PICK OF THE MONTH
Meat Beat Manifesto
Here’s the mystery: why is it that as soon as the beat drops, I would be able to tell you even if blindfolded that this is a Meat Beat Manifesto album? It’s not that the beats are especially unique (though they’re unfailingly crisp, creative, and fun), and it’s not that the production style is completely unlike anyone else’s. I honestly can’t put my finger on it. But if you, like me, have been a Jack Dangers fan for years, following not only his work with Meat Beat Manifesto but also his beatcrafting under the guise of Tino, then you’ll recognize that sound immediately too—and you’ll be as thrilled as I am that the two years of waiting since his last MBM album are finally at an end. On this one the most obvious unifying theme is jungle, but of course it’s not quite that simple: though the album opens with the skittering jump-up workout “Pin Drop,” it then proceeds to get darker, denser, and deeper by turns. “Ear-Lips” is funky but also mildly unsettling with its richly distorted vocal samples, “Call Sign” somehow manages to invoke Aphex Twin and Gang Starr in nearly equal measure (listen to those jazzy chordal swells), and “Forced to Lie” resurrects the late and lamented Andy Fairley and gives him a vintage big beat break over which to declaim. There is not a single track on this album that isn’t tremendous, and honestly, it took the exercise of active discipline for me to listen to the other albums I needed to review this month instead of spinning this one repeatedly. For all libraries.
Premier livre de pièces de violle
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
Even as obscure 18th-century composers go, Jacques Morel is one of the most mysterious. Scholars don’t know his exact birthdate or where he was born, and little is known of his life beyond the fact that he studied under the great master of the viola da gamba, Marin Marais. Of the four suites presented on this album, only one has ever been recorded before. So this recording is a boon to early-music collections as well as to anyone who loves the viola da gamba or baroque chamber music generally. The soloist is Alejandro Marías, and the quality of both his playing and the production are superb; he plays these lovely pieces with genuine affection, and the recorded sound is warm and lively. Recommended to all early music collections.
Twentieth Century Oboe Sonatas
Alex Klein; Phillip Bush
Cedille (dist. Naxos)
CDR 90000 186
Recently I came to a startling realization: I’m now old enough that in my mind, the term “20th century music” has always been more or less synonymous with “contemporary music.” Now that we’re a couple of decades into the 21st century, that temporal dysjunction is becoming more apparent—and the rather old-fashioned sound of these six sonatas for oboe and piano just makes it more so. “Old-fashioned” isn’t a criticism; these works by York Bowen, Petr Eben, Henri Dutilleux, Eugène Bozza, Francis Poulenc, and Camille Saint-Saens are all wonderful, each in a somewhat different way—but they definitely all sound like products of an earlier time, which of course they are. Notable among them is Eben’s piece, which is both distinctly modern and stunningly, lyrically gorgeous; the Saint-Saens work is even more so. The program is balanced out by drier and more astringent pieces by Bozza and Dutilleux, and makes a very satisfying album overall. The playing is sensitive and unassumingly virtuosic.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Goldberg Variations: New Arrangement for Baroque Ensemble
Repast Baroque Ensemble
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
Although many people think of Bach as being somewhat rigid and mathematical, one of the wonderful things about his music is its flexibility—it can be (and has been) adapted with almost limitless creativity without any loss in its appeal or dilution of its musical brilliance. The Goldberg Variations, a collection of 32 variations on an original theme, were written for the keyboard and are still most commonly played that way. But for this recording the Repast Baroque Ensemble has created a new arrangement for violin, cello, flute, bassoon, and harpsichord—a version in which sections are played alternately by solo harpsichord and by various combinations of the larger ensemble. Anyone who has tried to listen all the way through a solo harpsichord performance of this monumental work will immediately appreciate this approach; not only does it provide welcome aural relief, but it also facilitates hearing and understanding the music’s contrapuntal complexity. In this case, a dry and intimate production sound aids in that project as well. Recommended.
Michael Jon Fink
Cold Blue Music (dist. Naxos)
Fabric for String Noise
Cold Blue Music (dist. Naxos)
You may not know exactly what a celesta is, but you’ve heard it—and you’ve probably thought “Oh, a toy piano.” (You also might have thought that when you saw one onstage; celestas are often quite small and are regularly seen in pit orchestras, usually balanced on top of another keyboard.) But in fact the celesta is a serious instrument that has long had an important place in concert music. In the hands of Michael Jon Fink, the celesta is a medium for extended meditations on the nature of repetition and development; the composition that he named after the instrument consists of twelve brief, quiet, and very beautiful pieces linked by their exploration of those themes. Michael Byron’s Fabric for String Noise is quite difference, a two-part duet for violins that sounds chaotic at first until you register the complexity of its contrapuntal structure, at which point it becomes completely fascinating. While it’s energetic and harmonically astringent, the work is not at all aggressive or shrill; instead, it flickers and twinkles with restless energy. The second work on this album is for four double basses (multitracked by a single player for this recording), and is much quieter, darker, and more foreboding—though no less beautiful. My only complaint about these two lovely albums is their price: each offers roughly 30 minutes of music, but has a list price of $15.
Johann Baptist Cramer
Piano Concertos nos. 4 & 5
Howard Shelley; London Mozart Players
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
This album is the fifth entry in the Hyperion label’s The Classical Piano Concerto series, all of which feature pianist Howard Shelley with a variety of modern-instrument orchestras performing concertos from outside the standard repertoire of monumental works—pieces by the likes of Leopold Kozeluch, Daniel Steibelt, and (this time) the wonderful Johann Baptist Cramer. Transplanted from his native Mannheim to London as a youngster, Cramer was briefly a student of Muzio Clementi and was touring Europe as a concert pianist by the age of 20. The eight concerti he wrote were largely intended as a showing-off vehicle, allowing him to demonstrate his remarkable keyboard facility. But on the evidence provided here, they weren’t just exhibitionistic displays of bravura technique; they were also structurally innovative and melodically gorgeous. As always, Shelley is a powerful advocate for these works and a performer of tremendous charm and facility. Highly recommended to all classical collections.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Missa Tu es Petrus
Choir of St. Luke in the Fields / David Shuler
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
Psalms for Six Voices
Cappella Musicale della Cattedrale di Vercelli / Denis Silano
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
Here we have works by two Italian composers who were rough contemporaries, both working as house composers at important cathedrals—one of them destined to become world-famous, the other bound for obscurity. Palestrina’s Tu es Petrus Mass is one of the most celebrated choral works of the Italian Renaissance, and is beautifully sung in the sympathetic setting of New York’s Church of St. Mary the Virgin; this repertoire is the Choir of St. Luke in the Fields’ home base, and they are magnificent on this recording (which also includes a handful of motets). Orazio Colombano’s Harmonia super vespertinos omnium solemnitatum psalmos sex vocibus decantanda, by contrast, has never been recorded before. The Cappella Musicale della Cathedrale di Vercelli is, as its name suggests, a group dedicated to “reviv(ing) the Vercelli Cathedral’s 16th- and 17th-century heritage of manuscripts and printed music,” and to that end its director, Denis Silano, produced his own edition of these liturgical psalms for his small mixed-voice choir to perform. They recorded in the chapel of the Archiepiscopal Seminary of Vercelli, which is a remarkably reverberant space that seems to expand the choir’s size. This one get’s a Rick’s Pick both for its quality and for its historical significance.
Giovanni Benedetto Platti
Flute Sonatas, Op. 3
Alexa Raine-Wright; Camille Paquette-Roy; Sylvain Bergeron; Rona Nadler
Leaf Music (dist. Naxos)
Ever since the period-instrument movement really started coming of age in the early 1980s, I’ve been a huge fan of the sound of the baroque flute. Unlike its modern counterpart, the baroque flute is made of wood and has a soft-edged tone that naturally complements the gut-strung violins and cellos of the period—as well, of course, as the relatively quiet and sharp-toned harpsichord. Giovanni Benedetto Platti was not really a baroque composer, however, but something of a transitional figure between the baroque and classical eras, and one of the contributors to the development of the sonata form. Much of his work has been lost, so this collection of all six pieces from his Opus 3 is a very welcome event, and Alexa Raine-Wright’s playing is simply luminous. Wisely, she varies the texture of the continuo on this recording, using varying combinations of cello, guitar, lute, and harpsichord. Recommended to all classical collections.
Stan Getz Quartet
Getz at the Gate (2 discs)
If you wonder why Stan Getz was known to his fellow musicians (especially other saxophonists) by the simple nickname “The Sound,” just take a listen to this 1961 live date recorded at New York’s Village Gate. The recording quality is not outstanding: it sounds like the band was miked somewhat haphazardly, or even like the recording was made in the crowd by a fan (though that seems relatively unlikely given that there’s clear stereo separation in the mix, with the drums deep in the right channel). But despite the overall sonic mediocrity of the recording, Getz’s tenor sax booms through the mix, rich and deep and clear. On this date his quartet was an all-star crew: it included pianist Steve Kuhn, drummer Roy Haynes, and bassist John Neves, and together they play a marvelous standards set that features such favorites as “Stella by Starlight,” “Airegin,” and “Woody ‘n’ You” along with some more obscure fare—and the band finishes up with a rollicking midtempo (and nearly unrecognizable) rendition of the swing classic “Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid.” For all jazz collections.
Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet
The Rhythm of Invention
If you want a sense of what to expect from this album, don’t look at the lineup of trombonist/composer/arranger Wayne Wallace’s quintet; instead, look at the list of 18 guest musicians, who appear in varying permutations throughout the program. That way you won’t be surprised by, for example, the wonderful string arrangements that complicate Wallace’s settings of “All the Things You Are” and “In a Mist” (yes, the Bix Beiderbecke tune) or the rich horn charts that crop up here and there all the way through. Also, don’t be fooled by the word “Latin” in the band’s name; while Latin rhythms are a constant thread throughout the album (note in particular the mathematical slyness with which Wallace incorporates that element into his arrangement of “Take Five”), this is not a “Latin jazz” album; it’s a Wayne Wallace album, which means the music goes wherever he wants to take it, and does so with joy and wit. This album is a pleasure from start to finish.
Winds of Change
It’s not unusual to find a young saxophone player who consistently makes interesting note choices, nor is it hard to find one who is a master of varied and creative phrasing. Finding one who consistently does both, however, is something of a cause for celebration. Listen, for example, to the way in which Alexa Tarantino leads into her solo on the original composition “Face Value,” with fragmentary and slightly harmonically sideways phrases that eventually coalesce into long, fluid melodic statements. But don’t let her solos distract you from the quality of her writing itself. The harmonically knotty bop of “Face Value,” the lovely (and aptly titled) midtempo “Breeze,” the quietly complex “Square One”—these are all products of a major creative talent. And her facility on a variety of reeds and woodwinds makes this album, her debut as a leader, all the more impressive. Also, don’t miss trombonist Nick Finzer’s dynamite solo on the burning “Ready or Not.” Strongly recommended to all jazz collections.
New Jazz Standards Vol. 4
Every time I receive a copy of an album in the New Jazz Standards series, I know I’m going to be in for a treat—and I haven’t been wrong yet. Some context: New Jazz Standards is the title of a collection of jazz compositions by Carl Saunders. The series of recordings under that name consists of albums by soloists hand-picked by Saunders, who has produced all of the albums so far as well. Each album features a different leader; in this case, it’s guitarst Larry Koonse, who leads a quartet that also includes pianist Josh Nelson, bassist Tom Warrington, and legendary drummer Joe LaBarbera. It might seem a bit arrogant to call a collection of one’s own work “new jazz standards,” but Saunder has more than demonstrated that he has the right; his tunes are straight-ahead in style but modern and creative (note in particular his sly structural innovations on “Baby Blues”), and his melodic creativity is really without peer. Koonse himself is clearly in love with these compositions, and his performances are filled with new ideas of his own while never losing touch with the essence of the tunes. This is one of the best jazz albums I’ve heard all year.
Mark Turner & Gary Foster
Mark Turner Meets Gary Foster (2 discs)
Occupying the stylistic borderland between bebop and cool lies an ill-defined territory that I think of as “fast cool” or “dry bop.” Artists like Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh worked in this area, writing tunes that were relatively fast and complex like bop, but often somewhat melodically arid, and sometimes really harmonically difficult. On this two-disc live album, saxophonists Gary Foster and Mark Turner explore music along these lines, adding to the aridity of the sound by excluding any chordal instruments from the lineup: this is a quartet date featuring two saxes, bass, and drums. That’s not a configuration that normally interests me, but because I’ve so rarely heard a bad album on the Capri label I decided to give it a shot, and I’m very glad I did. Although the bass solos tend to be completely unaccompanied and therefore not much fun to listen to, overall these performances are hugely enjoyable; they swing mightily, and when the two saxes are playing the heads in harmony you may not even notice the lack of a piano or guitar. For all jazz collections.
Eyal Vilner Big Band
No cat. no.
The title of this album tells you most of what you might want to know about it: the focus is on classic swing (“In a Mellow Tone,” “Bei mir bist du schön”) and trad (“Do You Know What It Means,” “St. Louis Blues”) tunes in luscious big-band arrangements, all of them crafted with dancers in mind. Bandleader and reedman Eyal Vilner is the arranger, and I have to say he’s something of a genius. In order to keep the band’s focus correct during the recording sessions, they recorded live in the studio in a space big enough to accommodate dancers, who helped keep that swing feel powerful—and it worked. Some of the key moments on the album are the vocal tracks, though, particularly a slow and powerful rendition of the gospel classic “I’m on My Way to Canaan Land” featuring singer Brianna Thomas. All in all, this is a joyfully virtuosic album that is tough to listen to without dancing.
Vision & Revision: The First 80 Years of Topic Records (compilation; 2 discs)
Topic (dist. Redeye)
For an independent label to be able to celebrate its 80th birthday is a remarkable thing. (Well, let’s be honest—in this day and age, for an independent label to celebrate its 20th birthday is a remarkable thing. An 80th birthday is downright astounding.) Topic is, believe it or not, the oldest independent label in the world; it has been recording and releasing British folk music since 1939. And while you might expect that this two-disc retrospective would draw on the label’s incredibly deep and rich vault of previously-released material, instead it turns out not really to be a retrospective at all, but rather a modern celebration: it consists of songs newly recorded by contemporary folk artists in tribute to the label, the only rule being that their selections had to all have been included on a Topic release at some point in the past. The result is a marvelous collection that includes new performances by the likes of Martin Simpson, Oysterband, Richard Thompson, Eliza Carthy, and Peggy Seeger. Some of the arrangements are a bit adventurous, but the focus, as one would expect, is on small acoustic settings—mainly voice and guitar. Given that the two discs together contain only 20 songs and clock in at 83 minutes in total, one is left to wonder at some of the omissions; could they not get June Tabor to contribute? Or the Battlefield Band? No matter; this collection is a treasure.
The Get Ahead
No cat. no.
I’m not entirely sure of the right genre designation for this band, which is probably part of the point. You could call their music gospel-inflected soul Americana, or maybe country-R&B, or maybe there just isn’t a good term. And that’s fine, of course. The vocals are strongly gospel-inflected, but the fiddle and steel guitar that emerge from time to time in the mix are definitely making a nod towards Nashville. The factor that unifies all of this Portland quintet’s songs is groove, and a penchant for tight harmonies on the chorus. There’s also quite a bit of tasty guitar picking, though most of it is designed to sink seamlessly into the mix. And if there are occasional moments of questionable vocal pitch, those are easy to overlook given the lusciousness of the melodies. Recommended.
Autumn of the World
No cat. no.
Here’s another one that is charmingly difficult to pigeonhole, genre-wise. Resonant Rogues are a duo consisting of guitarist/singer Keith J. Smith and accordionist/banjoist Sparrow, and on their third album they continue to play fast and loose with the musical boundaries that separate country, old-time, Gypsy jazz, and Tin Pan Alley. Also Balkan music. That they do this without ever sounding precious or self-consciously postmodern is a major achievement–but the fact that they write great songs is what really matters. The old-timey sound of this album belies its topicality—whether dealing with issues of depression and addiction or slyly commenting on income inequality, these are songs that don’t hesitate to touch on both the universal and the particular. Very nice.
The Blues Came Falling Down
Leroy Jodie Pierson
Rusty Nail (reissue)
These are two very different blues albums, one of them a reissue with an expanded playlist and the other a previously-unreleased live set dating from 1973. Leroy Jodie Pierson is the founder of Nighthawk Records, a St. Louis-based label that is better known for releasing reggae than the blues. But Pierson himself is an accomplished blues guitarist and singer, and he made this stripped-down recording (accompanied by just a drummer and bass player) about ten years after he founded the label. The original album is very good, and prominently features his expert acoustic and electric slide playing as well as his perfectly serviceable singing voice. Thirty years after its original release, some of the program (including the title track) will sound abrasively politically incorrect to modern ears, but if you want to listen to vintage blues that’s a risk you’re going to take. The bonus tracks are the real surprise: they include covers of songs by the Clash and by Hank Williams, and recordings made with a larger band in a wider variety of styles. It’s a fine album, but the Johnny Shines release is something really special. (Pierson actually makes an appearance on this one as second guitarist on several tracks.) Like Pierson, Shines was also an accomplished slide player, and he opens his set with a fun instrumental tune. But what will make you sit up straight is his voice: if your hair doesn’t stand on end the moment he opens his mouth at the beginning of “Seems a Million Years,” go to the doctor and have your pulse checked. He doesn’t hit that peak of intensity again, but he gets close enough to hold your attention unceasingly through the album’s full 80 minutes. Highly recommended to all collections.
Musical Traditions in Central Europe (Explorer Series Vol. 4)
So here’s the joke: despite its anthromusicological title, this is not an album of field recordings of Central European folk music. Friedman is tweaking our nose, albeit gently, pointing out that contemporary European club music shares much in common with what we traditionally have understood folk music to be: it’s unconcerned with issues of music theory, it’s made largely by amateurs, and it’s designed to appeal to a very broad audience. Friedman being Friedman, that last characteristic should be taken with a grain of salt: the third track on this album, “Schwebende Himmelsbrücke,” is written in a time signature that I genuinely can’t figure out, for example. (It might actually be 6/8, but the accents are so screwy it’s hard to tell for certain.) Musicological considerations aside, this is yet another bracing, knotty, but thoroughly enjoyable instrumental outing from one of Europe’s most durably fascinating weirdos.
Pitch Black X Uncle Fester on Acid
No Sense Unfiltered
Dub has its genesis in reggae music: in the late 1960s producers began to figure out that it was cheaper to put an instrumental version of the A side on the B side of a single than to record a whole new song, and eventually the remixing of those instrumental tracks became a highly developed art form—one that led directly to modern remix culture. But dub has since broken free of the reggae template, and has given rise to organic forms of its own—and there is no more advanced practitioner of that form than New Zealand duo Pitch Black. This album, however, is only partially credited to them; it’s actually a radical re-envisioning of their 2016 album Filtered Senses, the deconstruction being done at the hands of Uncle Fester on Acid (a.k.a. Doctor Dub, whose day job is as archivist to the mighty On-U Sound label). As one might expect, he brings an Adrian-Sherwood-style sense of ruthlessness in his approach to these tracks, folding, spindling, and mutilating them to within an inch of their lives and creating dense, dark, and massive new sound sculptures from the raw material. This makes an outstanding companion piece to the original album, which is also highly recommended to all libraries.
A Different Kind of Tension (reissue)
Singles Going Steady (reissue)
A Different Kind of Tension was the Buzzcocks third album proper, and the last one to feature the band’s original lineup. It finds them continuing to refine their sound, edging out of punk and into power-pop territory—though with songs like “Hollow Inside” and “I Don’t Know What to Do with My Life,” they still wouldn’t have made a comfortable double bill with, say, the Rubinoos. Singles Going Steady is very different: it wasn’t actually an organically-conceived album at all, but rather a compilation consisting (on Side 1) of eight of the band’s UK singles (including the deathless, if rather nasty, “Orgasm Addict”) along with (on Side 2) all of those singles’ B sides. It was put together as an U.S.-only release, put out originally on the I.R.S. label in hopes of arousing American interest in this rather bratty and abrasive Manchester band. For these reissues, both albums have been remastered from the original tapes; unfortunately, there is no bonus material.
Rootfire Cooperative/Wiseman Doctrine
Lead singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist David Hinds has always been the shaping personality behind Birmingham’s best reggae band, but with Mass Manipulation it appears that Steel Pulse has effectively become a solo project. (Fellow founding member Selwyn Brown is there in the band photo, but is not credited as a musician on the album.) Sonically, what does this mean? Not much, frankly: Hinds’ songs are as catchy, topical, and beautifully sung as always. His jazz tendencies are less pronounced than they have been in the past, which is a good thing frankly, and as time has gone on his politics have become sharper and more specific: consider the difference between, say, “A Who Responsible?” from 1982 and “Justice in Jena” from 2019. I miss the late drummer Steve “Grizzly” Nesbitt, but Hinds has assembled a crack team of session players for this very fine album. Recommended to all libraries that collect reggae.
Lee “Scratch” Perry
On-U Sound (dist. Redeye)
Legendary producer Lee “Scratch” Perry has long bragged about being a “madman,” and his various exploits over the years would tend to support his self-diagnosis. The most distressing of those was his destruction of the Black Ark studio, where he recorded some of the most strange, astonishing, and deeply dread songs and albums of reggae’s roots-and-culture period. Since then he has worked with a variety of friends and acolytes, few of them anywhere near as inspired as he was during his heyday. But Adrian Sherwood, head honcho at the great On-U Sound label, is one of the very few producers who can keep up with Perry at his craziest, and some of the best work Perry has recorded in recent decades has been with Sherwood at the board. This latest effort is one of the best: as usual, it features Perry intoning warnings, imprecations, and nonsense lyrics over rhythms crafted and produced by Sherwood–but since they’ve been friends and have worked together off and on for decades, Sherwood knows better than most how to craft a track that will bring out the best in Perry. Without trying explicitly to ape the dense, splashy sound of the Black Ark, Sherwood pays homage to it while bringing his own strong production personality to the mix as well, and the result is consistently brilliant.
Marcia Griffiths, former member of the I-Threes (Bob Marley’s backing vocal trio) and solo artist of peerless reputation, is going to turn 70 this year. Think about that while you’re listening to her rich, clear, chesty voice on this, her latest solo album. She still has pipes that any 25-year-old would envy, and she still delivers roots reggae and lovers rock with all the confidence and power she showed on her best solo albums in the 1970s. The material chosen here is a cross-section of classic songs from Studio One, where she began her career, so many of the tracks will be familiar to longstanding reggae fans: “Baby Be True,” “My Guiding Star,” “What Kind of World,” etc. But the arrangements are innovative and her take on them is fresh, and this album is yet another solid winner from the woman widely and appropriately known as the Queen of Reggae.
Youngest Veteron (Remixed) (digital only)
Youngest Veteron, originally released digitally and on LP in 2018, marked the belated return of a gifted reggae singjay whose last album was a 1983 DJ clash with fellow child star Billy Boyo. On Youngest Veteron Little Harry chatted over 90s-style digital dancehall rhythms provided by the estimable High Smile HiFi crew, and he showed himself still to be a powerful force on the mic. This remix compilation brings together twelve reworks of four tracks from the original album, and while it has some outstanding moments it’s not as consistently compelling as the album itself. Producers like Warrior Dread, Interrupt, and Puppa Djoul put their fingerprints on “Hard Life,” “Kingston City,” and “Nah Lef di Earth” respectively, but the fireworks don’t really start until 6Blocc turns “So Many Hot Girls” into a brilliant jungle workout. Still, both of these releases are worthwhile and would be of interest to any reggae collection.