PICK OF THE MONTH
ECM New Series
One of the great pleasures of music reviewing comes during the tantalizing moments as you’re cuing up a new recording, and wondering whether this one is going to be a disappointment, an experience of life-changing beauty, or something in between. Usually it’s something in between, but in a disproportionately high number of cases, experiences of life-changing beauty come courtesy of the ECM label. This is one of them. Composer Stefano Scodanibbio has taken three sections from Bach’s Art of Fugue, a suite of Spanish pieces for guitar, and a selection of Mexican melodies (all written by other composers) and arranged them for string quartet—but these aren’t simple transcriptions. Instead, he has truly “reinvented” them in a style that is distinctly his own, one that features droning, open harmonies, unexpected irruptions of pizzicato and sul ponticello bowing, and lots and lots of glistening harmonics. At times the music has a static and floating feel, and then suddenly there will be a burst of quicksilver plucked passages or an unexpected minute of romantic lyricism. By turns restful, eerie, startling, and heart-stoppingly beautiful, this disc is the most emotionally rich and rewarding one I’ve reviewed so far this year, and I recommend it strongly to all library collections.
3 String Quartets
Pleyel Quartett Köln
CPO (dist. Naxos)
This disc gets a “Rick’s Pick” in part because of the gorgeous playing by the always-reliable Pleyel Quartet, but mostly because it helps to revive the name of one of Bohemia’s most unjustly forgotten geniuses. Gyrowetz had a peripatetic career, settling at various times in Brno, Paris, and London, and he treasured his friendship with Franz Joseph Haydn (despite the fact that he had, several times, to convince the public that his compositions were really his, and not Haydn’s). Gyrowetz’s string quartets are examples of the high-classical Viennese style at its best, and they are beautifully showcased on this disc.
Colours in the Dark: The Instrumental Music of Alexander Agricola
Ensemble Leones / Marc Lewon
Christophorus (dist. Qualiton)
The 15th-century Belgian composer Alexander Agricola cultivated an air of mystery about himself and his music; although he worked during a period when the rules of polyphonic writing were being firmly settled by his contemporaries Josquin and de la Rue, Agricola’s approach to compositional structure seems open-ended and almost playful. The music on this disc is organized like a recital, combining instrumental pieces with songs for tenor (performed by Fabrice Fitch), and it will be very useful to anyone studying the music of this time and place. The liner notes are detailed and interesting.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; Arnold Schoenberg
Souvenir de Florence; Verklärte Nacht
Emerson String Quartet; Paul Neubauer; Colin Carr
This disc is being marketed under the title Journeys, but for our purposes here it seemed more useful to indicate the compositions included on the program. In any case, a new recording by the Emersons is always worthy of notice, and this one is particularly unusual: a rare (for this group) Tchaikovsky recording, and their first-ever account of a work by Schoenberg. The pairing is also interesting: the Russian composer’s wildly colorful and dynamic string sextet alongside Schoenberg’s first major composition, the emotionally gripping Verklärte Nacht. The latter is a hallmark work of late Romanticism and something of a swan song for early twentieth-century tonality. The Emersons (and their two guests) play both powerfully and tastefully, as always.
Georg Friedrich Händel
Arrangements for Guitar
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
This lovely disc presents three chamber works of Händel—a recorder sonata and the harpsichord suites nos. 8 and 7—arranged for guitar by David Russell and William Kanensinger. Robert Gruca (who contributed the arrangement of one movement from the suite no. 8) plays with a firm but delicate touch, nicely communicating both the rhythmic vitality and the countrapuntal virtuosity of Händel’s writing, as well as the French influences in the suite no. 7. The arrangements themselves will be of particular interest to any library supporting a program in guitar pedagogy.
Rachel Barton Pine; Matthew Hagle
Cedille (dist. Naxos)
CDR 90000 139
The program’s theme is straightforward: 25 brief pieces for violin and piano by 25 different composers, each piece quiet and gentle and suitable for lulling a child to sleep. It opens, inevitably, with Brahms’ “Wiegenlied” (the ubiquitous melody popularly known as “Brahms’ Lullaby”), but then heads off into parts less well-known: world-premier recordings of brief lullabies by Vladimir Rebikov and Camillo Sivori, a lovely Scots-flavored piece by Ludwig Schwab, Ravel’s “Lullaby on the name ‘Gabriel Fauré’.” Those familiar with Rachel Barton Pine’s playing will be unsurprised by her sweet, rich tone or by her unfailing sense of idiom. Very, very nice.
Johann Sebastian Bach
St. John Passion (2 discs)
Polyphony; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Stephen Layton
Hyperion (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
What do you get when you put one of the finest early-music choirs currently working in the studio with one of the best period-instrument orchestras, and give them soloists like tenor Ian Bostridge, bass Neal Davies, and soprano Carolyn Sampson to work with? You get a definitive recording of one of the towering masterworks of the baroque period and an essential purchase for any classical collection.
The Art of David Tudor (1963-1992) (7 discs)
New World (dist. Albany)
This seven-disc set documents David Tudor’s evolution as both a composer and a performer over the course of three decades, a period during which he was one of John Cage’s most trusted collaborators (and suffered somewhat from working so long in Cage’s shadow) but also a highly productive composer in his own right. This set should be considered essential for any library with a collecting interest in 20th-century music; it includes complete recordings of six works that originally had excerpts in Music for Merce (1952-2009) as well as two extended recordings of Rainforest IV (with Composers Inside Electronics) and a performance of Christan Wolff’s For 1, 2 or 3 People.
Jean Richafort et al.
Requiem: Tributes to Josquin Desprez
The King’s Singers
Signum Classics (dist. Qualiton)
Josquin Desprez was one of the most influential composers of the Renaissance, and his influence continued to be powerful for centuries after his death. One indication of his impact is the documented reaction of other composers upon his death. This program centers on a tribute funeral Mass written by Jean Richafort (who may have been a pupil of Josquin) and also includes settings of the poem Musae Jovis written in Josquin’s honor by Benedictus Appenzeller and Nicolas Gombert, Hieronymus Vinders’ O mors inevitabilis, and several other brief pieces. It ends with Josquin’s own Nymphes, nappés. The King’s Singer give the music spare and solemn performances worthy of the subject matter. Highly recommended.
I Thought About You: A Tribute to Chet Baker
Informed listeners will come to this album with certain expectations: first, that in putting together the program as a tribute to the late trumpeter and singer Chet Baker, Eliane Elias will imbue the songs with Baker’s trademark “cool” style (dry, low-key, medium-tempo). Second, that she will be happily unable to keep from also imbuing at least some of them with her own trademark style, which (like her native Brazil) is more hot than cool. Both expectations are borne out, though nothing really catches fire here, nor should it—even when she infuses these quiet standards with some bossa nova flavor (note in particular “Embraceable You”) they retain the dry and restrained tone that was Baker’s hallmark. All in all, it’s a very enjoyable album.
Médéric Collignon & le Jus de Bocse
A la recherche du Roi Frippé
Just Looking (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
“Oh, good,” I hear you thinking. “Electro-jazz covers of prog rock songs by King Crimson. Oh, with a string section? Awesome. Just what I needed. Not.” But don’t be too hasty. First of all, as prog-rock goes, King Crimson’s music has always been more disciplined and interesting than that of most of the competition; second, the music composed for the group (mostly by its guitarist and sole consistent member, Robert Fripp) is rich and strange enough to yield many different intepretations without losing its integrity. On this album, trumpeter Médéric Collignon leads a bassist, keyboardist, drummer, and string section through a wild and varied selection of pieces from across Crimson’s nearly five-decade history, and the result is often brilliant, occasionally a bit gloppy, and always interesting.
IPO (dist. Allegro)
Man alive. Frank Wess is 91 years old, and still plays like a 25-year-old—albeit a 25-year-old with the taste and experience of a 91-year-old. Sadly, he plays no flute on this quartet date, but his tenor saxophone is like a bottomless jar from which flows an endless stream of honey. Four standards, a couple of less-famous classics (including Duke Ellington’s “All Too Soon”), and one original make up a program delivered with swing, power, and dignity, and makes for what is clearly going to go down as one of the four or five best jazz albums of 2013.
Lost Tapes: Germany 1958/1959
Jazz Haus (dist. Naxos)
I keep being knocked out by these Jazz Haus reissues—partly because they’re often not even reissues, but instead are new releases of overlooked or previously unknown live and studio recordings originally made in Europe. This one is a perfect example: eleven studio tracks and five live recordings made by bassist and cellist Oscar Pettiford with varying sidemen (mostly Germans) during the two years he spent in Europe before his tragic death in a car accident. Opening with a lovely trumpet-and-bass rendition of “But Not for Me,” the disc presents an almost all-standards program that is often quiet and contemplative and consistently gorgeous. The sounds quality is excellent, the playing exquisite. Highly recommended to all jazz collections.
JMP 3 0304
OK, I have to confess that I was initially put off by Deborah Latz’s (to my taste) excessively free reinterpretation of “Blue Skies,” with its gentle funk beat and improvisationally reconstituted melody. But she started winning me over on the scat section (especially with its cute little bossa nova flourishes), and by the time I got to her rendition of “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” I was noticing something else: the bell-like clarity of her voice and her impeccably reliable intonation. At which point I decided she can do pretty much whatever she wants with the melody and it will be okay with me.
Charlie Poole with the Highlanders
Complete Paramount & Brunswick Recordings, 1929
Tompkins Square (dist. Fontana)
In 1929, Charlie Poole and his band the North Carolina Ramblers were hugely popular in the South, where they were regularly selling records in the hundreds of thousands. But friction between Poole and his producer at Columbia Records led him to seek other opportunities (using different band names in order to avoid legal problems). In May of that year he went to New York and recorded twelve sides for the Paramount and Brunswick labels, among them a four-part narrative titled “A Trip to New York” that blended spoken-word vignettes with popular and thematically-chosen fiddle tunes. But the most interesting track here is the band’s rendition of “Flop-eared Mule,” on which Poole’s three-finger banjo picking points toward the bluegrass style that would come to maturity in his native state fifteen years later. This is a valuable document, strongly recommended to all academic country collections.
Red Tail Ring
The Heart’s Swift Foot
Despite the fact that both the band name and the album title seem like they were created by a random-word generator, the latest from this Michigan-based duo is remarkably focused and consistent. Their sound is informed by old-time music (clawhammer banjo, fiddle, guitar) but there is very little substantively old-timey about it: instead, it’s brooding, carefully crafted singer-songwriter fare presented in the modal melodies and astringent open harmonies of old-time music. At times (notice in particular the darkly beautiful “A Clearing in the Wild”) they sound like Richard and Linda Thompson in acoustic mode; at others they explicitly evoke tragic mountain balladry. Their playing is exquisitely tasteful, and their voices blend like oil and vinegar. This is one of the most beautiful albums I’ve heard so far this year.
Dailey & Vincent
Brothers of the Highway
I first encountered Jamie Dailey when he was singing lead for Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, his crystal-clear high tenor voice soaring over the group’s trademark lush harmonies and giving everything the luster of sunshine. Now he works in tandem with bassist Darrin Vincent and a bevy of all-star sidemen (including, on this album, hotshot guitarist Bryan Sutton and fiddler/mandolinist Andy Leftwich), and delivering the kind of high-octane, joyful, virtuosic bluegrass that I never get tired of. The program offers everything it should: a Bill Monroe number, a Louvin Brothers number, some trad-minded modern tunes, and plenty of jaw-droppingly fleet-fingered picking. Excellent.
Hot Club of Cowtown
Rendezvous in Rhythm
Gold Strike (dist. Proper)
Although their name explicitly evokes the Paris band led by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli in the 1930s, the Hot Club of Cowtown has never delved deeply into the Gypsy-jazz style, instead working mostly in the hot jazz and Western swing genres. On this album they get Gypsy with a vengeance, delivering such Reinhardt classics as “Minor Swing” and “Douce Ambiance” along with American Songbook selections (“I’m in the Mood for Love,” “I’m Confessin'”) and even a Russian folk tune (“Darke Eyes”). As always, the playing is both technically amazing and tasteful, as are the vocals from guitarist Whit Smith and fiddler Elana James. I’m pretty sure I own every Hot Club record made, and after hearing this one you’ll wish you did too.
Hailing from Argyll, Scotland, Joy Dunlop is a celebrated singer (Gaelic Singer of the Year in 2010 and 2011) and something of a public face for traditional song in her native country. Faileasan (“reflections”) is a deeply Argyll-centric recording, featuring songs, musicians, and photographs from the area; naturally, it was recorded and produced in Argyll as well. The arrangements are spare, clean, and lovely, as is Dunlop’s voice.
This Ain’t Chicago: The Underground Sound of UK House & Acid 1987-1991 (2 discs)
Strut (dist. Redeye)
Compiled by DJ Richard Sen, this two-disc collection offers a nice window into the early days of England’s dance music scene. Nor does “England” mean only London in this context: artists and labels represented here come from as far afield as Manchester and the West Midlands, as well as Essex and (of course) London. What today’s club denizens may find most interesting about this music is how richly textured and melodic it tends to be—the concept of minimal techno and microhouse had yet to emerge, and even when the beats are steady and repetitive there is usually lots of other stuff going on, making most of these tracks almost as much fun for listening as for dancing. If you (or your patrons) have fond memories of artists like Julie Stapleton, Static, and Paul Rutherford, then you’ll want to pick this one up.
In Between Tears (reissue)
Alive Natural Sound (dist. Redeye)
Given that it features one of her bigger hits (“Wish Someone Would Care”) it’s surprising that this Swamp Dogg-produced album, originally released in 1973, hasn’t been reissued before now. It finds the New Orleans soul great at the top of her form, delivering sassy kiss-offs like “She’ll Never Be Your Wife” and “You’re the Dog (I Do the Barking Myself)” with unquestionable authority (sample line: “So you’d better come home and take care of these kids”). As a bonus, this reissue includes both sides of the “We Won’t Be in Your Way Anymore” single, another of her more significant hits. Recommended.
Sly Reimagined: the Music of Sly and the Family Stone
Zoho (dist. Allegro)
This album is a labor of love on the part of producer, composer, and keyboardist Jason Mile, who pulled together an all-star cast of helpers (including turntablist DJ Logic, singers Nona Hendryx and Roberta Flack, guitarist Will Bernard, and many others) to pay tribute to the weird but undeniable genius of Sly Stone and his groundbreaking funk-soul band. The result is a gloriously enjoyable recasting of brilliant songs like “It’s a Family Affair,” “Stand!,” and “Thank You for Talking to Me Africa,” all of them drawing equally on elements of jazz, vintage funk, hip hop, and nu soul. Maybe not essential for every collection, but highly recommended.
The Orange Peels
Mystery Lawn Music/Minty Fresh (dist. Redeye)
Pop music gets harder to classify every day, and really, there’s nothing wrong with that. One press release I’ve seen for the latest from this Northern California quartet characterizes their music as being based in “post-rock, indie-pop and nouveau psychedelia,” and if that’s helpful to you, then your antennae are more finely tuned than mine. Here’s what it sounds like to me: splashy, messy, echoey, hook-laden rock music that could have been made in 1968 except for the well-miked drums. And yes, that’s adds up to a compliment.
Thrill Jockey (dist. Redeye)
I’m still an unrepentant fan of ambient music, and the duo of Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras (both of whom play various combinations of guitar and synthesizers) makes the kind of weird, spacey, pretty-yet-kind-of-creepy ambient music that really turns my crank. “Ambient” might not be a characterization they’d actually agree with – others have referred to their music as “doom dub” and “devotional darkness” – but the fact is that this is mood music, though for a rather unsettled mood. Just try it. Your grumpier patrons are sure to be intrigued.
Bob Marley & the Wailers
Kaya (deluxe reissue, 2 discs)
Bob Marley took some heat when this album came out in 1978: “too bland,” the critics said. “Too bouncy.” Well, you know what? The critics could go jump in a lake. Kaya included classic tracks like “Easy Skanking,” “Satisfy My Soul,” and the unapologetically horticultural title track, and the Wailers have never sounded tighter or heavier than they do here. This two-disc reissue includes both a bonus dub track and a fine (if rather dodgily recorded) live set from Rotterdam during the Kaya tour, so any library that owns the original issue should seriously consider replacing it with this one.
Living Room Sessions Part 2
East Meets West Music
Less than a year before he died in late 2012, the famed sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar made a series of recordings in the living room or his home in Encinitas, California. They are intimate recordings (using the traditional accompaniment of tanpura and tabla) that hardly betray his advanced age—91 at the time. While those who have followed his career closely will probably notice a little bit of slowing, there is still no apparent limit to his musical imagination and he plays with notable grace and invention. The second volume in this series of “living room sessions” finds him playing a set of three ragas, all of them lovely.
Blending jazz with the musical traditions of the Middle East and Africa is a path fraught with peril: step too far to one side and you end up with a mess of Orientalist kitsch; too far to the other and you end up in a quicksand of overearnest multi-culti platitude. But if you hit the balance just right, you can create a fusion that draws on the best of both worlds to create something entirely new. Guitarist and oud player Jussi Reijonen does that here, to some degree, but also takes pleasure in bouncing back and forth, alternating astringent modal passages with jazzier sections—and also creating entirely new sounds, such as the desert-meets-the-Delta bluesiness of his take on John Coltrane’s “Naima.” Fascinating stuff.
John Brown’s Body
Kings and Queens
America’s finest reggae band returns with the much-anticipated follow-up to its 2008 release Amplify, and it’s predictably excellent. As has been the case ever since Elliott Martin took over as the group’s frontman, the John Brown’s Body sound is dense, rich, and swirling with color, and the songs are deliriously hooky. Where most American reggae artists bend over backwards to sound like they’re from Jamaica, John Brown’s Body have created a sound all their own, and it’s gorgeous.
Viene de Mi
ZZK (dist. Forced Exposure)
Regarded in her native region as the First Lady of cumbia, the young Argentinian singer Ya Negros (formerly of De La Guarda) makes her debut with this very fine album, which offers a blend of chamamé sounds from the Argentinian jungles, reggae, cumbia, and subtle elements of techno and electronica. Her voice is reedy and sweet, the music joyful, dark, and bouncy by turns. Recommended to all world music collections.