PICK OF THE MONTH
Ludwig Van Beethoven
Cello Sonatas (2 discs)
Steven Isserlis; Robert Levin
Hyperion (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
This is a very special recording, one of those rare examples of a new performance of a familiar work (or, in this case, set of works) that sheds brilliant new light on musical gestures that we’ve all heard many times before, allowing us to hear them in a new way. Isserlis and Levin use period instruments (Levin using a copy of an 1805 fortepiano) and play with such dash and sensitivity that it sounds as if these pieces were written for them personally. As is often the case with music of the Romantic period played on authentic instruments, the music seems to be taking the players and their instruments to the outer borders of their expressive capacity, and that fact alone gives the music-making a thrilling edge, but what really sets these performances apart is the emotional investment of the players. Listen in particular to their delivery in the Allegro vivace movement of the F major sonata–here their technical virtuosity, though real and obvious, is completely subsumed in pure musical joy. In addition to the five cello sonatas, this program includes three sets of variations on themes from Handel and Mozart, as well as a transcription of Beethoven’s F major horn sonata. An essential purchase for all library collections.
Cello Symphony; Cello Sonata
Zuill Bailey; Natasha Paremski; North Carolina Symphony / Grant Llewellyn
Benjamin Britten’s somber, spiky Symphony for Cello and Orchestra is paired here with his equally serious but somewhat more lyrical and approachable C major cello sonata. Cellist Zuill Bailey shows real affinity both for the assertive (even aggressive) symphony and for the more grumbly and restrained energy of the sonata, and his accompanist on the latter (pianist Natasha Paremski) is especially impressive. Recommended to all classical collections.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Inventions & Sinfonias
There are so many great recordings of these lovely keyboard pieces (Glenn Gould recorded highly influential versions, as did Peter Serkin and just about every other world-class pianist) that it would be very easy to let this new release slide under your radar. Don’t make that mistake, because in this case the pianist is the completely brilliant Simone Dinnerstein. As familiar as these pieces are, she’ll make you hear them with new ears–her tempos are sometimes surprising, her sense of line is impeccable, and her thinking is fresh and insightful. Very strongly recommended to all classical collections.
Für Anna Maria: Complete Piano Music (2 discs)
Jeroen Van Veen
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
I think it’s safe to say that most of us don’t think of Arvo Pärt primarily as a keyboard composer–it’s his orchestral and (especially) choral works that have grabbed most of the world’s attention. But these two hours of music make a powerful argument for him as a significant composer for the piano. The strength of that argument comes, I think, not so much from his more modernist work in the 1950s (which comprises the bulk of the second disc) but rather for the later, more impressionistic pieces on the first disc, many of which are informed by his concept of “tintinnabulation.” The performances by Jeroen Van Veen are excellent. Strongly recommended to all classical collections.
Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber; Johann Caspar Kerll
Vespro della Beata Vergine; Missa in fletu solatium
Accent (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
If you have a collecting interest (or even just a listening interest) in the glorious large-scale sacred music of 17th-century Venice by composers like Gabrieli and Monteverdi, then consider checking out this recording of similarly-scaled works by the Venetian masters’ rough Germanic contemporaries, Biber and Kerll. Biber is known mostly for his chamber music and Kerll is frankly mostly forgotten, but this thrilling recording is likely to send you scrambling to discover more of their vocal music, which has begun coming back to public attention over the past couple of decades. As they almost always do, Cantus Cölln has provided us with brilliant performances and the sound quality is outstanding as well.
The Glory of New College Choir (8 discs)
The Choir of New College, Oxford / Edward Higginbottom
Warner Classics/Erato (dist. Naxos)
I approached this collection with one question in mind: would it result in the New College replacing Magdalen as my favorite Oxford college choir? The answer is no, but that’s just me. Regarded objectively, this eight-disc retrospective shows the Choir of New College to be not only world-class in terms of tonality, blend, and sensitivity, but also remarkably versatile, covering everything from American spirituals and folk songs to 20th-century English neoromanticism, Pergolesi’s high-baroque Marian vespers, and the Franco-Flemish masters. One of the discs is a thoroughly delightful collection of Christmas material both familiar and obscure. Highly recommended overall.
New World (dist. Albany)
I’m not sure that “whimsical” is what composer and clarinetist Daniel Goode was going for with the trombone-dominated large-scale title work on this disc (a work whose influences include the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina), but it’s the word that comes regularly to mind over the course of its sometimes contemplative and sometimes rollicking 23 minutes. Goode’s pieces for solo clarinet and for small chamber ensemble are more marked by repetitive structures and neoclassical harmonies, and all of the music is very much worth hearing. I especially liked the clarinet sonata, the earliest of the pieces included on this program and one that reminded me of the music of Walter Piston.
The Sons of Bach (10 discs)
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
As we all know, Johann Sebastian Bach had lots of kids, and an improbably high percentage of those kids grew up to be world-class composers in their own right. The most famous of these is probably Carl Philipp Emanuel, but Johann Christian, Wilhelm Friedemann, and Johann Christoph Friedrich were no slouches either. Despite the lack of liner notes and a slight unevenness in the performance quality (the period-instrument ensemble Kammerorchester C.P.E. Bach is a bit shaky on its namesake’s Hamburg symphonies) this ten-disc set of symphonies, concertos, and chamber music by the Bach boys is both a wonderful listening experience and a convenient and affordable historical/pedagogical tool and should be seriously considered by all classical collections.
Tipping Point (to be released February 18)
Magic Fiddle Music
I’m a sucker for a good jazz violin, and Jason Anick is better than most. He also plays mandolin (which, in its electrified version, can be a bit hard to distinguish from an electric guitar) and writes very, very well. On this album there’s the inevitable smattering of Gypsy jazz but also lots of more open-ended, exploratory material as well. The more I listen, the more it reminds me of what David Grisman was doing in the 1970s as he broke out of the bluegrass/newgrass/gypsygrass mode and started defining his own sound. And yes, that’s a compliment.
Miami Saxophone Quartet
Four of a Kind
Saxophone quartet arrangements are always fun, and this live album starts out especially so with a brilliant set of variations on the theme of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” But an extra treat on this recording is the presence of a rhythm section in addition to the four saxophones, giving the whole program the flavor of a performance by an extremely tight big band. Gary Keller, Gary Lindsay, Ed Calle and Mike Brignola are all world-class players, and this album is a pure pleasure from start to finish. Highly recommended.
No cat. no.
There seems to be a growing vogue for ballad albums lately, and this one from bassist John Brown is an unusually beautiful example of the trend. Leading a quintet that includes saxophonist Brian Miller and trumpeter/flugelhorn player Ray Codrington, he presents a gorgeous program of slow and quiet numbers from a wide variety of sources including Oscar Peterson (“When Summer Comes”), Elvin Jones (“A Lullaby of Itsugo Village”), and even such unlikely choices as Barry Manilow (“When October Goes”) and James Taylor (“Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”). The title track is an original composition and maintains the same high standard as the others. Highly recommended.
On this exciting album, saxophonist Shauli Einav leads a quartet (occasionally augmented by flutist Itai Kriss) through a set of tunes that range in style from structurally disciplined bop and hard bop (“The More I See You,” “Almost Everything”) to more broadly-ranging modal experimentation (“Land of Nod,” the lovely “Waltz for Zweetie”). Einav’s tone is solid and shiny, his rhythm section is rock-solid, and the whole album is a pleasure.
One limitation trombonists face is the structural awkwardness of an instrument that has to slide between notes–this makes it relatively unwieldy at fast tempos. The upside of this difficulty is the fact that it tends to lead trombonists to spend less time showing off their virtuosic speed and more time showing off their musicality. That’s just what Steve Davis does on this lovely album of loping, swinging, and sometimes funky midtempo original tunes. Generally working in a recognizably hard bop-based style, Davis has nevertheless developed a personal and deeply pleasing sound of his own. Recommended to all jazz collections.
Not Benny’s Goodman
Though this album consists entirely of standards (and very familiar ones at that: “Embraceable You,” “Moonglow,” “Nancy with the Laughing Face,” etc.) it sounds unlike almost any other jazz album that you’ll already have in your collection. It’s led by clarinetist Shawn Goodman, who is accompanied by pianist Gary Walters, and that’s it: no rhythm section, no other soloists. It takes a clarinetist of unusual musical and imaginative resources to carry this kind of program, and Goodman does it spectacularly–not only with rich melodic invention, but with a beautifully mellow and burnished tone as well. Any library supporting a jazz program, and especially one with emphases in arrangement and orchestration, should hurry to snap this one up.
Oldies and Old-time
Ivan Rosenberg is a clawhammer banjo player, but one unlike any you’re likely to have heard before. It’s not so much that he departs decisively from traditional styles and content, but that he takes old material and twist it (as the wry titles of original tunes like “Abject Woodchuck” and “Sloth Up a Gum Stump” suggest). He sometimes plays a Romero open-back banjo and sometimes a banjo-resophone hybrid instrument, and sometimes he plays a resophonic guitar. He sings as well as plays, and while his singing voice is passable, his playing is quietly and subtly excellent.
The Deadly Gentlemen
Roll Me, Tumble Me
Instrumentally, the Deadly Gentlemen look like a bluegrass band (guitar-mandolin-fiddle-banjo-bass); sartorially and tonsorially, they look like Brooklyn hipsters. Stylistically, their music has little except instrumentation to do with bluegrass: instead, it’s slow-to-midtempo, contemplative folk-pop featuring tight harmonies throughout. At moments it will seriously remind you of classic CSNY (and not only because the guitarist looks startlingly like a young Neil Young). Very nice.
Imaginational Anthem, Vol. 6: Origins of American Primitive Guitar
Any library supporting a curriculum in American folk music probably needs to be picking up each volume in the Imaginational Anthem series as it’s released. The latest one features classic recordings by such legendary guitarists as Riley Puckett, Sam McGee, and Sylvester Weaver. The tracks cover a variety of styles, from slide-based blues to finger-picked dance tunes. Sadly, there is no information provided about the dates or circumstances of the recordings (such information may not have been available to the compilers), but the liner notes include biographical sketches of the artists.
The term “modern traditional bluegrass” feels oxymoronic to me, but it’s the only one I can come up with to describe Blue Highway’s style. All the elements of straight-ahead bluegrass are there in terms of instrumental style, band makeup, vocal approach, and subject matter–and yet there’s something inescapably modern about their sound. Maybe it’s the fact that they mess around with traditional song forms, or that they like to sneak fancy chord changes in there underneath the chuck-a-chuck mandolin comping and the silvery banjo picking. What it all adds up to — for better or worse — is bluegrass that any fan of modern country music can get behind. It works fine for me, but hardcore purists may want to proceed with caution.
Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II
Side by Side
The interesting thing about bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and his son is how different their voices are: the elder Ralph is famous for the reedy, piercing quality of his voice, one that has only gotten richer and more interesting with age; the younger Ralph sings in a crooning baritone register. Together, they make a pleasing combination, and this collection of bluegrass and country classics (some written by the elder Ralph) is absolutely solid. Backing is provided by members of both the Clinch Mountain Boys and the younger Stanley’s own band.
Karriem Riggins is a jazz drummer and hip hop producer of wide renown, and his debut solo album is both wonderful and kind of weird. To look at the track list, you would expect it to be a beats collection for DJs: it consists of 34 brief tracks, each of them offering a different groove that sits somewhere along the spectrum between jazz and instrumental hip hop. You might think an album like this would be tiresome, but it’s entrancing: there are lots of found-sound vocal samples, a wide variety of machine-driven and organically-recorded loops and breaks, and unexpected textural juxtapositions, but everything flows together into an organic whole. Rather than feeling like a disjointed catalog of sounds for post-hoc plundering, it really feels like a coherent album, and a very fun one at that. Highly recommended.
Poets of Rhythm
Daptone (dist. Redeye)
Truly, few things can be as tiresome as slavish revivalism. In that regard, the cover design and photo on this album just raise all kinds of red flags. But danged if the Poets of Rhythm don’t win you over by about three tracks in: yes, they’re a German band trying desperately to channel James Brown — but the thing is, they succeed, and they have so much fun doing it that it’s impossible not to get caught up in the funky spirit of the thing. It’s too bad that their conception of “funky” has to mean “poorly recorded,” but still. Choice song titles: “Wallowing in the Myrrh,” “Ham Gallery.”
Speaking of revivalism, the debut album by Pillar Point (the nom de solo project of Throw Me the Statue’s Scott Reitherman) comes with more than a whiff of 1980s synthpop. Its sound is dry and digital and the melodies are a bit featureless–reminding me somewhat of early Depeche Mode–but hang on through a few songs and the hooks start to sink in. Reitherman’s singing style is understated (not to say anomic) but the lyrics are heartfelt and sometimes heartbreaking, and the Casiotone-cheesy synth layers are solidly anchored by deep and throbbing bass. Recommended.
Emerging from the ashes of Canadian indiepop band Parlour Steps, frontman Caleb Stull has put together a new project called Field Study. Its debut is seriously impressive, a slightly uneasy blend of hookswise, electro-inflected power pop and acoustic-based roots rock. The things that set it apart from the competition are pretty subtle: the tastefully strange guitar treatments, the way the voice is mixed. Also the songcraft, which is top notch. Highly recommended to all pop collections.
Infernal Piano Plot… Hatched!
With this album, pianist Johnny Iguana and drummer Michael Caskey have provided a high-octane party document composed of equal parts barrelhouse blues, punk rock, fractured burlesque ragtime, and drunken New Orleans freakout. Apart from one or two relatively quiet moments, the energy level is constantly set at 11, and the playing puts much more emphasis on exuberance and precision (which isn’t to say that it’s sloppy, really, just that it’s, you know, exuberant). You may find yourself switching to something else halfway through out of sheer exhaustion, but you’ll sure have fun while your stamina endures.
Bloc Party Tapes
!K7 (dist. Redeye)
DJ mixtapes are always informed by a combination of two impulses which, while not mutually exclusive, are nevertheless in tension: a desire to please, and a desire to show off. The mixtape is your chance both to make the dancers happy and to impress them with the depth of your record collection (and the hipness of your tastes). Taking advantage of both opportunities, Kele Okereke (of Bloc Party) has put together a wildly eclectic, hip, and very fun continuous mix drawing on everything from Afrobeat (Tony Allen, Fela Kuti) to grime (Wiley) to UK bass (Bloc Party) to unclassifiable weirdo techno (French Fries). Recommended to all adventurous pop collections.
5 Albums Originaux (reissue; 5 discs)
Multi-instrumentalist, composer, and singer Ray Lema is originally from Zaire but has been based in France for many years. The five albums gathered together in this box set were originally released between 1992 and 2004 and cover a wide stylistic range, from strange and wonderful collaborations with Bulgarian choral ensembles to Brazilian-flavored chamber pop and solo piano compositions. All of the elements of his music are familiar, but they are regularly juxtaposed in refreshing (and sometimes startling) ways. At the core of his arrangements are usually his own voice and his quietly expert piano playing. Very nice.
This one’s very interesting. Dhafer Youssef is a Tunisian virtuoso of the oud, a Middle Eastern lute, and for this album he has created a contemplative and impressionistic suite of compositions that incorporates traditional Middle Eastern sounds and modalities but blends them–sometimes subtly and sometimes startlingly–with elements of jazz, classical, and rock music. The fusion generally works very well, though the aggressively prog-rock “39th Gülay” felt less successful to me than most of the other tracks. Fans of ECM jazz will be interested to see that featured guests include trumpeter Nils-Petter Molvaer and guitarist Eivind Aarset.
Joe Driscoll & Sekou Kouyate
Put a beatboxing rapper from New York together with a virtuosic kora player and singer from Guinea, and what do you get? You get a slightly schizophrenic but enormously fun and sometimes quite moving album that blends a wide range of cultural styles and musical elements together into something unlike any world-music project you’ve heard before. Strongly recommended.
Order of Melchizedek
Heartbeat Europe (dist. Allegro)
There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking or innovative about this album — it’s simply one of the most richly rewarding and enjoyable modern roots reggae releases I’ve heard in years. Singer Chezidek has a wonderful voice, the Jah Solid Rock crew provides pitch-perfect old-school backup using live instruments, and the songs are consistently excellent. It was a tragedy when the Heartbeat label went out of business in the US, and it’s very heartening (as it were) to see it being revived so successfully in Europe. Very strongly recommended to all reggae and world music collections.
Casa de Trova: Cuba 50’s (2 discs)
Sweetly melodic, gently swaying, typified by tight vocal harmonies and quietly percolating rhythms, trova is a genre of Cuban music that became popular there in the early-to-mid-20th century and doesn’t sound like it has changed at all since. 76-year-old Alejandro Almenares has been on the scene since the music’s formative period and still plays every day. This sumptuously beautiful album includes the same program twice on two CDs: once with (lead) vocals, and once without. I don’t know why anyone would want to listen to this music without the vocals, but hey — you might as well have the choice. Very highly recommended to all world music collections.