PICK OF THE MONTH
Jane Antonia Cornish
Innova (dist. Naxos)
I’ve been writing music reviews for a variety of publications for almost 30 years now, and with this album of chamber works by the composer Jane Antonia Cornish, I’ve had an unprecedented experience: I find myself being irritated that, in order to fill the October issue of CD HotList, I’m going to have to listen to a bunch of other albums rather than listen to this one over and over for the next two weeks, which is what I would dearly like to do.
Cornish is known primarily as a film composer, and the unfussy lyricism of this music bespeaks someone who is used to writing music in order to forward a functional narrative purpose. But the beauty of Cornish’s compositions runs far deeper than their lyricism; it lies in her use of empty space, her insightful way with instrumental texture (something that film composers learn better than almost any others), and her willingness to put ostentatious virtuosity aside in favor of clarity. Each of these pieces is written for some combination of violin, piano, cellos, and electronics, though the electronics are incorporated so seamlessly into the overall soundworld of these works that they are almost completely imperceptible as such. The music is deeply quiet and stunningly beautiful. I highly recommend this disc to all libraries. (And now I’m off to find as many other recordings of Cornish’s work as I possibly can.)
Brooklyn Raga Massive
Northern Spy (dist. Redeye)
Terry Riley’s pioneering work In C is notable for a number of things, one of which is its nearly infinite malleability. It’s written in the form of 53 “cells” of musical fragments, from which the performers select and which they play as many times as they wish, sticking with one or shifting between them. It goes without saying that the ensemble playing this music can be of any size and any instrumental makeup, and can play within the stylistic boundaries of virtually any musical tradition. Hence this recording by Brooklyn Raga Massive, a large ensemble dedicated to the exploration of Indian classical music. There’s a delicious irony here in the fact that Indian classical music is known for its microtonal melodic complexity, while In C is notable for its sub-diatonic simplicity. But there are no real rules here, and nothing to stop the BRM crew from introducing traditional Indian melisma and ornamentation into the mix, which of course they do, making this a truly unique realization of Riley’s work. Highly recommended to all classical collections.
Gershwin & Wild
Steinway & Sons
I continue to be impressed by the business savvy of the legendary piano manufacturer Steinway & Sons, which established a few years ago a record label designed to showcase its products. It’s a win-win: top-flight performers get a recording venue; listeners get (what have so far been) consistently great recordings; Steinway gets both sales revenue for the albums and a built-in advertising platform. The latest such release is this performance of two works by 20th-century American composer Earl Wild: the first, a set of variations on familiar themes of George Gershwin (including American Songbook classics like “The Man I Love” and “I Got Rhythm”), all transformed into lushly romantic and virtuosic études; the second a jazz-and-R&B-influenced original sonata. Don’t let the fact that the sonata’s third movement references Ricky Martin fool you: this is highly complex classical music that draws on influences from popular culture but in no way bows to them. Joanne Polk is a thrilling exponent of these works, and this disc would make a great addition to any library supporting piano pedagogy.
Georg Philipp Telemann et al.
Alon Sariel; various accompanists
Berlin Classics (dist. Naxos)
During the baroque era, it was common for composers and performers to take works originally written for one instrument and transcribe them for another. That tradition continues with this delightful recording by Israeli mandolinist/guitarist/lutenist Alon Shariel, who is besotted with the music of Telemann and so arranged a variety of chamber and concert works by Telemann, C.P.E. Bach, Carl Friedrich Abel, and Johann Friedrich Fasch for various combinations of mandolin, lute, baroque guitar, continuo, and strings. It’s both Telemann and the mandolin that take center stage here, though, with a concerto arrangement, several fantasias and suites, and a partita. Sariel’s playing is lovely and the arrangements are of academic as well as aesthetic interest.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Remix: Bach Transcriptions
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
Speaking of transcriptions of baroque music: certainly the single most frequently-transcribed composer of the baroque era is J.S. Bach, who, of course, never wrote for the modern piano (which didn’t exist during his lifetime, although the fortepiano did). On this album, pianist Tanya Gabrielian performs transcriptions of Bach’s third violin sonata and second cello suite along with one section each from his second violin partita and second violin sonata. While her playing is excellent, how one feels about these transcriptions themselves will depend significantly on one’s opinion of the practice of importing Romantic expressivity into baroque works–particularly on the first transcription by Alexander Siloti. Recommended.
String Quartets 2 & 4
Gringolts Quartet; Malin Hartelius
BIS (dist. Naxos)
For some reason, I always find it emotionally draining to listen to Schoenberg. Maybe I’m projecting: in his music, I hear deep anxiety over the abandonment of tonality and a feeling of slight foreboding over what the future will bring. At the same time I find his music formally thrilling, and of course the historical significance of his harmonic approach gives the listening experience an added frisson. The two string quartets featured on this very fine recording are separated in time by almost 30 years: the second quartet simultaneously looks backward and forward, while the fourth finds him beginning to break the strict rules of dodecophany that he had codified in the meantime. The playing by the Gringolts Quartet is absolutely outstanding, as is the contribution by soprano Malin Hartelius on the first piece. Strongly recommended to all libraries.
6 sonate di cembalo e violino obbligato, Op. 5 (2 discs)
Liana Mosca; Pierre Goy
Stradivarius (dist. Naxos)
Both today and during his own lifetime, Luigi Boccherini has been best known as a player of and composer for the cello. These six sonatas for piano with violin obbligato represent his first keyboard compositions, and were prompted in part by his fascination with the “new” pianos coming onto the market around 1760. The square piano used in this recording dates from that period, as does the violin played by Liana Mosca. In this case, the use of period instruments gives the recording more historical than purely aural advantage–the Frederick Beck piano used here sounds somewhat clattery and tinny, though the violin is lovely. The music itself is surprisingly mature-sounding, very French, and all of it is beautifully played.
Claude Debussy; Jean-Philippe Rameau
Debussy & Rameau: The Unbroken Line
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
With this album, pianist Jeffrey LaDeur is making an argument: that there exists an “unbroken line” of stylistic influence between the early-18th-century keyboard music of Rameau and the early-20th-century keyboard music of Debussy. Certainly Debussy’s admiration of Rameau is no secret, and he was a passionate exponent of Rameau and others of the French tradition at a time when much of the musical world was completely absorbed by Wagnerian themes and styles. You can read the liner notes for a detailed account of LaDeur’s argument; for my purposes, I’ll just say that the juxtapositions he offers here (between two Rameau selections, the first book of Debussy’s Images and the second of his preludes) are fascinating and beautiful, as is his playing.
The Complete Albums Collection 1959-1962
Enlightenment (dist. MVD)
This four-disc box brings together eight albums recorded by the great pianist Junior Mance for the Verve, Jazzland, and Riverside labels between 1959 and 1962. Most of these are trio dates, but The Chicago Cookers is a quintet recording led by Johnny Griffin and Wilbur Ware featuring Mance on piano, and on The Soul of Hollywood Mance’s trio is augmented by a studio orchestra for a set of popular film compositions. As with many of the super-budget-priced jazz box sets that have emerged in recent years (since these recordings passed out of copyright in the UK), this box offers tremendous value for money–the sound quality is good and the music itself is simply superb; Mance remains an underrated talent, and his affinity for the blues is beautifully on display on all of these albums. The downside, in this case, is the complete lack of personnel and other recording information. Still, this set can be confidently recommended to all libraries.
Shaitaan Dil: Naughty Heart
No cat. no.
Subhi is a singer and songwriter who was raised in Delhi and educated in the US. She left a career in finance in order to pursue music, but soon found herself equally dissatisfied with a new professional track that seemed to involve more meetings and negotiation than actual music-making. It was only after moving to Chicago and striking up a friendship with jazz pianist Joaquin Garcia that she finally found her voice, and this collection of Hindi songs in a variety of jazz styles is the result. In some ways it’s unlike anything else you’ll hear–but at the same time, it’s quite familiar and fun. And it shows that not all musical fusions have to result in seamless blends; sometimes they can be emulsions that leave their component stylistic elements distinctive and juxtapose them happily. Her voice is lovely, as are her melodies.
Presents West Coast Sessions, Vol. 5: Jack Sheldon
Presents West Coast Sessions, Vol. 6: Shelly Manne
These are the final two volumes in a series of reissues that bring to the American market, for the first time, albums made by the legendary alto saxophonist Art Pepper for the Japanese Atlas label between 1979 and 1981. At the time his exclusive contract with the Fantasy/Galaxy label group prevented him from recording for Atlas as a leader, so instead he solicited other A-list musicians to serve as titular leaders on these albums. These last two feature trumpeter Jack Sheldon and drummer Shelly Manne, respectively, and (as the folks at Atlas requested) they find Pepper and his crew playing in the “cool” West Coast style that he had helped to define in the 1950s. Pristine sound, generous bonus tracks, and outstanding playing make this entire series an absolute must-have for all library jazz collections. I’m sad to see it come to an end.
Walk of Fire
I feel as though the vibes have been making a comeback over the past few years–it seems like every couple of months or so I get a review copy of a really top-notch small-combo album led by a vibes player who is simultaneously celebrating jazz tradition and expanding it, however subtly. Case in point: the latest from vibraphone virtuoso (and crack composer) Behn Gillece. Here he leads a septet that also includes such luminaries as saxophonist Walt Weiskopf and trombonist Michael Dease on an all-original program that explores multiple moods and styles, from the bossa-flavored “Fantasia Brasileira” to the Milt Jackson tribute “Bag’s Mood” and the Coltrane-y modal workout “Battering Ram.” He and his combo swing like nobody’s business, and Gillece’s solos are a marvel. Highly recommended to all jazz collections.
I don’t often review vocal jazz (don’t ask me why; I’m not entirely sure), but I do listen to everything that comes across my desk from the Capri label, AND I have a soft spot in my heart for bassists, so the sophomore album from bassist and singer Katie Thiroux caught both my eye and my ear this month. (The fact that my hero Ken Peplowski is on the date also helped to grab my attention.) Anyway, Thiroux’s voice is a velvety delight, her intonation is perfect, her playful sense of swing is sublime. And she’s a fine, fine bass player as well. This album is just a solid winner all around and I recommend it to all libraries.
I have to say that on the opening track of his latest album, guitarist Mike Stern sounds absolutely furious. As well he might: the title of that track (and of the album itself) is a wry reference to the fact that in the summer of 2016, while Stern was hailing a cab, he tripped and fell, breaking both of his arms. The injury resulted in nerve damage to his right hand that has left him unable to grip a plectrum without mechanical aid. Listeners might be forgiven for failing to notice a difference–Stern manages still to play with energy, jaw-dropping technique, and a sharp attack. And the astonishing array of sidepersons who stepped up to play alongside him on this album (Dave Weckl, Bill Evans, Randy Brecker, Lenny White, and many more) suggests that no one is expecting him to go anywhere. Thank heaven for tender mercies. An outstanding set of modern jazz from one of our greatest living guitarists.
Letters Never Read
Blue Hens Music
Dori Freeman is back with another unspeakably beautiful album of country music that simultaneously celebrates and expands the traditions of her native Galax, Virginia. Like her debut, this one is produced by Teddy Thompson (and if the electric guitar solos sound strangely familiar, yes, that’s Teddy’s dad Richard). And this time she covers a Richard & Linda Thompson classic, the country-ready “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.” But once again, what’s centrally important here is her voice, which is as solid and beautiful as a polished stone, in combination with her achingly perfect songs. Every library that collects country and folk music should jump to acquire this one, as well her self-titled debut. (Sole complaint: at just under 29 minutes, this album is way, way too short.)
Signature Sounds (dist. Redeye)
Eilen Jewell is an accomplished songwriter, but her driving passion is old and obscure music of various kinds, including the blues. On her latest album she gathers songs originally recorded by the likes of Willie Dixon, Memphis Minnie, Alberta Hunter, and Charles Sheffield, delivering them in her own distinctive style–one that combines lowdown delivery with a clear, sweet voice. The effect is controlled but sexy, and her band gives her exactly the right kind of solid, powerful, but carefully-orchestrated backing she needs. It’s rare to hear a blues album that combines restraint and passion so effectively. Highly recommended.
Silence in These Walls
Mountain Home Music Company
Their name is clearly a tribute to their bluegrass roots (referencing simultaneously Lester Flatt and the “high lonesome” sound exemplified by Bill Monroe), but Flatt Lonesome uses those roots as a jumping-off point. Despite their very traditional instrumentation, the music they make has more in common with modern singer-songwriter country music than traditional bluegrass. The chord changes go way beyond the boundaries of traditional I-IV-V, and the harmonies are richer and denser than is typical for bluegrass music. (And is that an electric guitar on “I’m Not Afraid to Be Alone”? Why, yes it is.) However, there’s none of the jazzy showing-off that typifies some newgrass bands, either. These guys are just exceptionally gifted country artists working with bluegrass instrumentation, and their latest album finds them moving from strength to strength.
A country singer who simultaneously characterizes herself as a “country hair disciple” and her new album as a breakup with the patriarchy is someone you just have to give a listen to, am I right? And the fact that she’s teamed up with Raul Malo again (he’s a producer here, but usually he’s the Mavericks’ frontman) means that woven in among the faux-1950s sonics and the bittersweet vocals are some polka and ska backbeats, as well as some delightfully cheesy lounge-surf guitar flourishes. (Whether he’s to blame for the near absence of treble in the mix is an open question.) Rose is a very sharp songwriter as well as a fine singer, and this is an outstanding collection of modern country songs.
In Trance (compilation; 3 discs)
30 Hertz (dist. Cherry Red)
One of the best things that punk rock did had very little to do with punk rock. By radically pushing outward the boundaries of what counted as popular music, punk created space for artists to explore styles that were not “punky” in any meaningful sense, but that were way outside the rock/pop norm. Few postpunk artists have taken such effective advantage of that space as bassist John Wardle, a.k.a. Jah Wobble (ex-Public Image Ltd). Stylistically, his experiments have regularly taken him all around the world and into outer space, and while not all of those experiments have been successful, they have never, ever been less than interesting. This three-disc set brings together some of the quieter and more contemplative examples of his explorations, drawn from several of his albums over the past 20 years. Always deeply influenced by dub and by Middle Eastern musical traditions, Wobble uses space and repetition as primary ingredients in his musical recipes, and some listeners may find at least some of this music tedious–but keep listening. It’s worth it.
Bring on the Sun (2 discs)
All Saints (dist. Redeye)
Laraaji came to the attention of British and American audiences back in the early 1980s, when Brian Eno produced a recording of his shimmering, maxi-minimalist dulcimer pieces for his Editions E.G. label. In recent years there’s been something of a resurgence of interest in Laraaji’s music, thanks to some well-timed reissues. But this album is actually a set of brand-new music, some of which might be a bit startling to his longstanding fans. The first disc offers more of the gentle, sweet-tempered weirdness we’ve come to expect, but with the addition of spoken-word autbiography and even some surprisingly mellifluous singing. The second disc consists of two tracks created primarily out of electronic treatments of sounds from a Chinese wind gong. These are much darker and more ominous-sounding than most of Laraaji’s music. All of it is very much worth hearing.
Play It Again Sam
Enter Shikari emerged from England’s post-hardcore scene in the mid-aughts with a unique sound proposition: screamy political hardcore that would occasionally and without warning give way to woozy dubstep beats or jungle breakdowns. Early in the band’s career it was a bit difficult to discern, but there was also always a whiff of proggy experimentalism to their approach. On The Spark, the band’s fifth full-length album, the progressive elements have really come to the fore: there’s still some yelling, and the band’s political convictions are as explicit as ever, and there are plenty of heavy guitars and hard, funky beats–but the overall mood is more introspective, and there are moments of quietude that would have been hard to imagine ten years ago. Enter Shikari is a band that never sits still, and so much the better.
Pop Art Live (2 discs)
Of course, some bands never change at all, and that can be okay too. 1970s power-pop heroes the Raspberries never changed, in significant part, because they broke up 40 years ago. Frontman Eric Carmen went on to a successful solo career, and that was that. Until 2005, when the four founding members of the band got together for a brief reunion tour, which opened at Cleveland’s House of Blues. That concert is captured on this recording, which is tons of fun. Carmen’s voice isn’t in the greatest shape, but the group’s harmonies are as tight as ever and the overall sound is very good. The Raspberries’ many fans will welcome this release into any library’s pop collection.
Gabriel Le Mar
Gabriel Le Mar is better known as one half (with Michael Kohlbecker) of the German electronica duo Saafi Brothers. On his own, he explores somewhat darker, less world-influenced, and more abstract territories. On his latest solo album he keeps things dark, warm, and inviting, and although each of the tracks on Stripped is labeled “beatless,” that’s not 100% accurate: every track has a pulse and features percussion (or at least percussive) sounds. But what none of them has is a driving rhythm; instead, all are excursions into nearly-ambient soundscapes consisting of large sonic spaces filled with tiny details both rhythmic and textural. Fans of the Saafi Brothers and of bands like the Orb and Banco de Gaia should pay particular attention.
The Afro-Indian Project
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
Kora player Ravi (né J.P. Freeman) brought together an all-star cast of Indian, African, and English musicians in order to create this unusual but highly enjoyable fusion of Indian and African musical elements. Along with his kora, you’ll hear various combinations of santoor, tabla, bansuri, guitar, saxophone, and other instruments, all held together by Danny Thompson’s powerful but understated upright bass. Authentic? By no means; ethnomusicological purists will get great satisfaction in turning up their noses at this album. But is it really very pretty? You bet.
¡ESSO! Afrojam Funkbeat
No cat. no.
An eight-piece band that celebrates its cultural diversity (members are Mexican, Puerto Rican, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Colombian, African American, and both male and female), ¡ESSO! Afrojam Funkbeat nevertheless has an overarching stylistic identity: it’s Latin, and within that broad classification its strongest single element is cumbia. But there are plenty of other influences bubbling around in there as well, including Afrobeat, jazz, reggae, and funk–sometimes in sequence, and sometimes all at once, with different elements coexisting on different rhythmic layers in the same song. Interestingly, although this music is always percolatingly funky, there’s also a strangely contemplative vibe to many of these songs; the tempos are typically moderate, and the lyrical themes are thoughtful and sometimes hortatory. This is clearly one of those bands that wants you to dance and to think at the same time.
No cat. no.
Speaking of diverse musical ensembles: Baraka Moon is a Bay Area quartet consisting of Pakistani singer/harmonium player Sokhawat Ali Khan, percussionist/didjeridoo player Stephen Kent, drummer/percussionist Peter Warren, and guitarist Anastasi Mavrides. Together they make music that uses Khan’s qawwali-derived singing as a center around which the band builds funky, slinky, bluesy arrangements that draw on multiple rhythmic and instrumental traditions simultaneously. The result could easily be a shambling mess, but it isn’t–the music is tight, expansive, and fun. For all world music collections.
Righteous Sound Productions
No cat. no.
You might not have heard of Indubious. They’re a reggae band based in Southern Oregon, headed by two brothers who were born with cystic fibrosis and were basically told from their early childhood that they were about to die. Now in their 20s, they have instead become a major force in the West Coast reggae scene, and their fourth album is a triumph of powerful, heavyweight grooves, conscious lyrics, and catchy melodies. Guests include Sizzla Kalonji, Vaughn Benjamin, and Zahira, but the album works because of Spencer Burton’s bass and Evan Burton’s sweet singing–not to mention the rich production, all of which was done by the two brothers. This is an astoundingly fine album.
Andina: The Sound of the Peruvian Andes: Huayno, Carnaval & Cumbia 1968 to 1978
Tiger’s Milk/Strut (dist. Redeye)
During the late 1960s and 1970s, the popular music scene in the Peruvian Andes (and especially in Lima, its urban center) was richer and more diverse than one might imagine. This wonderful disc brings together examples of cumbia, huayno, big band, and traditional harp music from the period; most of these were original vinyl recordings that have never been released outside of Peru and are long out of print even there. This will be the first in a series of three albums exploring the history of Peruvian music up to the present, and, charmingly, this one is released at the same time as a similarly-themed cookbook. Recommended to all libraries.
Non-Stop: Mexico to Jamaica
In many parts of the world right now, a hot and sunny summer is giving way to the wind and rain of autumn. If you want to hold onto the last vestiges of summer sunshine, get ahold of this album from Latin-fusion band Ozomatli. The album title says it all: Ozomatli is a Los Angeles-based band that is conversant in a wide variety of Latin rhythms and styles, but they also love reggae and funk. So that pretty much tells you what to expect: tight harmonies, soaring melodies, funky rhythms, reggae backbeats, heavy bass, all in various combinations that shift from song to song. Pull this one out when the weather gets seriously bad in January or February, and watch your patrons’ faces light up.
Old Time Something Come Back Again, Vol. 2
For more of a pure reggae experience, definitely check out the latest from the Expanders, also based in Los Angeles. The first album in this series of classic reggae cover collections was released as a free download (it’s still available here, if you sign up for their mailing list), and it was absolutely outstanding. This one, if anything, is even better–I’ve been a roots-reggae crate-digger for almost 35 years now, and I’ve heard maybe three of these tracks before. The songs are arranged respectfully but not slavishly, and the Expanders both play and sing with a warmth and an easy virtuosity that make the album a completely enjoyable listening experience. Highly recommended to all libraries.
No cat. no.
Indian percussionist Bala Skandam leads the percussion-centric, New York-based ensemble Akshara through a blisteringly virtuosic and melodically gorgeous set of original tunes on this, the group’s debut album. The focus here is on the deep rhythmic complexity that characterizes South Indian music. The rhythms are not only played by percussion instruments (notably the mridangam), but are also sung in a vocal style called konnakkol, by which beats are given a variety of different vowel/consonant representations and chanted in patterns as they’re played. The combination of these long and incredibly complicated rhythmic patterns and the melodies played by flute, strings, and hammered dulcimer is sometimes hair-raisingly beautiful. Highly recommended.