that nearly breaks here under the weight of over-attention) and non-necessity (the solo acoustic set from Ronnie Scott’s Club). But it would be fair to say that the studio albums represented here vary in quality from very good to outstanding, and that the disc of live 1984 performances in Glasgow and London offer powerful renditions of the High Land material. Libraries that collect pop music overlook this box at their peril. Hand-sell it to any patron who loves a colorful, fruity chord progression and an anthemic chorus.


Pylon
Box (compilation; 4 discs)
New West (dist. Redeye)
NW6503

And heck, while we’re at it, here’s another monumental box set from a band that made its mark in the 1980s. Pylon was much more short-lived than Aztec Camera, and its influence — while significant — was a bit more subterranean. Pylon emerged from the fecund Athens, Georgia scene at the same time as the B-52s, REM, and Love Tractor. Though multiple bands from the region cite them as an important influence on their sound (and REM would record a very fine cover of “Crazy,” the group’s best song), Pylon’s tendency towards melody-free muttered/shouted vocals probably limited their appeal, despite the power of their grooves and the occasionally surprising hookiness of their songs. Pylon released only two albums formally; Gyrate and Chomp are both included here, along with Razz Tape (a collection of early studio recordings that were never released commercially) and a fourth disc consisting of other non-album and unreleased tracks. Along with the discs, the box also includes a large and lavishly produced hardcover book filled with photos and historical information. Does this package have a limited natural audience? Sure — but it’s a very devoted one, and libraries supporting research into the history of American pop music would do well to consider adding this retrospective document.


The Seshen
CYAN Remixes (EP; digital only)
Tru Thoughts (dist. Redeye)
TRUCD376

In February of this year, the San Francisco-based band The Seshen released CYAN, an album named “for a color that is both strong and soft.” It turned out to be an apt title for a release that featured ethereal, echoing vocals tethered to tight and bubbling grooves, creating a feel that was simultaneously gentle and propulsively funky. Now comes a five-track collection of remixes created by the likes of Kumar Butler, SNVS, and FEVRMOON, all of which shed a different light on the album’s original vision. But interestingly, the remixers don’t generally choose to pull their chosen tracks dramatically far from CYAN‘s overriding vibe; for example, although FEVRMOON’s take on “4AM” is a bit denser and busier than the original, it generally preserves the original version’s feel. The two exceptions are Kumar Butler’s mix of “Wander,” which playful messes around with the original’s lilting 3/4 time signature, bumping it into and out of a four-on-the-floor dance pulse, and Mahawam’s mix of “Still Dreaming,” which turns it into a sort of ambient-dub fever dream. Both this collection and the original album would make great additions to any pop collection.


The Pop Group
Y in Dub
Mute
TPGYD1CD

The Pop Group’s 1979 debut, Y, was one of those “important” albums that, despite its historical significance, you have to admit is pretty tough to listen to. Jagged guitars, chugging bass, and Mark Stewart’s unhinged yowling all combine to create a sound that had a huge impact on the UK post-punk scene, and that is frankly much more impressive than enjoyable. Interestingly, that album was produced by legendary reggae producer Dennis Bovell. It had little or nothing sonically to do with reggae, but Bovell brought his highly-developed sense of space and layering to the mix. On this remix project, he applies the techniques of dub (instruments and voices dropping in and out, with varying levels of effects applied) to the original recordings, creating a wild pastiche of sounds and noises. The effect of this approach is actually a softening of the original music; with the echo and delay and the expanded sonic space, what was once a fairly assaultive listening experience becomes somewhat softer and more accessible one. Somewhat, that is. This album was a great idea and it was a long time coming.



WORLD/ETHNIC


Monoswezi
Shanu
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
TUGCD1131

Afro-Nordic music collective Monoswezi continue their pattern of releasing an album about every four years, and I’m continuing my pattern of recommending every single one of them. The band’s name might look like a Swahili word, but it’s actually an acronym formed by combining the first couple of letters from the names of the bandmembers’ home countries: Mozambique, Norway, Sweden, and Zimbabwe. And as one might expect, the music itself is a complex and colorful tapestry of styles built on a foundational fusion of Nordic jazz and African rhythms. This is music that simultaneously celebrated tradition and explodes it: delicate Afro-Latin beats underpin jazzy improvisations; complex time signatures are thethered to steady pulses; singer Hope Masike defiantly plays the mbira, an instrument traditionally played only by men in her home country. And the songs are wonderful. Highly recommended.


Various Artists
Sub Signals, Vol. 2: Selected and Mixed by Gaudi
Dubmission (dist. MVD)
CDDUBM123

Gaudi is one of the most celebrated producers, remixers, and creators of original music on the always-bubbling global dub scene. His second contribution to the Sub Signals series is billed, accurately, as a “deep dive into underground bass”; to create this compilation Gaudi dug deep into his crates and, it appears, cashed in a few IOUs, resulting in a generous and blissfully heavy collection of tracks by the likes of Steel Pulse, African Head Charge, Paolini Dub Files, the Orb, and Alpha Steppa — some of them previously unreleased in any format. The sounds are a mix of analog and digital, and the sonic spaces are consistently both huge and microscopically detailed. If, like me, you somehow slept on Sub Signals Vol. 1, then take this as your cue to pick up both collections.


Khöömei Beat
Changys Baglaash
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
EUCD2954

Traditional Tuvan throat singing and rock’n’roll might not seem like an obvious combination, but hey — we live in a world of less-than-obvious musical fusions these days, and all the better for that, I say. Khöömei Beat play a mix of modern and traditional instruments in support of vocals that veer back and forth between conventional singing and the Tuvan people’s particular approach to throat singing — a technique that uses guttural vocalization to produce overtones, which are then manipulated by changing the shape of the mouth while the singer maintains a steady fundamental pitch. It’s a unique sound, surely not to everyone’s taste, but always interesting and objectively impressive. Combine it with punky bass and guitars, aggressive drums, and an array of regional traditional instruments and you have an album that is sure to enliven any party.


Jah Sun & The Rising Tide
Running Through Walls (digital only)
AMT Entertainment
No cat. no.

Here’s some tight and tuneful roots reggae from the Bay Area. Jah Sun and his band have been lighting up the California reggae scene for some time now, and you can hear a tightness and discipline in their sound that comes only with lots and lots of gigging. Honestly, I’m always a bit uncomfortable when white American guys acquire Jamaican accents to sing reggae, but Jah Sun does it only very subtly — and the quality of his songs is so consistently high that it’s easy to just go with it. Interestingly, while some of this material is straight-up modern roots, other songs push the stylistic boundaries: for example, the title track is more reggae-adjacent than reggae, while “Stuck with You” is sort of a soca-pop fusion (and works very well). But there’s not a weak track here, no matter what the genre or style, and Jah Sun’s consistent message of positivity and uplift is a joy. Highly recommended to all reggae and/or pop collections.

October 2021


CLASSICAL


Stephen Yip
Quietude: Music of Stephen Yip
Various Ensembles/Soloists
Albany
TROY1873

Doug Bielmeier
Ambient Works
Albany
TROY1860

The titles of these two new releases on the Albany label might lead you to expect similar listening experiences, but in fact they are very different. Quietude presents compositions for soloists and chamber ensembles by Stephen Yip, who was raised in Hong Kong and educated both there and at Rice University in Texas. The music presented here is indeed often quiet, but it’s also challenging, characterized by extended instrumental techniques and often by harmonic dissonance. (Topic: the ensemble piece Tranquility in Consonance III is neither tranquil nor consonant. Discuss.) The title work is perhaps the most difficult, but I was especially captivated by White Dew, for flute and bass flute, which calls on the musicians to create a wide variety of tones and effects in a highly reverberant acoustic. This is a fascinating and wonderful album that gives the listener plenty to chew on. Doug Bielmeier’s Ambient Works, on the other hand, comes much closer to providing exactly what its title promises: quiet and minimal ambient music, based on computer-generated sounds, samples, and (in one case) live instruments. But even here there are some crunchier moments: Photo Lab Sanctuary is a “soundwalk” piece built on environmental samples that don’t exactly soothe or lull the listener; Backscatter sounds like a cross between a Steve Reich phase piece and something Carl Stone might write when in a puckish mood. No Time is written for a quartet of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, though the music is altered and processed to the point that its sonic origins are somewhat obscured. This isn’t ambient music to fall asleep to — but it’s consistently interesting and frequently deeply beautiful.


Franz Anton Hoffmeister
6 Clarinet Quartets
Eddy Vanoosthuyse; Zemlinsky Quartet
Antarctica (dist. Naxos)
AR 032

George Friedrich Fuchs
Clarinet Chamber Music
Italian Classical Consort / Luigi Magistrelli
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
BRI 96305

Franz Hoffmeister came to Vienna in 1754, at age 14, to study law. But after completing his degree he stayed on to pursue his real passion, which was music composition. Although he had success writing music, he made his money as a publisher, and has only in recent years begun to receive his full due as a composer — and now, after years of neglect, some of his most popular works are his chamber pieces for clarinet and string trio. On this recording, the very fine Belgian clarinetist Eddy Vanoosthuyse joins three members of the Zemlinsky Quartet (all playing modern instruments) to provide us a tour of these six innovative and charming pieces, all of which are actually arrangements of pieces originally written for flute and strings or oboe and strings; this approach reflects the growing popularity of the clarinet in 18th-century Europe. Vanoosthuyse and the Zemlinskys play them with both sensitivity to period style and an admirable panache, using dynamic shifts carefully to bring out the full genius of these lovely quartets. George Friedrich Fuchs was working in France at the same time as Hoffmeister in Vienna, and while he never achieved the same notoriety as Hoffmeister, his chamber works for clarinet (in various combinations with other instruments) receive deserved attention here from the Italian Classical Consort, again on modern instruments, under the baton of clarinetist Luigi Magistrelli. There is a duo for clarinet and horn; trios for clarinets, for two clarinets and bassoon, and for two clarinets and violin; and arrangements of opera arias for various combinations of clarinets and other wind instruments. This is music of great charm, if not world-changing innovation, and this recording offers a welcome opportunity to hear from one of the minor but still considerable talents of the classical era. (Why the album cover features an image of someone playing an oboe is something of a mystery.) Both are recommended to all libraries.


Johann Sebastian Bach
Three or One
Fred Thomas; Aisha Orazbayeva; Lucy Railton
ECM
2649

Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach for Two
Romina Lischka; Marnix De Cat
Ramée/Outhere (dist. Naxos)
RAM2005

Here we have two very different applications of the art of transcription to the music of J.S. Bach. The first is by pianist Fred Thomas, who has arranged an array of selections from Bach’s legendary Orgelbüchlein (“little organ book”) for a trio of piano, violin, and cello. Thomas chose violinist Aisha Orazbayeva and cellist Lucy Railton because he was familiar with their work as a duo and knew of their tendency towards “lean sonorities,” which the listener will notice — in fact, if I hadn’t known better I’d have assumed they were playing gut-strung instruments. Thomas’ arrangements are thoughtful, and the trio’s playing is more intensely emotional than one might expect. This is a quiet triumph of an album. “Quiet triumph” would also be an apt descriptor of Bach for Two, a collection of transcriptions of organ sonatas, arias, and other miscellanea for viola da gamba and organ, along with a setting of the BWV1027 sonata for viol and keyboard. While it might seem as if the mighty organ would inevitably overwhelm the much softer and wispier tonalities of the viola da gamba, in fact they complement each other beautifully on these arrangements (due in part to skillful production). Lischka and De Cat have long experience playing together, and it shows; their shared depth of understanding of and deep affection for Bach’s organ and chamber music come out with every note.


JAZZ


Champian Fulton & Stephen Fulton
Live from Lockdown
Champian
CR004

A new album from Champian Fulton is always cause for celebration, and when she’s joined by her father, the outstanding flugelhorn and trumpet player Stephen Fulton, you can be assured of a warm, complex, and golden-toned musical experience. As a singer, Champian acts as a sort of prism: through her brain and her voice, the melodic playfulness of Billie Holiday and the impeccable intonation of Ella Fitzgerald and the strutting confidence of Sarah Vaughn are all refracted and emerge as a unique expressive identity; as a pianist, she’s like a history book come to life, switching between (and sometimes blending) stride, bebop, boogie-woogie, and cool styles seemingly without effort. This latest album is, as its title suggests, the product of the Fultons’ forced shift from live-in-person performance to livestreamed concerts produced at home. It consists almost entirely of standards, mostly ballads and mid-tempo swingers like “You’ve Changed,” “Satin Doll,” “Look for the Silver Lining,” and “Moonglow,” with a couple of lovely originals thrown in as well. As always, both Fultons play not only with skill but with heart, and with a rare level of interpersonal communication. For all libraries.


Fessor
Glad to Be Here
Storyville (dist. Naxos)
SVL1014345

Over the course of his long career, trombonist and composer Ole Lindgreen (a.k.a. Fessor) has released almost 40 albums under his own name, not counting the scores of releases on which he has appeared as a sideman. On Glad to Be Here — an album reportedly recorded around the dining table in his home — he looks back on that illustrious career, revisiting such trad and swing standards as “Louisiana,” “Moten Swing,” “Azure,” and “Drop Me Off in Harlem,” working with a septet that includes clarinetist Chris Tanner and bassist Jens Sølund and that frequently manages to sound like a big band despite its actual size. Lindgreen and his boys shift gracefully from slippery second-line rhythms to powerful 1930s-era swing and back again, playing constantly with an uncanny blend of emotive soul and sophisticated, almost academic precision. Maybe that’s why they call him Fessor.


Graham Dechter
Major Influence
Capri
74158-2

Guitarist Graham Dechter is back for another outing as leader on an all-originals program (well, almost — it includes a lovely arrangement of “Pure Imagination” from the first Willy Wonka movie) leading an all-star quartet that includes pianist Tamir Hendelman, bassist John Clayton, and master drummer Jeff Hamilton. It’s always a sign of mature confidence when a guitarist chooses to share space with a pianist, and Dechter demonstrates that confidence (and exceptional taste) in his choice of Hendelman, with whom he comfortably and companionably shares the middle pitch range and the chordal duties on this outstanding album. The blues is a recurring element on these tunes, and it’s in the blues pocket that Dechter seems particularly happy and free, but honestly there are no weak tracks here. One of my favorites was “Bent on Monk,” a lovely tribute on which Dechter incorporates elements of Thelonious Monk tunes (and technique) into a hard-swinging original that never attempts to ape the one to whom he’s paying tribute. Recommended to all collections.


Chick Corea Akoustic Band
Live (2 discs)
Concord Jazz
CJA00291

Never having been a big fan of his electric fusion stuff — the music for which he really became famous in the 1970s — I’ve always been quite interested in the late Chick Corea’s more straight-ahead, acoustic work. Since 1989 he’s worked intermittently with what he calls the Akoustic Band: himself on piano, John Pattitucci on bass, and (with the exception of one recording) Dave Weckl on drums. The trio has made one studio album and now three live albums; this one documents two sets played at the SPC Music Hall in Florida in January of 2018. The program consists of a mix of standards and Corea compositions, and the group plays with the suppleness and freedom that comes from years of working together, however sporadically. You can hear the fusion backgrounds of all three players, particularly in the soloing (I especially hear it when Weckl gets a chance to stretch out), and the tension between that stylistic tendency and the straight-ahead jazz framework within which they’re playing creates some wonderful moments. Highlights include a searching and tender rendition of “In a Sentimental Mood” and their thrilling take on one of my favorite standards of all time, “On Green Dolphin Street.”


FOLK/COUNTRY


Ana Egge
Between Us
Storysound (dist. Redeye)
SSS-043

Singer-songwriter Ana Egge takes off in something of a new direction on this, her twelfth album. Opening with the gently chugging, horn-driven “Wait a Minute” and then proceeding through a program of generally quiet and heartfelt tracks dealing with troubled relationships (“You Hurt Me,” “Heartbroken Kind”), political conflict within families (“Lie, Lie, Lie”), the death of a loved one (“We Lay Roses”), etc. Her roots in the acoustic music scene are very much evident throughout, but the production on this album is bigger and lusher than usual: steel guitars, rockish distortion, and the aforementioned horns show up every so often to give a new weight and depth to her sound. Egge’s way with a melody is subtle and engaging, as is her voice, one that can go from a whisper to a full-chested declamation so smoothly and naturally that you hardly notice the transition. My favorite couplet from this very fine album: “We let the devil come between us/And now he doesn’t want to go.”


Jeremy Stephens
How I Hear It
Rebel
REB-CD-1877

Multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Stephens is best known as the frontman for High Fidelity, but he also has a long history as a sideman, working with the likes of Jesse McReynolds, the Lilly Brothers, the Chuck Wagon Gang, and others. Here he breaks out of both molds and offers us a glimpse of his own personal musical vision. As it turns out, that vision is both deeply rooted in tradition and slyly eclectic. His banjo playing draws both on the Scruggs-era verities and the single-string innovations of Don Reno; when he plays mandolin he slides back and forth between hard-driving traditional approaches and the more elegant cross-picking style popularized by Jesse McReynolds. He also plays guitar on this album, beautifully, and sings — and when his wife and collaborator Corrina Rose Logston joins him in harmony, the effect is exquisite. There are so many highlights on this joyful, varied album that it’s hard to pick just one or two, but “You’ll Be Lonesome Too” is a bittersweet joy, and the album-opening rendition of the Reno & Smiley classic “Sockeye” is also especially tasty. For all libraries.


Myriam Gendron
Ma délire: Songs of Love Lost & Found
Feeding Tube (dist. Forced Exposure)
FTR 639CD

Laurel Premo
Golden Loam
Laurel Premo Sound
2431189X

This is an interesting temporal coincidence: two simultaneous releases by unrelated female singers/guitarists, each creating and exploring a conceptually related but very different territory of folk/experimental guitar-based music. Myriam Gendron does so through a Québecois lens: sometimes singing in English and sometimes in French, she delivers fuzz-heavy doom-folk on “C’Est dans les vieux pays” and then switches to unadorned acoustic guitar for an instrumental rendition of “Shenandoah” (a tune that is revisited vocally, and in French, at the end of the album). She sings John Jacob Niles’ “I Wonder As I Wander” alongside understated winds and strings, and makes “Le tueur des femmes” sound lighter than it really is. Laurel Premo’s Golden Loam is more guitar-focused, and more electric; Premo’s approach is more Southern-U.S.-based, with slide guitar blues and gospel tunes rubbing up against gorgeous oddities like the Norwegian fiddle tune “Torbjørn Bjellands Bruremarsj.” There’s not much singing on this album, but when she pipes up on “Hop High” her voice is understated and perfect. Both of these albums are recommended to all libraries.


ROCK/POP


Various Artists
The Sun Shines Here: The Roots of Indie-pop 1980-1984 (3 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
CRCDBOX114

The Cherry Red label continues to produce essential box-set anthologies documenting pop music history from the later 20th century, showing particular strength in music from in and around the 1970s punk revolution. The latest is this one, which shines light on some obscure corners of the indie pop scene of the early 1980s — indie pop being distinguished from mainstream pop by its general weirdness, and from post-punk by its almost entire rejection of guitar distortion. Cherry Red being an English label, the manifestations of indie pop on offer here are all British: relatively famous names like Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout, Everything But the Girl, and Scritti Politti are all represented, as are many artists from whom we never heard again (I’m looking at you, Dolly Mixture), and quite a bit of the material on these three discs has never been available on CD before. It’s a mixed bag, of course, but a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable one. Libraries that acquired Cherry Red’s Scared to Get Happy box back in 2013 will find that this one serves essentially as a sequel to it. Libraries that collect deeply in pop music and didn’t pick that one up should probably grab both of them now.


Various Artists
R&B in DC 1940-1960: Rhythm & Blues, Doo Wop, Rockin’ Rhythm and More… (16 discs)
Bear Family (dist. MVD)
GCD 17052

Like all box sets on the Bear Family label, this one is a monument of music and scholarship — and one more in an ongoing series of gauntlets thrown down in front of the American music establishment by a German company that seems much more dedicated to the preservation and celebration of America’s musical heritage than any of the latter country’s own labels are. In this case, the specific slice of heritage under consideration is the spectrum of African American pop music styles that flourished in the Washington, DC area during the middle two decades of the 20th century. Over the course of 16 CDs (and a lavishly illustrated, LP-sized, 350-page hardbound book), this set documents the development of early R&B, jump blues, doo wop, and gospel music during that fertile period, drawing on records unearthed at regional swap meets, flea markets, yard sales, and record stores by radio host and music researcher Jay Bruder and painstakingly transferred and restored. Not only is the sound quality consistently excellent, but the accompanying book is a triumph of popular music scholarship: every track is annotated — some in astonishing historical detail — and the book itself is gorgeous, handsomely bound in such a way that it lies flat no matter what page you open to. The music itself is not consistently excellent, and that’s part of the point of the project: clunkers are presented alongside little-known masterpieces, giving us a fully-textured overview of the DC music scene at a critical point in American cultural history. But the ratio of dross to gold is highly favorable: for every eight or ten spine-tingling appearance by, say, Billy Eckstine or the Cruisers or the Young Gospel Singers, there might be a silly novelty tune or a throwaway formula exercise by someone else. (And since some artists are represented by ten or more entries, even the quality of music from individual artists and groups is somewhat uneven.) Again, though, this is the point: like most Bear Family boxes, this is one is as much about learning as about listening, which makes it a natural fit for library collections — well-funded library collections, that is, as this one lists for about $300. Very highly recommended.


Marshall Crenshaw
The Wild, Exciting Sounds of Marshall Crenshaw: Live in the 20th and 21st Century (2 discs)
Sunset Blvd
CD-SBR-7003

America has lots of songwriters, and a few of them are commercially successful. Of the commercially successful ones, a few are masters of the form. Marshall Crenshaw is one of that very select group. He has also been, for several decades now, a dynamite live performer, as this two-disc set illustrates. The first disc documents performances from 1982 and 1983 in the Boston and New York areas (leading a band that included his brothers Robert and John). The sound quality of these live recordings is generally good, though at times it’s unfortunately distorted (note, for example, “Whenever You’re on My Mind”). In a live context, classic tunes like “Cynical Girl” and “Mary Anne” take on an extra element of joyful abandon, and we get a clearer view of the raw rockabilly underpinnings of a song like “Got a Lot of Livin’ to Do.” On disc 2 we get to hear both solo and band performances from 1991 and 2014, and while these are quite good they’re honestly not quite as compelling as the earlier recordings. Overall, though, this album is a solid winner.


Pere Ubu
St. Arkansas (reissue)
Fire (dist. Redeye)
FIRECD372

Pere Ubu
Pennsylvania (reissue)
Fire
FIRECD371

Since its inception in the mid-1970s, Cleveland’s proto-art-punk stalwarts Pere Ubu have been blazing an entirely unique trail through the thickets of rock, punk, art-rock, and even straight-up pop music. By 1998, when Pennsylvania was originally issued, only frontman David Thomas and guitarists Jim Jones and Tom Herman remained from the group’s earliest days; by 2002, when St. Arkansas came out, Jones’ declining health had moved him to the sidelines; he was a featured player on the album but no longer a fully functioning member of the band. (Sadly, he would die a few years later, at age 57.) These two albums are among the darkest of the band’s discography, though not the most weird or experimental: while the pop hooks that abounded on albums like Cloudland and Worlds in Collision are nowhere to be found here, the fundamental structure is fairly standard-issue rock’n’roll, with the standard overlay of bloopy synths and Thomas’ uniquely squeaky, yelping vocals delivering distinctly odd lyrics. Longstanding Ubu themes of American geography, highways, and place names continue to thread through these albums — no songs about birds, though. Both albums were remixed by Thomas for the reissue.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Lee “Scratch” Perry
Roast Fish, Collie Weed, and Corn Bread (reissue)
VP
VP1000.2

With the recent passing of legendary reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, you can anticipate lots of reissues and tribute albums over the next year or so. Some will be outstanding; some will be dodgy money-grabs. This one is gold. Perry is mostly known as a producer who created an utterly unique studio sound and was at the helm for some of reggae’s most enduring recordings by the likes of the Heptones, Junior Byles, the Congos, and even Bob Marley and the Wailers. But this album represents Perry as an artist, singing his uniquely weird lyrics over classic Black Ark backing tracks. Songs like “Throw Some Water In” and “Free Up the Weed” are not only great Perry songs, they’re classics of classical-era 1970s reggae. (Though he probably should have left “Curly Locks” alone, since his performance of it pales terribly in comparison to Byles‘.) This CD is not actually a new reissue, but since the album is being reissued on red vinyl for Record Store Day I thought I’d take the opportunity to encourage all libraries to pick up the CD version. This is an absolutely essential piece of reggae history.


Dennis Bovell Meets Dubblestandart
@Repulse “Reggae Classics”
Echo Beach
EB160

This album represents a summit meeting of two reggae legends: from the old school, London-based bassist/producer Dennis Bovell (a.k.a. Blackbeard); and from the new school, Vienna’s Dubblestandart, perhaps Europe’s foremost exponents of heavy modernist roots reggae. The album’s inscrutable title notwithstanding, it’s a straightforward affair: reworks of classic reggae tunes from Jamaican and UK bands like Matumbi, Steel Pulse, Twinkle Brothers, and Culture, with Dubblestandart providing the backing tracks and Bovell singing and producing. Delightfully, the album is presented in “showcase” style, with each vocal version followed by a dub mix. Songs like “Jah Jah See Dem a Come” and “Hypocrite” may be familiar fare, but these versions shed fresh light on them and the mighty Dubblestandart crew do an excellent job of making them their own. And Bovell’s production is brilliant as always. Highly recommended.


Native Soul
Teenage Dreams
Awesome Tapes from Africa
ATFA043

In recent months I’ve kind of fallen in love with amapiano, a dance music genre that emerged in South Africa about ten years ago. Although it’s rooted in house music (and I really hate house music), I find it irresistible somehow: the four-on-the-floor beats that make house so tedious to my ears somehow manage to be both soothing and propulsive here, and the layers of samples and melodic fragments that create the body of the sound are both often weird and frequently uplifting. Native Soul is a duo who produce some of the most attractive examples of amapiano I’ve yet heard, and their new release is a gentle triumph of color and texture. From the bumping opening track “The Beginning” to the album-closing “End of Time,” the steady 115-bpm chug and the creative building up of musical layers is a delight. If your library has a collecting interest in sub-Saharan pop music, this album is a must-have.

September 2021


CLASSICAL


Augustin Pfleger
The Life and Passion of the Christ
Orkester Nord; Vox Nidrosiensis / Martin Wåhlberg
Aparte Music (dist. Integral)
AP249

Though almost entirely unknown today, the Bohemian composer Augustin Pfleger was an influential figure in the transition from the late Renaissance to the early baroque, one who was widely praised by his contemporaries. This important and unusual recording takes six of Pfleger’s “sacred concertos” (what we would now call cantatas, though his style is very different from that of his junior near-contemporary Bach) and arranges them into a program that functions as a Passion setting: each of the six recounts a different segment of the story of Christ’s birth, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection. The sound is spare — almost sere — and quietly somber throughout, even during the relatively joyful resurrection narrative; solo voices predominate, and the instrumental accompaniment is minimal. Bass viols and a theorbed lute are the predominant elements, and the use of a psaltery is interesting (and explained in the notes). The vocal soloists are consistently outstanding, and this album is excellent overall — both a valuable historical document and a richly rewarding listening experience. For all collections.


Carl Stamitz
Le jour variable: Four Symphonies
Kölner Akademie / Michael Alexander Willens
CPO (dist. Naxos)
555 344-2

These four symphonies by Mannheim School stalwart Carl Stamitz are notable for several reasons: first of all, they are among the earliest of Stamitz’s symphonies, of which he is known to have written 50. Each of them introduces formal innovations that would have stirred things up a bit in early-1770s Germany, but the final work in the program — his Grand Pastoral Symphony in G major nicknamed “Le jour variable” — is the one that really catches the attention. It’s a programmatic work (meaning a piece of music designed to invoke non-musical imagery, especially scenes of nature) that anticipates musical strategies that wouldn’t become widespread for another hundred years. All of this reflects Stamitz’s hunger to innovate, and he does so highly effectively here. The playing by Kölner Akademie (on period instruments) is outstanding, and this recording should find a welcome home in all library classical collections.


Various Composers
Stimme aus der Ferne: A Voice from the Distance
Andrea Botticelli
Self-released
01

The fortepiano — the keyboard instrument that served as something of a transition between the harpsichord and the modern pianoforte — has become a fixture on recordings of music from the classical period, but is far less often featured when the program draws on the Romantic. For this album, Andrea Botticelli has chosen to use the unique sonorities of the fortepiano to shed a different light on pieces by Franz Schubert, Carl Czerny, and Robert and Clara Schumann. Schubert’s early-Romantic and Czerny’s rather academic styles make an obvious fit, but where Botticelli really shines is when she’s making an argument for the fortepiano in the context of Robert Schumann’s opus 2 Papillons suite and Clara Schumann’s “Notturno” from the opus 6 Soirées musicales. Here the fortepiano is pushed much closer to its expressive limits, and under her virtuosic but sensitive fingers it meets the challenge admirably. Libraries supporting programs in music history and keyboard pedagogy should pay particular attention to this release.


Wulfstan of Winchester
Swithun!: Demons and Miracles from Winchester around 1000
Dialogos / Katarina Livljanić
Arcana/Outhere (dist. Naxos)
A491

The cult of St. Swithun formed the lyrical basis for the music of the Winchester Cathedral in the 11th century. Wulfstan, the cathedral’s cantor during this period, composed a long Anglo-Latin narrative based on St. Swithun’s life, and this recording by the all-woman quartet Dialogos is centered on that narrative; director Katarina Livljanić has created a setting that alternates melodic improvisation on the Wulfstan text with composed polyphonic selections from the Winchester Troper. As one might expect, the polyphonic passages are astringently beautiful, while the monophonic sections tend towards the ecstatic, in a style that will remind many listeners of the music of Hildegard von Bingen. The singers of Dialogos don’t go to great lengths to create a seamless sonic blend; instead, they embrace the differing textures of their voices, and the effect is striking and quite lovely. This is a truly unique and very beautiful recording.


Johann Sebastian Bach
MAK: Bach
Mak Grgic
MicroFest
MF 19

Johann Sebastian Bach
The Art of Fugue (2 discs)
Filippo Gorini
Alpha Classics/Outhere (dist. Naxos)
ALPHA 755

These two very different releases of music by J.S. Bach have something important in common: addressing issues that go beyond the notes of the compositions in question. One focuses on the issue of temperament (in the musical sense); the other, of feeling. Mak Grgic plays a microtonal guitar — an instrument equipped with sliding frets that allow the player to adjust the notes available to each string individually, thus making it possible (in this case) to play it according to a keyboard temperament invented by a member of Bach’s household. Without going into all the technicalities of just intonation vs. equal temperament, I’ll just say here that the sound of this guitar is in fact quite different from what modern ears are used to; the harmonies are a bit more vinegary, the flavors changing subtly but audibly as the music modulates. Grgic plays transcriptions of various Bach chorales, partitas, and sonatas, and makes a powerful musical argument for his approach. One need not believe that “equal temperament destroys everything” to hear why specialists get as passionate as they do on this issue. Pianist Filippo Gorini is making a very different argument with his recording of Bach’s Art of Fugue; here he’s pushing back on those who regard Bach’s magisterial study of counterpoint as “solely a theoretical marvel.” He plays each of these canons, fugues, and contrapuncti as musical statements laden with feeling and rhetorical meaning. This isn’t to say that he treats them like Romantic pieces, but rather than he interprets them through a lens that isn’t strictly academic. The result is a truly enlightening and deeply moving performance. Both discs are recommended to all classical collections.


JAZZ


Sheila Jordan
Comes Love: Lost Session 1960
Capri
74164-2

Sheila Jordan is a celebrated singer and an NEA Jazz Master, and her official discography begins with her 1963 debut Portrait of Sheila. Or it did, until the discovery of this standards session she recorded in 1960 with an unidentified trio. Now 92 years old, Jordan herself has no recollection of making the recording or of who her accompanists were on the date, which is unfortunate but also adds to the delightful mystery of this wonderful album. It’s mastered from an acetate transfer that was found without any identifying label beyond an attached studio portrait of Jordan, but there’s no mistaking the voice — young but confident, idiosyncratic in its horn-like phrasing and occasional but expressive vibrato — and the songs themselves are familiar enough to create something of a blank canvas onto which she was able to paint her very personal interpretations. She nods gently to Billie Holiday on “Don’t Explain,” but doesn’t imitate her; she scats deftly on “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” but not in a showy way. Everywhere she wears her heart on her sleeve, but you never get the feeling that she’s fully revealing herself. All of it points to the illustrious career to come. No deep jazz collection should pass up this wonderful release.


Kenny Shanker
Beautiful Things
Wise Cat
WC0008

Oh my gosh, this album is so much fun. Here’s an example of what I mean: it opens with “Cool Mint,” a tune that, frankly, struck me at first as maybe just a bit saccharine. Shanker’s alto and Daisuke Abe’s guitar play the head in tandem, partly in unison and partly in harmony, over a relentlessly chugging rhythm and the whole thing sounds a bit like the theme music from a 1970s sitcom. And then comes the second tune, the aptly titled “Prestissimo.” This one is pure, lickety-split bebop, with a head that could have been written by Dizzy Gillespie and a quintet arrangement that harks back to the salad days of Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Charlie Christian. The rest of the album is split between Shanker originals and standards, including some gorgeous ballads (at times featuring either uncredited or maybe synthesized strings) and a brilliant, angular arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud.” The title track closes the album in a lovely, lyrical mode. Recommended to all jazz collections.


Will Bernard
Ancient Grains
Posi-tone
PR8221

Guitarist Will Bernard has always operated around the edges of straight-ahead jazz, exploring the overlapping universes of jazz and funk with T.J. Kirk, playing as a sideman to such experimental eminences as Jai Uttal and Peter Apfelbaum, and delivering solo albums that keep one foot solidly in the jazz mainstream while the other dips in and out of other adjacent styles and approaches. His latest effort as a leader delves deep into one specific tradition: the funky organ trio. Playing alongside Hammond organist Sam Yahel and drummer Donald Edwards, Bernard delivers a solid set of originals (plus one Thelonious Monk tune) that marry slippery, sideways chord progressions with grooves that are sometimes skittery, sometimes funky, and always swinging. Bernard’s tone remains one of the chief delights of his sound, but his compositional chops are absolutely top-notch here as well. Highlights are a bit hard to identify when a program is as consistently good as this one, but I love the marriage of hard funk and abstract chord changes on “Five Finger Discount” and the fleet-fingered, bluesy lyricism of “Pleasure Seekers.” And of course his take on Monk’s “Boo Boo’s Birthday” is delivered with that special love that Bernard has always held for the towering hero of off-kilter bebop. Highly recommended.


Wayne Coniglio & Scott Whitfield
Faster Friends
Summit (dist. MVD)
DCD 783

Seven years ago I recommended Wayne Coniglio and Scott Whitfield’s first duo project, titled Fast Friends. It’s been a long wait for the follow-up, but it was worth it. Once again the two trombonists are supported by a piano trio, but this time they also feature a few guest vocalists (who provide wordless vocalise on a lively, skipping version of Rodgers & Hart’s “Mimi”). Coniglio offers several great originals, including one based on the changes to “Giant Steps” (“Step Checkitude”) and a lovely boppish tribute to his deceased fellow Ray Charles Band alumnus James Farnsworth. And in the context of “boppish,” it’s important to point out here — again — how difficult it is to play the trombone as nimbly as these guys do at tempo. Ballads with lots of legato phrasing represent the real comfort zone for the ‘bone; notey uptempo charts are notoriously challenging for an instrument that depends so heavily on a slide. Coniglio and Whitfield aren’t show-offs, but the phrase “fast friends” is still impressively apt. Highly recommended.


Kevin Sun
❤ Bird
Endectomorph Music
EMM-010

I read the album title as “Love Bird,” but I hear the music as more than just a love letter to the still-towering colossus of modern jazz: saxophonist Kevin Sun spent a significant amount of lockdown time immersing himself again in the music of Charlie Parker, listening to hours and hours of Parker’s compositions and solos, and used that raw material to fashion a highly personal but deeply respectful tribute to Parker’s legacy. The 15 brief tracks that compose this album draw on melodic elements from the Parker book (you’ll hear scraps of “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” “Dexterity, “Bloomdido,” and many others) but present them to the listener as refracted through the prism of Sun’s own musical personality. “Adroitness, Parts I & II” deftly juxtapose balladic lyricism with briskly swinging bebop, while “Onomatopoeia” is a relatively direct tribute on which Sun and guitarist Max Light play a highly complex head in unison at thrilling tempo. Elsewhere things get a bit more idiosyncratic: “Du Yi’s Choir” (a pun on the Parker composition “Dewey Square”) incorporates the sound of the sheng, while “Sturgis” brings together transcriptions of Parker’s various recorded solos on “Mohawk” in counterpoint. This album is both conceptually fascinating and a huge amount of fun to listen to.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Dori Freeman
Ten Thousand Roses
Blue Hens Music
No cat. no.

Every time a new album from Dori Freeman arrives in the mail, I practically jump up and down with gleeful anticipation. And she has yet to disappoint. Her latest is the first one produced by her husband, drummer Nicholas Falk, and he’s created a sound for her songs that nicely blends elements of country, old-time, and rock (and even a bit of funk if you listen carefully), but throughout the album, the Appalachian culture of which Freeman is so fiercely proud pushes its way through the modern-ish sound like a flower coming up through gravel. The assertive independence of her lyrical vision is always clear as well, particularly on tracks like the sharp “get rid of that loser” song “The Storm” and on “Appalachian” (“I’m an Appalachian, I’m a Cripple Creek pearl/I’m a can to ash in, for the rest of the world”). Her voice, as always, is a wonder — an entrancing blend of gritty and sweet — as is her unassailable way with a melody. Highly recommended to all libraries.


John Reischmann
New Time & Old Acoustic
Corvus
CR026

Mandolinist John Reischman’s new solo album bears a sly title, one that references his long, storied, and musically diverse past. He’s an adept of “old time” (i.e. pre-bluegrass) trad American music, as well as of bluegrass, of course; but he’s also one of the founding architects of what came to be called “New Acoustic” music back in the early 1980s. Its better-known exponents include Tony Rice and, especially, Reischmann’s fellow mandolin innovator David Grisman. But while Grisman used bluegrass as a jumping-off point for excursions into jazzier territories, Reischmann has tended to dig deeper into traditional musical styles. On this album he performs mostly original compositions, all of which have their stylistic feet firmly embedded in the soil of the American southeast (and the closely related soil of the British Isles), but most of which still manage to range into more complex melodic and harmonic regions. For example: his “Suzanne’s Journey” could easily have come straight out of the O’Neill Collection, whereas “Cascadia” could have been an outtake from an early Tony Rice Unit album. “Rosco’s Ramble” is straight-up bluegrass with a couple of sly twists (and some great use of Scruggs/Keith tuners by banjo picker Patrick Sauber), and his take on the traditional “Sugar in the Gourd” is a joyful twin-mandolin romp (featuring bassist/mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist) — and don’t miss the guest appearance by string quartet The Fretless. For all libraries.


Jim Lauderdale
Hope
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)
YEP-3002

Sometimes Jim Lauderdale’s personal brand of country music is as trad as trad can get: he’s made records with Ralph Stanley and with former Kentucky Colonel Roland White, for example. But sometimes he catches you by surprise, as on this startlingly genre-busting album. It’s not that it doesn’t have plenty of twang to it; Lauderdale’s vocal style is still fully informed by his South Carolina upbringing, and there’s plenty of steel guitar throughout. But “Mushrooms Are Growing After the Rain” is as much 70s pop as anything else, “Brave One” and “We Fade In We Fade Out” both frankly rock out, and “Breathe Real Slow” is just its own thing — a gentle combination of country and rock balladry. Lyrically, these songs consistently reflect a deeply and sweetly human worldview: song titles like “The Opportunity to Help Somebody Through It” and “It’s Almost More Than All the Joy” give you an idea of what to expect here. Jim Lauderdale is a national treasure, and this is another quiet triumph.


Buck Owens
The Many Sides of Buck Owens: After the Dance
Atomicat (dist. MVD)
ACCD027

There are basically two kinds of reissue label: the Quick-and-Dirty Moneymaker (business model: throw together some old recordings to which you don’t have the rights but over which you’re unlikely to be sued, package them cheaply, sell them at a mid-budget price), and the Labor of Love (business model: carefully curate vintage recordings, remaster as necessary, provide extensive historical and personnel notes, sell them at whatever price makes sense). Atomicat is definitely in the latter category. This collection pulls together a generous program of Owens recordings from the 1950s, just before he made it big. Much of this material will be familiar to his fans (“Excuse Me,” “Foolin’ Around,” “Above and Beyond,” etc.), but almost half of the disc is dedicated to more obscure fare — a couple of songs he recorded under the pseudonym Corky Jones, duo and support performances with the likes of Jean Shepherd, Wanda Jackson, and Tommy Collins, much of it more rockabilly than country. And it pays proper respect to Owens’ sideman and harmony singer Don Rich, whose contribution to the development of the Bakersfield Sound was as important as Owens’, but much less conspicuous (due in part to his death at a tragically young age). The sound is startlingly clear and rich throughout, even when the source recordings are of slightly dodgy quality. Any library with a collecting interest in country music should snap this one up.


ROCK/POP


Maia Doi Todd
Music Life
City Zen
CTZ010

It took me a while to figure out what it was that struck me as odd about this album. It wasn’t just the gently introspective chamber-pop vibe (complete with bassoon, flute, and Fender Rhodes piano). It’s Todd’s voice — or, more accurately, her singing style, which sounds more classically cultivated than poppily emotive. Her vowels are round and decorously covered; her delivery is unfailingly restrained, with just a hint of bel canto vibrato. What makes this approach particularly interesting is the stylistic variety on offer here, and the lyrical sharpness. “Little Bird,” a gentle bossa nova, starts with my nominee for Opening Line of the Year: “Why don’t these problems just go away?” And later on, the song titled “If I Don’t Have You” completes the thought with: “nobody else will.” Eek. Clearly there’s something of an emotional iron fist tucked away in the velvet glove of these arrangements, and it makes everything that much more interesting. (A digital-only remix collection based on this album has just been released, too. Titled Ten Views of Music Life, it features reworks by such producers as SunEye, Jira, and DNTEL, all of whom treat the songs with maybe a bit more respect than I might have liked — a slamming breakbeat here and there wouldn’t have hurt — but all of whom bring new musical insight to the material.)


Aria Rostami
Maramar (cassette/digital only)
Intimate Inanimate
No cat. no.

Persian-American producer and sound artist Aria Rostami is currently based in Brooklyn, but grew up in California and has absorbed a wide variety of electronic music styles throughout his busy career. On Maramar he simultaneously explores the intelligent dance music (IDM), ambient, and breakbeat genres; on the lovely “Under the Glass House,” for example, busy beats percolate and bubble underneath languid synth washes, while “Further and Further” is built mainly of a complex and bustling rhythmic structure onto which subtle melody is draped in very delicate wisps. The album closes with “Going,” a floating and drifting cloud of string textures that leaves rhythm behind in favor of gradually building harmonies that become denser and more complicated as the track progresses — but are never less than lushly beautiful. This is an unusually lovely release from a major young talent.


The Bug
Fire
Ninja Tune (dist. Redeye)
ZENCD275

The music of Kevin Martin, d.b.a. The Bug, will most likely get filed under “dance,” but that designation has become less and less appropriate over time, as his music has become more and more dark and abstract. On his latest effort, the song titles give you an idea of the general mood: “Demon”; “Vexed”; “Clash’; “War”; “Bomb”; etc. The music is dense and powerful, and MCs like Irah, Logan, and Nazamba bring bitter and unsparing lyrics that fit the backing tracks perfectly. Unsurprisingly, the highlight here is Daddy Freddy, whose “Ganja Baby” is a brilliant grime/dancehall fusion performance; another very fine entry is “High Rise,” featuring Manga Saint Hilare spitting over one of the darkest, most intense, and rhythmically indeterminate Bug tracks I’ve yet heard. Most serious is “The Missing,” on which poet Roger Robinson intones a brief and grim elegy for the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster, and The Bug creates a soundscape that offers no rhythm, no real chord changes — little except for a dense and billowing cloud of distortion. No, despite its numerous grooves this really isn’t a “dance” album; but what it does very effectively is illustrate some ways in which dance music tropes can be put to highly serious and thoughtful social and political use.


Dar Williams
I’ll Meet You Here
Renew/BMG
538690252

If you haven’t heard Dar Williams’ name before, it’s probably because you’re not a professional songwriter — in that sphere, she’s been a legend for decades now. Among her other great attributes, she has that most elusive of gifts: the ability to write a complicated song that sounds simple. She demonstrates that gift all over her new album, notably on the hair-raisingly beautiful “You Give It All Away” (on which you may not even notice the outstanding horn chart until the second time you listen to it) and “Let the Wind Blow” (on which she pushes a secondary dominant into the chord progression on the lines “So here comes the wave” and “So here comes the fire,” adding a little nudge of harmonic momentum at the perfect lyrical moment). Her sense of humor is still there as well, wrapping the sadness and occasional bitter edge of her lyrics in just the right thickness of velvet. Yet another quiet triumph from one of our finest songwriting talents.


Up, Bustle & Out
Vol. 2: Satellite Junk Jukebox, Fresh Outta de Galaxy
Collision: Cause of Chapter 3
CCT 3029-2

If you (and your library patrons) aren’t already familiar with the globe-trotting, sampladelic, jazzy electro-hip-hop of Up, Bustle & Out, then there’s no better time to be brought up to speed than this very minute. And a handy way of doing so is this, the second in a series of compilations designed to provide an overview of the trio’s work since its establishment 25 years ago. The first volume was titled 24 Track Almanac and focused on the group’s earliest work, compiling both released and unreleased material; this one brings together tracks on which the group collaborated with artists from around the world, resulting in tracks with titles like “Okraina Okean-E, 79,” “Descarga Caramelo,” “Hip Hop Barrio,” and “Taksim’s Elektro Streets.” Funky beats, anachronistic wah-wah guitars, languid rapping, and abstract found-sound collages all bump and rub up against each other promiscuously, producing an overall sound that is completely unique and entirely Up, Bustle & Out. Personally, I’d recommend purchasing their whole back catalog — but this is a great starting place if you just want to dip your toe in.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Longyin: The Dragon Chants
Cheng Yu with Dennis Kwong Thye Lee
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
EUCD2951

The guqin (a zither closely related to the Japanese koto) and the xiao (an end-blown bamboo flute) are instruments centrally important to traditional Chinese music, instruments for which some of the world’s oldest annotated music was written. On this album, celebrated guqin virtuoso Cheng Yu has teamed up with xiao player Dennis Kwong Thye Lee to present a program of classic melodies for the two instruments played in a highly traditional style; for the recording Lee strung her instrument with silk strings made in the 1930s, creating a uniquely soft and gentle tone that blends marvelously with the breathy, woody sound of the xiao. This is quiet but deeply beautiful music that should find a home in any library with a collecting interest in the traditional music of China.


Babylon23
Bibel in Dub
Echo Beach
EB023

Thiiiiiiiiis… is a weird one. On the one hand, it seems kind of obvious: ever since reggae music was essentially overtaken by the Rastafari movement in the early 1970s, it has been steeped in Biblical apocalypticism. (There are many competing strands of lyrical orientation within the genre, of course, but Biblical Rastafarianism remains core to the music’s cultural identity.) So why not put together an album of Bible readings set to exceedingly dark, dread reggae accompaniment? Of course, having those readings performed by a deep, stentorian voice — in German — is perhaps not the most obvious choice. And the music itself departs significantly from what one might expect; there are no familiar Studio One rhythms, and not even much in the way of regular grooves. Instead, we get bass-heavy but idiosyncratic soundscapes that are (for the most part) built on a reggae foundation but in no way constrained by it — and in some cases, the “music” is so abstract as to be nearly non-musical. What you hear behind the readings from Ezekiel is closer to ambient industrial music than anything else. So yeah, definitely a weird one. And definitely worth a listen.


Dobet Gnahoré
Couleur
Cumbancha
CMB CD-145

Since moving to France from her native Côte d’Ivoire in 1999, Dobet Gnahoré has enjoyed global success as a bandleader and recording artist performing in a style that incorporates elements from around Eastern and Southern Africa. But business troubles were compounded by the impacts of the COVID pandemic in 2020, leading her to return to Abidjan and regroup. The result is this lovely and compelling solo album, one that combines slamming beats with liltingly beautiful melodies and lyrical messages that range from female empowerment (“Yakané”) and self-determination (“Lève-toi”) to domestic love (“Ma maison”) and submissive spirituality (“Rédemption”). Throughout the album are melodies and arrangements that glisten, bounce, and soar, and the constant unifying thread if Gnahoré’s gorgeous and powerful voice. Highly recommended to all libraries.

August 2021


CLASSICAL


Hildegard von Bingen
Ordo Virtutem
Seraphic Fire
Self-released
SFMCD16

Hildegard von Bingen was a 12th century abbess, now famous for being something of a Renaissance woman hundreds of years before the Renaissance. She was a composer, philosopher, theologian, and natural scientist, and recorded numerous spiritual visions. But since the 1980s she has been best known for her music, which consists of surpassingly beautiful plainchant written for the nuns she supervised in her abbey. One of her most remarkable compositions is Ordo Virtutem, a morality play that depicts a wandering soul struggling to choose between good and evil. She is enticed by the Virtues (represented by the women’s voices) and by the Devil (portrayed by a man, who never sings; he only speaks and shouts). Seraphic Fire’s performance is passionate and ethereal by turns, and they sing with a magnificent blend. In his role as the Devil, James K. Bass is suitably bombastic, sneering, and pathetic. If your library doesn’t already own a performance of this work, start here.


Harry Partch
The Bewitched
Harry Partch Ensemble / Danlee Mitchell
Neuma
126

Subtitled “A Ballet Satire,” this ten-scene composition (plus prologue and epilogue) seems to have been intended as a commentary on everything in 1950s America that drove Harry Partch crazy: mindless conformity in both society and music; popular entertainments; sports (at one point an actual basketball game is played onstage); soap opera; etc. If you’re at all familiar with Partch’s work and his well-documented tendency to build homemade instruments for use in performance, you won’t be surprised that the music is percussion-heavy and draws deeply on Indonesian influences, or that the staging required the dancers to move around and sometimes even interfere with the musicians. Space doesn’t permit a summary of the story line; suffice it to say that as fun and interesting as the music is, you’ll wish you could watch the action as well. This is a recording of a live performance from 1980, and it has a suitably energetic, not to say chaotic, live-performance vibe.


Alessandro Scarlatti
Sonate à quattro
Les Récréations
Ricercar (dist. Naxos)
RIC 422

I’ve always been fascinated by music that represents an inflection point of stylistic change, and the four-part sonatas of Alessandro Scarlatti are a wonderful example of such works. Around the 1700s, these compositions for four stringed instruments (the “string quartet,” as such, was not yet conceived) were unique in that they explicitly excluded the harpsichord, which at this point was still widely considered an essential element of the continuo. The music itself sounds as if it has one foot in the consort music of the Renaissance and the other in the structural rigors of baroque counterpoint; just when you think you’ve settled into one predictable set of sonorities the ground shifts beneath you. This program sets Scarlatti’s sonatas next to works by his brother Francesco and his son Domenico, as well as brief pieces by two earlier composers who exerted an influence on him: Giovanni Maria Trabaci and the celebrated Mannerist composer Carlo Gesualdo. The playing is outstanding. A must for all libraries supporting classical music pedagogy.


Michael Harrison
Seven Sacred Names
Various Performers
Cantaloupe Music (dist. Naxos)
CA21157

Described as “music corresponding to the seven stages of universal awakening outlined in the book Nature’s Hidden Dimension by W.H.S. Gebel,” these seven chamber pieces seek to accompany what it essentially an exploration of the mystical dimension between the physical and spiritual worlds. Harrison is a student of Sufism, and that spiritual tradition is referenced explicitly in the titles of these pieces, though only a couple of them draw musically on South Indian elements. As one might expect, the music itself is quiet — sometimes it tends towards the pentatonic (as on Hayy: Revealing the Tones) and sometimes it’s quite melodically complex (as on the raga-based Alim: Polyphonic Raga Malkauns — and let’s stop here a moment and contemplate the fascinating concept of a polyphonic raga). Arrangements are for various small combinations of instruments and voices, and all of it is quite marvelous.


Johann Caspar Kerll
Missa non sine quare (reissue)
La Risonanza / Fabio Bonizzoni
Glossa (dist. Naxos)
GCDC80033

Before hearing this album, I was only vaguely aware of the 17th century Viennese composer Johann Caspar Kerll. And now I’m experiencing that wonderful feeling that comes when you discover a new composer and have the opportunity to dig deeper and hear more. In the meantime, I can enthusiastically recommend this reissue of the outstanding La Risonanza’s performance (a 1999 recording originally issued on the Symphonia label), in which the small vocal forces serve to showcase Kerll’s mastery of imitative counterpoint and the aching loveliness of his melodies. As a student of Carissimi and a teacher of Pachelbel, Kerll was among the composers who ushered in the era of the Bach family, and you can hear Bach waiting impatiently in the wings here. Highly recommended to all libraries with a collecting interest in baroque music.


JAZZ


Aufbruch
Aufbruch
RareNoise
RNR0129

Aufbruch is a duo consisting of keyboardist/synthesist/programmer J. Peter Schwalm and touch guitarist Markus Reuter. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a “touch guitar” (of which the Chapman Stick may be the most famous example) is a stringed instrument designed so that vibration of its strings is actuated by tapping on them behind the frets; this frees up both hands to play notes all over the fretboard at once, in much the same way that a keyboard is played. On their debut recording as a duo, Schwalm and Reuter create dense, crunchy, but also oddly ethereal and sometimes explicitly uplifting soundscapes that tend not to move according to any obvious harmonic logic and are often sonically challenging, but yet never fail to invite the listener in. Sometimes you’ll hear instruments that are recognizable in timbre and character: electronic drums that sound like drums; a guitar that sounds like a guitar. But mostly you’ll hear a kaleidoscopic array of sounds and noises that sound like they came from another planet, and it’s fascinating. Also, don’t miss the subtle but excellent vocal contributions from Sophie Tassignon on “Lebewohl” and “Losgelöst.”


Graham Haynes vs. Submerged
Echolocation
Burning Ambulance Music
077

And while we’re exploring the liminal boundaries of jazz and being challenged as to our assumptions about what the word actually means, let’s check out this wild and magnificent collaboration between legendary cornettist Graham Haynes and avant-garde junglist Kurt Glück-Aeg, who produces and records under the name Submerged (and is the founder of the excellent avant-D&B label Ohm Resistance). The sounds they produce are pretty much what you’d expect if you’re familiar with their work individually: Haynes plays discursive, intelligent lines informed by his familiarity with Submerged’s music (and that were recorded in Brazil), and Submerged gives them electronic treatments and places them in a rhythmic and sonic context. In Haynes’ words, the goal was “trying to be as intense as possible and still be musical,” and I would say they achieved that goal: Haynes’ parts are altered but always respected, and the soundscapes created by Submerged draw on industrial, techno, drum’n’bass, and other electronic genres to create brand-new sounds and expansive (though often somewhat harsh and challenging) structures. Highly recommended.


Massimo Biolcati
Momenta (digital only)
Sounderscore
SO 004

Back in 2020 I strongly recommended bassist/composer Massimo Biolcati’s sophomore effort as a leader, and now here I am again doing the same for his third. On Momenta Biolcati leads a quartet whose members shift throughout the program, which itself consists of the usual blend of excellent original compositions, standards, and one surprising jazz adaptation of a 1980s pop song. (Last time it was Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”; this time it’s Sadé’s “Love Is Stronger Than Pride.”) As always, Biolcati leads his band strongly but modestly, showing off the other musicians’ playing more than his own. There are so many wonderful moments here: “Estate” has a beautifully swaying, “Night and Day” vibe; on “Gumbo,” I had to double-check to make sure that the guitarist wasn’t Bill Frisell (and yes, that’s definitely intended as a compliment to the actual guitarist, Mike Moreno); Biolcati’s take on “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” is one of the most gorgeous jazz performances I’ve heard this year. Throughout the album the band’s sound is gentle but firm, often floating but never aimless. It’s another brilliant outing by one of the current jazz scene’s most impressive talents.


Tobias Hoffmann Nonet
Retrospective
Alessa
ALR 1076

Tobias Hoffmann is a widely experienced saxophonist, composer, arranger, and educator, but this is the first album on which he has led a band on a program consistingly entirely of his own compositions and arrangements. As one might expect, he takes this opportunity to showcase his broad stylistic range and his remarkable gift for horn writing. The smooth and pleasant modern jazz of the first three tracks takes a sudden turn on “Procrastinator,” which is rhythmically knotty and calls for passages of group improvisation scattered among the tightly composed sections of the head. In fact, it’s not always easy to tell what’s composed and what isn’t on this fascinating composition. The same is true of the midtempo “Frülingserwachen” (which calls for the drummer to push things along with a bubbling stream of accents below more languid horn lines). “Who’s to Blame” has a richly-written horn chart and a swinging groove that harks back explicitly both to 1960s hard bop sound and to the 1930s heyday of big band arranging. “Remembrance” is a gorgeous ballad. Everything here is played with dynamism and virtuosity; this album would make a welcome addition to any jazz collection.


Noah Haidu
Slowly: Song for Keith Jarrett
Sunnyside
SSC-1596

A number of musical and life transitions led to pianist/composer Noah Haidu’s latest album. Haidu’s father passed away shortly before the two were scheduled to attend a Keith Jarrett concert together; that concert turned out to be Jarrett’s last, as he later suffered a pair of strokes that left him partially paralyzed. Jarrett turned 75 this past spring, and Haidu decided to team up with the legendary rhythm section of drummer Billy Hart and bassist Buster Williams for a tribute recording. The music is actually mostly standards and originals by members of the trio, but the program also includes Jarrett’s own “Rainbow,” which segues directly into Haidu’s joyful “Keith Jarrett.” As one might expect from this lineup, the playing is absolutely exquisite; on the ballads in particular (notably the Williams composition “Air Dancing”) the trio’s ability to stay absolutely together while implying the rhythm more than stating it is breathtaking. But there are highlights all over this tremendous album. A must-purchase for all libraries.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Jeb Loy Nichols with Cold Diamond & Mink
Jeb Loy
Timmion
TRCD-12010

Granted, his current label bills Jeb Loy Nichols as a “soul/R&B” artist, and I was introduced to him when he made a somewhat incongruous (but fantastic) reggae/country album for the On-U Sound label. But I just can’t help but think of Jeb Loy Nichols as a country artist, or at least a country-inflected Americana artist. And no, it’s not just the cowboy hat and the denim jacket. It’s the fact that even when there’s a reggae backbeat or a horn section in the arrangement, and even when his voice is at its most Dan Penn-like, I still feel like I hear Nashville in his sound. And yes, that’s a compliment. Listen to the acoustic guitar part that underlies the bossa-derived beat and the smooth horns on “I Just Can’t Stop”; listen to the twang (not to mention the harmonica) that pervades “Like a Rainy Day.” And besides, his current label is Finnish. So yeah, I don’t care what you say: Jeb Loy Nichols is a country artist. And I say more power to him.


I See Hawks in L.A.
On Our Way
Western Seeds Record Company
WSR-CD 015

Once referred to in the music press as “sort of a rural Steely Dan,” I See Hawks in L.A. have, over the course of 22 years, built a reputation for sharp songwriting and keen wit, gathering fans and sharing stages with artists as diverse and distinguished as the Mavericks, Dave Alvin, Peter Case, and the Meat Puppets(!). Their tenth album was recorded under COVID duress, each band member remote from the others, and at a time when global political and social concerns were top of mind. These folks being quite mature at this point, their approach to these concerns was careful; they wanted to “state (their) views without exploiting suffering.” And I would argue that they accomplished that, particularly acutely on tracks like “Mississippi Gas Station Blues” and “Geronimo.” This is one of those bands that both documents and demonstrates the constantly blurring separation between country, folk, and roots rock — while being fully able to deliver a phrase like “bumpin’ Morton Subotnick” without sounding at all funny. Recommended.


Ric Robertson
Carolina Child
Free Dirt
DIRT-CD-0101

This album was my first exposure to the music of Ric Robertson, and I came away from it seriously intrigued. His roots are clearly in what has come to be called “Americana,” but there’s lots of weird stuff going on here — starting with the production: listen, for example, to the strange use of echo and delay on “Getting Over Our Love” and the squidgy equalization applied to both the guitar and the sax solos on the slinky “I Don’t Mind.” But the content is plenty unusual as well; compare, for example, the slow honky-tonk chug of “Harmless Feeling” to the blend of subtle Tin Pan Alley chord changes and even subtler electronic tweaks that give “Sycamore Hill” a sweet-and-sour complexity. (Note also the opening line: “The coffee is cold and the spliff half smoked,” which is a pretty great way to start a song.) But also check out the heartfelt “My Love Never Sleeps,” which, honestly, sounds more than a little like Paul Simon — and I mean that in only the best way. I’ll be keeping an eye on this guy.


ROCK/POP


Ora the Molecule
Human Safari
Mute
1051-2

The concept of “avant-pop” has always been like catnip for me. I just love the tension: how avant-garde can it be and still be pop? How pop can it be and still be avant-garde? Not since the heyday of Pere Ubu has this question been so fruitfully explored by so many. Including, now, the wonderful Norwegian singer and songwriter Nora Schjelderup, who records under the much-more-pronounceable (by me, anyway) moniker Ora the Molecule. As one might expect of 21st-century avant-pop, it’s very much electronic music: steady and bubbling beats underly weird lyrics and subtly hooky melodies, all delivered with Schjelderup’s unassumingly pretty voice. Highlights? Well, “Die to Be a Butterfly” nicely evokes early Depeche Mode, and “Shadow Twin” throbs attractively while making tasteful use of subtle dubwise effects. I’m trying to decide whether the Millenial whoop that opens “Helicopter” is intended ironically, but even if it isn’t, that’s okay. This whole album is a treat, and I also recommend the various remix EPs that are available for electronic purchase alongside it.


Various Artists
Made to Measure, Vol. 1 (reissue)
Crammed Discs
MTM 1 CD

While we’re on the topic of avant-pop, let’s take the opportunity to revisit one of the labels that pioneered the genre, and its monumental series of compilations in that vein. Made to Measure was a series of 25 compilations that Belgium’s Crammed Discs label began issuing in 1984; it featured a wide variety of genres from neoclassical/chamber music to experimental pop music and ambient soundscapes. To celebrate the label’s upcoming 40th anniversary, Crammed Discs is reinstituting the series with new recordings, and also reissuing some of the early releases, starting with this inaugural album. It focuses on tracks by seminal acts Tuxedomoon, Aqsak Maboul, and Minimal Compact (with one contribution from Benjamin Lew); the music is unusual by pop-music standards but not particularly challenging or abrasive. There’s some puckish humor (Aqsak Maboul’s “Chez les futuristes russes”), some ironic nostalgia (Minimal Compact’s twisted cabaret tune “Immer vorbei”), and some slightly unsettling instrumental stuff (Tuxedomoon’s “No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition”). As someone who came of age listening to these artists, I’m thrilled to see this material coming back into print.


Sally Decker
In the Tender Dream
NNA Tapes (dist. Redeye)
NNA 137

And, heck, while we’re drifting in this direction let’s just go for broke. There’s nothing “pop” about the avant-garde music produced by Sally Decker (a.k.a. Multa Nox). Her music comes out of rock more than classical, but it’s deeply experimental. In the Tender Dream draws on techniques and ideas that emerged from her time as a student at Mills College, where she began working with feedback in a serious way. She applies various techniques to put feedback and other varieties of noise to the service of explorations of deep emotion. At times there are vocals, but they tend to be whispered or muttered rather than sung, and everything is embroidered with glitches, overlain with clouds of static, and/or layered with chirps and bleeps and all manner of other noises. It ought to sound like chaos, but it doesn’t; it ought to be unpleasant, but it isn’t. Decker is clearly in full control of her resources, and uses them to create fascinating and complex music that doesn’t sound like anything or anyone else.


René Lussier
Complètement marteau
ReR Megacorp (dist. Circum-disc)
ReR RL1

I’ve been a fan of Québecois avant-garde guitarist René Lussier for years, ever since I came across his work on a duo album with my hero Fred Frith. On his latest album he pulls together a program consisting of commissioned works dating from between 1999 and 2019. All of them were performed by the groups that commissioned them but never recorded, so he created new realizations of the music himself using multitracking techniques and a plethora of instruments including (in addition to the guitar) the daxophone and a wide variety of percussive objects. (He is also joined on one track by bassist Hugo Blouin.) As usual with Lussier, the music is simultaneously challenging and good-humored. Several of these pieces were written to accompany a clown show, and one to accompany an architectural projection; one was written for a quartet of guitars and electric toothbrushes. It’s all great stuff, and this disc would make a welcome addition to any library collecting new and experimental music.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Mark Seelig
The Disciple’s Meditation
Projekt (dist. MVD)
385

Mark Seelig took up the bansuri (the bamboo flute used in Indian classical music) in middle age, as part of an ongoing general spiritual and psychological quest. He is now three albums into a series of releases exploring the flute as “the expression of spirit.” It would be easy to dismiss this as dilletantish dabbling, but while neither Seelig nor tabla player Vito Gregoli demonstrates the breathtaking virtuosity of India’s finest classical musicians, they do show genuine respect for the ragas on which their musical meditations are based, and this music is much more suited to meditation and/or yoga practice than genuine classical music would be, with its focus on exciting thematic development and technical prowess. Any library with a collecting interest in East-West cultural fusion would do well to consider adding this release (and its predecessors in the Disciple series).


Mungo’s Hi Fi
Antidote
Scotch Bonnet
SCOBCD015

Dub is a producer’s art form, the predecessor of modern remix culture. It emerged in Jamaica in the early 1970s, when reggae producers realized they could save money by backing a single with an instrumental version of the song rather than recording an entirely new song as a B side; eventually the more creative ones began experimenting with dropping voices and instruments in and out of the mix, adding effects like echo and delay for good measure. Patrons of Kingston’s famous outdoor sound system dances couldn’t get enough of it, and dub has developed a life of its own since then. The latest release from the outstanding Glasgow reggae collective Mungo’s Hi Fi is a collection of dub deconstructions of tunes both old and not-yet-released, all of it mixed in bass-heavy sound system style, some of it preserving scraps of the original vocal; highlights include the brilliant “Time Traveler” and the very minimalist and dread “Escape from the City.” For all collections.


Ben Aylon
Xalam
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
TUGCD1130

Israeli percussionist Ben Aylon has spent years studying sabar drumming, a tradition that is central to the music of Mali and Senegal. His studies included time spent as a pupil of Aly Ndiaye Rose, son of Doudou Ndiaye Rose, who is widely recognized as the master of this tradition. As a direct result of his studies, Aylon developed a personal approach to playing multiple drums simultaneously, and he has toured Senegal and been featured on Senegalese television demonstrating this technique. Over the years he has also been working on a collaborative recording project featuring members of the Rose family, singer Khaira Arby, and others, recording them in hotel rooms and other improvised locations. The resulting album is entrancing: the songs and compositions sometimes sway back and forth between two chords for minutes at a time, and sometimes unfold slowly into strange but wonderful melodic lines. Any library with a collecting interest in African music should jump at the chance to pick this one up.