PICK OF THE MONTH
Comet, Come to Me
Naïve (dist. Naxos)
Ever since she burst onto the pop music scene in the early 1990s, Meshell Ndegeocello has confounded expectations. This has been true on the relatively shallow level of personal image (androgynous, sometimes almost alien) and musical style (by turns funky, punky, poppy, jazzy, and uncategorizable), but also on a much deeper musical level: that of song structure and philosophy. Her latest album can be enjoyed on a purely visceral and aesthetic level, but pay closer attention to what’s happening here and its pleasures become more complex: notice how many of these songs–without ever sacrificing accessibility–do away almost entirely with the traditional architecture of pop songwriting, and build sweetly attractive melodies that defy you to sing along with them. “Tom” is soulful and conventionally tuneful, but at the same time willfully abstract (despite the reassuring Memphis-soul guitar licks provided throughout by Chris Bruce); “Forget My Name” sounds like a fusion of dub reggae, Ghanaian high life, and 1970s jazz fusion; “Comet, Come to Me” is one of the most affecting and yet befuddling pop ballads I’ve ever heard. This is one of those very rare albums that reveals more subtleties with every listen, and I strongly recommend it to all library collections.
24 Capricci (2 discs)
Avie (dist. Allegro)
Paganini’s Caprices for the violin remain a towering monument in that instrument’s repertoire, thrilling both for their forbidding difficulty and their sheer beauty. For this album, flutist Marina Piccinini has arranged all 24 pieces for flute, and here she fully justifies Gramophone‘s characterization of her as “the Heifetz of the flute”: her playing is virtuosic, of course, but also insightful and intelligent, exposing all the emotional and structural facets of these strange and wonderful miniatures. Very highly recommended to all classical collections.
El Maestro Farinelli
Bejun Mehta; Concerto Köln /Pablo Heras-Casado
This album’s title (which refers to the legendary castrato singer Farinelli) might lead you to expect a program of bravura countertenor arias. In fact, what we have here is an album comprised mostly of orchestral overtures and symphonias (a surprising number of them in world-premiere recordings) by such composers as José de Nebra, Nicola Porpora, C.P.E. Bach, and Johann Adolf Hasse. Most of these pieces are extracted from stage works associated with Farinelli, and all are beautifully played by Concerto Köln. Mehta sings on only two tracks, one of them (the aria “Tempestad grande” from the Nebra zarzuela “Vendado es amor, no es ciego”) a world-premiere recording; both performances are breathtakingly lovely.
Amorosi pensieri: Songs for the Habsburg Court
Hyperion (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
The Franco-Flemish composers Philippe de Monte, Jacobus Vaet, and Jacob Regnart are far better known (by those who know them at all) for their polyphonic sacred choral music than for their secular chansons, so this album offers a very valuable window on another important aspect of their work. For this recording, the six-voice male Cinquecento ensemble has selected a handful of chansons from each of these composers (along with their more obscure contemporary Jean Guyot); most are in French or Italian, but several of the Regnart songs are in German. The stylistic contrasts between these composers are fascinating, and the singing is as excellent as we’ve come to expect from this group.
Johannes Brahms; Miklós Rózsa
Jean Johnson; Steven Osborne
Avie (dist. Allegro)
For me, the challenge with Brahms is always to find a performer who captures all of his tenderness and longing without lapsing into sappiness and bombast. Clarinetist Jean Johnson (and her superb accompanist Steven Osborne) strike that balance perfectly on this spectacular recording, which features both of Brahms’ clarinet sonatas as well as a sonatina and a sonata, both for unaccompanied clarinet, by the great 20th-century film composer Miklós Rósza. The pairing may seem strange on paper, but it works: Rósza’s style is modernist but folk-influenced (much as Brahms’ was Romantic and folk-influenced), and Johnson nicely brings out the commonalities. Gorgeous album overall.
George Frideric Handel
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra / Nicholas McGegan
Philharmonia Baroque Productions (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
On a purely musical level, this release sheds welcome light on one of Handel’s more neglected operas. Few ensembles are better equipped to do that than Nicholas McGegan’s Philharmonia Orchestra, and the soloists here (notably soprano Dominique Labelle) are excellent, the live performance beautifully produced. But it’s also a notable release because it’s the seventh disc to emerge from this orchestra’s own label, Philharmonia Baroque Productions, and thus a noteworthy example of an emerging trend in classical music. That makes this album potentially interesting to a wide variety of libraries for multiple reasons.
Complete String Quartets (2 discs)
Del Sol Quartet
New World (dist. Albany)
Robert Erickson (1917-1997) was born and raised in northern Michigan, and eventually helped to found both the music department at UC San Diego and the San Francisco Tape Music Center. The four pieces for string quartet collected on this two-disc set date from the 1950s (quartets nos. 1 and 2 on disc 1) and the mid-1980s (Solstice and Corfu, on disc 2). By 1950 Erickson had thoroughly explored serialism and abandoned it in favor of (in the case of the first quartet) a spikily modern expression of traditional structures and patterns, and (in the second) a more open and expressive style. The two named pieces from the 1980s, both of them single-movement works, are very different, much more impressionistic and less academic-sounding. All of the performances are first-rate and this disc can be confidently recommended to all classical collections.
Lindoro (dist. Allegro)
Here is a fine sampling of the chamber music of one of Spain’s most prolific but obscure composers, a man who exerted significant regional influence in his time but died with most of his music unpublished. The four string quartets presented here represent some of Brunetti’s earliest and latest work; about 20 years separate opus 2 from opus 8. All of them are lovely, in the high classical style, and the period-instrument ensemble Carmen Veneris plays them with admirable grace (though there are a few moments of slightly suspect intonation). Recommended to comprehensive classical collections.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Five Divertimenti–K. 439b–for Two Guitars
Andrew Zohn & Robert Sharpe
Clear Note (dist. Naxos)
The title of this album is slightly misleading, as these 25 brief pieces (traditionally, though not uncontroversially divided into five sets of five) were not actually written for guitars. The evidence suggests (though there’s some controversy here as well) that they were originally written for basset horn and bassoon. A few of them have been arranged for guitars in the past, but this is a world-premiere recording of a completely new set of arrangements written by Andrew Zohn and performed here with his musical partner Robert Sharpe. I can’t say enough about the sweetness and clarity of their tone or the warm, golden sound of the recording–it goes without saying that the music is heartbreakingly lovely. Highly recommended to all classical collections.
On the Shoulders of Giants: Tracing the Roots of Counterpoint
Arcana (dist. Naxos)
Although the program is performed by a string quartet, most of the music on this highly unusual disc dates from the Renaissance period–hence the title. Billed as “a journey into the philosphy of counterpoint,” it opens with string-quartet settings of works by Palestrina, Frescobaldi, and Lassus before moving into the baroque era with works by Castello, Rosenmüller, Corelli, and Bach; then it closes with an adagio and fugue and an actual string quartet by Mozart. All of these pieces illustrate the ways that contrapuntal technique evolved throughout Europe across several centuries. Academically fascinating and aurally ravishing.
Raumklang (dist. Naxos)
The source material may be classical (or at least classical-ish), but the interpretations of it are much closer to jazz (or at least jazz-ish). Ensemble Nu:n is a trio consisting of saxophonist Gert Anklam, percussionist Nora Thiele, and guitarist Falk Zenker; for this album, they selected melodies from a 13th-century manuscript collection and created radically new interpretations of them. Those familiar with medieval dance music will recognize some of the melodic patterns and maybe detect a few hints of idiomatic rhythms, but unless you know up front where the source material came from, it’s unlikely that you’ll hear this as “early music.” Imagine a more lighthearted version of ECM jazz, and that will give you a good idea of what to expect. It’s quite wonderful.
Fred Hersch Trio
Fred Hersch. New album. Res ipse loquitur.
New Jazz Standards
Sam Most was one of the pioneers of jazz flute, and as this, his final album, documents, he was at the top of his game right up until the end of his life. Here he plays flute, clarinet, and baritone sax, as well as scatting and singing, and at no point will the listener hear anything to suggest that any of his mental or physical energy was flagging. (He died just a month after the album was recorded.) All of the tunes are original compositions by his longtime collaborator Carl Saunders, and all deserve to be called “new standards” — though all are very straight-ahead stylistically, each sounds fresh and original, and Most’s quintet plays them with contagious energy. This is one of the most delightful jazz albums I’ve heard this year.
The Jimmy Giuffre 3 & 4: New York Concerts (2 discs)
Between 1962 and 1971, legendary clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre made no official recordings, a fact that has long been lamented by fans of forward-thinking jazz. But he didn’t stop playing, and this two-disc set documents two concerts from that period: one at Columbia University and one at New York’s Judson Hall, both in 1965. In the latter case he leads a trio that includes bassist Richard Davis and drummer Joe Chambers; on the former date he has a quarter featuring pianist Don Friedman, bassist Barre Philips, and Chambers again on drums. The music here is adventurous even by Giuffre’s standards: angular, dry, and harmonically free, much of it sounds improvised. This is a tremendously valuable document, but one that fans of Giuffre’s more conventional work may find a bit forbidding.
City: Works of Fiction (reissue; 3 discs)
All Saints (dist. Redeye)
I’m filing this one under Not Really Jazz But I Don’t Know What Else to Call It. Originally issued in 1990, City: Works of Fiction found trumpeter/composer Jon Hassell continuing to explore the Fourth World musical ideas that he had begun developing in the 1970s and 1980s, ideas that draw on elements of jazz, Indian music, and the electronic avant-garde. With City things started getting a bit more explicitly funky and even occasionally hip-hop-oriented, with unusually fun and accessible results. This three-disc deluxe reissue adds to the original program a second disc documenting a live performance from the same period, as well as a third disc of odds and ends, all of them genuinely fascinating. If your library has the original 1990 release, toss it and replace it with this one.
Martin Wind Quartet
Turn Out the Stars
What If? Music (dist. Redeye)
Normally, orchestral jazz is a tough sell with me. But since this live album focuses on music by (or “inspired by”) Bill Evans, I thought I’d give it a listen — his style was famously impressionistic and so it seemed like it might be a good fit. The fact that the album features pianist Bill Cunliffe and drummer Joe LaBarbera didn’t hurt either. And guess what? It’s very, very nice. There are a few scattered moments at which I thought the Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana sounded just a bit too fulsome and overblown, but for the most part the arrangements are insightful and very tasteful, and bassist Martin Wind leads his ensemble skillfully. Libraries supporting programs in jazz arrangement should be particularly interested in this one.
The Blushin’ Roulettes
Old Mill Sessions
Cinnamon Bones Music
(No cat. no.)
I try not to be prejudiced, but if I’m completely honest with myself, folk-rockers with waxed moustaches have to work a little bit harder to win me over than most. That this duo (singer/guitarist/songwriter Angie Heimann and slide guitarist/vocalist/moustache-wearer Cas Sochacki) won me over so quickly is a testament to the simple and direct power of their songs, which are alternately haunting, heartfelt, and quietly heartbreaking. Arrangements are spare, the ambience is dark and echoey, and the hooks are subtle but profuse. Recommended.
Billed as an “Irish-American roots band,” RUNA nicely treads the borderline that separates American and British Isles folk music, performing a program that draws on the Child ballad collection, labor songs, classic gospel music, the work of modern roots songwriters like Amos Lee and Kate Rusby, and traditional Irish and American fiddle tunes. Their acoustic-funk take on “Henry Lee” struck me as a bit awkward, but I love their versions of Lee’s “Black River” and Rusby’s “Who Will Sing Me Lullabies,” as well as the three tune sets. RUNA boasts two world-class vocalists in Fionán de Barra and Shannon Lambert-Ryan, which helps a lot as well. Recommended.
Martin & Eliza Carthy
The Moral of the Elephant
If England can be said to have a royal family of folk music, it would have to be the Waterson/Carthy clan, which includes not only various members of the Waterson family of singers, but also Norma Waterson’s husband Martin Carthy and their daughter Eliza, who has recorded prolifically and won numerous awards. On this album Eliza joins with her dad to perform a program of mostly traditional songs (a few are modern), with starkly minimalist arrangements, all the better to showcase the pair’s beautifully contrasting voices (his grainy and reedy, hers bell-clear and powerful) and the eerie loveliness of the songs themselves. Eliza is an excellent fiddler and Martin plays an understatedly mean rhythm guitar, and together they have made a deeply impressive album.
Martyn Bennett was a gifted fusioneer, a Scottish multi-instrumentalist who (along with similarly-inclined Scots artists like Mouth Music and Talitha MacKenzie) blended traditional Celtic music with electronic funk. Grit was the last album he released before dying of cancer in 2003, and it’s his most predominantly electronic one–he reportedly was so physically weak by the time he recorded it that he could no longer play his instruments. It remains a wonderful document of his particular talent and of the possibilities available to musicians who refuse to be constrained by purist traditionalism. This reissue includes two bonus tracks.
Application is a duo consisting of Martin and Richard Dust, who themselves make up two-thirds of the musical trio known as The Black Dog. When working with The Black Dog, the Dusts are accustomed to making music with a minimum of preparation and without any rules; as Application, they do just the opposite. Working on the Japanese principle of itamae, which requires extensive observation before undertaking any task, they made the music on this album under a stringnt set of rules and guidelines. The result is an impeccably (even microscopically) detailed program of electronic music filled with tiny filigrees, blips, and accents, but moved forward by beats that are as compelling as they are elegant. Highly recommended.
The Japanese trio Shonen Knife continues to be a completely reliable source of sweet-and-crunchy pop-punk goodness: short tunes sung in charmingly non-idiomatic English on such topics as ramen noodles, dancing, fortune cookies, and good/bad luck. Over the course of 33 years, the band’s musical formula hasn’t changed much — which is both good news (true reliability being a relatively rare commodity in pop music) and bad news (how many Shonen Knife albums does any person, or any library, need?). This one is just as good as the others. If your library doesn’t already own more than two or three, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to start with this one.
Data Panik Etcetera
Do Yourself In (dist. Redeye)
This Scottish trio has been around in various guises for 20 years, but this is only their fourth album. The paucity of their output is surely due in part to their tendency to break up, move on to other projects, and then come back together again, sometimes with the same band name and sometimes not. In any case, this album showcases their jagged, New Wave-inflected alt-pop sound, one that draws deeply on the sounds of the 1980s without feeling in the least nostalgic about that period. Song titles like “Minimum Wage,” “That Love’s Not Justified,” and “Flesh Remover” give you a good idea of what to expect — though they don’t communicate well how much fun these songs can be.
Hyperdub 10.1 (2 discs)
Hyperdub (dist. Redeye)
I’ve always been drawn to music that takes widely disparate styles or influences and reconciles them — or, failing that, forces them into a room and doesn’t let them out until they’ve learned how to at least work together civilly. In my experience, dance music and the avant-garde is one of the most reliably fertile of these musical emulsions, and has been since the late 1970s. From Material and the Golden Palominos and beyond to Defunkt and the whole UK Bass scene, the melding of weirdness and funk has always been something I find terrifically exciting. If you share that interest, then you’re likely already aware of the Hyperdub label, home to some of the weirdest and funkiest bass music you’re ever likely to hear. If you’re not aware of Hyperdub, then by all means pick up this excellent two-disc retrospective collection that draws on the first ten years of the label’s output. It’s a must.
The Son of a Bluesman
Jazz Village (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
It may have been released on the Jazz Village label, but there’s nothing jazzy about this album: Lucky Peterson makes blistering electric blues, rockish and soulful and sometimes laced with funk and gospel. He’s a great singer, an amazing guitarist, and a very good organist. On this album he offers a bunch of original tunes as well as covers of songs by Bobby “Blue” Bland (“I Pity the Fool”), Wilson Pickett (“Funky Broadway”) and Johnny Nash (the evergreen “I Can See Clearly Now”), and he makes all of it sound like his own. If your patrons have a taste for meat-and-potatoes blues, then serve them this one.
Olá Cabo Verde
Lusafrica (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Cape Verde is one of those African countries whose music sounds not-very-African. (I’ve given up trying to explain to my kids the difference between Cuban rumba and African rumba.) That’s partly because Cape Verde is an archipelago some distance off the West African coast and partly because its strongest musical influences come from Portugal, which colonized the islands in the 15th century. Today, its commercial music is smooth and lilting, featuring a blend of European and African instruments and songs performed mostly in Portuguese and Cape Verdean Creole. This collection offers an excellent overview of the country’s sweet and gently melancholy music, which remains dominated by acoustic instruments even as its production qualities become increasingly slick.
Zvuloon Dub System
Those who have listened to a lot of roots reggae music will notice something different about this band immediately, though they may not be able to identify it immediately. I’ll help you out here: it’s the scales they use. The members of Zvuloon Dub System are an Ethiopian-Israeli reggae band, and you can hear that Ethiopian heritage in their melodies from the first track. (On the second track you’ll notice that they sing in Amharic.) Despite the band name and the album title, this is not a dub album–it’s straight-up roots reggae, heavy with horns and astringent with melismatic sung melodies; the basslines are dark and heavyweight (as they should be), the playing and singing are absolutely expert, and the tracks focus on groove rather than hooks. Highly recommended to all world music collections.
Anyone who remembers the second-wave ska revival that took place in England around 1980 will look at this album cover, with its black-and-white color scheme, 1950s-style cartoon dancer, and checkerboard motif, and know immediately what to expect: edgy, punk-informed ska and rock steady music in the style made popular by such Two-Tone bands as the Specials, the English Beat, and the Selector. And indeed, that’s exactly what you get, courtesy of one of the Specials’ former vocalists. The program relies just a little bit too much on potboiler material (“Time Longer Than Rope,” “Johnny Too Bad,” “Wet Dream”), but most of the songs are fresh and the performances are irresistible. Ska is a perennial favorite of college students, so all academic collections should pay particular attention to this welcome new release.
Our Kind of Bossa
Since BossaCucaNova emerged on the international scene 15 years ago, it’s been very clear what constitutes “their kind of bossa” — one infused with electronic elements and open to influences from hip hop and funk to pop and rock. On this album they focus on the sounds of both bossa nova and samba, inviting guest vocalists to join them on every track, and continuing the tradition of stylistic promiscuity that has been their hallmark from the beginning. The result is, as always, charming, tuneful, and irresistibly danceable. Highly recommended to all pop and world collections.
Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca
La Rumba SoYo
“A multinational undertaking that was recorded on three continents and in four countries,” the latest from Los Angeles-based Congolese singer-songwriter Ricardo Lomvo continues his exploration of modern Afro-Cuban rumba sounds. “Exploration” is maybe the wrong word, though — “celebration” is more like it. From the first note, this album is a gentle explosion of rippling polyrhythms, lightly dancing call-and-response vocals, and massed horn sections. At the same time, Lemvo is expanding his stylistic palette to include other languages and styles, including Angolan rhythms like semba and kizomba, making this album not only a pure joy to listen or dance to, but also a valuable window on the current state of the art in Afro-Cuban dance music.