PICK OF THE MONTH
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
RIAS Kammerchor; Freiburger Barockorchester / René Jacobs
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
Why, one might well ask, do we need yet another recording of Mozart’s Requiem, surely the most popular and frequently-recorded of his large-scale works (after, perhaps, the Jupiter symphony)? Part of the answer in this case is that René Jacobs is a titan of early music and whenever he and his crack team of period-instrument players take on a work, even a very familiar one, it’s going to be worth hearing what he and they do with it. In this case there’s a more important reason, however, because this recording is the fruit of a five-year project: a collaboration between Jacobs and the composer Pierre-Henri Dutron to create a new version of the Requiem. Mozart famously never finished the work, and pieces were filled in by several other composers, notably Franz Xavier Süssmayr, whose work has been heavily criticized over the years. Dutron undertook two tasks: first, to amend and reconfigure Süssmayr’s additions into versions truer to the Mozartian style; second, to create a second version consisting of his own original compositions in place of Süssmayr’s. What we have here is the world-premiere recording of the first — the Süssmayr version, “remade” by Dutron. The result is fascinating and is gloriously performed, and should find a place in every library that supports an academic music program.
RIAS Kammerchor; Münchener Kammerorchester / Alexander Liebreich
For a Requiem setting written in memory of victims of the Armenian Genocide, you can reasonably expect a couple of things: a somber but passionate mood, and a blend of Easter and Western European musical influences. Both are in evidence on this brilliant recording of Tigran Mansurian’s deeply moving work. Throughout the piece, somberness and mourning are the dominant moods, with an undercurrent of anger in the often-unsettled string writing. What comes as a surprise is a moment near the end of the piece, during the “Sanctus” section, when the phrase “Osanna in excelsis” blossoms into radiant color. For all libraries.
Queen Katherine Parr & Songs of Reformation
Alamire; Fretwork / David Skinner
Obsidian (dist. Naxos)
The Obsidian label is one of the most reliable purveyors of Renaissance music in the marketplace right now, as are both the magnificent Alamire choir and the venerable Fretwork consort of viols. The backstory of the music presented on this outstanding album is fascinating (it involves a liturgical reformation prompted in part by the King’s nervousness about heading into battle, and also the discovery of a Tallis manuscript fragment behind the plasterwork of a wall at Oxford), but its main attraction is the creamily sweet singing of Alamire, and the somber beauty of the six-part antiphon Gaude glorious dei mater and the processional litany that bookend this program. Every classical collection should acquire this album.
Estampes; Images; Children’s Corner
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
Here’s your study question, class: does the music of Debussy make you think of the paintings of Monet because Debussy is so often called an “impressionist” composer, or is Debussy called an “impressionist” composer because his music objectively evokes the visual art of the Impressionist painters? Discuss! And while you’re doing so, bask in the radiant loveliness of this recital of Debussy’s brief piano works by the always-reliable Stephen Hough, in particular the swooningly gorgeous “Pagodes,” which opens the album. Yes, your library probably already owns multiple recordings of these popular pieces — buy this one anyway.
Beauty in Simplicity
Neue Meister (dist. Naxos)
Pianist/composer Kai Schumacher is kind of making a musical argument here: he’s demonstrating the mutual influences between the work of 20th-century composers like Steve Reich and Erik Satie (who, though in very different ways, worked with “minimal” musical materials) and pop artists like Radiohead, Moderat, and Lampshade. The asserted bidirectionality of that influence is obviously problematic (particular in the case of Satie), but as a unifying theme for the album it works really well: hearing Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” immediately followed by Satie’s “Gnossiene No. 3” is particularly instructive. And Schumacher’s piano arrangement of Reich’s Electric Counterpoint is brilliant.
Giovanni Francesco Giuliani
Nocturnes for Clarinet and Harp
Luigi Magistrelli; Elena Gorna
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
At the turn of the 19th century, violinist and composer Giovanni Francesci Giuliani was appointed to the first violin chair of two major theater orchestras in Florence. He was also a fairly prolific composer, and this disc represents the world-premiere recording of his twelve nocturnes for clarinet and harp — simple and straightforward pieces for the most part, but limpidly beautiful, particularly in these lovely performances (on modern instruments) by clarinetist Luigi Magistrelli and harpist Elena Gorna. Given the very limited repertoire currently available for this configuration of instruments, this release is not only highly attractive musically; it’s also a welcome addition to the field. Recommended to all libraries.
Reicha Rediscovered, Vol. 1
Chandos (dist. Naxos)
Musique de chambre (3 discs)
Solistes de la chapelle musicale Reine Elisabeth
Alpha (dist. Naxos)
And speaking of world-premiere recordings of works by composers of the early Romantic period, here are two new recordings of solo and chamber works by the great Antoine Reicha, the first of which consists of previously unpublished piano works performed by the Serbian-American pianist Ivan Ilic. These works are remarkable for their delicacy and elegance, and Ilic plays them with aching sensitivity. The second release is a three-disc collection of solo piano and chamber-ensemble pieces, all performed by various student virtuosi in residence at the Queen Elisabeth Chapel in Waterloo, Belgium. The program may seem to be organized a bit haphazardly (one disc includes a string quartet and a string quintet; one contains a miscellany of piano sonatas, etudes, fugues, etc.; the third offers two string trios, including one for three cellos), but the playing is wonderful and the variety of musical textures and configurations makes the whole set just that much easier to listen to. Both of these releases are recommended to all classical collections, but the Ivan Ilic disc should be considered essential.
Viola Concertos 1 &3; Flute Concerto
Barbara Buntrock; Gaby Pas-Van Riet; Symphonieorchester Osnabrück / Andreaz Hotz
CPO (dist. Naxos)
Very often, I cover releases of music by composers who were famous during their lifetime but have since been forgotten. Christian Westerhoff is not one of these; he was never famous. Few of his compositions were published, and although he was well regarded amongst his colleagues as both a violist and a composer, his reputation never expanded beyond his home region of northwestern Germany. However, the orchestra of his home town is slowly working to change that, and the group’s most recent recording of Westerhoff works is this absolutely lovely program of two viola concertos and a flute concerto. The latter has more of a Romantic intensity than the two viola pieces do, but all are played with affection and verve (and on modern instruments) by the Symphonieorchester Osnabrück. As far as I can determine, these are all world-premiere recordings, though no such claim is made on the packaging.
Trinity Boys Choir; Handbell Choir Gotha / David Swinson
Rondeau (dist. Naxos)
Nicholas Ludford is slowly coming out from under the shadows cast by his admired Tudor contemporaries (especially John Taverner). This recording of one of his rarely-recorded Ladymasses is more than just a straight performance: it takes the Mass and puts it into liturgical context, with a processional, a sequence, a couple of carols, a recessional, and even two modern compositions distributed between the various sections, one of which features a part for handbell choir. This is actually Christmas music, not just Marian devotional music, and the carols will be familiar to many listeners. The Trinity Boys Choir sounds very good here. This disc should find a place in all early-music collections.
The Complete Recordings 1947-1962 (4 discs)
Enlightenment (dist. MVD)
Tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards isn’t the household name that he should be, but he still has lots of devotees among fans of bebop and hard bop. His style was deeply informed by the blues, and even when you could hear the more decorous influences of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young in his playing, there was always that honk around the edge of his sound. This set brings together all of his albums as a leader from his 1947 debut until the 1962 release Body & Soul. As with all Enlightenment collections, what you get is a large amount of outstanding music at a very low cost; what you don’t get is much information, including musician credits (though some discussion of the other players involved is included in the brief liner notes). These releases are a boon for jazz lovers on a budget and for libraries that have other access to the background information that might be needed in order to support academic study.
Spontaneous Music Ensemble
Consider, for a moment, the makeup of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, circa 1968: trumpeter Kenny Wheeler; saxophonist Evan Parker; guitarist Derek Bailey; bassist Dave Holland; percussionist John Stevens. I mean, good heavens. And if you think freely-improvised music has to be loud and cacophonic, consider the two rules that Stevens laid down for the group: if you can’t hear someone else you’re playing too loudly, and if you don’t make reference in your playing to things others are doing, you might as well not be playing in the group. Combine those rules with the technical virtuosity and musical openmindedness of this particular crew, and the result you get is nuanced, detailed, strange, and often quite conventionally pretty. Perhaps not an essential purchase for every library, but you know who you are.
Jeff Hamilton Trio
Live from San Pedro
Jeff Hamilton is not only one of the finest jazz drummers on the scene today; he’s also one of the most gifted bandleaders, a man who nurtures and develops talent and makes sure to show his fellow players at their best. You can see both of those tendencies on full display with this wonderful live set, on which he is supported by pianist Tamir Hendelman and bassist Christoph Luty. The setlist includes standards and originals, all played in styles that range from funky to powerfully swinging to quietly elegiac. One highlight among many is Hendelman’s highly original arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud.” Strongly recommended to all jazz collections.
For a very different take on a drummer-led jazz ensemble, check out this one: an attempt by drummer Jerry Granelli to make lightning strike twice. In 1992 he recorded an album of blues-based tunes with guitarists Bill Frisell and Robben Ford, along with a horn section. 25 years later he’s back again with the same guitarists, with his son on bass, and with a different horn section but a very similar modus operandi. And dang if he doesn’t make it work again: songs like “The Great Pretender,” “Ain’t That a Shame,” and the jump-blues classic “Caldonia” are given sweet and often funky treatments that, among other things, nicely showcase the very different but surprisingly complementary guitar styles of Ford and Frisell. Wonderful.
Thomas Fonnesbaek & Justin Kauflin
Storyville (dist. Naxos)
A bass/piano duo album is something that can always go either way, and when the bassist is the leader one might really hesitate. It’s not that bass players don’t make good bandleaders; it’s that a configuration like this would lead one to expect lots of bass solos, and bass solos are no fun. (Please understand that I say this as a bass player myself.) However, part of what makes this album so wonderful is the way that Thomas Fonnesbaek leads the proceedings here: the bass and piano really do sound like an organic duo, and Kauflin’s piano playing is absolutely exquisite — virtuosic but always tasteful and melodically sweet. And believe it or not, Fonnesbaek’s bass solos are actually tons of fun.
Paul Giallorenzo Trio
For some reason, listening to pianist Paul Giallorenzo makes me think of Lennie Tristano. I say “for some reason,” because they’re very different pianists. What I think they have in common is a certain dry intellectualism — which I realize sounds like a criticism, but it isn’t. On his second album as a leader for the Delmark label, Giallorenzo plays with sharp intelligence and creativity, sometimes swinging hard and sometimes improvising freely along with his trio, but his line of thought is always clear and always compelling. What I hear as “dryness” on this album might better be characterized as “cleanliness.” I’m not expressing this well. Get the album.
If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the American folk music scene over the past, oh, 50 years or so, then you’ll immediately recognize John McCutcheon’s name. He’s one of the people who popularized the hammered dulcimer as a modern folk instrument, but he’s also a fiddler and guitarist and banjo player and songwriter and singer. Woody Guthrie is his explicitly-acknowledged model in terms of both lyrical content and musical style (and Guthrie is name-checked more than once here), though McCutcheon’s approach sometimes approaches folk-rock, particularly on the rollicking “Big Day.” But most of this music is relatively quiet and intense political and economic protest music. His voice is strong and supple, and his way with a melody is admirable. Recommended to all folk collections.
Zephaniah Ohora with the 18 Wheelers
When I cued up this album for the first time, my first thought was “Man, this guy sounds like Raul Malo.” Then I kept listening and thought “No, wait — he sounds like a young Merle Haggard.” And by that point, the clucky guitars and moaning Bakersfield steel-guitar tonalities had totally captivated me. Honestly, I can’t decide whether it’s Ohora’s sweet, clear voice or his crack band of honky-tonk pros (including outstanding lead guitarist Jim Campilongo) that make this album such a pure joy. Luckily, you get both. For all libraries with any collecting interest in country music whatsoever.
This Is Blues Country
Ain’t Skeert Tunes
No cat. no.
Well now, this is just plain fun: a collection of classic country songs played in a variety of blues styles. It opens with a greasy, raunchy-sounding take on “Honky Tonk Blues,” then proceeds to give “You Are My Sunshine” a Texas organ-shuffle treatment, then interprets Marty Robbins’ “Singing the Blues” via Stevie Ray Vaughn. The rest of the album continues along that line. My favorite track is probably the jauntily strutting version of Buck Owens’ “Under Your Spell Again.” Recommended.
Meat Beat Manifesto
Flexidisc (dist. Virtual Label)
No cat. no.
I’ve been a fan of Jack Dangers and his various projects (including Meat Beat Manifesto, Tino, and Bomb the Bass) for decades now. And I have to say that his latest is probably the best thing he’s done yet. I wish I could better explain what it is that makes an MBM so instantly identifiable — it’s something in the texture of the drums, as well as the slightly dark, slightly puckish sense of humor that pops up regularly — but what I can say is that his beats are never boring, his sense of space and texture is exquisite, and the range of influences he draws upon for his constructions is impressive. I’ve listened to this new one over and over again since I got the review copy in November, and I like it just as much now as I did the first time. For all libraries.
A Part of Me
Project: Mooncircle (Vinyl and digital only)
1954 is the nom de guerre of Ivan Arlaud, a Lyon-based musician about whom I would really, really like to know more. His debut album exemplifies everything that I tend to love about releases on the Project: Mooncircle label: dark moods, gentle but compelling beats, vocals chopped up until they’re unrecognizable except as more-or-less vocal sounds, and a general sense of funky weirdness that is simultaneously soothing and unsettling. There are hints of dubstep and jungle drifting in and out of the mix at various points, but the overall feel here is dreamy, floating, and warm — with an undercurrent of discontent.
If you’re in the market for something even more abstract and quiet, consider this new release from John Roger Olsson, who records as Havenaire for the aptly-named Glacial Movements label. The label name would lead you to expect very slowly-moving music, which this is, but it might also lead you to expect very cold music, which this isn’t. The six tracks are inspired by early-20th-century landscape photos of Sweden, and all of them are simultaneously melancholy and deeply beautiful. There’s a lot more detail here than might be apparent at first listen, which is one of the important things that separates ambient music from mere aural wallpaper. Recommended to pop and classical collections.
With an artist name like Dread and an album title like “In Dub,” you might reasonably be expecting this to be a reggae album. And, well, I guess it kind of is. But what you need to know is that “Dread” is a second-level pseudonym for Lustmord (itself a pseudonym for industrial-ambient-rock-metal legend Brian Williams), and that while he’s using this latest side project as an opportunity to explore dubwise soundscape experiments, this music’s relationship to reggae is purely formal. What it feels like is a cavernous dive into a murky subconscious, one where beats and basslines serve only to give structure to darkness. I realize that may sound like criticism, but it’s intended as praise: this is not happy music, but it’s uniquely beautiful and those basslines and beats are outstanding. If your patrons like Bill Laswell, they’ll love this.
We’re Not in Kansas: The Live Bootleg Boxset 1993-1998 (5 discs)
In the 1980s, Big Country brought a new flavor to earnest and anthemic post-punk rock’n’roll: an unapologetically Scots one, expressed both by frontman Stuart Adamson’s thick burr and by the bagpipe-inflected guitar sounds the band favored. Unfortunately, The Crossing, their first and best album, was marred by an inexcusably thin, constricted sound courtesy of producer Steve Lillywhite — so when I saw this boxed set of bootleg live recordings from the mid-1990s, I thought it might offer the opportunity to hear this band’s songs in all their thunderous glory for the first time. And I was partly right: the first two discs offer powerful (and mostly pretty well-recorded) concerts from Minneapolis and Glasgow. But the remaining three discs consist entirely of acoustic sets from various intimate venues, and while they’re fun, they’re not terribly compelling. This box is mainly for completist fans and for libraries that collect deeply in 1980s pop music.
Remember trip-hop? Remember how slow and syrupy it was, and how heavyweight the basslines tended to be, and how the funkiness of its drum parts was undermined by the relentlessly slow tempos? Well, if you miss trip-hop (as I do), you’ll be very pleased to hear the latest from Rhi, whose sound is built on a trip-hop foundation but takes advantage of the intervening decades of stylistic evolution in bass music and R&B as well. She sings beautifully and harmonizes with herself nicely, and she also sings an awful lot about weed, which isn’t that surprising given the overall vibe of her latest album. Strongly recommended to all libraries in California and Colorado.
Danny T & Tradesman
Built for Sound
Forty minutes of pure pleasure here, from the Leeds-based digital-dancehall production team of Danny T and Tradesman. Though they haven’t been on the scene for very long, they’ve managed to attract an absolutely A-list array of singers and toasters for this outing, including Daddy Freddy, Warrior Queen, Lutan Fyah, and even roots legend Earl Sixteen. The overall vibe is 1980s-style digital and everything is tuned to the dance, but there’s a strong vein of social commentary running through the proceedings as well. Danny T and Tradesman are already masters at making computer rhythms feel warm and organic, and every track on this album simply kills.
Sly & Robbie Meet Dubmatix
Dubmatix is a Canadian producer and remixer who seems kind of shy about sharing his real name. Sly & Robbie are one of the foundational bass-and-drum duos of reggae music, mainstays of studio and stage since the 1970s. For this album, Dubmatix grabbed some classic Sly & Robbie tracks and remixed them in a hard, modern dubwise style, soliciting vocalists like Prince Alla and Jay Spaker to contribute as well. Longstanding reggae fans will definitely recognize some of these classic rhythms, but they’ve never sounded like this before. As always, Dubmatix creates an exciting fusion of new and old and delivers grooves that are guaranteed to nice up your library.
Ethiopian & His All Stars
The Return of Jack Sparrow
The bad news came when Nighthawk Records, a small but greatly respected roots reggae label based in St. Louis, went out of business in the late 1990s. The good news came late last year, when its catalog was acquired by Omnivore and a reissue series was announced. But even better than the straight reissues is this, a previously-unreleased collection of tracks from Leonard Dillon (of Ethiopians fame), a legend of early reggae who recorded an album’s worth of material for Nighthawk around 1988 — at which point the label’s fortunes were already in decline, leading to the album being shelved. The music sounds fantastic; stylistically, it spans from the late-60 ska gallop of “I’m Gonna Take Over” and “Train to Skaville” to the dark and rootsy vibes of “Straight on Rastafari” and “Heavenly Father.” Dillon’s voice is still remarkably strong here, and the ace studio band is amazing. Strongly recommended to all libraries with a collecting interest in reggae music.
Fraction of Jah Action (reissue; 2 discs)
Hot Milk/Cherry Red
This one will be of interest mainly to hardcore reggae fans and UK roots completists, but to those with such interests it’s a treasure trove. I Benjahman operated out of West London in the early 1980s, and he released only one album along with a handful of 12″ singles. This reissue brings together that album along with bonus tracks that include extended discomixes of selected album tracks, and, on a second disc, a bunch of dubplates and unreleased tracks that include multiple versions of several tunes. Frankly, I Benjahman’s singing was workmanlike — pleasant enough, but nothing special. (And some listeners might scratch their heads at, for example, the inclusion of no fewer than four different dub versions of a track called “Father’s Instructions,” but no straight vocal version.) But the musicians involved are top-notch, and the production is frequently brilliant, and while the second disc in particular may be more puzzling than enjoyable for those with a more casual interest in UK reggae, for those with ears to hear it really is a find.
Come from Far
Back in 2015 I praised New Kingston’s debut album as a prime example of the best in American roots reggae music, and their fourth is just as good. This Brooklyn-based family band continues to write songs that not only respect and celebrate reggae’s deep history, but also look forward to the possibility of new sounds and fusions. Most importantly, though, they create powerful hooks and deliver them with tight harmonies in the context of deep, heavyweight rhythms. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Beam of Light
Over on the other edge of the North American continent is another outstanding American reggae band. The Simpkin Project, based in Southern California, plays a brand of reggae that is infused with rock and Americana sounds, but subtly — most of the time, what you really hear is an unusually rich and deeply-textured style of straight-ahead reggae. Sure, there’s a bluesy guitar and R&B-ish horns on “Some Things Don’t Change,” but that steppers beat is the defining element here; and if there’s maybe a hint of folkiness in the sung melody of “Perfect Harmony,” again it’s the scratchy rock-steady rhythm guitar and the chugging organ that make the song what it is. Great stuff.