PICK OF THE MONTH
Two Sides of Laraaji (2 discs)
All Saints (dist. Redeye)
The recently revivified All Saints label has just embarked on a reissue project, a cornerstone of which will be a series of re-releases of classic material from one of the quirkiest figures of the ambient music movement, Laraaji. Born Edward Larry Gordon, he worked for a while as a comedian and actor but eventually came to focus on music and began experimenting with an electric autoharp. Over time he became involved with musical meditation, was given the new name “Laraaji” by a pair of strangers who overheard him busking in New York, and was eventually heard by producer Brian Eno. Eno took him into the studio and recorded what would become Laraaji’s most famous album, Ambient 3: Day of Radiance. He later made many privately-released recordings and albums on a variety of labels, including several for All Saints. Of the ones being reissued, I recommend Celestial Music: 1978-2011 for completists–it’s actually a compilation rather than a reissue, and it includes one disc of previously unreleased material and a second disc of selections from earlier albums (made in collaboration with the likes of Brian Eno, Bill Laswell, and Michael Brook). But for sheer listening rapture, I recommend this one: a two-disc reissue, one disc of which is the shimmeringly beautiful Flow Goes the Universe, and the other of which is the very different The Way Out Is the Way In, a long-distance collaboration with Japanese dub/reggae band Audio Active on which Laraaji provides spoken-word vocals and Audio Active incorporates them into heavywieght funk and reggae beats. “Two sides of Laraaji” indeed–with this collection you get his musical ideas on one disc and his cosmic and philosophical ones on the other.
Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra
New World (dist. Albany)
Many composers have pushed the boundaries of orchestral music as it is traditionally understood, but with the three pieces offered here (Diamonds, Slices, and Exploration of the House) Alvin Lucier does something a bit more subtle: he uses traditional musical ingredients to push us to change the way we think about listening. The results are not always strictly euphonious on the surface, but they do reward careful attention–and the third piece is sort of an orchestral reworking of the composer’s famous acoustic experiment I Am Sitting in a Room, this time using fragments of a Beethoven piece. Very cool.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Missae Breves BWV 232-236 (reissue; 3 discs)
Alpha (dist. Naxos)
Everyone is familiar with Bach’s famous B minor Mass, but the other four Lutheran Masses presented in this three-disc box (which reissues three separate recordings originally released in 2008, 2009, and 2011) are much less frequently recorded, and these period-instrument performances of them by the Pygmalion ensemble are spectacular. Director Raphaël Pichon coaxes a sound from both singers and instrumentalists that communicates all of the grandeur and solemnity one would hope for and expect, yet never sacrifices warmth or gentleness. No library with a collecting interested in baroque music should pass these recordings up.
Piano Album 1; Six Friends
At age 90, Ned Rorem is a living treasure of American classical music. And although his reputation rests largely on his vocal and theatrical works, this wonderful disc demonstrates how nicely his gift translates to smaller instrumental pieces as well. It consists of his 27-part Piano Album (composed between 1978 and 2001) as well as six miniatures written as gifts to friends. None of the pieces presented here is longer than three minutes, and all of them partake of a sweetly melancholy mood and hover in a sort of twilit area between the tonal tradition and the harmonic avant-garde. Carolyn Enger’s playing is consistently sensitive and insightful.
De Profundis: Motets
Weser-Renaissance Bremen / Manfred Cordes
CPO (dist. Naxos)
This lovely release creates a little bit of discographical confusion by putting forward two different titles: De Profundis: Motets on the front cover, and Psalm Settings on the spine and back cover. (Both are accurate, but it does seem like the label could have picked one and stuck with it.) The works themselves are deeply solemn settings of such texts as “De profundis clamavi,” “Miserere mei Deo,” and “Domine ne in furore,” and they are among the earliest polyphonic settings of Latin psalms. As always with Josquin, the part-writing is exquisite; as always with the Weser-Renaissance ensemble, the singing is too.
Out of Africa and Around the World
Cedille (dist. Naxos)
What unites this seemingly diffuse program of guitar compositions is the influence of folk music. That thread connects the obviously folk-influenced Folk Song Variations of Atanas Ourkouzounov and Dusan Bogdanovic’s Blues and 7 Variations as well as Carlos Rafael Rivera’s Cancion, Vojislav Ivanovic’s Café Pieces (with its tango and waltz movements) and the five-movement title work by Alan Thomas. The latter two pieces are presented here in world-premiere recordings. Despite their often explicitly folky sound, these works draw deeply on Denis Azabagic’s considerable virtuosity, and are often absolutely thrilling.
Jan Dismas Zelenka
Ensemble Marsyas; Monica Huggett
Linn (dist. Naxos)
I’ve long been a sucker for the chamber music (and orchestral music, and choral music for that matter) of the Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka, who was largely ignored in the 20th century until interest in early music began to pick up in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He is particularly beloved by reed players, and the three sonatas and one andante movement presented on this gorgeous disc feature oboes and basson prominently. The baroque versions of these instruments are notoriously difficult to play, and the members of Ensemble Marsyas (augmented for this recording by violinist Monica Huggett) acquit themselves beautifully. Strongly recommended to all early music collections.
Carl Maria von Weber
Clarinet Concertos No. 1 & 2; Concertino for Clarinet
Alexander Fiterstein; San Francisco Ballet Orchestra / Martin West
Bridge (dist. Albany)
Man, there’s just something about clarinet music of the late classical and early Romantic periods–and few composers captured that “something” as totally as did Carl Maria von Weber, whose friendship with clarinetist Heinrich Joseph Baermann produced some of the most affecting music of the period. Here Alexander Fiterstein teams up with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra (all playing on modern instruments) to deliver both of Weber’s clarinet concertos and the one-movement Concertino in alternatingly sparkling and gorgeously purple-hued performances. This is one of the loveliest albums I’ve heard all year.
In Mani Dei Catalani
La Caravaggia / Lluís Coll
Musièpoca (dist. Allegro)
On this album the sackbut-recorder-and-cornet ensemble La Caravaggia presents a nicely varied program of compositions from Italian and Spanish songbooks of the mid-16th century. (Adapting such pieces for instrumental performance was a commonly accepted practice of the time.) Many of these pieces are anonymous and many others are by very obscure composers, but there are also selections from the likes of Heinrich Isaac, Juan del Encina, and Costanzo Festa. The distinctive timbres of the cornet and the sackbut (a precursor of the trombone), combined with the often lilting dance rhythms, make for a thoroughly charming and enjoyable listen.
La fiesta de Pascua en Piazza Navona (2 discs)
La Grande Chapelle / Albert Recasens
Lauda (dist. Naxos)
Although Tomás Luis de Victoria is identified prominently on the cover, the works gathered together for this imaginative reconstruction of a grand Easter celebration in Rome’s Piazza Navona, circa 1590, features hymns, motets, responsories, and processional music by composers as prominent as Palestrina and Guerrero and as obscure as Fernando de las Infantas and Agostino Manni. Fans of the large-scale sacred works of Monteverdi and Gabrieli will find much to enjoy here; the performances and recorded sound are excellent.
John Abercrombie Quartet
The latest version of guitarist John Abercrombie’s quartet features pianist Marc Copland (with whom Abercrombie previously played in both Chico Hamilton’s quartet and in the fusion ensemble Dreams), bassist Drew Gess, and the always-brilliant drummer Joey Baron. There is surely no guitarist, and there may not be another musician, on the ECM label who more perfectly embodies the ECM Sound than Abercrombie: his tone is soft-edged, his phrasing and melodic ideas at times almost elegiac, but his musical intelligence is sharp and those ideas are wide-ranging, at times almost wild. On this album his focus is on ballads, but the group can also swing mightily when it’s called for. Highly recommended to all jazz collections.
Live at the Winery: Unreleased Art, Vol. VIII
Back in 2006, Laurie Pepper (widow of legendary saxophonist Art Pepper) formed the Widow’s Taste label in order to make available previously unheard and unreleased recordings by her husband. This one documents an afternoon performance from 1976 at the Paul Masson Winery in California, and it shows Pepper to be at the peak of his physical and mental powers as a player–listen to his explosive performances of “Caravan” and “Straight Life.” His backing trio is excellent, and the soundboard recording is quite good (though the piano is mixed a bit too low). Perhaps not an essential purchase for every library, but those with comprehensive jazz collections should be following this series closely.
New West Guitar Group
Summit (dist. Allegro)
The New West Guitar Group continues to push the boundaries of what we mean when we say “jazz” — and of how much sound can be made by 18 strings and 30 fingers. As they did on the 2011 release Round Trip Ticket, the three guitarists create huge, lush, and deceptively accessible soundscapes–some of them original compositions (like the lovely “Every Big City”) and some of them cover versions (like the album-opening “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and a shimmering version of the Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger”). As always with this group, it’s possible to just relax and enjoy the beautiful surfaces, and it’s rewarding to listen closely and catch the complexities underneath.
Stranahan Zaleski Rosato
There are not that many piano trios with a truly unique and personal sound. Stranahan Zaleski Rosato is one of those few, and it seems to me that this is largely because they don’t play like a piano trio (in which the piano usually takes center stage and the bass and drums lend support). Instead, they play like a trio of equals. This doesn’t mean (thank heaven) that everyone gets the same amount of soloing time; it means that at any given moment, what’s happening with one instrument is just as interesting as what’s happening with the other two. Sometimes this means things are maybe just a little too busy, but mostly it means that things are richly and beautifully complex even as the sense of swing and cohesion remains strong. Any library supporting a jazz curriculum should seriously consider this disc.
Turn It Up
17-year-old Hammond B3 organ phenomenon Kevin Coelho is back with a second funky, swinging, hard-driving trio album, again featuring guitarist Derek Dicenzo and drummer Reggie Jackson, and again featuring a nicely mixed program of originals and out-of-left-field covers (this time including tunes by Prince and the Beatles and a slightly twisted take on “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”). As before, Coelho’s chops and musical maturity belie his age, and the album is a pure joy.
Dave Van Ronk
Down in Washington Square (3 discs)
Dave Van Ronk has a piece of my heart forever–partly because he was such an influential figure in the Great Folk Scare of the 1950s and 1960s, and partly because he got the movement’s number so utterly with his song “Down in Washington Square” (sample couplet: “Wear your big hoop earrings and your leotard/’Cause we’re gonna rub elbows with the avant-garde”). This 3-disc set pulls together previously released and unreleased material including early live recordings, the complete set from a 1997 concert at the Smithsonian, and a few tracks recorded shortly before his death in 2001. The booklet includes notes on each song and a nice bio. Notice his range, by the way: everything from Tin Pan Alley to sea shanties to gospel to Delta blues. An essential purchase for any folk collection.
Let Me Play This for You: Rare Cajun Recordings
I’ll be honest: there are some releases I recommend because they’re a joy to listen to, and some I recommend despite the fact that they’re… not. This is one of the latter. It consists primarily of recordings made by Angelas Lejeune, Percy Babineaux, and Bixy Guidry in 1929 and 1930; all are transfers from shellac 78s, they mostly sound fairly terrible, and the singing is all quite raw (the playing, less so). But for libraries that collect comprehensively in American folk music, this disc (along with its accompanying notes) is a treasure trove. And if you’re a fan of Cajun accordion, it will actually be something of a joy to listen to.
Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys
Lost and Found: The Famous Living Room Tape, 1970
No cat. no.
Richard “Kinky” Friedman is a legend of Texas country music, a brilliant performer and seriously gifted writer disguised as an outrageous comedy act (sample song titles: “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” “Why Do you Bob Your Nose, Girl?,” “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed”). As befits his “legend” status, we now have before us a complete reissue of this very early and home-recorded album, the first made with his band the Texas Jewboys. It’s of somewhat dodgy sonic quality, but it also serves as a blueprint for everything that would come after. Country fans and musicians who suspected he was making fun of them were not wrong–but he was making fun of himself (and everything else) too. For all comprehensive pop and country collections.
Three Chords and the Truth
James King is one of those bluegrass singers who departs from the high-lonesome tradition in favor of a sound that is rougher, deeper, and more closely related to the classic country crooner style (a connection that King makes explicit here with his take on the George Jones hit “He Stopped Loving Her Today”). His defiantly-titled latest album contains a nice mix of gospel tunes (the excellent “Devil’s Train”), straight-up bluegrass-style country (“Chiseled in Stone,” “Things Have Gone to Pieces”) and maudlin tearjerkers (“Jason’s Farm,” “Riding with Private Malone”). It’s a nice program overall, though probably not an essential purchase.
At the Heart of It All
Compass (dist. Naxos)
7 4618 2
Years ago, I lent a copy of a Capercaillie album to a friend of mine from work. When he returned it to me he said, “I understand that different people like different kinds of music. But I have a really hard time imagining anyone not liking this.” I’ve always felt the same way. I guess there are people who just don’t like Celtic folk, and there are Celt-folk purists who don’t like to hear an electric bass or a funky breakbeat in among the strathspeys and the puirt à beul. Their loss–though maybe they’ll like Capercaillie’s latest better: it’s not completely lacking in funky innovations, but the sound is a bit more “straight” and stripped-down than some of their previous work has been. As always, the sonic centerpiece is Kathen Matheson’s nimble, dark-hued voice. The album is brilliant overall.
The Storm (EP; download only)
I don’t normally review download-only releases, since they’re of limited utility in most libraries, but this one is good enough that I’m making an exception. On a quick listen, you could be forgiven for hearing this as more of the same old same old: big, dark, atmospheric, dub-inflected techno. But listen harder, and what emerges is something pretty unique: a restless emulsion rather than a synthesis, one that sputters between jungle, dubstep, techno, glitch, and dub in ways that constantly startle and surprise. The result is sometimes creepy in an intriguing way and sometimes briefly danceable, but always ebbing and flowing with rich textures and fascinating polyrhythms. I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, and I’m willing to bet that a significant minority of your library’s patrons are as well–if you can figure out a way to make it available to them.
Rinse (dist. Forced Exposure)
Rinse FM is a British radio station that, over the years, has sponsored a series of DJ mix compilations (on which DJs put together long strings of dance music selections, programs that may consist of 30 or 40 extracts running seamlessly from one into the other). The latest in the series features Hyperdub label founder Kode9, whose program is like an introductory guide to some of the most interesting stylistic developments over the past few years (UK funky, footwork) while incorporating classic house, 2-step garage, grime and other styles as well. Listen for contributions from established names like Terror Danjah and DJ Rashad as well as lots of artists that I promise you’ve never heard of.
Hits Back (2 discs)
“Oh good,” I hear you say. “Another Clash hits collection–just what the world needed.” But actually, that’s not what this is. It’s kind of a taster sampler released at the same time as the massive Sound System box set, which includes everything the Clash ever released commercially as well as three discs of demos and rarities, along with a whole bunch of tchotchkes and trinkets that will be of no use to a library collection. (For those libraries that do want a handy box of the remastered albums themselves, there’s also the 5 Album Studio Set.) This two-disc package, instead of being a greatest-hits collection, recreates (with studio versions) the Clash’s setlist from a legendary live show at Brixton Fairdeal in 1982–then adds an additional eight tracks to give weight to the second disc. Libraries with limited budgets and no Clash holdings will find this a handy selective overview; those with a little more money to spend should consider the 5 Albums box.
Alien Transistor (dist. Forced Exposure)
They don’t tell you who plays what in this Berlin/Munich-based trio, which actually makes listening to Return kind of fun: not knowing for sure what to expect, the live drums are no less surprising than the sudden found-sound vocals, the dubwise sonic dropouts, the harp, or the pedal steel. Everything swirls in a kind of impressionistic haze, but every component of the band’s sound is clear and sharply defined as well. And occasionally it just plain rocks. Fun and impressive.
Playlist: The Very Best of Big Star
So, on the surface, Columbia seems to have a lot to answer for with this collection. I mean, seriously: a 46-minute program, fully half of which consists of live tracks from a single concert (from 1993, many years after the group’s heyday), and you call it “The Very Best of Big Star”? Here’s the thing, though: Big Star only recorded three albums, and none of them produced anything like a hit. Big Star has been hugely influential (just ask Paul Westerberg and Michael Stipe, just to name two of the band’s biggest fans) but its artistic influence has been far out of proportion to its commercial impact. And in fact, this program is pretty well-selected and offers a very serviceable overview of Big Star’s brilliant version of the power pop sound. So, on balance: well done, Columbia. Strongly recommended to all libraries.
Yungchen Lhamo; Anton Batagov
Cantaloupe (dist. Naxos)
The subtitle of this album (“Tibetan voice meets Russian piano”) gave me pause. I’m all for pan-ethnic fusions in principle–but in practice, some work better than others, and this one didn’t sound promising to me. But actually, for the most part it works very well. Batagov seems to be improvising along with Lhamo’s keening, melismatic vocals, and since her melodies are generally non-tonal he’s able to make do with lots of pentatonic extemporizing and swaying V-I changes. He manages to bring quite a bit of musical interest to those minimalist gestures, and Lhamo’s voice is lovely. Recommended.
Carmina Chamber Choir; Nordic Affect
Smekkleysa (dist. Allegro)
This disc presents a selection of hymns from the largest surviving collection of 18th-century Icelandic sacred music. Some of the songs are performed monodically, while others are harmonized and presented with instrumental accompaniment (some of the arrangements reflect what’s written in the songbook, while a few were made specifically for this recording). All are sung in Icelandic, and the vocalists have a clean, pure tone that fits beautifully with the music. This album straddles a variety of musical genres and is strongly recommended to all collections of sacred, early, or world music.
Mark Ernestus Presents Jeri-Jeri
Ndagga (dist. Forced Exposure)
Last month I recommended 800% Ndagga, a collection of tracks by sabar drummers and mbalax vocalists who are among Senegal’s most in-demand musicians. If those tracks weren’t trance-inducing enough for you, then consider this collection of remixes, most of which are stripped down to the groove: few if any vocals, just swirling polyrhythms and interlocking layers of guitar and synth.
Lloyd Brown’s latest album is aptly titled: although he is known primarily as a smooth crooner in the lovers rock style, on this release (his 16th) he focuses mainly on roots-and-culture material, supported by a crack team of session players and joined by such eminent chatters as Jahdan Blaakamoore and Queen Omega. The album’s sound is deeply informed by lovers-rock sonics–it’s as rich and warm as a mug of cocoa–and Brown’s voice is as darkly sweet as ever. But the lyrical messages are firm, at times downright stern, making for an impressive balance of sweet approachability and righteous admonition. Strongly recommended to all reggae collections.