PICK OF THE MONTH
Naïve (dist. Naxos)
It’s kind of hard to believe that Youssou N’Dour has been making albums for roughly 40 years now–though his early career as a recording artist consisted mainly of selling homemade cassette tapes on the streets of Dakar. 35 albums later, he’s a huge international star, and his latest release will show you why (if you don’t already know). A remarkable talent for soaring, infectious melody and a voice that is as sweet and powerful at age 60 as it was when he was 20 combine to make a singer and songwriter with the ability to engage audiences nearly universally whether he’s delivering his compositions in English, French, or Wolof. On History he makes a particular point to pay tribute to his late bass player Habib Faye and to the great drummer and singer Babatunde Olatunji, two of whose songs D’Dour performs here. N’Dour’s musical background is in the mbalax genre of his native Senegal, and its influence is still everywhere in his music, but his style has matured and expanded far beyond any regional designation. He’s truly an international treasure, and History would make a great starting point for anyone who is not yet familiar with his rich catalog of work.
Jennifer Higdon; Samuel Barber; Patrick Harlin
Yolanda Kondonassis; Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra / Ward Stare
Azica (dist. Naxos)
Jennifer Higdon’s marvelous harp concerto (of which this is the world-premiere recording) would be enough to give this album a Rick’s Pick designation; it’s grand and lyrical, humorous and complex, and completely enthralling–and as always, Yolanda Kondonassis’ playing is brilliant. Samuel Barber’s one-movement Symphony No. 1 isn’t really my favorite piece of the pre-war American repertoire, but Patrick Harlin’s Rapture (another world-premiere recording) is quite lovely. All in all, this is an outstanding album and would make an excellent addition to any library collection.
Flute Quartets Vol. 2
CPO (dist. Naxos)
String Quartets Vol. 3
CPO (dist. Naxos)
It has been interesting and gratifying to see the work of little-known German composer Ferdinand Ries beginning to attract more attention in recent years. A contemporary (and friend) of Beethoven, Ries occupies a similar place in the transitional period between the classical and the Romantic periods, and his chamber music is particularly attractive, carrying that faintly melancholy and bittersweet flavor that characterizes so much of the music of the time. The Ardinghello Ensemble’s ongoing exploration of Ries’ music for string trio with and without flute (using a wooden flute but modern stringed instruments) is absolutely gorgeous, the unique tone of Karl Kaiser’s flute bringing a particular poignancy to the music. The three works featured on the Schuppanzigh Quartett’s recording actually include two string quartets and one quintet, and represent two periods of Ries’ career: the quintet op. 68 was published in 1816 (and was his first composition scored entirely for strings), the same year as his op. 70 quartet. The c-minor quartet op. 168 was published eight years later while Ries was living and working in London. These pieces have a slightly more sturmlich-und-dranglich flavor to them, but are equally fine–and the Schuppanzighs’ playing is electrifying. Both discs are wonderful.
Johan Helmich Roman
The Golovin Music
Höör Barock / Dan Laurin
BIS (dist. Naxos)
Czar Peter II was crowned at age 12, in 1728. In preparation for the event, a local orchestra leader named Johan Helmich Roman was charged with (quickly) composing some appropriately grand and celebratory music for the occasion. The result was this portfolio of no fewer than 45 brief pieces (several of them less than one minute in length) for varying–and not always specified–instrumentation. Also unspecified, in many cases, were tempos. So for an ensemble to record this collection today requires not exactly skills of strict reconstruction, but rather of creative interpretation. This marks the first time all of these pieces have been recorded together, and while the somewhat fragmentary nature of the work makes it a less than completely satisfying listening experiences from beginning to end, this recording definitely has important academic uses–and the performances themselves are excellent throughout.
Perpetulum (2 discs)
Third Coast Percussion
Orange Mountain Music (dist. PIAS)
Colin Currie & Steve Reich: Live at Foundation Louis Vuitton
Colin Currie Group; Synergy Vocals
Colin Currie Records (dist. PIAS)
Third Coast Percussion is responsible for some of the most interesting and exciting recordings of the past few years. Those who hear “percussion” and think “drums and woodblocks and gongs” need to understand that TCP’s primary instruments are mallet keyboards and other tuned instruments, which means that most of what you hear when they’re playing is melody and harmony, not just rhythm. And on their latest album, a two-disc collection of works by TCP’s members as well as by Gavin Bryars and Philip Glass (whose Perpetulum was commissioned for the group) you’ll hear a glorious variety of styles and sounds, perhaps the most consistently enjoyable of them being David Skidmore’s Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities. Another outstanding percussion group on the scene right now is the Colin Currie Group, who are captured here in concert performing works by the legendary composer Steve Reich. Reich himself joins Currie to perform the delightful Clapping Music, and the rest of the program includes Proverb, Mallet Quartet (which Reich wrote for the group), Pulse, and Music for Pieces of Wood. These works provide a career-length overview of Rech’s writing for small ensembles, and though some of these pieces are quite familiar they are played with such freshness and energy here that they sound brand new. Both of these recordings are highly recommended.
Franz Joseph Haydn; Thomas Haigh; Christian Ignatius Latrobe
Joseph Haydn and His London Disciples
Genuin (dist. Naxos)
The several years that Haydn spent in London in the early- to mid-1790s are well documented and resulted not only in a series of hugely successful concerts, but also in the production of some of his most celebrated works. While there, he lived in the Piccadilly area near the Broadwood piano factory, and it’s a Broadwood fortepiano (one built just a few years after Haydn’s London sojourn) that the marvelous keyboardist Rebecca Maurer plays on this recording of pieces by Haydn himself and by two of his English admirers. It’s worth noting that several of these are world-premiere recordings, but the primary attraction of this disc is Maurer’s lovely, sensitive playing–followed closely by the unusual and sometimes slightly bizarre characteristics of the pieces written in tribute to Haydn. For all libraries supporting a keyboard program.
Sacred Vocal Music
Coro Victoria / Ana Fernández-Vega
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
A disciple of Francisco Guerrero and colleague of Tomás Luis de Victoria, Alonso Lobo de Borja spent most of his career at the cathedral in Seville. He was largely forgotten from the 18th to the 20th centuries, before being rediscovered during the surge of interest in early music in the 1960s and 1970s. This collection of sacred works, performed by the Coro Victoria of Madrid, is designed to demonstrate the wide range of styles Lobo employed in his Latin liturgical works, and it includes motets alongside Mass extracts (sadly no complete Masses, though space would have allowed at least one in its entirety). Coro Victoria sing with a lovely, colorful blend, and this album would make an excellent introduction to to the work of a sadly underrated composer.
Jacob Kirkegaard is one of the most consistently interesting practitioners of conceptual sound sculpture on the current scene. Having previously created music out of source material like radioactivity at Chernobyl and melting ice in the Arctic, for this project he has chosen a much less dramatic (and politically charged) conceptual medium: three large hanging metal plates, one of iron, one of copper, and one of brass. By putting a piezo sensor and a contact speaker on each one, he was able to create music using their naturally occurring vibrations, tempered and shaped by the differing physical properties of each material. What emerges is an ebbing and flowing of drones with overtones and other subtle sonic features that become more apparent the harder you listen, which is a fascinating process. For all libraries supporting programs in experimental composition or installation art.
Evans in England (2 discs)
The Resonance label continues steadily to unearth, restore, and release previously-unheard live performances by the legendary Bill Evans, and they keep being wonderful. This latest release documents performances by Evans and his trio (at the time consisting of bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell) at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London during a residency in December 1969. The tapes were made, without Evans’ knowledge, by a French fan who had been following Evans on tour around Europe and who recorded the music on a small handheld tape machine. As a result, the sound quality isn’t stellar–it’s clear and well defined, but somewhat brittle and trebly, as one might expect. But the music is glorious, as one would also expect; Evans was at the height of his powers at this time. Recommended to all jazz collections.
Fred Hersch & The WDR Big Band
No cat. no.
I don’t usually make much space in my life for big band jazz–I respect the tradition but generally find the music too overbearing, too bombastic–but one of the rules that govern my life as a listener can be summarized as “Does it involve Fred Hersch? Then yes.” So I gave this album a spin. It finds Hersch at the head of an outstanding German ensemble, playing a set of his own compositions as arranged (and conducted) by the legendary Vince Mendoza. Mendoza is brilliant at locating and amplifying the subtleties and complexities of Hersch’s writing, expanding them into glorious elaborations. And Hersch himself does an amazing job of moving forward and backward in the arrangements, taking center stage when called upon to do so and supporting the ensemble modestly but powerfully otherwise. Like all of Hersch’s albums, this one is highly recommended to all libraries.
Yoko Miwa Trio
Ocean Blue Tear Music
Yoko Miwa is another pianist to whom I’m always willing to dedicate some time and concentration–ever since I heard (and rapturously reviewed) her album Fadeless Flower fifteen years ago, I have never yet been disappointed by one of her trio recordings, and this one continues her winning streak. Opening with the funky title track and then sliding into a subtly subversive arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud” (check out drummer Scott Goulding’s slippery, second-line-inflected accompaniment during her solo) Miwa takes the listener on a thrilling and uplifting journey through a program of originals, standards, and even a Beatles medley. Miwa remains one of the real standouts in the crowded field of A-list jazz pianists working today.
Ramsey Lewis Trio
The Early Years: 1956-59 (2 discs)
Acrobat (dist. MVD)
Pianist and composer Ramsey Lewis achieved fame and fortune in the 1960s with a series of jazz-pop crossover recordings, several years before the concept of jazz-rock “fusion” became popular. But even in the 1950s he was experimenting with unusual and pop-inflected arrangements, for example taking a popular theme from the opera Carmen and giving it an unusual setting with bluesy interludes. This two-disc set brings together material from his trio’s first four albums (Gentlemen of Swing, Gentlement of Jazz, Down to Earth, and An Hour with the Ramsey Lewis Trio)–though, annoyingly, it doesn’t include the entirety of those albums. Instead, it adds several tracks that were released at the time as singles. The result is an interesting and enjoyable but slightly frustrating collection.
From New York to Paris
Bassist and singer Nicki Parrott is always a delight to hear, whether she’s singing or playing bass or (astonishingly, to me) doing both simultaneously. Her latest is a quartet date that focuses on what we call the American Song Book–basically, songs by the likes of Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Cahn and Styne, and one of more of the Gershwins. These are songs that usually were first heard in stage musicals in the 1920s and 1930s, and that have since become jazz standards (as well as providing the chord changes for additional jazz tunes). So the repertoire on which Parrott is drawing here is pretty familiar: “I Love Paris,” “Manhattan,” “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” etc. But she sings and plays them with such warmth and with such a tender yet firm sense of swing that you don’t mind whatsoever hearing them again. Kudos also to reedman Harry Allen, who brings his own powerful sense of warmth and swing to the proceedings. For all jazz collections.
No cat. no.
RPE Duo consists of Matt Postle (trumpet, keyboards) and Radek Rudnicki (electronics), who collaborate internationally by combining in-person work with remote file-swapping to create their strange, ethereal, and sometimes eerie compositions. Their latest album was created while the two were resident artists at EMS Studios in Sweden between 2015 and 2018, where they worked with vintage modular synthesizers to create source material with which they worked over the course of the following year, sometimes at great distance from each other. Fans of Jon Hassell will find much to enjoy here, as will anyone who loves sonic experimentation generally.
Once a Day
Look, I love a country revival album as much as anyone, but sometimes you want something more than a slavish imitation of 1950s and 1960s styles. And if you agree with me, then run, don’t walk, to your closest meat-space or online record store to pick up a copy of the latest album from Canadian fiddler, stepdancer, and singer April Verch, which is both a sincere tribute to the vintage country sound and a sly expansion of that tradition. Yes, there are nods to legendary singers like Connie Francis and Loretta Lynn and to producers like Billy Sherrill (listen to the piano and the backing chorus on the title track, for example). But there are also plenty of lovely surprises, like a touching duet with her dad on “Let’s Make a Fair Trade” and her reverent rendition of Lucille Star’s “The French Song.” And come on–a crooked-rhythm version of “Durham’s Bull,” with a Redd Volkaert Tele solo in the middle? Ouais! Git it, girl! This album is a pure delight from start to finish.
Leo Bud Welch
The Angels in Heaven Done Signed My Name
Easy Eye Sound
Leo Bud Welch’s career as a gospel/blues musician began in 1945, when he was 13 years old and began playing and singing professionally at Sabougla Missionary Baptist Church in Mississippi. But his debut recording was released in 2014, when he was 82, and at that improbable age he began a new life as a touring musician. (His career has been chronicled in a documentary film aptly titled Late Blossom Blues.) He passed away in late 2017. This album draws on his final studio recordings, and consists entirely of traditional gospel songs performed in a raw, gutbucket blues style. If it weren’t such a stingy program (ten songs and just over 26 minutes, despite drawing on a reported 25-30 studio recordings) it would get a Rick’s Pick designation. Highly recommended nevertheless.
No cat. no.
This duo’s ungainly name is an acronym that stands for “Eclectic Selections of Everything but Opera,” and despite both its awkwardness and the stylistic sprawl it suggests, this music is neither awkward nor particularly stylistically wide-ranging. The songs are gentle, sly, and graceful, and they generally fall comfortably within an acoustic-pop framework. Guitarist/singer/songwriter Chuck McDowell and singer/cellist Gail Burnett are the core of this group, and they’re joined by an array of sidepersons who provide tasteful accompaniment. The album opens with the wry “Airplane” (a song whose chord changes are startlingly reminiscent of “Makin’ Whoopee”) and then delivers a series of country-ish, Tin Pan Alley-ish, bluesy, and folky songs that remark on life, love, and women’s shoes with gentle good humor and impressive tunefulness.
Close to Home
This disc came to me out of the blue, with no contact information and no one-sheet to tell me who this guy is. And I guess that’s helpful, in a way, because it meant I listened to the album without any preconceptions beyond the impression that he kind of looks like Bryan Ferry on the album cover. The music is sometimes kind of rockish (“Big Bear in the Sky”), sometimes a sort of Mavericks-meet-James-Hunter bluebeat (“I’m Not the Man for the Job”), and sometimes acoustic honky-tonk (“My Baby’s Holding It Down”)–and that’s just in the first three songs! Mead’s songwriting is unassuming but clever if you listen (best/worst line: “daddy worked the pole so mama wouldn’t have to”); his voice is attractive but tends to be just a bit buried in the mix, so you have to listen for that too. On the whole, this album is something of a curiosity but a really fun one.
Kitty Kat Fan Club
Dreamy Little You
The latest wonderful disc from the wonderful independent Asian Man label is the full-length debut from Kitty Kat Fan Club, a (wonderful) band consisting entirely of members from label owner Mike Park’s hometown of San Jose, California. It started out as just a way of hanging out with musical friends and having fun, but when great songs started emerging from the hang, the group of friends turned into a band. And those songs really are great: punky in the “energetic” sense, but thoroughly imbued with pure pop hooks and unassumingly sharp song structure. The dual lead vocals by Casey Jones and Brianda Nocheazul are a complete delight, and the whole album is just absolutely, er, wonderful from start to finish. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Sargent House (dist. Redeye)
Formerly known as IO Echo, with this album Ionna Gika steps out under her given name for the first time, releasing a collection of original songs that draw subtly on her Greek heritage to explore themes of grief and romantic disappointment in a dark electropop style. From the glitchy atmospherics of “Out of Focus” to the more rockish groove of “New Geometry” and the multitracked choral wash of the title track, Zika explores what seems like a world of musical variety within what is actually a fairly constricted stylistic palette. At times both her vocals and her sung melodies strongly bring to mind Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins, but ultimately the totality of her sound is quite unlike anything else you’ll hear this year. This is a beautiful album that would make a fine addition to any pop collection.
Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers
No Good Deed
Pretty Good for a Girl
For their third studio album, blues-rocker Mindi Abair and her band settled into the studio and stayed there, together, for five days. Playing largely live and with minimal takes in order to capture as much raw energy as possible, they ended up producing a rich and winning set of original songs and covers, among them a crisply funky take on Storyville’s “Good Day for the Blues,” and a fine version of the Etta James hit “Seven Day Fool.” “Mess I’m In” is another highlight track, and I think it’s an original, but since the album provides no songwriting credits it’s hard to know for sure. Anyway, Abair and her band rock hard and with undeniable soul, and it’s a treat whenever she takes a saxophone solo. Recommended.
Dubplate Selection Vol. 1 (reissue)
Ever since it emerged in the underground dance clubs of London as a new genre in the mid-1990s, jungle at its best has been characterized by the balancing of opposites: light and skittery double-time breakbeats with slow, heavyweight basslines; vintage roots reggae vocals with modern electronic production; smoky dubwise production with intense, high-energy tempos. Eventually jungle would harden into drum’n’bass, which (to my ears) was never as fun or interesting–but luckily, old-school jungle has never completely gone away. It’s still purveyed by, for example, More Rockers, a duo consisting of Rob Smith (of Smith & Mighty) and Peter Rose (of Massive Attack). They’re not as prolific as I’d like, so this reissue of their long-out-of-print 1995 debut album is a very, very welcome development. If you’re not familiar with the genre, snap it up quickly–there will be only 555 CD copies pressed.
Blaze Away (deluxe reissue; digital only)
No cat. no.
One of the bands most closely associated with the trip hop genre, Morcheeba has been recording irregularly (and with decreasing frequency) since 1996. This release is a digital-only deluxe reissue of their most recent album, 2018’s Blaze Away. Libraries will likely prefer the original release in CD format, but here I’m recommending the deluxe reissue because it includes a full album’s worth of additional remixes by the likes of Djrum, FaltyDL, De Lata, and Yimino–and as of this writing, the whole package is available for only $6.99. Both the band name and the album title hint slyly at what to expect: basically, stoner beats with languid vocals. But Morcheeba has always been able to imbue its highly genre-specific songs with enough substrata of originality to allow them to stand apart from the pack, and this album is among their best efforts. Highly recommended.
A new album from multi-instrumentalist and singer Stephan Micus is always an exciting event, and trying to figure out how to categorize each of his new albums is always a frustrating one. Which, of course, speaks well for him as a creative musician. He’s a master of a seemingly endless list of instruments from a wide variety of world cultures: the kalimba (or thumb piano), the duduk, the nay, various kinds of guitars, the sinding, etc. And the music he makes with these instruments sounds like it comes from a faraway and possibly mythical country: the keening, plaintive tone of the duduk contains hints of Armenia and the Balkans while the gentle burbling of the kalimba evokes sub-Saharan Africa, and his vocals (sung in an unidentified language) could come from just about anywhere. As always, the music on his album is quiet and intense and, often, deeply sad. Highly recommended.
Nostalgique Kongo: Rumbas Lingala, Swahili, Kikongo & Douala 1950-1960
Buda Musique (dist. MVD)
International trade has resulted in many wonderful (and some not-so-wonderful) things over the past several centuries, but surely one outcome that we can all agree to be grateful for is Congolese rumba. Emerging in the late 1930s in the Brazzaville/Kinshasa area, the development of this form of urban dance music was sparked by the interaction of Congolese port workers and sailors from the Caribbean, especially Cuba. A commercial music industry was coming into its own at the same time, and the result was an expansion of musical styles and a flood of recordings, 23 of which are gathered here on this excellent collection. The sound quality is better than one might reasonably expect, and the songs themselves are a consistent delight.
Angella/Michael Palmer Meets Kelly Ranks
Burning Sounds (dist. MVD)
Over the past several years, the Burning Sounds label has been steadily reissuing classic and long-out-of-print reggae albums in two-LPs-on-one-CD format, and this is one of the best so far. The label has (wisely) been focusing on vintage roots and early dancehall releases, and these two stellar efforts from singer Michael Palmer are from the early 1980s, when the nascent dancehall style was really taking hold. Both albums feature the mighty Roots Radics band, who give the sweet-voiced Palmer their typically deep and powerful backing. Palmer’s rather shaky rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” is the only disappointment on the first album; the second one is even better, complicated only slightly by the confusing inclusion of one Kelly Ranks on the masthead–how he was actually involved in the album is something of a mystery.
Suns of Arqa
Heart of the Suns 1979-2019 (compilation)
Today, the idea of blending Indian classical music with dub and electronica may not sound particularly strange or even innovative. But Suns of Arqa–a rotating cast of musicians that orbits around founder Michael Wadada–has now been doing that for 40 years. I promise you, it was a much wilder idea in 1979. Anyway, over the course of those four decades Wadada and his collaborators have produced an extensive catalog of some of the deepest cross-cultural grooves you can imagine, and this beautifully-selected retrospective offers a perfect introduction to the group’s unique art. You’ve got your techno-flavored stompers, your floating dub blissouts, and your electro-funk drones, all shot through with various kinds of pancultural textures and melodies and all of it done respectfully and insightfully. Here’s hoping for another couple of decades of output from this band, at the very least.