PICK OF THE MONTH
Like the Brabant Ensemble (see below) and John Brown’s Body, clarinetist/saxophonist Ken Peplowski is almost guaranteed a Rick’s Pick designation in CD HotList every time he releases an album — not because I’m a slavish fan, but simply because the quality of his releases is so consistently high. And here he goes again, with yet another world-class program of standards (“All Alone by the Telephone,” “Main Stem”) and surprises (some Poulenc, some Harry Nilsson) delivered in a quartet format with brilliant sidemen and an air of relaxed but complete virtuosity — just listen to the seemingly endless bag of melody from which he draws four minutes of variations on “Fool Such As I.” I’m prepared to say that Peplowski is the best and most consistently rewarding jazz clarinetist on the scene today (and in the very top rank of tenor men, where he has a lot more competition). This disc is a must for all jazz collections.
Cipriano de Rore
Missa doulce mémoire; Missa a note negre
Brabant Ensemble / Stephen Rice
Hyperion (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Once again, the Brabant Ensemble comes out with a definitive account of two masterworks of Franco-Flemish choral music. Although Cipriano de Rore is known more for his madrigals than his sacred music, he wrote quite a bit of the latter and was particularly stylistically indebted to Josquin des Prez. You’ll hear that influence here in this program of two Masses and three motets, and the singing is everything we’ve come to expect from this ensemble: a rich and creamy blend in service to an intensely devotional tone. Like everything else the Brabants have recorded, this one is strongly recommended to all classical collections.
String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2 (reissue)
Newton Classics (dist. Naxos)
A classic performance of a classic pairing, this 1967 recording finds the Julliard String Quartet (at the height of its considerable powers) performing two foundational works of the modern canon: the two string quartets of Charles Ives. These two pieces can almost be taken as microcosmic: the first finds him working (almost playing, actually) with themes drawn from the religious hymns on which he grew up. Hints of the acerbic tone and expansive structural experimentation of his later music are present, but this work is largely conventional and tonal. The second quartet is far more bristly and programmatic, with movements aptly titled “Discussions,” “Arguments,” and “The Call of the Mountains.” Not since William Billings in the 18th century had a composer so beautifully and startlingly captured the fractious, rough-hewn appeal of the American character in music, or subjected that character to such gimlet-eyed scrutiny. This is an essential recording for all library collections.
Baroque Legacy: Bach and His Contemporaries Performed on Double Bass
Jeremy McCoy and Friends
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
There’s a reason why most people groan at the prospect of listening to solo music for the double bass: it’s because in order to be heard clearly in an ensemble setting, you have to play it up in the high positions, where its tone is least attractive. Bassist Jeremy McCoy says nuts to that. On this lovely collection of baroque sonatas by Bach, Handel, Couperin and others, he spends a lot of time playing down where the bass sounds best, and his continuo accompanists (playing various combinations of chamber organ, harpsichord, and strings) temper their own dynamics to make him more clearly audible. The result is a startlingly beautiful and highly unusual listening experience.
Symphony No. 4 “Italian”; Symphony No. 5 “Reformation” (reissue)
Boston Symphony Orchestra / Charles Munch
United Classics (dist. Naxos)
Generally speaking, I’m a really hard sell when it comes to “historical” recordings. Yes, yes, Leopold Stokowski and Otto Klemperer were geniuses, but I’m sorry: recordings from the 1930s and 1940s sound like crap, and it’s not like we don’t have top-notch conductors making much better-sounding recordings of the same repertoire today. So the fact that I’m strongly recommending these mid-1950s recordings by Charles Munch with the BSO suggests that they really are something special. Can you tell that they’re old? Well, yes. But the sound is warm and detailed enough to let the performances sparkle and pop, and they do. Rarely have a conductor and an orchestra been so beautifully matched as Munch and the BSO were, and their shared joy in these masterful compositions is positively infectious.
Mignonne allons voir si la Rose
Ludus Modalis / Bruno Boterf
Ramée (dist. Naxos)
Subtitled “Spiritual and Amorous Songs in Renaissance France,” this album brings together 27 chansons published in 1570 by the rarely-recorded organist, poet, and composer Guillaume Costeley. As the album’s subtitle suggests, these songs cover a surprisingly broad topical spectrum — everything from the plainly devotional “J’ayme mon Dieu” and “Seigneur Dieu, ta pitié” to other, earthier ones that range in tone from romantic (the title song) to outright scatological (“Grosse garce noire et tendre”). The singing of Ludus Modalis is generally sweet-toned and lovely, though they coarsen their sound in accordance with the subject matter as needed. Recommended.
Complete Piano Sonatas Played on Period Instruments (reissue; 9 discs)
Arcana/Outhere (dist. Naxos)
This nine-disc box set brings together recordings made in the early- to mid-1990s by the great Schubert specialist Paul Badura-Skoda, all of them using early-19th-century fortepianos from the artist’s personal collection. Those who normally turn up the nose at the fortepiano’s relatively constricted dynamic range and constrained tone will want to give these fabulous recordings a listen: under Badura-Skoda’s fingers, the four instruments used here practically dance and sing. Schubert’s music, like Beethoven’s, heralds both the end of the classical period and the birth of the romantic — but unlike Beethoven’s, Schubert’s music faces the new musical era with more bittersweet melancholy than rage, and his piano sonatas remain some of the most gently heartbreaking music of his century. Very highly recommended to all classical collections.
Basically Bull: Keyboard Works of John Bull & Others
Steinway & Sons
There’s nothing particularly unusual about playing baroque music on a modern piano — but music of the English Renaissance? That’s pretty bold. Much of this music was written for the virginal, a keyboard instrument whose expressive range was even more limited than that of the later harpsichord, so for Alan Feinberg to interpret them on a grand piano is to undertake a certain amount of artistic risk: will he be able to make tasteful use of the modern piano’s wider capabilities without undermining the essential character of the music? The answer is yes. Feinberg makes judicious and highly musical use of dynamics and rubato, revealing new aspects of these pieces by Bull, William Byrd, Thomas Tomkins, and others, but shows deep respect for the conventions of the period as well. Recommended to all keyboard collections.
Fra Bernardo (dist. Naxos)
These are lovely period-instrument performances of three “grand sonatas” composed by the celebrated flutist and pianist Friedrich Kuhlau — a nicely-chosen program, as it turns out, one that shows the composer at both his most ponderously pre-romantic (the op. 83 selection) and his most cheerfully late-classical (op. 69). Fortepianist Linda Nicholson and transverse flutist Charles Zebley both play with vigor and charm, and this disc is particularly recommended (along with the Schubert title reviewed above) to collections that may be lacking in period-instrument recordings of the romantic repertoire.
Ali Ryerson Jazz Flute Big Band
Confession time: while I love jazz flute, big band recordings are generally kind of a hard sell for me — I really tend to prefer tight-and-nimble to dense-and-bombastic (and bombast is a nearly irresistible temptation for most big-band arrangers). But I was intrigued by this project: a big band made up entirely of flutes, plus rhythm section and several excellent guest soloists, including Holly Hofmann and Hubert Laws. The results are consistently interesting, and while they haven’t completely converted me to the concept, I can confidently recommend this disc to any library supporting a jazz program and especially to any educator with an interest in jazz orchestration.
Live at Smalls
Smalls Live (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Trumpeter Joe Magnarelli has a style that I have struggled to characterize while listening to this album. At first I would have said his playing was “intellectual,” but now I think I’d use the term “arch.” Which is not a criticism; he swings strongly (helped out by a rhythm section that includes Mulgrew Miller on piano), and writes really well. But it often seems like he’s commenting on the tune as much as playing it, which gives his solos on these very long tracks a certain distant but bracing quality. This is very good stuff, in a rather unusual way.
Mike McGinnis + 9
Road * Trip (CD available on October 8)
If you had asked me what I thought of a jazz “concerto for clarinet and combo,” I’d have said “no, thanks.” Jazz-classical fusion almost never works, in my opinion and experience. So I approached the first half of this album with real trepidation, and was very happily surprised. Here’s why it works: it doesn’t try to be jazz-classical fusion. Instead, it’s straight-up jazz, but structured in a concerto form. Bill Smith’s composition is tight but swinging, and Mike McGinnis’s clarinet is a thing of dancing joy. The second half of the program is the title composition, also written in a three-movement format — not quite as brilliant as Smith’s piece, but very enjoyable and expertly played.
Jah Wobble & Bill Sharpe
Kingdom of Fitzrovia
Storyville (dist. Allegro)
Here’s something from out of left field: bassist Jah Wobble, one of the founding fathers of post-punk pan-ethnic avant-gardism (PiL, Invaders of the Heart), teaming up with keyboardist Bill Sharpe (Shakatak) to create an album of 1970s-style jazz fusion in the tradition of Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters. And it’s not bad at all. Guests include trumpeter Sean Corby, guitarist Fridrik Karlsson, and drummer Marc Layton-Bennett, and the tunes are all as smoothly swinging and spacily discursive as you’d expect–with lots of comforting Fender Rhodes piano to create just the right early-70s mood. Pretty cool.
Fred Hersch and Julian Lage
Just about any project led by Fred Hersch is likely to get a Rick’s Pick designation, because Hersch is perhaps the most brilliant and insightful jazz pianist currently working. But this live duet recording with guitarist Julian Lage is particularly special, because Lage is every bit Hersch’s equal as both an instrumental technician and a musical thinker. Listen to Lage’s witty and perfectly apposite comping on “Down Home” (Hersch’s lovely tribute to guitarist Bill Frisell), and then listen to how Hersch complements and supports Lage’s sensitive rendition of the opening chorus on “Heartland.” This is an unusually deep and lovely album.
Dare2 (dist. Redeye)
Opening with a funk-rocker written by guitarist Kevin Eubanks, the latest outing from bassist and bandleader Dave Holland finds him striking out in a very new direction: one characterized by rockish guitar and blues- and funk-derived grooves, though also exploring quiet and contemplative directions and even hints of gospel. This quartet sounds like it’s been playing together for years, executing precision rhythmic switches at a moment’s notice but swinging loosely and powerfully when called upon to do so. The result is that rarest of jazz projects: an album that sounds simultaneously timeless and thrillingly new. A must for all jazz collections.
No cat. no.
Katie McNally is a young fiddler with a very mature sound. Currently one of the leading Celtic fiddlers in her native New England, her studies and playing have taken her to Scotland and led her to tour North America supporting Galician piper Carlos Nuñez. Her first solo album is simultaneously a celebration of Scottish fiddling tradition and a gentle expansion of it, her arrangements and original compositions nestling comfortably together and her palpable joy in playing them utterly contagious. Recommended to all folk collections.
The Big E: A Salute to Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons
There was a time when the phrase “steel guitarist” would not have had to be appended to the name “Buddy Emmons” for every country music fan to know exactly what this album is all about. No single figure has contributed so much to both the design and the playing technique of this difficult and iconic instrument, or has been a part of so many popular and important recordings in his chosen genre. The Big E features tribute performances by fellow steel players Greg Leisz, Dan Dugmore, and Mike Johnson, among others, as well as appearances by A-list singers Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill and more — and the history provided in the liner notes is priceless. No country music collection should be without this informative and delightful album.
Big Country Bluegrass
Memories of the Past
Sneer at smoothness all you want, but there’s something uniquely thrilling about a bluegrass album that features seamlessly tight harmony singing and virtuosic solos taken at headlong tempi. Big Country Bluegrass offers plenty of both, though they generally keep the tempo tasteful and what catches the ear is more often the note choices (banjoist Lynwood Lunsford is particularly fun to listen to) than the complexity of the arrangements and the picking. The real joy of this album is the group’s vocal blend, which is colorful and brilliant.
Tin Halo Music
Old Buck is a string band, and they play old-time music, but calling them an old-time string band doesn’t quite work for some reason. Maybe it’s because they also play Hank Williams. Maybe it’s the more bluegrassy (despite the clawhammer banjo) feel of their take on “False Hearted Lover’s Blues.” Nomenclature doesn’t matter, though; what matter are the reedy beauty of the vocals, the wonderful tunes both familiar and obscure, and the irrepressible joy of the playing. This is an exceptionally fine album.
This Side of Jordan
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)
I made the mistake of listening to this while running early one morning. That really didn’t work. But if you’re at home on a rainy afternoon, or driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway looking at the leaves, or contemplating a failed romance, then this collection of moody acoustic folk-pop will give you the perfect soundtrack. Andrew Martin and Emily Frantz play and sing new original songs that sound like classic country laments, and they harmonize like angels. Very nice stuff.
High & Filthy & Borderline
As a producer, Don Dixon’s fingerprints are all over some of the best indie pop records of the 1980s (REM, the Smithereens, etc.). As a solo artist, he has recorded for a variety of respected independent labels and made some of the most wry, incisive, and tuneful pop music of the past two decades. This self-released album has a spare and stripped-down feel despite the presence of horn sections, occasional choir samples, and other sonic miscellany, because Dixon is a powerfully disciplined songwriter: he can experiment without ever losing focus on the song and its structure. He is, in short, a pro, as well as a sharp-eyed observer and a gifted multi-instrumentalist.
News from Nowhere
Warp (dist. Redeye)
It’s a seriously good thing that the music on this album is as effortlessly enjoyable as it is, because the packaging is a complete pain in the butt. The only useful information (artist and title) is printed on the spine; otherwise, there’s lots of cutesy artwork but nothing else: no tracklisting, no artist credits, nothing. The music is wonderful: dreamy, mostly instrumental (when a voice appears it is often unintelligible, which works fine), texturally complex and melodically simple. The album is a sumptuously lovely listen, but prepare to deal with an angry cataloger if you purchase it for the library collection.
This Austin-based quartet’s third album is a dense, churning, sometimes disturbing, but ultimately deeply lovely collection of songs that veer from anthemic guitar rock (“Lexington”) to horror-movie spaghetti-western soundtrack (“Lonely Man”) while exploring and interrogating the theme of loss from multiple angles. Songs like “Sing Loud” and “Highways” might remind you of the American Music Club at their soaringly beautiful best, only without the cynicism. This is one of those albums that nicely rewards repeated listens.
Gomma (dist. Forced Exposure)
Dance music is one of those genres in which the line separating boring from interesting can be extremely thin. A little break in the glossy surface, a subtle disruption of the oonts-oonts-oonts groove, a sly manipulation of the vocal hook — any of these can turn an otherwise rote dancefloor exercise into something more subversive and captivating. German DJ Telonius excels at that kind of subversion. Inter Face finds him delivering the four-on-the-floor goods for those who wish to shake their booties, but also offering brain food to anyone who wants to listen more carefully–check out the artfully messed-up vocals on “Now” and the understated, grumbling beat on “I Make You Man.” This is good stuff.
Father/Daughter (dist. Redeye)
Following in the tradition of great punk and post-punk power trios like the Dollyrots and the Minutemen, Bent Shapes (formerly known as Girlfriends) deliver a set of deceptively ramshackle-sounding songs that are actually a lot tighter than they want you to suspect. Ben Potrykus has a charmingly (but, again, deceptively) plainspoken voice that hides its real refinement, and bassist Supriya Gunda supplies sweet backing harmonies and occasional leads under all the guitar clatter. File this one under Bubblegum Pop for the Thinking Hipster.
Walk with Me
The Skatalites are the longest-lived ska group in history–largely because they were, arguably, the first ska band in history (established in 1964), and they’re still going strong. Sure, most of the band’s founding members have passed away, but drummer Lloyd Knibb is as solid as ever, and saxophonist Lester “Ska” Sterling remains a paragon of jazzy-skanking fluency. On their latest album they continue to deliver the bouncy, galloping grooves that have given them a worldwide cult audience for nearly 50 years. Highly recommended.
Madeira: If Music Could Intoxicate
Debashish Bhattacharya is not only a virtuoso player of various stringed instruments, but also an instrument inventor, whose design variations on the slide guitar have made him something of a legend in Indian classical and world-music circles. On this solo album he is joined by his brother Subhasis on tabla and (spectacularly) by his teenaged daughter Anandi, whose dumbfoundingly beautiful singing makes the album’s last two tracks more than worth the price of the whole album. This is not Indian classical music of the purest variety, but rather a blend of classical and raga-based contemporary compositions.
Listening to this very fun and bouncy set of ethno-electronica, you may be surprised to learn that it’s the project of a lifelong New Yorker named Adam Partridge: what it sounds like is a cumbia and moombahton compilation remixed by Massive Attack. And yes, that’s a compliment: as I’ve said before, I have no patience with musical purists, and this music is deeply, richly, ecstatically impure. You’ll hear everything from dubstep to Afro-Colombian house in these grooves, and all kinds of singing and rapping in a variety of languages. Fun, fun, fun.
Hurban Warrior of Peace: Part Roots
Formerly a pillar of the New York City ska-and-reggae scene, Rocker-T has now relocated to the Bay Area and hooked up with a whole new cast of collaborators — including, on his latest album, Joan Baez, who duets with him on “The Way Life Should Be.” Other guests on this very fine album include the great neo-roots singer Gappy Ranks, legendary DJ Ranking Joe, and Rocker-T’s New York colleague King Django. As always, he offers a varied program of roots and dancehall grooves in support of strictly positive and conscious lyrics. Recommended to all reggae collections.
No cat. no.
Brian Prunka is normally a jazz guitarist, but a chance encounter with an Egyptian cab driver led him to begin obsessively learning about Arabic music and to learn how to play the oud (a fretless lute indigenous to the region). Eventually he put together a group of jazz and Arabic players and created this program of tunes that blend the two traditions together. The music is fascinating, though most listeners will probably strain to hear the jazz elements in the mix (despite the presence of alto saxophone and trumpet). The playing is excellent throughout.
10 Ft. Ganja Plant
Skycatcher (CD available September 24)
I’ve been recommending 10 Ft. Ganja Plant’s albums consistently over the past 14 years, and always for the same reason: there is no American band so faithfully and skillfully carrying the banner of 1970s-style roots reggae. As always, there are no musician credits on Skycatcher; while it’s an open secret that the band consists largely of musicians from John Brown’s Body (and the voice of former JBB frontman Kevin Kinsella is immediately recognizable), there are always anonymous guest musicians involved as well. In any case, this one is yet another triumph of reggae revivalism from what is arguably the best band working in that mode today.