PICK OF THE MONTH
Anner Bylsma Plays Boccherini (reissue; 5 discs)
Anner Bylsma; various ensembles and accompanists
Sony Classical (dist. Naxos)
Bringing together recordings originally made between 1977 and 1993 for the RCA/Seon, Pro Arte, and Sony/Vivarte labels, this wonderful boxed set showcases one of the first and still greatest exponents of the baroque cello, playing masterpieces of the classical period for that instrument: Boccherini’s cello concerti, symphonies, sonatas, fugues, and quintets. On the larger-scale works Bylsma is accompanied by Tafelmusik under violinist Jeann Lamon; on the chamber pieces his collaborators include various combinations of Sigiswald and Wieland Kuijken, Bob van Asperen, Hopkinson Smith, Lucy van Dael, and others. To listen to these performances is to be struck again both by the virtuosity required to perform these pieces and by the degree to which that virtuosity is subjugated to the realization of pure pleasure — there is not a single note here that doesn’t sound like it was fun to play, and of course the credit for that goes at least as much to Bylsma as to Boccherini. (Libraries, take note: while the individual discs in this box all contain previously-released material, it appears that the box itself was originally released in 2010, making this something of a re-re-issue. So proceed with caution; this release is a must-have, but you may already have it in one form or another.)
Jonas Kaufmann; Helmut Deutsch
Sony Classical (dist. Naxos)
Let’s face it: it takes an exceptional singer to convince you to listen to yet another rendition of Schubert’s legendary song cycle Die Winterreise. It’s pretty much the Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony of lieder. But Jonas Kaufmann is that kind of singer, a tenor with a rich and incredibly powerful bottom end to his tone and an enviable feel for this repertoire (despite the fact that he has made his career primarily as an opera singer). Pianist Helmut Deutsch is the perfect accompanist, and the recorded sound is dryish but warm and nicely detailed.
Johann Martin Friedrich Nisle
Octet; Septet; Quintet
CPO (dist. Naxos)
The music of this obscure and tragic figure — after a long and peripatetic career he was robbed and murdered at age 93 — is an unexpected delight. The three chamber works, all for combinations of winds and strings, were probably written between 1806 and 1809, and are absolutely wonderful examples of late-classical grace and wit (the Octet and the Quintet are presented here in world-premiere recordings). With this recording, the Consortium Classicum continues to cement its reputation as one of the world’s finest chamber ensembles specializing in modern-instrument performances of music from this period. A must-have for all classical collections.
My Favorite Dowland
Although influential as a scholar, conductor, and music administrator, Paul O’Dette is best known as one of the world’s foremost lutenists and interpreters of the music of John Dowland. His latest recording consists of a “personal selection of favorite pieces” from the Dowland repertoire — all of them newly recorded (this is not a compilation from his earlier releases). Some of these tunes, of course, are familiar: “Semper Dowland semper dolens,” “Fantasie (P 1a),” etc. But even these are given a fresh attractiveness by O’Dette’s unusually sensitive renderings. A must for all early music collections.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
The Collection (13 discs)
Warner Classics (dist. Naxos)
Last month I gave Brilliant Classics’ monumental 30-disc C.P.E. Bach collection a “Rick’s Pick” designation, and this month I’m following it up with a very strong recommendation of this smaller and somewhat differently-focused collection from Warner Classics. Drawing chiefly on the rich Telefunken/Teldec vaults (but also offering one disc’s worth of keyboard Rondos that have never before been released), this collection consists entirely of period-instrument performances by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and Melante Amsterdam, and soloists including Bob van Asperen, Alan Curtis, Anner Bylsma, and Konrad Hünteler. This set focuses significantly on keyboard works (five discs) and concertos (six discs) and touches only lightly on other orchestral music and vocal music (one disc each). There is no ensemble chamber music except for a makeweight oboe sonata on disc 2. So those libraries that want a more comprehensive collection of C.P.E. Bach’s music in a mix of modern- and period-instrument performances should opt for the Brilliant Classics box; those that prefer a cheaper and more selective overview of his oeuvre and prefer period instruments should be very happy with this one.
Alcione: Suites des Aires à joüer (SACD reissue)
Le Concert des Nations / Jordi Savall
Alia Vox Heritage (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Recorded and originally issued in 1993 (and reissued once before, on the Astrée label in 2000), this marvelous recording of four instrumental suites from Marin Marais’ opera Alcione is now given a second reissue in Super Audio CD format at full price. The performance and recording are as wonderful as ever, and the music will come as a revelation to anyone who thinks of Marais only as a composer for viols. Those libraries with a collecting interest in the baroque that did not acquire this recording in one of its earlier manifestations should take advantage — though whether the SACD format justifies the full-line pricing in any particular library’s case will be an open question. Those with the equipment needed to take full advantage of the enhanced sound probably shouldn’t hesitate.
George Frideric Handel
The Eight Great Suites (2 discs)
Hyperion (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
If you love the sound of baroque keyboard music on a modern piano (and come on, admit it: you’d rather hear it on a piano than on a harpsichord, at least if you’re going to listen to two 70-minute discs in a sitting), then this is for you. Danny Driver is a relatively young pianist whose recorded repertoire generally tends toward the Romantic era and the 20th century, but here he shows himself to be a remarkably fine interpreter of Handel’s keyboard music. In addition to the eight titular suites, the package also includes suites in C minor (HWV 444) and E minor (HWV 438) and a Chaconne in G major (HWV 435) as makeweights. Very, very nice.
New Music Raleigh; Hexnut; various soloists
Centaur (dist. Naxos)
Is it a contradiction in terms to characterize music as “gently challenging”? Because that’s the phrase that keeps coming to mind as I listen to this collection of chamber music by guitarist and composer D. J. Sparr. Drawing on both acoustic instruments and, in several cases, electronic tracks and effects, his music is never confrontational (never, in fact, less than conventionally enjoyable) but also never entirely straightforward: the harmonies are generally consonant but the harmonic progressions (such as they are) are not really tonal; the timbres are bright and often airy, but the mood is sometimes unsettled and slightly tense. In short, this is music you can relax to, but only if you don’t listen closely. It’s all quite wonderful.
La oreja de Zurbarán
Huelgas Ensemble / Paul van Nevel
Cypres (dist. Allegro)
The Spanish Catholicism of the 16th century was unusually concerned with mystical experience, with the creation and maintenance of a deeply personal and ineffable connection with the Divine. During this period, the painter Zurburán created many images reflecting this concern, and while that may seem to provide a rather slender reed on which to hang a musical program (it’s not like Zurburán would have been listening to these works on his iPod while painting) any excuse for putting together a program like this one is good enough as far as I’m concerned. Most of the composers represented here are obscure, and their styles vary from a restrained stile antico to a passionate and yearning, almost Gesualdo-esque, fervor. As always, the singing of the Huelgas Ensemble is outstanding. Highly recommended.
Frémeaux & Associés (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
This energetic young French quartet is participating in what is turning out to be a small but exciting new musical fashion: using an instrumental configuration based explicitly on that of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli’s Quintette du Hot Club de France (multiple guitars, violin, bass), they’re taking 1930s-style Gypsy jazz and twisting it to their own ends — not refuting the tradition, by any means, but firmly if gently expanding it. Here the expansion is less a matter of style than of repertoire, which is taken largely from the margins of the standards book: Thelonious Monk’s “Played Twice,” Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus,” Leonard Bernstein’s “Jet Song,” etc. A small horn section lends an added frisson of innovation to this band’s sound on several tracks. Highly recommended to all jazz collections.
Summit (dist. Allegro)
On this album, flutist Gerald Beckett delivers a nicely varied set of standard, modern, and original tunes in quintet and sextet arrangements that are so tight and carefully crafted that at times they threaten to sound a bit too smooth — but Beckett’s powerful sense of swing saves them, especially during the ensemble passages. I occasionally wish that the phrasing during his solos was a bit less choppy, but his tone occupies a perfect space between jazzy breathiness and classical density, and he flies nicely on “Tempus Fugit.” His bass flute playing on the Duke Pearson tune “Idle Moments” is especially cool. Recommended.
Low Life: The Alto Flute Project
Here’s a jazz flute album to which I find myself returning over and over again. On this one, Holly Hofmann focuses on the alto flute (a longer and lower-pitched instrument than the C flute you typically see in an orchestra) and sets out to make an album that works as both a substantial jazz statement and a vehicle of pure sonic pleasure. She succeeds admirably on both counts, delivering a program of ballads and midtempo tunes (one of them original) that constantly pleases but also demonstrates her absolute mastery of a very difficult art: that of making full expressive use of an instrument whose ranges of tone, timbre, and pitch are unusually constrained. This album could be used as a master class in both technique and musicianship and is very strongly recommended to all jazz collections.
Marc Ribot Trio
Live at the Village Vanguard
Pi (dist. Nail/Allegro)
Guitarist Marc Ribot will be familiar to fans of the downtown New York scene (and of such disparate artists as Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and David Sylvian, to whose projects he has contributed his uniquely crotchety, clunky, and brilliant guitar style), but most have probably never heard him in a standard jazz trio format like this. Not that there’s anything “standard” about the sounds he makes here, alongside bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Chad Taylor. They take two John Coltrane tunes, two Albert Ayler tunes, and two of the hoariest chestnuts in the jazz repertoire (“Old Man River” and “I’m Confessin’ [That I Love You]”) on excursions that no one except maybe Ayler might have anticipated. Alternately skronky and reflective, this set is really quite amazing.
Viper Mad Trio
Buddy Bolden’s Blues
Sound of New Orleans
If you think a trio consisting of guitar/vocal, trumpet, and bass sounds like a recipe for dry, anemic, or boring jazz — and I confess that my own expectations would run in that direction — think again. Drawing on traditional and hot jazz, jump blues, and classic American Songbook material and delivering the songs in a variant on that classically chirpy, Betty-Boop vocal style, guitarist/singer Molly Reeves and her crew make music that is simultaneously gentle and powerfully swinging. Imagine the Squirrel Nut Zippers in a parlor configuration, with more soul and zero postpunk-hipster zaniness. Very cool.
Jamie Saft/Steve Swallow/Bobby Previte
The New Standard
What’s unusual about this album is that it’s a really quite straightforward jazz trio release from a label that is normally much more given to sonic experimentation and whose mission is to “present a platform to musicians and listeners alike who think beyond musical boundaries of genre.” This album fits about as snugly into the straight-ahead jazz genre as an Oscar Peterson album — not that there’s anything at all wrong with that. In fact, it’s a very fine album: joined by the spectacular rhythm section of bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bobby Previte, pianist/organist Jamie Saft delivers a ten-tune, all-original program (three of the tracks are credited to all three musicians) that consists mainly of very lovely and conventional piano jazz. When he switches to organ on “Clearing” and “Blue Shuffle,” the mood gets more soulful — another couple of tracks in this mode would have been nice. But all of it is excellent.
The Original Mob
Smoke Sessions (dist. Allegro)
This is a reunion album, one that brings together legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb (you may recognize his name from the credits on Miles Davis’ Almost Blue, as well as from dozens of other classic albums led by the likes of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Wynton Kelly) with three of his former students, all of whom are now established masters: guitarist Peter Bernstein, pianist Brad Mehldau, and bassist John Webber. They first began playing together as Cobb’s Mob, and are reunited here for this brilliant set of originals and standards. Their tightness is extraordinary (listen to the subtly complex intro to Mehldau’s “Unrequited”) as is the warmth of their interplay, and their approach to these tunes is simultaneously straight-ahead and refreshingly modern-sounding. This is one of the two or three best new jazz albums I’ve heard this year.
Sing Out America!: The Best of Pete Seeger (2 discs)
Dynamic (dist. MVD)
The death of Pete Seeger earlier this year left a yawning and painful hole in the American folk music firmament. (Anyone interested can see my conflicted but loving tribute to the man here.) While compilations and best-ofs exist in profusion, this 50-track retrospective may offer the most comprehensive overview of his legacy, with tracks from his work with the Almanac Singers and the Weavers as well as a wealth of the solo material that represents the bulk of his recordings. The quality of the source recordings varies, and most of his more controversial political material is excluded (there are a couple of union songs, but none of the Almanac Singers’ songs criticizing America’s involvement in WWII), but all of the favorites are here and a good number of obscurities as well. Recommend to all collections that need an affordable overview of the work of this beloved and important artist.
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
The Lost Transcriptions for Tiffany Music, 1946-1947 (2 discs)
Real Gone Music
Fans and collectors of western swing music will remember with great fondness the rediscovery, back in the 1980s, of hundreds of Bob Wills recordings originally made in the 1940s for radio broadcast. These were reissed on a series of LPs on the Kaleidoscope label, then reissued on ten CDs in the 1990s. Now comes another set containing 50 more songs from that same two-year batch of recordings, none of them previously issued. The sound quality is amazing, and the music is as great as you’d expect. Best of all, little to no space is taken up by overworked chestnuts: no “San Antonio Rose,” no “Oklahoma Hills.” No country music collection and no comprehensive popular music collection should be without these marvelous historic recordings.
Annie Ford Band
Annie Ford Band
No cat. no.
This one grew on me. Equal parts alt-Americana and acoustic honky tonk country leavened with occasional incursions into electric country blues (in one case with a horn section!), this debut album from Seattle mainstay fiddler Annie Ford is a charmingly rough-edged winner. Ford’s voice is fully capable both of despairing country laments and full-throated rockers, but it’s at its best on the slow numbers, especially those that feature Olie Eshleman’s haunted-motel steel guitar. Recommended to all country collections.
The Barley Mow (CD & DVD)
As part of the Topic label’s Voice of the People series, this album brings together field recordings made in the 1950s by Peter Kennedy in Suffolk, England. In this case, “field” means “pub,” which was then and still probably is the best place to hear and learn traditional songs and tunes in the British Isles. The sound quality is surprisingly good, the singing is amateur but skillful, and the DVD that accompanies the CD is priceless: it presents about a half hour of roughly-edited footage of singing and step dancing inside a tiny Suffolk pub, and the thick booklet accompanying the whole package includes not only full lyrics, but also transcriptions of the interstitial comments by participants. An essential addition to any ethnomusicology collection and to comprehensive folk music collections.
Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison
Here’s another great album from the husband-and-wife team of Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison. She is perhaps the better-known public name (having started making hit country records in 1999), while his fame is more concentrated in the professional songwriter community. Together they make tough, straightforward Texas-flavored country music that features solid hooks galore and sweet vocal harmonies. Highlights on this album include dynamite covers of “(Just Enough to Keep Me) Hangin’ On” and “Harper Valley PTA” as well as originals like the waltz-time weeper “Carousel” and the honky-tonking “Lonely for You.” Very nice indeed.
Saved Once Twice
Back in the early days of hip hop and electronica, many in the rock music establishment were quick to dismiss the use of samples (brief snippets of existing recordings that were used as the basis for new grooves and songs) as evidence of a lack of originality, or as simple thievery. And while it’s true that sample-based music can be stultifyingly derivative, it’s equally true that in the hands of a unique talent it can be bracingly original. For proof of that proposition, look no further than the debut album from Sean Piñeiro — a formally-trained composer and sharp-eared musical gatherer who layers and shapes sounds taken from all over the sonic environment and turns them into grooves that are by turns dense, light, dark, funky, and microscopically detailed. Listen as hard as you want — the music just gets more interesting the more closely you examine it. Here’s hoping for more very soon from this major new arrival on the electronic music scene.
School of Language
Memphis Industries (dist. Redeye)
David Lewis (of Field Music) has been recording on his own, sporadically, since 2008 as School of Language. His style is simultaneously familiar and weird: there’s a dry, uptight feel to his arrangements, and elements of guitar pop and electro are always kind of jostling for position. The hooks are subtle, and sometimes only barely there, but at the same time I find that I never get bored. Maybe it’s partly because of his unique way with a sample or a guitar part, maybe partly because I find his voice both weird and captivating. Maybe you will too. (Simultaneously with the release of this new album, his 2008 solo debut, titled Sea from Shore, was reissued on the Thrill Jockey label.)
Blondie 4(0)-Ever: Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux/Ghosts of Download (2 discs)
Here’s one of the stranger (and more awkwardly-titled) packages I’ve seen in a while. It consists of two separate albums, packaged separately but sleeved together. The first is yet another Blondie greatest-hits album, but with a difference this time: classic songs like “Tide Is High,” “Heart of Glass,” and “Call Me” have been fully re-recorded (shades of Gang of Four’s Return the Gift). It’s perfectly fine, but doesn’t shed any new light on this familiar material (also shades of Gang of Four’s Return the Gift). The second disc is a genuinely new album of genuinely new songs, and it’s terrific: sassy, smart, sexy, and filled with cameo appearances by the likes of Systema Solar and Los Rakas. Since the whole schmear lists at single-disc price, it ends up being a great deal. It’s wonderful to hear Debbie Harry and her crew continuing to produce top-notch late-1970s power pop.
Apollo (dist. Redeye)
The interior album art shows Peter Heider and Florian Seyberth (who, together, record as Boozoo Bajou) paddling a rowboat across a winter lake bounded by sheer, snowy clffs. The photos are in black and white, and they convey an image of stillness and frigid beauty. They also offer a good preview of what to expect musically on this, the duo’s fourth album. Where previously they have blended elements of Cajun, hip hop, jazz, reggae, and electronic music into their projects; here they dive deep into Lake Ambient. The music isn’t exactly electronic — much of the source material is analog, some of it acoustic — but their treatments of those sources are lushly atmospheric, dubby, and ethereal. Sometimes there are beats, but barely. I’d call this one the best chillout albums I’ve heard in years.
I’m a sucker for a good dream-pop album, and this one — actually a five-track EP rather than a full-length album — offers plenty of what we dream-pop lovers love: gauzy atmospherics, delicate female vocals, shimmering guitars, and hooks that are based as much in texture as in melody. Traditionally the lyrics should be borderline unintelligible, and DWNTWN do not disappoint in that regard — or in any other. Very, very nice.
Motion: Connected Works (2 discs)
Thrill Jockey (dist. Redeye)
Using a variety of analog, digital, and acoustic sound sources, Koen Holtkamp creates electronic music that draws heavily on the traditions of ambient techno, Frippertronics, and classical minimalism: pulsing, repetitive structures move in and out of phase and sometimes create a static bed out of which a single instrumental voice will emerge to make some kind of statement before being reabsorbed into the collective. At other times the basis for the tune is little more than a drone. The keyboards generally have a cheap, Casiotone quality to them, which can be charming but over the course of two discs gets maybe just a bit tiresome. The material on this retrospective set is drawn from four previously-released albums; none of it is new or exclusive. As an overview of Holtkamp’s generally interesting work, this is a very worthwhile set.
Leave a Light On
Long the pride of Reno, NV’s punk rock scene, Kevin Seconds and his band 7Seconds are back after a nine-year hiatus with another blast of hardcore and pop punk niceness. Middle-aged men tend to have a different take on the traditional lyrical themes of old-school punk (notice the album title), but nothing has changed about 7Seconds’ tight, hard-charging sound. And there are even some standard-issue scene anthems, like “Slogan on a Shirt” and “Stand by Yourself.” (And no, “Someday, Some Way” is not a Marshall Crenshaw cover.) Highly recommended to any library serving a population of aging punk rockers or their curious kids.
BBE (dist. Redeye)
Most hip hop DJs harbor a fascination with dancehall reggae — some of them keep it hidden, others don’t. Anglo-Russian DJ Vadim has never made a secret of his (having toured in support of artists like Fast Freddy’s Drop, Anthony B, Capelton, and Macka B) but this is his first full-on reggae album, and it’s a gem. The flavors vary from roots to dancehall to bashment, and featured vocalists include Demolition Man, Gappy Ranks, Jamalski, Katrina Blackstone and many others. The grooves are dark and heavyweight but infectiously joyful at the same time. This one is an unalloyed triumph and an essential purchase for all pop music collections.
Grassroots: United Over Ukraine (2 discs)
No cat. no.
Although the music itself has no obvious connection to Ukrainian traditions — it consists mainly of fairly minimalist techno, dub, and ambient electronica — this two-disc set may well be of interest to area studies collections. The album is conceived as a fundraiser to support victims of the violence in Ukraine; the first disc consists of work by Ukrainian producers and musicians, and the second contains music by non-Ukrainians who have worked or performed in that country. While there is nothing explicitly political about the music here, there is a dark sense of urgency and tension to much of it, and all of it is well worth hearing. (For those interested, the label is also conducting a Kickstarter campaign to fund a vinyl release.)
Rolê: New Sounds of Brazil (2 discs)
Mais Um Discos (dist. Forced Exposure)
Brazil is a huge and breathtakingly diverse country, so it should come as no surprise that it takes two densely-packed discs to provide anything like a comprehensive overview of its current music scene. And if there’s one thing you take away from this 43-track collection, it’s the distinct impression that you’ve barely scratched the surface. The album’s content is drawn from all over the country, and you’ll hear everything from guitar-based indie-rock and “bossa punk” to weird mutations of regional genres like brega, axé, and frevo, and from quiet acoustic ballads to straight-up club bangers. Any library with a collecting interest in South American music should jump at the chance to pick up this very valuable (and fun) survey.
No cat. no.
The press materials describe Karikatura as making music “where cumbia meets hip-hop, reggae meets klezmer and indie-rock meets Afrobeat.” Yup, that about sums it up: rippling and multilayered Latin rhythms suddenly give way to strutting ska, the line between singing and rapping gets blurred, horn lines are sometimes brassily Mariachi-esque and sometimes snakily sweet-and-sour in that uniquely klezmer way. Karikatura offers further evidence in support of the proposition that stylistic purity is way, way overrated.
Lusafrica (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
I’m not sure why this brilliant Congolese group continues to be hailed as “the new masters of African ambient” — their sound is densely complex, multilayered, bouncy, exuberant, and utterly danceable. In short, it’s almost as far from “ambient” as it’s possible to get. So don’t cue this one up expecting to relax: expect, instead, to thrill to the sweetly tuneful vocals, the rippling rhythms, and the coruscating guitars — just as you did last time. Strongly recommended to all library collections.