PICK OF THE MONTH
Franz Joseph Haydn
107 Symphonies: First Complete Cycle on Period Instruments (35 discs)
In the mid-1980s, Christopher Hogwood undertook a complete recording of Haydn’s symphonies with his renowned period-instrument ensemble the Academy of Ancient Music. It was a daunting task, and although he succeeded at recording just over sixty of the 107 works in Haydn’s huge symphonic oeuvre, he never did complete that project. However, Frans Brüggen had recorded a handful of them in 1978 and 1982, and in the 1990s he recorded many more (including all of the Sturm und Drang symphonies as well as the “Paris” and “London” symphonies) with his equally well-regarded Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. Between the two of them, the world now had access to period-instrument recordings of all but four Haydn symphonies. In 2015, Italian conductor Ottavio Dantone took his Accademia Bizantina into the studio to record symphonies nos. 78-81, thus making possible this, the first-ever complete set of all Haydn symphonies recorded on period instruments. To be clear, there’s nothing revelatory about the content here: again, both the Hogwood and the Brüggen recordings have been in and out of print in different permutations for (in some cases) decades. But the combination of super-budget pricing (less than $2 per disc), super-convenient packaging (a box that takes up about as much shelf space as eight jewel cases) and world-class performances makes this set a must-have for libraries, even those that collect classical music selectively.
Noravank: Quatuors à cordes nos. 3-6
ATMA Classique (dist. Naxos)
Petros Shoujounian composed this set of four string quartets in 2015 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. All of them draw on liturgical chants (dating from the 5th to the 15th centuries) for their melodic source material, though Shoujounian develops those melodic themes in a modernistic style that is sometimes shimmeringly beautiful and sometimes forbiddingly spiky. Each movement in the four quartets is named after an Armenian river. Quatuor Molinari play with luminous passion, and the album is both thrilling and sobering.
Claudio (dist. Naxos)
Don’t let the weirdly ambiguous title and the rather amateurish packaging mislead you — this is a top-notch recording of world-class performances of some of the loveliest music composed in the 19th century. The minimal liner notes credit no transcriber, so we are left to assume that Jones himself transcribed these piano works for harp, and if so he is to be commended both for his abilities as an arranger and for his technical skill and sensitivity to the Schubertian style. The recorded sound is rich and warm, but also finely detailed. Recommended to all classical collections.
With this album, pianist/composer John Balke has created a strange and unsettling suite of pieces for piano augmented with samples and electronic noises. His writing is sometimes close to atonal and sometimes gently lyrical, with strong hints of jazziness from time to time, and the electronic elements sometimes extend the piano’s characteristics and sometimes add a nonmusical dimension — and sometimes both, as on “Boodle” (which includes both field recordings of children playing and subtle electronic expansions of the piano’s sustain). The music isn’t always conventionally pretty, but it’s consistently interesting and rewarding.
Guillaume Du Fay
Les messes à teneur (2 discs)
Cut Circle / Jesse Rodin
Musique en Wallonie (dist. Naxos)
I never get tired of listening to Du Fay, partly because his music is just so dang pretty and partly because it occupies such a fascinating and strange transitional space between the late medieval period and the high Renaissance. When you hear these Masses (and this two-disc set includes four of them, plus the motets on which two of them are based), you hear echoes of the astringent ars nova style even as you hear Du Fay mastering the more intricate polyphonic techniques soon to come. Cut Circle’s singing is excellent.
Physical Editions (dist. Redeye)
Lesley Flanigan is an electronic composer and instrument builder, and the 20-minute composition around which this all-too-brief album is built is based on the sound of a malfunctioning tape deck and multiple layers of her own voice. The relentless pulse of the tape glitch is reminiscent of the reed sounds from Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, and one manifestation of Flanigan’s genius is her ability to keep that relentlessness from being oppressive. The album’s second track is all about her voice, which again is layered into a nearly wordless cloud of pure sound that simultaneously sooths and unsettles. Brilliant.
Foom (dist. Forced Exposure)
For a different take on modern postminimalism, consider this, the first new album from Downtown legend Rhys Chatham in three years. The two-part title work is composed primarily of multiple layers of fingerpicked guitar tuned in perfect fifths; the layers build up gradually, eventually including electric feedback, and the chord never changes. That chord remains the same on the second part, but incorporates multiple flutes as well. There is no studio overdubbing on this recording — all of the music is performed live in the studio, layered by means of electronic looping and delay. Starkly beautiful, this is music that shows just how far the minimalist tradition has evolved over the past 40 years.
Legacy: The Spirit of Beethoven (The Composer’s Piano Vol. 3)
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
The MSR Classics label’s series The Composer’s Piano continues with this recording of works by Beethoven, Czerny, and Mendelssohn played on three very different pianos of the period: a 1795 Louis Dulcken, an 1823 Broadwood & Sons, and an 1868 Érard. The program is arranged to illustrate Beethoven’s great stylistic influence on Czerny and Mendelssohn, and is played with passionate intensity by Gwendolyn Mok. As always with recordings like this, the timbral contrasts between the instruments used will be of particular interest to students and instructors in keyboard programs.
Choir of Westminster Cathedral / Martin Baker
Hyperion (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
We don’t have nearly enough recordings of music by Alonso Lobo, a disciple of Francisco Guerrero whose career was spent primarily in service to the cathedrals at Toledo and Seville. His Masses are fairly well attested (and one of them, a parody Mass based on Guerrero’s Maria Magdalene et altera Maria, is included here), but his settings of the Holy Week Lamentations have survived only in fragments. Luckily a late copy of one set was made in the late 18th century and archived in the Seville Cathedral. Lobo was not an innovator, but he was a master of polyphonic technique, and this recording is not only historically important but also sumptuously beautiful.
Cedille (dist. Naxos)
CDR 90000 162
The new-music chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird teamed up with a composers’ collective called Sleeping Giant to create this program of six short pieces by six composers. Each piece is inspired by a work of modern art from the private collection of the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for Art, and the styles vary from the sweetly whimsical (Robert Honstein’s Conduit suite) to the shimmeringly impressionistic (Chris Cerrone’s South Catalina) to the spiky-but-lyrical (Timo Andres’ Checkered Shade). All of it maintains that delicate balance between modernist and approachable for which Eighth Blackbird has become justly famous.
Tribute to the Mighty Handful
Russian Guitar Quartet
The tradition of Russian guitar music is richer and more complex than many know, and it involves not only music that is rarely heard (by little-known composers like César Cui and Mily Balakirev) but also instruments that are rarely played today, such as the terz-guitar and the quart-guitar. The Russian Guitar Quartet is comprised of two quart-guitars (tuned a fourth higher than standard) and two conventional guitars with added necks supporting unfretted bass strings. The resulting sound is truly unique, of course, and the works presented here (by Cui, Balakirev, and their better-known compatriots Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov) are an absolute delight.
Into the Silence
On his eighth outing as a leader, trumpeter/composer Avishai Cohen leads his quintet through a set of richly impressionistic original compositions. These numbers hardly swing, and in several cases they are nearly arrhythmic. Exceptions include the mutteringly energetic title track and the lovely jazz waltz “Quiescence.” Cohen’s tone is a wonder — he plays without a mute but in a tone that is soft and velvety rather than brassy, and his sidemen follow and support him as if they shared a single musical brain. This is one of the most perfect rainy-day jazz albums I’ve heard in years.
Live at Rosy’s (2 discs)
In 1978, Sarah Vaughan was 54 years old. Her already-rich contralto voice had deepened and darkened, and her rhythmic facility had matured to an unparalleled level. On May 31 of that year she was recorded for the National Public Radio program Jazz Now! in concert at Rosy’s Jazz Club in New Orleans. The tapes went into a closet for several decades, and are commercially released here for the first time. The sound quality is great, but it’s the performances that matter, and they are spectacular. She is clearly completely comfortable with her regular trio of accompanists (pianist Carl Schroeder, bassist Walter Booker, drummer Jimmy Cobb) and she’s having a wonderful time here, joking with the audience and her band and delivering utterly masterful renditions of standards like “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and “I Could Write a Book.” A must-have for all jazz collections.
The Unity Sessions (2 discs)
This two-disc set is a live-in-the-studio recording made to celebrate and document an exceptionally satisfying band experience. Guitarist and composer Pat Metheny hadn’t worked in a sax-plus-trio format since his 80/81 album 35 years ago, and two years of recording and touring with this group (featuring saxophonist Chris Potter) had been an unusually productive and joyful time. So at the end of the group’s 2014 tour they gathered in a small black-box studio and played two discs’ worth of material live, while the cameras rolled. The result was both a film and this album. Metheny’s legion of fans will not be disappointed — the music is by turns cinematically expansive and tightly swinging, and it’s always joyful, even when it gets a bit skronky and outside. Joyfulness, in fact, has always been one of the chief distinguishing characteristics of Metheny’s music, and this album is no exception.
Jane Ira Bloom
These two albums have several things in common: both are recordings of pianoless saxophone-bass-drums trios, and in both cases the saxophonists and bandleaders are women. Bloom’s music is creative but largely straight-ahead; compositions like “Gateway to Progress” and “Hips & Sticks” swing powerfully (though not uncomplicatedly), and she does a great job of filling the harmonic space, occasionally with the help of some subtle electronic augmentation. She also has a sense of humor and a nifty way with a beat — note, for example, the very fun “Rhyme or Rhythm” and the funky “Big Bill.” Aldana’s approach is a bit more outside: by no means either atonal or arrhythmic, but with a structurally looser and freer feel to it. Where Bloom tends to fill the harmonic space vertically, Aldana’s approach is more melodically linear; sonic space tends to be filled by her drummer, who is busy but always tasteful. Both albums can be solidly recommended to all jazz collections.
Florian Hoefner Group
Here is another very fine example of modern straight-ahead jazz from the young pianist and composer Florian Hoefner, now recording for the first time with acclaimed saxophonist Seamus Blake. This all-original program finds Hoefner doing what he does best: writing tunes that contain small surprises within familiar structures, that challenge the ear without defying it to stick around, and that bring out the best in his carefully-chosen collaborators. At age 33, Hoefner is coming fully into his own as a composer, and Origin finds him at the peak of his powers — so far.
Joe Mulholland Trio
Zoho (dist. Allegro)
On very rare occasions, when listening to a jazz album, I’ll find myself looking over at the CD player to see how many tracks have gone by, hoping that the disc isn’t more than half over. This is an album that caused me to do that. Don’t be fooled by the title: pianist Joe Mulholland and his trio are not out to knock you down and crush you with the relentless power of their musical onslaught. Instead, they will draw you in with complex but intuitive-sounding melodies, a sense of swing that is tight without being airless, and an effortless ebb and flow of tempo. This is intellectual jazz in all the best senses of the term: imagine Lennie Tristano with a heart, and with a willingness to let his phrases breathe. Mulholland is a tremendously gifted composer, and while the whole trio plays beautifully, bassist Bob Nieske deserves particular praise for his careful and insightful listening. Strongly recommended to all jazz collections.
No cat. no.
With her latest album, Emily Herring has not only made one of the best honky-tonk/Western swing records of the past decade, but also one of most intelligent and slyly humorous. The title track is a warning to a guy in a bar who is giving her and her girlfriend trouble (“You came walking toward us with something to prove/Hell, two girls on the town, that’s one too many for you”), “Wanna Holler” is economic populism in two-step form, and the line “I string minutes into hours and I worry them away” will seem too elegant for country music if you’re one of the many who underestimate country music. Apparently this is Herring’s third album, and I’m slightly embarrassed to have missed the first two. That’s my mistake — time to remedy it.
Having recommended her last album in the May issue of this publication, I immediately received her new one in the mail — and at first, I was underwhelmed. Her skill as a singer and a banjo player are in no way diminished, but the first two tracks on this album failed to grab me. Then she absolutely knocked me on my keister with the third, an original song titled “Paradise Fell.” She pretty much lost me again after that, but here’s the thing: Kater is doing something unusual and nearly radical with old-time music traditions, and she’s generating a lot of new attention for this very old music. Expect demand.
No cat. no.
And speaking of doing something unusual with old music traditions, here is husband-wife duo Nefesh Mountain performing original bluegrass songs written in a combination of Hebrew and English, expressing very explicitly Jewish spiritual themes. To be clear, there is nothing whatsoever new about Jewish people playing bluegrass music — but genuinely Jewish bluegrass music is something quite new, and it’s tons of fun. Having sidemen like Sam Bush, Mark Schatz, and Rob Ickes helps make this album a success, but the core of its attractiveness is the blend of Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg’s voices and the joyful hookiness of their songs. Highly recommended to all collections.
Tough Love (dist. Redeye)
This seven-track EP is a compilation of content from Communions’ first single and from a five-track EP, both of which sold out when released in vinyl pressings last year. Pick up this CD and you’ll see why: the band combines soaring, androgynous vocals with sharp-edged but anthemic guitars in a way that somehow manages to evoke both the Feelies and the Killers, with a little bit of Big Country’s bagpipiness thrown in for good measure. If this is the kind of thing that’s happening in Denmark these days, then I want to know more about it.
This is one that could have gone either into the Classical or the Rock/Pop section. Franck Zaragoza is a French pianist/composer/sound designer whose approach consists of taking quiet piano pieces and augmenting them with layers of electronic sound — some of it explicitly musical (strings, synthesized chord washes, etc.) and some of it more noisy (sounds of sifting gravel, small waves lapping on a beach, etc.). If this sounds like a modus operandi quite similar to that of Jon Balke (see the Classical section above), it is — though the musical result is very different. Zaragoza’s music is more emotionally complex and less cerebral than Balke’s, though both albums are very compelling, each in its own way.
Pet Shop Boys
The great thing about the Pet Shop Boys is that you can count on them. For 35 years now they’ve been making synth pop that combines irresistible tunefulness with a charmingly postmodern stance that simultaneously celebrates and sends up all of the traditions (musical, cultural, sexual) in which it is steeped. No matter how viscerally catchy a Pet Shop Boys song is, it always has one eyebrow raised. Super finds the duo continuing to do what they have always done, and doing it better than anyone else. If you loved them then, you’ll love them now.
Fatima Al Qadiri
Hyperdub (dist. Redeye)
If you want to make an instrumental album that functions as a trenchant commentary on “authority, the relationship between police, citizens, and protest worldwide,” you have to cheat a little bit: a cover photo featuring a Teletubby in SWAT gear is one way of suggesting how the instrumental tracks should be heard, and found-sound samples of police barking orders at protesters is another one. Having done so, you can be assured that the dark, minor-key chord progressions and the juddering, mechanical beats that jump at you out of nowhere will be freighted with the appropriate mental imagery — and that they’ll be effective. Recommended.
Project Moon Circle
The label characterizes this as “a soundtrack for roaming around vast city landscapes between late night and early morning.” And sure, that works. But I think I’d say it’s more than that: it’s a deep exploration of the overlapping territories of music and noise, and a celebration of the ways that pitched and unpitched sound can be layered together to create beauty. The texture of this music is grainy and thick, and the color palette tends towards grey — but it is never less than lovely. How Submerse does that is a mystery to me, and I keep coming back to try and figure it out.
Pink Flag (dist. Redeye)
What keeps this album from getting a Rick’s Pick designation is its brevity — though offered at full price, it contains only 29 minutes of music. But I’m recommending it anyway because the music is so good. These eight tracks are actually outtakes from Wire’s eponymous 2015 release, set aside because they sounded so different from the songs that made it onto that album. They are more heavily produced, somewhat more experimental, but still immediately recognizable as Wire songs. These guys still make more noise at a lower volume and create more interest with fewer chords than anyone else in the postpunk game.
My Music Empire
After a five-year layoff, the Posies are back with more crunchy-sweet guitar-based power pop. It comes after a difficult period for the band, during which two of its members died and one went through a divorce and remarriage. You can hear the emotional complexity in these songs if you listen for it, though the melodies and the hooks are as blissfully immediate as ever. Imagine a slightly dreamier Fastball and you’ll have a good idea what to expect. This is a perfect driving-with-the-top-down album, but it also rewards close land careful istening.
Glitterbeat (dist. Redeye)
This New York-based octet consists mostly of musicians hailing from Colombia. But if that leads you to expect a straightforward cumbia album, think again: these guys incorporate elements of Afrobeat, jazz, hip hop, and punk into the stylistic mix, creating a dense, heady, swirling mandala of sounds that is loud at any volume and maybe a bit exhausting for headphone listening, but has got to be absolutely amazing in a club setting. On the instrumental tracks you realize how central the voice of Liliana Conde is to this band’s success, but instrumentally they really are a powerhouse as well.
No cat. no.
Maarja Nuut is a fiddler and singer from Estonia, whose music is created by means of her voice, her violin, and a looping pedal. For this album she draws on folk traditions but uses them as a basis for her own creations, building vocal and fiddle harmonies layer on layer. Her debt to Reichian minimalism is obvious, but her music sounds nothing like his — nor anything like that of Arvo Pärt, her most obvious local antecedent. This is relentless repetition as folk song, incidental noise as dance music, ancient tradition as modern sound sculpture. And it’s both befuddling and bewitching.
Tom Bailey first came to international prominence in the 1980s as one-third of the band Thompson Twins, who had a series of massive pop hits in the US and UK before eventually disintegrating. After the band’s demise he formed the short-lived Babble with his wife Alannah Currie (also formerly of Thompson Twins) and heading down the path of dub-inflected downtempo electronica. After Babble broke up, Bailey continued down that path, and now records instrumental music as International Observer. He is also a prodigous remixer of other people’s music, and this outstanding collection finds him gathering a bunch of that material: remixes of work by artists like Babble, the Exponents, Stellar, and Pitch Black. Bailey has become an undisputed master of sonic space and is particularly gifted at formulating hooks using texture as much as melody. Like all of his other albums as International Observe, this one is brilliant.
No cat. no.
Most of the time, what I recommend in CD HotList are releases that I both like and respect. But sometimes I recommend something that doesn’t particularly turn me on personally — because I don’t think my job here is to promote what I like, but to help my readers build good library collections. So I’m enthusiastically recommending this album by Japanese-American multi-instrumentalist Kaoru Watanabe despite the fact that it doesn’t do that much for me. What makes it a good candidate for library acquisition, I think, is Watanabe’s highly creative approach to blending traditional Japanese instruments and musical styles with experimental jazz and free improvisation. This music is objectively impressive, not just technically but also conceptually, and it illustrates a unique approach to fusing traditional and modern music. And at times it’s gorgeous.