PICK OF THE MONTH
Promise Kept: The Complete Artists House Recordings (reissue; 5 discs)
First, the backstory: back in the early 1970s, Art Pepper was emerging from a long period of drug addiction and periodic incarceration and trying to get back into the jazz scene. Producer John Snyder had wanted to record him for years, and got him booked at the Village Vanguard for a week–but Pepper’s contractual obligations to the Contemporary label made it impossible for Snyder to release the resulting live recordings on his label, so Pepper promised to record an album in the studio for Snyder. When the time came to do so, they ended up making four albums together: So in Love, Artworks, New York Album, and Stardust. The rhythm sections Snyder assembled are jaw-droppping: Hank Jones, Ron Carter, and Al Foster on two albums; George Cables, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins on the other two. Much of this material has been released previously in a variety of physical and online formats, but in addition to the original albums, this set contains 19 tracks from the sessions that have never been released in any form previously. There are so many treasures here: Pepper’s relaxed, agile navigation of “Anthropology” on the clarinet, in a piano-less trio setting; a beautifully affecting solo saxophone rendition of “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be)” (and another solo rendition of the same tune on clarinet). You can hear Pepper starting to stretch out his style a bit here, expanding from the straight-ahead West Coast cool approach that characterized his 1950s recordings and moving in the more adventurous directions of his late-1970s and early-1980s work. This is a treasure trove for library jazz collections.
Of Motion and Dance: Piano Music of Claude Debussy
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
Because he’s such a household name–one of a handful of composers that virtually anyone can name, no matter how little attention they pay to classical music–it’s easy to forget how deeply weird Debussy’s music could be. Often characterized as “impressionistic,” it might be more accurate to say that Debussy did for piano music what Mahler did for orchestral music, in that he effectively served as the midwife for the Romantic era’s delivery of its modernistic child. This collection is organized around the idea of physical movement and dance, and finds pianist Jerry Wong interpreting a wide variety of brief pieces in a program centered on Debussy’s celebrated Suite bergamasque (which is patterned on the baroque dance suite). Wong never argues the dance idea too strenuously, but he does make clear the connections between the pieces in this highly varied set. Highly recommended.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Sonatas & Partitas for Violin (2 discs)
In a Circle
Recognizing that solo violin music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and recognizing further that solo violin music by Bach can reasonably be expected to sound dry and academic, I nevertheless encourage anyone who’s skeptical to seriously consider this outstanding account of Bach’s magisterial set of three sonatas and three partitas for unaccompanied violin. Are these works virtuosic? Yes, of course they are. But they are also by turns fun, dark, contemplative, sprightly, thrilling, and knotty. There moments where the virtuosity is technical and will leave you disbelieving that only one violin is being played; at other moments, the virtuosity is that of invention and harmonic mastery, as the violinist manages to create virtual chords out of single lines (and, of course, double-stops). Johnny Gandelsman’s playing is exquisite, and the production is centrally important: the sound is dry-ish and intimate, but still rich with color. For all classical collections.
Treasures of Devotion: European Spiritual Song ca. 1500
Boston Camerata / Anne Azéma
Music & Arts (dist. Naxos)
For 65(!) years now, the Boston Camerata has been one of America’s most beloved and respected early-music ensembles, known not only for its musical expertise but also for the innovation and creativity of its concert and recording programming. The group’s latest release is a collection of sacred music written not for liturgical or ceremonial (or even public) events such as worship services or ritual celebration, but rather for private devotion. These are songs by which the devout, whether alone or in a family setting, would call for intercession from various saints, or celebrate the Christmas season, or encourage themselves and each other to greater piety and religious dedication. Some were written to the tunes of popular (even bawdy) songs of the period, while others are original songs written by such familiar names as Alexander Agricola, Josquin Desprez, Claudin de Sermisy, and Ludwig Senfl. Most of them are monodic, a single voice being accompanied by varying combinations of lute, viols, harp, and hurdy gurdy. The singing is pure and lovely, and the recorded sound is warm and clear. For all early music collections.
It’s fun to see more and more recordings coming out that blur the lines between the classical, jazz, and electronic genres. This release is by pianist/composer Francesco Tristano, who fell in love with the city of Tokyo while he was a teenaged Juilliard student, and has since returned to the city over and over again. The pieces collected here are intended to reflect his experiences there; it’s not tone poetry exactly, but rather a program of musical treatments of very subjective impressions and feelings about the place. The piano is central to each track, but contributions from other musicians are included as well (notably saxophonist Michel Portal and tabla player U-zhaan) and subtle electronic elements are threaded throughout the compositions. This is very lovely, deeply reflective music.
And speaking of musicians whose work spans genres, here’s another intriguing, engrossing, and slightly exhausting album from Carl Stone (whose Baroo I recommended here just a few months ago). As with his previous release, on this one he takes previously-existing recordings and chops and loops them up into something completely new–though this time, his source material comes from various parts of Asia. The music is characterized by a steady pulse and often by an actual groove, but the kaleidoscopic variety and relentless energy of sounds contained within that rhythmic framework are dizzyingly complex. Don’t try to do anything else while you’re listening to this music, but do listen to it.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach Reworks (LP and digital only)
0 28948 35831 1
And, gosh, I guess there’s no reason to let this thread die–here’s yet another outstanding (and also completely different) example of how classical and electronic remix culture can interact. What we have here is a collection of Bach transcriptions performed by the exceptional Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson–but with a difference. His recordings of these pieces have been reconfigured, remixed, and generally reconceived to varying degrees of radicalness by such contemporary artists as Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ben Frost, Valgeir Sigurðsson, and Peter Gregson. In most cases the reworkings are quite gentle and unintrusive, and the mood of the whole album is generally quiet and contemplative. But there is some serious weirdness here: Frost’s “Ladder Mix” of the Prelude BWV 855a is almost entirely unrecognizable and quite dark, while Valgeir Sigurðsson treatment of the same track turns it into glitchy near-synthpop; Sakamoto’s rework of the adagio movement from BWV974 (Bach’s keyboard arrangement of Marcello’s oboe concerto) is both chilly and sonically enormous. The whole thing is gorgeous and strange and really quite wonderful.
To Paradise for Onions
Claron McFadden; Roberta Alexander, et al.
Etcetera (dist. MVD)
These six sets of songs and instrumental chamber works by American composer Edith Hemenway (arranged for varying combinations of voice, clarinet, cello, and piano) are all presented here in world-premiere recordings. Hemenway began her musical career as an organist, but soon discovered that she had a particular talent for composing art song; she later went on to write several children’s operas as well. The songs on this program are performed by sopranos Claron McFadden and Roberta Alexander, who are excellent, but what really grabbed me were the pieces written for clarinetist Nancy Braithwaite–who is also the performer on these recordings, alongside cellist Michael Stirling and pianist Vaughan Schlepp. Hemenway’s writing navigates beautifully that narrow space between bracing modernism and aching lyricism–Asian Figures has a particularly vinegary loveliness–and the performances on this disc are outstanding. For all classical collections.
Marianne Schroeder; Stefan Tcherepnin
Blank Forms Editions
Maryanne Amacher (1938-2009) was better known as a sound-installation artist and explorer of psychoacoustics than as a conventional composer, and this is the first-ever commercial recording of one of her pieces for musical instruments other than tape or installed machines. Written for two pianos, Petra was commissioned for the ISCM World Music Days in Switzerland back in 1991, and while it has been publicly performed several times, this is the first time it’s been recorded for release. It’s a very interesting work, one that is characterized less by harmonic than by textural progression, with passages of spiky dissonance flowing into moments of pulsing, consonant repetition and sections of near-silence. Libraries collecting heavily in 20th-century music should definitely consider picking this one up.
Florilegium Portense: Motets & Hymns (Selection)
Vocal Concert Dresden; Capella Sagttariana Dresden / Peter Kopp
Carus (dist. Naxos)
The Florilegium Portense is a collection of sacred motets compiled from the work of such composers as Hieronymus Praetorius, Hans Leo Hassler, Giovanni Gabrieli, and Jacobus Gallus (as well as relatively obscure figures like Sethus Calvisius and Andreas Pevernage) and printed in 1618. Distributed widely to church and school choirs and court chapels at the time, it was important not only as a collection of significant musical works but also as a distribution method for Lutheran doctrinal teaching, principles of which are embedded throughout the sung texts–this despite the fact that the composers represented here include notable Catholics. As one might expect, the grandeur of these songs is somewhat restrained, though Orlando di Lasso’s Confitebor tibi Domine and Adam Gumpelhaimer’s magnificent Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum are certainly not lacking in intensity. The vocal performances here are outstanding, and the Lukaskirche of Dresden provides a perfect acoustic–just reverberant enough, without muddying the music.
The title says it all: this is a smooth, sweet, lush, and gently rolling collection of jazz and pop love songs, all delivered with a bossa flavor by one of the smoothest and lushest of all jazz singers–and a very fine pianist, to boot. The track that will induce a chuckle is her bossa version of the 1970s bedroom-schlock classic “Baby Come to Me,” a song that Elias makes attractive without downplaying its schlockiness. Instead she inhabits and elevates it (somewhat, anyway) with restraint and a whispering sexiness. Elsewhere she delivers a similarly gentle and lovely rendition of “Come Fly With Me” and several fine originals. I’m not sure the orchestral strings were necessary, or at least not on every track, but this is a great album overall.
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
Here we move from the smooth, gentle and lush to the sharply challenging and virtuosic. Ateshkhan Yuseinov is a guitarist of truly jaw-dropping virtuosity, one whose lightning-fast solo lines bring to mind a young John McLaughlin–though one less interested in India and more interested in the Balkans. Yuseinov hails from Bulgaria, and you can hear it everywhere in his compositions, which feature not only lightning tempos but also vinegary melodies and complex rhythmic structures. Too often hotshot guitarist satisfy themselves with showing off, but Yuseinov is doing much more than that: he’s demonstrating what can happen when jazz fuses with Balkan folk music, and how much fun it can be–especially when you team up with a world-class beatboxer. I don’t recommend listening to this one in the car unless you want to get a ticket.
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
Eagle-eyed observers will see the details of this disc–an album by an accomplished jazz violinist, playing the instrument famously owned by the late Stéphane Grappelli, accompanied mainly by an acoustic guitarist and a bassist–and will think “Ah! Another celebration of the Gypsy/Manouche jazz tradition.” It’s a reasonable expectation, one that is completely undermined within the first couple of minutes of music. While the Gypsy jazz tradition is certainly being honored here, Lévy’s compositions can only be called “jazz” in the most abstract sense. The music is both lyrical and astringent, by turns soaringly tuneful and sharply dissonant, while always expressng that aching sense of longing that so often characterized the best of Django Reinhardt’s and Stéphane Grappelli’s compositions and performances. There is usually a regular meter, but rarely anything that could reasonably be called a groove. In short, this is modern and expressionistic music that gains meaning from its positioning in a jazz context, but expresses something very different from what we expect jazz to express. Highly recommended.
Green Hill Music/Burton Avenue Music
A great album with a terrible title, this release is led by bassist David Finck, who has played behind everyone from Phil Woods and Paquito D’Rivera to George Michael and Kenny Rankin. Here he steps out as a leader and arranger, creating wonderful versions of both familiar standards and surprising newer tunes (the theme from Narcos, anyone?), constantly demonstrating not only his virtuosity but also–even more importantly–his taste. Check out, for example, his utterly lovely arco rendition of “When I Look in Your Eyes,” which is noteworthy: too few jazz bassists can convincing pull off an arco solo, especially on a ballad that features long sustained tones and brutally exposes any weaknesses of intonation. There are several vocal tunes here, the best of which is “Bluesette,” featuring the rich and smoky voice of Alexis Cole. But really, it’s hard to pick highlights when every track is so good. Strongly recommended to all jazz collections.
Woodwork: Live aux Ateliers Claus
KlangGalerie (dist. MVD)
I wish I could say what it is that has always so completely entranced me about Fred Frith’s prepared guitar and guitar-on-the-table recordings. Heaven knows I would understand if someone else were to run screaming from the room immediately upon hearing the scrapes, clicks, whines, howls, and near-human babblings Frith creates using these extended techniques. And yet I find that I can listen to this stuff for hours. Maybe it’s the sheer, luscious sensual variety of the noises; maybe it’s the fact that for the most part, the music ends up being gentle and thoughtful rather than noisy and assaultive (though it can be that as well). Maybe it’s just the intellectual stimulation of constantly wondering “How on earth did he make that sound using a guitar?” Most likely, it’s a combination of all of them. Anyway, check this one out, and if it captivates you the way it does me, then start working backwards: find a copy (if you can) of his magisterial Live in Japan set, then go back even further to his groundbreaking Guitar Solos album (ideally the 1991 East Side Digital reissue, with ten bonus tracks). You’re welcome. Or I’m sorry, whichever you feel applies.
Netzach: Masada Book 3, The Book Beri’ah (reissue)
Tzadik (dist. Redeye)
Those familiar with the work of John Zorn–the man for whom the musical designation “skronk” may as well have been invented–will be expecting something very different from what’s offered here on this delicately beautiful recording. Originally issued as part of Zorn’s monumental The Book Beri’ah box set (itself the final installment of his 25-year Masada project, and available only by mail order due to a financial disaster involving its original distribution company), Netzach features the trio of Bill Frisell (guitar), Carol Emanuel (harp), and Kenny Wollesen (vibes) playing nine modal melodies in what sound like varying degrees of composed and improvised harmony. The music progresses slowly and mainly in a circular manner, but is never still; the interplay between the instruments is fascinating even as the music is relaxing and essentially trance-inducing. Gorgeous.
Martin Hayes & Brooklyn Rider
In a Circle
In a genre dominated by show-offs, Martin Hayes is something rare: a fiddler of deep thoughtfulness and exquisite taste. (Having seen him live, I can attest that he’s as technically accomplished as any other world-class Irish fiddler; what makes him different is that he generally resists the temptation to show off, especially in the studio.) On his latest album he teams up with the genre-transgressing string quartet Brooklyn Rider to perform arrangements of ten classic session tunes, one Hayes original, and one new tune by composer Peadar Ó Riada. Some of the arrangements are by members of the ensemble, and all of them are both intelligent and fun. Their take on “Mulqueen’s,” normally played as a reel, is given a particularly hard-swinging hornpipe treatment here, and their version of the title track, a lovely slip jig, is complex and exquisitely beautiful. Recommended to all libraries.
Hot Club of Cowtown
And speaking of hard-swinging, here’s a treat: the first new album of original material in ten years from Austin’s always-brilliant Hot Club of Cowtown. The trio’s name reflects the particular stylistic fusion that has been its calling card for 25 years: Western swing and hot jazz. Fiddler and singer Elana James is the dominant voice this time out: of the album’s 11 original songs, seven are James compositions. (There are also three covers: an arrangement of the Scottish tune “Loch Lomond,” and versions of “Three Little Words” and “How High the Moon.”) It’s hard to say which elements of this group’s sound are the most winning: James’ fiddle, Whit Smith’s guitar, Jake Erwin’s virtuosic slap bass, or all of their vocals. What they all add up to is a band that has not made a weak album yet, and this one is among their best.
Signature Sounds (dist. Redeye)
Idaho singer-songwriter Eilen Jewell has been making top-notch country and roots-rock music for years now, but this is her first album of original material since 2015. It was worth waiting for. The songs are informed by her experience as a new parent (“Witness”), by political frustration (“Beat the Drum”), and by the constant grind of sexism (“79 Cents [The Meow Song]”). The mood is generally dark and the songs are mostly in minor keys, but there’s defiance peeking out from every shadow–and often more than just defiance: genuine hope. One of Jewell’s strengths as a songwriter is that she never mistakes snark for insight, and she always reaches for the latter. And her band positively cooks.
Into the Agony
The Chicagoland pop-punk group Smoking Popes have had an interesting history: after achieving significant regional success in the early 1990s, they went on hiatus when frontman Josh Caterer stepped away from music to focus on his spiritual life. Seven years later the band reformed and started recording and playing out again, and if anything their sound is sharper and more focused than ever before. Caterer’s voice remains central and distinctive, an incongruously mellow croon that nicely complements the band’s dense, crunchy sound. Pull quote, from the opening track: “I don’t wanna simmer down/Oh-oh-oh-oh-oooooh.” Indeed they don’t, and we don’t want them to. Highly recommended to all pop collections.
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)
It’s now been 40 years since the Rubinoos first burst onto the power-pop scene with their debut album, and although the group has technically persisted since its original incarnation broke up in 1980, this is the first release by the original lineup since 1979’s Back to the Drawing Board. And members of their reasonably large and unreasonably patient worldwide cult will be very happy to know that From Home sounds like it could have been made in 1978: crunchy and jangly guitars, tight harmonies, swooning melodies, and lead vocals that remain unaccountably clear and high-pitched (given these guys’ ages). They’ve still got that perfect balance of looseness and tightness working for them, and the hooks just fall like rain. Recommended to all pop collections.
The Politics of Dancing: Revised Expanded Edition (reissue; 2 discs)
Warner/Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
And while we’re harking back a few decades, I can’t resist recommending this little slice of early-80s synthpop, now reissued with a bonus disc of alternate and extended mixes. To be very clear: what makes this reissue interesting is not that it sheds any new insight on the genre–rather, it’s the fact that Re-Flex represented more or less the distilled essence of it. From John Baxter’s chesty, pre-industrial vocals to the machinelike drums and alternately lush and bleepy synths, these guys designed the buliding that other, more successful bands would occupy for a decade to come. This album produced one big hit, the title track, and then they were basically done–their second album was recorded in 1985 but wasn’t released until 2010. Other material was recorded over the years, but never released, or released much later, or used for movie soundtracks. Given the quality of their debut album, though, it’s surprising that it’s taken so long for a deluxe reissue to come out.
Those Pretty Wrongs
Zed for Zulu
Burger (dist. Redeye)
Fluff & Gravy
Those Pretty Wrongs are a duo consisting of Memphis-based singer-songwriter Jody Stephens (formerly of Big Star) and Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Luther Russell. Together they make quiet but sturdy acoustic-based jangle pop wth occasional hints of subtle humor (the slightly exaggerated phase shifting on “The Carousel,” for example) and cultural complexity (the Klezmer-y clarinet on “Hurricane of Love”). The vocals are generally workmanlike and unassuming, until the harmonies kick in, at which point the hair will start rising on your neck. Russell records by himself as well, and his most recent solo album has a much rawer, more rockish (and sometimes almost psychedelic) feel to it than his work with Stephens. Here he plays a list of instruments as long as your arm and is assisted only by a bassist and drummer and a couple of one-track-each guests. Poking through the sprawling, crunchy guitar-rock sound are lyrics that probe deep concerns around aging, social acceptance, and not being able to go home again, and if the whole thing doesn’t feel quite like a cri de coeur, it’s not quite not a cri de coeur either. Both albums are excellent, though each in a very different way.
Timesig (dist. Redeye)
Joseph Fraioli, who records under the name Datach’i, has recorded rarely over the past 20 years, releasing his first album in a decade back in 2016 and now following it up with this wonderful and complex new collection of tracks. While he works in the normally quite chilly and forbidding genre of drill’n’bass (imagine drum’n’bass, only faster, colder, and more robotic), on Bones his sound is a bit warmer and more emotionally intense. The music was composed in the wake of his father’s death, and consists in part of sounds that he sampled using a guitar he bought for his father during the latter’s cancer treatments. There is actually great beauty here among the blips, glitches, snaps and pops, and it’s not even that difficult to access–floating chords and lovely, bittersweet harmonic progressions are everywhere. Highly recommended.
I’ve been championing the Dubmission label and its many wonderful artists for years, and the latest from New Zealand’s Pitch Black provides just one more reason why. Third Light sways between techno, downbeat, dub, and drum’n’bass styles while delivering everything with the group’s trademarked expansive and and deeply bassy signature. One of the things I’ve always loved about these guys is how soft they sound on the surface, and how weird and gritty and progressive their music is when you listen a bit more closely. See if you can catch the political subtexts on this one while you’re dancing!
Under Frustration Vol. 2 (LP & digital only)
Though billed as a various-artists collection, which it truly is, in order to understand the second installment in the Under Frustration series you need to know that it’s the product of a specific group of musicians–a Tunisian collaborative called the Arabstazy Collective. Founded and led by someone who goes by the name Mettani, this collective is “a medium to keep questioning the meaning and the relevance of the supposed Arab unity, by exploring and facing the way the Arab world is perceived, but also how it perceives itself, perceives others and perceives its own perception of itself.” If that sounds like a heavy agenda, be warned that the music is heavy as well–but not in an oppressive way. The artists involved tend to favor cyclic repetition and the simultaneous invocation and subversion of explicitly Arabic cultural tropes in ways that are consistently fascinating. I’ll be filing these collections next to my Muslimgauze albums, where they’ll fit in nicely.
Mungo’s Hi Fi X Eva Lazarus
The latest release from Glasgow, Scotland’s world-class reggae soundsystem and production crew Mungo’s Hi Fi is also a feature vehicle for up-and-coming singer Eva Lazarus, and truly it’s a match made in heaven. She turns a cover of Beats International’s “Dub Be Good to Me” (itself a refix of the S.O.S. Band’s “Just Be Good to Me”) into a Mungo’s tribute dubplate, she expertly rides a horn-heavy neo-ska rhythm on “We Weren’t Made for This,” and then she works a booming, jungly future-bass groove with equal aplomb on the title track. As always, the Mungo’s Hi Fi rhythms are simultaneously forward-looking and tradition-celebrating, and this combination creates yet another in an ongoing string of utterly essential modern reggae albums. I simply can’t recommend this one in strong enough terms.
Mariachi los Camperos
De ayer para siempre
This venerable mariachi ensemble got its start in 1950 in the city of Mexicali, when the young arranger Nati Cano joined a local band and eventually took over, relocating the group to Los Angeles and founding a musical dynasty that continues to this day. (If you’ve listened to Linda Ronstadt’s two dynamite mariachi albums, Canciones de mi padre volumes 1 and 2, then you heard these guys backing her up.) Cano passed away in 2014 and passed the torch to Jesús “Chuy” Guzmán, who now leads the group, and on their tenth studio album they continue to explore the son, ranchera, and bolero traditions with the expertise and soul we’ve come to expect from them. Also with an unbelievably, preternatural tightness and a richness of vocal tone that have to be heard to be believed. Highly recommended to all libraries.