PICK OF THE MONTH
Josquin des Prés; Noel Bauldeweyn
Missa Mater Patris; Missa da pacem
Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips
Gimell (dist. PIAS)
“Our project to record all of Josquin’s Masses now runs into controversy,” says Peter Phillips in the accompanying materials to the latest recording from the always-magnificent Tallis Scholars, leading exponents of the Oxbridge school of Renaissance choral performance. And in fact, the musicological controversy here is real: Missa Mater Patris is strikingly different from most of Josquin’s oeuvre, simultaneously so simple in construction and so unusual in textural organization that some scholars have questioned whether it’s correctly attributed to him. In acknowledgement of this controversy, for this recording the group has paired that Mass with one that was for many years attributed to Josquin–indeed, was seen as one of the most perfect examples of his style–but that is now generally attributed to his virtually unknown Flemish near-contemporary Noel Bauldeweyn. This is one of those recordings that simultaneously provides exceptional scholarly value and a ravishing listening experience.
The Curtis Session: Dreams of Life Awake
Bimperl Entertainment & Media
No cat. no.
Eric Sessler’s Dreams from Life Awake is a four-movement work commissioned by the brilliant and dynamic young Dover Quartet. This recording was made in a single take at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, back in 2013, and it finds the Dovers successfully, even joyfully, negotiating a work that is by turns romantically expressive and bustlingly modernistic. I use the word “bustling” advisedly; after the gentle second movement and the astringent third, the fourth brings to mind mental images of a busy mid-century New York avenue. Sessler’s particular genius is to blend forward-thinking harmonic innovation with genuine accessibility, and the Dovers’ genius is to bring it to engaging, exciting life. This recording is yet another triumph for one of the most exciting chamber ensembles in the country. (Note: Although this recording is being released in CD format, it’s currently only available as a download. Watch the space to which I’ve linked above, and hopefully the CD will become available there shortly.)
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
Musicologists tend to think of Anton Reicha as a theorist, while contemporary listeners are more likely to think of him as a composer of wind quintets. On this recording we get to experience him both as a theoretician pushing boundaries and developing new structural ideas and as a chamber-music composer. Opening with an eleven-minute fantasy for string quartet called La Pantomime, the remainder of the program consists of a twelve-section exploration of fugal forms, with eight fugues inserted among the standard four movements of a string quartet. (The work’s overall title represents Reicha’s belief that the fugue itself is a “scientific” form.) Neither of the two works presented here was ever published; both exist only in manuscript form, and this is the world-premiere recording of both. The playing (on modern instruments) is excellent. Highly recommended to all classical collections.
Ludwig Van Beethoven
A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 6
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
This is the sixth volume in pianist James Brawn’s ongoing survey of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and on this one he focuses on three “Grand” sonatas composed between 1796 and 1801: number 4, op. 7; number 11, op. 22; and number 12, op. 26. The first sonata in the program is grand indeed: clocking in at almost 30 minutes in length, it’s Beethoven’s second-longest (after the “Hammerklavier”). The sonata number 12 is one of his more unusually-structured pieces, and number 11 is one of which Beethoven was particularly proud. On all of them Brawn plays with that particular balance of fire and elegance that is uniquely necessary to effectively convey Beethoven’s genius. All classical collections would be well advised to follow the progress of this series.
Zoho (dist. MVD)
New York’s Sirius Quartet put together this program as an “artistic reaction to the seismic disruptions caused by the election of US President Trump in 2016.” It consists of works either written or arranged by members of the quartet, and includes arrangements of pop songs by the Beatles (“Eleanor Rigby”) and Radiohead (“Knives Out”). Stylistically, the music tends to be veer from tense and angry to elegiac, as one might expect: violinist Fung Chern Hwei’s arrangement of Stanley Myers’ “Cavatina” is simple, lovely, and deeply sad; violinist Gregor Huebner’s arrangement of “Knives Out” is a frenetic, herky-jerk splutter of rage and frustration. The original compositions are the biggest draw here, though, and are stylistically varied and passionately rendered.
Mare Balticum Vol. 2: Medieval Finland and Sweden
Ensemble Peregrina (Basel) / Agnieszka Budzińska-Bennett
Tacet (dist. Naxos)
The first volume in this series, the stated purpose of which is to explore the medieval music of the Baltic Sea region (and which garnered a Rick’s Pick designation in the May 2018 issue of CD HotList), was devoted to music from Denmark. The second one focuses on Finland and Sweden, with a particular emphasis on chants that were unique to the Birgittine Order in the 14th century or that were composed in praise of St. Birgitta, patron saint of Sweden. Other selections come from the Åbo Gradual and Piae cantiones ecclesiastical et scholastic veteran episcoporum collections, and the program offers a nicely varied array of plainchant, part songs, hymns, antiphons, and sequences, all sung with magnificent clarity and purity by the members of Ensemble Pelegrina. For all collections.
Francisco Peñalosa; Pedro de Escobar; Francisco Guerrero
New York Polyphony
BIS (dist. Naxos)
There are lots of Biblical texts that have attracted the attention of composers throughout history, and one of the most irresistible has been the Book of Lamentations–a set of five poems in which the prophet Jeremiah deplores the destruction of Jerusalem, calling on its people to repent. This absolutely stunning recording gathers together settings of those texts, alongside related ones, from three pillars of the Spanish Renaissance: Francisco Peñalosa, Pedro de Escobar, and Francisco Guerrero. As one would expect, the music is somber, dark, and deeply sad. As one might not expect, the four-voice, all-male ensemble New York Polyphony somehow manage to sound like a much larger and more diverse choir; I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a richer sound from such a small single-gender ensemble. Much of this music has been very rarely recorded, and this album should be considered a must-purchase for any library with a collecting interest in Renaissance music.
Johann Friedrich Fasch
Quartets and Concertos (reissue)
Ensemble Marsyas; Peter Whelan; Pamela Thorby
Linn (dist. Naxos)
Fasch is not a name that usually comes up in conversations about the baroque masters, but during his 36-year career at the court of Anhalt-Zerbst during the first part of the 18th century he composed music that was both well-loved and influential throughout Europe. This is a nicely organized program of chamber music for various combinations of wind and string instruments, including a remarkably virtuosic bassoon concerto and an unusual quartet scored for horn, oboe, violin, and continuo. Although the quartet for recorder, oboe, violin, and continuo is one of Fasch’s more popular compositions, much of the rest of this music will be unfamiliar to most listeners, and the playing by Ensemble Marsyas (on period instruments) is exemplary. (Originally issued in 2014.)
Pauline Kim Harris
Sono Luminus (dist. Naxos)
Almost 45 years ago, Brian Eno released a foundational recording in the genre of ambient music. It was titled Discreet Music, and the first side of the album featured a long, soothing composition of the same title. But side 2 offered something different and much more radical: its “Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel” was a violent (though gentle-sounding) deconstruction of that popular work, accomplished by instructing a string ensemble to play its parts at shifting tempos, creating wild dissonances and other unpredictable effects. With the two pieces presented on her solo debut album, violinist and composer Pauline Kim Harris has closed the circle that Eno opened in 1975, creating two more-or-less ambient works based on deconstructions of baroque and Renaissance masterworks: the chaconne from Bach’s D-minor partita, and a 15th-century canon by Johannes Ockeghem. In collaboration with Spencer Topel, she created a process in which a live performer and an electronic feedback system interact with each other, generating new tones and textures as the work unfolds. The resulting music is eerie, unpredictable, and deeply moving. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Noah Preminger Group
Zigsaw: Music of Steve Lampert
No cat. no.
Tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger is always worth hearing, and this is an unusually unique and ambitious project, even by his standards. The album consists of a single track, a 49-minute-long piece by composer Steve Lampert. It’s built on a knotty, almost dodecaphonic-sounding melody that unspools quickly and in highly regular time before giving way to three succeeding sections: an instrumental solo, a brief recapitulation of the melody, and then what he calls a “fantasy section” before the process begins again; the process repeats 12 times. Preminger leads a septet of uncommon virtuosity (as the piece requires), but his solos are particularly impressive. This recording is a prime example of how well jazz and modern classical traditions can blend, in the right hands.
This is the first recording I’ve heard from pianist/composer Carmen Sandim, and I found it to be something of a revelation. Each one of these tunes (written for a septet of trumpet, trombone, reeds, guitar, and piano trio) led me to take note of something different about her writing: the subtle but fun hocketing on “Aruru, Juju”; the ways she plays with triple meters on “Aura-Cecilia”; the way that “Undergrowth” felt a bit like art-for-art’s-sake to me; the lovely and counterintuitive way that “Isaura” was a ballad that somehow grooved at midtempo; the way the head to “Me Gusta la Angustia” crept slowly and angularly into a lyrical and relaxed piano solo, etc. The playing is all beautiful, and the digital version of the album includes two bonus tracks (both featuring vocals). Very, very nice.
Chick Corea Trio
Trilogy 2 (2 discs)
Say what you want about his fusion work in the 1970s–like many fusioneers, pianist/composer Chick Corea is also a master of straight-ahead jazz, and his second outing at the head of a trio featuring bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade (the first was 2014’s three-disc extravaganza Trilogy) is a masterwork of standards interpretation, beautifully recorded over the course of the group’s recent world tour. The twelve tunes on the program include three Corea originals that can today fairly be called standards (“500 Miles High,” “La Fiesta,” and “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs”), as well as two Thelonious Monk compositions (“Crepuscule with Nellie,” “Work”) and American Songbook classics like “How Deep Is the Ocean” and “But Beautiful.” What makes the playing of this group special is the way that each player harnesses his virtuosity so effectively and tastefully–stepping out and blowing when appropriate, but always serving the song first, and making respectful room for everyone else. For all jazz collections.
Florian Hoefner Trio
ALMA (dist. MVD)
I’ve been following Florian Hoefner’s career for some time now, and his latest album took me a bit by surprise. This time out he’s leading a piano trio rather than his usual quartet, and while you might expect that to mean a more traditional sound, you’d be mistaken. Yes, the group swings hard when it wants to, but they’re just as likely to play in a more impressionistic, less rhythmically-driven style–and while there are three Hoefner compositions on the program, the focus is on other people’s tunes, and on settings of folk songs: “Maid on the Shore,” “Rain and Snow,” and the Armenian folk song “Yoosin Yelav” (based on a setting by Luciano Berio). There’s a bit more arco bass than you’d normally expect on a jazz recording, often employed to approximate the sound of a fiddle, and generally speaking this is a remarkably and fresh and original-sounding album. Highly recommended.
John Yao’s Triceratops
How We Do (digital only)
See Tao Recordings
If you’re going to write about music in a useful and intelligent way, one of the things you have to do is figure out how to maintain a certain amount of separation between your personal tastes and your critical faculties. Can you recognize great music even if you don’t personally enjoy it that much? This is something I have to do all the time, and one of the personal tastes that I have to try to keep separate from my analysis is my strong preference for jazz combos that feature at least one chordal instrument. John Yao’s Triceratops is a quintet led by trombonist and composer John Yao, alongside saxophonists Billy Drewes and Jon Irabagon, bassist Peter Brendler, and drummer Mark Ferber. Having multiple wind instruments helps to fill the harmonic space left empty by the absence of a keyboard or guitar, of course, but in this case what’s more important is the fact that Yao writes music that actually benefits from the lack of chordal thickening: it’s frequently and significantly contrapuntal, and the relatively spare instrumental textures help keep those multiple intertwining lines clear. Yao and his group also have a winning way of being tight and boppy (or funky) one minute, free and skronky the next, and then snapping back into tight formation. This is fairly challenging, but highly rewarding music.
There are lots of things to like about the playing of guitarist Mike Pachelli. The way he often sounds like he can barely restrain himself from sliding into blues phrasing, for example–or his exuberant tendency to suddenly and brilliantly overplay, not in a way that communicates show-offiness, but rather that feels like an organic expression of musical joy. (It’s hard to tell what he loves more: chord solos or sudden bursts of chromatic 32nd-note runs.) Then there’s his powerful sense of swing and the palpable love he brings to this program of genuinely hoary standards: “When You’re Smiling,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “What a Wonderful World”–these are the moldiest of jazz chestnuts, and he makes them all sound fresh and new. Oh, and let’s not forget his choice of sidemen, which is jaw-dropping: bassist Tony Levin (yes, that Tony Levin) and drummer Danny Gottlieb. What it all adds up to is a disc of pure, unadulterated jazz pleasure. For all collections.
We’ll call this one “jazz,” though singer-songwriter Ola Onabulé has long bestrode multiple genre categories. His background includes extensive gigging with small combos and big bands around Europe, and although it’s clear that jazz remains foundational to his art, on Point Less he is putting jazz tropes to use in promoting a vision that is at least as much social and political as musical. With his warm, grainy voice, he tells stories about the aftermath of violence, the effects of prejudice, and the spiritual gravity exerted by one’s homeland. The messages, however well-intentioned, would be ineffective if the music were less compelling, but these songs are powerful both musically and lyrically, and his voice is a consistent joy to hear. He’s performing a few select dates on the US east coast this fall, so keep an eye out for him–I’m willing to bet that he’s a powerhouse in concert.
Greening the Dark
Muzzy House Music
Debra Cowan has selected an oustanding (if, at six tracks and 23 minutes, far too brief) program of new and old folk and folk-rock tunes for her latest collaborative project with drummer, producer, and arranger Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson Band). Traditional songs and modern compositions by Lal Waterson, John Tams, Richard Thompson and others all rub shoulders companionably, ably served by Cowan’s rich and powerful voice and by Mattacks’ gently-but-sturdily rocking arrangements. Highlights include a wonderful rendition of Thompson’s “The Old Changing Way” and Emily Portman’s update of the traditional song “Bones and Feathers.” There’s just something special about this album, which is recommended to all collections.
Seems Like Tears Ago
No cat. no.
To call this music traditional honky-tonk country would be to understate things considerably: when Jason James started singing on the album’s title track, I had to double-check and make sure I hadn’t accidentally cued up an old George Jones disc. But as the program goes on, his individuality gradually makes itself more clearly felt: yes, his style is deeply traditional, not to say derivative, but James is putting old-school tropes to work in service of an organic and personal vision. A couplet like “Lovin’ you is like sleeping on the tracks/I’m just waiting around to die” is worthy of Hank Williams, and if he sounds a bit like Johnny Cash on that song and a bit like Big Sandy on “We’re Gonna Honky Tonk Tonight,” there’s nothing wrong with that. All of the songs are originals, and every one takes old musical ideas and brings them to new life. An outstanding debut from a major talent.
Every Single Star
Blue Hens Music
No cat. no.
There ought to be a word for the particular feeling of delight I get when I open a package and see that it contains a new album from Dori Freeman. One of the most consistently brilliant practitioners of contemporary folk/country music, her albums are always filled with songs both affecting and powerful, anchored by perfect arrangements and always given a burnished sheen by the natural wonder that is Freeman’s voice: smooth but not off-puttingly polished, clear but imbued with color; strong but never aggressive. This one, produced again by the equally brilliant Teddy Thompson, is filled with delights as always: note the subtly crooked rhythms on “That’s How I Feel” and “Like I Do”; the subtly Caribbean lilt of “All I Ever Wanted” (which reminds me of “Blue Bayou” as reimagined by Eleni Mandel); the gentle dream-polka backbeat of “Another Time”; the constant thread of wonder as she contemplates parenthood and new love. For all collections.
Phantoms (digital only)
Terrestrial Lane Productions
No cat. no.
Iranian-American singer Azam Ali has had a long recording career already, mainly at the helm of the bands VAS and Niyaz, with whom she has explored various ways of blending American and European electro-pop sounds with the musical traditions of the Middle East and South Asia. But on her latest solo effort she moves from Middle Eastern electro-pop into defiantly 1980s-flavored shoegaze synth pop (a move made explicit by her cover of Cocteau Twins’ “Shallow Then Halo”). There are still certainly hints of Middle Eastern influence here–the occasional modal melody, the occasional shimmering santour–but the overall flavor is very European, quite Goth, and frequently funky. The album is actually something of a paean to the music of her adolescence, when she was steeped not only in various world-music traditions but also the recordings of Dead Can Dance, Joy Division, Nine Inch Nails, and Ministry. This album is a dark-hued but utterly engrossing delight from start to finish.
The Mirror and the Light
About five years ago, Dimitris Avramidis and Ross Baker released the album Wolf Hall under the collective name Middlemarch. It consisted of piano pieces, recorded with heavy echo and sounding like they’d been played on an old and not terribly well-tuned upright piano. That combination of dense reverb and slightly questionable intonation gave the music an elegiac and slightly otherworldly flavor–like something that might have been played by the ghost of Harold Budd. Even more interesting is The Mirror and the Light, which consists of remixed versions of the tracks from Wolf Hall. Remix albums are more commonly a feature of the dance-music realm, so this project is pretty unusual. The producers involved (who include Riz Maslen, Zinovia Arvanitidi, and Shain Entezami) take a variety of approaches, some of them altering the original tracks fairly minimally, while others create eerie and abstract ambient soundscapes (Brian Dougans, on “The Dead Complain of Their Burial”) and others take small fragments of the orginal tracks and build new compositions around them (Tim Dwyer’s gorgeous take on “Angels”) or incorporate subtle elements of electronic funk (Arvanitidi’s mix of “The Dead Complain of Their Burial”). Both discs are great, but I have to say that the remix collection is quite special.
The Help Machine
33 1/3 (dist. Redeye)
You can always count on Fastball. You may love them or not, but you can always count on them: you can count on Tony Scalzo to write heart-stoppingly beautiful songs with lots of chords, and you can count on Miles Zuniga to write solid meat-and-potatoes rockers that will keep your foot tapping and keep you trying to harmonize while you drive around listening in your car. And on their latest album you can count on producer Steve Berlin (of Los Lobos fame) to create a consistently crisp and crunchy soundfield for those songs, rendering as nearly perfect a modern rock album as you could ask for.
Sleepmoss (vinyl/digital only)
Planet Mu (dist. Redeye)
The prize for Artist Pseudonym of the Year goes to Lara Rix-Martin, a producer based in Brighton, England who records under the name Meemo Comma. This is her second release, and it’s something of a concept album: all of its abstract, eerie, and often deeply weird soundscapes are intended to reflect “the glory of solitude and the richness of romance that can be found in nature.” This isn’t program music; you’re not going to hear anything as specific as a musical evocation of the sound of the wind over the South Downs or the crash and murmur of waves on the beach. Instead, Rix-Martin is interested in exploring the human feelings that are created in our interactions with nature, and especially with nature at its wildest, most lonely, and most uncontrollable. Some of this music is quiet and contemplative, but sometimes it’s downright disturbing, which is exactly what she intends. Highly recommended.
The Well Wishers
The Lost Soundtrack
No cat. no.
Yet another slab of world-class power pop from Jeff Shelton, former frontman for Bay Area favorites the Spinning Jennies and now the guy who plays all the guitars, the bass, and the drums, and who sings all the vocal parts for the Well Wishers. His latest album has a pretty interesting back story: in 2014, Shelton was commissioned to write songs for a movie soundtrack. He worked on the project for more than a year, but then things started going sideways–and, as they often do, the film ended up being shelved. A few years later, Shelton decided that the songs shouldn’t suffer the same fate; thus, this album. And sure enough, the songs are great, in the way Well Wishers songs always are: dense without being heavy, crunchy without being painful, sweet without being saccharine. It’s fun to listen and try to figure out what the movie would have been about.
Rez Abbasi Silent Ensemble
A Throw of Dice
For this unusual and truly wonderful recording, guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi created a soundtrack for a 1929 Indian-German silent film called A Throw of Dice: A Romance of India. Instead of writing music that might sound like it came from the 1920s (some early hot jazz, say, or Indian classical music), Abbasi wrote music that draws on jazz and on Indian music, but that also takes freely from whatever traditions are necessary in order to support and amplify the emotions and events taking place on the screen. The result is a coherent but constantly shifting array of elements: sitar-guitar, saxophones, bansuri, Indian percussion, modern drum set, upright bass, etc. Heard separately from the movie, the music feels at once organic and mysterious, faintly programmatic but not fully tethered to any specific visual narrative. It must be even better in the context of the film, but it’s consistently interesting and enjoyable as a listening experience.
Deeply Rooted (digital & vinyl only)
This is a nicely varied collection of modern reggae (and reggae-adjacent) tracks from Nottingham artist Kevin Thomson, who records under the name Origin One. He’s the writer and producer, but what you hear front and center is a succession of A-list guest vocalists representing various facets of the UK scene, including Parly B (“Mi Bredren”), Soom T (“Jah Jah”), and Gardna (on “Nice & Easy,” a lovely combination track with the sweet-voiced singer Nanci Correia). And you’ve got the requisite horticultural anthem (“High Grade”), a sturdy reggae/hip-hop fusion tune featuring singjay K.O.G. Thomson keeps his sound solidly centered in vintage UK roots tradition, but also delves into jungle, bashment, and grime sounds, making this not only a wonderfully engaging listening experience but also an outstanding survey of what’s happening in the UK reggae universe at the moment. Highly recommended.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party
Live at WOMAD 1985
Real World (dist. PIAS)
For anyone who thinks devotional music can’t be fun, I have four words: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Perhaps the greatest (and certainly the most famous) exponent of qawwali, a style of Sufi Muslim praise singing that is hugely popular in Pakistan and North India, Khan was not yet world famous in 1985, but this performance would launch him to global acclaim. That year, Khan and his group were invited to perform at Peter Gabriel’s annual World of Music, Art, and Dance (WOMAD) festival in England. At about midnight on a Saturday night, they set up onstage: two rows of men and one young boy, two of them playing the harmonium (a bellows-driven keyboard), one playing tabla, and everyone clapping and singing along in response as Khan wove complex and ecstatic melismas out of melodies that were complicated to begin with. The performance was astounding, and frankly still is, and the recording of it has never been commercially released before–so this album is both a surprise and a treasure.
Go: Organic Orchestra and Brooklyn Raga Massive
Ragmala: A Garland of Ragas (2 discs)
Occupying a liminal space somewhere in the fuzzy borderlands that separate classical Indian music, big band jazz, and contemporary Western art music, this two-disc album is an expression of the unique “future orchestra” vision of Adam Rudolph, founder of Go: Organic Orchestra. For this project he got his group together with Brooklyn Raga Massive, a collective that celebrates Indian classical tradition while also pushing it in unusual directions, and he created a program consisting of 20 pieces that rely on a blend of notated music and improvisation and that draw on musical genres and traditions from around the globe–Gnawa singing, jazzy horn charts, Afro-funk, Indian ragas, klezmer clarinets, Afro-Cuban rhythms, etc. The result could have been a chaotic mess of self-conscious multiculturalism, but instead it comes across as a brilliantly colored kaleidoscope of sounds and textures–not always completely compelling (how could it be?) but frequently brilliant and at certain points tremendously fun.
The Exorcism of a Spinster
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
Mmmmmmm… Hope Masike. Not only is she one of the most impressive singers on the African continent and a pioneer as a female player of the mbira (traditionally an instrument played only by men), she’s also got an amazing melodic gift. A new album from her is always an event to be cherished, and her latest is no exception. Throughout The Exorcism of a Spinster, she blends African and Western musical elements seamlessly, and to beautiful effect: listen to the interweaving guitar lines on “Ndoitasei,” the complex call-and-response harmonies on “Zunde,” and the gently propulsive and complex polyrhythms on the title track. Every song has little revelations to offer, and the album is yet another triumph from this outstanding artist.