PICK OF THE MONTH
Birdland 1953 (reissue; 3 discs)
ESP-Disk (dist. Naxos)
This three-disc set disappoints in the way too many Bud Powell recordings do: by sounding as if every track were recorded using a tin can for a microphone. But it also redeems itself in the usual way (by documenting the playing of one of the 20th century’s most astounding pianists) and also by presenting the great man in the company of such illustrious partners as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Art Taylor, Curly Russell, and Roy Haynes during some of his performances at the legendary Birdland club in 1953. In some ways this makes the poor sound quality all the more frustrating–not being able to hear clearly the details of the interplay between Mingus and Taylor is especially maddening–but the value of these recordings to students of jazz can’t be overstated. And from a pure listening perspective, there are many wonderful moments that shine through the sonic murk, such as a marvelous performance of “Moose the Mooche” with Charlie Parker from Powell’s May 30 set. No jazz collection should be without these recordings, which have been issued before by multiple other labels but benefit in this reissue from the attentions of producer Michael Anderson, who significantly (believe it or not) improved the sound quality.
François Couperin; Jean-Féry Rebel
Les Nations; Les Caractères de la danse
Channel Classics (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
CCS SA 33213
The pieces are familiar, but the performances (and the Super Audio CD sound quality) are so spectacular that this disc should be considered a must-buy for any classical collection. Couperin’s Les Nations and Rebel’s Les Caractères de la danse are monuments of the French baroque period, both of them dance suites comprised of brief movements named for particular dance steps: sarabande, gigue, courante, etc. The Florilegium ensemble plays them with delicate but full-bodied grace and a remarkable rhythmic coherence — at times it sounds as if all the instruments are being played by a single person, so perfectly do they execute the subtle shifts in tempo and rhythm called for by the various dance sections. A brilliant and deeply enjoyable disc.
Mazurka: Researching Chopin
Nils Henrik Asheim
Lawo Classics (dist. Allegro)
Norwegian pianist Nils Henrik Asheim has been engaged in an ongoing — and maybe slightly mystical — search for the essence of Chopin’s piano music, focusing on his mazurkas. As a follow-up to his previous effort along these lines (Mazurka: Remaking Chopin, which found him creating new versions of the pieces) he has taken a new tack, this time interpreting them more strictly but using a period instrument: an 1830s Collard & Collard square piano. As is often the case with performances using period instruments, the unique sound of this one sheds new light on the sound and shape of Chopin’s music, and the recording is both historically interesting and aesthetically delightful. Highly recommended to all classical collections.
Wind in Lonely Fences: 1970-2011 (2 discs)
All Saints (dist. Redeye)
I’m categorizing this collection as “classical,” despite the appearance on several tracks by artists like Cocteau Twins and Andy Partridge (of XTC). Here’s why: although he maintained strong connections with the pop world throughout his career, Harold Budd’s music was generally formally composed and was deeply informed by the minimalist movement of the 1960s. It’s always pleasant (he hated the term “ambient”) but rarely as simple as it might appear on the surface, and this two-disc set provides an excellent overview of his work over the course of four decades. And in reality, it would make an equally fine addition to either your classical or your pop collection.
George Frideric Handel
Peace & Celebration
European Union Baroque Orchestra; Choir of Clare College, Cambridge / Lars Ulrik Mortensen
This program was recorded live at a concert in London to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the coronation of King George I, the first of the Hanoverian monarchs. Its content is no less enjoyable for being predictable: the four coronation anthems (opening, of course, with Zadok the Priest), the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, and one of Handel’s opus 3 concerti grossi. The Obsidian label has quickly become one of the most reliable sources of world-class recordings of Renaissance and baroque music, and this disc upholds its high standard: the singing, playing, and production quality are all top-notch.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Betulia Liberata (2 discs)
L’Orfeo Barockorchester / Michi Gaigg
Challenge Classics (dist. Allegro)
Even if the performance were only so-so, this recording would be worthy of a strong recommendation to libraries because the work is so rarely recorded. Written when Mozart was still in his teens, Betulia Liberata is a sacred oratorio based on the Old Testament story of Judith. As it turns out, the performance is excellent: the soloists (particularly golden-voiced soprano Marelize Gerber) are superb, and the orchestra plays with fleet-fingered brilliance. A must for all classical collections.
Ludwig Van Beethoven
A Beethoven Odyssey, Vol. 2
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
With this disc, the fine young pianist James Brawn continues his survey of Beethoven’s piano sonatas with a program of five works, three of them monumental and two of them minor: the “Pathétique,” the “Moonlight,” and the “Waldstein” sonatas, as well as the two “Leichte” (or “easy”) sonatas, both of which were probably intended as pedagogical studies rather than concert pieces and which Beethoven hesitated to publish. Brawn’s sense of dynamics is especially noteworthy here, as is the colorful sonic ambience of the recording itself.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Complete Solo Flute Sonatas (2 discs)
Musica ad Rhenum
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
Johann Sebastian Bach fathered several great composers, of whom arguably the finest was Carl Philipp Emanuel. What makes C.P.E. Bach’s music such a great choice for library collections is not just its consistently high quality, but the way in which it takes you by the hand and leads you, gently and sweetly, out of the high baroque and into the early classical period. The flute sonatas (played beautifully here by the chamber ensemble Musica ad Rhenum, led by flutist Jed Wentz) do so in a particularly seductive manner. Every comprehensive classical collection should own this set. (For a related recommendation, see the next entry below.)
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Magnificat; Motet “Heilig ist Gott”
RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin / Hans-Christoph Rademann
If you want to get a sense of C.P.E. Bach’s range as a composer, compare the delicate grace of his flute sonatas to the sturdy, Teutonic majesty of his glorious Magnificat setting. It was written in a bid (unsuccessful, it would turn out) to succeed his father as Kantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. The program also includes the motet “Heilig ist Gott,” which C.P.E. considered his greatest sacred choral work, and his innovative D major symphony. The performances and the sound quality could hardly be better, and the fact that this program replicates an actual concert program put on by C.P.E. himself gives the disc an added dimension of historical interest. Very highly recommended.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Palestrina, Vol. 4
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers
Coro (dist. Allegro)
Harry Christophers and the Sixteen are now four volumes into a series of recordings celebrating the work of Palestrina, arguably the greatest composer of polyphonic choral music in the 16th century (and without doubt the greatest one working outside of Flanders). Each volume in the series focuses on a single Mass (in this case, the rarely-recorded Missa O magnum mysterium) and including related motets and other material (in this case selections from his Song of Songs settings, which were interpreted in Renaissance times as love songs to Mary). As always, the Sixteen’s blend is colorful and their intonation and sense of line impeccable. Recommended to all early music collections.
Elevation: The Upper Air
M.O.D. Technologies (dist. Redeye)
Bernie Worell, founding member of Parliament/Funkadelic and a legend in funk and R&B circles, is best known for his electronic keyboard playing — even those who don’t know his name know his sound, which has been a pervasive and inescapable part of pop music for decades. This album is a true departure, though: a meditative solo piano project on which he plays quiet jazz standards (“In a Silent Way,” “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”), original compositions, and versions of tunes like “Redemption Song” and “Samba Pa Ti,” all of them richly evocative and deeply soothing. Worell is a technically accomplished player, but this album isn’t about technical prowess–it’s about creating a mood and defining sonic space, and it does both brilliantly.
Lorenzo Feliciati & Colin Edwin
RareNoise (dist. Darla)
Alternately jazzy, funky, spacey, ambient, and prog-rockish, this project by bassists Lorenzo Feliciati and Colin Edwin will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed the work of Bill Laswell with groups like Material and Praxis or the solo recordings of Japan bassist Mick Karn. Guest musicians include trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, drummer Roberto Gualdi, saxophonist David Jackson, and percussionist Andi Pupato, but the stars of this project are Feliciati and Edwin’s twin basses — a combination that one might expect to sound murky and ill-defined, but which instead serves as both the powerful foundation and an often intricate superstructure to a varied series of compositions that is consistently both intellectually fascinating and viscerally enjoyable. Highly recommended to all library collections.
Q-rious Music (dist. Allegro)
Move along, fusion haters, there’s nothing you’re going to like here. No, wait, that’s not really fair: the latest from guitarist Dominic Miller (a longtime Sting sideman) isn’t really fusion, at least not in the Yellowjackets-and-Spyro-Gyra sense. It’s certainly restrained, lushly produced, and more focused on pop hooks than on harmonic complexity and elaborate soloing–but that doesn’t mean it’s exactly poppy, or that it’s simple. It’s just carefully constructed, beautifully written, and skillfully recorded. And if, at times, it sounds like an instrumental Sting album, then that tells us something about Miller’s contributions to the work of one of the world’s biggest pop artists.
Minky (dist. Allegro)
One of the wonderful things about New Orleans culture is that it’s built on the whole idea of créolité — the promiscuous mixture of disparate peoples and traditions into a what usually ends up being a cultural emulsion rather than a new solution. For an example of how that works, check out this completely delightful album from pianist and composer Tom McDermott, one that takes the music of Gottschalk, Joplin, and a hundred other influences (most of them subsumed into McDermott’s original compositions) and plays it in styles that draw on jazz, R&B, classical, ragtime, tango, samba, salon music, and myriad other ingredients. The results are never pure, and they’re never a blend. They’re always a créole of some kind, and they’re never less than enchanting. I find it interesting and praiseworthy how rarely McDermott’s piano is the center of attention here — the musical focus is usually on the arrangement as a whole, or, briefly, on one of his sidepersons. That’s a mark of both musical maturity and taste, but more importantly it makes the whole listening experience that much more satisfying. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Makiko Hirabayashi Trio
Enja/Yellowbird (dist. Allegro)
I normally like my piano trio albums pretty straight-ahead, preferably boppish. But despite the immpressionistic and discursive nature of pianist Makiko Hirabayashi’s style, and despite drummer Marilyn Mazur’s frequent instrumental wanderings into the realm of chimes and other idiophonic exotica, I found myself quickly captivated by this disc. Sometimes funky, sometimes abstract, sometimes swinging, Hirabayashi’s trio boasts an uncommon blend of tightness and flexibility and communicates an undercurrent of joy even when at their most improvisational and abstract (and be warned: several of these tracks do sound like free improvisations).
Mike Marshall & the Turtle Island Quartet
Mike Marshall & the Turtle Island Quartet
Adventure Music America
I guess I’ll stick this one under Jazz, even though it could just as easily go under Classical or World/Ethnic. The Turtle Island Quartet is a conventionally-configured string quartet; and on this album they are joined by mandolinist/mandocellist Mike Marshall for a delightfully motley program of pieces that veer from jazz-classical fusion (violinist David Balakrishnan’s four-movement piece Interplay) to a medley of Brazilian choro tunes and a selection of Marshall originals. The program ends with a rocking version of the Delta blues classic “Crossroads” (made popular by Cream about 45 years ago). Recommended.
This Is Lone Justice: The Vaught Tapes, 1983
Fronted by Maria McKee, a tiny little blonde woman with a voice that sounded like a cross between Aretha Franklin and Dolly Parton, Lone Justice tore up the alt-retro-punk-country scene in 1980s California, occupying a less punky and more explicitly country stratum of the scene than the one dominated by bands like X and the Blasters. Their studio albums were great, but these raw, live-in-the-studio recordings from 1983 (most of them never previously released) capture the band at their absolute best: they’re tight and the recorded sound is excellent, but there’s a ragged edge to the sound and a spontaneous passion that is completely infectious. And McKee’s voice is like a howitzer. An essential purchase for all pop and country collections.
The Henry Girls
No cat. no.
This is about as perfect a collection of acoustic folk-pop as you could ask for — three-part sister harmonies, original songs, left-of-center covers (notably Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives”) and hooks, hooks, hooks galore. Imagine a less aggressively quirky Roches, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect here. The girls are Irish, but you won’t notice much Celtic influence on this album; instead, you’ll just hear brilliant pop music in a lively but gentle style. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Adventure Music America
Harking back to the glory days of early-1980s New Acoustic Music (a genre that Anger helped define in the company of people like David Grisman, Tony Rice, and Mike Marshall), this disc finds the fiddler in the company of hotshot youngsters whose collective instrumentation (mandolin, guitar, banjo, bass) spells “bluegrass” but whose music often sounds much more like jazz — even when playing traditional tunes like “Farewell to Trion” and “Grey Owl.” Anyone who misses the good old days of the David Grisman Quintet and the Tony Rice Unit will love this disc.
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West
I’ll Swing My Hammer with Both Hands
No cat. no.
Drawing on old-time, bluegrass, and protest folk traditions in more or less equal measure, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West have made an album that is remarkable for both its understated virtuosity (tight harmonies, sharp playing) and its carefully-crafted songs. Even the originals sound ancient, but the structures and the instrumentation are sometimes subtly innovative. Producer Tim O’Brien gives the duo a clean and dry sound that nicely reveals every note they sing and play. Recommended.
Best known as the former frontman for Crowded House, Neil Finn has now produced three solo studio albums, each of them a bit more abstract and experimental than the pure pop brilliance that characterized most of his old band’s work. The flavor of Dizzy Heights is nicely reflected in the album cover artwork: swimmers in a cloud bank, some of them already swimming and some poised to jump. His lyrical concerns are deep and universal, and the sound is dense but often ethereal, the hooks present but sometimes lurking just below the surface. Like so much of his work over the past ten or fifteen years, this album richly rewards repeated listens. Recommended to all pop collections.
Heinz (dist. Allegro)
Pink Martini continues to dance, gracefully and gleefully, on the fuzzy line that separates retro-chic from outright kitsch. Here the band delivers another charming set of lounge-style, multicultural orchestral pop music: throbbing strings, wah-wah trumpets, multilayered Latin percussion, and songs in French, Japanese, German, and (I’m pretty sure) Turkish all burble by in blissful easy-listening style. Expect demand.
Ninja Tune (dist. Redeye)
It’s been so long since I’ve heard a truly interesting drum & bass record that I’d almost forgotten what one sounded like. Tremendous thanks to up-and-coming producer Lee Bannon for reminding me just how much fun jungle can be. His debut album is a crazy quilt of beats, samples, and textures, but it never feels chaotic or unnecessarily dense — there is space in the mix, there are hooks in the basslines (provided by Mars Volta’s Juan Alderete), and there are beats that will have you out of your chair in a flash. A brilliant first effort from a bright new star in the dance music firmament.
You may or may not share my taste for dark, grumbly, stagger-step dance music with plenty of glitch and dubby atmospherics. But if you do, then run, don’t walk, to the nearest place that sells the third LP from Barcelona duo Downliners Sekt. Creepily disjunct vocal snippets, waves of white noise, burbling basslines, tiny little space-defining blips and bloops — it’s everything any fan of weirdo electronic music could ask for. If you really wanted to, you could dance to it (well, some of it anyway). But I recommend it as a soundtrack for sitting alone in the house reading speculative fiction when the weather outside is crap.
If you think blues guitarists all sound essentially the same, think again. Skip McDonald (one of the architects of early hip hop and a founding member of Tackhead) operates from a home base in Delta blues but delivers his music through kaleidoscopic filters of techno, hip hop, reggae, avant-dub, gospel, and even ethnomusicological field recordings. Recording as Little Axe, he has made a series of brilliant albums for labels like On-U Sound, Real World, Fat Possum, and Okeh/Epic, and this compilation pulls together a bunch of his best work along with some new material and remixes. (The download version includes an entire album’s worth of bonus material.) This collection provides an excellent introduction to this always-intriguing artist.
Kill the Power
Skindred’s bracing blend of heavy metal, speedcore, and Rastafarian declamation regularly gets them compared with Bad Brains, but in sonic terms they could hardly be more different. Bad Brains’ roots were in hardcore punk; Skindred’s are in metal and in South London dance music, and those roots have never been more exposed than on their latest album. Not much in the way of jungle breakbeats here (except on the excellent “Ghetto Long Time”) and even fewer explicit reggae inflections beyond the occasional bubble of Jamaican patois. Instead, the focus is on head-crushing guitars, monolithic beats, and singer Benji Webbe’s Sybil-like vocal presence. Excellent, as always.
Mutazione: Italian Electronic & New Wave Underground 1980-1988
Strut (dist. Redeye)
Let’s acknowledge one thing right up front here: this music is no fun. Life in early-80s Italy was pretty grim (the country had just emerged, dazed and bleeding, from a decade of murderous political turmoil), and the underground music of the period reflected that mood. On this collection you’ll encounter stark, nearly atonal electro-funk; grinding pre-industrial rock; anomic vocals (often singing in English); and song titles like “Always Unique (Kill Myself 2)” and “Nervous Breakdown.” Like I say, no fun — but definitely of interest to libraries collecting deeply in pop music, especially those with an international focus.
No cat. no.
Born to Indian parents but raised in Texas, violinist Nistha Raj draws equally on Western and Eastern influences in her very personal take on the raga tradition. Most interesting are her collaborations with beatboxer (mouth percussionist) Christyles Bacon, which create a sound that blends Indian classical elements with hip hop beats. Her playing style minimizes the virtuosic melismas and microtonal embellishments that are so integral to traditional raga interpretation, which is kind of too bad, but this album is plenty of fun nevertheless.
Alsarah & the Nubatones
Wonderwheel (dist. Redeye)
Sudanese singer Alsarah (originally from Khartoum but currently based in Brooklyn) is being praised in some quarters as the “new star of Nubian pop,” and this album offers ample support for that assessment. Alsarah herself characterizes her music as “East African retro-pop,” which gives you a better idea of what to expect: a mostly acoustic, percussion-driven, and oud-heavy sound with lots of multitracked harmonies, complex and slippery time signatures, and beguiling melodies. Her voice is simply beautiful. Recommended to all world music collections.
No cat. no.
At 31 minutes in length, this album is overpriced. And the less said about Corbett’s workmanlike voice and semi-mystical lyrics, the better. But here’s what makes this album a winner: Corbett’s guitar playing incorporates aspects of Indian music that go deeper than mere ornamentation and raga-based scale, and the tabla, bansuri, and violin players who accompany him are brilliant. Despite its brevity and occasional preciosity, this is one of the most enjoyable albums I’ve heard so far this year.
Rise Up!: The Riz Records Story
Anyone who thinks that roots reggae had died by the end of the 1980s needs to hear this album, another in a growing catalog of essential reissues and compilations from the Reggae Archive label. Riz Records was a British label that attracted such top-flight talent as Earl 16, Willie Williams, Johnny Osbourne, and Admiral Tibet (all featured on this collection) and created a sound that was undeniable modern but deeply rooted in the old-school verities of classic reggae. A number of the tracks on this compilation are presented in “showcase” or “disco mix” style, with dub mixes appended to the vocal versions. A reggae essential.