PICK OF THE MONTH
Minding the Score: The Music of Harry L. Alford, America’s Pioneer Arranger
Paragon Ragtime Orchestra / Rick Benjamin
New World (dist. Albany)
Harry Alford was an accomplished composer, but his real love was arranging, and his aspiration was to do it for a living. Luckily for him, there was a demand for that service, and no one else was offering it at the scale and the level of professionalism that he and his staff could offer. His status as a pioneer in his field made him a wealthy man, and in turn greatly enriched America’s musical life at the turn of the century. A hundred years later, we can thank the always-reliable Paragon Ragtime Orchestra for bringing these brilliant arrangements back to our attention. On this disc you’ll hear tunes as familiar as “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “The Memphis Blues” along with such endearingly archaic obscurities as “When I Dream in the Gloaming of You” and “Call of the Elk: The Official B.P.O.E. March,” all presented like precious diamonds in Alford’s creative settings and performed with panache and decorous swing by the Paragons. If you, like me, are a sucker for an elegantly orchestrated foxtrot, then don’t hesitate to pick this one up.
Franz Joseph Haydn
String Quartets Opus 20, 33, 64, 76 & 77; The Last Seven Words of Our Savior on the Cross (reissue; 10 discs)
Naïve (dist. Naxos)
There are not many 10-disc box sets that I would recommend consuming in sequence, one disc at a time, within a single day. This is one of them. The richness and quality of Haydn’s string quartets will not be news to any fan of the high classical tradition, but they are delivered with unusual brilliance and insight by the Quatuor Mosaïques in these excellent period-instrument performances (recorded and originally released between 1989 and 2003). Many libraries will have some or all of these performances in the collection already, and there is nothing new in this reissue set (apart from its compactness) to make replacing those original releases advisable. But if you don’t have the earlier versions, this budget-line box is manna from heaven.
Ayman Fanous; Jason Kao Hwang
Innova (dist. Naxos)
I originally thought that this album–a collaboration between guitarist and bouzouki player Ayman Fanous and violinist/violist Jason Kao Hwang–would fit into the Jazz section. Then as I read the press notes that came with it, I started thinking that maybe it would go into World/Ethnic. But after listening, I can only categorize it as Classical, however imperfectly it fits that (or any other) characterization. The music is all freely improvised, but these two musicians have been working together for so long that it often sounds composed. It is consistently interesting and would make a good addition to any collection focusing on new or improvised music.
Baroque Trumpet Concertos
Marek Zvolánek; New Prague Collegium
Cube-Bohemia (dist. Albany)
Marek Zvolánek is a tremendously gifted trumpeter with a golden, honey-flavored tone any horn player would kill for. On this album he presents trumpet concertos by Johann Wilhelm Hertel, Michael Haydn, Frantisek Xaver Richter, and Giuseppe Tartini–a nice range of composers who worked in a variety of regional baroque styles. He and the New Prague Collegium play on modern instruments, and while the orchestra is occasionally just a little bit Romantic-sounding for my taste, Zvolánek’s solo playing is such a deep and consistent delight that it makes everything else sound wonderful.
Harmoniemusik (reissue; 7 discs)
Bläserensemble Sabine Meyer
Warner Classics (dist. Naxos)
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Clarinetist Sabine Meyer is a legend, and with good reason. This 7-disc box set gathers together recordings of Harmoniemusik (arrangements for wind ensemble of works originally for other instruments) from the classical and Romantic periods, performed by her celebrated chamber group Bläserensemble Sabine Meyer. The original recordings were made between 1991 and 1999, but don’t sound dated at all–though the group photos on the individual disc sleeves certainly are. The program includes works by Mozart (several serenades and an instrumental suite from The Abduction from the Seraglio), Beethoven, Krommer, and Dvorak, as well as a very nice wind octet by the underrated Josef Myslivecek. Everything about this release, including the convenient packaging and the price, is a delight.
Misas “Prudentes virgines” [and] “Beata Dei genitrix”
La Grande Chapelle / Albert Recasens
Lauda (dist. Naxos)
The two works presented here are both parody Masses, each based on a motet by Francisco Guerrero, to whom Alonso Lobo had served as an assistant at the Seville Cathedral prior to his appointment as chapel master of the cathedral in Toledo. This disc represents the world-premiere recording of the first work and, as far as I can determine, the only currently available recording of the second. The singing of La Grand Chapelle, a smallish mixed-voice ensemble, is lushly and colorfully beautiful, and the works themselves are marvelous. Strongly recommended to all early music collections.
Music in Europe at the Time of the Renaissance (8 discs + 1 book)
Ricercar (dist. Naxos)
Recommended to non-specialist collections is this excellent book-plus-music overview of European Renaissance music, another in an ongoing series of similarly-configured box sets being released by the well-respected Ricercar label. (I recommended the more tightly-focused Flemish Polyphony box a couple of years ago in Music Media Monthly.) It contains eight discs offering vocal and instrumental (but mostly vocal) and sacred and secular (but mostly sacred) music from across Europe by such composers as Josquin, Palestrina, Gabrieli, Attaingant, and Agricola, and also includes a hardbound 120-page book discussing the cultural context and musical developments in Europe during that period. It would make an excellent addition to any classical music collection, particularly one that needs survey materials rather than an in-depth subcollection in early music.
Franz Xaver Mozart
Complete Piano Chamber Music
Aaron Berofsky; Kathryn Votapek; Suren Bagrutani; Christopher Harding
Equilibrium (dist. Albany)
Franz Xaver Mozart’s story is a heartbreaker. He seems to have worshipped his father Wolfgang Amadeus, who died four months after Franz Xaver was born. His musical output was sparse, he never married, and he died in middle age, but no less an authority than Antonio Salieri declared him a major talent. This disc contains the four works the young Mozart produced for chamber ensembles featuring the piano. The earliest is a piano quartet written when he was 14; also included are two sonatas for violin and piano and one for cello and piano. All are lovely, and if none of them is groundbreaking, they all partake of the classically-structured but bittersweetly melancholy mood of the early Romantic era. The playing is excellent throughout. Highly recommended to all comprehensive classical collections.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Keyboard Masterworks (reissue; 3 discs)
Steinway & Sons
Just about anything recorded by Andrew Rangell is likely to get a Rick’s Pick designation, even when the repertoire isn’t my favorite–and in this case, the repertoire is definitely part of the draw. If you think the world doesn’t need any more renditions of the Goldberg Variations or the six keyboard partitas, think again: if Rangell hasn’t recorded them yet, then the world does not yet have enough. (Of course he has, and this set is a reissue; the original recordings date from 20 years ago and are no longer in print.) Both the music and the playing are breathtakingly lovely.
With the Wind and the Rain
Guitarist Joshua Breakstone does something mildly innovative on his latest album: he adds a cello to the standard guitar-bass-drums trio format. I say this is “mildly” innovative not because guitar trios do this regularly (they don’t) but because the idea of jazz cello itself goes back to the 1950s. How does it sound? Not bad. Breakstone’s trio is reliable as always: his soft tone and effortless swing are beautifully supported by bassist Lisle Atkinson and drummer Eliot Zigmund, and as always he has great taste in standards. The four tracks that feature cellist Mike Richmond are fine; Richmond functions like a horn, playing the head and his subsequent solos pizzicato-style, but while his playing is admirable I’ve never been convinced that the cello works really well in this context. Too little presence, too little sustain, too little sonic reason for it to be there. Still, the album is very enjoyable overall and may be of particular interest to collections supporting coursework in jazz arrangement.
Eddie Daniels & Roger Kellaway
Duke at the Roadhouse: Live in Santa Fe
IPO (dist. Allegro)
This live recording finds clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Eddie Daniels in collaboration with pianist Roger Kellaway on a program of Duke Ellington pieces, which presents certain challenges, the most obvious being that of doing justice to orchestral tunes like “In a Mellow Tone,” “Mood Indigo,” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light” using only two instruments. Another challenge is that of bringing new insight and ideas to such familiar fare without rendering it unrecognizable. Daniels and Kellaway, both being geniuses, manage both challenges quite well. On four tracks they are joined by cellist James Holland, an inspired choice: notice in particular what he brings to their intricately contrapuntal arrangement of “Perdido.” A brilliant recording all around.
Jane Ira Bloom
I always feel a little bit sorry for soprano saxophonists, because the unique sound of that instrument (somewhere between a saxophone and a clarinet) is so closely associated with the schlocky smooth-jazz stylings of artists like Grover Washington, Jr., Dave Koz, and (most egregiously) Kenny G. But Jane Ira Bloom has been forging her own path on the instrument for the past 30 years, and if she has far fewer gold albums than Kenny G., she has made far more albums worth listening to. Like this one, a collection of ballads that includes standards like “For All We Know,” “I Loves You Porgy,” and “The Way You Look Tonight” as well as several fine original compositions. She’s accompanied by a quietly virtuosic piano trio, who mostly stay well and tastefully out of her way. Recommended to all jazz collections.
Cava Menzies & Nick Phillips
Moment to Moment
Nick Phillips Music
Another, and even more entrancing, ballad-oriented album is this collaboration between pianist Cava Menzies and trumpeter Nick Phillips. Accompanied by bassist Jeff Chambers and drummer Jaz Sawyer, they play a program consisting largely of standards with a couple of originals thrown in, as well as a limpidly spectacular arrangement of Elvis Costello’s torchy “Almost Blue.” The music is quiet but never light; it’s filled with emotion and with harmonic interest, but its overall impact is soothing and comforting at a deeply visceral level. It’s hard to explain how exceptionally beautiful this album is. Strongly recommended to all jazz collections.
Songs My Daughter Knows
This one is simply a pure delight. Pianist Jim Clayton put this album together as a tribute to New Orleans (where it was recorded, using local musicians steeped in that city’s unique sounds and rhythms) and to his toddler daughter. It consists mostly of his arrangements of songs from the TV show Sesame Street, including “I Have a Little Plant” and “Sing,” along with odds and ends like the theme from the TV show West Wing and the standard “Autumn Leaves.” All of these are tunes that at some point have elicited significant reactions from his infant daughter, and his arrangements are joyful and charming.
IPO (dist. Allegro)
Back in June I recommended saxophonist and flutist Frank Wess’s Magic 101, saying that it was “clearly going to go down as one of the four or five best jazz albums of 2013.” Now that 2013 is over I can say that I was right, and I’m now prepared to predict that this one will be among the very best of 2014. Once again it’s a brilliant set of standards (plus two originals) with an all-star supporting cast that includes bassist Rufus Reid, guitarist Russell Malone, and pianist Kenny Barron, and this time I’m happy to report that Wess plays flute on one track (the wonderful solo “The Summer Knows”). I wish there were more flute, but the album is fantastic and is highly recommended to all jazz collections.
Hans Koller & Friends
Jazzhaus (dist. Naxos)
If I seem to keep coming back to these Jazzhaus releases–all of them drawn from live and studio recordings from the archives of Südwestrundfunk in Germany–it’s because those archives just keep giving up treasure upon treasure. Consider, for example, this collection of live performances by saxophonist Hans Koller from 1959 and 1960, made in the company of small combos that included pianist Martial Solal, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Connie Kay as well as with his own Hans Koller Brass Ensemble. The program is a nice mix of Koller originals and well-chosen standards, and both the performances and the sound quality are excellent. Recommended to all comprehensive jazz collections.
Vocalist Dianne Reeves has never been a strict jazz traditionalist, but this album finds her moving further afield than usual, offering up renditions of pop and left-of-pop songs like Stevie Nicks’ “Dreams,” Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain,” and Ani DiFranco’s “32 Flavors.” The arrangements tend towards the orchestral and the synthetically smooth, but Reeve’s powerful voice keeps them from ever teetering over into schlock territory; instead, they feel innovative and rich. This one will make an equally fine addition to jazz and pop collections.
The Abramson Singers
No cat. no.
Leah Abramson is a rare kind of singer-songwriter–one who draws deeply on the sounds of American folk and old-time music without letting herself be dragged down into formalism or ironic anachronism, and who can evoke with equal authority themes from Canadian and U.S. traditions. Two of the songs on her band’s latest album deal explicitly with the history of the mixed-race Métis peoples of Canada, but there’s nothing heavy-handedly political here, and only rarely does the songs’ impressionism get in the way of the hooks. Abramson’s voice is deceptively fragile-sounding, but don’t be fooled; it’s as strong and clean as a steel wire. Highly recommended.
The Show Ponies
We’re Not Lost
No cat. no.
The Best Band Name of the Year Award goes to this Los Angeles quintet, whose sound is a high-energy blend of country, pop, folk and bluegrass–honestly, they sound quite a bit like an American version of the Pogues, if Shane MacGowan could sing and drank a lot less. The boy-and-girl vocals of songwriters Andi Carder and Clayton Chaney are the focus of this band’s sound, but around them it seems as if a constant party is going on. Except during the ballads, which are purely lovely. Trad influences are everywhere, but are never determinative, which means that from one song to the next you’re never quite sure what to expect, which is wonderful. Highly recommended to all collections.
Junior Sisk & Joe Mullins
Hall of Fame Bluegrass!
If you miss the sound of high-lonesome bluegrass–the kind that was made back in the 1940s, when lead singers had high and reedy voices and harmony singers had higher and reedier ones, and songs were written according a set of firm and unchanging structural rules–then you’re not alone: banjo player Joe Mullins (Traditional Grass, Longview) and guitarist Junior Sisk (Wyatt Rice & Santa Cruz, Ramblers Choice) feel the same way, and on this album they pick a baker’s dozen of vintage bluegrass songs from the classic repertoire and perform them in that classic style. Their versions aren’t necessarily better than the originals by the likes of Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers, but they’re plenty good and this disc will make a nice addition to any country or bluegrass collection.
No cat. no.
This Colorado-based quartet almost lost me on the first song of their debut album, a pretty but lyrically awkward goin’-home bluegrass number called “Jackson Town.” Then the subtly lovely pedal-steel driven weeper “Boarding Pass (That’s the Way It Is)” convinced me to keep listening, and “My World” hooked me for good. That last one uses traditional bluegrass instrumentation in completely untraditional ways, and singer Lauren Stovall’s bell-like voice cuts through the densely-textured instrumental and vocal arrangement like a golden knife. The rest of the album continues dancing precariously but elegantly on that line between tradition and innovation, and the results are consistently rewarding. Highly recommended.
Rockin’ Legends Pay Tribute to Jack White
Tribute albums are always suspect–too often they’re low-rent affairs that feel thrown together at the last minute, comprising heartfelt but ill-advised covers by artists who have little or no business messing with the tribute object’s oeuvre. This one is different. Featuring musicians as disparate as Gary U.S. Bonds, Wanda Jackson, Los Straightjackets, Robert Gordon, and Bobby Vee (!), it finds everyone bringing his or her unique style to the party but sharing a generally raw, raucous, old-school vibe. The biggest surprise here is the presence of Bobby Vee, whose rendition of “We’re Going to Be Friends” has a rough-edged country feel and whose voice is surprisingly strong. This album’s a real hoot.
Hardcore Traxx: Dance Mania Records 1986-1997 (2 discs)
This compilation traces the evolution of seminal house music label Dance Mania Records, which was founded in 1985 and was deeply influential in shaping the sound of Chicago’s house and acid house scenes for a decade. The music on Dance Mania had a reputation for being more street-level than that of its competitors, and was referred to by its fans as “ghetto house.” Today it sounds stark and hard, the beats relentlessly jacking and the textures spare and sometimes severe. This retrospective offers a nice mix of relatively familiar standards like Hercules’ “7 Ways” and the decidedly not-safe-for-work “Feel My M.F. Bass” (Paul Johnson) and “Hit It from the Back” (Traxmen & Eric Martin), along with much more obscure material. Recommended for comprehensive pop collections.
I Never Meant It to Be Like This
Trans- (dist. Redeye)
The debut album from this Seattle trio (based around the singing and songwriting of Alexandra Niedzialkowski) is one of those delightful surprises: a project that sounds fresh, new, and even revelatory without breaking any new stylistic ground whatsoever. This is guitar pop, sometimes crunchy, sometimes delicate, sometimes both, in support of a singer who sounds a little like Tanya Donnelly and a little like Harriet Wheeler and who isn’t afraid that an “oh-oh-wah-oh-oh” chorus or a bunch of unapologetic glottal stops are going to make her sound silly. Guitarist Lance Umble builds layers and layers of tastefully ragged but carefully crafted instrumental shimmer around Niedzialkowski’s voice, and the whole thing is wonderful. Highly recommended to all pop music collections.
Belfegore (Deluxe Edition)
Remember Belfegore? No? Well, in the mid-1980s they were at the forefront of Gothic-flavored industrial New Wave music, a German band that broke into the American college market with their hit single “All That I Wanted.” The cover photo on this deluxe reissue of their second album is a bit embarrassing (those feather earrings, those leather pants) and the music is certainly dated, but you can still see why they made a big (if brief) noise during the same period that gave us post-Chelsea Billy Idol and Nitzer Ebb. Personally, this album isn’t one I’ll be returning to again and again–but if you’re collecting in 1980’s pop music, then it’s definitely worth considering.
Ninja Tune (dist. Redeye)
Travis Stewart, a.k.a. Machinedrum, created this album in response to a recurring dream of an imaginary city. Eventually he decided to start writing music for it, and the result is a set of funky, edgy, beautiful, and sometimes slightly eerie compositions. On the evidence, Vapor City would seem to host a population drawn from many other places including Kingston (Jamaica), Detroit, Chicago, South London, and New York, and its grooves are sometimes slippery and sometimes steely, its moods dark but strangely exuberant too. The album hits its peak early–immediately, in fact, with the utterly brilliant “Gunshotta.” But the rest of the album comes close to that high-water mark, and everything on it is well worth a listen–note in particular the pleasingly jungly “Rise N Fall” and “Eyesdontlie.”
Left Foot Dance of the Yi
Riverboat (dist. World Music Network)
I’m a sucker for folk-rock, especially when the “folk” part comes from traditions with which I’m not familiar–and folk traditions from the mountains of southwest China certainly fit that criterion. For the most part, the charmingly-titled Left Foot Dance of the Yi isn’t really that rockish, though you’ll hear elements of rock, rap, and even reggae in the mix from time to time. Mostly it’s stomping, sweetly melodic and clearly traditional music infused with varying degrees of Western influence, mostly very successfully. There are dance tunes and children’s songs, drums and bass and dabiya and xianzi, field recordings and electric guitars. And sometimes it does seriously rock out. Sound like fun? It is.
De Temps Antan
Ce Monde Ici-Bas
De Temps Antan continues to be one of the premier purveyors of Québecois folk music, a genre characterized by call-and-response unison singing, foot percussion, rhythmically crooked fiddle tunes, and button accordion. Those who encounter it for the first time will hear hints of Celtic, French, medieval, and Cajun styles, but listen for a while and it soon becomes an immediately recognizable style all its own, one that will make you want to dance one moment and that will make your hair stand on end with its bittersweet beauty the next. Ce Monde Ici-Bas is a typically gorgeous collection of instrumental and vocal tunes, some traditional and some original; highlights include the rollicking “Medley des Couches” set and the startlingly slide-guitar based “Refaire le Monde.”
Ustad Ghulam Mohammad Saznavaz
Kashmir: Sufyana Kalam from Srinagar
VDE-Gallo (dist. Albany)
The phrase sufyana kalam can be translated literally as “Sufi speech,” and it represents a centuries-old Kashmiri classical music tradition. As a mystical branch of Islam, Sufism has attracted censure for its use of music in worship and meditation, but such traditions are hard to stamp out. This disc presents a program of six muqam, each of which follows structural rules similar to those of the Indian ragas; they are performed and sung by a small ensemble consisting of a santur (a kind of hammered dulcimer), multiple saz (a spiked fiddle), a setar (which is a bit like an Indian sitar), and a set of dokra (known in India as tabla). The sound of this music is dry and austere, its mysticism more stark and disciplined than that heard in the ecstatic qawwali style. This disc will make a valuable introduction to the genre.
Orient-Occident II: Hommage à la Syrie
Hesperion XXI / Jordi Savall
Aliavox (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
The early-music ensemble Hesperion XXI (formerly known as Hesperion XX) has long nurtured interests that extend far beyond the classical music of Western Europe, as this second installment in its “EAST-WEST Project” continues to demonstrate. This disc consists of “music from the old Christian and Jewish Hesperia, the istampitte of medieval Italy, and the songs, improvisations, and dances of Syria.” It features gorgeous singing and instrumental tunes by a variety of European and Middle Eastern musicians, and is packaged inside a deceptively thick hardbound book–deceptive because its thickness derives less from a wealth of content than from the fact that its content is translated into six languages and includes a rather strident political essay by ensemble leader Jordi Savall. Still, the music is excellent and the book does include lots of useful information. Recommended to all academic collections.
General Jah Mikey
Original Yard Food
Zion High Productions
Here’s another top-notch slice of modern roots reggae goodness from Zion High Productions, a label that just can’t seem to produce a weak album. This latest one, from singer and songwriter General Jah Mikey, offers a very tasty and well-balanced meal of cultural uplift, spiritual admonition, and sufferer’s lament, all of it delivered in the time-honored roots-and-culture style with real instruments and dense, thick rockers and one-drop grooves. Mikey is a very fine singer and the hooks are many and sharp. Highly recommended to all reggae and world music collections.