PICK OF THE MONTH
The Stylings of Champian (2 discs)
I think I’ve finally put my finger on what it is that I find so entrancing about Champian Fulton’s artistry: it’s how she manages, against all odds, to be so many things at once. Her vocal style is a unique amalgamation of the straight-ahead and the experimental, alternately declamatory and lyrical, off-beat and swinging, devoted to the song itself and determined to express her uniqueness–imagine listening simultaneously to Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone singing the same song, and you’ll get a general idea of what I’m talking about. There are very few singers who can make hoary standards like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “Body and Soul” entirely their own, and she is one of them. But then there’s her piano playing, which is every bit as playfully inventive and rhythmically surprising as her singing, while at the same time swinging so powerfully that it’s hard to sit still while listening. On her latest album she leads a brilliant trio that includes bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer Fukushi Tainaka, with her father Stephen on flugelhorn for several tracks as well. The program is all standards, with a focus on tunes by Oscar Peterson and Cedar Walton, and there’s not a weak track to be heard. Yet again, she delivers an essential purchase for all jazz collections.
Johann Sebastian Bach & Various Composers
Goldberg 1.5 (digital only)
Footprint (dist. Naxos)
Bach’s Goldberg Variations remains not only one of that composer’s most revered works, but also a fundamental pillar of the baroque edifice and one of the deepest and most thorough expressions ever realized of the concept of a theme with variations. It’s a work that has served as a touchstone for countless keyboard players over the centuries, but has also lent itself to other instrumental interpretations. This album offers a radically different approach to the music: the aria and five of its variations are presented here by Kondens, a duo consisting of recorder player My Eklund and organist Lisa Oscarsson, alongside modern interpretations of (or, perhaps more accurately, responses to) those variations composed by Lisa Ullén, Mattias Petersson, Ida Lundén, Jas Sanström, and Daniel Hjorth. The modern pieces are sometimes abstract and challenging, and sometimes more direct and accessible, but all are fascinating, and the playing of Eklund and Oscarsson is consistently excellent.
Gottschalk and Cuba
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
W.A. Mozart; L. Van Beethoven; J. Harbison
Beethoven, Mozart, Harbison
David Deveau; Borromeo String Quartet; Jessica Bodner; Thomas van Dyck
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
The only thing uniting these two albums is that both are piano recordings on the Steinway & Sons label, a brilliant marketing tool on the part of the famous piano manufacturer: not only do its recordings feature world-class performances by great pianists, but they also act as advertisements for the pianos being played. Anyway, the first album is a thoughtful and lovely program focusing on the underrated American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who was raised in New Orleans and spent several years in Cuba. Gottschalk and Cuba influenced each other mutually, and this album features works both by Gottschalk and by Cuban composers whom he influenced; several of these pieces are presented here in world-premiere recordings. This disc should be of particular interest to academic collections. The second disc juxtaposes chamber arrangements of orchestral works by Beethoven (his fourth piano concerto) and Mozart (his 14th concerto and his c-minor Fantasia), with, interestingly enough, a brief John Harbison piece. (Harbison also wrote the cadenzas for the Beethoven concerto.) This one also is of significant academic–and aesthetic!–interest. Great playing all around, and beautifully recorded in a warm, dry acoustic.
Maurice Ravel; Joseph Haydn; Igor Stravinsky
Haydn, Ravel, Stravinsky
Orchid Classics (dist. Naxos)
Ravel, Haydn, and Stravinsky are not necessarily the most obvious composers to pull together for a string quartet program, but give this album a listen: it works really well. Apart from the fact that Ravel’s music constantly looked back over its shoulder to the classical era (and therefore really does juxtapose nicely with Haydn’s mature opus 54 quartet), there’s also simply the fact that Ravel and Haydn were both quartet composers of unusual genius–making it all the more regrettable that Ravel only wrote a single work in that format, and leading Tesla Quartet leader Ross Snyder to seek out several of the composer’s piano works to arrange for his group. This collection is augmented by Stravinsky’s brief and angular Concertino for String Quartet, creating a richly varied and thoroughly exciting album. The playing is magnificent.
Johannes Brahms; Toru Takemitsu; Ludwig Van Beethoven
Brahms, Takemitsu, Beethoven
Here’s another interesting chamber-music lineup, this one by a piano trio: the program begins with the third piano trio of Brahms, followed by Toru Takemitsu’s Between Tides, and then Beethoven’s fifth trio (“Ghost”). The juxtapositions are very interesting: the journey from Brahms’ fiery, intense work (the last piano trio in his oeuvre) to Takemitsu’s deeply impressionistic, almost abstract one, and then to Beethoven’s explosive “Ghost” trio constitutes what ends up feeling like a world tour of emotion. Trio Isimsiz play with all the fire and panache one could ask for, and deliver a powerful listening experience.
Les Talens Lyriques; Arnold Schoenberg Choir / Christophe Rousset
Aparte Music (dist. PIAS)
On this disc, Rameau’s wonderful one-act opera-ballet Pygmalion is paired with his orchestral suite Les fêtes de Polymnie to create a wonderfully satisfying program of French baroque stage music. For those unfamiliar with the form, an opéra-ballet is exactly what it sounds like: a theater work that combines the explicit narrative and through-composed vocal elements of opera with choreographed dance passages, sort of like an early stage musical, but without any spoken dialogue. The problem with an audio recording in this case is, of course, that you can’t see the dancers during those passages–but it’s a small price to pay when the music is this much fun. And both the soloists and the chorus are brilliant on this recording, as are Les Talens Lyriques on the instrumental passages. I really can’t recommend this one strongly enough.
For John Cage
Erik Carlson; Aleck Karis
Bridge (dist. Albany)
Morton Feldman wrote a handful of compositions dedicated to other 20th-century artists, authors, and composers. It should come as no surprise that the one he wrote in honor of John Cage is austere, and filled with long reverberations and even silences. One of the things that makes this particular piece so interesting is that although it’s written for piano and violin, it is by no means a violin sonata or anything like it; instead, the two instruments are equal melodic partners (the piano part limited almost entirely to one stave and, during long passages, to individual notes without chords), often playing very similar parts. The tempo is consistently slow, at times nearly sodden; there is lots of repetition; the piece is over an hour long. So is it for everyone? No way. Is it an “important” piece? Certainly yes. How is the playing by violinist Erik Carlson and pianist Aleck Karis? Excellent.
Melancholia: Madrigals and Motets around 1600
Les cris de Paris / Geoffroy Jordain
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
The “madrigals and motets” program has been a popular one for early-music releases for decades now, and I’ve never really understood why; the two forms seem so very different to me–which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be juxtaposed, of course; it just makes me wonder why this particular juxtaposition is so prevalent. In the case of this particular, very lovely program, there are two major uniting factors: first the theme of melancholy, and second the fact that all of these works are examples of musica reservata, a style of composition characterized by an unusual (for the time) complexity of harmony and dissonance. The most (in)famous exponent of this style is probably Carlo Gesualdo, whose vocal writing still sounds avant-garde today and who is represented by several selections here–but composers like William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, and Luca Marenzio were experimenting in this direction as well. It takes a particular level of vocal skill to sing these pieces convincingly, and Les cris de Paris do a magnificent job here–and are recorded in a perfectly warm but spacious acoustic.
Gave in Rest
Ba Da Bing (dist. Revolver)
For a very different take on early music, consider the latest from composer and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Davachi. On this collection of original compositions she plays flute, mellotron, organ, piano, and synthesizer, and sings–and the album is billed as “a modern reading of early music, reforming sacred and secular sentiments to fit her purview.” What you hear at first is nothing but a series of drones, but keep listening and the music unfolds like a blossoming flower: the drones pile up in consonant layers, sometimes wavering in pitch and sometimes fading in and out. Bottom line: this isn’t necessarily a great pick for actual early-music collections, but would make an outstanding addition to any library with a collecting interest in experimental or avant-garde music (or minimalism).
Near East Quartet
Reedman and composer Sungjae Son leads (as one might expect from the title) a quartet on this album, one that features guitarist Suwuk Chung, vocalist/percussionist Yulhee Kim, and drummer Soojin Suh (with guest percussionist Sori Choi on one track). That’s an unusual instrumental lineup and as one might expect, the music is strange and inventive. Son’s compositions are impressionistic but never really abstract; they draw explicitly on elements of Korea’s gugak and pansori traditions, but also keep one foot in the melodic and instrumental textures of jazz. Drummer Suh is one of the most interesting and original players in this group, with a style that tends to create washes of pointillistic sound rather than generate a groove, and it works perfectly. This is a very impressive debut from a group of major young talents.
Fred Hersch Trio
Fred Hersch Trio ’97 @ The Village Vanguard
No cat. no.
Aficionados of living treasure Fred Hersch think of his mid-1990s trio with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey as one of the best he’s led, and his 1993 and 1994 studio recordings with them are among his finest. But this is the only live recording to have surfaced of that group, and it’s significant in another way as well: it documents Hersch’s first performance at the legendary Village Vanguard as a leader (he had been playing there regularly as a sideman since 1979). It’s actually kind of startling to listen to this album and realize it was made 20 years ago–his style is just as simultaneously complex and accessible as it is today, and the level of communication with his trio (particularly with Gress, which strongly evokes the musical telepathy that existed between Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro) is exceptional. In other words, this is yet another completely essential Fred Hersch album, one that belongs in every library collection.
Ask for Chaos
I don’t know how he feels about comparisons like this, but two tracks into his latest album I found myself thinking “Man, Gilad Hekselman would have sounded right at home on the ECM label around 1982.” Nor is that in any way a criticism: playing sometimes sharply and corrosively, sometimes gently and lyrically, everywhere Hekselman uses reverb to define a cathedral-sized sonic space and plays melodies that both surprise and delight. Interestingly, he performs with two different trio ensembles on this album: one (ZuperOctave) in a more prog/experimental/electronic vein, and the other (gHex Trio) in a more acoustic/straight-ahead style. But even at his most conventional, Hekselman is still making sounds and creating compositions that sound like nothing else you’ll hear in this decade–even if you’ll catch the occasional echo of John Abercrombie or Terje Rypdal from a long time ago. Highly recommended.
Oren Ambarchi & Jim O’Rourke (with U-Zhaan)
Hence (vinyl/digital only)
Described by the label as “like a dream collaboration between David Behrman and Henry Kaiser,” the latest duo effort from keyboardist Jim O’Rourke and guitarist Oren Ambarchi also features contributions from tabla player U-Zhaan, and consists of two 20-minute-long expanses of abstraction. The music on both sides is quite glistening and pointillistic, with little that could be termed “harmonic movement” but plenty of shifting layers. At no point does the tabla lay down any real groove; instead, it pokes tiny holes in the shimmering clouds of sound generated by Ambarchi and O’Rourke. Those clouds consist of both vapor and ice crystals, with faint hints of overtone singing in the background and intimations of water dripping in a haunted cave. I guess you could call this ambient music, if the ambience you’re looking for is that of a cybernetic spelunking trip gone subtly but worryingly wrong. Great stuff.
Karl Strømme Quintet
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
Trumpeter/composer/arranger Karl Strømme has a style that’s tough to pigeonhole: modern but not avant-garde, discursive but not undisciplined or indulgent. And his tone is really interesting: sometimes brightly burnished, sometimes smeary and abstract à la Jon Hassell, but always rich and pleasing. His quintet is a classic trumpet/tenor lineup (with a guitar where the piano would normally be), but the band never sounds classic or even typical; they go off in a variety of directions, often in time signatures that are substantially more complex than they sound at first listen, and following melodic lines that sometimes start off lyrically direct and then drift into a pleasingly quirky weirdness. Recommended.
Mark Masters Ensemble
Longtime readers of CD HotList will have recognized by now that I harbor a preference for jazz that is straight-ahead and swinging, with a peripheral (but real) interest in the abstract and impressionistic and a low tolerance for bombast and skronk-for-skronk’s-sake. Mark Masters has repeatedly caught and kept my attention by threading this needle, combining powerful swing with complex compositional structures and innovative arrangements. His latest is another triumph of compositional creativity and brilliant arranging, featuring a core sextet (including, among others, the great saxophonist Oliver Lake and the equally great drummer Andrew Cyrille) augmented by a shifting large ensemble that includes a big horn section, singer Anna Mjöll and vibraphonist Craig Fundyga. (Interestingly, Masters himself doesn’t play on the album.) The tunes often remind me of middle-period Charles Mingus–listen especially to the wonderfully light-footed jazz waltz “Ingvild’s Dance”–and his exploitation of instrumental color is just marvelous throughout. Highly recommended to all jazz collections.
Rough Guide to Scottish Folk
Rough Guides (dist. Redeye)
I confess that whenever I encounter another entry in the Rough Guide series of recordings, I kind of roll my eyes a little bit. “Oh great,” I think to myself. “Another predigested collection of easy-listening entries in the [fill in the blank] genre for people who don’t really want to know much about it.” And virtually every time, I find myself eating my words. They’ve done it again with Rough Guide to Scottish Folk, which does an admirable job of surveying not just the surface but also some of the depths of the current Caledonian trad scene–not all of which is located in Scotland. Sure, you’ve got the obligatory Battlefield Band entry, and you’ve got a song that most people with even a glancing familiarity with the Scots repertoire will recognize (“Turn Ye to Me”), but you’ve also got an oustanding American singer, Kyle Carey, demonstrating the ancient art of puirt à beuil, you’ve got a tune from the Scots-Canadian diaspora (“Banks of Newfoundland”), and you’ve got your protest song (“Wire Burners”). All in all, a very fine overview that will probably offer some surprises even to the cognoscenti.
Rachael McShane & The Cartographers
When All Is Still
Topic (dist. Redeye)
Singer/cellist/violist/fiddler Rachael McShane made her name in the Britfolk scene as a founding member of Bellowhead, one of the most successful groups in that genre in recent years. Her second album as a solo artist finds her making thoughtful explorations of traditional songs and tunes, a few of which will likely be familiar to fans of the repertoire (“Barley and Rye,” “Two Sisters”), while others will come as a lovely surprise. My favorite is her arrangement of “Ploughman Lads,” the rhythm of which confused me slightly before I recognized it as a calypso beat. Nice one, Rachael! Her voice is lovely, and she has an outstanding core backing band in guitarist Matthew Ord and melodeon player Julian Sutton — with a few of her old Bellowhead colleagues joining in as well on several tunes. This would make a great addition to any folk collection.
Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing
A quick glance at the cover art and you might be forgiven for expecting this album to be some kind of gothic Southern death metal. (Except for the cute dogs, which are easy to miss.) But no: this is straight-up honky-tonk country-rock, written and performed by an eighth-grade dropout and runaway who considers himself “a carpenter who writes country songs.” JP Harris’ life story is stark enough to give him more than the usual level of authority when singing songs with titles like “Hard Road” and “Long Ways back,” but he never sounds in any way maudlin or self-pitying: the songs are tough and strong, even the ballads, and Harris’ voice is a deep, rich baritone supported by a crack team of sidepersons. Whether he’s rocking out or moaning quietly, JP Harris is consistently convincing and compelling.
Jim & Jesse McReynolds
The Old Dominion Masters (4 discs; reissue)
Pinecastle (dist. MVD)
When this box arrived in the mail I thought “Dang, it looks familiar.” I checked the release date, and sure enough: this is a reissue of a collection that originally came to market 20 years ago — and that I actually reviewed in 1999 for the All-Music Guide. You can read that original review here; today I’ll just say that my four-and-a-half star AMG review stands: these are recordings made for the McReynolds’ own label in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when they were simultaneously pushing back against a music industry that wanted them to modernize their sound and creating genuine musical innovation on their own terms. Any library that collects bluegrass music should jump at the chance to take advantage of this box now that it’s available again.
Honley Civic Archives, Vol. 1 (digital only EP)
Soundtracking the Void
For his latest album, Thomas Ragsdale used physical recording format to help dictate musical content. Using reel-to-reel tape machines through which he ran some of these musical passages multiple times, he incorporated both chance elements and what he called “machine luck” into the writing/producing process, ending up with a darkly contemplative set of tracks that draw on aural images of rural Yorkshire. “Draw on” is meant in an abstract sense–there are no Morris dance melodies or anything like that, just moods that are informed, however indirectly, by local horror stories and cultural traditions. The resulting music is eerie and quite lovely. (And for those who are deeply committed to format hipsterism, this digital-only release is accompanied by a strictly limited run of reel-to-reel tapes, each containing a piece of improvised music recorded exclusively onto that tape.)
Kode9 & Burial
All good things must come to an end, of course, and thus we have the 100th and final installment in the Fabric label’s often-brilliant series of Fabriclive DJ mixes. This one is a joint effort curated by celebrated London producers Kode9 and Burial, both of whom have contributed significantly over the past decade or so to the development of that city’s uniquely avant-garde and internationalist dance music scene. The program is willfully, not to say defiantly, eclectic, and shows how EDM, hip hop, gqom, grime, jungle, and even modern classical music can interact and overlap: across 39 continuously-mixed tracks you’ll hear overtone singer David Hykes rubbing up against Jungle Buddha, DJ Taye seguing into Jacob’s Optical Stairway, and Intense making way for Genecom, among many other strange and sometimes revelatory juxtapositions. Fans of Kode9 and Burial might be expecting something a bit darker and more abstract than what’s on offer here–it may be that the relatively sprightly and uptempo mood that pervades this mix is intended as a fond farewell to the series. But do bear in mind that “sprightly” and “uptempo” are relative terms here. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Reto A Ichi
The Lapse of the Exchange/Alone Moving Often
!K7 (dist. Redeye)
If you get a sense of déjà vu from this listing, there’s a reason for that: Reto A Ichi (the latest pseudonym of Scott Herren, better known as Prefuse 73) released The Lapse of the Exchange on LP a year ago, and it’s now available again, this time on CD and in tandem with his second release under that name, Alone Moving Often. Though he’s still widely considered one of the pioneers of glitch-hop, he’s gone far afield of that realm in recent years, often moving into deeper and more contemplative territory–not ambient music exactly (it’s too texturally varied and to frequently funky for that designation), but certainly experimental and arty. On both of these albums, which fit together very nicely as a unified statement, Herren draws on heavily manipulated found sounds, samples, composed keyboard sections, and (every so often) beats to create a quiet but intense sound palette that shifts steadily though not constantly. Well worth a listen.
Delia Derbyshire Appreciation Society
Wow and Flutter
No cat. no.
And if what you want is pure, blissful electronic ambient music–the kind that soothes and uplifts without ever threatening to tip over into simpleminded New Age bathos–then a new album from the Delia Darbyshire Appreciation Society is always cause for celebration. Garry Hughes and Harvey Jones, who, between them, have worked with such artists as Björk, Sly & Robbie, Julian Cope, and Art of Noise, work as a duo to create unapologetically sweet and emotional instrumental ambient music that is also unapologetically British (Delia Darbyshire, you may recall, was the composer of the theme music for the original Dr Who TV show) and that harks back to electro-ambient heroes of the 1970s and 1980s like Tangerine Dream and Vangelis. Their latest album doesn’t quite live up to the standard set by their last (which I reviewed in these pages last year), but it’s very, very good. Patrons who checked out that one will definitely want to hear this one as well.
Kranky (dist. Forced Exposure/Revolver)
Here’s another one on the borderline-ambient tip: Less Bells is mainly Julie Carpenter, who writes all the music and plays most of the instruments, notably including violin and cello. Three of her confederates are credited with “mixing,” which might lead you (accurately, as it turns out) to expect a sound built heavily on texture and atmospherics. But Carpenter’s music doesn’t transform its component instrumental parts into unrecognizable washes or distortions: the violins, cellos, and keyboards are pretty consistently recognizable as such, and although everything is given varying levels of electronic tweaking, the result isn’t an undifferentiated cloud of pretty sound. Instead, the instruments are enveloped by attendant ambience and the harmonic structure moves, albeit slowly, in a variety of directions. All of it is exceptionally lovely.
Fading Memory (EP, vinyl/digital only)
I don’t usually review EPs, and I rarely review vinyl/digital releases. But this latest five-track title from Sieren is just so freaking good that I feel it my obligation to bring it to your attention. Matthias Frick (a.k.a. Sieren) operates in what we’re apparently now calling the “post-bass” genre, which means off-kilter rhythms with microscopic textural detail, wicked deep basslines, and celestial chord washes floating over the top. It’s hard to find music that simultaneously supports contemplation and nudges you to the dancefloor, so we should be grateful for it whenever it appears. And as of this writing, you can snag the whole release on Amazon for $1.99.
For a Friend: The Best of Jimmy Somerville (2 discs)
Music Club (dist. MVD)
To wrap up this month’s electronica-focused Rock/Pop coverage, let’s turn to something in a poppier vein: this collection of classic tracks from Jimmy Somerville, best known as the former lead singer for the Communards and Bronski Beat. His powerful, soaring falsetto voice, his penchant for politically sharp lyrics, and his post-disco rhythmic orientation combined to create a number of rather unlikely hits back in the 1980s: most listeners will probably recognize his version of the disco hit “I Feel Love,” the Bronski Beat hit “Smalltown Boy,” and perhaps the Communards cut “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” But Somerville had a number of hits as a solo artist as well, notably his version of “Comment te dire adieu?”. All of those are here and more, several of them in extended remixes, and this set makes a great introduction to several of the most influential synth pop acts–and one of the most unique voices–of the 80s and 90s.
Heart to Heart
Indo-South African singer and composer Shashika Mooruth is one of the most exciting pop artists I’ve encountered in years. Although trained in the Hindustani classical tradition, she writes in a style that blends elements of classical, pop, kirtan, and Bollywood song to create something that sounds entirely new. Too often, classical/pop crossover or multi-genre fusions end up coming across as saccharine or superficial, but Mooruth’s songs manage instead simply to sound fully original while invoking lots of different stylistic touch-points, all of which are fully integrated into the music rather than feeling like ornamentation. And her voice is a thing of absolute wonder, simultaneously young and mature, supple and powerful.
Puffer’s Choice, Vol. 2
Last year I heartily recommended the first volume in the Scotch Bonnet label’s Puffer’s Choice compilation series, and now the label is back with another absolute stunner of a collection. Leading off powerfully with a ponderously swinging remix of the late Bim Sherman’s “Lightning and Thunder,” the album then moves from strength to strength, with new tracks and remixes featuring the likes of Earl 16, Chief Rockas, Dreadsquad and Escape Roots. Throughout the program roots and early-dancehall vibes nestle cozily alongside elements of UK bass, dubstep, and soca, while the bass frequencies are consistently stomach-bumpingly powerful and the lyrical messages are strictly conscious. Highlights include Isha Bel’s “Locks Grow,” the aptly-titled “Space” by Dreadsquad, and a weirdly wonderful adaptation of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Earl 16 with Capital 1212. Strongly recommended.
It wouldn’t be right to say that Beres Hammond’s voice is ageless: at 63, he sounds like the elder statesman of reggae that he indisputably is. But he’s one of those singers whose voices just sound better and better as they get older. For one thing, his now-attenuated high range is no longer suited to the whiny melismas that have sometimes overburdened his work in the past; for another, his voice is just deeper and chestier now, and he still phrases his lovers rock tunes as masterfully as ever. The band on his latest album also consists of road-tested reggae veterans–Wire Lindo, Robbie Lyn, and Dean Fraser among them–and the grooves they generate are that perfect combination of tight and loose. This is an outstanding release from one of reggae music’s living treasures.