Complete Violin Concertos (reissue; 2 discs)
Shizuka Ishikawa; Dvorák Chamber Orchestra / Libor Pešek
Supraphon (dist. Naxos)
This set brings together two recordings originally made in the 1980s by the brilliant violinist Shizuka Ishikawa, then in her mid- to late teens. Working with the Dvorák Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Libor Pešek, Ishikawa delivers limpid and sweet-toned accounts of the great Bohemian composer Josef Mysliveček’s eight violin concertos. Playing on modern instruments, both the soloist and the orchestra deliver these exemplary examples of high classicism with all the lightness and charm one would expect, deftly showcasing Mysliveček’s unusual gift for extended melodic invention and logical form. On the beloved G major concerto, dubbed the “Pastoral,” Ishikawa’s playing is especially playful and sweet, as befits the overall bucolic mood of the piece. This is a thoroughly delightful release that would make a fine addition to any library collection.
3 String Quartets op. 13
Solo Musica (dist. Naxos)
Moving from the high classical period to the emergence of the Romantic, we turn now to the world-premiere recording of three string quartets by Anton Eberl, a friend and student of Mozart in Vienna. Eberl died young and is best remembered as a composer for the piano, but these quartets (published when he was 35 years old, only six years before his death from scarlet fever) show that he was a master of that form as well. His music was often mistaken for that of Mozart and his writing had a significant impact on Beethoven, with whom he was also close friends. These pieces are played (on modern instruments) with masterfully restrained passion by the casalQuartett, who handily convey the tension between classical structure and deep emotion that was present in so much of the music of this important transitional period.
Cappella Amsterdam / Daniel Reuss
PTC 5187 001
This stunning disc features the Cappella Amsterdam ensemble on a world-premiere recording of David Lang’s The Writings, a cycle of choral works based on selections from the Hebrew Bible. Each of the scriptural extracts is associated with a different Jewish holiday, the work as a whole creating a sort of map of the Jewish liturgical year from Sukkot (a weeklong holiday during which ancient Israelites were expected to travel to the temple in Jerusalem) to Tisha B’Av (which commemorates the destruction of both Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple). The music is, as one might expect, solemn in tone and cyclical in structure; perhaps a bit more surprisingly, it is also consistently consonant and tonal — though the mood is often dark and brooding, there is always light peeking through, and the performances by Cappella Amsterdam are absolutely exquisite.
The Strange Highway
BIS (dist. Naxos)
Iranian-born, New York-based composer Gity Razaz is a truly exciting talent, a woman who is already exhibiting, while still in the early stages of her career, a remarkable musical vision and facility with a broad array of styles and instrumental formats. This disc focuses on chamber works: the grimly bustling title piece (for an ensemble of cellos); a duo work for violin and piano; a programmatic piece (based on an Azerbaijani legend) for cello and electronics; and a contemplative work for solo viola. But it ends with a larger-scale piece, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, for chamber orchestra and electronics. All of the works here are impressive, but this one was my favorite — it manages to be dense and ethereal at the same time (I know, that makes no sense, but give it a listen), and alternates moments of intense emotionalism with sweetly but eerily lyrical passages. Razaz is a major young talent to keep an eye on.
The Gesualdo Six / Owain Park
Hyperion (dist. Integral)
This remarkable album is conceived around the concept of grief, and the complexity of the emotions that the overarching designation “grief” always entails. Part of what makes this collection of pieces so unusual and so engaging is the fact that, rather than drawing on compositions from the whole length of musical history, it focuses on two periods: the 16th-17th centuries and the 20th-21st. Thus, Thomas Tallis’s setting of In ieiunio et fletu segues directly into Donna McKevitt’s gorgeous Lumen, which is followed by a funerary piece by John Tavener; Henry Purcell’s Thou Knowest, Lord, the Secrets of Our Hearts is followed by Owain Park’s highly unusual setting of the Welsh poem “In Parenthesis,” in which sung and spoken word are woven together. As always, the singing of the Gesualdo Six is simply stunning, and the overall mood of the album is deeply somber with a subtle but undeniable undertone of hope and faith. Strongly recommended to all libraries.
Lost & Found
Pentatone (dist. Naxos)
Classical recordings for solo electric guitar are, as one might imagine, pretty few and far between, so this release caught my attention. And rewarded it — beginning with a stunning arrangement of Hildegard of Bingen’s serene plainchant O viridissima virga and ending with Julius Eastman’s luminous but challenging Buddha, guitarist Sean Shine takes us on a musical tour that stops at multiple stylistic destinations: adaptations of works by Meredith Monk, Armando Core, Moondog (whose pieces offer some of the most touching and lovely moments on this album), Olivier Messiaen, and jazz pianist Bill Evans. Shibe’s uses outboard effects and extended techniques to create an equally wide variety of tones, textures, and soundscapes, and the result is a beautiful album that will be unlike any other you’ve heard.
You Are the Flower: Music from Hildegard von Bingen – Vol. 1
And speaking of Hildegard von Bingen: libraries may find the packaging frustrating (a CD in a cardboard sleeve accompanied by a 7.5″ x 9.5″ pamphlet), but trust me, this release is worth it. On You Are the Flower, singer Daisy Press delivers highly personal interpretations of sacred songs by the 12th-century abbess. Hildegard has been enjoying a decades-long renaissance since Gothic Voices reintroduced her to the world with their 1982 album A Feather on the Breath of God, and many ensembles have interpreted her plainchant compositions in a variety of ways. Press’s approach is to sing them by herself (sometimes creating overdubbed backing vocals) with a variety of subtle and tasteful instrumental accompaniments — a shruti bowl here, a piano there, an electric bass elsewhere. Her vocal approach wouldn’t be called “authentic,” but it’s not willfully modern either — she just shares what these sacred songs mean to her, and the result is quietly ravishing. Highly recommended to all libraries. The “Vol. 1” subtitle is reassuring.
No cat. no.
On her debut album as a leader, saxophonist/clarinetist/composer Ana Nelson delivers an outstanding program of original tunes that are both elegantly constructed and powerfully delivered. “Wanderlust” is a lovely slice of modern (but accessible) jazz with a deceptively simple-sounding head supported by a floating chord structure and a gentle Latin groove; “LCB”‘s sweet and lilting lyricism is followed by the yearning jazz waltz “Blue Flower”; “NelBapChoro” is exactly what its title suggests — a choro written as a duet for Nelson (on clarinet) and pianist Nelson Baptiste. And when the string quartet makes an appearance on “Let the Light In” (Nelson was a classical musician before falling in love with jazz), the effect is stunning; the decorous tones of the quartet contrast beautifully with Nelson’s bluesy clarinet lines. This is one of the loveliest jazz releases I’ve heard all year.
Baxter Music Enterprises
Trumpeter/composer Charlton Singleton and saxophonist Mark Sterbank like to say that in their work together, they strive to achieve the kind of chemistry that exemplified the collaborations of Harry “Sweets” Edison and legendary tenor man Ben Webster — and of Miles Davis and John Coltrane (and, later, Wayne Shorter) as well. Listening to this all-original disc, you’ll find yourself thinking that honestly, they’re just about there: on the heads they sound like a single person playing two instruments; when they trade solos, they sound like brothers. The rest of the band is just as good, and drummer Quentin Baxter’s gospel-derived (and New Orleans-informed) style brings a fun and unusual flavor to the proceedings. Highlights include the moving ballad “Nett and Root” (written for Singleton’s parents), and the sweetly popping “1000 Nights.” Highly recommended.
Sixty years into a celebrated career, Ben Sidran is perhaps better known as a singer than as a pianist, and this is in fact the first all-instrumental album he’s made. I wish he hadn’t waited so long. His witty, hard-swinging playing is beautifully showcased here as he leads a trio that includes bassist Billy Peterson and Sidran’s son Leo on drums. The title tune, a jaunty blues, is the only original on this program; the remainder is given over to mostly familiar standards — some of them downright hoary: “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Laura” (two takes), “Over the Rainbow,” even (believe it or not) “Tuxedo Junction.” Sidran demonstrates facility in multiple styles, going deep into stride territory on “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and getting quirkily interpretive on his slowly loping version of “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” He never gets pyrotechnical or wild, but Sidran’s good humor and deep love of the repertoire shine through consistently on this outstanding album.
Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes
Columbia Icefield is an avant-jazz project led by trumpeter/composer Nate Wooley, and the group’s second album continues its sonic exploration of themes related to the vastness and, it must be said, the sometimes overwhelming forbiddingness of the Pacific Northwest. Wooley creates tone poems that sound both like an ode to these spaces and an expression of existential dread. “I Am the Sea That Sings of Dust” is long and skronky; “A Catastrophic Legend” is unsettled and unsettling, but relatively lyrical; “A Catastrophic Legend” is mournful and introspective. Between the conventionally titled pieces are brief interludes titled only “(…..)” (using ellipses of varying lengths). Mary Halvorsen’s unique, pitch-shifted guitar style and the steel guitar of Susan Alcorn are both intrinsic to the architecture of these compositions, while bandleader Nate Wooley’s trumpet is all over the place, tonally — sometimes recognizable as a trumpet, sometimes not, but always defining a large emotional space within which his collaborators create statements, lamentations, and commentaries all their own. This is not an easy album, but it’s a highly rewarding one.
Jazz-pop fusion isn’t normally an easy sell for me. I don’t think it’s snobbery (at least I hope not) — it’s more that I love jazz and I love pop, and when you try to combine them I find that usually what you end up with is both mediocre jazz and mediocre pop. But there are exceptions, and the now-30-year-old Bass Extremes project is one of them. The musical brainchild of A-list bassists Victor Wooten and Steve Bailey, it’s a bass-led duo project that incorporates virtuosic guest musicians playing low-end instruments from across the stylistic spectrum — that’s Béla Fleck playing bass banjo on “Home Bass,” and elsewhere we hear Howard Levy on bass harmonica, Mike Stern on six-string bass guitar, and Jeff Coffin on bass clarinet and bass flute, as well as illustrious straight-up bassists like Ron Carter and John Pattitucci. And there are enough higher-register instruments to keep everything from sounding muddy. Instead, it all sounds fun and funky and joyful.
Tall Poppy String Band
Tall Poppy String Band
No cat. no.
In the old-time music tradition, there is no lineup more venerated than the fiddle-banjo-guitar trio. Tall Poppy String Band (fiddler/vocalist George Jackson, guitarist Mark Harris, banjoist/vocalist Cameron DeWhitt) breathes new life into that tradition on its self-titled debut album. The music is almost entirely traditional, and the playing wouldn’t be called avant-garde or experimental in any meaningful sense, but there are quiet and tasteful innovations everywhere. For example, only a fellow banjo player would be likely to appreciate fully DeWhitt’s virtuosic and unusual playing on “The Coo Coo,” while the band’s take on the bluegrass standard “The Train That Carried My Girl from Town” is given a playful gender tweak. Their quiet but intense rendition of “The Last of Sizemore” is perhaps my favorite track on this disc, but the whole thing is wonderful.
Mountain City Four
Mountain City Four
Before they became a Canadian folk-pop institution on their own, Kate and Anna McGarrigle were part of a folk quartet called the Mountain City Four (“Mountain City” being a reference to Montréal) with Peter Weldon and Jack Nissenson. This collection brings together fifteen previously unreleased recordings made by the group between 1963 and 1970, and they’re everything you’d hope: covers of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and “Blind” Willie Johnson; bluegrass standards; an English sea shanty; Quêbecois folk songs; and, inevitably, “Shenandoah” — that last track recorded live in 2012, just a couple of years after Kate’s death. There is also, equally inevitably, a singalong. There’s also some stuff you wouldn’t have dared hope for, such as a 17th-century Samuel Scheidt hymn that leads seamlessly into “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” My favorite moment is Kate and Anna’s duo performance of the sweet and gorgeous Québec song “En filant ma quenouille,” which they would revisit on a later album in a more sophisticated arrangement but which sounds marvelous here with just their two voices and a guitar. For all libraries.
Apple & Setser
Apple & Setser
Mandolinist Brad Apple and multi-instrumentalist Pam Setser have been working together as a duo for the past five years, and this is their first recording together. Both are also fine singers and songwriters, and the album features a mix of traditional songs and originals — and some fusions of both, such as Setser’s touching “Grandma Danced with the Arkansas Traveler,” a composition that incorporates the popular fiddle tune into a story-song. Stylistically, the program is an amalgam of bluegrass (“Hand Me Down My Walking Cane,” “I’ll Love Nobody but You”) brother-duet style guitar-mandolin tunes (“A Friend You’d Never Met”), country weepers (“Too Far Gone”), and even a dulcimer-driven contradadance tune (“Hayes’ Hoedown”). All of it sounds comfortingly familiar, but at the same time none if it is quite like anything else you’ve heard in the country/folk/Americana genre.
More Than Four (vinyl & digital only)
No cat. no.
Experimentation and avant-gardism in pop music can take all kinds of interesting forms. When those tendencies are manifest in the context of dance music, they tend to be particularly interesting. On this slyly titled release, Chris Korda takes the surface signifiers of dance and club music — shimmering synths, steadily thudding techno percussion, vocoder, etc. — and puts them to work in the service of complex rhythmic structures that undermine those signifiers in subtle ways. Each track is composed of different strands written in different time signatures: on the title track, for example, the synth part is in 7/4 while the piano part is in 6/4, setting up a phase-shifted effect. When lyrics enter the picture, they’re subversive as well — the dour anti-natalism of “Planet Broke” contrasting with the usual “party all night” hedonism of most dance music lyrics. If you like your dance music challenging and complex, then this one’s definitely for you.
Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers
Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers (reissue)
Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers
Rock’n’Roll with The Modern Lovers (reissue)
Usually I recommend releases in CD HotList both because I believe they’re worthy of consideration for library collections and because I love them. But once in a while I recommend them not because I love them, but because I recognize their quality and/or importance and therefore think they should be considered for acquisition by libraries. Jonathan Richman is one of those guys I’ve always been able to appreciate more than enjoy. And of course there’s no question about the significance of his work: there’s a clear through-line from his style and delivery to that of, for example, Talking Heads — and his band at times included Cars drummer David Robinson as well as future Talking Heads guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison. Now the mighty (and well named) Omnivore label is reissuing Richman’s early albums, including these two: an eponymous 1976 debut and 1977’s Rock’n’Roll With. The debut, with its live-sounding spoken asides and wobbly singing, is particularly baffling — songs like “Abominable Snowman in the Market” and “Here Come the Martian Martians” are obviously meant to be funny, but how are we supposed to receive the album-closing version of “Amazing Grace”? The second album opens with a Chinese folk song and proceeds to offer more of the first album’s either sweetly ingenuous or deeply ironic fare: “Rockin’ Rockin’ Leprechauns,” “Dodge Veg-o-Matic,” etc. — also, “Egyptian Reggae,” which was actually something of a hit. Also another gospel song. The sound is, if anything, dodgier than it was on the first album. But is it fun? Well, yes. And it’s, you know, important.
M. Geddes Gengras
Expressed, I Noticed Silence
Hausu Mountain (dist. Redeye)
The Hausu Mountain label has staked out a fairly specific musical territory: avant-pop music that tends to be instrumental and is usually brash, busy, loud, and sometimes (though not always) abrasive. Even at its most consonant and accessible, music from this label tends to be exhausting. The latest Hausu Mountain release from the prolific and stylistically promiscuous M. Geddes Gengras bucks that general trend; it’s a lush and beautiful instrumental soundscape that is a bit too dense and involving to be considered ambient, but is probably too abstract and floating to be considered anything else. His history of dubwise production (under the name Duppy Gun Productions) is well in evidence here, but there’s nothing reggae-ish about any of these tracks; the album harks back most explicitly to his label debut I Am the Last of That Green and Warm-Hued World, and is a definite departure from his most recent release on the label, the experimental dance album Time Makes Nothing Happen. Lovely stuff.
Do You Need a Release?
Innovative Leisure (dist. Redeye)
I’m going to file this one under “Indie Pop,” though the seven-and-a-half-minute-long opening track had me momentarily wondering if I was going to have to file it under “Prog.” (Gratefully, no.) In fact, I’d go a bit further and slot this into “Indie Pop Bordering on Dream Pop” — those gauzy vocals! Those swooning melodies! But then something like “New Summers” (those 80s handclaps!) or “Validation” (those Kraftwerky synth bleeps!) pops up, and one starts thinking “Wait, is this just old-school synth pop?”. Of course, you and your library patrons probably don’t care about all the muso genre nit-picking. You want to know if it has hooks and if it’s fun. Yes, and yes. I’d recommend this album to just about any library, and now wish I’d done so at the beginning rather than at the end of beach season, because this is one for the convertible.
OpEcho (vinyl & digital only)
I’ve mentioned previously my love of grumpy electronica. Here’s another great example of what I mean. For his latest album, the apparently Breton producer/composer S8jfou (whose website does not reveal his exact location or birth name, but does provide intriguing information about his lifestyle) decided he would make all of his music using only two digital tools, both part of the Ableton suite: a synthesizer program called Operator and the delay effect Echo. And what he does with those tools is quite amazing: the music is warm, supple and highly varied, while still maintaining a generally dark and grumbly mood. “Waves” hints at drill’n’bass; “Interpolation” weaves woozy synth lines around a steadily throbbing rhythmic pattern; “Influences” takes the tiniest, most trebly percussion parts and layers them atop 80s-style synth lines and post-industrial beats. Every track is fascinating, and I really wish the album were more than 38 minutes long.
Brittany, in the west of France, is an unusual outpost of Celtic (though not Gaelic) culture and language. Like so many regional languages, Breton is dying, and with it are fading many of the region’s traditional folkways and its traditional music. This album by Quinquis (Émilie Tiersen, who has recorded previously under the name Little Feet) won’t do much to preserve Breton folk music — this is a dark, quirky synth-pop album — but the songs are written and sung entirely in Breton, and their lyrics unite around themes of Breton culture both ancient and modern. One song makes reference to Seiz Breur, an early-20th-century regional art movement, while another invokes Ankou, an ancient Breton demigod who functioned as a servant of death. There are stories of husbands lost at sea and of individuals Tiersen has met in her musical travels. I don’t know if I’d call this album “fun,” but it’s certainly lovely.
New Blade Runners of Dub
New Blade Runners of Dub
New Blade Runners of Dub is a new duo consisting of bassist Paul Zasky (of Dubbelstandart fame) and producer/film composer Jed Smith. Together they’ve created a unique sound that blends elements of house, reggae, and dubstep. The band’s first album draws on a variety of influences while effectively creating a stylistically coherent whole: “Solitary Confinement” and the Beta Fish remix of “Fly Me to the Moon” are both smoothly rolling, liquid drum’n’bass treatments, while “Looking for Things” is built on a slippery, three-against-four rhythm, and “In My Space” puts the ethereal falsetto of Cedric Myton into a throbbing cauldron of slow steppers bass and clanging percussion. The late, great Prince Far I makes a posthumous appearance on “Cry Cry 2049,” the title of which is a sly reference to his earlier stage name, King Cry Cry. This is a fine debut release, one that portends great things for the future.
Lusafrica (dist. MVD)
There are a few artists about whom, every time I listen to them, I ask myself “Why do I not spend more of my life listening to this person?”. Ella Fitzgerald is one; Benny Goodman, especially with his small ensembles, is another. And Cape Verdean singer Lucibela is one more. Her voice sounds like hot chocolate with cinnamon in it — rich, dark, and sweet, with just a hint of spice. Cape Verdean music blends stylistic elements from Portugual, Brazil, West Africa, and Cuba, and Lucibela’s deft and graceful voice juggles them all with an ease that belies the discipline and hard work that went into creating her personal style — from the fado-flavored “Ilha Formose” to the swooningly lovely “Bombena” to “Ben Presto Amor,” a previously-unpublished bolero by Cuban composer Emilio Moret. Like her previous work, this album is a complete delight.
I continue to be amazed at the constant stream of outstanding reggae coming out of France these days — and not just from Paris. There have been so many great albums over the past eight months or so that I’ve felt a bit overwhelmed in trying to pick just one or two to recommend. I’ve settled on these two: the second solo album from speedrapper/singjay Puppa Nadem and the debut album from roots-and-culture crooner George Palmer. The two releases could hardly be more different: Puppa Nadem came up in the sound system, and you can hear it in everything he does; he’s fleet of tongue and hard of tone, and his collaborations here with the likes of General Levy and Tomawok are hardcore raggamuffin dancehall niceness. George Palmer, on the other hand, is all about spiritual consciousness, and he puts his sweet high-tenor voice to use in promoting repatriation (“Africa”) and cannabis legalization (“Legalize It”), and decrying sufferation (“Working Man,” a great combination track featuring deejay Solo Banton). Palmer’s style is 1980s digital roots, and he owns it. Both of these releases are great, but don’t sleep on the other albums coming out of France lately, including new releases from L’Entourloup, Tomawok, and Zion Head.