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March 2020


PICK OF THE MONTH


Juan Esquivel
Missa Hortus conclusus; Magnificat; Marian Antiphons; Motets
De Profundis / Eamonn Dougan
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
CDA68326

Several things are notable about this release. First of all, Juan Esquivel is frequently overlooked among the master composers of the Spanish Renaissance–understandably enough, given that he flourished shortly after Cristóbal de Morales and his contemporaries included Tomás Luis de Victoria and Francisco Guerrero. While no claim is made on the package or in the liner notes for this recording as a world premiere of the program’s central Mass setting, I can find no evidence that it has ever been recorded before, making this an important release on that basis alone. Also notable is the uncannily lush and velvety tone of De Profundis, an all-male ensemble that has a much more tonally rich sound than most of its peers. In this case that richness of sound is due in part to the group’s large numbers, but it’s also down to vocal balancing and careful blend. The countertenors all have an unusually dark tone, which lends an extra weight to these already somber works. Esquivel’s Magnificat setting is especially intense and lovely, and overall this is a deeply impressive recording of marvelous and rarely-heard music performed by a world-class ensemble.


CLASSICAL


Johannes Lupi; Lupus Hellinck
Motets; Te Deum; Missa Surrexit pastor
Brabant Ensemble / Stephen Rice
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
CDA68304
Rick’s Pick

Before we leave the world of obscure Renaissance choral music, it’s important to bring to your attention the latest release from the magnificent Brabant Ensemble, one of the foremost vocal groups in the “Oxbridge style” tradition. Johannes Lupi and Lupus Hellinck both came from the Franco-Flemish region, which nurtured so many of the greatest polyphonic composers of the 16th century, but despite that proximity (and the weird coincidence of both having names derived from the Latin word for “wolf”) they were somewhat separated in age and don’t seem to have crossed paths. Hellinck’s parody Mass on the motet Surrexit pastor bonus is complex and elaborate in organization but sweetly immediate in performance; the motets and Te Deum setting (something of a rarity for the Renaissance period) by Lupi are similarly lush and heart-tuggingly beautiful. As always, much of the credit for the beauty of this recording goes to the Brabants, whose blend and intonation continue to set a world standard.


Johann Sebastian Bach
English Suites BWV 806-811 (2 discs)
Andrew Rangell
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
STNS 30136
Rick’s Pick

Johann Sebastian Bach
A Bouquet of Bach
Andrew Rangell
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
STNS 30126

There are few musical pleasures greater than listening to Bach’s keyboard music played on the modern piano, and there are very few pianistic exponents of that repertoire more consistently impressive than Andrew Rangell. These two releases, issued one month apart, offer a scholarly take on one of the monuments of baroque keyboard composition and a more personal compilation of smaller works presented both in their original forms and in transcription. Rangell’s take on the six-part English Suites is simply magnificent; listen in particular to the delicacy and delight he shows in rendering the second menuet section of suite number 4; this is the kind of thing Rangell was born to do. The Bouquet of Bach collection is a bit quirkier, but every bit as lovely; the two- and three-part inventions nestle among brief selections from some of Bach’s notebooks, Egon Petri transcriptions of cantata arias, and other miscellany. Where some pianists temper what can sometimes feel like rhythmic relentlessness in Bach’s fugal compositions by means of rubato, Rangell does the same with dynamics–tenderly and tastefully executed, but with full artistic confidence. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Works for Clarinet (SACD)
Dirk Altmann; Kei Shirai; Masato Suzuki; Ludwig Chamber Players
Tacet (dist. Naxos)
S 252

Mozart was, of course, one of the greatest melodists of his (or any other) century. And of all the myriad melodies he wrote, none were more heartrendingly perfect than those found in his A major quintet for clarinet and strings (known as the “Stadler Quintet,” for the clarinetist to whom it was dedicated). The lines he wrote for his clarinet concerto are almost as affecting. Both of those works are found on this gorgeous disc, along with two song arrangements for clarinet and piano. Dirk Altmann plays conventional clarinet and basset clarinet, and his playing is exceptionally clear and focused. Some of the credit for this album’s unusually rich and bright sound goes to the production techniques, which are discussed in the liner notes. Although these are hardly rarely recorded works, this particular recording can be confidently recommended to all libraries.


Various Composers
Fantasy
Tessa Lark; Amy Yang
First Hand (dist. Naxos)
FHR86

Last month I recommended a highly unusual and deeply rewarding duo album by violinist Tessa Lark and contrabassist Michael Thurber, on which they alternated selected arrangements from Bach’s two-part inventions with original or adapted pieces of their own. This month I’m recommending a solo recording by Lark, one that is slightly less quirky but still quite unusual. She plays a selection of bravura pieces by the usual suspects (Ravel, Kreisler, Telemann), the centerpiece of which is Schubert’s marvelous C-major fantasy. But she throws in a twist: an original piece titled Appalachian Fantasy, which takes the central theme from the Schubert piece and recasts it in fiddle-tune style, and then segues into two traditional fiddle tunes: “Cumberland Gap” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” Lark is a true original in the crowded field of violin virtuosos right now, and is definitely one to keep an eye on. (Kudos to the outstanding pianist Amy Yang as well, who accompanies on three of these works.)


Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Oboe Concertos; Symphonies
Xenia Löffler; Akademie für alte Musik Berlin
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 902601
Rick’s Pick

I sometimes wonder how much more famous Carl Philipp Emanual Bach would be today if his last name weren’t “Bach.” Would he be just another unfairly obscure genius of the classical period? Or would he be more widely praised because he isn’t in his father’s shadow? Certainly he is very highly regarded in the classical community, often praised as one of the most admired keyboardists of his time and as the most influential of Bach’s several musical sons. For examples of why he is, in fact, so well respected (as distinct from famous), consider these absolutely gorgeous concertos and symphonies for winds, all of which prominently feature the oboe. Oboeist Xenia Löffler and the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin play with exceptional cleanness and élan, but it’s the works themselves that really stand out here–C.P.E. Bach’s much-celebrated stylistic independence is on full display, as is his willingness to charm the listener as well as impress the cognoscenti. Strongly recommended to all libraries.


Johann Sebastian Bach; Mike Block
Step into the Void: The Complete Bach Cello Suites with Live Phonograph Companion Album (3 discs)
Mike Block; Barry Rothman
Bright Shiny Things
BSTC-0132

We close out this month’s Bach-heavy Classical section with an example of a highly creative interaction with Bach’s music. Cellist Mike Block recorded the complete cello suites for this project; they are masterfully played and recorded, and are included on the first two discs in the package. The third disc is a live recording of Block improvising freely on themes from the Bach suites, accompanied by performance artist Barry Rothman, who uses LPs, turntables, and an effects pedal as his instruments. As one might expect, the resulting collage of sounds, words, and noises is by turns eerie, funny, disconcerting, and deeply beautiful. To be honest, I’m surprised that Christian Marclay hasn’t done something along these lines already, but it’s hard to imagine him doing it in a more interesting and witty manner than Rothman does. Highly recommended.


JAZZ


Amina Figarova/Edition 113
Persistence
Bartamina (dist. MVD)
BACD015

Pianist and composer Amina Figarova is back with a new approach–leading an electric ensemble she’s dubbed Edition 113. The group is smaller than it sounds on record, a quintet that features guitarist Rez Abbasi, flutist Bart Platteau, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Rudy Royston. All are genius players, but the real star of this project is Figarova’s writing, which is both brilliant and stylistically wide-ranging: “I’ve Got No Time” segues seamlessly from funky hip hop (featuring rapper JSWISS) to smooth-but-knotty bebop, while the chord changes to “Lil’ Poem” slide all over the place, in a leisurely and almost wistful manner, and “Morning Blue” is slow, decorous funk. Every track sheds a different light on Figarova’s genius and on that of her band, and Persistence is a thrilling and satisfying album overall.


Oded Tzur
Here Be Dragons
ECM
2676
Rick’s Pick

Here Be Dragons is the curiously forbidding title of one of the sweetest, softest, and yet most complex and musically dense jazz albums I’ve heard in ages. Oded Tzur is both a hugely gifted composer and a tenor saxophonist of uncommonly sweet and lovely tone; on top of that, he is also an arranger who shows deep respect for his sidemen by giving them plenty of room to move and never pushing himself to the front of the band’s sound. And he loves him some ballads. There’s only one up number on this whole album, and it’s a gently rollicking Latin tune that lopes rather than burns. Everything else is floating and impressionistic, though never disorganized or random. Pianist Nitai Hershkovits, bassist Petros Klampanis, and drummer Jonathan Blake play as if the four musicians share a brain–and the program closes with a version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” that is so supremely delicate it could make you cry. Strong recommended to all libraries.


Kenny Barron/Dave Holland Trio
Without Deception
Dare2
DR2-011

Legendary pianist Kenny Barron and equally legendary bassist Dave Holland first got together as a duo six years ago for The Art of Conversation. For this, their long-overdue followup, they’re joined by drummer Jonathan Blake for an absolutely top-notch trio session consisting mostly of originals with a couple of standards thrown in–the Ellington composition “Warm Valley” and Thelonious Monk’s underrated “Worry Later.” Barron has always been a solidly straight-ahead player and writer, but Holland’s career has been all over the place stylistically speaking, and has featured stints alongside Miles Davis, Anthony Braxton, John McLaughlin and others. Here the trio focuses on groove, alternating Latin, funk, swing, and ballad moods and conveying all of them with equal authority and grace. Blake is really the secret sauce here; rarely have I heard a drummer so gifted at making the rest of a combo sound so good.


Chris Dingman
Embrace
Inner Arts
No cat. no.
Ricks’ Pick

This delicately gorgeous record comes courtesy of vibraphonist and composer Chris Dingman, who for the first time steps out as leader of a trio (also including the brilliant bassist Linda Oh and drummer Tim Keper). One of the many things that struck me about this album is how counterintuitively Dingman manages both groove and abstraction: none of his compositions is rhythmically free, but many of them feel as if they’re rhythmically floating (even when, as on “Ali” and “Goddess,” the time signature is perfectly clear); none of them is melodically undefined, and yet in many cases the melody seems suspended in a shimmering cloud. Dingman is probably improvising quite a bit here, but somehow the pieces all feel through-composed, perhaps because there isn’t generally a clear head-solos-head structure at work. What is clear is how deeply beautiful it all is. Highly recommended.


Keith Oxman
Two Cigarettes in the Dark
Capri
74161-2
Rick’s Pick

We’ll wind up this month’s jazz coverage with a fantastic straight-ahead quintet date led by tenor saxophonist and composer Keith Oxman. He’s joined on the front line with fellow tenor player Houston Person, and supported by pianist Jeff Jenkins, bassist Ken Walker, and drummer Paul Romaine. The program consists mainly of standards (“I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “Everything Happens to Me,” etc.) along with some very fine originals. The word that kept coming to me as I listened to these tracks was “clean”–Oxman and his crew have a very tight and focused sound that never comes across as antiseptic or slick, just clean and tight and swinging. Vocalist Annette Murrell makes a welcome appearance on “Everything Happens to Me” and “Crazy He Calls Me,” and the whole program is just a delight. For all jazz collections.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Eliza Carthy
Restitute (reissue)
Topic (dist. Redeye)
TSCD599

This release, billed as Eliza Carthy’s “first ‘solo’ album of traditional music in 14 years,” was actually issued a while ago but was originally only available via her website. Now, as the Topic label celebrates its 80th anniversary, it’s being released on that label as well. The album is a spare, even stark document–Carthy’s slightly grainy but utterly reliable voice is accompanied by her own fiddle and occasionally by one or two other musicians (Martin Carthy on guitar, Jon Boden on concertina or harmony vocals). Some of the songs are hybrids of a sort, with traditional words but music composed by Carthy; some are modern folk songs by the likes of Leon Rosselson or modern settings of poems by Robert Burns or Rudyard Kipling. Some are tender and others are almost frightening in their intensity, which is of course as much as function of Carthy’s brilliant musicianship as of the songs themselves. Highly recommended.


Dwight Yoakam
Blame the Vain
New West (dist. Redeye)
NW6194
Rick’s Pick

Without doubt the greatest living exponent of the Bakersfield Sound, Dwight Yoakam has always operated outside the mainstream of country music, with a completely unapologetic twang to both his voice and his band sound, and a defiant embrace of the hillbilly mode, with its constant hint of high-lonesome bluegrass vocal style. There is absolutely nothing new, innovative, or genre-pushing about his latest album; if anything, his aggressively traditional edge has gotten sharper, his voice has gotten richer, and his songwriting has gotten hookier. He fairly snarls on lovelorn honky-tonkers like “Intentional Heartache” and “Three Good Reasons,” and then turns on a dime into a heartfelt crooner on “Just Passin’ Time” (which incorporates a perfectly tasteful border-town inflection on the brief guitar solo). The synth-and-British-accented-spoken-word intro to “She’ll Remember” is startling and weird, but then it segues right into a swinging midtempo honky-tonk heartbreak raveup. OK, so maybe he does push the genre boundaries just a little bit. But only for a minute; then he challenges the country music establishment precisely by showing it what it’s been missing ever since it began transforming into a subgenre of pop R&B.


Various Artists
Strut My Stuff: Obscure Country & Hillbilly Boppers
Modern Harmonic (dist. Redeye)
MHCD-051

This is a delightful compilation of genuinely obscure 1950s tunes by country artists I guarantee you’ve never heard of: Riley Crabtree, Chuck Stacey, Les & Helen Tussey, Penny West, etc. Mastered from obscure vinyl recordings and averaging about two minutes apiece, many of these songs were recorded as one-offs by artists who were hoping for a local or regional radio hit, and a few of them were well advised to keep their day jobs–some of this stuff is novelty dreck that is of interest today mainly as a curiosity or as a cringey reminder of how socially acceptable casually nasty sexism was not very long ago. But there are plenty of real gems here as well: jazzy Western swing (Roy Harris’s “South of San Antonio”), sly honky tonk (Chuck Ray’s “I May Not Be Able But I’m Willing to Try”), weird countrybilly (Penny West’s “Needle in a Haystack”). I was surprised by the number of tunes that had crooked rhythms, and also by the song “Mustache on the Cabbage Head” by Luke Gordon, which has its roots in the Child ballad “Our Goodman,” much beloved on the Britfolk circuit. Anyway, all of it is tons of fun, even the cringey stuff that you have to enjoy ironically.


ROCK/POP


Teddy Thompson
Heartbreaker Please
Thirty Tigers
68992CD
Rick’s Pick

I keep trying to put my finger on what it is I love so dang much about Teddy Thompson’s music. Clearly, some of it is his way with a melody–his tunes are always intelligent but never merely clever, always hooky but never obvious. Some of it is his voice, which is high and clear and just slightly nasal. Some of it is his lyrics, which are usually simultaneously cynical and vulnerable. And then there’s his musical catholicity, which has at times manifested itself in straight-up country songs and sometimes in jangly folk-rock. This time out it comes out as a look back at 1950s and 1960s R&B, complete with horn charts and handclaps on the offbeats. And those tunes, and those lyrics, and that voice. Don’t sleep on this one.


Nazar
Guerilla
Hyperdub (dist. Redeye)
CD-HDB-046

From the blissfully accessible to the creepily unsettling: I wouldn’t necessarily recommend listening to the Teddy Thompson album and the latest from Nazar back to back. Producer Nazar hails from Angola, a difficult and strife-ridden place, and his music reflects that background. The music serves, in fact, as a way for Nazar to process his family’s history of both witness to and direct involvement in Angola’s long civil war; dark and roiling instrumental soundscapes that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Muslimgauze album are sprinkled with vocal elements that include samples of Ovimbudu folksong and a recording of his mother recalling her experience joining the rebel movement as a teenager. Everything is buttressed by twisted electronic kuduro beats, and the sound is oppressive, dense, threatening, and deeply compelling. The first time I listened I recoiled a bit; the second time, I was captivated.


S.P.Y.
Dubplate Style (2 discs)
Hospital (dist. Redeye)
NHS346CD

Various Artists
Sick Music 2020 (3 discs)
Hospital (dist. Redeye)
NHS369CD

The genre currently known as drum’n’bass has its origins in London’s dance clubs in the early 1990s, when various strands of rave, hardcore, and dancehall reggae all converged to create a thrilling new sound, one that juxtaposed double-time breakbeats with rolling reggae basslines. That genre was originally called “jungle,” but eventually jungle shed much of its reggae influence and came to be called drum’n’bass, and it has continued to thrive in that mode as a semi-mainstream club music. The Hospital label is now one of the premier outlets of d&b, and it’s the home to S.P.Y., a producer originally from Brazil. On his latest album he blends old and new styles of jungle and d&b, providing a forum for likes of singer Shadow Child and British MC GQ, mixing up choo-choo and Amen-based rhythms and generally creating a scintillating party of a record. For an excellent overview of Hospital’s general output, don’t miss Sick Music 2020 (get it? get it?), which offers a generous two-disc compilation of modern d&b featuring artists like Fred V, Kings of the Rollers, Grafix, and Inja. The package also includes a third disc that offers a continuous mix of the tunes contained in the first two discs. Very, very nice.


Pet Shop Boys
Hotspot
x2
0018

Some bands have never changed, and never should. Right up until Lemmy Kilmister’s death, for example, Motörhead was basically making the same album over and over again, and it was glorious. Something similar can be said of Pet Shop Boys–who could hardly sound more different than Motörhead, but who have also been purveying the same sound for several decades now: smooth, ironic, smart and tuneful electropop. Their new album does exactly what all their previous albums have done, maybe with a slightly intensified sense of fatalism and with maybe a very slightly updated percussion sound. Maybe. I don’t know, though–“Happy People” sounds like the backing track was performed by New Order circa 1987, and Chris Lowe’s spoken-word bits sound like what white people thought rapping was circa 1982. And they make it all work. Recommended.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Jon Hassell/Farafina
Flash of the Spirit (reissue)
Tak:Til/Glitterbeat (dist. Forced Exposure)
GBCD 087

One of the most basic rules of music composition in the Western tradition is that you avoid the rigidly parallel movement of intervals, especially fifths; when fifths move in parallel, the harmony sounds robotic and stiff and awkward. And one of the things that has always made Jon Hassell’s music so distinctive is that he plays his trumpet through an electronic harmonizer that creates exactly that effect—and he uses that effect to create music that juxtaposes the robotic and the organic, the acoustic and the electronic, and the Western and the non-Western. This collaboration with the Burkina Faso-based ensemble Farafina was originally released in 1988 and has been out of print for years; its return to market is very welcome, though it would have been nice if the reissue had included some previously-unreleased material to justify its full-line pricing. The music itself is as strange and wonderful as all of Hassell’s projects, mysterious and unsettling while also weirdly soothing and evocative.


Lord Invader
Calypso Travels (reissue)
Smithsonian Folkways
FW08733

Originally issued on LP in 1960 and long out of print, Lord Invader’s Calypso Travels has been now been remastered from the original tapes and makes a welcome return to market in CD, vinyl, and digital formats. Longstanding calypso fans will probably know his name–at a time when calypso was enjoying a brief but intense dalliance with American audiences (thanks mostly to the hugely popular Harry Belafonte), Lord Invader was among the front rank of Trinidadian calypsonians and he recorded several albums for Folkways. This one includes all the lilting rhythms, infectious tunes, and sharply topical lyrics that you’d expect: songs about the World’s Fair, American school desegregation, and Fidel Castro rub shoulders with more whimsical material about marital infidelity and, er, keeping women in their proper place. The sound is exceptionally good for recordings of this vintage, and the music is wonderful.


Purna Loka Ensemble
Metaraga
Origin
82794

OK, this is really cool: Purnaprajna Bangere is a violinist who was raised in southern India and trained in the highly technical Parur style of Carnatic classical music. He is also a professor of mathematics and music at the University of Kansas. On this project he combines these two disciplines, creating a unique style of contemporary Indian classical music influenced by various Western genres and underpinned by mathematical structures of Bangere’s invention. Accompanied by violinist David Balakrishnan (whom you might recognize from the Turtle Island String Quartet), bassist Andy Harshbarger (Curtis Fuller, Eugene Chadbourne, Darol Anger), and tabla player Amit Kavthekar, Bangere creates compositions that range all over the place without ever losing contact with his Carnatic roots. Some of it is melodically simpler than you’d expect; some of it is more lyrical and impressionistic than you’d expect. All of it is very interesting and some of it is magnificent.


Lucky & King Toppa
Potentiel (digital only)
King Toppa/Irie Ites
KT031
Rick’s Pick

More outstanding French reggae from a growing and deepening scene in that country. Well, actually, German/French reggae, which is kind of a mindblowing concept when you think about it. Anyway, this time the music comes courtesy of producer King Toppa (a.k.a. Kassel-based Tobias Wirtz) and Lucky MC (of the Montpelier sound system Travel Sound Hi-Fi). Toppa provides a nice variety of digital dancehall rhythms, and Lucky both chats and sings on them, in French and in a delicately lovely tenor voice. Guests include Don Maleko and Louna & Nelly, and there’s not a weak track anywhere on this album. It was originally released more than a year ago and I wish I’d heard about it earlier–but better late than never. Strongly recommended to all libraries.

February 2020


PICK OF THE MONTH


Hank Williams
Pictures from Life’s Other Side: The Man and His Music in Rare Photos and Recordings (book + 6 discs)
BMG
No cat. no.

In 1951, Hank Williams had his own radio show on WSM, home of the Grand Ole Opry. Sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour, each show lasted 15 minutes, and some were performed live on the air, but because of his punishing tour schedule many of them had to be prerecorded onto acetate discs. Those discs were lost for decades, and were only saved for posterity because someone stopped them from being hauled to a dumpster. The complete transcriptions have been released before, in a 15-disc set packed into a box shaped like an antique radio, but that collection is long out of print. (If you’re interested, you can find used copies that will run you several hundred dollars.) This box is a bit more wieldy: six discs of selections from the Mother’s Best shows, packaged inside the case binding of a large book of photographs, which itself comes inside a sturdy box sleeve. The photos are beautifully reproduced and presented with minimal text; the music is incredibly well preserved (it was newly remastered for this release), and will remind anyone who listens exactly why Hank Williams is still the colossus that bestrides country music: that powerful, reedy voice; those uniquely incisive and creative lyrics; that tight, swinging band. And it has to be said that Williams’ physical beauty was always part of the package, and only enhances the attractiveness of this release: no one ever looked cooler than Hank Williams did when he stooped into the mic over his Martin D-28, his face all sharp angles, his Stetson hat shading a sly grin. Leaf through the pictures while you’re listening to him sing “Cold Cold Heart” and just see if every hair on your neck doesn’t stand on end.


CLASSICAL


Various Composers
Concurrence (CD + Blu-Ray disc)
Iceland Symphony Orchestra / Daníel Bjarnason
Sono Luminus (dist. Naxos)
DSL-92237

This is the second installment in an ongoing series of recordings dedicted to “bringing the orchestral sound world of Icelandic composers to the ears of the world,” in the words of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor Daníel Bjarnason. Four compositions are featured: the majestic and sometimes downright eerie Metacosmos by Anna Thorvaldsdóttir; Haukur Tómasson’s second piano concerto (featuring the outstanding pianist Vikingur Ólafsson); Oceans by Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir; and Páll Ragnar Pálssom’s Quake (featuring cello soloist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir). Because the program’s focus is on composers from a very specific place, one is tempted to listen for stylistic commonalities–but good luck with that. Each work is fairly modernist, but beyond that there isn’t much that unites them sonically. Instead, each composer offers a different musical vision, some more programmatic and others more impressionistic, some more tonal and some less so. All are very much worth hearing, and the playing is consistently excellent.


Claude Debussy
Etudes; Children’s Corner
Aleck Karis
Bridge (dist. Albany)
9529

There’s something a little bit curious about Claude Debussy–widely seen as the pioneer of musical impressionism–writing a set of études for the piano. How does a composer so dedicated to sonic mystery and abstraction write music designed for the cultivation of technique? The answer: idiosyncratically. Notice, for example, the almost puckish juxtaposition of arpeggios and sudden flights of melismatic fancy in the first étude of the first book. Elsewhere, though, the casual listener might be forgiven for failing to recognize these pieces as études at all. The six-movement Children’s Corner, by contrast, is a pure delight, a reflection of Debussy’s uncomplicated devotion to his daughter, for whom these pieces were written. In the final one, “Golliwog’s Cake Walk,” Debussy’s sense of humor is fully unleashed. Aleck Karis is a magnificent advocate for these works.


Franz Joseph Haydn
Haydn Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2
John O’Conor
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
30110

From the ethereal and strange impressionism of Debussy to the strict (if always melodically winning) formalism of Haydn; unless you want sonic whiplash, I wouldn’t recommend listening to the previous entry and this one back-to-back. John O’Conor is a champion of Haydn’s piano sonatas, which he believes are underappreciated. He makes a strong argument for them on his second album in the series, playing sonatas 48, 50, 54, 59, and 60 with both fluid grace and emotional insight, bringing out both the structural ingenuity that is always front and center and and the humor that always lurks just below the surface in Haydn’s work. The recorded sound is perfect; intimate but not crowded, rich without being too resonant. Highly recommended to all classical collections.


Johann Sebastian Bach; Johann Bernard Bach; Johann Ludwig Bach
Complete Ouvertures for Orchestra (2 discs)
Concerto Italiano / Rinaldo Allesandrini
Naïve (dist. Naxos)
OP 30578
Rick’s Pick

Johann Bernhard Bach
Orchestral Suites
Thüringer Bach Collegium
Audite
97.770
Rick’s Pick

J.S. Bach’s orchestral suites are among his most popular and frequently-recorded works, so it would be easy to overlook both of these new releases, one of which juxtaposes J.S. Bach’s suites with those of two of his cousins, and one of which focuses explicitly on one of those cousins, Johann Bernhard. The recording by Concerto Italiano puts two of J.S. Bach’s suites on each disc, in each case sandwiching one of his cousins’ suites between them: disc 1 features Johann Bernhard Bach’s E minor overture between J.S.’s first and second orchestral suites, and disc 2 places Johann Ludwig Bach’s G major suite between J.S. Bach’s third and fourth. The recording by the Thüringer Bach Collegium (a small chamber orchestra that functions without a conductor, though violin soloist Gernot Sußmuth is also credited as “ensemble leader”) focuses on four orchestral suites by Johann Bernhard Bach, none of which duplicates the work on the previous recording. J.B. wrote in the then-fashionable goût mixte style, blending elements of Italian and French structure in his pieces, and although these suites are rarely recorded today they were highly praised during his lifetime. Both of these releases are both historically significant and musically delightful.


Ludovici Einaudi
Seven Days Walking (reissue; 7 discs)
Decca
4818166

Ludovici Einaudi is perhaps best known as a soundtrack composer, having scored numerous Italian films and contributed music to the soundtracks of popular movies like Black Swan and I’m Still Here. But he has also written quite a bit of concert music, and this massive project was inspired by his daily walks in the Italian Alps. Over the course of 2019 he released seven individual albums, each containing quiet and contemplative music for piano, cello, and violin; now all seven are available in a single box set. Working my way through all of these recordings, I noticed something interesting: there would be moments when I’d think “I don’t know, I think this music is a bit too simple to be interesting”–and then something would happen musically that would catch and hold my attention. It was usually something subtle: a gentle harmonic mutation, or a quiet but sudden divergence from a well-established ostinato. But then I’d find that I was listening with new appreciation. Libraries that collect in contemporary music or in pop-classical crossover should definitely give this set strong consideration.


Henry Aldrich
Sacred Choral Music
Cathedral Singers of Christ Church, Oxford; The Restoration Consort; David Bannister / James Morley Potter
Convivium (dist. Naxos)
CR 052

Various Composers
The Tudor Choir Book
Croydon Minster Choir of Whitgift School; English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble / Ronny Krippner
Convivium (dist. Naxos)
CR 042

Henry Aldrich was an Oxford-based composer in the late 17th century, eventually serving as Dean of Christ Church (after his Catholic predecessor was forced to flee the city during escalations in religious tension) and then as vice-chancellor of the university itself. During his career he wrote vocal music for use in Christ Church Cathedral, as well as vocal and instrumental music to accompany the annual Oxford Act in the Sheldonian Theatre. Although this album is titled Sacred Choral Music, it actually features a variety of works for choir, solo voice, and string consort. All of it is wonderful, as are the performances. Another collection of early English vocal music from the same label is The Tudor Choir Book, which offers choral works by 16th-century English composers both familiar (Thomas Tallis, Peter Philips) and less so (Adrian Batten, Nathaniel Giles), interspersed with instrumental music for sackbutts and cornets by Italian composers of the period. Here again we have a combination of liturgical and devotional music, including Tallis’s frequently-recorded “Why Fum’th In Sight” and Adrian Batten’s rarely-heard Short Communion Service. These are performed by the Croydon Minster Choir of Whitgift School, whose boy trebles are sometimes a bit shrill but otherwise sound very fine. Both recordings are recommended to all early music collections.


Tessa Lark & Michael Thurber
Invention (digital only)
Self-released
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

Violinist Tessa Lark and contrabassist Michael Thurber make an unusual duo, but if you need to be convinced that it’s an instrumental combination that works, just check out this delightful album. On it, the pair juxtapose selections from J.S. Bach’s Two-part Inventions with pieces that they either have written themselves or adapted from traditional sources (the latter seems to be the case with “Wooden Soldier,” which sounds like a set of unidentified Irish fiddle tunes). The original compositions, which are written in a variety of styles, contrast nicely with the foursquare counterpoint of the Bach inventions–and the inventions themselves (which are more commonly played on the keyboard) sound surprisingly rich and full in these duo arrangements. This is a wonderful album overall.


JAZZ


Ken Fowser
Morning Light
Posi-Tone
PR8204
Rick’s Pick

I’ve been watching tenor saxophonist Ken Fowser’s career with great interest over the past few years, and continue to be deeply impressed by his work. For his latest album he has put together a classic tenor-and-trumpet quintet lineup (sharing the front line with trumpeter/flugelhorn player Josh Bruneau) to deliver an all-originals program that draws deeply on the hard-bop tradition that has been always been Fowser’s lodestar. If you’re a fan of 1960’s Blue Note recordings by the likes of Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, then you’re sure to enjoy this one. Which is not to say that Fowser’s playing is derivative; I’d say it’s respectful, while still forging his own stylistic path. There’s a bit more Latin flavor on this album, highlights including the nimbly bouncing “This That & the Other Thing” and the achingly sweet “Without Saying.” Also worth noting is the gently but powerfully swinging “Firefly.” Honestly, though, there’s not a weak track anywhere on the program. For all libraries.


Ben Webster
Ballads (reissue)
State of Art (dist. MVD)
81264

Ben Webster
The Soul of Ben Webster (expanded reissue)
Matchball (dist. MVD)
48023

Here are two somewhat confusing but still deeply enjoyable Ben Webster reissues, both bringing back to market releases that originally came out in the 1950s. Hold onto your porkpie hat while I  try to explain: Ballads is a one-CD reissue of a two-LP set that was originally released in the 1970s, but which itself was a reissue of two 1950s LPs: Music for Loving and Music with Feeling. Due to time constraints, the CD version lacks two tracks from the original two-LP reissue. The Soul of Ben Webster draws on the same period and duplicates a few tracks on The Soul of Ben Webster, but also includes some wonderful uptempo material — plus the two tracks that are missing from the Ballads re-reissue. So here’s the thing: yes, the pedigree of these releases is confusing. But the music isn’t. Whether Webster is crooning or burning, his tone remains the thing of wonder that it was throughout his career, and the Norman Granz-produced sessions included on these albums are beautifully recorded and feature such stellar sidemen as Teddy Wilson, Ray Brown, Milt Hinton, and Art Farmer.


Jonathan Ng
The Sphynx (EP, digital only)
Self-released
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

I don’t often review digital-only releases, and I almost never review EPs, especially in the jazz genre. But this one, the latest release from violinist Jonathan Ng, is so much fun that I just had to make an exception. Apart from its length and format it has another thing going against it: unless my ears are greatly mistaken, the music is all recorded in mono and with production techniques that make it sound like a very skillfully remastered acetate 78, which seems unnecessarily gimmicky to me. Still, though: Ng and his sextet play vintage swing and hot jazz with such infectious glee and off-hand virtuosity that it’s impossible not to be caught up in it. His website lists a bunch of previous recordings that I’ve never heard of before, so I’m going back to dig into his catalog now. Highly recommended.


Nick Finzer
Cast of Characters
Outside in Music
OiM 2000

I confess that I approached this album with some trepidation. The program looked awfully… conceptual to me. But I’ve been a fan of trombonist Nick Finzer for a while, so I decided to give it a shot, and I’m very glad I did. The operant concept here is indicated by the album’s title: the tunes are arranged in mini-suites that deal collectively with the idea of musical influence. With clusters of tunes that are given titles like “Brutus (the Contemporary),” “A Duke,” and “The Weatherman,” Finzer and his sextet explore the tension between musical self-determination and the veneration of one’s predecessors–and also, not incidentally I think, the tension between tight and careful composition and unfettered self-expression. There is a constant push and pull between those two approaches, resulting in some truly thrilling music-making as beautifully orchestrated ensemble passages segue unpredictably into freestyle blowing and back again. This album is conceptually impressive, but also genuinely enjoyable.


Benny Benack III
A Lot of Livin’ to Do (digital & LP only)
BB3 Productions
01242020
Rick’s Pick

I’ve always liked Postmodern Jukebox more in theory than in practice, but I have to say that the sophomore album by that group’s frontman is one of the funnest, sweetest, and most infectiously swinging jazz releases I’ve heard so far this year. With a voice that reminds me of John Pizzarelli at his best, and an equal facility as a songwriter and a song interpreter–not to mention considerable trumpet chops–Benny Benack III won my heart from the first track of this album. He then secured his hold on me with a Latin-jazz arrangement of the Mr. Rodgers song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” (“It’s You I Like” makes an appearance on the program as well). His original tunes are just as good as the pop and jazz standards he selected, and every performance is a joy. And that’s Christian McBride on bass, people. For all libraries.


Bobby Previte; Jamie Saft; Nels Cline
Music from the Early 21st Century
RareNoise
RNR115

Let’s finish out this month’s Jazz section with a palate-cleanser: a blast of brash, exploratory, alternately skronky and bluesy postmodern music from three genuine avant-jazz legends: drummer Bobby Previte, keyboardist Jamie Saft, and guitarist Nels Cline. Recorded live while on tour in early 2019, the music is mostly improvised, though there are moments when you would guess that it had been composed and carefully arranged. Saft spends most of his time on a Hammond B3 organ, which brings a disconcertingly familiar and even old-fashioned sound into a mix that is otherwise crammed with weird and futuristic noise (mostly courtesy of Cline, whose tonal palette is effectively without boundaries). Fans of downtown mainstays Massacre, Praxis, and Material (especially the albums featuring Bernie Worrell) will find much to love here, as will anyone who is coming to the end of a frustrating week and just needs her or his sinuses cleared. Turn it up and brace yourself.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Tami Neilson
Chickaboom!
Outside Music (dist. Redeye)
CD-OUTS-9130

Retro-country-rocker Tami Neilson grew up playing in a family band in her native Canada, though her solo career really took after she relocated to New Zealand. But for her latest album she felt the pull of family again, and invited her brother Jay to come and play guitar and bass for the sessions. The result is a bristling if all-too-brief set of original songs that draw on country, rockabilly, R&B and blues traditions in roughly equal measure, all of them showcases for her powerhouse of a voice. Some of the songs don’t fit any existing genre at all; “Queenie, Queenie” sounds like a nursery rhyme written by a retired madame; “You Were Mine” sounds like a Patsy Cline song being covered by Nina Simone. But genre boundaries are for suckers, and each one of these songs is a slightly different kind of revelation. The Mavis Staples tribute is both sweet and fiery. Recommended.


Seamus Egan
Early Bright (digital only)
THL
THL0003
Rick’s Pick

Composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Seamus Egan seems somehow to break new music ground with every release–and given that his recording career began 35 years ago, when he was 16, this means that he’s plowed a lot of musical soil. His latest album–and his first solo effort in 23 years–finds him in yet another new musical field, bringing his seemingly bottomless instrumental chops and his impressive compositional skills to bear on a set of tunes that draw on Irish tradition without staying bound by it. The title track is especially Celtic-sounding, but it segues into the less genre-specific “6 Then 5,” a track that could have been written by Penguin Cafe Orchestra if the Penguins weren’t so muzakky. The program proceeds accordingly, offering a kaleidoscopic array of tunes that offer layer upon layer of virtuosic playing and melodic inspiration. For all libraries.


Will Sexton
Don’t Walk the Darkness
Big Legal Mess (dist. Fat Possum)
BLM0573

Sexton comes from Austin by way of Memphis, and on his latest album he’s backed up by the New Orleans-based Iguanas. So if you hear a certain greasiness in his sound, well, he comes by it honestly. And like all the best musicians from all three of those cities, he makes music characterized simultaneously by looseness and tightness: a soft, almost casual approach to rhythm and to singing that nevertheless always stays firmly in the pocket. Songs like “Only Forever” and “Witness” draw deeply on traditions of Memphis soul (listen to those wonderfully subtle horn charts on the latter tune), while a strong whiff of outlaw Texas country wafts across everything like smoke from a mesquite campfire.


ROCK/POP


Pulse Emitter
Swirlings (LP & digital only)
Hausu Mountain (dist. Redeye)
HAUSMO92

Daryl Groetsch creates electronic music under the name Pulse Emitter, making music that straddles the increasingly fuzzy line between classical music and experimental rock. Not that his music has anything to do with “Rock,” per se–on this most recent release there are beats, more or less, and occasionally recognizable melodies, but mostly there are pulses, burbles, waves, clouds, chirps, and sighs. Listen closely and you may notice the microtonal harmonic systems that underlie his work, but if you listen more casually all you’ll hear is a sometimes rather chilly beauty and the juxtaposition of highly regular and intimate pulse-based pieces with others built out of large, echo-laden sonic spaces. This album is very, very good; I wish it had been made available on CD, and were about 30 minutes longer.


Lee Gamble
Exhaust (EP; digital & vinyl only)
Hyperdub (dist. Redeye)
SI-HDB-127

For a very different take on abstract electronic avant-pop, consider this, the second extended-play installment in what will eventually be a triptych of EPs making up a single work by Lee Gamble. The overarching project is called Flush Real Pharynx (a title of which Captain Beefheart would have been proud), and the first entry in the series was In a Paraventral Scale. This one features eight tracks of juddering, disorienting, but often hyperkinetically groovy electronic funk that draws on classic drill’n’bass, experimental electro, and other influences too numerous (and deconstructed) to identify. This would make a great addition to any library collection that supports curricula in modern compositional technique and/or contemporary pop music.


Squarepusher
Be Up a Hello
Warp (dist. Redeye)
WARP309
Rick’s Pick

Thomas Jankinson, a.k.a. Squarepusher, is one of the architects of the drill’n’bass sound–a style that takes the funky double-speed breakbeats of jungle and cranks them up even further, making them faster and incorporating them into grooves that can be not only thrilling but also exhausting and sometimes claustrophobically intense. I’ve always admired his work but have never been able to listen to it for more than about 30 minutes at a time. So when I received a promo for his new album I downloaded it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. To my surprise, though, it’s not only technically brilliant but also quite accessible. The beats are as fast and frenetic as ever and the arrangements just as dense and overwhelming, but there’s an undeniable sunniness and good humor to the music this time around. You may not choose this album as an accompaniment to reading a Russian novel or having a long conversation with a loved one, but for walking around downtown, tracks like “Speedcrank” and the frankly adorable “Hitsonu” are just the thing.


Various Artists
Hastur (2 discs)
Cryo Chamber
CRYO 136

Written and performed by a collective of over 20 artists in the “dark ambient” tradition, this two-disc set is the final installment in a six-volume tribute to the venerated Gothic horror author H.P. Lovecraft. I recommend this release partly based on its intrinsic merits–the music is consistently outstanding, maintaining a delicate balance between quiet and unsettlingly intense–but also as a representative example of a subgenre of electronic music with which many are unfamiliar. Ambient music is usually assumed to be relaxing and pleasant, but dark ambient artists are more interested in exploring the ways that quiet and atmospheric music can set up complex and sometimes downright disturbing emotional and psychological environments. The Cryo Chamber label specializes in this kind of thing, and is well worth exploring.


PAN-AL
PAN-AL (EP; digital only)
Apollo (dist. Redeye)
AMB1908

We’ll round out our all-electronic Rock & Pop section this month with a very promising release from Norwegian artist Alexander Thorstvedt, who makes music under the name PAN-AL. His seven-track debut EP offers a blissful but bracing blend of soft atmospherics and sturdy, sometimes almost frantic beats, expertly balancing a mix of soft and hard sounds. Thorstvedt is hardly the first artist to experiment with this kind of musical emulsion, but his mix of ambient, jungle, and dreampop ingredients nevertheless comes across with quite a unique and personal feel. I love every track on this program, but I particularly enjoyed the Aphex Twin-esque “It’s Rigged” and the extra-dreamy “Just Open Up.”


WORLD/ETHNIC


Sahra Halgan
Waa Daradaran
Buda (dist. MVD)
0827160

On her second album, Somali singer and songwriter Sahra Halgan comes roaring out of the gate with a raggedly rocking small ensemble behind her and a voice that soars, warbles, and shouts. Those who love Ethiopian pop music will recognize some similarities here in the melodic shapes and the vocal techniques of Somali singing, but Halgan’s is a unique style; it draws not only on sounds and inflections of her home region, notably the very popular qaarami song form, but also on elements of rhythm and blues (“Caaqil”) and even British new wave (listen to that cheesy Farfisa organ on “Talo”). This isn’t “fusion” music, though; it’s organic and original and honestly eclectic while still providing a window on a musical culture too little known outside of Africa. Highly recommended to all libraries.


LPT
Sin Parar (digital & vinyl only)
Self-released
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

When applied to pop music, the term “slick” is usually pejorative; it implies shallowness, pandering, inauthenticity. But it’s one of the best descriptors I can come up with for the debut album by LPT, an outstanding ten-piece salsa orchestra from Jacksonville, Florida, and I mean it in only the most positive way. The complexity of salsa music is such that unless your band is made up of seasoned professionals, it’s going to sound like a mess: your rhythm section has to be able to keep a complicated mathematical map in its head at all times, and your horns–of which you will need many–have to play together with absolutely airtight precision. And of course your singer had better have a rich, sweet singing voice and perfect intonation, or no one will even bother listening to the instrumentalists. LPT has all of those things and wields all of them with a winning combination of nimbleness and muscular strength. An altogether brilliant debut.


Dengue Dengue Dengue
Zenit & Nadir (digital & 2 LP only)
Enchufada
ENLP111

Billed as “the driving force in the rebirth of the South American digital cumbia scene” (try not to feel too bad if you weren’t already aware of the South American digital cumbia scene, or of its previous demise), Dengue Dengue Dengue have made several previous albums that blend various elements of Afro-Peruvian music with other traditions. But since the group’s move to Berlin, they have begun exploring more deeply the ways in which those traditions can be expanded by interaction with electronic dance elements. The results, as documented here, are wonderful: the music is hypnotic but varied, dense but nimble, regular but funky, old but new. I’ve listened to the album several times now, and I hear something new and exciting every time. Highly recommended to all libraries, though sadly it’s only available digitally and on LP–and the LP version would appear to be sold out already.


Mortimer
Fight the Fight (EP)
Easy Star/Overstand
ES-1077

This is a six-track EP from a very promising young reggae talent. Mortimer has made guest appearances on recent albums by Protoje and has released a couple of well-received singles, and this extended release should whet the marketplace’s appetite for a full-length album. Mortimer exemplifies the best of what’s happening in contemporary roots reggae right now: unafraid of incorporating elements of hip hop and R&B into the mix, he is nevertheless deeply grounded in the one-drop verities, and his lyrics are pretty strictly conscious. And he can do that singjay thing too, singing and chatting with equal felicity on the very rootsy and dubwise “Careful.” Great stuff.


Busy Signal
Parts of the Puzzle
VP
VP2503
Rick’s Pick

The relationship between reggae and American R&B has been deeply incestuous since the beginning–reggae emerged, in large part, as a Jamaican interpretation of the rhythms that were heard on Miami and Memphis radio stations in Kingston in the 1950s and 1960s. To see how that relationship continues today, look no further than the latest album from dancehall sensation Busy Signal, whose Parts of the Puzzle partakes deeply of such standard R&B tropes as smooth bedroom lyrics and the lavish and unapologetic application of AutoTune. Rhythmically, this album leaves reggae almost entirely aside in favor of the loping, stutter-step soca beat that has come to typify dancehall music in recent decades. Every song is smooth and beautifully crafted, and Busy Signal is a fine (if maybe a bit overproduced) singer. This is perfect driving music for a spring evening.

January 2020


PICK OF THE MONTH


Burial
Tunes 2011-2019 (2 discs)
Hyperdub (dist. Redeye)
HDBCD048

William Bevan managed to record eponymously under the name Burial for several years before his growing popularity led to an inevitable unmasking. He was the first signing to Kode9’s now-legendary Hyperdub label, and his first album was released in 2005. He released one more full-length in 2007, but since then he has focused on smaller projects, releasing a long series of EPs consisting of several tracks each. This generously-packed two-disc set draws on those releases, bringing together the entirely of Street Halo, Kindred, Truant/Rough Sleeper, Rival Dealer, Young Death/Nightmarket, and Subtemple/Beachfires; unfortunately, none of the music is new, but the collection does provide an outstanding survey of the work of one of electronic dance music’s most mysterious and consistently compelling figures (and six of the tracks have never before been released on CD). Of course, in the case of Burial the term “dance music” should be taken with something of a grain of salt. Some of his work deploys no beats at all, but instead builds dark, glitchy, and sometimes oppressive and slightly frightening atmospheres out of samples, synth chords, and disembodied shreds of vocals; most of it, however, is rhythmically engagiung even if it’s dark and dense.

If you want some context for Burial’s work, it’s also worth checking out the recently-released digital-only Hyperdub label compilation Hyperswim. It features releases by label head Kode9 and Burial, alongside work by other luminaries like DJ Spinn, Lee Gamble, Ikonika, and Cooly G. Here the variety of styles and approaches is much broader, extending into hip hop and avant-garde pop, but the label’s overarching aesthetic is pretty consistent.


CLASSICAL


Various Composers
Chinese Fantasies
Fangye Sun
Blue Griffin (dist. Albany)
BGR 521

This lovely collection of chamber works for violin by Chinese composers opens with Gang Chan’s flowing and mellifluously pentatonic Morning of Miao Mountain, for violin and piano. It’s a gorgeous and immediately accessible piece, played with limpid grace by violinist Fagye Sun, and it does not exactly prepare one for the somewhat spikier and more challenging works to come, three of which are written by the celebrated contemporary composer Bright Sheng: The Stream Flows, A Night at the Chinese Opera, and Three Fantasies. Things get soft and lyrical again with works by Huwei Huang (E’Mei Mountain Moon Song) and Qingxiang Zhang (Jade Gate Fantasy), and the program ends with a piece for unaccompanied solo violin written by cellist Daniel Tressel and commissioned for this recording by Sun. Her playing is magnificent throughout, as is that of her accompanists. Highly recommended.


Christobal de Morales
Lamentabatur Iacob
La Grande Chapelle / Albert Recasens
Lauda (dist. Naxos)
LAU019
Rick’s Pick

This collection of motets by one of the towering figures of the Spanish Renaissance focuses on Lent, the period preceding Easter. The music is liturgical in function: responsories, antiphons, introits, and motets intended for use during worship on the three Sundays leading up to Holy Week. As one might expect, the prevailing mood is somber and dark, an effect that is heightened by the almost all-male makeup of the ensemble La Grande Chapelle. I can’t stress enough how deeply beautiful this album is; every passage aches with devotional passion, but the singing is carefully restrained and always impeccable in both intonation and blend. This is the most impressive recording of Easter music I encountered in 2019, and I recommend it strongly to all classical collections.


Johann Sebastian Bach
The Six Partitas (2 discs)
Angela Hewitt
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
CDA68271/2
Rick’s Pick

There are lots of people playing Bach on the piano these days, but I’m not sure there’s anyone doing so with greater authority, facility, and insight than Angela Hewitt. Her latest foray into the Bach keyboard repertoire is this magnificent recording of the six keyboard partitas. It follows a year spent performing these works in concert halls around the world, and is one component of her “Bach Odyssey” project, which will end in 2020. Attentive readers may note that she recorded these pieces once before, in the mid-1990s, but she now approaches them with an additional 20 years of thought, practice, and experience. Her playing is exquisite as always, and she makes perhaps the most sensitive and tasteful use of dynamics–and even of subtle rubato–I’ve ever heard. Bach is not just a genius clockmaker under Hewitt’s hands, but also a soaring singer. For all collections.


Charles Amirkhanian
Loudspeakers (2 discs)
New World (dist. Albany)
81817-2

Charles Amirkhanian has composed enthusiastically for the Synclavier–a pioneering sampling keyboard–during much of his career. Three of the pieces on this two-disc set consist of sounds sampled and then altered using that instrument, and the fourth reflects his fascination with a much earlier example of a mechanical-music instrument: the player piano. The album opens with the latter, the ten-movement work Pianola (Pas de mains), which consists of the sampled and manipulated sounds of player pianos. By turns puckish and forbidding, it’s a bit like a musical carnival ride. Im Frühling draws on sounds recorded in nature, some of which (burbling water and bird calls, for instance) remain recognizable, while others are distorted beyond recognition. Son of Metropolis San Francisco is quite programmatic in tone as well, though (predictably) more urban and less pastoral–here the samples include human speech and the piece gives the impression of a random exploration of the radio dial. The title work is dedicated to Morton Feldman, and manipulates recordings of Feldman’s speaking voice in a way that is both playful and affectionate.


Kristin Bolstad
Tomba Sonora (CD + Blu-Ray disc)
Stemmeklang
2L (dist. Naxos)
2L-155-SABD
Rick’s Pick

The Emanuel Vigeland Museum in Oslo is both a major work of art itself (consisting mainly of an enormous barrel-vaulted room entirely covered by a huge fresco painting by the artist) and a mausoleum; Vigeland designed and built it as the place where he would be entombed. The room’s acoustic properties have made it a popular performance and recording venue, and singer/composer Kristin Bolstad wrote five pieces for voices and strings specifically for the space. Music constantly emerges slowly from silence, and overtones are as important to the harmonic and temporal structure of the pieces as the fundamental sung and played tones are. The result is both beautiful and deeply eerie, and is perfect for listening in a dark room all alone. Strongly recommended to all collections. (The Blu-Ray disc includes the same music in a variety of different “3D” mixes.)


Ludwig Van Beethoven
Piano Sonatas
Young-Ah Tak
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
30106

Since we’re coming up on Beethoven’s 250th birthday, we can expect a bumper crop of new recordings of familiar material from his vast corpus of compositions. This set of three piano sonatas (nos. 6, 18, and 23 “Appassionata”) plus the opus 51 Rondo in C major, is performed by the brilliant young pianist Young-Ah Tak, and the program order reflects the effort and care she has put into approaching this repertoire. It opens with the charming Rondo, and then moves with increasing intensity from the relatively simple and straightforward 6th to the darker and more contemplative 18th, and then to the celebrated, much-recorded, and supremely challenging 23rd. Tak plays with supreme confidence but never virtuosic arrogance, approaching these monumental works with both authority and humility. Recommended to all classical collections.


John Luther Adams
Become Desert (CD + DVD)
Seattle Symphony / Ludovic Morlot
Cantaloupe (dist. Naxos)
CA21148

Become Desert completes a trilogy that I didn’t set out to write,” says composer John Luther Adams. The previous two related compositions are Become Ocean and Become River, but this one is the most ambitious in terms of instrumental forces (it involves five distinct instrumental and vocal “choirs”). It explores and deploys sonic space to a degree unprecedented in Adams’ always space-conscious work: opening with quietly shimmering percussion and strings, its texture and harmonic density gradually thicken, even though the harmonic movement itself is close to static. By halfway through its 40-minute length, the whispering breezes have turned into majestic cliffs of sound; by the end, everything has subsided again into a whisper. Exceptionally beautiful despite its minimal harmonic materials, Become Desert is a uniquely lovely and immersive listening experience. (The DVD offers two different mixes of the work, along with a slideshow of desert images that loops during playback.)


JAZZ


Lolly Allen
Coming Home
OA2
22178

Vibraphonist, arranger, and composer Lolly Allen leads a crack team of sidemen on her second album, on which she explores the sounds that were bubbling on Los Angeles’s energetic jazz scene in the 1950s: plenty of Latin rhythms (“Mambo Inn,” “O Grande Amor,” Luiz Bonfá’s “Gentle Rain”), some soulful hard bop (Horace Silver’s “The Hippest Cat in Hollywood”), but also some straight-up bebop, which was still happening on the West Coast several years after it had become somewhat passé in New York. Allen demonstrates not only exceptional instrumental, compositional, and arranging chops, but also a wonderful adroitness as a bandleader, taking charge of a shifting ensemble that includes varying combinations of piano, bass, drums, sax, guitar, trumpet, and trombone. Particularly impressive is her ability to work in tandem with a pianist–always something of a challenge given that vibes and piano perform pretty much identical functions in a jazz combo. A triumph overall for a major young talent.


Yimba Rudo
Yimba Rudo
Barking Hoop
BKH-012

For a very different take on the vibes-led jazz combo, consider this debut from a trio that calls itself Yimba Rudo. Consisting of vibes player Kevin Norton, bassist Steve LaSpina, and drummer Jim Pugliese (all of whom have broad and deep experience in New York’s jazz and avant-garde scene), Yimba Rudo plays jazz without stylistic constraint, swinging when they feel like it but mostly following musical paths that avoid groove in favor of melodic and harmonic exploration. This isn’t skronk, and it isn’t free improv; there are clear predetermined structures to pieces like “Over and Inside the Rainbow,” but they’re structures that leave lots of room for personal expression. All three of these musicians have been all over the place, in terms of genre and style, over the course of their long careers, and you can hear that experience in every note they play.


Sonar with David Torn
Tranceportation (Volume 1)
RareNoise
RNR0113

SONAR is a Swiss quartet made up of Stephan Thelen and Bernhard Wagner (playing “tritone guitars”), Christian Kuntner (“tritone bass”), and drummer/percussionist Manuel Pasquinelli. On their fifth album they’re joined by famed avant-jazz guitarist David Torn, and the resulting music raises all kinds of questions–first of all, what makes a guitar a “tritone guitar”? (Aren’t all guitars tritone guitars?) The next question is “Why don’t these four long pieces feature any chord changes to speak of?” But if you keep listening, you get past those questions, because what these five players manage to do is convince you that there are lots of ways to engage the listener that don’t involve complex (or even simple) chord progressions. Knotty and interlocking rhythmic patterns ebb and flow together; melodies unfold and then fold up again; Torn’s unique and otherworldly guitar effects soar and shudder and insinuate. Imagine if Terry Riley wrote music to be played by King Crimson, and you’ll get the idea. Very cool.


Delfeayo Marsalis & Uptown Jazz Orchestra
Jazz Party
Troubadour Jass
TJR083119
Rick’s Pick

Jazz has been so focused on complexity and virtuosity for so long that it can be easy to forget that its roots are in fun and celebration. Which, of course, is another way of saying that its roots are in New Orleans. Which, of course, is where Delfeayo Marsalis has been holding court for the past ten years at the Snug Harbor club with his Uptown Jazz Orchestra every Wednesday night. On Marsalis’ seventh album as a leader he takes that large ensemble through a diverse and relentlessly fun set of tunes that nod to gospel, son, R&B, and jump blues, but that never lose touch with that slippery, funky second-line feel. By turns seductive, funny, swinging, bombastic, and subtle, these tunes never, ever lose their sense of joy; Marsalis is not only a top-notch trombonist, but he’s also one of the best bandleaders out there. For all jazz collections.


Isabelle Olivier & Rez Abbasi
OASIS
Enja/Yellow Bird
ENJ-9774

Harpist Isabelle Olivier and guitarist Rez Abbasi have teamed up to create a truly unique program of music that runs gleefully back and forth across the boundaries that separate jazz, classical, Pakistani, and experimental music, in the process trampling those boundaries into nonexistence. Accompanied by tabla player Prabhu Edouard and drummer David Paycha, they begin (startlingly enough) with a respectful but still genre-bending take on “My Favorite Things.” With that, the engagement with jazz standards ends, and the remainder of the album is given over to original compositions, most of them by Olivier. Some of these pieces (“Other Tones,” “Looking for Dad”) are tightly and obviously structured; others (“Timeline,” “Stepping Stone”) are maybe a bit more amorphous. Not all are equally compelling, but all are interesting and well worth hearing–and some are deeply beautiful.


Massimo Biolcati
Incontre
Sounderscore
SO 002
Rick’s Pick

Stylistically, bassist and composer Massimo Bolcati is a serious multiple threat. On his second album as a leader (his normal gig is as part of the celebrated trio Gilfema), he shows off both his compositional chops and his unique approach to arranging: note his perfectly disjointed take on Thelonious Monk’s “Boo Boo’s Birthday,” his puckish deconstruction of the 1980s pop hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” his weirdly funky version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” and his deeply, straightforwardly funky take on Dave Holland’s “How’s Never.” Also notice how modestly but firmly he leads his quartet, directing the music with a clear vision but never centering the band’s sound on his own contributions. That’s a mark not only of musical maturity, but of personal maturity as well. An excellent album and a great choice for any jazz collection.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Ben Winship
Toolshed
Snake River
SRR-127
Rick’s Pick

Ben Winship
Acorns
Snake River
SRR-126
Rick’s Pick

Two astoundingly fine albums are released simultaneously by the quietly legendary Ben Winship, a mandolinist, singer, and songwriter who has spent lots of time as a sideman and an increasing amount of time producing and engineering other people’s recordings in his Henhouse studio in Victor, Idaho. When he started calling in IOUs and recording a bunch of his own songs (resulting in guest performances by the likes of Ivan Neville, Mollie O’Brien, Chris Coole, and Travis Book), it became clear to him that the music was falling into two genre categories: full-band folk-rock Americana, and stripped-down old-timey stringband music. Accordingly, he ended up putting music from each category onto separate albums: Acorns is the more trad (or at least trad-sounding) material, while Toolshed leans towards modern country and roots pop (with a little bit of table and tuba thrown in for good measure, and even a strong nod towards hip hop in one case). What’s immediately striking about both albums is the consistent solidity of the songs: whether he wrote them or arranged them, every single one of them is a winner, and that’s extremely unusual for any artist in any genre. And his singing voice is simply perfect. Both albums are strongly recommended to all libraries.


Humbird
Pharmakon
Self-released
No cat. no.

The band name, the album title, and the press materials’ characterization of this music as “experimental folk and environmental Americana” might lead you to expect something precious and self-conscious. But give it a chance, and the visceral directness and unfussy beauty of these songs will captivate you immediately. To be honest, I’m not sure Humbird is a band at all; in reality, it seems to be little more than Siri Undlin, who wrote and sings all the songs; there are apparently some sidepersons involved, though the information provided (to reviewers anyway) is sketchy on that score. Highlights on this concept album–organized around questions of control and the female body–include the heartbreakingly lovely title track, the more densely arranged but equally delicate “Sea Shells,” and the subtly funky “Persephone.” Every track is strong, and some are overwhelming.


Che Apalache
Rearrange My Heart
Free Dirt
DIRT-CD-0094

Look at the cover of this album and you see a young, hipstery bluegrass band. Cue up the first track and you hear West-African-sounding choral harmonies accompanied by a Latin handclap beat, which then segues into a Klezmer-candombe tune sung in Spanish. So what’s going on here? Stylistic, political, and sexual insurrection, frankly, all delivered with a swinging multicultural beat and lots of melodic-style three-finger banjo. You’ll also hear relatively straight-ahead bluegrass and newgrass, jazzy New Acoustic instrumentals, bluesy acoustic gospel, and rhythmically crooked experimental string band music. Throughout the album the vocal harmonies are tight and thrilling, the arrangements are sparkling and unique, and the politics is unapologetically in-your-face. This would make a great addition to any college library collection.


ROCK/POP


Marshall Crenshaw
Miracle of Science (reissue)
Shiny-Tone (dist. Megaforce)
020286-23000

Originally released in 1996 on the now-defunct Razor & Tie label, Marshall Crenshaw’s Miracle of Science is now reissued on Crenshaw’s own Shiny-Tone imprint with three bonus tracks. Its original release showcased an uncaged Marshall Crenshaw, one who was no longer beholden to major labels and who had acquired enough home recording equipment to do much of his work at home, playing multiple instruments. I knew he was a world-class songwriter and a fine guitarist, but until I heard this album I didn’t realize what an impressive multi-instrumentalist he was: he does a fine job not only on bass and keyboards, but on drums as well (though he cedes the drum stool to others on the most demanding tracks). Interestingly, the majority of these songs are covers–some of them from slightly surprising sources, like former Hüsker Dü member Grant Hart (“Twenty-Five Forty-One”) and Michel Pagliaro (“What the Hell I Got”). All of them demonstrate Crenshaw’s unparalleled skill as a pop artist, though. Recommended.


Killing Joke
Laugh at Your Peril: Live at the Roundhouse (2 discs)
Cadiz/Live Here Now (dist. MVD)
CADIZCD178

There’s something to be said for a band that has been playing (off and on) for four decades, and whose sound hasn’t noticeably changed during that time. Forty years after Killing Joke’s first album, they’re still making unbelievably dense, swirling, heavy, and paranoid music that has clear roots in punk rock but sounded utterly unique then and continues to do so today. These two discs document a show at London’s famous Roundhouse venue from the band’s fortieth-anniversary tour in 2018, and it offers songs from across their career, along with the between-song political interjections that fans have come to expect from frontman Jaz Coleman. Out of the sonic vortex emerge a few unusual moments: “Labyrinth” is very nearly funky, whereas “Asteroid” is unusually fast and more conventionally punky; this live version of “The Wait” is even more aggro than the studio original. Great stuff, and a fine introduction to an important band.


Modern English
Mesh & Lace (reissue)
Blixa Sounds
ETA 825

Modern English
After the Snow (reissue)
Blixa Sounds
ETA 827

The musical evolution charted by these two reissues from 1980s new wave/New Romantic darlings Modern English is absolutely fascinating. Mesh & Lace, the band’s 1981 debut, is nothing special: originally issued on 4AD, it finds the group embracing all the stylistic trappings of that label’s signature sound: dark, swirling atmospheres with alternately gothy and shouty vocals and a minimum of melodic interest. (Labelmates like Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil added compelling songs to this recipe and created magnificent works of pop art as a result.) Mesh & Lace is an interesting curiosity, but not much more than that. Then came the band’s second album, After the Snow, marking the band’s move to Sire records and containing the song “I Melt with You.” Which (you’re welcome) will now be stuck in your head for the next three days simply because you’ve read the title. It was an utterly brilliant piece of romantic post-punk pop music, and could not have marked a more complete turn from the band’s early sound. As for the rest of that album, it offers a more continuous though still transitional sound: somewhat brighter and somewhat more tuneful. But the poppy melodicism and sunny lyrics (“it’s getting better all the time”) of “I Melt with You” stand out stylistically even here. Both albums include a generous helping of outtakes and alternative versions as bonus tracks.


Locked Groove
Sunset Service (Extended Edition) (reissue; digital only)
Hotflush
HFLP015E

Earlier this year, Belgian EBM artist Locked Groove released his debut album. Titled Sunset Service, it found him exploring a variety of contemporary electronic dance genres with a particular focus on hard-hitting techno, trance, and rave stylings. A few months later came a teaser: an EP offering three tracks from that album in remixed versions by Alan Fitzpatrick, Prequel Tapes, and Anastasia Kristensen. (Then in the fall came another, two-track remix EP.) And then, in November, the mother lode: a new extended edition of the original album containing nearly four hours of music across 35 tracks, including the five from the earlier EPs. On this version, Locked Groove’s already broad stylistic palette is increased by those of his various collaborators: Fitzpatrick’s take on “From Beyond” brings a Big Beat flavor to what had been a thumping house track; Skream and Scuba funkify and deepen the original techno groove of “Do Not Freak”; Carlton Doom takes the soully vibe of “Soma” and gives it a darker and more rhythmically crowded feel, and so forth. Four hours of this may be a bit much for a single sitting, but dipping in and out of this generous collection is very rewarding.


Dreaming of Ghosts
Dreaming of Ghosts (digital only)
Trees and Cyborgs
TC013

These artists are keeping information about themselves close to the vest, but Dreaming of Ghosts seems to be a duo consisting of Trees and Cyborgs label head Robert Koch and singer Fiora. In the words of the press release, “They create music to explore their rediscovered relationship to space; dwelling calmly and slowly in the terrifying emptiness. And as they wait without time; alone but not alone. At peace in the uncomfortable dissonance. Worlds begin to reveal out of what seemed void. Bold new realities expand and take form. And reaching out, wide and open – difficult questions find answers while others remain forever unresolved.” On a more concrete level, this is experimental dream-pop–not very hooky, but certainly very pretty and filled with interesting details. Fiora’s voice is suitably breathy for the genre, but not wispy or wimpy, and Koch’s musical soundscapes provide lovely accompaniment. Recommended.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Antoinette Konan
Antoinette Konan (reissue)
Awesome Tapes from Africa
ATFA 036

This album by singer, songwriter, and ahoko player Antoinette Konan was originally released in 1986, and is simultaneously a pure product of its time (those synth drums!) and a truly unique document of a brilliant musician too little known outside her home of Côte d’Ivoire. She made a name for herself by blending the traditional sounds of the ahoko (a locally-popular percussion instrument) and baoulé culture with those of Western synth pop, along with her own multi-tracked vocals. Konan produced the album herself, working closely with arranger Bamba Moussa, and it’s a delight: her voice is pretty if not always polished, but her singing is completely assured and confident, the harmonies tight and lovely, and while the arrangements may sound a bit dated to 21st-century ears they’re still thoroughly winning. The digital transfer sounds fantastic.


Tenor Youthman/King Toppa
G.O.D.S. (Good Old Dancehall Style) (digital only)
King Toppa
KT030

If you miss the days of squidgy 1980s digital dancehall music–and really, who doesn’t?–then the German/Russian ragga team of Tenor Youthman and King Toppa are here for you. The former’s stage name is a clear homage to Tenor Saw, whose “Ring the Alarm” was a defining single of that period, and whose melodic tendencies as a singjay are strongly shared by Tenor Youthman. Producer and beatmaker King Toppa is also thoroughly steeped in the early-dancehall verities, but he does an admirable job of fusing old-school with modern elements, and when he dubs things up he does it with flair. Thematically, the album offers a nice blend of conscious and dance-oriented material. A solid and thoroughly enjoyable album.


Farafi
Calico Soul
Piranha (dist. Redeye)
PIR3268CD
Rick’s Pick

Calico Soul is a “nomadic duo” consisting of Darlini Singh Kaul and Joy Tyson, who are accompanied on this album by a large array of instrumentalists from a variety of world traditions. On the back of the package it says two important things: “File under Global Fusion” and “Songs in English, French, gibberish, Swahili inspired, Yoruba inspired, Zulu/Xhosa.” These notes are important because they might reasonably lead the potential listener to say “No, thanks.” This, however, would be a mistake. For now let’s leave aside questions of cultural appropriation and just focus on the music itself: it sparkles, bounces, rocks, and occasionally soars, from the relatively rockish “Djanya Wofu” to the constantly time-shifting “Desert Sun” and the percolating funkiness of “Ey Budida.” Sometimes the duo sing in unison and sometimes in harmony, and at all times they communicate a completely infectious energy and witty joy. Highly recommended.


Danny T & Tradesman
Re-built for Sound (digital only)
Scotch Bonnet
SCOBNET005
Rick’s Pick

Back in January 2018 I strongly recommended Built for Sound, a dancehall-reggae collaboration by Danny T and Tradesman, two stalwarts of the surprisingly fertile Glasgow reggae scene. On Re-built for Sound, the ante is upped aggressively: eight remixes in a variety of heavyweight ragga, jungle, and EDM styles provided by the likes of Chief Rockas, Aries, Stalawa, Bim One, and Samurai Breaks. It’s hard to identify highlights on such a consistently outstanding album, but Chief Rockas and Kirifi’s Amen junglist take on “Dance a Gwaan” and the gloriously low-and-slow Bim One Remix of “Distraction Trap” (featuring Earl Sixteen) are both particularly strong. This collection makes an excellent companion to the original album, both of which are strongly recommended to all libraries.

December 2019


PICK OF THE MONTH


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

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


CLASSICAL


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


JAZZ


Matthew Halsall
Oneness
Gondwana (dist. Redeye)
GONDCD033

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


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

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


Carmen Sandim
Play Doh
Pathways Jazz
RAD-521

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


Michael Dease
Never More Here
Posi-Tone
PR8201

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


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

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


Ramsey Lewis & Urban Knights
VII
Ropeadope
RAD-498

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


FOLK/COUNTRY


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

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


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

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


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

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


ROCK/POP


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

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


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

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


Wobbly
Monitress
Hausu Mountain (dist. Redeye)
HAUSMO96

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


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

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


FLOW
Promise
LMB Music
LMB201901

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


WORLD/ETHNIC


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

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


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

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


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

Noiseshaper
King Size Dub Special
Echo Beach
EB139

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


Lt. Stitchie
Masterclass
X-Ray Production
XRPCD1901

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

November 2019


PICK OF THE MONTH


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

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


CLASSICAL


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


JAZZ


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

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


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

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


Haruna Fukazawa
Departure
Summit
DCD 750
Rick’s Pick

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


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

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


Joshua Breakstone Trio
Children of Art
Capri
74151-2

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


Adrian Cunningham & His Friends
Play Lerner & Loewe
Arbors
ARCD19470

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


FOLK/COUNTRY


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

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


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

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


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

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


ROCK/POP


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


WORLD/ETHNIC


Lakou Mizik
HaitiaNola
Cumbancha
CMB-CD-122

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

October 2019


PICK OF THE MONTH


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

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


CLASSICAL


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


JAZZ


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


Mike Pachelli
High Standards
Fullblast Recordings
FBR2219
Rick’s Pick

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


Ola Onabulé
Point Less
Rugged Ram
RRAMCD15

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


FOLK/COUNTRY


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

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


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

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


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

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


ROCK/POP


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

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


Middlemarch
The Mirror and the Light
Carpe Sonum
SEIZE-XLVI

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


WORLD/ETHNIC


Rez Abbasi Silent Ensemble
A Throw of Dice
Whirlwind
WR4741

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

September 2019


PICK OF THE MONTH


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

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


CLASSICAL


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

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


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

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


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

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


Francesco Tristano
Tokyo Stories
Sony Classical
19075927602

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


Carl Stone
Himalaya
Unseen Worlds
UW028CD

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


JAZZ


Eliane Elias
Love Stories
Concord Jazz
CJA00140

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


Ateshkhan Yuseinov
Strange Suite
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
TUGCD1123

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


FOLK/COUNTRY


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

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


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

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


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

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


ROCK/POP


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

Luther Russell
Medium Cool
Fluff & Gravy
FNG056

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


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

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


Pitch Black
Third Light
Dubmission
CDDUB089

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


WORLD/ETHNIC


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

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


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

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


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

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