PICK OF THE MONTH
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott: Luther and the Music of the Reformation (2 discs)
Vox Luminis; Bart Jacobs / Lionel Meunier
Ricercar (dist. Naxos)
500 years ago this October, Martin Luther nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, marking the starting point of the Protestant Reformation. Accordingly, you can expect throughout this year to see a steady stream of releases featuring sacred and liturgical music of Luther’s era, including music written by the man himself, and you can expect that just about every such release will feature Luther’s face prominently on the cover and will bear as a title some variation on Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” which remains Luther’s most famous composition). Of these releases, I will predict that few will be as thoughtfully organized and beautifully presented as this two-discs-plus-book compilation from the Ricercar label. The first disc consists of motets arranged to follow the liturgical year, while the second presents works that are associated specifically with the Lutheran liturgy. Featured composers include such usual suspects as Michael Praetorius, Heinrich Schütz, and Samuel Scheidt as well as lesser-known names like Michael Altenburg and Thomas Selle. (Luther himself is represented in only a single choral work.) The singing by Vox Luminis is outstanding, and unlike other similarly-packaged Ricercar book/box sets, this one consists entirely of new recordings. For a somewhat different take on the music of this period, libraries might also consider picking up Ein feste Burg… Luther in der Musik (Berlin Classics 0300848BC), a compilation of arrangements of Luther’s hymns and related works by his contemporaries. Some of the arrangements are quite modern, and the program overall is fascinating. That one focuses on brass and wind settings, whereas this Ricercar collection focuses on vocal works.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart in Havana
Simone Dinnerstein; Havana Lyceum Orchestra / José Antonio Méndez Padrón
If the title had you hoping for a recording of recently-discovered works composed during Mozart’s hitherto-unattested holiday in Cuba, I apologize for the disappointment. If, however, all you wanted was another world-class performance by superstar pianist Simone Dinnerstein, recorded in Havana with a very fine local orchestra, then you’re in luck. The Cuban connection is personal for Dinnerstein: her piano teacher was a Cuban emigré, so the project was a labor of love for her. Cuba’s ramshackle economy and infrastructure meant that equipment had to be brought in from overseas (and even the strings for the orchestra’s instruments had to be donated) and the recording sessions were apparently long and laborious — but the result is wonderful. Dinnerstein and crew recorded Mozart’s concertos nos. 21 and 23, and these performances positively glow with warmth and joy. Recommended to all libraries.
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi; Johann Sebastian Bach
Stabat Mater; Cantatas 54 & 170
Tim Mead; Lucy Crow; La Nuova Musica / David Bates
This program of strange and somber beauty puts Pergolesi’s magisterial Stabat Mater setting (for soprano, alto, strings, and continuo) between two of Bach’s more severe sacred cantatas: Wiederstehe doch der Sünde (1714) and Vergnügte Ruh! beliebte Seelenlust! (1726). Bach makes richly creative use of harmonic weirdness in the first one particularly, spinning out a wordless metaphor for the complexities and diverse manifestations of sin. This sets up Pergolesi to explore simultaneously what are both the most wrenchingly human and transcendentally divine examples of suffering: that of a mother whose child has died, and that of a Messiah put to death for the sins of the world. Then the program ends with the gentler (but still quite firm) message of the second Bach cantata, with its admnonitions against giving way to sin. Everyone on this recording performs admirably, but countertenor Tim Mead is a marvel on the alto parts. For all libraries.
Telegraph Harp (dist. Redeye)
What makes the prepared piano more than a gimmick is a combination of two things: the radical defiance that it represents, and the way it extends the piano’s capabilities. For centuries, it was clear that while pianists could do lots of different things by applying technique, the one thing they could not do was fundamentally alter the piano’s timbre and tone. “Preparing” a piano (which is usually accomplished by inserting objects between the instrument’s strings) is simultaneously an act of defiance and of exploration, and composers like Kelly Moran demonstrate how beautiful such rebellion can be. While some of her work is challenging, much of it is lyrical and inviting. For these pieces Moran makes occasional use of electronics, but the piano itself, with its constantly-surprising array of altered tones, is always at the center.
Vespro Della Beata Vergine (reissue; 2 CD + DVD)
Monteverdi Choir et al. / John Eliot Gardiner
The Other Vespers
I Fagiolini et al. / Robert Hollingworth
Since this year is Monteverdi’s 450th birthday, it’s not a big surprise to see John Eliot Gardiner’s monumental 1989 account of the Vespro Della Beata Vergine — recorded live in the Venetian cathedral where Monteverdi worked — being given the deluxe-reissue treatment. But it’s a little bit startling to be reminded of just how outstanding this performance was: a perfect balance of delicacy and majesty was maintained throughout, and there are moments of flowering beauty that will simply take your breath away. The reissue includes a DVD with a live video of the concert as well as a 20-minute documentary. There are lots of recordings of this famous work, but none better than this one. Released at the same time this year is a slightly sassy “response” to Monteverdi’s famous service: an alternative Vespers program compiled by the fine English ensemble I Fagiolini, consisting of lesser-known Monteverdi settings of the usual Vespers texts alongside works by Frescobaldi, Castello, Donati, and others. Also outstandingly performed, this disc would make a very fine companion purchase to the Gardiner.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Muzio Clementi
La Dolce Volta (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
For this unusual album, pianist Vanessa Wagner chose two works each by Mozart and Clementi, and performed one of each composer’s works on an 1814 fortepiano and the other on a modern Yamaha grand. In recent years we have seen somewhat similar experiments from other musicians who have recorded single albums on a mixture of modern and historical instruments, but there’s something special about this one. Wagner has an audible love of both the fortepiano’s intimate sound and limited range and of the brilliant tone and larger voice of the modern piano, and by juxtaposing two giants of the late classical/early Romantic period (one universally recognized as such, the other less so) she has created another interesting dimension of contrast to the program as well. Her playing is fiery but tasteful.
Stations of the Cross
Vision of Sound
If you’re after a pianistic experience of a radically different nature from the one described above, consider this sparse, deeply contemplative, almost pointillistic tone poem from pianist and composer Simon Vincent. After a standalone piece depicting Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, the main work follows him along the road to his crucifixion. Inspired by the sculpture installation Forest Stations by William Fairbanks (which depicts the Stations of the Cross by means of wooden carvings), Vincent’s piece consists of brief interjections of sound that emerge from long stretches of silence, in a manner that brings to mind Morton Feldman’s chamber works. The harmonies are generally fairly consonant, but to call this work “tonal” would be misleading — it doesn’t progress according to typical rules of harmonic movement. It really has to be heard to be comprehended, and it’s quite moving.
Mark Masters Ensemble
In the jazz world, it’s unusual for the leader on a small-ensemble session not to be one of the participating musicians. But Mark Masters is an arranger and composer first and foremost, and on this septet date he provides the charts while his friends provide the playing. The program is a mix of tunes by Charles Mingus and Gerry Mulligan, which may seem like a strange combination — the enfant terrible of postwar jazz experimentalism paired with an avatar of West Coast cool — but Masters and his crew make it work beautifully. Masters sacrifices none of Mingus’s conceptual density for swing and none of Mulligan’s coolly-crafted swing for unnecessary complexity, but shows both composers off for the geniuses they were. And not one of the selections is an obvious one, with the possible exception of “So Long, Eric” (though the more obvious option would have been “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”). For all library collections.
Daniel Schläppi; Marc Copland
Catwalk (dist. Naxos)
This lovely album is apparently the follow-up to a 2012 release titled Essentials, one that I somehow missed, to my consternation. Because if the first one was anything like this, I need to find a copy right away. Schläppi is a bass player and Copland is a pianist, and both are also composers and accomplished free improvisers. This album consists of a mixture of jazz standards, original compositions, and interstitial solo and duo improvisations; tempos range from the balladic to the lopingly midrange, and the mood throughout is quiet and introspective. The playing is consistently virtuosic, but never ostentatiously so. All of it is powerfully beautiful.
Yoko Miwa Trio
Ocean Blue Tear Music
OBTM – 0010
It’s been five years since Yoko Miwa’s last album as a leader, but she and her trio have been playing constantly in the interim. You can hear the results of all that work on this outstanding album, which finds the group exploring lots of different moods and rhythms, from the album-opening New Orleans-flavored workout “Log O’Rhythm” and the Latin-inflected “After You” (both Marc Johnson compositions), to Miwa’s boppish “Lickety Split” and her lush ballad “Lantern Light.” As always, her originals are a highlight, but she picks great covers as well — this time out, from Joni Mitchell and the Beatles as well as the two Johnson pieces. Recommended to all jazz collections, as is every other album Miwa has released.
Truth, Liberty & Soul: Live in NYC (2 discs)
If you’re a bass player, then drawing attention to yourself is usually somewhat frowned upon. But Jaco Pastorius — without doubt the greatest electric jazz bassist of the 20th century — never failed to do so, and it was almost always for the better. It wasn’t just his virtuosity, which was nearly unparalleled, nor was it just his highly personal tone; it was the sheer joy that bubbled out of him whenever he was playing. This two-disc set documents a concert he played with his Word of Mouth Big Band in 1982 at Avery Fisher Hall, much (though not all) of which was broadcast on the radio. (The 40-minute remainder is made available here for the first time.) It finds him gleefully knocking down the boundaries between funk, soul, and jazz, while at the same time paying deep homage to bebop tradition and to various Latin and Caribbean styles. This release is an absolute treasure, and it belongs in every library’s jazz collection.
No cat. no.
The debut album from trombonist, composer, and educator Kevin Hicks is an exuberant and rollicking affair featuring a program centered on originals, and it finds him leading a quartet that sounds bigger than it is. Hicks and his band can swing hard when they want to, but they also have no problem veering off into more experimental and fusion-y territory. On “One after Another” Hicks simultaneously explores Middle Eastern modal melodies and a roughly blues-derived harmonic progression, and his take on the bossa nova standard “Wave” is gentle but sturdy. The whole album sounds, frankly, like a nonstop party attended by close friends, and it’s just tons of fun. Highly recommended.
Day and Night
The arranging is a star feature on this album as well, though in this case the ten-piece ensemble is led by guitarist/composer Tom Rizzo. (The arranger is trombonist Nick Lane, who also plays on the session.) The program consists of a few originals but focuses on standards like “So In Love” and Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” with a few curveballs thrown in: a slightly noirish version of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” a swamp-funk rendition of “House of the Rising Sun,” and a crisp take on Ornette Colemen’s smartly boppish “Law Years.” In my Kevin Hicks review above, I praised his quartet for sounding bigger than it is. In the case of Rizzo, I’d like to praise his ten-piece for sounding smaller than it is — sharper, more agile, tighter than you might reasonably expect from a combo this size. It’s an excellent album in all ways.
Left Right Left
This is actually a jazz album, but I’m putting it in this month’s Folk/Country section because of its source material: the program is an exploration of the American Progressive movement through an assortment of folk songs associated with it throughout the 20th century. Drummer/arranger Tina Raymond and her accompanists Art Lande (piano) and Putter Smith (bass) take such familiar melodies as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty,” Pete Seeger and Lee Hays’ “If I Had a Hammer,” and “America,” and take them apart — sometimes radically and even acerbically, but always respectfully. Sometimes they swing, sometimes they strut, and sometimes they do something I don’t quite know how to describe, but this album is consistently worth hearing.
Signature Sounds (dist. Redeye)
SIG CD 2086
Dustbowl Revival has always been a more-or-less uncategorizable band. It started ten years ago when guitarist Z. Lupetin placed an ad looking for other musicians who shared his interest in both brass band and old-time string band music. The motley crew that eventually came together has followed a long and winding road through folk, country, Tin Pan Alley, trad jazz and other roots/Americana subgenres, and now seems to have set up camp in Memphis, where they are settling deep into a funky R&B sound that sweatily combines fiddles, horns, gutbucket drums and throaty, sexy, soulful singing. This is one of those studio albums that will make you desperate to see the band live, and luckily they’re on tour right now.
Sam Gleaves & Tyler Hughes
Sam Gleaves & Tyler Hughes
Clawhammer banjo player Tyler Hughes and guitarist Sam Gleaves simultaneously celebrate and expand the tradition of old-time Appalachian duet singing on their first duo album. Both men come from Virginia and are deeply conversant with the varied musical history of their natuive region, and they draw on various aspects of it here: labor songs, gospel classics, fiddle tunes, etc. Nor is all of the music from anonymous traditional sources: there’s an acerbic Tom T. Hall number, a Mother Maybelle Carter song, even a country classic from Boudleaux Bryant. But the thread of high-lonesome mountain singing binds all of these performances together. Very nice.
The Finest Flower of Womankind
Boston-based singer and multi-instrumentalist Lindsay Straw has one of the sweetest, clearest voices I’ve heard in a long time, and she also has serious guitar and bouzouki chops and great taste in songs. That’s the hat trick right there, and this collection of traditional songs from the British Isles is a complete delight. Wisely, Straw has kept the arrangements very simple and spare: on “The Outlandish Knight,” it’s only her voice and a fiddle playing the melody in unison with her; on “The Maid on the Shore” it’s just her voice and her fingerpicked guitar; on “The Female Rambling Sailor” it’s just her voice and her bouzouki. The album’s subtitle (“Songs of Feminine Triumph”) signal the album’s thematic unity: lots of sly, funny, and pointed songs about women as agents and subjects rather than as objects. Recommended to all libraries.
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers
Oh my heavens, but this is a fine album. Sarah Shook purveys a style of country music that I wouldn’t call cowpunk because there’s nothing much Western about it (despite the occasional faint echoes of Bakersfield and the shout-out to Dwight Yoakam). I think I’d call it punky-tonk: the songs are all about drinking too much, bad relationships, and generalized personal breakdown, all delivered in an open-throated mountain style that evokes Hazel Dickens and played with a ramshackle virtuosity that sounds like a cross between Tom Waits and X. Here’s another interesting tidbit: up until today, I thought the best opening line to a country song was “Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl.” Turns out I was wrong: the best opening line to a country song is “I’m drinking water tonight, ‘cuz I drank all the whiskey this morning.” Or it’s the best opening line to a punky-tonk song, anyway. Highly recommended to all libraries that don’t mind a few F-words in their country albums.
Step into Light
No cat. no.
I have a couple of great power pop releases to recommend this month. The first one is from perennial favorites Fastball, who hit platinum in 1998 with All the Pain Money Can Buy, and since then have not (in my opinion) gotten the recognition they deserve. No one writes hooks like these guys, and particularly like Tony Scalzo. It’s been eight years since their last release, and although it’s been a long eight years, Step into Light is well worth the wait: highlights include the soulful “Best Friend,” the sweet and crunchy “Just Another Dream,” and the twangy instrumental “Tanzania.” For absolutely all pop collections.
Tomorrow’s Coming (reissue)
Our next power-pop offering is this recently unearthed gem from a little-known New Jersey outfit called the Modulators. Tomorrow’s Coming was originally released in 1984, and it was their only full-length album. Finally reissued in CD format, it now comes to market with a bunch of demos appended to the original program as bonus tracks. Does it sound dated? Sure, but not in a bad way. (I mean, come on — the Rubinoos sound dated, and you still love them, right?) They also sound somewhat lighter than many of their power-pop contemporaries: the Modulators’ sound is tight and spare, not big and crunchy, the better to luxuriate in their tight harmonies and swooningly pretty melodies. The demos are charmingly rough, but still pack plenty of punch.
Celestial Vibration (reissue)
Soul Jazz (dist. Redeye)
When approaching this album, it’s important to bear in mind that it was originally released in 1978 — just as the Woo-Woo Ascendancy was peaking. So you can expect the photo on the back cover to show Edward Larry Gordon (a.k.a. Laraaji) reverently sniffing a carnation, and the liner notes to include lots of references to spiritual awakening, healing energy, the Divine Eternal Presence, etc. Scoff if you want, but this music is gorgeous. Gordon’s novel use of a sort of prepared autoharp (which he often strikes with mallets, making it sound more like a hammered dulcimer) and electronic effects was unique at the time and remains so today. Celestial Vibrations consists of two 24-minute tracks, each of them sonically very different but still clearly identifiable as a Laraaji piece. Recommended to all comprehensive pop collections.
Fabric (dist. Forced Exposure)
Steffi has been on the production scene for 20 years now, recording regularly for the Ostgut label and founding three labels of her own. When she was invited to contribute to Fabric’s illustrious series of DJ mix albums, she took the unusual step of commissioning every track on the program specifically for this release. Reaching out to colleagues like Duplex, Afik Naim, Late Night Approach, and Answer Code Request, she solicited tracks “with a certain mindset” and subsequently weaved them into a rich, dark tapestry of sounds that never fully departs from the club but never fully succumbs to dance-music stereotypes either. There are beats, but they feel secondary to texture and mood; there are vocals from time to time, but they tend to be treated as instruments. This is one of the most engaging and enjoyable entries in the Fabric mix series I’ve heard in a very long time. Strongly recommended to all pop collections.
Chin Up, Kid
Swing With Your Eyes Closed
Pop-punk is a subgenre that exists on a spectrum, from poppier to punkier. Indiana natives Chin up, Kid generally range around the punkier end of that spectrum: the guitars are extra dense and crunchy, the vocals (though always melodic) are tuneful but generally pretty yell-y, the tempos are mostly sprightly, sometimes bordering on the headlong. But the hooks are always front and center, which is what makes these guys pop-punk rather than punk-punk. And one of the songs is actually acoustic — though the guys maintain the density and intensity on that one so well that you might not even notice if you aren’t paying close attention. Recommended.
Filastine & Nova
Barcelona producer Grey Filastine and Indonesian singer Nova Ruth team up again for an intoxicatingly bewildering, styliscically promiscuous, and thoroughly beguiling exploration of internationalist dance music. You’ll hear trap, footwork, neo-soul, electro-flamenco, and a variety of multicultural influences at work here, but what the duo has really succeeded at doing is creating an indigenous music for a country without borders. Filastine’s microscopically detailed production cradles Ruth’s voice like a jewel box filled with diamond dust, and the beats are just as compelling as her gorgeous singing. For all library collections.
Dennis Brown: Inseparable Reggae Family (2 discs)
This album is something of a mystery: it’s a very fine two-disc compilation of modern and vintage roots and conscious dancehall reggae, featuring solid tracks by the likes of Sugar Minott, Triston Palmer, Junior Reid, Queen Ifrica, Anthony B, and Beres Hammond. Several of the songs are presented in “showcase” style — extended mixes that seamlessly append dub versions onto the regular vocal mixes. The mystery is why it should be billed more or less as a Dennis Brown album, given that precisely two of its 36 tracks feature the Crown Prince of Reggae. That’s a quibble, though; the music is great and if your library is looking for a nicely wide-ranging reggae collection to round out its reggae section, this one would make a great choice.
When the People Move, the Music Moves Too
(Unknown catalog number)
The first time you hear Ethiopian-American singer/songwriter Meklit, there’s a good chance that your immediate reaction will be “Whoa, she sure sounds a lot like Joan Armatrading.” But your next thought will be “This is the coolest, most exciting jazz-pop-Ethiopian music I’ve ever heard.” Her latest album features guest performances by Andrew Bird and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and I promise you that it’s unlike anything you’ve experienced before — tuneful, complex, rhythmically powerful, emotionally uplifting, and filled with surprises. Every library would benefit from owning a copy.
It’s easy to dismiss Putumayo releases as world-music lite, but you know what? There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with light music from other cultures, and this delightful collection of classic Italian pop music is an example of how to do it right. When I say “pop music” here I don’t mean light rock’n’roll — I’m talking about novelty tunes, crooner ballads, and jazzy love songs originally recorded in the 1950s and early 1960s. This music is, in a word, quaint. It’s also frequently gorgeous (just try not to swoon over Flo Sandon’s exquisite rendition of “T’ho Volute Ben [Non Dimenticar]”), and sometimes it’s just a little bit goofy, which is fun too. For added fun, try to guess (without looking) which of these tracks is not “vintage” at all, but was recorded recently by Pink Martini.
One Thing Leads to Another
Here’s another absolute banger from digital-roots reggae outfit Illbilly Hi-Tec. Based in Berlin (home to one of the most vibrant reggae scenes in the world right now), these guys regularly attract collaborative talent from vocalists the world over — in this case, such notables as Horsemouth and Parly B make appearances, though the primary vocalist is a singjay named Kinetical. One Thing Leads to Another is filled not only with heavyweight rhythms and hooky melodies, but also with subtle touches like field-drum samples (“Seven Seas”), dubstep inflections (“Better Recognize”), and rollicking ska tempos (“Real”). And the program is rounded out by a handful of outstanding remixes, notably FLeCK’s jump-up jungle version of “Happy.” Outstanding.