PICK OF THE MONTH
Eraldo Bernocchi & Prakash Sontakke
This is an exceptionally beautiful album by Indian slide guitarist Prakash Sontakke and Italian guitarist/producer Eraldo Bernocchi. The blending of Indian classical music and Western dance beats is by no means a new idea at this point, but every so often an album comes along that takes that time-honored arrangement and sheds new light on it, and that’s what has happened with this project. Bernocchi plays multiple instruments on these recordings, but his primary duty is to create sound environments suitable for Sontakke’s virtuosic slide excursions. However, those environments are not simply ambient chordal washes or New Age-y pseudo-mystical atmospheres. The beats are sturdy and often complex; the textures are multilayered and carefully crafted; the fretted guitar parts are tastefully rendered and provide beautiful canvasses for Sontakke’s complicated flights of melodic fancy. The result is music that is neither Asian nor Western, but something new and different, and all of it is absolutely wonderful. Strongly recommended to all libraries.
The Fifth Century
PRISM Quartet; The Crossing / Donald Nally
Gavin Bryars has always known how to touch the mind and the heart with equal power, and he does so again on this program of new vocal music. The title composition is a setting for choir and saxophone quartet of texts by the 17th-century English mystic Thomas Traherne, and the disc is rounded out by two settings of Petrarch for the choir’s female voices. In the 21st century it has already become a cliché to refer to a living composer’s work as “complex but accessible,” and yet in Bryars’ case those terms are both centrally important. The complexity of his work is often conceptual more than harmonic (I’ll let you read the liner notes yourself), but the depth of his conceptions does come through in the music’s organization — and as for its accessibility, all I can say is that it is viscerally gorgeous and deeply moving. The performances are exquisite. For all library collections.
La harpe reine: Musique à la cour de Marie-Antoinette
Xavier de Maistre; Les Arts Florissants / William Christie
The compositions for harp and orchestra featured on this disc — works by Krumpholtz, Haydn, and Hermann — were all written at a time when the harp was rebounding from its nadir of European popularity in the early 18th century. All are solidly in the high-classical tradition, which might make the harp parts a little bit jarring to 21st-century ears: we’re used to encountering these kinds of dreamy scalar passages and swooping arpeggiations as vehicles for 19th-century Romanticism, and to hear them harnessed to the structural rigor of a classical symphony and two concertos is very fun. Xavier de Maistre is a passionate exponent for this repertoire and plays beautifully, as does the always-outstanding Les Arts Florissants ensemble under the baton of William Christie. The final piece on the program is a solo harp arrangement of Gluck’s “Danse des esprits bienheureux” from Orphée et Eurydice, and it’s a lovely, soothing end to a vigorous and exciting program. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Duet (2 discs)
MDR Leipzig Radio Choir & Symphony Orchestra / Kristjan Järvi
In celebration of Steve Reich’s 80th birthday, he collaborated with conductor Kristjan Järvi and the MDR Leipzig Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra on a project that features, on the first disc, a live recording of three older pieces (the sumptuously beautiful Duet for Two Solo Violins and String Orchestra, the very early Clapping Music, and The Four Sections) and on the second disc world-premiere recordings of the orchestral versions of Daniel Variations and You Are (Variations). On Clapping Music the performers are Reich himself and Järvi, and the combination of conceptual whimsy and rhythmic sophistication of that work continues to delight. A very fine recording of a thoughtfully put-together program.
Timber Remixed (2 discs)
Cantaloupe (dist. Naxos)
Michael Gordon’s Timber is a large-scale work composed for six two-by-fours. If that sounds like a recipe for truly dreary and boring minimalism, think again: these slabs of wood (used liturgically, believe it or not, in Eastern Orthodox worship) can yield a surprisingly wide range of tones and pitches, and Gordon makes extensive use of their range in his piece, which is in many ways reminiscent of Steve Reich’s early work. The second disc in the package consists of remixes of Gordon’s work created by producers and electronic dance artists both famous (Squarepusher, Fennesz) and less so (Sam Pluta, HPRIZM). Some of the remixes are actually less interesting than the original work, but some are thrilling. The whole package is very much worth hearing.
Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 5 & 6
Howard Shelley; London Mozart Players
Hyperion (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Pianist Howard Shelley continues his triumphant Classical Piano Concerto series with this absolutely outstanding recording (on modern instruments) of concerti by the Viennese composer Leopold Kozeluch. All three were written during his mature period and display his mastery of the classical idiom. As a contemporary of Mozart, he suffers from the same handicap as any other musician of that time and place, but his keyboard writing really is delightful, and Shelley — as always — makes a passionate case for the composer’s rehabilitation. This series continues to produce recordings that should be considered essential purchases for all classical library collections.
Complete Works for Clarinet & Piano
David Odom; Jeremy Samolesky
Max Reger’s music is endlessly fascinating to me. Working in Germany at the turn of the 20th century, he writes with a clear awareness of the tremendous upheavals on the horizon for art music and indeed for tonality itself, and he makes what sounds like approving reference to those changes — and yet at the same time he embraces without apparent reluctance the verities of Romanticism and even the classical tradition. Lyrical and poignant melodies meander with bittersweet hesitancy along harmonically sinuous paths, sometimes stopping for a moment to ponder or cry or shake their fists at the heavens. Clarinetist David Odom and pianist Jeremy Samolesky play this music as if it were written in their souls. Strongly recommended to all collections.
Vespro per la festa di Santa Barbara
Accademia degli Invaghiti; Concerto Palatino / Frances Moi
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
If the opening sections of this vespers setting by early-17th-century Mantuan composer Amante Franzoni sound familiar, it’s probably because they are also the opening sections of Monteverdi’s more famous Vespro della Beata Vergine, apparently inserted here to point out Franzoni’s assimilation of previous Mantuan traditions and those of nearby Venice. Franzoni was known for giving lots of room to his instrumentalists as well as for writing sumptuously lovely vocal music, and this program written in honor of Mantua’s patron saint displays all the elaborate and devotional beauty that one would expect of this time and place. The choir, soloists, and instrumentalists are excellent here — the duet passages for tenor and countertenor on the Laudate pueri setting are especially lovely.
Consort Music 1627
Accademia del Ricercare / Pietro Busca
CPO (dist. Naxos)
Carlo Farina was another son of Mantua, and he is yet another fine late-Renaissance composer the details of whose life have been substantially lost to history. Not much is known about his early training, but it is certain that he spent several years in Germany (notably under the tutelage of Heinrich Schütz) before returning to Italy and dying young of the plague. During his brief career he published five volumes of dance music for mixed instrumental consorts, and the selections on this disc are from his third, which was published in Dresden in 1627. Although the recorded sound is a bit thin, the Accademia del Ricercare plays these pieces with both precision and élan.
Victor & Penny
Dancing back and forth between the stylistic lines that separate Tin Pan Alley, jump blues, and hot jazz, Victor and Penny (a.k.a. guitarist/singer Jeff Freling and singer/ukelele player Erin McGrane) characterize their central influence as “prohibition-era jazz.” And that’s a term that nicely conveys the sense of hard-swinging fun at the root of their songs and tunes, not to mention the slightly edgy playfulness that also emerges on a regular basis. McGrane’s voice is sweet and clear, Freling’s guitar is bluesy and growly, and their backing trio provides a wide variety of settings for their compositions. All of it is tons of fun.
On his third album as a leader for the Posi-Tone label, pianist and composer Art Hirahara explores his Japanese heritage in a way he hasn’t before: setting a traditional melody from Fukuoka (near where his mother grew up), ruminating on earthquake legends, pondering his ancestral lines. He also pays homage to Billy Strayhorn and to the redwood forests of Northern California, arranges a traditional Ghanaian tune, and performs a Brazilian composition by Chico Buarque — so this isn’t exactly a concept album. What unite all of the tracks are Hirahara’s uncommon gift for melodic elaboration and his ability to lead his group adroitly through complex arrangements in such a way as to make them sound straightforward and even intuitively obvious. I understand that it’s fallacious to talk about pianists having a personal “tone,” but I could swear that Hirahara makes his piano sparkle in a way that others don’t. Highly recommended to all collections.
Sonny Rollins Trio; Horace Silver Quintet
TCB: The Montreux Jazz Label (dist. Naxos)
If this looks like a strange pairing, well, it kind of is: Sonny Rollins leading a pianoless trio (with bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Pete La Roca), and Horace Silver leading a quintet featuring trumpeter Blue Mitchell and tenor saxophonist Junior Cook. What brings them together on this recording is that each played a 30-minute live set in the studio for Swiss Radio on the same day in 1959; neither of these recordings has been released before, and both find the leaders at the peak of their powers. Although their styles are very different, and therefore the combined album is something of a bifurcated listening experience, this disc should be considered an essential purchase for all comprehensive jazz collections.
This is an exceptionally deep and beautiful album, a trio session of uncommon impressionism and introspection. Kimbrough is a gifted composer, but as a pianist he shines brilliantly, using silence and space as effectively as he chooses notes, responding to and encouraging his accompanists as much as he showcases his own ideas. On his latest album he allocates almost all of the time to the work of other writers who have influenced him: Carla Bley, Paul Motian, Annette Peacock, Maria Schneider, and others. All tracks are ballads; some of them float in time nearly arrhythmically, while others swing gently but insistently. Only a rendition of Peacock’s “El Cordobes” approaches midtempo. By the end of the album you have a feeling of peace and cleansing that is really quite remarkable. If this is your first exposure to Kimbrough’s art, let it lead you back into his catalogue. For all collections.
The Girshevich Trio is pianist/composer Vlad Girshevich, his 15-year-old(!) son Aleks on drums, and legendary bassist Eddie Gomez. The compositions on this album are all originals written by the two Girsheviches, and they comprise a program that is as exciting as it is stylistically eclectic. It opens with “Healing the Chaos,” which incorporates Middle Eastern modes and rhythms (and a lovely string section) and the album then proceeds to explore Latin flavors (“A Rainbow on Your Carpet,” “Algorithmic Society”), progressive expressionism (“300 Years Ago”), and skittering straight-ahead swing (“Unborn Tales”). Aleks Girshevich’s playing is as notable for its tonal and textural maturity as for its technical virtuosity, and Vlad’s pianism is exceptionally creative. Gomez is the genius he has been for decades. Highly recommended to all jazz collections.
Ken & Brad Kolodner
The Swift House
It’s been a long wait for those of us who are fans of this father-son duo — their last album was reviewed here back in 2013 — but it was worth it. The opening track (“Turkey in the Pea Patch”) had me scrambling through online tunebooks looking for a notated version so I could learn it, and their version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Steel Rail Blues” had me rethinking my longstanding aversion to that particular artist — thanks in part to Brad Kolodner’s clean, understated singing style, which is a perfect complement to his unassumingly virtuosic clawhammer banjo playing and to his dad’s hammered dulcimer. There are some unusual arrangements here and some obscure songs (of course), and all of it is a delight. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Buck Owens and the Buckaroos
The Complete Capitol Singles: 1957-1966 (2 discs)
If your only exposure to Buck Owens was during his time as a fixture on the cringe-inducing 1970s TV show Hee Haw!, then you may be surprised to know that the man was a genius, one of the most influential artists in country music history and a singer and bandleader par excellence. He’s generally credited as the chief architect (alongside Merle Haggard) of the Bakersfield Sound. And if you don’t believe me, listen carefully to this outstanding two-disc set of his singles from the late 1950s and early 1960s, which make clear another important fact: almost as important as Owens himself was the contribution of his guitarist, fiddler and harmony singer Don Rich. (Rich himself is showcased on a companion release credited to Don Rich and the Buckaroos, and entitled Guitar Pickin’ Man.) All of the essential tracks are here: “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “Act Naturally,” “My Heart Skips a Beat,” etc. It’s a particular mark of his genius that even when performing borderline-novelty tunes, Owens could make your hair stand on end with his singing. A must for all pop collections.
No cat. no.
These days there’s no shortage of artists and bands experimenting with fusions of traditional Celtic music and various kinds of dance music, rock, hip hop and electronica. But Irish flute player Matthew Olwell has staked out something of a unique territory by blending Irish, Cajun, and old-time American tunes with beatboxing (mouth-generated percussion) and funk bass. The combination works really well, and for those unfamiliar with beatboxing it may actually take a few listens to figure out that the complicated percussion parts are being made by a human being and a microphone. The tunes themselves are a nice blend of traditional and original compositions, and everyone’s playing is both expert and tasteful. Very, very nice.
Katie McNally Trio
The Boston States
No cat. no.
Boston, Massachusetts has been home to a highly diverse fiddling diaspora for decades, and possibly centuries: fiddlers from Ireland and Scotland, from Scotland by way of Cape Breton, and from Scandinavia have all found homes and audiences in Greater Boston’s dancehalls, bars, and clubs, and the folk scene in that area has grown incredibly rich. One expression of its richness is the trio of Katie McNally (fiddle), Shauncey Ali (viola), and Neil Pearlman (piano). Their playing is most deeply informed by Cape Breton traditions, but there are tricky innovations at work here as well, with unusual key changes and jazz-inflected keyboard parts spicing up the proceedings. This is a wonderful album, and a very tough one to sit still to.
Richard Pinhas & Barry Cleveland
Here we have a summit meeting between two experimental guitarists from very different regions and traditions: Richard Pinhas, a French musician who has been blazing his own musical path for over 40 years, and the Bay Area-based Barry Cleveland, whose approach to guitar is as likely to involve bowing and striking it as plucking it. Both also make extensive use of looping and other electronic effects, and on this very exciting album they are joined by bassist Michael Manring and drummer Celso Alberti for a set of compositions that sometimes sound like prog rock and sometimes like noisy free improv, and that never fail to be engaging and interesting. Even when moments of lyrical beauty suddenly give way to seeming chaos, there is always something holding the proceedings together. Manring’s bass regularly emerges as agent of order in such moments.
Out on Your Block
The dividing line separating punk, power pop, and glam rock has always been fuzzy, and it’s never been fuzzier than it is on the third album from this New York-based quartet. What this group is selling is architecturally perfect pop music covered in ultra-crunchy guitars, spikes and grunge disguising pure melodic sweetness. And more power to them, say I. The older I get the more I respect pop music, and if you can give it an extra layer of meaning by slathering glammy punk attitude onto it, good for you. For all pop and rock collections.
Here’s the challenge: to make music that is conventionally and uncomplicatedly beautiful and that incorporates South Asian influences without allowing the result to sound like Orientalist New Age goop. How do you do it? Well, complex and funky beats help, but they aren’t enough; you also have to approach the project with genuine respect for your source materials and a certain (and probably unquantifiable) blend of pure individual creativity — such that you don’t have to fall back on over-familiar melodic tropes or cookie-cutter cultural signifiers. Many artists try to do this, and most of them fail. Pete Ardron succeeds magnificently, and his latest solo album is a triumph of cross-cultural electro-funk: microscophically detailed beats are constructed around Indian vocal samples, bansuri licks, and dubwise basslines. The music feels carefully composed, yet at the same time flexible and fun; it’s dance music with a spiritual undercurrent that feels earned rather than tacked on. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Here comes Kelley Ryan with yet another perfect pop confection: perfect not just because it’s sweet, but also because it’s crunchy. Not spiky, mind you, and we’re not talking about the crunchiness of broken glass — this is the crunchiness of almonds in very fine chocolate, or maybe of salt crystals in caramel. In other words, the kind of crunchiness that makes seemingly simple pop songs worth listening to carefully, the kind that sometimes emerges from lyrics that have an edge you only catch when you listen, and sometimes from unexpected elements popping up in the arrangements: like a small host of flugelhorns on a song about quitting smoking, or a subtly-wielded tabla underlying the opening couplet “Holy roller, hit the floor/I can’t take it anymore.” As usual, part of the credit goes to the quiet genius of co-producer Don Dixon, but this is Ryan’s show all the way and as always it’s brilliant. For all collections.
Marcel Khalife; Mahmoud Darwish
Andalusia of Love
Marcel Khalife is a singer, composer, and virtuoso of the oud, and is billed as “Lebanon’s iconic voice of defiance and reconciliation.” The political content of his songs may be lost on those not fluent in Arabic, but their longing, regret, and quiet frustration are all palpable. What is notably absent is anything that could reasonably construed as anger; this may be protest music, but it seems to be anchored more in an intense feeling of loss and mourning than in righteous outrage. The songs on this album are based on writings of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, and their settings are complex and haunting. Khalife is joined by his sons Rami (a Juilliard-trained classical and jazz pianist), and percussionist Bachar, and by kanoun player Jilbert Yamine. I recommend following along with the translated lyric sheet.
Wash House Ting
Wash House Music Group
No cat. no.
If you’re in the market for some top-notch modern reggae with a smooth surface and plenty of R&B inflections, then look no further than the third album from J Boog, a Compton native of Samoan ancestry who is currently based in Hawaii. His eclectic background and extensive touring have given him a broad network of connections in the reggae world, and Wash House Ting finds him joined by guests as eminent as Gramps Morgan, Gappy Ranks, Chaka Demus, and Buju Banton, along with up-and-comers like Lion Fyah and Tenelle Luafalemana. The songs offer a perfect balance of melodic lightness and heavyweight roots and dancehall rhythms, and this album will make a perfect driving-with-the-top-down listen in a few months when the weather warms up.
Lorraine Klaasen was born and raised in South Africa but currently resides in Montréal, and has been a performing musician since her youth (her mother is the jazz singer Thandie Klaassen). Today she records and performs in a variety of styles and languages, but Nouvelle Journée is (despite its French title) a celebration of South African township jive and mbaqanga. Of course, township music is a tradition that contains multitudes, and on this album you’ll hear swinging tunes with hints of ska (“Township Memories”), jazzy ballads (“Polokwane”), and soulful African R&B (“Make It Right”), alongside more stylistically mainstream SA pop numbers like “Ke Tshepile Bafatsi” and “Izani Nonke.” Klaasen’s voice is rich and chesty, and her studio musicians strike that perfect balance of tightness and warm, rubbery looseness. This is an outstanding example of modern African pop music.