PICK OF THE MONTH
The Incomparable Fiddler: 100 Years (5 CDs + 1 DVD)
Storyville (dist. Naxos)
There is a bitter irony to the title of this wonderful box set, because Svend Asmussen died just as it was being released — exactly three weeks short of his 100th birthday. Still, the trajectory of his career really is astounding: a classically-trained violinist, jazz caught his attention at age 24, and he played professionally until 1943, at which point he came to the conclusion (get this) that jazz had developed as far as it would go, and he decided to focus on working in musical theater. He did so for 14 years, but began venturing back into the jazz scene during the 1950s. He eventually returned completely, and spent the next sixty–that’s sixty–years purveying old-school swing and hot sounds in a variety of ensemble configurations. One has to wonder whether his temporary withdrawal from jazz during the 1940s explains the complete lack of bebop elements in his playing, or whether the advent of bebop was what put him off of jazz. In any case, no other musician has made a stronger case for the ongoing vitality of traditional jazz, and I personally consider Asmussen the finest jazz violinst ever. (And a very fine singer as well, as many of these early recordings demonstrate.) This box is a slightly strange collection, consisting not of carefully-curated individual tracks from across his discography but rather of two discs’ worth of odds and ends from his early years followed by several whole albums (both live and studio recordings) originally issued between 1966 and 1986. But all of it is wonderful, and any library that collects comprehensively in jazz should definitely pick this one up.
Eighth Symphony (Theologoumena); Fourth Piano Concerto
Boston Symphony Orchestra; Peter Serkin / James Levine
Bridge (dist. Albany)
All libraries with a collecting interest in contemporary classical music should be quick to acquire this, the first commercial release of two major works by Charles Wuorinen, both commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under conductor James Levine. Wuorinen is one of the last of the great mid-century serialists–although he seems irritated by the term and has explicitly rejected it, there is no question that his approach to composition is deeply rooted in the 12-tone compositional approach, and that lends even his mature works a sense of (paradoxical as this may sound) old-fashioned avant-gardism. The structure is clearly there, and his sense of texture is exquisite, but none of this music is going to send you home humming. This is music for people who want their ears and their brains challenged, and who don’t mind working a bit for the experience of beauty. The always-exceptional Peter Serkin shines as a soloist on the concerto, in particular. These recordings were made in concert at the premiere performances of the works, in 2005 and 2007.
Sonates en trio — Manuscrits d’Uppsala
Mirare (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Dietrich Buxtehude remains known mostly for his organ works, but I’ve always been a bigger fan of the chamber music–especially his trio sonatas, which over the past few decades have received fairly steady if not voluminous attention from period-instrument ensembles. This selection of solo and trio sonatas showcases the virtuosic nature of his chamber works, and in particular exemplifies the stylus fantasticus that Buxtehude was instrumental in introducing to German musicians and audiences. The ensemble La Rêveuse plays with seemingly effortless skill and also, crucially, is recorded in a warm and intimate space that beautifully balances the astringent sound of the gut-strung violins and gamba with a rich lower end. Highly recommended to all classical collections.
Giaches de Wert
Divine Theatre: Sacred Motets
Of the great Flemish polyphonists, Giaches de Wert is one of the least famous today. This may be partly because he spent his career mainly in Italy, and therefore developed a style that anticipates Monteverdi more than it harks back to Josquin. But you’ll hear elements of both in these wonderful motets, which are unusual in drawing mostly upon New Testament texts. The Venetian influence is also somewhat muted in that these works are purely vocal, without any of the elaborate horn and organ accompaniments that we are used to hearing in the liturgical works of Monteverdi and the Gabrielis. As always, the singing of Stile Antico is absolutely superb.
American Brass Quintet
Opening with the magisterial four-part Shine by Robert Paterson, the latest album by the American Brass Quintet showcases newly-commissioned works by American composers. The Paterson work is something of a tone poem exploring the properties of different metals, and it’s wonderful; Jay Greenberg’s Quintet for Brass is another highlight, one that makes generous use of specialized horn techniques, while Sebastian Currier’s Cadence, Fugue, Fade moves from a slow and contemplative opening to a series of glorious fanfares and periods of irritable grumbling. Eric Ewazen’s Canticum honoris amicorum is a brief and energetic piece that sparkles with wit and good humor. All of the pieces are well worth hearing, and it’s hard to imagine them being better played.
Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, Vol. 5
Blue Heron / Scott Metcalfe
The restored choral partbooks housed at Peterhouse, Cambridge, continue to yield previously unheard music of Renaissance England, and with this disc the marvelous Blue Heron choir finishes its five-volume survey of those books’ contents. This volume includes an anonymously-composed (and untitled) Mass, a brief extract of Sarum plainchant, and antiphons by Hugh Sturmy, Robert Hunt, and John Mason–all of whom are currently known to history almost entirely because of their presence in these partbooks. The music is heartbreakingly beautiful, and the singing is glorious. If your library doesn’t already own all five volumes in the series, I encourage you to rectify the oversight.
Wayne Vitale & Briam Baumbusch
Lightbulb Ensemble; Santa Cruz Contemporary Gamelan
New World (dist. Albany)
The music of Bali has fascinated contemporary Western composers since at least the middle of the 20th century. Composers like Lou Harrison and Peter Sculthorpe have written for gamelan ensembles, and the repetitive, interlocking rhythms that characterize gamelan music often feature in more progressive and experimental types of Western pop music (listen to the opening bars of King Crimson’s 1980 song “Discipline,” for example.) Current composers are using the textures and structural principles that underlie this music as a stepping-off point from which to create music that is uniquely their own–and that’s the modus operandi for both Wayne Vitale and Brian Baumbusch, who have created this hypnotically gorgeous album from two works: the large-scale multipart title piece (written by both of them together) and Baumbusch’s own, much more intimate and compact Ellipses. Those who have never heard gamelan music before may find it puzzling, but these pieces are both fascinating and approachable. Recommended to all collections.
Flute Concertos nos. 5-8
Patrick Gallois; Swedish Chamber Orchestra
A couple of years ago I recommended flutist Patrick Gallois’ recording of François Devienne’s first four flute concertos; now, finally, comes the next installment in what we can only hope will eventually be a full recording of all twelve. As before, Gallois is a delightfully convincing exponent for these pieces, and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra (playing on modern instruments) provide him with the perfect balance of lightness and substance. These are masterworks of the late classical period and of the wind concerto form.
Dave Brubeck Quartet
TCB: The Montreux Jazz Label (dist. Naxos)
The downside of having a big hit as a jazz composer is that listeners may tend to have a hard time taking the rest of your work seriously. I confess that I always thought of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” (actually written by saxophonist Paul Desmond, his longtime collaborator) as basically a novelty number and as a result never paid much attention to his other work. I’m repenting of that now, partly on the strength of this fine live set recorded by his quartet (featuring Desmond) in Zurich in 1964. Not only was Brubeck a fine exponent of the cool jazz style, but his experimentation with time signatures went far beyond what he did with “Take Five”–on this album, for example, notice how he manages to incorporate boogie-woogie figures into a mid tempo jazz waltz on “Cable Car” (and notice how drummer Joe Morello, astonishingly never drops a beat). This stuff is lots of fun, and highly musically interesting at the same time.
Does anyone remember D’Cuckoo? Back in the 1980s they played a sort of pan-ethnic percussion-based electronica, with wordless vocals and lots of rhythmic layers. Now try to imagine that group collaborating with 1970s fusioneers the Yellowjackets, and that gives a pretty good idea of what to expect from Beata Pater’s latest album. She sings wordlessly (but I wouldn’t exactly call it “scatting”) in harmonically complex multitracked layers over smoothly funky jazz-fusion backing that incorporates subtle elements from lots of other world traditions. It doesn’t sound strange, exactly, but it also doesn’t sound like anything else you’re likely to hear this year. Very cool.
Hot Dance Music and Jazz from Britain, 1923-1936: Unissued on 78s
Retrieval/Challenge (dist. Naxos)
When you’ve got an album that is not only an invaluable historical document but also a pure blast to listen to, that’s sure to get a Rick’s Pick designation. This collection brings together 24 recordings of English dance orchestras and jazz combos that never made it to the commercial marketplace–all of them are test pressings and in one case it’s not even clear who the ensemble is because the label is blank. There’s a mix of vocal and instrumental tracks here, and the package includes admirably detailed liner notes revealing the inner workings of the British early jazz scene. The folks at Retrieval have done their usual excellent job of cleaning up the transfers, and in some cases the resulting sound is startlingly clear and detailed. I can’t recommend this one strongly enough to all jazz collections.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing
Weirdo conceptual jazz has a long and respected history, and bassist Moppa Elliott’s septet Mostly Other People Do the Killing is emerging as a top exponent of the genre. It’s a genre that, of course, has no genre boundaries (conveniently for writers like me), and in this particular case the concept is “pre-bop hot jazz” and the weirdness is in the postmodern interpretation of hot jazz tropes and structures. Each of these eight original compositions is named for a town in Elliott’s native Pennsylvania and most are dedicated to American writers (Cormac McCarthy, Kurt Vonnegut, etc.). All of them showcase not only Elliott’s wonderful melodic inventiveness but also both his sense of idiom and his arranging prowess: there are surprises around every musical corner even as he maintains a constant thread of swinging familiarity. This isn’t easy listening, but it sure is fun–and frequently very, very funny.
Jim Yanda Trio
Home Road (2 discs)
Corner Store Jazz
There’s something to be said for high-energy, hard-swinging jazz, but there’s also something to be said for restrained, quiet, introspective jazz–and when an artist somehow seems to be providing both simultaneously, that’s really something. On this two-disc album, guitarist Jim Yanda and his trio achieve exactly that with a program of original compositions (plus one standard), most of which are played in a straight-ahead style in a warm, comforting acoustic, but which reveal plenty of original thinking. The first disc ends with a more experimental track, on which Yanda plays slide guitar–somewhat less convincingly. But overall, this is an outstanding album of guitar-trio jazz.
For a very different jazz guitar album, consider this one by Amanda Monaco. Here she leads a quartet that includes baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian, organist Gary Versace, and renowned drummer Matt Wilson through a program consisting primarily of original compositions. Her soloing style is not flashily pyrotechnic–what will impress you most is her gift for arranging, and her almost insouciant approach to rhythm: on “Gremlin from the Kremlin,” for example, you’ll hear the combo shift back and forth between a tango feel and a sashaying, almost burlesque sense of swing and between modal and diatonic melodies. And if the presence of an organ leads you to expect funk, you won’t be disappointed–there’s plenty of that here as well. Recommended to all jazz collections.
She could play mandolin and clawhammer banjo all she wanted, but from the very beginning we all knew that Sarah Jarosz’s spoon-bending level of talent wasn’t going to let her stay bounded by bluegrass or nü folk or alt-country or any other meaningful genre designation. And sure enough, eight years after the release of her debut album she has thoroughly broken free: on her latest, the quiet singer-songwriter-fingerpicking of “Early Morning Light” immediately gives way to the lushly produced acousto-electric pop of “Green Lights”; the bluesy modal Americana of “House of Mercy” is eventually displaced by the steel-guitar country weeper “Back of My Mind.” This kid is a once-in-a-generation talent, she can’t be stopped from doing whatever she feels like, and every step she makes feels like exactly the right one.
Ha Ha Tonka
Some have characterized this band as a cross between Alabama and Arcade Fire, and honestly, that’s not a bad description. Even when they’re executing chugging old-school honky-tonk rhythms and singing with an undeniable Nashville drawl, there are plenty of subtly weird sonics going on below the surface, and the songwriting draws on funds of prettiness that are usually foreign to country music, and even more so to what usually gets called “alt country.” Here’s what I’d call it: it’s not country-rock, and it’s not alt country — it’s country/alt-rock. And seriously, it sounds great. The hooks are quietly monstrous, and the weird sonics aren’t nearly as weird as you might think on first listen. It actually all makes a lot of sense.
Big Country Bluegrass
Let Them Know I’m from Virginia
Three things tend to make a great bluegrass band: drive, tightness, and virtuosity. Big Country Bluegrass has exhibited all three in spades for the past three decades now. I was half-expecting their latest to be a career retrospective, but in fact it’s a collection of all-new material, and it’s very good. If you want newgrass innovation or jazzy New Acoustic Music, look elsewhere: this is meat-and-potatoes bluegrass music that could as easily have been written and recorded in 1986 as in 2016. You’ve got your handful of gospel tunes, your celebrations of home and heritage, your tearjerker about an orphan, and your tight harmonies throughout. You also have about one too many pieces of meta-bluegrass (bluegrass songs about bluegrass music), but those are forgivable when they rock, as both of these do. Recommended.
Workin’s Too Hard
I’ll get my one criticism out of the way first: the $10 price tag is too high for seven songs and 24 minutes of music. (The download is only $8, but still.) Now, with that out of the way: this is a brilliant solo album from Uncle-Earl-fiddler-turned-singer-songwriter Rayna Gellert. It’s quiet, moody, introspective, and richly loaded with sharply-observed lyrics and melodic hooks that will worm into your subconscious. Gellert’s voice is pleasant, but when she soars into a chorus you could be forgiven for thinking it’s beautiful. And I don’t know where she found “Oh Lovin’ Babe,” but it’s a paleo-gospel gem. For all libraries with a collecting interest in singer-songwriter and mod-folk fare.
Substrata (reissue; 2 discs)
Biosphere is Norwegian composer/sound sculptor Geir Jenssen, who has been producing various strains of immersive electronic music for a couple of decades now. Even his most dance-oriented work has always had a certain lushness to it, but with this 1997 album (recently reissued with a bonus disc containing Jenssen’s soundtrack to the 1929 Russian film Man with a Movie Camera), he turned his focus to a sort of dark ambience that is alternately warm and cold, and that features unexpected found-sound spoken-word samples. This is not easy listening, but it is undeniably beautiful, and represents some of the best of what the ambient genre is capable of.
Epilogues for the End of the Sky
The Book of Wind
Continuing along the ambient/experimental spectrum, here are two new releases from the always-reliable (and very aptly named) Glacial Movements label. Actually, though, having said that: if you expect everything from Glacial Movements to be cold and slow-moving, you may be surprised by these two albums. Brock Van Wey (recording as bvdub) has been in self-imposed exile from the house and club scene for about 15 years now, and currently works in a highly personal style that is actually quite warm, but often also deeply and inexplicably sad. “Inexplicably” because it’s not like he employs obvious techniques like minor keys or samples of crying children or whatever; he just makes very effective use of subtle melodies that evoke longing or melancholy, and couches them in atmospheres that deepen and darken them. Another guy recording under an alias for the Glacial Movements label is Alexander Glück, whose nom de studio is Aware. He’s a philosopher of religion as well as a composer, and The Book of Wind consists of glitchy, abstract instrumental meditations on a passage from the 19th chapter of the Book of Kings. Here the Glacial Movements aesthetic is more purely expressed: the sounds Aware produces aren’t exactly frigid, but they can be quite chilly, and while there are definitely pitches involved there’s little that could reasonably be characterized as “melody.” But the sounds are quite lovely and sometimes even moving. Both albums are recommended to libraries that collect modern and experimental music.
Weighing the Heart
Old Flame (dist. Redeye)
Art punk isn’t dead. Honestly, it isn’t even senile yet. There are plenty of youngsters coming up and giving new life to the old edgy-postpunk verities, and the Yugos are a great example of that phenomenon. You’ll hear more than a hint of old Cure and Gang of Four in their sound (not to mention Mission of Burma), but their many 1980s influences are fully digested on their third album, and they’ve created a sound all their own. Highlights include the outstanding title track and the sweetly jagged “Steve French.” For all comprehensive pop collections.
The Jerry Cans
Country music? Sure. From Canada? Why not–they’ve got cowboys up there, and Gordon Lightfoot. Sung in Inuktitut? Hold up. This band hails from Nunavut, the Canadian territory that borders on Greenland, and its members perform their country-inflected, occasionally punky, and sometimes reggae-based songs in one of the indigenous languages of the region, adding in throat singing as well and generally casting an entirely new (and distinctly northern) light on the concept of roots music. The highlight track is the final one–not because it’s the only one primarily sung in English, but because it most seamlessly blends the throat singing and the country-rock groove, and because it has the best hook. Recommended.
Gentleman’s Dub Club
Here’s another solid slab of UK roots and dancehall reggae from Leeds-based Gentleman’s Dub Club. This time out they’ve invoted a few guest vocalists to help out: Lady Chann on the sturdy rockers outing “Young Girl,” Parley B and Eva Lazarus on a nice steppers combination track called “Fire in the Hole,” and Taiwan MC speed-raps nicely on “Take Control.” As always, the Club delivers smooth but heavyweight rhythms that feature both a shiny modern surface and a deep respect for reggae tradition.
XX (compilation; 2 discs)
Glitterbeat/Gulbaba Music (dist. Redeye)
Usually the descriptor “psychedelic” turns me off immediately–in my view, psychedelic music is for people who haven’t yet figured out that one day they’re going to die–but when I saw it used in connection with this two-decade retrospective by a Turkish folk-rock ensemble, and that the package would include a bonus disc of dub versions mixed by the likes of Dr. Das and Mad Professor, I knew I had to check it out. And I’m very glad I did. Baba Zula blend funk, rock, reggae, and traditional Turkish elements into a unique style that sounds nothing like anyone else, and although I found the borderline-NSFW cover images and the “Erotika Hop” track both a bit exploitative, the music itself is tons of fun, as are the dub versions. Recommended to world-music collections.
This is a weird but winning album by the former frontperson for Selebrities. Consisting of songs written during her travels around South America and sung in Spanish and a variety of indigenous languages, the Ecuador-born Usbeck writes songs that somehow hardly feel like songs. Their structure is kind of vague, but they’re not abstract or arrhythmic, and they’re frequently very, very pretty. There’s lots of multilayered percussion and the occasional hint of birdsong, and Usbeck’s vocals are also very often multitracked, creating a lush and colorful mix of sound. Honestly, this music is very hard to describe. Libraries with expansive pop or world-music profiles should seriously consider picking this one up.
Northern Spy (dist. Redeye)
And speaking of charming weirdos with deep South American connections, here’s the latest solo album from Arto Lindsay, one-time downtown skronk darling (remember DNA? No? The Golden Palominos? Ah, kids these days) who is equally famous for never tuning his guitar and for singing romantic samba and bossa nova tunes in a sweet tenor voice. “Scary Arto and “Sexy Arto” are the terms sometimes used to describe the twin sides of his musical personality. But in reality, those two personae have never been completely separate, and this album represents perhaps the first real attempt to fuse them. Thus, on “Each to Each” you get gentle crooning with layers of batucada drumming and noise guitar laid tastefully beneath, and “Vao Queimar ou Botando pra Dançar” puts his voice way back in the echoey distance while his guitar gently screeches like John Zorn playing a birdcall. It’s all quite accessible and also deeply strange, and there you go: that’s Arto. Highly recommended.
Synthesize the Soul: Astro-Atlantic Hypnotica from the Cape Verde Island 1973-1988
Read the title carefully: this compilation is not an ethnomusicological study of musical culture in Cape Verde during the 1970s and 1980s, but rather an overview of the music Cape Verdean musicians made elsewhere in the world following that period’s surge in emigration to Europe and the U.S. (in other words, this is music that emerged from Cape Verde). Unsurprisingly, the singing is in Portuguese; what’s more interesting is the clear influence of 1980s synth-pop on this music, even though most of the musicians were working with purely analog instruments because that was all they could afford. This being substantially African music, there’s a stronger emphasis on groove than on tight melodic structure, but this is definitely pop music and it’s tons of fun. For all world music collections.
There may be several things to admire about Rastafarian theology, but its internal coherence is not really one of them. It’s a non-creedal religion with no real organizational structure, and its conceptual framework is (to be charitable) thin. So reggae fans who have listened to Rasta philosophizing at some length may be forgiven for reacting with shock to the latest album from Jah9, a reggae artist who has emerged in recent years as possibly the foremost exponent of the roots-and-culture school. It opens with a song on which she sings about the various ways in which she finds herself being humbled by the mighty acts of Jah; she then proceeds to define being “hardcore” in terms of spiritual insight (and as a gift only available from God); she then struggles with her desire to wreak destruction on the teacher who molested her nephew. How does she feel about love and romance? Well, that’s interesting: on what starts out sounding like the album’s only love song, it turns out that the guy to whom she’s attracted and willing to give herself mainly appeals to her because he’s a source of historical knowledge. Snap. The album’s final song is titled “Greatest Threat to the Status Quo.” Want to guess what that is? It’s a “spiritual woman.” By that point you’ll agree with her. Oh, and every single track absolutely slams. Highly recommended to all libraries.