Piano Trios Op. 99 & 100 (2 discs)
Andreas Staier; Daniel Sepec; Roel Dieltiens
Here is a very enjoyable account (on period instruments) of two of Franz Schubert’s finest chamber works, along with a nocturne of slightly mysterious origin–it was written around the same time as the Opus 99 trio, but without a title (it was designated a “nocturne” by the publisher, 18 years after Schubert’s death), and may have been either the beginning of another full piano trio or intended as an addition to an existing one. In any case, Schubert’s exceptional gifts for melodic development and aching romanticism are fully in evidence here, and the playing is every bit as wonderful as one would expect from this all-star ensemble. The 97-minute playing time may seem a bit skimpy for a full-priced two-disc set, but the music is well worth it.
Sonates en quatuors
Raumklang (dist. Naxos)
I’m not a fan of cutesy early-music ensemble names seemingly designed to convince today’s youth that pre-classical music is awesome, but I’m definitely a fan of early-music ensembles that produce world-premiere recordings of obscure baroque composers. Louis-Gabriel Guillemain was a famous violinist and successful court composer in Paris in the early 18th century, but his career was derailed by his dissolute lifestyle and his compositional output was not terribly large. What his oeuvre lacked in volume it made up for in quality, though, and these four “gallant and amusing conversations between a flute, a violin, a bass viol and continuo” (two of which are recorded here for the first time ever) are a consistent delight. Despite their silly name, Ensemble Barockin’ acquit themselves beautifully here, playing with a muscular gusto that never threatens to overwhelm the courtly delicacy of the writing.
Classical Banjo: The Perfect Southern Art
For baroque (and Romantic) music played on something that doesn’t even come close to being a period instrument, consider this wonderful recording by five-string banjo virtuoso John Bullard. Assisted by a shifting array of accompanists, he performs his own arrangements of chamber and orchestral works by Schumann, Marcello, Telemann, Handel, Bach, and Grieg, and in all cases makes a strong argument for his instrument in these contexts. At no point does his playing come across as gimmicky; while the banjo’s characteristic lack of sustain poses a challenge (especially on the Schumann oboe romances), Bullard overcomes it by means of tremolo–no easy task when fingerpicking a banjo–and elsewhere, he uses it to advantage on the more contrapuntal baroque works. The only fly in the ointment is the banjo’s equally characteristic iffiness of intonation–but that’s not enough of a problem to seriously undermine one’s enjoyment of this fine album.
Music for Cello and Electronics (2 discs)
Arne Deforce; Yutaka Oya
Aeon (dist. Naxos)
Sono Luminus (dist. Naxos)
These two albums both focus on contemporary works that involve the interaction of a human cello player with electronic sounds–but beyond that, they have relatively little in common. The three Richard Barrett compositions for cello and electronics (all of which are world-premiere recordings) featured on the Aeon set are all quite challenging, and characterized by unique tunings, physical interventions similar to those used in prepared piano compositions, and extended playing techniques. The result is music that many listeners may find more conceptually interesting than actually enjoyable, but it is indeed conceptually interesting. The Michael Nicolas album surveys contemporary works by Mario Davidovsky, Steve Reich, David Fulmer, Annie Gosfield, Anna Thorsvaldsdottir, and Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa–a diverse bunch of composers, to be sure, and as a result the program showcases a great variety of stylistic approaches and a rich diversity of aural experiences. One of the initial “transitions” the listener experiences is that from Davidovsky’s spikily thrilling Synchronisms No. 3 into Reich’s defiantly tonal Cello Counterpoint, and the concept of transition is extensively unpacked throughout the rest of the album. Three of the seven selections featured here are world-premiere recordings.
Stories for Ocean Shells
Cantaloupe (dist. Naxos)
This album also consists of contemporary music for cello, but it could not be more different in style and sound from the two recommended above. This one is essentially a collaboration between composer Kate Moore and cellist Ashley Bathgate, and while the music here does not make extensive use of electronic sounds as such, it does make use of electronic techniques–primarily the multitracking of a single cello, but others as well. The music is not exactly tonal, but it is certainly generally assonant, with a significant amount of minimalism-derived repetition and the generous use of sonic negative space. Bathgate is an exceptionally gifted cellist (she normally plays with Bang on a Can All Stars), and together she and Moore have created a stunningly beautiful album.
Murcoff & Vanessa Wagner
InFiné (dist. Redeye)
Fernando Corona is an electronic composer who records under the name Murcof; Vanessa Wagner is a French classical pianist. For this album they have collaborated on a program of adaptations of works by John Cage, Morton Feldman, György Ligeti, John Adams, and others, blending piano with electronic treatments to create music that is by turns peaceful, harsh, spacious, claustrophobic, and generally unsettling–but pretty much always in a good way. As is to be expected, their setting of Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata No. 2 is among the more confrontational pieces, while their take on Feldman’s Piano Piece 1952 is ethereally strange. Some of this stuff even gets funky. All of it is well worth hearing and this disc should be considered an essential purchase for any library supporting a music major.
The Old Colony Collection
Handel & Haydn Society Chorus / Harry Christophers
Coro (dist. Naxos)
The choruses and verse anthems performed on this album were actually published by the Handel & Haydn Society itself, during its early years in the mid-18th century. (Established in 1815, the H&H is the oldest continuously-running arts organization in the United States.) While some of these works are very familiar–oratorio excerpts from Handel, opera choruses from Mozart–others are by obscure English composers like James Kent, Samuel Webbe, and Samuel Chapple, and have never been recorded and only rarely performed before. So quite apart from the outstanding performance quality that we have come to expect from this group and from its distinguished conductor, the historical significance of this album makes it an essential purchase for all library classical collections.
Amendola Vs. Blades
The album title is a cute joke: although they’ve been playing together for about ten years, this is the first release by the duo of keyboardist Will Blades and drummer Scott Amendola. In fact, cute jokes kind of abound here: calling themselves “Amendola vs. Blades,” crediting Amendola with playing both drums and cymbals, etc. And the music itself is joyfully fun as well: yes, it’s jazz, but in true organ-combo fashion it’s jazz that is deeply infused with funk–at times, Blades seems to be channeling Bernie Worrell. And of course, Amendola is right there with him: for me, as for many, he will always the drummer for T.J. Kirk, the quartet notorious for limiting its repertoire to compositions by Thelonious Monk, Roland Kirk, and James Brown (while wearing fezzes). Anyway, this album is tons of fun and highly recommended to all jazz collections.
Hot Club of San Francisco
John Paul George & Django
Speaking of cute jokes, here’s a collection of Beatles songs played in Gypsy jazz style by the always-exciting Hot Club of San Francisco. The overall concept is fun enough, but there’s a subtler joke in there as well: the name for which the Django Reinhardt reference acts as a substitute is, of course, that of Beatles drummer Ringo Starr–and this being a Gypsy jazz combo, they of course have no drummer, but instead rely on driving on-the-beat rhythmic chops from multiple acoustic guitars. How do these tunes stand up to the Django treatment? Quite nicely, generally speaking, and certainly better than less sophisticated pop songs might have. Libraries supporting programs in transcription and arrangement should take particular note.
Felix Peikli & Joe Doubleday
No cat. no.
Clarinetist Felix Peikli and vibraphonist Joseph Doubleday sound like kids on Christmas morning on this ebulliently joyful disc of swing standards. They favor breakneck tempos (check out the head to “Dizzy Spells,” for example) but they never sound like they’re just showing off–instead, they sound like they’re having the time of their lives, and you will too. The other star on this quintet date is pianist Rossano Sportiello (whom you may remember from last month’s issue), who keeps up with them apparently effortlessly and never sounds as if he’s in danger of breaking a finger. For pure fun, this is the jazz album of the year.
Francisco Pais Lotus Project
Product of Imagination
No cat. no.
Guitarist/composer Francisco Pais is operating in a completely different world altogether. While you’ll hear hints of swing rhythm dfrom time to time, and while there’s plenty of energy and virtuosity, this sextet project is generally pretty abstract. What’s cool about it is the way that Pais packages the abstraction in a variety of interesting ways: a slippery, sideways melody boxed into a strict bebop structure partway through “Drake-ish,” a country steel guitar floating almost untethered through a barely-recognizable twelve-bar blues concept on “Lookit,” rockish distortion and squalling harmolodic saxophone almost obscuring the gossamer keyboard parts at the beginning of “Where Is the Edge.” This isn’t great music for reading to, but it’s great for concentrated listening.
Live at the 4 Queens
The Resonance label just keeps coming up with these amazing finds–previously unheard live recordings by jazz legends. The latest such is this recently-unearthed live tape of Shirley Horn’s trio playing at the Four Queens hotel in Vegas on May 2, 1988. Bassist Charles Ables and drummer Steve Williams had been her rhythm section for twenty years at this point, and it sounds as if they all share a single set of hands–most impressively on Horn’s very rhythmically free take on “Boy from Ipanema.” As always with these releases, there are extensive liner notes that will be of particular use to academic library patrons, and although the recorded sound is just a bit cramped, overall this is a very fine album as well as an important one.
All Night Live, Vol. 1
Mono Mundo (dist. Thirty Tigers)
No cat. no.
My wife and I discovered the Mavericks when we were flipping through TV channels one night and were startled to see a band in modified mariachi suits and cowboy hats, with a full horn section, playing what sounded for all the world like honky-tonk ska. We became fans immediately, and ever since a transcendent experience at a Mavericks concert we’ve been waiting anxiously for a live album. Here it is, and it’s as much fun as any Mavericks fan has reason to expect–though sadly, it’s also marred by distinctly sub-par sound. Weirdly, it doesn’t sound like a soundboard recording, but rather like something that was taped from the audience using a relatively high-quality handheld recorder. The mediocre sound isn’t enough to ruin the fun of songs like “Stories We Could Tell” and “Waiting for the World to End,” but it’s consistently pretty annoying.
Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams
Dust to Digital (dist. Forced Exposure)
Ever since its first release (2003’s magisterial Goodbye, Babylon), the Dust to Digital label has set the industry standard for deep and detailed research, lavish packaging, musicological significance, and pure musical quality. Washington Phillips was actually featured on that first release, and his voice and performing style captivated so many people that the folks at DtD did some digging and located more material from this mysterious character. Phillips sang gospel songs and played a homemade zither that he called a Manzarene. This collection of songs, all originally issued on 78-rpm discs, is packaged with a 76-page hardcover book by Michael Corcoran, a music journalist who has invested significant time and energy in researching Phillips. The result is a wealth of written and photographic information as well as the complete lyrics, all packaged together with some of the most hauntingly beautiful and utterly unique African-American music you’ll ever hear. A must for all libraries.
Paul Kelly & Charlie Owen
Death’s Dateless Night
Australian singer/songwriter Paul Kelly has been an impressive presence on the roots-rock scene for decades now. His latest is a duo effort with slide guitarist Charlie Owen, and its theme is death. It consists of songs that Kelly has been asked to perform at funerals, and some of them are more or less predictable: Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live Is to Fly,” Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” Lennon and McCartney’s “Let It Be.” Others are less so, and there are some lovely originals here as well. All of the arrangements are spare and atmospheric, and the album ends with a bare-bones acoustic rendition of the Hank Williams song “Angel of Death.” Interestingly, the album is neither depressing nor even exactly dark–it’s thoughtful, gentle, and oddly sweet. Recommended.
Boy, the line between straight-up honky tonk and Western swing sure can be blurry, can’t it? And so much the better. Wayne Hancock has been jitterbugging back and forth across that line for years, to brilliant effect. Notice, for example, how the title track of his latest album harks back explicitly to Bob Wills and the next song sounds like a Hank Williams outtake. But saying that makes it sound like Hancock is an imitator, and he’s not: he’s rooted in tradition but not bound by it. His ebullient style keeps everything fresh, and he writes songs that sound simple and straightforward until you listen closely. Highly recommended to all country music collections.
Swet Shop Boys
Customs (dist. Redeye)
South Asian hip hop isn’t really a novelty (especially not in the UK), but Swet Shop Boys make a sound that is quite unique. For one thing, and unlike many of their colleagues in this musical neighborhood, the accent they adopt when rapping is more American than Cockney or Anglo-Jamaican. Another, and more important, thing that sets them apart is the way they incorporate Indian and Pakistani sound sources: instead of rapping over South Asian beats, they blend South Asian sonorities into their very straight-ahead hip hop rhythms: there are no dancehall inflections or bhangra rhythmic patterns here. And the lyrics are sharp and clever, angry without being bitter, topical without being ephemeral. (Sample song titles: “No Fly List,” “Half Mogul Half Mowgli.”) There are lots of expletives–about which some libraries will care more than others do–but everything they say is worth both hearing and dancing to.
Kate & Anna McGarrigle
Pronto Monto (reissue)
Their songs are often funny, but even their funniest ones don’t feel like novelty numbers. (Well, on this album “NA CL” is maybe an exception to that rule.) Their songs are sometimes heartbreaking, too. What set Kate and Anna McGarrigle apart from the pop music pack was the fact that they always dealt with the whole range of human emotion, rather than just angst and romantic yearning. Their third album, originally issued in 1978 and out of print ever since, finds the pair working in a somewhat poppier vein than on their previous two, and wisely employing the talents of session aces like Steve Gadd, Tony Levin, and Grady Tate. Their sound has a little more of a sheen than usual, but despite the shiny sonic surfaces their quirkiness and emotional depth are unchanged.
Dist. Forced Exposure
I confess that I’m a sucker for this stuff: musical compositions derived from non-musical source material. In this case, the music is created by Lustmord, who made this album by building sound sculptures from sources including “radio, ultraviolet, microwave and X-ray data and within these spectra a wide range of sources including interstellar plasma and molecules, radio galaxies, pulsars masers and quasars, charged particle interactions and emissions, radiation, exotic astrophysical objects, cosmic jets and flares from magnetars.” The degree to which such data represent “sound” depends on one’s definition of “sound”—however, the resulting soundscapes have a dark and majestic beauty that is undeniable. Lustmord has a long history of productivity in the areas of industrial and avant-pop music, but this is something else again. Highly recommended to all libraries.
The Singles (Deluxe Edition; 3 discs)
Look, I’m not sure whether I have the authority to do this, but I’m going to do it anyway: I’m declaring it Officially Time to Acknowledge That Phil Collins is a Pop Music Genius. Sure, some of his ballads are schlocky, but lots of the best pop music is schlocky. And his uptempo numbers, whether funky or soully or power-poppy, are a wonder of craftsmanship. Call me uncool if you want, but this three-disc retrospective of his hit singles is quite simply a blast to listen to and life is too short for feeling guilty about enjoying stuff like this. If your library collects pop music, you have no excuse for missing out on this one. (If you want to spend a bit less, go for the 2-disc version that focuses on his biggest hits.)
The Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul
Soul Jazz (dist. Redeye)
Here’s the thing: Betty Harris wasn’t actually from New Orleans–she flew in from Florida for all of the sessions documented on this outstanding compilation. But her producer and songwriter was the legendary New Orleans figure Allen Toussaint, and her backing band was the Meters, so this album is Crescent City soul through and through. As for Harris herself, her gospel-trained voice is sweetly powerful and slightly gritty, her emotional commitment palpable, her sense of funk exquisite. All of these songs were released as singles between 1964 and 1969, and the Soul Jazz label has done its usual outstanding job of restoring sound and providing informative notes.
A Sleeper, Just Awake
Prog rock is a genre that has gone underground, but never really died. Electronica, of course, has flourished with the proliferation of digital tools and the rise of the Internet. But the two genres don’t usually interact much with each other–prog tends to be elaborately structured and orchestrally grandiose, while electronic pop music tends to be structurally simple and microscopically detailed. Interestingly, Sand (a.k.a. Sam Healy, who also plays with North Atlantic Oscillation) operates with one foot in both scenes, and creates a truly unique brand of highly creative electronic rock. Call it “post-rock” if you want, but I don’t see how someone who so often evokes the sound of Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles can seriously be considered “post-” anything. In keeping with electro principles, the beats are often central; in keeping with prog practice, the hooks can be a bit subtle. They’re there, though.
Véronique Vincent & Aksak Kaboul
16 Visions of Ex-Futur
Back in the early 1980s, Honeymoon Killers vocalist Véronique Vincent teamed up with Aksak Maboul founder Marc Hollander to make a record that they called Ex-Futur Album. It was actually intended as the third album by Aksak Maboul, but it was never completed. The tapes were rediscovered 30 years later, and now not only has the original album been issued as (more or less) originally intended, but the label has also released this excellent collection of remixes and reinterpretations by such fans of the band as Marc Collin, Flavien Berger, Capitol K, and Burnt Friedman. The songs are much more accessible than Aksak Maboul’s earlier work, but still plenty strange, and these new versions are really a blast. Libraries with adventurous pop collections are advised to acquire both.
Studio One Radio Show
Studio One (dist. Redeye)
In the mid-1970s, radio host Winston “The Whip” Williams had a hugely popular weekly show on Studio One Radio in Jamaica. It featured the hottest new reggae sounds, but was also notable for Williams’ distinctive voice: he delivered his critical observations, spoken-word advertisements, and (mostly) clever rhyming commentary in a rich, fruity voice and an accent that wobbled back and forth between local Jamaican inflections and a sort of exaggerated British public-school tone. This disc consists of two of his complete half-hour shows (one from 1977 and one from 1978), and while his constant interjections make it a slightly frustrating listening experience from a purely musical perspective, it’s quite enjoyable (not to mention significant) as a historical document. Featured artists include Sugar Minott, Burning Spear, the Heptones, and Carlton & the Shoes, and although the lack of a tracklist is also somewhat frustrating, this is a release that should be seriously considered by all libraries with a collecting interest in popular music history.
Being a band known for the absolutely promiscuous blending of musical influences from around the globe means constantly walking in the poorly-marked territory that separates respectful quotation from arrogant appropriation. Beats antique has been exploring that territory successfully for some years now, and succeeds in making this kind of stylistic pastiche work by… well, actually, I’m not sure how they do it. Consider the first three tracks of their latest album: it opens with the Balkan folk-pop of “Three Sisters,” which segues into the sharp-edged hip hop of “Killer Bee,” which is in turn followed by the bluesy shout of “Let It All Go” (which features the Preservation Hall Jazz Band). The fourth track is a sort of electro-bhangra prominently featuring sarod player Adam Khan. Let’s be clear here: this should not work. These guys should end up sounding like globetrotting hipster dillettantes. But somehow they don’t. If you figure it out, please let me know.
Coming Home: Original Ghanaian Highlife & Afrobeat Classics 1964-1981 (2 discs)
Strut (dist. Redeye)
Known as the “Golden Voice of Africa,” Pat Thomas was a seminal figure in the modernization of highlife music that took place between the 1960s and 1980s. When there was a craze for reggae music, he incorporated it; when “highlife disco” became a thing in the 1970s, he was there; when he moved to Berlin he was instrumental in the development of what came to be called “burger highlife” among the Ghanaian expatriate community in that city. This very fine two-disc set brings together many of his strongest recordings with his several bands, and in a nice variety of highlife subgenres. Recommended to all world-music collections.
Totó la Momposina y Sus Tambores
This is a strange and gorgeous album featuring the golden-voiced Totó la Momposina, who grew up on the Colombian river island of Mompos and spent her youth researching the traditional singing and dancing of Colombia’s Carribean coastal regions. These are mostly work songs, and are usually accompanied by multiple drums. Tambolero is actually a remastered reissue of her 1992 album La Candela Viva (a fact not clearly indicated on the packaging), with some additional instrumentation and vocal parts added. Even if your library already owns the original version, this reissue is worth picking up–and if you don’t have that earlier issue, then get this one without fail. Totó’s voice is a delight, as are the rippling, multilayered drums.
The Musical Train
Who would have thought that one of the strongest new reggae albums of 2016 would come from a skinny white French kid? But here it is: an outstanding slice of modern roots reggae, featuring not only Yellam’s solid vocals but also even solider rhythms, which are provided by the ever-formidable Roots Radics band. To add a melancholy tinge to the proceedings, consider the fact that drummer Style Scott was killed only one day after the sessions concluded and Yellam returned to France (not only leaving Roots Radics without its drummer, but leaving Dub Syndicate effectively defunct). This album shows Scott to have been taken from us at the peak of his powers, and it showcases a young reggae talent who is effectively developing his.
And speaking of top-notch roots reggae emanating from unlikely European locations, here’s another brilliant slab of dubwise instrumental (or largely instrumental, anyway) reggae from Vienna’s Dubblestandart. Listening to this album, what finally came home to me is the degree to which these guys have picked up the mantle left behind with the passing of Style Scott and the dissolution of Dub Syndicate. Like the mighty Syndicate, Dubblestandart deals in slow, smoky grooves of elephantine weight, and they’re not afraid to indulge in wild excursions of dubby sound manipulation. On this album, the first thing you hear is an even slower and trippier version of Massive Attack’s already slow and trippy “Safe from Harm” — and then things get darker and harder. Highly recommended.