PICK OF THE MONTH
Trio Mediaeval & Arve Henriksen
This quietly but stunningly beautiful album is the result of a collaboration that might seem weird at first glance, but (in typical ECM fashion) ends up making perfect musical sense. Trio Mediaeval is a three-woman ensemble that generally focuses on either very early or very modern vocal music; Arve Henriksen is a trumpeter who normally traffics in more-or-less experimental jazz and who is particularly known for his ability to make his trumpet sound like a wooden or bamboo flute. These four musicians have worked together in various contexts over the past several years, but this is their first full-length album together, and on it they take the opportunity to explore ancient Scandinavian folk songs, monodic chants, and hymns, some of which are at least partly improvised. The combination of vocal and trumpet tones here is glistentingly lovely, and Henriksen’s trumpet parts are never startling or seem out of place. If you don’t get goosebumps listening to this album, I recommend you have your pulse checked. Recommended to all libraries.
Requiem à la mémoire de Louis XVI
Choeur de Chambre de Namur; La Grande Ecurie et la Chambre du Roy / Jean-Claude Malgoire
Alpha Classics (dist. Naxos)
This is the world-premiere recording of Sigismund Neukomm’s glorious and somber funeral Mass that was first performed (though not written) in 1815 in honor of King Louis XVI, who had been guillotined 26 years earlier. (Interesting piece of trivia: that performance featured 300 vocalists divided into two choirs, one of which was conducted by Neukomm and the other by–get this–Antonio Salieri.) Those who, like me, have never heard of Neukomm may be startled to learn that this was the second of fifty Masses that Neukomm would eventually write, along with oratorios, chamber music, and other works totaling nearly 2,000. His career took him to court appointments and other jobs in France, Russia, Brazil, and Africa before he eventually settled again in France, where he died in 1858 at the age of 80. As always, the Namur Chamber Choir delivers an outstanding account of this previously-lost work, and no library with a collecting interest in 19th-century music should pass it up.
Garden of Joys and Sorrows
Bridge (dist. Albany)
Hat Trick is a trio consisting of flutist April Clayton, violist David Wallace, and harpist Kristi Shade. That’s an instrumental combination for which some very fine music has been written since the turn of the 20th century, and on this album Hat Trick performs some highlights of that repertoire–including a completely delightful piece written for them on commission by Miguel del Aguila. That Latin-inflected composition opens the program, and prepares the way for its centerpiece: Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp. The Debussy, in turn, segues very nicely into Toru Takemitsu’s even more abstract And then I knew ’twas Wind, after which Théodore Dubois’ Terzettino brings in a more Romantic flavor. The album closes with the title composition, a gentle and contemplative piece written by Sofia Gubaidulina. Very, very nice.
Te Deum laudamus & Other Sacred Music
Hyperion (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Jean Guyot, who also went by the last name Castileti, was from the Belgian city of Liège and began his career there, but eventually found employment with the Hapsburg court and settled in Vienna until Emperor Ferdinand I died and Maximilian II took over and purged the chapel, installing his own musicians and composers. At that point Guyot returned to Liège and seems to have remained there until his death. This program–sumptuously sung by the male five-voice Cinquecento ensemble–ends with Guyot’s Te Deum laudamus setting, the last known of the composer’s works; leading up to it is a selection of motets from earlier in his career. Libraries with a collecting interest in Renaissance music should not hesitate–Guyot is rarely recorded, and as far as I can tell this is the only full album dedicated to his music.
Complete Chamber Music for Flute & String Trio, Vol. 1
CPO (dist. Naxos)
Like composers of the classical period who inevitably suffer in comparison to Mozart or Haydn, Ferdinand Ries is destined to languish forever in the shadow of Romanticism’s titan, Ludwig Van Beethoven. But the two men were actually quite close during the early years of Ries’s career, and Ries even worked for a time as Beethoven’s secretary. His music deserves to be heard on its own merits, however: these two quartets and one trio for flute and strings show him to be both a master of classical form and a forward-thinking stylist unafraid of bold gestures and startling effects. The Ardinghello Ensemble make a powerful case for this music, using modern instruments. Recommended to all classical collections.
Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter: Princess, Nun, and Musician: Motets from a 16th-century Convent
Musica Secreta; Celestial Sirens / Laurie Stras & Deborah Roberts
Obsidian (dist. Naxos)
There are so many fascinating aspects to this recording that it’s kind of hard to know where to start. To begin with the most obvious: this collection of vocal music was published in 1543 and found in the convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara, where Suor Leonora d’Este was a nun and later the abbess. (Well, not much later–she was appointed at age 18.) Sister Leonora was the daughter of the notorious Lucrezia Borgia, and while the music contained in this collection was written anonymously, there is fairly strong evidence to suggest that she was its composer. Also interesting: this is the earliest known collection of polyphonic music for nuns, and this is the world-premiere recording of it. The sound, as one might expect, is quite different from that of mixed-voice Renaissance polyphony and it’s really quite special. The singing by the combined forces of the Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirencs ensembles is simply spectacular.
Sevenfive: The John Corigliano Effect
Cedille (dist. Naxos)
CDR 90000 169
And in further world-premiere-recording news, we have this very fine collection of works for brass quintet by students of the great John Corigliano (plus a few little tidbits by Corigliano himself). All but one of these pieces are recorded here for the first time, and while each has a somewhat different flavor, all reflect the influence of the composers’ instructor. Highlights include the timbrally adventurous title composition by Steven Bryant, David Sampson’s quietly sumptuous Still, and (my personal favorite) the “Foxtrot” section of Jonathan Newman’s Prayers of Steel suite.
Bartók by Heart (2 discs)
Chiara String Quartet
Azica (dist. Naxos)
The concept behind this recording of Bartók’s complete string quartets may seem gimmicky: the Chiaras have memorized these notoriously challenging pieces and play them, as the title suggests, entirely by heart. But there is a musical purpose to this approach. Much of the musical content of these works is derived from folk melodies that Bartók collected in the field, and playing them without printed music allows the musicians to (in the words of cellist Gregory Beaver) “return Bartók’s music to the realm of the unrecorded folk music he so lovingly captured.” Those who aren’t familiar enough with Hungarian folk music to recognize the source material may not catch the subtleties of interpretation involved in this approach, but there’s no questioning the commitment, passion, and sheer virtuosity that the Chiara Quartet brings to this familiar repertoire. Strongly recommended, even to libraries that currently hold multiple recordings of these works.
New World (dist. Albany)
Let’s acknowledge up front that there are all kinds of sociopolitical complexities and difficulties around this suite of pieces for string quartet. For one thing, the title has the potential to mislead: this music is abstract in content and is not intended as protest or advocacy music. For another, there’s the question of cultural appropriation, a question raised inevitably by press materials that characterize King’s composition as an example of “a North American composer in the twenty-first century negotiating a new personal relationship with traditional Arabic music… and transforming (it) for conventional Western instruments.” Personally, I’ve got no problem with it and I find this music interesting, intelligent, and exciting; the composer’s respect for and–perhaps more importantly–understanding of the musical forms and conventions he has adapted here are both abundantly clear. I certainly hope my academic colleagues will see and hear it the same way. Recommended to all libraries.
The title is maybe just a little bit misleading: pianist and composer Colin Vallon’s music doesn’t often inspire dancing. Maybe a sort of vague swaying in place with a dreamy smile on your face, but nothing you could really call dancing. His approach to piano trio compositions is abstract, improvisatory, and almost ethereal–which isn’t to say that it’s unstructured, just that it doesn’t swing and sometimes it barely even pulses. Instead, you’re meant to pay attention to the way his melodies develop over time (stretchy, loopy, indeterminate time), and the way bassist Patrice Moret picks up the ideas and runs with them, and the way drummer Julian Sartorius pushes everything along without seeming to be pushing anything at all. Oddly, it never gets boring.
Heads of State
Four in One
Now, if what you’re more interested in is jazz that is in no way ethereal, and that swings mightily, then what you want is the sophomore outing from this supergroup of a quartet. Consisting of saxophonist Gary Bartz, pianist Larry Willis, bassist David Williams, and legendary drummer Al Foster, Heads of State are all about that sturdy hard bop and 1960s-style jazz funk. You get some of both in the first ten minutes of the album: a jaunty mid tempo rendition of one of Thelonious Monk’s most notoriously difficult melodies (the title track), followed quickly by a Bartz original that struts and wiggles and fairly cries out for a Hammond B3 treatment. The rest of the program switches from bop standards to band originals and back, and never stops being an outstanding listen. Turns out there really is no school like the old school.
Fly or Die
International Anthem Recording Co. (dist. Redeye)
My tastes in jazz being pretty straight-ahead, generally speaking, I was prepared not to enjoy this album very much: Branch is a trumpeter and composer leading a band consisting of cello, bass, and drums, with guest musicians playing cornets, guitar, and “collar bells.” In my experience, when an artist offers “music that knows no genre, no gender, no limits,” that music is seldom much fun to listen to. But in this case I was happily surprised: yeah, this stuff is mostly pretty out, but it’s not unstructured and it’s not self-indulgent: Branch leads her ensemble with a firm but gentle hand, and moments of genuine lyricism emerge from the clamor and pointillism. Also, it frequently grooves. For all comprehensive jazz collections.
Dance of Time
With her latest album, Brazilian-American pianist, singer, and composer Eliane Elias looks back on a 40-year career and celebrates the people and musical styles that have influenced her. Unsurprisingly, sambas figure prominently here, and there’s lots of smoothness and lots of rich arrangements (I was unable to count the number of backing voices massed in support of “Copacabana”). There are also tons of prestigious guests, including Randy Brecker, Mike Mainieri, and singers João Bosco and Toquinho. Elias’ piano playing and singing continue to be equally beguiling, and this album is a pleasure from start to finish.
No cat. no.
Listening to the third full-length release from this extremely talented New York-based combo, I kept being startled by how much it reminded me of the mid-1960s Bill Evans Trio. Not because pianist Addison Frei plays like Evans (if anything, his touch is lighter and his role in the group more like a peer and less like a leader), but because the trio’s members interact with each other in such a sweetly intuitive way, and because the music unfolds gently and almost impressionistically. This is very quiet music–I kept having to turn up my stereo because I was worried that I was missing good stuff–and that’s definitely an important part of its beauty. Also worth noting is that all three members are active composers of music for the group. All jazz students should have the chance to listen to the way this group works–this is really quite a special album.
Cuong Vu 4tet
Ballet: The Music of Michael Gibbs
For this tribute to the music of composer Michael Gibbs, trumpeter Cuong Vu and guitarist Bill Frisell are joined by Luke Bergman on bass and Ted Poor on drums for interpretations of five of Gibbs’ tunes. The result isn’t exactly avant-garde, but it does get out there at times, which is a big part of the fun. On “Ballet,” an almost pointillistically abstract opening section suddenly locks into a swinging jazz waltz; “Blue Comedy” blends structure and improvisation both joyfully and rigorously; and the album-closing “Sweet Rain” is almost like a tone poem. As one might expect of this musicians, everything is played with both skill and insight, and Frisell in particular is at his best, spinning out pastoral lyricism at one moment and cranking up the distortion at the next. Highly recommended to all jazz collections.
Smoke Behind the Clouds
Fifteen seconds into the first track on this album, I knew it was going to be a Rick’s Pick. It’s a great collection of old-time string band tunes played in a straight-ahead style (no beardy neo-Americana fusioneering) by highly accomplished young musicians who have paid their dues listening to old 78-rpm recordings and hanging out with elder masters from Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. This is driving, rollicking old-time music that does what old-time music is supposed to do: get you up out of your seat. And while the press materials note the band’s ability to “move square dancers,” it’s worth noting that several of these tunes might constitute a moving hazard for dancers of any kind, given their crooked rhythms. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Janglewood (dist. Select-O-Hits)
No cat. no.
Steve Mayone (formerly of Boston cowpunk legends Treat her Right) has now made five solo albums, and on this one he uses grungy, greasy country-rock to explore issues of personal loss and change. (The title track refers to a harrowing experience of, shall we say, near-existential change while driving in severe weather.) The music is more sophisticated than he wants it to sound; his singing voice is workmanlike, and the production is minimal and at times it almost sounds like a bedroom recording–but the songs are exquisitely crafted and he sings them with rough-hewn authority. I’m going to go see what I can find out about his earlier albums now.
Eliza Carthy & the Wayward Band
Topic (dist. Redeye)
I’ve long held the opinion that the best folk-rock is British folk-rock. Unlike American folk-rock, it’s almost never wimpy and it almost never makes me roll my eyes. (Maybe it would if I were British; heaven knows my British friends have a hard time understanding my enthusiasm for Morris dance.) And it’s also long been my opinion that much of the best British folk-rock is made by Eliza Carthy. On her latest, she gathers together a band with which she first started working back in 2013 for an album of broadside ballads, contemporary and original songs, and other odds and ends. The band rocks in a rough-hewn, staggering, but completely undeniable way–maybe a bit the way Tom Waits would if he’d been born in England’s industrial north. There’s a duet with Teddy Thompson and a track featuring rapper MC Dizraeli (geddit?). Brilliant.
These Teeth Are Sharp
There’s country-rock, and then there’s country-punk-rock. This Nashville-based octet has been making the latter off and on since 1983. More off than on, actually: they disbanded in 1989 and didn’t get back together until a reunion show in 2012–a show that convinced them that, in vocalist Melora Zaner’s words, “we’re not done.” That feeling of unfinished business eventually bore fruit in this nine-track album of mostly new material, and while you can certainly hear echoes of the band’s 1980s origins, none of it feels dated at all. Every song is fierce, sharp, and fun.
Coldcut X On-U Sound
Outside the Echo Chamber
Ahead of Our Time (dist. Redeye)
Although it may not be obvious, this album is a summit meeting of the G2 world superpowers of dub-derived dance music. On one side of the conference table we have Coldcut, the guys who founded the Ninja Tune label and whom everyone has heard even if they don’t realize it. (I promise that if I played you “Beats + Pieces,” you’d say “Oh yeah — I love that tune!”) On the other side is Adrian Sherwood, the legendary madman behind the On-U Sound studio and label, and impresario of every important neo-roots and avant-dub project to come out of London in the past 30 years. What do they sound like together? Exactly what you’d expect: funky, creative, dubby, dark, heavy, hilarious. Guest singers and chatters include the redoubtable Roots Manuva, dancehall queen Ce’Cile, and the brilliant playback singer Hamsika Iyer–and yes, there are dub versions aplenty. Absolutely essential.
Marti Nikko & DJ Drez
Explorers of Infinity [DIGITAL ONLY]
No cat. no.
DJ Drez & Zaire Black
Aficionados [DIGITAL ONLY]
No cat. no.
The prolific producer and beatmaker DJ Drez is one of the most consistently exciting artists operating in the crowded field of bass music these days (and actually has been for some time), and this spring he’s come out with a couple of outstanding albums that showcase two aspects of his unique personal style. The first is another in his ongoing series of duo projects with singer Marti Nikko. Like their earlier work, this one is essentially a vehicle for beatswise Hindu devotion and for Nikko’s lovely voice, though it’s not just about beats: the title track is a paean to Krishna in a very subdued acoustic style that sits in the center of the program and acts as a kind of stylistic fulcrum to the much funkier offerings on either side (“Saraswati” is jazzier, but similarly quiet and reflective). Those include reggae, dubstep, and hip-hop flavored odes of praise that will work equally well for dancing, yoga, or simply bumping along in your car. The second project also features Nikko on a couple of tracks, but it’s really a collaboration with MC Zaire Black, who apparently shares the couple’s religious inclinations and, charmingly, is not above rapping on the squicky particulars of ayurvedic medicine (“Eyes are windows to soul, give more to ya/She saw the prostate state by looking through the cornea”). Behind him, Drez spins his trademark blend of slamming beats, South Asian instrumental samples, and dubwise effects. Both albums are great, but if you have to pick one I’d give Explorers of Infinity the slight edge.
It’s been four years since Goldfrapp’s last album, four years during which fans of their particular brand of weirdo electro-pop have suffered from withdrawal symptoms. But never fear, they’re back now and their sound is as lush, immersive, and strangely pop-smart as ever. Opening with the dance-friendly “Anymore,” Silver Eye then proceeds in more introspective directions: there are pretty much always beats, but they’re mostly quite subdued, and Alison Goldfrapp’s trademark blend of chilliness and warmth continues to provide plenty of interest. These guys are among the most consistently compelling electronic pop artists on the scene right now, and this album marks a welcome return.
Mode [DIGITAL ONLY]
This is the sophomore album from a Los Angeles-based dream-pop quartet (yes, Brett is a band, not a solo artist) whose music is informed by an affection for Jean-Luc Godard and visual artist James Turell, among other things. If that leads you to expect precious concept-art-rock, think again: what you get instead are unspeakably soft and pretty textures into which are embedded melodic hooks so sweet and gentle that you may not even notice them at first. Same with the beats, which are also there but easier to miss. If you’re put off by wispy male vocals this stuff isn’t for you, but there’s no denying the gorgeousness–and I love it from beginning to end.
Air Texture Volume V (2 discs)
The title of this compilation series might lead you to expect ambient music of the most breathy, insubstantial variety. Guess again. While all of the music presented here is quite easy on the ear, not all of it is relaxing and some of it is pretty weird. Notice, for example, the digital effects applied to the acoustic piano on “A Dialogue with Gravity,” a collaborative piece by Tragic Selector, Terre Taemlitz, and Daisuke Tadokoro. Also, some of it is downright danceable–Velocette’s “Petite Mort” is a gentle but insistent techno workout, while Patrice Scott’s “Synchronicity” bumps along nicely as well. And, in fact, some of it is even a little bit abrasive (“Tongue Piece” by Rrose, for example, is more insistent than enjoyable). But everything here is well worth hearing, and it all passes my “would I want to listen to this while reading a book on the couch on a rainy afternoon?” test. Highly recommended.
At its best, dance music can be both deeply propulsive and also truly beautiful. That’s what Thornato (né Thor Partridge) has achieved on his first full-length album, one that hits a high point early with a gently monstrous dancehall banger featuring Gappy Ranks and then builds to its ultimate peak with the utterly gorgeous “Deux à Deux,” with vocals by Kongo Electro. Throughout the album, house beats are fused with elements like flamenco guitar, dembow offbeats, and Latin American percussion, and Thornato is a master at the slow build-up and release of musical tension. This would make an outstanding addition to any dance or world-music collection.
Dub Worship: Echoes of Mercy
Lion of Zion
No cat. no.
I don’t know how you feel about Christan reggae–I have no problem with it at all, myself, especially given how thoroughly Biblical concepts and imagery (not to mention gospel music tropes) have been incorporated into reggae music ever since the beginnings of the roots-and-culture era. And I’ll tell you this: if you love classic dub, you’re going to love this album. Mark Mohr, an ordained minister who has been leading an evangelical reggae band he calls Christafari since 1989, is honestly one of the most accomplished reggae musicians in America at the moment, and I don’t know whether he or someone else did the dub mixes of these tracks from his earlier releases, but I consider myself something of a connoisseur of dub, and I would rate these as exquisite. Highly recommended to all libraries with a collecting interest in reggae music.
Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang
Luaka Bop (dist. Redeye)
Better buckle in before you cue this one up. In his native Sierra Leone, Janka Nabay is an established star of what’s called bubu music–a fast, relentlessly pulsing music that emerged centuries ago as something of an occult practice and eventually infiltrated popular culture. Traditionally played on drums and bamboo horns, bubu music is now thoroughly electronic, and Janka Nabay has been a leading practictioner of it in its modern form for decades. His singing voice is pleasant and charming, and the music is exhausting but fun.
Glitterbeat (dist. Redeye)
The Valley of Bargou is a neglected and barren place that lies in the borderlands between Tunisia and the Algerian border. But it also has a unique musical culture, one that stayed largely off the radar of the wider world until Nidhal Yahyaoui put together a band called Bargou 08 to start spreading its influence. This album is the result: a tradition-heavy fusion of ancient and modern instruments and keening, intense Arabic vocals. While Yahyaoui’s intentions are as much didactic as strictly musical, this is very involving and powerful music and would make a great addition to any library collection.