PICK OF THE MONTH
Heart of the Congos (reissue; 3 discs)
VP/17 North Parade
Two Sevens Clash (reissue; 2 discs)
VP/17 North Parade
Producer Lee “Scratch” Perry created some of the strangest and most wonderful reggae music in history at his improbably tiny Black Ark studio in the 1970s, and the pinnacle of his achievement there was the 1977 album Heart of the Congos. The Congos were a harmony duo led by a singer named Cedric Myton, the possessor of an eerie falsetto voice and a deeply dread lyrical vision. That voice and that vision found their perfect complement in Perry’s dark, wet, echo-laden production style, and songs like the joyful “Solid Foundation,” the hortatory “Fisherman,” and the heartbreakingly gorgeous “Congoman” show both Perry and Myton to have been musical geniuses out of time. Heart of the Congos received a loving reissue treatment from the Blood & Fire label (sadly now defunct) in 1996, but this new version from VP and its 17 North Parade reissue imprint ups the ante considerably, adding a handful of additional tracks and dub versions plus, on a third disc, the entirety of the original album in its original, more restrained and minimalist mix. For 20 years the Blood & Fire version has stood as the definitive expression of this strange and unique reggae statement, but this new expanded reissue has effectively displaced it, and all libraries with a collecting interest in reggae music should consider it an essential purchase.
Another reggae classic, also from 1977, has also been definitively reissued this year by VP/17 North Parade. It is Culture’s archetypal roots-and-culture album Two Sevens Clash (its title a reference to Rastafarian apocalyptic expectations for the year in which the album was released). This album has also received a previous deluxe-reissue treatment (from the Shanachie label in 2007), but here again this 40th-anniversary edition supersedes the previous one by including additional material, notably discomixes, dubs, and deejay versions. This one is another essential purchase.
The Masses: Complete Edition (3 discs; world premiere)
Tactus (dist. Naxos)
Camillo Cortellini flourished at around the turn of the 17th century, but relatively little is known about him and much of his work seems to be lost, so this world-premiere recording of his complete Masses should make a welcome addition to any library’s collection of Renaissance music. This release is a bit curious, though: this is not one recording, but rather a collection of recordings by no fewer than eleven different vocal ensembles. The package includes no information about when the recordings were made, and unfortunately the quality of the performances is somewhat variable. But some of them are exquisite, and as a historical document alone this set can be confidently recommended.
6 Flute Quartets, op. 23
Ensemble Il Demetrio
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
The Neapolitan composer Giovanni Paisiello produced this set of six quartets for flute, violin, viola, and cello near the end of his career, in 1800. This was a period during which serious music-making was becoming a pastime among the bourgeois middle classes, rather than the unique province of aristocrats and court musicians. 2016 marked the bicentennial of Paisiello’s death, and thus produced a predictable uptick in interest in his music, one result of which is this delightful period-instrument performance of these very fine pieces — all of which would clearly have provided a healthy technical challenge to the playing audience for which they were written. The performances are excellent.
Complete Original Piano Duets (reissue; 7 discs)
Goldstone & Clemmow
Divine Art (dist. Naxos)
The seven discs in this reissue box were originally released as individual albums between 1999 and 2000. They document a monumental project by the marvelous husband-and-wife four-hand piano team of Caroline Clemmow and Anthony Goldstone, and the box makes a worthy companion to their three-volume collection of “unauthorized” four-hand transcriptions of Schubert works arranged by his friends and colleagues. These discs present all of the known pieces that were actually written by Schubert for piano four hands — as far as we know, he wrote nothing for two pianos — and they tend to be lighthearted marches and dances, plus sets of themes with variations. Clemmow and Goldstone play with seemingly effortless virtuosity and intelligence and are very well recorded.
The String Quartets (reissue; 3 discs)
Juilliard String Quartet
Wergo (dist. Naxos)
WER 6960 2
The legendary Juilliard String Quartet undertook this project in 1995, the centennial of Paul Hindemith’s birth. Over the course of two years they recorded all seven of Hindemith’s string quartets and released them on three individual discs, which are now available together as a midpriced box set. Anyone who knows the Juilliards will know to expect world-class performances of these pieces, and the recording quality is up to Wergo’s long-established high standard. As for the music itself, it is fascinating to hear the composer negotiating the passing of the Romantic era and the new harmonic imperatives of the early 20th century, as the Brahms and Strauss influences fade and the Schoenbergian ones emerge. Any library that doesn’t already own these recordings would be wise to pick up this reissue box.
Carl Friedrich Abel
Symphonies Op. 7
La Stagione Frankfurt / Michael Schneider
CPO (dist. Naxos)
Carl Friedrich Abel published a total of 36 symphonies during his career, in six collections of six symphonies each. Opus 7 falls in the middle of these collections and was published in the 1760s. The symphony form was still developing at this time, and had not yet fully shed the baroque concept of the “sinfonia,” or overture. (In fact, Abel’s symphonies are still called “overtures” in their published versions of the period.) But in Abel’s works you can see the standard symphonic shape clearly starting to emerge, in particular the practice of putting a slow section in the middle of a three-movement work. As always, La Stagione Frankfurt acquit themselves beautifully, and this album is a pleasure from beginning to end.
Sonatas for Cello and Piano
Brian Thornton; Spencer Myer
Steinway & Sons
As someone with a natural aversion to musical overstatement, my port of entry into the music of Brahms has always been his chamber music — you get all the emotional intensity, but not so much of the bombast. And his cello sonatas are models of the genre and of what makes Brahms great: the wonderful fugal section at the end of the first sonata, that perfectly blends classical structure with Romantic fire; the heartbreaking adagio section in the second. Cellist Brian Thornton and pianist Spencer Myer are a match made in heaven, each of them playing with the kind of restrained intensity that is required in order to give this music its purest expression. Recommended to all libraries.
Carl Stamitz; Franz Hoffmeister; Franz Krommer
Double Clarinet Concertos
Andrzej Godek; Barbara Borowicz; Kalisz Philharmonic; Huberman Philharmonic / Adam Klocek
Dux (dist. Naxos)
What’s better than a classical concerto for clarinet? A classical concerto for two clarinets, of course. And since the Mannheim School composers of the late 18th century loved the clarinet, it’s not a surprise that several outstanding examples of double clarinet concertos would have emerged from that milieu. (Krommer was not a Mannheim composer, but worked around the same time and not too far away, in Vienna.) All three of these composers have written exceptionally lovely music for the clarinet, and these pieces are no exception; the soloists are superb, and the orchestras sound wonderful as well. This is a delightful album in every way and should find a home in all library collections.
The Selva Morale e Spirituali Collection (reissue; 3 discs)
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers
Coro (dist. Naxos)
Between 2010 and 2013, Harry Christophers’ outstanding ensemble The Sixteen released a series of three discs containing all of the compositions in Monteverdi’s Selva Morale e Spirituali collection, a kaleidoscopic array of vocal works that ranges dizzyingly from intimate solo and duet pieces to large-scale choral works. These are late compositions, written during the last years of Monteverdi’s life, and in them we see the full expression of his vocal ideal, one that leads performers to “speak through singing.” The three-disc program ends with Monteverdi’s Magnificat Primo, a monument of the early baroque choral repertoire. The Sixteen do a wonderful job with these very challenging works, and the recorded sound is rich and crystal-clear.
Bill Frisell; Thomas Morgan
Both of these musicians — guitarist Frisell and bassist Morgan — are national treasures, though of the two only Frisell is widely recognized as such. (But Morgan is young, and I’m confident the world will catch on soon.) One of the things that makes Frisell such a marvel is his stylistic range. On this live set recorded at the Village Vanguard, for example, he and Morgan move effortlessly from a solidly swinging rendition of Lee Konitz’ “Subconscious Lee” to a gorgeous take on the American country classic “Wildwood Flower.” (It’s a rare jazz musician who recognizes the depth of that particular song’s beauty.) There are equally fine originals by Frisell and Morgan as well, and the show ends on a fun and whimsical note with a version of the theme from the James Bond movie Goldfinger. I do wish the bass had been recorded with a little bit more presence and detail, but this album is still an essential purchase for all libraries.
Presents MONK’estra, Vol. 1
Thelonious Monk’s notoriously knotty melodies and crooked rhythms have challenged musicians for decades — even by the standards of bebop’s mid-century jazz modernism, Monk’s music was weird, and it remains so. For arrangers, it poses both challenges and opportunities. For someone with John Beasley’s unusually acute sense of structure, the opportunities are tremendous, and he makes the most of them on this collection of eight Monk arrangements for big band. Some of these tunes are very familiar (“Epistrophy,” “‘Round Midnight”), and others are less so (“Oska T,” “Gallop’s Gallop”), but all of them are loving dissected and reconstituted in ways that shed new light on even the most familiar pieces — and the band plays with all the wit, intelligence, and swing that this music requires. Highly recommended to all jazz collections.
Thelonious Monk Quintet
Les liaisons dangereuses – 1960 (2 discs)
In honor of Monk’s centenary this year, an enterprising young label has brought to market (for the first time ever) the soundtrack album to Roger Vadim’s 1960 film Les liaisons dangereuses. In a market fairly glutted with Monk content, this is a real rarity: previously-unissued studio recordings, representing Monk’s first time recording for film. The quintet features Charlie Rouse (who was by now Monk’s favorite tenor saxophonist), bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Art Taylor, with the addition of French tenor sax player Barney Wilen. The sound quality is outstanding, and although the repertoire is familiar (“Crepuscule with Nellie,” “Well, You Needn’t,” “Pannonica,” etc.) the program also includes a solo piano improvisation titled “Six in One,” which has not been repeated elsewhere. This album is a must-own for all library jazz collections.
Presents “West Coast Sessions!” Volume 3: Lee Konitz (reissue)
Presents “West Coast Sessions!” Volume 4: Bill Watrous (reissue)
In the late 1970s, when a Japanese record label contacted the recently-detoxed Art Pepper and asked him to make some albums of 1950s-style cool jazz, he was put in a quandary: his contract with Fantasy/Galaxy prevented him from recording for any other label as a leader. So instead he organized a series of sessions with illustrious musicians and credited them as the leaders, with himself serving as a “sideman.” These albums are now being reissued for the first time (the first two volumes in the series were my “Rick’s Pick” in the March issue), and these next two installments showcase alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and trombonist Bill Watrous. As before, they feature outstanding straight-ahead jazz performances recorded with pristine clarity, and they do indeed celebrate the cool West Coast sound for which Pepper had become famous — but one that he had pretty much left behind by the late 1970s. The Konitz volume was originally issued under the title High Jingo, and the Watrous album was originally titled Funk’n Fun; both have been out of print and unavailable for decades. This whole series is strongly recommended to all libraries.
Rune Grammophon (dist. Forced Exposure)
This one goes in the Jazz section because Henriksen is a trumpeter, and because I honestly can’t figure out where else to put it. His music is ethereal, often arrhythmic, and very often reminiscent of Jon Hassell’s work with Brian Eno: the treated trumpet sounds, the dark and rumbling accompaniments, the evocations of unidentifiable exotic musical cultures. But unlike Hassell’s, Henriksen’s music occasionally blooms into moments of lyrical — if often eerie — beauty. This is music that hovers more than it flies, and that seeps into your subconscious in ways that almost no other music I’ve ever heard does. Very highly recommended.
Ella: Accentuate the Positive
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You might expect violinist Regina Carter’s Ella Fitzgerald tribute to be a rollicking, straightforwardly swinging affair, but if so, brace yourself: the tunes are deep cuts, for one thing — no “Mack the Knife,” no “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” These are mostly quiet and sometimes bluesy numbers, even the title track. And while Carter’s jazz style embraces straight-ahead tradition, it’s not bound by it, which means that there’s lots of stylistic range on this album. This is a sweet, deeply affectionate look back at one of the 20th century’s greatest singers in any genre, and would be a good addition to any jazz collection.
The Weeping Willows
Before Darkness Comes a-Callin’
No cat. no.
You would never guess that Laura Coates and Andy Wrigglesworth are from Australia — on their second album they channel a particular dark strain of acoustic country that sounds deeply American, and that puts their voices at the very center of the sound, and that keeps longing and heartache at the center of the songs’ lyrical concerns. For some reason I hear these guys as a cross between the Carter Family and X, though your mileage may vary. No matter what their sound evokes for you, though, you should definitely consider adding this one to your library’s country collection.
Red Hot: A Memphis Celebration of Sun Records
Americana Music College
No cat. no.
This album is exactly what its title suggests: a celebration of Memphis rockabilly, country, and R&B, recorded by an array of singers backed by a band led by brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson. The recordings were done at Sam Phillips Recording and at the classic Sun Studios, so they sound extra warm and greasy, and with singers like Jimbo Mathus, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Valerie June performing songs like “Ten Cats Down,” “High School Confidential,” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” you know you’re going to have lots of fun listening (and dancing) to this one.
No cat. no.
Looking at the cover photo does not prepare you for the deeply soulful, almost R&B flavor of Austin Hanks’ singing voice and of this album overall. (Knowing that Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top is the producer does give you a bit of a hint of what to expect.) Hanks has his roots deep in the honky tonks and juke joints of the deep South, though, and what that means is that blues and R&B inform his country music just as much as country music informs his blues and R&B. Genre designations are for suckers anyway. The voice — focus on the voice.
Sky Crunch (dist. Redeye)
The theme on Jim Lauderdale’s 29th album is cross-cultural unity: he hired Nick Lowe’s touring band to record a set of early-1960s-style country music, the kind that draws on the honky-tonk verities but still luxuriates in rich studio production and even brings onboard the occasional string section (and no joke, there’s a brief oboe solo on “I Love You More”). Lauderdale’s wry drawl continues to deliver some of the sharpest and smartest lyrics in the business, and his voice is a thing of reedy beauty. And I love hearing subtle hints of British pub rock in these arrangements. Very subtle, that is. Actually, they may be in my imagination. No matter, it’s an outstanding album.
Halogen Continues (digital/vinyl only)
Most artists working in electronic genres are monogamists, or at least serial monogamists: they pick one genre and stick with it, at least for a while, sometimes drifting over time into others as their interests shift or their skill levels increase. But Icelandic musician Sigurbjörn “Bjössi” Þorgrímsson (who passed away five years ago) was a polygamist, working in multiple genres at once — and not always ones that his colleagues would recognize. He used terms like “sofatrance” and “weirdcore” to designate his forays into off-kilter ambience, pounding techno, and jungly speed-funk, but there really aren’t good words available to describe his highly detailed and always surprising music. This album brings together rare and previously unreleased material into a collection that doesn’t exactly cohere — but then, how could it? It is, on the other hand, a very enjoyable if sometimes challenging listen.
On its debut full-length, this London-based trio wears its artistic ambitions on its collective sleeve: their sound is atmospheric but huge, the vocal style alternating between a Nick Cave-y portentousness and a dream-pop falsetto. Acoustic guitars figure centrally in the production, but the enormous spaces are defined by electronic instruments and (crucially) effects, creating a sense of expansive intimacy. At times the music verges on the ambient, and at others on the anthemic. And although there’s hardly a track here that will tempt you to sing along, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed by this album’s deep and rich beauty. Aetherlight is one of the best things I’ve heard all year, in any genre.
Hospital (dist. Redeye)
Although its typical beats are high-speed and somewhat frenetic by nature, its is eminently possible for drum’n’bass music to be smooth, attractive, even soothing at the same time. Hugh Hardie’s take on the d’n’b tradition is a case in point: the double-speed breakbeats he favors tend to be more metronomic than wildly funky (no Amen breaks here), and he complements them with chordal washes and floating, dubwise shreds of vocal (a nod to the music’s origins in the reggae-informed jungle scene of the early 1990s). This is a subgenre of d’n’b often tagged as “liquid,” and it’s both fun and often quite beautiful. Hardie’s take on it is unusually attractive. Definitely a good choice for pop collections.
Cry for Help
Rhyme & Reason/Bar/None
For someone of my generation, it’s kind of startling to see the first generation of alt-rockers suddenly looking as old as the first generation of “classic” rockers did just a couple of years ago — oh, wait, sorry, that was a couple of decades ago. Time sure does fly. Anyway, time marches on but some things stay the same, and they include the guitar-rock verities: sly and sometimes sardonic lyrics, melodic hooks that are a little bit rusty around the edges, workmanlike vocals. Bar/None label head Glenn Morrow is a legend of the Hoboken, NJ music scene, and this is his first album in a long time. He still sounds great, or at least as great as an alt-rocker is supposed to sound. The band is solid, the songs are sharp, and the vocals are, you know, workmanlike. Recommended.
Unknown cat. no.
The seventh album from Kingston native Mark Wonder is the best new reggae release of the year — a strictly rootswise feast of solid songwriting, impeccable singing, and heavyweight rhythms courtesy of Mafia & Fluxy, Roots Radics, and others. The international reggae scene is rife with artists who are good singers but not great songwriters, or who endlessly recycle familiar rhythms and lyrical concepts, or who make up for their vocal deficiencies with bombast and emotion. Mark Wonder, however, is a true triple-threat performer: a gifted singer with a clear and powerful voice, a songwriter whose lyrics explore traditional roots-and-culture themes but never fall back on facile or familiar slogans, and a melodist who can compose hooks that make any rhythm all his own. If you want to know what modern roots reggae is supposed to sound like, look no further than this outstanding release.
Oté Maloya: The Birth of Electric Maloya in La Réunion 1975-1986
Strut (dist. Redeye)
Maloya has its origins in the songs, music, and dances of African slaves brought to Reunion Island to work the sugar plantations in the 17th century. But in the 1970s its traditions were given a fresh infusion of life and energy by the incorporation of Western instruments, both electric and acoustic, and a new popular music style was born. This fine compilation brings together examples of electric maloya from this period, performed by a wide variety of male and female singers and instrumentalists. To most Western listeners it will sound both alien and familiar, a strange and wonderful blend of African, French, and wholly unique flavors.
Wrongtom Meets the Ragga Twins
Here’s another outstanding new reggae release, though this one is in a different vein: producer Wrongtom spins classic 1980s-style dancehall grooves for the Ragga Twins, a legendary emcee tag team that helped to create the sounds of jungle and drum’n’bass in the early 1990s. In Time is London reggae through and through, simultaneously an exercise in nostalgia (yes, you’re going to hear the “Sleng Teng” rhythm) and an assertion that this music belongs as much to the present as to the past. The Ragga Twins are as witty as ever, and they can still ride a rhythm like nobody’s business. Recommended to all libraries, as are the previous installments in the Wrongtom Meets series.
Les amazones d’Afrique
In my opinion, one of the world’s most potent musical combinations is the fusion of traditional West African songs and rhythms and Euro-American electronic instruments. This album lends support to that view: it’s a politically-minded gathering of prominent West African women singers (Angélique Kidjo, Mariam Doumbia, Nneka, and others), who take turns singing against oppressive patriarchy and sexual violence (mostly in regional languages) accompanied by an invigorating mix of traditional and modern instruments and beats that vary from the subdued to the heavy. The singing is excellent, and so is the cause to which profits from sales of the track “I Play the Kora” will be donated.
Dr. Dubenstein is Derrick Parker, a denizen of Washington, DC and a former employee of the lamented RAS Records label. For his debut album he’s gathered together a who’s-who of reggae session musicians, including members and former members of bands like Steel Pulse, Dub Syndicate, Roots Radics, and even (so the rumor goes) the Wailers, to create a sort of dub concept album: it’s a primarily instrumental dub program, but the proceedings are salted with wry spoken-word conspiracy-mongering and track titles like “Illuminati Dub” and “Simian Virus 40 (SV40) Dub.” Perhaps the album’s finest track is “Flabba’s IPad,” a tribute to Earl “Flabba” Holt (former bassist for Dub Syndicate) which recycles some classic Syndicate sounds but twists them into exciting new shapes. Based on this material I’m about ready to declare Dr. Dubenstein America’s answer to the Mad Professor. Recommended.
King Size Dub: Reggae Germany Downtown Chapter 3
We’ll close out this month’s issue with one more selection from the recent bumper crop of outstanding reggae releases: the latest installment in the Echo Beach label’s ongoing King Size Dub series. This one is an absolute killer from start to finish, a jam-packed celebration of pure heavyweight roots and dancehall niceness. A-list singers like Gentleman and the old-school reggae legend Carlton “Tetrack” Hines make appearances here (the latter on album highlight “In Times Like These,” presented in showcase style), but the album’s center of gravity comes from the rhythms: the instrumental tracks assembled by producers like Umberto Echo and Aldubb and by top-notch ensembles like the Senior Allstars and Illbilly Hitec. Every track on this album is a solid winner.