PICK OF THE MONTH
Archiv Produktion 1947-2013 (55 discs)
For a more in-depth treatment of this landmark release, see the July issue of Music Media Monthly, where I dedicated my Sound Recordings column to a review of this stunning 55-disc box set. Here I’ll simply say that the Archiv Produktion box set is like a treasure chest for those who love the music of the medieval, Renaissance, baroque, classical, and early romantic periods. As one might expect, there is a little bit of overlap with DG’s previous All-Baroque Box, but not enough to undermine this one’s value. It is particularly noteworthy that several of the earliest titles included in the box—among them an account of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos by the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis under August Wenzinger from the 1950s—have never before been released on CD. All are packaged in cardboard sleeves that replicate the original LP cover art; detailed liner notes are provided in a thick booklet.
ECM New Series
This recording consists of five works for strings by the Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova. The most impressive is the absolutely stunning Concerto for Cello and Strings, a work of alternately powerful and ethereal beauty and tremendous emotional immediacy. The chamber works are also excellent; only the Suite in Old Style disappoints, its “old style” communicated by means of diatonic and rhythmic clichés. Overall, though, this is a very impressive album and a marvelous listening experience.
Complete Works for Fortepiano Trio (2 discs)
Jan Vermeulen; Christine Busch; France Springuel
Etcetera (dist. Allegro)
For years now, fortepianist Jen Vermeulen has been working his way through the Schubert canon, and the latest installment is this heart-stoppingly beautiful account of the complete works for fortepiano, violin, and cello. Joined by violinist Christine Busch and cellist France Springuel (also playing on early-19th-century instruments), Vermeulen delivers warm, engaging performances of these four pieces, four of them titled as trios and one as a nocturne. The playing on the scherzo and allegro movements is consistently excellent, but the ensemble really shines on the slow movements, which are burnished to a golden glow of bittersweet emotion. Very highly recommended to all classical collections.
Georg Frideric Händel; Alessandro Scarlatti
Choir of the Queen’s College, Oxford; The Brook Street Band / Owen Rees
Avie (dist. Allegro)
This is a great pairing: Händel’s and Scarlatti’s settings of the always-popular “Dixit Dominus” psalm text. Both composers were working in Rome around 1707, when Händel’s setting was composed, and although it is unknown for certain whether they met during this period, the similarities between their two approaches are striking. The performances on this recording are superb, and the program includes an early, chamber version of one of Scarlatti’s concerti grossi, inserted as a pleasant interlude between the two choral works.
The Phoenix Rising
The title of this album is a little bit puzzling until you read the liner notes, which explain that 2013 marks the centenary of the Carnegie Trust, which funded the 1922 inauguration of the Tudor Church Music Edition—a series of publications that made available for the first time in centuries some of the landmark English choral compositions of the 16th century. It included important works by William Byrd, John Taverner, Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons, and others, many of which have now become the core repertoire for performers of English early music. In celebration of this centenary, the creamy-toned Stile Antico ensemble performs Byrd’s five-voice Mass, Taverner’s O splendor gloriae, and other gems in a generously-packed program.
Alexandre Guilmant; Jacques Nicolas Lemmens
L’Harmonium de Lemmens et de Guilmant
Gallo (dist. Albany)
The harmonium is also known as a pump organ, and chances are good you’ve come across one in the home of an elderly relative: often ornately crafted of wood and driven by air pumped with the feet, these instruments were very popular in 19th-century Europe and America. The harmonium fell out of favor around the turn of the 20th century, and while recordings like this one (the third volume in an ongoing series) are fascinating at a certain level, they also show why the instrument lost popularity when newer and more compact instruments were invented. The harmonium’s sound is rather thin and insubstantial, more like an accordion than an organ, and the music composed for it tended to be on the lightweight side. This disc is recommended to libraries with a collecting interest in historical keyboards.
Chamber Music for Winds
Italian Classical Consort / Luigi Magistrelli
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
Caspar Kummer is one of those (sadly, many) figures of the early Romantic era who have been effectively forgotten, despite the quality—and, in many cases, quantity—of their output. On this disc we have six world-premiere recordings of his chamber works for various combinations of flute, clarinet, bassoon, and piano, all played on modern instruments by the Italian Classical Consort (led by clarinetist Luigi Magistrelli). Their playing is light and graceful and the pieces themselves are a delight and something of a revelation. Here’s hoping for more to come to light from this unjustly neglected composer.
Johann Ladislaus Dussek
Grand Sonata for Flute, Violoncello and Piano
Walter Auer; Albena Danailova; et al.
Johann Ladislaus Dussek was yet another of those great composers of the classical era who is doomed forever to be lost in the towering shadows of Mozart and Haydn. But excellent recordings of his music continue to emerge, particularly recently, and among the most attractive of them is this program of three chamber works: an E-flat major quartet for violin, viola, cello and piano (op. 56); a quintet for violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano (op. 41); and the title piece. All are played beautifully (on modern instruments) by a mixed ensemble of Japanese and European musicians; this disc is a complete delight in every way.
Trii e Duetti per flauti, mandolini e basso continuo
Tactus (dist. Allegro)
I’ll close the Classical section with this charming recording of chamber works for flutes, mandolin, and continuo by the obscure Italian composer Prospero Cauciello. Cauciello himself apparently played all three instruments (two of them well enough to have been a member of the orchestra of the Teatro San Carlo and also designated “First Flutist to the King of Poland”). Although relatively little is known about the man and his life, a good number of his works were published and have been preserved; the eight trios and duets are all presented here in world-premiere recordings, on period instruments. Recommended to all early-music collections.
Paolo Fresu Debil Quartet
Tá/Bonsai (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Here’s another one that I just keep listening to over and over again. Trumpeter/composer Paolo Fresu leads a guitar-bass-drums rhythm section in a highly unusual but deeply beautiful set of jazz tunes that draw on everything from Brazilian rhythms to Jon Hassell-esque abstraction, alternately swinging, swaying, and floating. Fresu’s trumpet is sometimes electronically altered and the band’s sound is sometimes free and apparently unstructured, but there is never a moment when the result is less than sumptuously gorgeous. I’m not sure I would have led the program with an arrangement of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” but even that relatively slight tune ends up being a very rewarding listen.
Mark Masters Ensemble
Everything You Did
As someone who is generally a big fan of the confines of harmonic structure, I found the liner notes to this collection of jazz arrangements of Steely Dan songs (“the premise of this recording is to free Becker and Fagen’s music from the earthly confines… of harmonic structure”) a bit off-putting. But I cued up the disc anyway, and danged if it didn’t worm its way into my whole afternoon. The fact is that the arrangements are brilliant, as is the playing (contributing musicians include Peter Erskine and Oliver Lake), and the improvisations are interesting and creative without ever getting forbiddingly “out.” Recommended to all jazz collections.
Swedish Ballads… And More
An approach similar to the one described above is used on this recording, but with a much different result. Here, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton collaborated with pianist Jan Lundgreen to create a program of straight-ahead jazz arrangements of traditional Swedish folksongs like “Dear Old Stockholm” and “Min Soldat,” alongside jazz compositions with Swedish roots and associations (Ole Lind’s “Swing in F,” Jan Johansson’s “Bluesioktaver”). Whether you recognize the Scandinavian elements or not, this is an absolutely wonderful album of straight-ahead quartet jazz led by one of the finest living tenor players. A must for jazz collections.
Sidney Bechet & Mezz Mezzrow
The King Jazz Records Story (5 discs)
Storyville (dist. Allegro)
Clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow had an idiosyncratically narrow view of jazz: though he worked at the height of the bebop era, he felt that “real” jazz was blues-based and pre-swing. Hence his submersion in the world of traditional, New Orleans-style jazz, his longstanding collaboration with Sidney Bechet, and his establishment of the King Jazz label, the entire output of which is documented on this five-disc set. Mezzrow himself was not a great clarinetist, but the music preserved here is sometimes priceless and includes vocal blues performances by Joseph Pleasant as well as solo piano recordings and lots of tasty septet work by Mezzrow’s and Bechet’s ensemble. This set may not be an essential purchase for every music library, but it should definitely be considered for serious jazz collections.
Jim Black Alasnoaxis
Winter & Winter (dist. Allegro)
On this strange and rather lovely dreamscape of an album, drummer Jim Black leads a quartet of saxophone, guitar, bass, and drums through a somewhat abstract but consistently engaging set of original compositions. Rarely does the music swing, and when it grooves it does so with a sort of loose softness. Mostly it floats, or rumbles, or cascades, or percolates. The end result is a jazz album that sounds distinctly new and modern but rarely jagged and forbidding. Recommended.
The temptation, of course, is to see this as a June Tabor album–after all, both saxophonist Iain Ballamy and pianist Huw Warren have been accompanists on her solo work in the past. But start listening and you’ll realize that Quercus really is a trio, not a soloist-with-sidemen. Some of the songs are traditional and quite familiar (“As I Roved Out,” “Lassie Lie Near Me”) but others are new or new-ish, and all (except one instrumental track) treat the three members equally, giving Tabor a space in which to sing and the instrumentalists time to improvise. The result is a dreamy landscape in which flowers bloom, waves crest, and birds call. Even by Tabor’s very high standards, this is a spectacular album.
John Kirkpatrick Band
The Complete John Kirkpatrick Band
Fledg’ling (dist. Forced Exposure)
Those who have been aware of accordionist John Kirkpatrick’s many contributions to the world of traditional and semi-traditional English dance music may be surprised (as I was) to learn that the entire recorded output of his celebrated band can fit on two CDs. And one of them is a live album! But that’s good news as well, since it makes it very easy to own everything they recorded: rollicking Morris dance tunes, music-hall-sounding songs, a Sting cover, and some charming oddities—the startlingly rockish “49003/55005,” the whimsical and wry “Welcome to Hell,” etc. A must-own for any library with a collecting interest in British music.
If Only I Could Fly
Green Jewel Music
No cat. no.
This Kickstarter-funded debut album reveals something highly unusual: a truly unique voice in the singer-songwriter world. Emerald Rae is a championship fiddler, a crwth player (look it up; very cool), and a very accomplished songwriter. She is also a gifted and tasteful producer, knowing when to multitrack her vocals and how to mic her feet for maximum percussive impact, and holy cow can she write a fiddle tune (“Fire Fly” sounds simple but isn’t). This is one of the most exciting debut albums I’ve heard so far this year.
Don Rich and the Buckaroos
That Fiddlin’ Man
Don Rich is best known to country music aficionados as a big part of what made Buck Owens such a powerful exponent of the Bakersfield Sound. A brilliant guitarist and harmony singer, it turns out that Rich was also a gifted fiddler who was an occasionally featured soloist on Owens’ albums and live shows. That Fiddlin’ Man is a compilation of Rich features culled from previous Owens recordings; for this reissue it is doubled in size with the addition of ten bonus tracks. Two kinds of library will be interested in this resurrected curiosity: those with a comprehensive collecting interest in country music (due to Don Rich’s often-overlooked importance to that music’s history), and those with a generalist bent who just want a fun and enjoyable collection of fiddle-led country instrumentals.
This World Oft Can Be
As with so many bluegrass albums these days, this isn’t really a bluegrass album — it’s a modern country album made with bluegrass instrumentation. And there is, by no means, anything wrong with that; a great album is a great album. The five women who make up Della Mae gathered to Boston from a wide variety of musical backgrounds and locations, and together make music that draws on country traditions but is not at all constrained by them. On original fare like “Paper Prince,” a lively but determined-sounding waltz, the group shows its unwillingness to be bound by tradition; when they deliver a straight and heartbroken song like “Ain’t No Ash Will Burn,” they show that they aren’t afraid of tradition either. That’s a fine pair of attributes.
La Si Dah
This record came as a result of Cas Haley asking himself the following question: “If I died tomorrow, and my kids had only one musical statement through which to know me, what would I want that record to be?” The answer turns out to be much more than a single musical statement: it includes several instrumental tracks, a small handful of reggae numbers, a creditable version of “Got My Mojo Workin'”, and a cover of the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” along with lots of tightly-written, often soul-inflected pop songs. Haley’s voice remains a beautiful wonder: high-pitched and clear as a mountain spring, and his spare, stripped-down arrangements are wonderful.
In Real Life
Feeding Tube (dist. Forced Exposure)
This one will get marketed as electro-pop, and that’s an easy mistake to make: after all, Eric Hnatow provides (almost) all of the music via a battery of Korg keyboards and Haley Morgan’s voice has the kind of gulpy, chirpy quality that listeners in their mid-40s will recognize from their adolescence in the 1980s. But it’s still a mistake: this music may be accessible and fun, but it’s also dark, quirky, and often structurally weird—the songs’ tunefulness make it easy to miss that last point. Morgan’s voice has a startlingly broad tonal and emotional range; she sounds a bit like a less psychotic Björk. In other words, definitely electro but not exacty pop. Overall, this is a very impressive and slightly unsettling debut.
You remember Alison Moyet — originally half of the duo Yaz with former Depeche Mode mastermind Vince Clarke, then a constantly-charting solo artist in the 1980s. After a six-year layoff, she’s back with a deeply impressive piece of mature songcraft, a collection of songs that acknowledge and even celebrate the challenges of moving firmly into middle age without sacrificing the refined pop sensibility that has been at the center of her sound since day one. Next time you hear someone say that popular music is a young person’s game, don’t respond by calling up a YouTube clip from the latest Rolling Stones farewell tour–play them this album instead.
Air Texture, Vol. III (2 discs)
To my mind, what distinguishes high-quality ambient music from New Age music pretty much boils down to two words: density and possibility. Whereas New Age music typically tells you what to feel and what (if anything) to think, really good ambient music both rewards close attention (should you choose to approach it that way) and implies musical possibilities that you haven’t considered. This two-disc set, the third in a series of compilations, provides an excellent example of high-quality ambient music—though it doesn’t bill itself that way. The label describes this as “experimental music,” which is fair enough, though the fact is that all of it is both pleasant and accessible in the manner of the best ambient music. Disc 1 (more techno-inflected) is put together by Deadbeat, disc 2 (more abstract and “classical”) by DJ Olive, and featured artists include Raz Mesinai, Pole, Pauline Oliveiros, and Oren Ambarchi. Very highly recommended.
Fat Freddy’s Drop
The Drop/!K7 (dist. Redeye)
As time goes on, the New Zealand ensemble Fat Freddy’s Drop makes music that gets smoother, heavier, and more soulful every year. On Blackbird you hear the group continuing to digest its multifarious influences into something uniquelt theirs: the vocals are supple and partcularly soully, while the instrumental grooves sway effortless between funk, reggae, and R&B flavors—there are lots of great horn charts, and there’s always this sort of indefinable uniqueness lurking at the edges of the sound that I’m happy to attribute to the band’s New Zealand heritage. Recommended.
Baudouin de Jaer
Compositions for Geomungo and Gayageum (reissue; 2 discs)
Sub Rosa (dist. Forced Exposure)
This two-disc set is a reissue of the 2012 release Gayageum Sanjo with new packaging and a second disc of pieces written for a related instrument, the geomungo. The composer is a Belgian musician who has written these pieces for a Korean instrument; the music represents an fascinating blend of European and Asian inflections, rhythms, and tonalities—while de Jaer clearly knows his way around traditional Korean music, he just as clearly does not consider himself bound by it. This is a highly unusual and very beautiful recording.
Young, Gifted & Yellow (3 discs)
17 North Parade/VP
As both an orphan and an albino of African descent, Winston Foster faced pretty severe obstacles growing up in Jamaica in the 1960s and 1970s. His fateful decision was to embrace his unusual appearance and embark on a music career, dubbing himself Yellowman and becoming one of the most successful and influential DJs (which we in the U.S. would call “rappers”) of the early dancehall period. He has remained active for more than three decades, and this two-disc retrospective provides an excellent overview of his work. Though Yellowman is well known for his “slack” (i.e. sexually explicit) toasting, there is very little of that in evidence on this collection, which focuses on such classic and radio-friendly fare as “Who Can Make the Dance Ram,” “Nobody Move Nobody Get Hurt,” and “Night Flight” (his appropriation of John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane”). The package also includes a DVD of his 1988 performance at the Reggae Sunsplash festival.
Van-Anh Vanessa Vo
Innova (dist. Naxos)
Van-Anh Vanessa Vo is a virtuoso of a Vietnamese instrument called the danTranh, a zither with movable bridges that closely resembles the Japanese koto. Its strings are plucked with the right hand but articulated with the left, which pushes and bends the strings to achieve the instrument’s characteristic sliding and wailing effects. On this album, Vo offers her own arrangements of traditional Vietnamese melodies as well as original compositions, an arrangement of one of Erik Satie’s “Gnossiennes,” and a wonderful collaboration with the Kronos Quartet.
The Art of the Indian Dilruba
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
Blind from infancy, multi-instrumentalist Baluji Shrivastav has, incredibly, become a virtuoso on no fewer than five classical Indian instruments virtually on his own, with no guru and minimal formal instruction. Here he performs five ragas on the dilruba, a bowed and fretted instrument that looks something like the offspring of a union between a sarangi and a sitar. He is accompanied by various combinations of tabla, tanpura, and swarmandal (an autoharp-like zither). This instrument is less well documented on Western recordings than many others, which makes this album of potentially great interest to world music collections.
Meets Kampuchea Rockers Uptown
Metal Postcard (dist. Allegro)
Dub Addiction is (get this) a multi-ethnic reggae-electro collective based in Phnom Pen, Cambodia. And while they don’t incorporate much in the way of recognizably Southeast Asian musical influences into their music, they do toast in a variety of different languages (most of which I’m embarrassed to say I don’t recognize) and build bone-shaking grooves out of raw materials that include roots and dancehall reggae, funk, jungle, metal, and dub. I listen to a lot of reggae-derived weirdness (a lot), and I’ve never heard anything like this. Brilliant.