PICK OF THE MONTH
Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet/The Sinking of the Titanic (reissue)
GB (dist. Allegro)
This recording reissues a landmark 1975 recording by composer Gavin Bryars. The first composition is based on a field recording of a homeless man singing a few lines of an obscure religious song; Bryars looped the recording and composed a series of chamber-music accompaniments to it. The second is a more conceptual piece that takes its inspiration from various accounts of the last moments on the Titanic as it sank, notably including multiple reports that the ship’s band was playing either the hymn “Autumn” or another piece titled “Aughton” right up until the ship went down, taking all the band members with it. This piece is something of a musical collage, with elements of “Autumn,” “Aughton,” and “Nearer, My God, to Thee” layered in among snippets of ragtime music and spoken recollections of a survivor and snippets from a music box. Where the first composition is simple, heartfelt, and direct, the second is emotionally complex and eerie. Both of these have been redone and commercially released in later versions, but the ones reissued here are the original versions recorded in collaboration with Brian Eno and made available only by mail order in the 1970s. A glance at the musician credits is interesting: participants include Derek Bailey, John Adams, and Michael Nyman. The music itself is as exquisite today as it was then. Strongly recommended to all library collections.
The Latin Project
Boston Cello Quartet
No cat. no.
Gracefully straddling the line between classical and dance music — a historically blurry line anyway — the Boston Cello Quartet’s second album features arrangements of works by Ástor Piazzolla, Isaac Albéniz, Enrique Granados, Chick Corea, and others for four cellos. If you think that a cello quartet seems like a rather strange ensemble, one that would be prone to aural muddiness and midrange overload, think again: these four cellists (all from the Boston Symphony Orchestra) are masters at exploiting every inch of their instrument’s range, and at making it sound both effortless and fun. The lack of liner notes will be a bit of a frustration for anyone interested in learning more about the music, but this CD is nevertheless strongly recommended to all classical collections.
Howard Shelley; Ulster Orchestra
Hyperion (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Just over a year ago, I designated the first volume in Hyperion’s Classical Piano Concerto series a Pick of the Month. That disc featured works by the relatively familiar Jan Ladislav Dussek; this one offers three concertos by Daniel Steibelt, a pianist and composer known today (if at all) not so much for his writing as for his playing — more specifically, for losing to Beethoven in a dueling-pianos competition. But this wonderful disc nicely justifies giving Steibelt a second look, partly because the music itself is so consistently attractive and exciting, and partly because pianist/conductor Howard Shelley and the Ulster Orchestra perform it so winningly. Strongly recommended to all collections.
The Collected Vernacular Works, Vol. 2
Academia Musica Choir / Aryan O. Arji
Priory (dist. Allegro)
This is a ravishingly beautiful recording, the second volume in a collection of John Sheppard’s English-language church music, much of which has been lost. It can be easy to miss Sheppard, standing as he does in the shadows of such Tudor giants as Thomas Tallis and John Taverner. And it’s also true that some of his work that has survived (including a couple of pieces featured here) show puzzling compositional flaws. But they also reveal uncommon brilliance — note the strange and heartrending suspensions that conclude the phrase “infinite majesty” in his Te Deum setting, for example. The Academia Musica Choir sings beautifully, though I kind of wish they’d picked a recording space with a less richly reverberant acoustic than Gloucester Cathedral; a certain amount of detail is lost here. Still, this is an essential recording.
Bridge (dist. Albany)
Paul Lansky was a computer-music pioneer in the early days of electronic music, and was trained by hardcore serialists. But in his later years he has returned to traditional harmony and to analog instruments, without leaving behind any of his creativity and subtlety. For this disc, percussionist Gwendolyn Dease has gathered three of Lansky’s pieces for marimba: Spirals (2013), Three Moves (1998), and Idle Fancies (2008). She does a wonderful job of showcasing the elegance, the humor, and the rich harmonic complexity of these pieces, and producer David Starobin deserves separate praise for the way he miked the instrument used, creating a broad and beautifully detailed soundstage.
Les éléments: tempêtes, orages, & fêtes marines 1674-1764 (2 discs)
Le Concert des Nations / Jordi Savall
Alia Vox (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Baroque composers had a thing for stormy-seas imagery, which inspired some of the most experimental and fun instrumental music of the period. Cases in point: these concertos, theatrical suites, and programmatic overtures by such baroque luminaries as Jean-Féry Rebel, Georg Philipp Telemann, and (of course) Antonio Vivaldi. The national variety here helps make the program fun: Germans, Brits, Italians, and the French are all represented, and there’s also a nice variety of compositional types, from Vivaldi’s flute concerto nicknamed “Le tempesta di mare” to Telemann’s celebrated Wassermusik, Hamburger Ebb un Fluth overture and Rebel’s somewhat over-the-top Les éléments. Unsurprisingly, Le Concert des Nations performs everything with joyful élan, and the album is tons of fun from beginning to end.
Burial Service & Anthems
Choir of Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge / David Skinner
Obsidian (dist. Naxos)
Though I confess I’d barely heard of him before encountering this album, William Croft was (according to the back jacket copy) “the finest English composer of his age, having followed in the footsteps of Henry Purcell and John Blow at Westminster Abbey.” Huh. Certainly this set of anthems and funerary songs (interspersed with solemn organ voluntaries) shows him to have been a brilliant composer of choral music, one who had clearly learned his lessons from the best of his predecessors and who idolized Thomas Tallis in particular. The singing is excellent and the recorded sound warm and clean.
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
This is sort of a themed recital program from pianist Shen Lu, in which each of the pieces presented invokes water imagery in some way — sometimes very directly, as in both of the Chinese compositions that bracket the program, and sometimes a bit less so, as in the case of Maurice Ravel’s Miroirs suite, and really not at all in the case of Rachmaninov’s Etudes tableaux suite. But Shen Lu plays all of these pieces with rippling, fluid elegance, and in that important sense the evocation stands up. Recommended to all classical collections.
String Quartets (2 discs)
Capriccio (dist. Naxos)
I bet you didn’t even know that Carl Czerny — the bane of every young piano student — had written any string quartets. Heaven knows I didn’t, and apparently I’m not alone, because these works have come to light only fairly recently and this two-disc set marks their world-premiere recording (two of the four quartets had been publicly performed in the early 2000s, but not recorded). Czerny himself reportedly held them back from publication, choosing to focus on his work as a pedagogue. Here the Sheridan Ensemble makes a powerful case for them, demonstrating that Czerny had mastered the form even if he had no particular plans to push its boundaries. Given both its historical significance and the quality of the playing, every classical collection should own this recording.
John Raymond & Real Feels
John Raymond & Real Feels
In which we confront again the age-old question: what defines jazz? Is it swing feel? A particular set of canonical instrumental configurations? A focus on American Songbook-derived standards repertoire? Some combination of these? If so, then this trumpet-led trio album, which practically never swings and which draws more heavily on American folksong than on standards, must not be jazz. And yet, obviously, it is jazz, and it’s brilliant. Accompanied by the always-outstanding guitarist Gilad Hekselman and the equally brilliant drummer Colin Stranahan, John Raymond takes us through a program that includes settings of “Scarborough Fair,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Amazing Grace,” and the bop evergreen “Donna Lee.” There’s also a somewhat rockish blues number, which is followed immediately by a loose-limbed take on “This Land Is Your Land.” A must for every jazz collection.
Here comes another joyfully and powerfully swinging effort from guitarist Joshua Breakstone. As with the last one, his quartet includes cellist Mike Richmond, playing pizzicato and functioning as a horn (unison on the head, then laying out until it’s his turn to solo). And though I’m still not 100% sold on the cello’s sonics in this context, the band’s overall sound is so great that I’m recommending this one as well. Breakstone himself is a master of both note choice and tone, and continues to pick great standards.
Of course, when it comes to joyful and powerful swing, it’s hard to beat composer and saxophonist Roxy Coss, whose second album is an all-original sextet session and a pleasure from start to finish. She blows out of the starting gate with the straight-ahead bop number “Don’t Cross the Coss” (a wry reference to the way in which people tend to get her last name wrong), then settles into midtempo with the harmonically craggy “Waiting,” then gets boppy and bright again on “Push,” and things just keep going like that. Great compositions, amazing playing from all concerned, and a fantastic album all around. Strongly recommended to all jazz collections.
Karolina Strassmayer & Drori Mondlak – Klaro!
Of Mystery and Beauty
For something in a more impressionistic and romantic vein, consider the seventh album from saxophonist/composer Karolina Strassmayer and drummer Drori Mondlak and their quartet. Of Mystery and Beauty is aptly titled: here the group favors slow and expansive tunes, though without sacrificing structural rigor — and they also demonstrate their ability to swing when they want. Even the program’s one freely improvised tune feels oddly composed. The main focus here is on Strassmayer, whose rich tone and expressive phrasing carry much of the music’s emotional weight, but everyone in the group is a powerful player. This is another solid achievement from a world-class ensemble.
Lenny Jumps In
Be honest: how many jazz albums leave you saying “Wow, that was fun.” Not “Wow, that was impressive” or “Wow, that guy can really blow,” but “Wow, that was fun”? I bet your answer is “not many,” and even if you won’t admit it to your jazz-cat friends, I bet you wish you could answer in the affirmative more often. If so, let me introduce you to Jim Clayton (actually, I introduced you to him a couple of years ago, but you might not remember), whose latest quartet date is, like his first album, a joy from start to finish. You’ve got funk, you’ve got trad, you’ve got bop, you’ve got standards, you’ve got slyly humorous originals, and everything is imbued with a sense of pleasure and pure melodic exuberance. Very highly recommended to all jazz collections.
When the band is called Gutbucket and the album is titled Dance, you should reasonably be able to expect a certain amount of fun. And you do get it on this quartet’s latest album, though it comes with some rather jagged edges: “Luton” sounds like a collaboration between Thelonious Monk and John Zorn (I know, terrifying, right?), while “So Many So Little” is a ballad, kind of, though it’s disguised under a thick layer of skronk. “Rum Spring” is pretty accessible except for its relentless repetitiveness, which you quickly realize is part of the point (though the point may actually be the ferocious drum solo going on underneath the horn/guitar obbligato). “Ferociousness” is actually pretty much the operative term throughout. This is a tremendously exciting and ultimately quite exhausting album.
From Whence We Came
I confess that I generally look askance at classical-folk fusion projects — not that they can’t work well, but too often they feel either anemic or condescending, and can sometimes be downright offensive when executed by classical musicians who don’t have the training or experience necessary to recognize the complexities and subtleties of the music they’re performing. No such qualms with the Ensemble Galilei, which consists of both folk and classical performers and whose programs (including this one) juxtapose trad and baroque music very effectively. On From Whence We Came you’ll hear traditional jigs and reels, original trad-style tunes, selections from Telemann and Marais, and odds and ends like Swedish and Irish hymns. It’s a hodgepodge, yes, but a carefully designed and exquisitely executed one.
San Diego State Folk Festival 1972
This 33-minute concert recording was made at a time when the folk craze was a good decade old and Roscoe Holcomb was already something of a crowd favorite, especially on the east coast. But it had been ten years since he’d played in California, so John Cohen invited him out to the San Diego State Folk Festival. As one would expect, Holcomb delivered a near-perfect set of rawboned, hair-raising vocal performances, accompanying himself on banjo and guitar on songs like “Little Birdie,” “Graveyard Blues,” and “Old Smoky.” The tape sounds quite good here, and although the photos of Rita Weill kissing Holcomb’s hand are slightly creepy, this release will be a boon to comprehensive folk collections.
Kathy Kallick Band
As a founding member of the Good Ol’ Persons, Kathy Kallick was one of the first women to break the glass ceiling of professional bluegrass musicianship, and 40 years later she remains a powerful presence on the West Coast bluegrass scene. Foxhounds showcases her voice (still strong and clear), her songwriting (top-notch), her taste in covers (impeccable: both Bill Monroe and Richard Thompson are represented here) and her skills as a bandleader (also impeccable). Her originals are classic-sounding but sometimes slyly modern in lyrical scope, and her simultaneous respect for tradition and willingness to break rules are refreshing. And her verison of “Tear-Stained Letter” rocks.
No cat. no.
With song titles like “Desolation Wildfire,” “Bob Dylan’s 78th Hangover,” and “I Killed Laura Palmer,” you can bet that what Harvest Thieves are selling is cowpunk of the same general type that the Pogues traded in (though the latter’s was informed by traditional Irish music in the same way that Harvest Thieves’ music is informed by American country). The danger with this approach, as the Pogues learned to their regret, is that when your sound is ramshackle and loud and brilliant, it can be all too easy to trick yourself into thinking that the ramshackle part is what matters. Whether that’s what will happen with Harvest Thieves remains to be seen, but in the meantime their hooks are sharp and their sound is weirdly and attractively ferocious. Good luck, y’all.
Rocket from the Tombs
Before there was Pere Ubu, and before there were the Dead Boys, there was Rocket from the Tombs, arguably the most important proto-punk band to emerge from Cleveland. And now they’re back. A few years ago they released Barfly, which featured several core members from the classic lineup: guitarist Cheetah Chrome, bassist Craig Bell, and (most importantly) singer David Thomas, performing as Crocus Behemoth. It rocked in that old-time way, unsurprisingly given the predominance of old-timers on the roster. Now Chrome is gone and several youngsters have signed on alongside Thomas and Bell, but the rock is still classic proto-punk and Thomas still sings like a half-strangled penguin, bless him. They revisit “Sonic Reducer” and slyly nod to the early days of Ubu with “Welcome to the New Dark Ages,” and the whole thing is a total blast.
Noveller + Thisquietarmy
Consouling Sounds (dist. Allegro)
Glacial Glow (reissue)
Here are two essential reissues from guitarist Sarah Lipstate, who records under the name Noveller and makes some of the darkest, lightest, densest, most gossamer, and all-around loveliest instrumental guitar music around. Reveries is a collaboration with Eric Quach (a.k.a. Thisquietarmy), augmented by two bonus tracks for the reissue; Glacial Glow was originally issued as a limited-edition release in 2011. On both of these albums you can clearly hear Lipstate’s background as a member of Glenn Branca’s 100 Guitar Ensemble and Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Army, but her sound is wholly her own: yes, she uses overtones, but not in a way I’ve ever heard before; yes, she uses echo and reverb to define enormous sonic spaces, but unlike other artists who use that technique she tends to fill those huge spaces entirely. Yes, her music is slow and contemplative, but I wouldn’t call it restful. You need to hear it. So do your library patrons.
Never Leave Never Sleep
If your collection could use a bit more jangly, guitar-centered dream pop, then by all means don’t hesitate to pick up the sophomore effort by the Brooklyn-based duo of Jack Milas and Oli Chang, who record as High Highs. Sometimes their sound skirts on the ragged edge of naïveté — the vocals just a bit wispy, the production just a little bit glittery. But they never quite fall off that edge, and the result is an album of rapturous loveliness with hooks that are no less real for their melodic abstraction. This is one you’ll probably put on repeat if you’re curled up on the couch with a novel on a winter night.
The second album by Tokyo-born, London-based electro-acoustic music experimenter Masaaki Yoshida (a.k.a. Anchorsong) could almost as easily be filed under World/Ethnic as under Rock/Pop: as before, he takes field recordings of gamelan music, African drumming, Nyahbinghi percussion, and a variety of studio-produced sounds and weaves them together into a complex tapestry of sound that evokes everything from rock to club music to ambient exotica, but ends up sounding like nothing else you’ve ever heard. At times you’ll be reminded of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, at others you might hear hints of African Head Charge or techno or house music, but they’re always just hints. This is fascinatingly original music that is experimental without ever being “difficult” and attractive without ever being merely pleasant.
A Tribe Called Quest
People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (25th Anniversary Edition)
Hip hop has become such a big tent these days that it can be easy to forget how revolutionary A Tribe Called Quest were when this album dropped in 1990. Along with crews like De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers, ATCQ were taking hip hop in a very different direction — one that relied as much on 1970s jazz-rock as on 1960s soul for its sampling bed, and one that nudged social protest aside in favor of more mundane concerns and more subtly clever wordplay. For the 25th anniversary of ATCQ’s debut, Sony has remastered the album and added three bonus remixes by artists deeply influenced by the group: Ceelo Green, Pharrell Williams, and J. Cole. A must for all pop collections.
Carmina Chamber Choir / Árni Heimir Ingólfsson
Smekkleysa (dist. Allegro)
The music on this disc is taken from a 17th-century Icelandic songbook known as Rask 98, currently held in the Arnamagnaean Institute in Copenhagen. The book contains 223 songs, both religious and secular, consisting mostly of “foreign tunes with Icelandic poetry.” The Carmina Chamber Choir performs a selection of them here, accompanied by period instruments; many are for solo voice with instrumental accompaniment, but there are also quite a few examples of polyphonic choral hymns and some plainchant translated from Latin into Icelandic. This album is both historically and cultural significant and a beautiful listening experience.
RAM 6: Manman M Se Ginen
No cat. no.
Periodically I forget how much I love Haitian music, and then an album like this reminds me forcefully. There’s so much to love here — the blend of Latin rhythms and West African guitar influences; the call-and-response vocals; the gorgeous and often bittersweet melodies. I’m less a fan of the trance-inducing, voodoo-inflected aspects, but they’re part and parcel of what makes this music sound the way it does, and on balance it’s all tons of fun. RAM is a tight ensemble, but not so tight that you can’t breathe. Recommended.
The Book of Calligraphy (2 discs)
Reza Vali is an Iranian composer who was trained in Europe but eventually broke with Western classical music tradition in favor of his country’s Dastgâh/Maghâm system; this has meant using different tunings, different ideas of harmony and polyphony, different rhythmic structures, and forms of melodic elaboration very different from those used in European art music. The result is, unsurprisingly, music that will sound quite alien to those steeped in Western art and popular music traditions. The series of compositions on these two discs, most of which feature the excellent Carpe Diem String Quartet, tend to be harmonically quite static even as they are complex and elaborate. I found the one for orchestra to be the most consistently enjoyable.
Love Will Find a Way
Mike Love Music
The existence of hippie reggae is something of a curiosity, since Rastafarianism is about as anti-hippie a philosophy as might be imagined. Perhaps for that reason, hippie reggae artists tend to steer clear of the Rasta stuff even as they invoke more generalized concepts of spirituality and uplift. Hence Hawaiian hippie reggae artist Mike Love, whose impeccably-crafted acoustic-based pop reggae features references to Jah and Zion and Babylon, but mainly in the context of songs with titles like “You Can’t Take It With You,” “Love Will Find a Way,” and “I Love You.” Don’t think that his music is in any way abstract or trippy or unfocused: no, his songs are as carefully cut and polished as a necklace of diamonds, and they are superb. Every pop collection should own this album, along with every other one he has released (or releases in the future).
Aka Balkan Moon/AlefBa: Double Live (2 discs)
Instinct Collection/Outhere Music (dist. Naxos)
Aka Moon is an adventurous jazz trio consisting of saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol, bassist Michel Hatzigeorgiou, and drummer Stéphane Galland. This project finds them in live concert settings in two very different configurations: collaborating with Bulgarian folk musicians on Aka Balkan Moon, and with classically-trained Arab musicians on AlefBa. In both cases the music they make together is more of an emulsion than a blend, jazzy at moments and more traditional-sounding at others, but with a significant amount of musical smearing between them. Some may find the songs themselves a bit too discursive and abstract at times, but at its best this is music of exceptionally arresting beauty, the AlefBa configuration especially so.