PICK OF THE MONTH
Bridge (dist. Albany)
Electro-acoustic music has come a long way since it burst onto the avant-garde scene in the 1960s, a period notable for music that consisted of humans and machines playing next to, but not necessarily “with,” each other: clarinets squeaking and string players tapping and rasping to the accompaniment of analog synthesizers emitting bleeps and bloops and sine waves (sometimes, it must be said, to genuinely thrilling effect). In today’s classical electro-acoustic music, the human-machine interaction is often much more sophisticated, and the results more subtly exciting. The music of Benjamin Broening is a case in point. This disc brings together seven works for varying combinations of acoustic instruments and electronics, some of them relatively spare in texture (such as the eerily lovely “Dark Wood” for cello and electronics) and others more lushly orchestrated. Some are also more emotionally accessible (consider the coruscatingly gorgeous “like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfillment,” which opens the program) and others more challenging (like the equally beautiful but more abstract and athletic “Trembling air,” for solo flute). This is music that seems to be thinking deeply about something—about things that are troubling but also about topics that are joyful and promising. The playing of eighth blackbird, one of America’s most consistently interesting new-music chamber ensembles, is exceptional throughout. Highly recommended to all library collections.
Steinway & Sons
The concept that unites these 21 brief works is a brilliant one: each was written by a composer who was a more-or-less unwilling emigrant from his homeland but found musical inspiration in his place of exile. Some of the fare is relatively predictable (folk tunes set by Bartók, a section from William Grant Still’s Africa suite, a tango by Stravinsky) but there is also a world-premiere recording of a piano miniature by the young New York composer Mohammed Fairouz and four out of a set of six preludes by the peripatetic Paul Bowles. Lara Downes plays with an exceptional sensitivity to the bittersweet nature of these pieces. Recommended.
Codex Tarasconi diminuito
Ensemble I Fedeli
Passacaille (dist. Allegro)
Dating from the late 16th century, the Codex Tarasconi consists mostly of madrigals and chansons written in Italian, French, and Latin for between four and seven voices; following what scholars believe was common practice at the time, however, the ensemble I Fedeli plays these works on cornett, dulcian, shawm, sackbut and organ. The pieces are by such A-list composers as Palestrina, De Monte, Willaert, and Lassus, and provide a lovely and interesting window on music at the court of Parma in the late 1500s.
Icelandic Violin Duos
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
At first blush, an album of violin duos by Icelandic composers may sound like a pretty narrow program of music. But these pieces (all of which represent world-premiere recordings) are strikingly varied in tone and style: some of them dance, some of them keen and wail, some of them soar, and the harmonies are sometimes spiky and astringent and sometimes sweet and close. Duo Landon (violinists Hlíf Sigurjónsdottir and Martin Frewer) play brilliantly and sensitively throughout.
Close to Home: Music of American Composers
Michael Rowlett; Stacy Rodgers
Clarinetist Michael Rowlett has gathered for this disc a stylistically-varied program of pieces for clarinet and piano by American composers: sonatas by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, a gently lovely nocturne by Jeanne Singer, a sonatina by Valerie Coleman, and (most interestingly) the whimsical Rrowzer by Eric Mandat — along with Steve Reich’s always-exciting New York Counterpoint for multi-tracked clarinets, one of the most impressive works from that composer’s middle period. Very nice material, and beautifully played.
Masses & Chansons (3 discs)
The Sound and the Fury
Fra Bernardo (dist. Naxos)
This unusual and really quite wonderful package brings together five masses and seven chansons by the 15th-century composer Firminus Caron. Never heard of him? Neither have most people; most of his music was apparently lost or destroyed during the French revolution of 1789. But his popularity can be inferred from the fact that so much of his work was preserved in Italian copies, on which most of these performances are based. The ensemble The Sound and the Fury sings them with a spare intensity that works beautifully. Very highly recommended to all early music collections.
An English Fancy
Cedille (dist. Naxos)
CDR 90000 135
When you mention the baroque period, most people immediately think of Germany first (thanks to Bach) and Italy second (thanks to Vivaldi) and probably France third (Rameau, Couperin). But even though, stylistically speaking, England absorbed more than it contributed to the music of the period, it nevertheless gave the world top-notch baroque music of its own by the likes of Matthew Locke, William Lawes, and (most of all) Henry Purcell. All of those composers are represented on this delightful selection of suites and airs for violin, viola da gamba, and keyboard. The Trio Settecento (featuring violinist Rachel Barton Pine) has released a series of geographically-themed baroque collections over the past few years, and this is one of the best of them.
Minimal Harp (reissue)
Despite the album title, few of the composers represented on this album are part of what we would normally consider the Minimalist movement; however, what unites the pieces is a sense of (as Sacchi puts it) the “elimination of all that is unnecessary.” Thus, Lou Harrison’s raga-inflected “Jahla,” John Cage’s semi-aleatory “A Room” and “In a Landscape,” and Henry Cowell’s surprisingly diatonic “The Tides of Manaunaun” rub shoulders with more obvious candidates by the likes of Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt. Several of these are world-premiere recordings for the harp. The program is thoughtfully organized and Sacchi’s playing is a joy, as always.
Female Chamber Choir with the Academy of Music, Dance and Fine Arts – Plovdiv
Gega (dist. Albany)
About 20 years ago the world outside of the Balkans suddenly discovered the entrancing sound of Bulgarian folksong as rendered by female choirs—some readers may recall the very popular Mystère des Voix Bulgares series on Nonesuch. This disc is a bit different, though: the music is mostly classical (by both Bulgarian and foreign composers, notably including Béla Bartók and Gabriel Fauré), and the choir’s vocal tone is much more conventionally classical as well; there is orchestral accompaniment on several tracks. The mix of folk and art songs is very winning, and the singing is consistently excellent.
Doug Sertl Music/Providence
No cat. no.
I love the sound of jazz trombone, and I also love the sound of the organ trio (Hammond B3 organ, guitar, drums). Getting to hear both in tandem is somewhat unusual, and that makes Doug Sertl’s latest album as a leader even more fun that it would normally be. His trombone style is clean and elegant, technically accomplished without being show-offy. And he picked a great program of standards for this album, including “Groovin’ High” (bear in mind how hard it is to play bop at tempo on a slide instrument), “The Nearness of You,” and “I Hear a Rhapsody.” The band plays with a buoyant sense of swing that is a consistent delight. Recommended to all jazz collections.
Chip Stephens Trio
What I like about pianist Chip Stephens is the same thing I like about Lennie Tristano (not that they sound that much alike): there’s a sense of rigor about his lines, a constant balance being struck between swinging ebullience and hard-nosed logic. As someone who likes it best when beauty emerges from structure, I’m very drawn to this kind of jazz playing. I love the occasional hints of melodic spikiness that come through in his solos, his exceptional sense of time, and the whole trio’s powerful sense of swing. Any library with an interest in straight-ahead jazz should jump at the chance to add this disc to its collection.
George Shearing & Don Thompson
George Shearing at Home
Here’s what always happens: a jazz legend dies, and all of a sudden long-lost recordings turn up, some of them brilliant. These revelations are always bittersweet, but the jazz world is often the richer for them, and this example is a case in point. This recording was made in early 1983 in (as the title indicates) the home of pianist George Shearing; they are quiet and contemplative but nevertheless often powerfully swinging renditions of standards on which Shearing is accompanied only by bassist Don Thompson. Their rapport is strong and Shearing plays with assurance and wit; the sound quality is warm and intimate. This is probably not an essential purchase for every library, but comprehensive jazz collections will certainly want to add it.
88883 71738 2
Bill Frisell’s music stopped having any consistent or fundamental connection to jazz years ago—instead, it has become something much richer, much more personal, and much more broadly connected to American music generally. It has also become much more formally composed: this album is unapologetically programmatic, consisting of quintet pieces (guitar, viola, violin, cello, drums) that evoke the beauty of Northern California’s coastal mountains. They also draw deeply on influences that have informed his work over the past couple of decades: country music, 20th-century American classical music, jazz, rock, blues, and hints of Stephen Foster. In the hands of a lesser talent, the result would be a well-intentioned mess. But Bill Frisell is a genius, and the music is consistently, heart-tuggingly beautiful.
Django Festival Allstars
Live at Birdland & More!
Three’s a Crowd
I’m not sure there’s a jazz musician other than Django Reinhardt who is so fully identified with a single subgenre of jazz, and who continues to inspire so many slavish stylistic acolytes 60 years after his death. That’s not a criticism of guitarist/violinist Dorado Schmidt and his group of Djangoites; thank heaven there are still musicians willing to carry the banner of Gypsy jazz, with its headlong tempos and joyful virtuosity. This live festival recording captures all the joy of that music, and both the playing and the sound quality are excellent.
Turn Me Loose: Outsiders of Old-Time Music
If the cover photo of California fiddler Fred Laam apparently playing his instrument in a strange overhand style (it’s possible that he’s tuning up, though if so his technique seems hardly less idiosyncratic) doesn’t convince you that this is an album of outside-the-box old-time music, then the tuba that accompanies the Texas fiddle tune “Wagoner” on the first track certainly will. To be clear: this is not “outsider music” in the sense that we usually mean when we talk about “outsider art.” The early-20th-century recordings gathered here don’t represent music made by particularly marginal segments of society, but rather music that “challenges the stereotypes” of the genre: you’ll hear accordions and pianos and weird vocal effects, and sometimes you’ll wonder what the musicians were thinking and in some cases you’ll wonder why more people didn’t do it that way. Overall, a fascinating and enjoyable document.
Fletcher Bright & Bill Evans
Fine Times at Fletcher’s House
Native & Fine
Subtitled “Fiddle and Banjo Music from Lookout Mountain, Tennessee,” this very fine album documents a living-room recording session between legendary fiddler Fletcher Bright and celebrated banjo picker and scholar Bill Evans. There’s something elementally satisfying about the sound of a fiddle and banjo playing together as an otherwise unaccompanied duo – and when the players are this skilled, this deeply-versed in the repertoire, and this tasteful, the result is even more thrilling. Evans keeps the focus on Bright, taking solos from time to time (his exquisitely tasteful melodic breaks on the “St. Anne’s” set are especially lovely) but mostly letting Bright’s fiddle take the lead. The sound quality is excellent, and the playing is world-class.
If It Ain’t Here When I Get Back
Tree Frog Music
There’s just something about Bruce Molsky I can’t quite put my finger on. No, that’s not true — I know what it is. It’s jealousy. Not only is he one of the most emotionally direct and technically gifted fiddlers currently playing, but he’s also a brilliant guitarist, an equally brilliant and multifaceted clawhammer banjo player, and a singer who can break your heart—not because his voice is unusually powerful or sweet, but because it’s perfectly matched to his instrumental skills. He also has an amazing repertoire of old-time fiddle tunes from just about everywhere, classic blues, and other surprises from around the western hemisphere. You’ll hear some of everything on this typically brilliant solo album.
Les Productions du Moulin
I’ve said it before in this space and I’ll say it again: there is something uniquely engaing about Québecois folk music—the crooked rhythms, the gently heartbreaking sad-sweet melodies, the call-and-response unison singing alternating with sudden efflorescences of rich harmony, the curious intersection of Celtic, French, and North American stylistic elements. I can’t get enough of it, and Genticorum is one of the two or three finest purveyors of this music currently working. This is a very fine live recording that benefits from the added energy of the concert setting; the playing is tight, energetic and joyful. Highly recommended.
Fists of Violets
No cat. no.
From the cover art, you might expect this to be an album of fiddle tunes. But no: although fiddles are involved (and banjos and guitars), there are also drums and brass and piano and some beatboxing and, um, “toys.” There’s a version of “Ida Red” and a Hoagy Carmichael tune and a Jarrell/Cockerham fiddle tune, and Sarah Alden sings in an open-throated style that may make you fall in love with her. This is a highly unusual and thoroughly impressive album that rocks, dances, and swings.
mmr – 17
I’m about ready to formally declare that the title of Best Ambient Artist of the Decade should go to Will Long, who records under the name Celer. (For the first five years of its existence, Celer was actually a duo that also included Danielle Baquet-Long.) Long’s latest album consists of a single, 78-minute-long track putatively divided into 26 individually-titled “movements” — but the divisions between them are inaudible and undetectable. The music floats like a delicous mist in which simple chords undulate without progressing; once in a while the mood turns weird and foreboding, but then the sun comes out again and everything is peace and light. The great challenge for an ambient-music artist is to make music that is quiet and evocative without tipping over into New Age gloppiness; how Long does this is kind of a mystery, but he surely does.
Friedman & Liebezeit
Secret Rhythms 5
Nonplace (dist. Groove Attack)
One thing I love about Jaki Liebezeit and Burnt Friedman’s Secret Rhythms series is how rhythmically interesting the music manages to be without being in the least bit funky. To some degree the duo achieved this paradoxical non-funkiness by the fairly obvious strategy of structuring everything in highly irregular time signatures (if you can dance in 11/8, then this is the party album for you). The music is clean and spare but colorful, in part thanks to Liebezeit’s highly idiosyncratic approach to drumming (he uses an array of unusual and homemade percussion instruments rather than a conventional drum kit) but also simply thanks to the duo’s deep and carefully-cultivated musicality.
What’s the Chance…
Blue Duchess/Shining Stone
The best single word I can think of to characterize this album is “rollicking.” Whether he’s delivering a slow, churning Chicago blues burner or a 1940s-style jump number, guitarist and singer Paul Gabriel invests everything he sings and plays with a joyful but controlled energy. This album was produced by New England blues legend Duke Robillard (whom Gabriel has known for decades and for whom his band has played numerous opening sets), and it includes appearances by the Roomful of Blues horn section and features particularly tasty Hammond organ work by Larry “Buzzy” Fallstrom as well as lots of brilliant guitar work by both Gabriel and Robillard. And best of all, the songs—some of which sound like classic material of 50 years ago—are all originals. Highly recommended.
This is a deeply weird and ultimately quite enjoyable album, for those with adventurous ears. It marks the first collaboration between bassist Lorenzo Feliciati and “vocalist-multi-instrumentalist-sonic-provocateur” Lorenzo Esposito Fornasari, and its music draws alternatingly (and sometimes simultaneously) on jazz, industrial, rock, techno, and avant-garde influences, switching styles and textures unpredictably and sometimes startlingly. The best thing you can say about the (mostly spoken) vocals is that they’re largely incomprehensible and therefore work mostly as another layer of instrumentation. The overall mood is dark and vaguely threatening, but the sudden moments of fun are worth the wait.
Bird Bird Bird
Steve Bird (recording as Mr. Bird) is a UK native who moved to Lisbon, Portugal several years ago. From his new perch (get it?) he runs or co-runs several record labels and has made a name for himself as a musical collaborator and remixer; with Bird Bird Bird he offers up a very tasty assortment of funky instrumentals, with a handful of vocals thrown in for fun and one full-on song, featuring vocalist Adria Nicole. This is mostly laid-back, head-nodding instrumental hip hop with plenty of wry samples and pleasant, undemandingly funky beats. Recommended.
Golden Afrique: The Great Days of Rumba Congolaise and Early Soukous (2 discs)
Network (dist. Naxos)
While I was listening to this one at home, my wife turned to me and said “Seriously, what’s the difference between this and mariachi music?” – and she had a good point. Unless you’ve spent a lot of time listening to West African music you could be forgiven for mistaking much of the music in this collection for Cuban rumba or even Norteño music: the harmony singing, the rolling rhythms, the layers of horns all carry flavors that evoke Central and South America as much as Africa. But that’s all part of the fun, and this densely packed and lovingly annotated collection of recordings (covering the years 1956 to 1982) provides an excellent introduction to a rich musical history. Highly recommended to all library collections.
Daora: Underground Sounds of Urban Brasil (2 discs)
Mais um Discos (dist. Forced Exposure)
Here’s the thing: Brazil does some things better than any other country, and the combination of breezily effortless tunefulness and multilayered rhythmic complexity is one of them. Another one is the gleeful appropriation and reinvention of other countries’ apparently proprietary musical traditions—hence the consistent brilliance of Brazilian “Hip Hop, Beats, Afro & Dub” (that’s taken from the package) and the great pleasure provided by this two-disc compilation of the same. You’ll find tracks by artists like Curumin, Abayomy Afrobeat Orquestra, and Metá Metá, and you’ll hear everything from electro-funk to hip hop to fractured samba to uncategorizable mash-ups of all those things. Brilliant.
Cornell Campbell Meets Soothsayers
Nothing Can Stop Us
Strut (dist. Redeye)
Of all the great falsetto singers during roots reggae’s heyday – and there were many, from Johnny Clarke to Junior Murvin to Cedric Mytton – none had the grace and the pure tonal lusciousness of Cornell Campbell. And amazingly, he’s still with us, his voice maybe a tiny bit grainier (the man is 68 years old, after all) but no less sweet and lovely. These two albums both emerged in early 2013: the first is a collaboration with the very fine Soothsayers ensemble and finds Campbell working in both old- and new-school modes, singing over deeply rootsy and somewhat modern, jazzier rhythms. The tunes are all smoky, slow, and richly dense in texture; the whole album is a joy to hear. The same is true of New Scroll, a solo production featuring nine new original compositions with four dub mixes. On this one Campbell stays solidly in roots-and-culture mode, promising to “Weed Out Vampires” and encouraging all to “Seek Jah Love.” This being traditional roots reggae, you of course have the odd moment of misogyny (“Evil Woman”), but fans of the genre will have long ago learned how to use the <skip> button for stuff like that. The rhythms and horn charts are strictly old school, the songs mostly top-notch. And that voice. Man. As long as Cornell Campbell is still around, no one needs to worry about the death of old-school reggae music.
Owiny Sigoma Band
Power Punch! is a deeply misleading title for this album, which gently pokes more that it punches and burbles more than it bellows. The London/Nairobi Owiny Sigoma Band generates hypnotic, repetitive grooves using a multitextured blend of traditional acoustic instruments and digital beats, creating a fusion of Kenyan nyatiti and Luo music and contemporary electronica. Lyrics are occasionally in English but generally in what I assume to be Swahili; the mood is consistently energetic but laid-back at the same time. Nice stuff.
Lord Mouse and the Kalypso Katz
Pranha (dist. !K7)
Like roots reggae music, calypso long ago faded in popularity in its Caribbean home and eventually found a new one in Berlin. That’s where you’ll find the seventeen-member Lord Mouse and the Kalypso Katz playing in bars and dance halls, singing original and vintage calypso songs in both English and, um, Russian (their bass player is a Russian who brought with him a wonderful Soviet-era cartoon song). Their sound is very traditional, but the political and social topics are as up-to-date as modern calypso songs should be. Lord Mouse’s voice is rich and chesty, and his singing style is suitably bold and brash.