PICK OF THE MONTH
Linn (dist. Naxos)
Drumming is one of the undisputed masterworks of Steve Reich’s oeuvre, a long and complex percussion composition that thoroughly explores his early ideas of rhythmic phasing in the context of simple harmony and highly complex multilayered polyrhythms. The piece is written in four movements, which are played in continuous sequence: the first for tuned bongos, the second for marimbas and voice, the third for glockenspiels, voices, and piccolo; and the fourth for all of the instruments and voices together. Since there is some flexibility to the score (players get to decide how many repeats to follow), a performance can last anywhere from 55 to 75 minutes. Traditionally, of course, Drumming has been played by an ensemble of musicians. But for this recording percussionist Kuniko elected to perform the entire thing herself, using overdubbing techniques in the studio to create all of the necessary parts. As always–and she has already demonstrated an impressive affinity for Reich’s music–she plays with both an intensity of focus and a virtuosic precision that are unmatched in her field; under her mallets, sticks, and fingers, this music shimmers with brilliant clarity and the dense beauty of Reich’s patterns is revealed as never before. An essential purchase for all library collections.
A Spanish Nativity
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
Because holiday music is politically complicated, I generally avoid covering it in CD HotList. But when the album in question is the latest release from the magnificent Stile Antico choir, I have to make an exception to that general rule. With A Spanish Nativity, the group has put together a thoroughly winning program of Christmas compositions both familiar (Victoria’s deathless O Magnum mysterium, the charming carol “Riu, riu, chiu”) and less so (Alonso Lobo’s wonderful Missa Beata Dei genitrix Maria) to create a listening experience that simultaneously celebrates both the birth of the Christ child and the remarkable musical efflorescence that occurred during Spain’s “Golden Age” of the 16th century. Motets by Francisco Guerrero, Cristóbal de Morales, and Pedro Rimonte are here as well, and the singing is as sweet, powerful, and luminous as always. Every new release from Stile Antico has been a must-have for libraries, and this one is no different.
The Enlightened Trumpet
Paul Merkelo; Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Marios Papadopoulos
Sony Classical (dist. Naxos)
Trumpeter Paul Merkelo offers a thoroughly delightful program of trumpet concertos spanning the late baroque, classical, and early Romantic eras (hence the title). The album features concertos by Haydn, Telemann, Mozart, and Hummel–the latter a particularly interesting choice as he is known mainly as a piano composer, though the trumpet concerto featured here is a showcase of bravura technique. Merkelo’s tone is sweet and golden, and the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra (playing on modern instruments) provides rich and nuanced accompaniment. Apart from what sounds like a small intonation problem in the final movement of the Telemann concerto, the album is flawless and richly enjoyable from start to finish.
Jan Garbarek; The Hilliard Ensemble
Remember Me, My Dear
Soprano saxophone and all-male vocal quartet is not an obvious combination, but in 1993 jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble were invited by ECM label head Manfred Eicher to get together and try out some collaborative music. The resulting album (Officium) was something of an unexpected hit, and the quintet toured together regularly during the following two decades. This album was recorded live during the group’s farewell tour in 2014, and finds them continuing to explore the strange but successful blending of ancient and modern vocal polyphony and eerie reed melismas that attracted so many listeners to the original album. The music won’t be to everyone’s taste, but you can certainly see why so many feel it worked so well, and there’s no questioning the deep connection between the performers on these highly unusual and frequently gorgeous pieces.
Johann Sebastian Bach
6 Flute Sonatas BWV 1030-1035
Michala Petri; Hille Perl; Mahan Esfahani
OUR Recordings (dist. Naxos)
Bach’s flute sonatas are not new repertoire, of course; they’ve been widely interpreted in a variety of presentations. But the fact that recorder virtuoso Michala Petri has turned her attention to them (again, following her widely-praised 1998 recording alongside Keith Jarrett, without a cello or gamba player) is certainly good news. And this time she’s brought along harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani and viola da gamba player Hille Perl, filling out the sound nicely. As always, Petri’s playing is exceptionally lovely, and she manages to shed new light on these evergreen works–partly through the harder timbre of the recorder, and partly through her own deep knowledge and love of Bach’s music. Recommended to all libraries.
Backward Music (dist. Redeye)
Harpist Sarah Pagé steps out as a composer on this debut album, which consists of five pieces written for harp using various extended techniques. Using pickups, pedals, loops, bows, and apparently even electrical fans(!), Pagé creates sounds that range from abrasive scraping to ethereal drones, harmonic pulses to floating washes of sound, with occasional passages of lyrical melody emerging as well. Not only is Pagé’s command of her instrument impressive, but so is her ability to coax sounds from it by means of outboard equipment in ways that expand enormously the harp’s expressive potential. Any library supporting a program of harp pedagogy or experimental music should seriously consider adding this release to the collection.
52 Sonatas (4 discs)
Sony Classical (dist. Naxos)
If, like me, you love the keyboard music of the baroque and early classical periods but tire quickly of the sound of the harpsichord, then this four-disc set of Domenico Scarlatti’s 52 sonatas for keyboard may be the perfect gift for you (or your library collection). The music is performed on modern piano by Lucas Debargue, with what sounds to me like a perfect balance between accuracy and restraint. I say “restraint” because the modern piano permits all kinds of dynamic elaborations that would not have been in the mind of a composer writing for the harpsichord, and Debargue does a fine job of incorporating such elaborations tastefully and in ways that illuminate rather than distract from Scarlatti’s brilliant writing–notably, for example, by bringing out some surprising and lovely syncopations in the A major sonata K 113. I’m not sure how many people will want to listen to all four discs end to end, but it’s certainly an impressive accomplishment–and taken in reasonable chunks, it’s a marvelous listening experience as well.
Complete Songs Volume 1
Blue Heron / Scott Metcalfe
Blue Heron (dist. Naxos)
Hot on the heels of their triumphant world-premiere recording of Cipriano de Rore’s five-voice madrigals, the magnificent Blue Heron ensemble has now released the first in what will be a two-volume set of chansons by Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem–the first complete recording of his songs in 40 years. These recordings are part of a larger Blue Heron project, called Ockeghem@600: between 2015 and 2021, the group will perform all of Ockeghem’s known music. This program of chansons is a revelation, from the delicate two-voice texture of “Aultre Venus estes sans faille” to the darker hues of “Mort tu as navré de ton dart” and the five-voice Marian motet-chanson “Permanent vierge/Pulcra es/Sancta dei genitrix.” As always, the ensemble masterfully combines a colorful vocal blend with exquisite intonation and creates a sumptuously lovely listening experience. Recommended to all libraries.
Cold Blue Music
Separation Songs consists of 54 variations on hymn melodies written by the pioneering American composer William Billings in the 18th century and published in his 1770 collection New England Psalm Singer. Using two string quartets (in this case, the excellent Eclipse Quartet playing against itself by means of studio overdubbing), the composer pulls melodic fragments apart, sending them from one quartet to the other, creating a constantly-shifting array of new melodies and harmonies. Like a kaleidoscope, the music is always changing and yet always staying the same: its fundamental elements move constantly but consistently within predetermined boundaries. Its strange blend of uplift and melancholy made me think of some of Gavin Bryar’s best work. Strongly recommended.
Gondwana (dist. Redeye)
Interestingly, the latest album from trumpeter Matthew Halsall consists of recordings made more than ten years ago. It was 2008, and Halsall was in an experimental mode, trying out ideas that were more contemplative and spiritual in nature than what was typical for him. Over the course of three sessions in January, March, and September of that year he led a sextet (including harp and saxophone in addition to his trumpet and a piano trio; I sometimes also hear a tambura, though no tambura player is credited) and a quartet (with sitar, bass, and tabla) through a variety of compositions that are sometimes compellingly restrained, and that occasionally teeter dangerously on the edge of aimless meandering; few regular rhythms, very abstract harmonic movement. My favorite tracks are the more explicitly Indian-flavored ones, but at all points this is a worthy experiment, and the music regularly achieves significant beauty.
Johnny Griffin & Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis
Ow!: Live at the Penthouse
Reel to Real (dist. MVD)
This album documents a summit meeting of tenor-saxophone titans. For two weeks in 1962 (in early March and then again in early June), Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis commanded the stage at Seattle’s Penthouse club, jointly leading a quintet that also featured pianist Horace Parlan, bassist Buddy Catlett and drummer Art Taylor. The hour’s worth of tracks (along with a few slightly annoying intros, outros, and brief riffs) are absolutely fierce, except when they’re tender and soulful. But even on the ballads there’s a tremendous energy: notice, for example, the frenetic bebop workouts “Second Balcony Jump” and “Ow!”, and then compare them to the sweet and gentle opening to “Sophisticated Lady,” a rendition that keeps erupting into edgy double-time passages. This is not easy-listening jazz; it’s jazz for other musicians, though just about any fan will be able to enjoy it. The sound is quite good; only the bass lacks definition, which is par for the course with live recordings from this period.
Brazilian-American pianist and composer Carmen Sandim has gathered an outstanding septet to perform a set of her original compositions on this album, in arrangements that range from the complex (note the fun hocketing passages on “Aruru, Juju” and the abstract rhythmic structure and sometimes duodecaphonic melodies of “Undergrowth”) to straightforwardly swinging (the liltingly lovely jazz waltzes “Aura-Celia” and “Isaura”) and that regularly lapse into sheer lyrical loveliness (“Waiting for Art,” “Free Wilbie”). It’s hard to say whether Sandim’s compositions or her arrangements are the more impressive, but both are outstanding, as is the support she gets from her ensemble. For all jazz collections.
Never More Here
Although the program features no Charlie Parker compositions, trombonist Michael Dease’s latest album as a leader is presented as “a reflection of the influence of Charlie Parker on my life,” and is marked with an epigram from Parker: “Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom.” Interestingly, the album also only features a single Dease original (the lovely and bustling bop workout “Blue Jay”), while focusing on tunes by the likes of John Lewis, Jackie McLean, and bebop trombone pioneer J.J. Johnson. The overall mood is warm and laid-back, with lots of loping midtempo numbers, highlights of which include the strutting, gospel-flavored Billy Taylor composition “I Wish I Knew” and a restrained but strongly swinging take on J.J. Johnson’s “Lament.” This is yet another solid and deeply enjoyable outing from one of the jazz scene’s leading trombonists.
Champian Fulton & Cory Weeds
Dream a Little Dream
Cellar Live (dist. MVD)
Recorded in an intimate setting (a house concert in Vancouver earlier this year), the latest release from national treasure Champian Fulton finds her in duet with the excellent saxophonist Cory Weeds–no rhythm section, no nothing except piano, voice, and sax. And because Fulton is equally entrancing as a vocalist and a pianist, and Weeds is a marvelously intuitive and tasteful player himself, every track would count as a highlight on any other artist’s album. Unsurprisingly, the set focuses on ballads, and even tends to treat normally uptempo numbers with a slow, smoldering intensity that manages somehow to sound light and casual: their take on “Fly Me to the Moon” is a great example of this approach, as is their torchy version of “I Thought about You.” (Conversely, though, they take “Secret Love” at an unusually sprightly tempo.) Like every album by the wonderful Champian Fulton, this one is strongly recommended to all libraries.
Ramsey Lewis & Urban Knights
If you’re in the mood for jazz-funk fusion, then Ramsey Lewis is your man–as, indeed, he has been for, lo, these 63 (count ’em) years. Technically, of course, jazz-funk fusion itself hasn’t been around for 60-plus years, but the point is that ever since the genre began to emerge in the 1970s, Lewis was there helping to shape it. On his latest album as a leader (and, if the liner notes are to be believed, his last, as he now intends to retire at age 84) he goes deep into the groove, showing that there’s no reason to believe that the Greatest Generation can’t also be the Funkiest Generation. Leading his quintet Urban Knights, he offers a very nice set of modern jazz that appears to consist mainly of original compositions, though the lack of composer credits makes it hard to say for sure. (Certainly he’s not the composer of the album-closing tribute to his father, “Trees,” nor of “And I Love Her.”) The production is flawed–there’s noticeable distortion during louder passages, especially in the drums and especially on “Tequila Mockingbird”–but the playing isn’t.
Northern Spy (dist. Redeye)
Nobody else is making music like SUSS, an instrumental band whose work I can only characterize as “ambient country.” Why “ambient”? Because their music mostly floats, sighs, and shimmers rather than loping, moseying, or honky tonking. Why “country”? Because from the middle of SUSS’s constantly-shifting clouds of sound, wails of steel guitar and twangy bass licks keep emerging, like dollops of Nashville flavoring in an otherwise otherworldly concoction. And here’s what they do that sets them apart from every other artist or group I’ve heard in any genre: they deploy basslines not to create groove, but to suddenly resolve chords that you hadn’t even realized were in tension. In its spaciousness and warmth, their music sounds like it could have been produced by Daniel Lanois; beyond that, I can’t tell you whom to compare it to. Just give it a listen.
At the End of the River
No cat. no.
One of the great things about Cajun music is that while it has its own stylistic parameters (two-step rhythms, accordion-and-fiddle instrumentation, certain laissez les bons temps rouler lyrical tendencies) it can also easily adapt itself to other styles, infecting them with a distinctive South Louisiana vibe: basically, if you sing a blues or R&B song in Cajun French, it’s going to sound like Cajun music. The Revelers make the most of that flexibility on their latest album, delivering the expected rollicking genre exercises (“Au bout de la rivière,” “Pendant”) along with honky-tonk country (“She’s a Woman,” “You’re Not to Blame”), horn-heavy torch songs (“I Wouldn’t Do That to You”), and more. The main quality criterion for a Cajun album is how fun it is, and this one is tons of fun.
Jake La Botz
They’re Coming for Me
Jake La Botz came up busking in the Chicago subway, eventually breaking into stage, TV, and film acting. (You may have seen him in the arthouse film Ghostworld or playing Conway Twitty on the TV show True Detective.) But now he’s based in Nashville and writing dark, gritty, and sometimes faintly creepy (in a good way) songs informed by the often difficult life he’s lived, and for this album he returned home to Chicago and worked with producer Jimmy Sutton and JD McPherson’s backup band. What they produced is a sharply observed and dryly-produced set of songs that frequently draws on blues and country flavors and occasionally invokes Tin Pan Alley–and sometimes does all at the same time. La Botz’s voice is all the more powerful for being generally understated and plainspoken. This is great nighttime driving music.
Nina Kraviz Presents MASSEDUCTION Rewired (digital & vinyl only)
No cat. no.
The strange nexus of dance music and the avant-garde has long been a fun and intellectually stimulating territory, and never more so than on this generous collection of remixes, all drawing on St. Vincent’s celebrated 2017 album MASSEDUCTION. The remix collection is “curated” by Russian DJ and producer Nina Kraviz, who lends her own impressive remixing skills to several of the entries; other producers represented include Jlin, ChicagoPhonic Sound System, Steffi, and Pearson Sound (whose dark and slippery take on “Dancing with a Ghost” is one of the collection’s highlights). There’s a bit too much techno for me, but since the program consists of 22 tracks and two hours of music, there’s plenty of other tracks that are more up my alley–and besides, I understand that lots of people really enjoy that four-on-the-floor thump-thump-thump stuff.
What makes the album more than just a typical remix collection is that in addition to the techno, IDM, and footwork treatments there’s also plenty of straight-up experimental weirdness that keeps things spicy. Recommended.
Dreams to Fill the Vacuum: The Sound of Sheffield 1978-1988 (4 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
Impressions of Sheffield’s music scene from the postpunk era will probably forever be shaped by the success of its most notable artists: Human League, Heaven 17, Thompson Twins. Unfortunately, this suggests that what Sheffield mostly produced was synthpop — frequently edgy and intriguing synthpop, of course, but synthpop nonetheless. The reality is much, much more complex and interesting than that, as this lavishly packaged and annotated four-disc compilation demonstrates. Indeed, much of the music produced in 1980s Sheffield reflected the city’s then-current industrial decline: these songs are often snarky and cynical, and the music tends to be scrappy, jagged around the edges, and at times brazenly progressive. You’ll hear more guitars than synthesizers here, and you’ll hear a startling amount of what sounds like experimental jazz. When punk rock flamed out quickly only a couple of years after its initial eruption, it left behind a much more open field for pop music, and it was places like Sheffield that quickly rushed in to claim the new territory; the sound of this city doing so is both bracing and exhilarating. For all libraries.
Hausu Mountain (dist. Redeye)
If you’re up for an even more intensive dose of bracing experimental weirdness, consider the latest release from Jon Leidecker, who is a touring member of both Negativland and the Thurston Moore Ensemble, and who records on his own under the pseudonym Wobbly. He runs a podcast called Variations, which focuses on the history of sampling and collage music, and in the past has collaborated with such eminent avant-gardists as Fred Frith, David Toop, and Zeena Parkins. On his latest album he creates weird, glitchy, and sometimes slightly disturbing soundscapes by feeding analog samples into a MIDI device and then manipulating the digital outputs. There are sometimes regular rhythms, but never anything that could reasonably be called a “groove”; the sounds have an enormous breadth of both pitch and amplitude, creating dense and colorful sonic panoramas that often bring to mind the “action painting” of Jackson Pollock.
WXAXRXP Sessions (10 discs; vinyl only)
Warp (dist. Redeye)
This lavish box set documents the Warp label’s history of sponsoring special radio sessions by its large stable of artists. Each of the selected sessions is reproduced on a 12″ vinyl disc, and the artists represented read like a who’s-who list of forward-thinking pop music from the past 20 years: they include Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Flying Lotus, Seefeel, and Mount Kimbie, among others. Listening through these sessions, one is immediately struck by how diverse the Warp stable has been during its 30-year history: over the course of this box set’s three-plus hours of music you’ll hear acoustic reveries, thumping techno, swinging nu jazz, floating ambient soundscapes, and tracks that fit no genre definition at all. Much of this music has never been released in any other collection or on any other album. (Each disc is also available separately in either vinyl or MP3 format. But in either of those cases you miss out on all the fun stickers and art prints that come with the full box set.)
Are you leery of New Age music? Me, too. But I try to keep an open mind, and as long as the music in question doesn’t plunder other cultures in order to create a fake sense of spiritual exoticism or align itself with spurious health claims, I’m willing to give it a listen. FLOW is a quartet consisting of pianist Fiona Joy Hawkins, guitarist Lawrence Blatt, flugelhorn player Jeff Oster, and guitarist Will Ackerman (the latter arguably one of the architects of the New Age genre), and the music they make together is an example of everything that can be right about New Age music: yes, it’s uncomplicatedly pretty, but it’s not cloying or saccharine (though the flugelhorn part on “Last Light” does give that track just a bit of the air of a 1970s bike-safety film). The musicians are all virtuosos, but they bridle their virtuosity and keep it in service to the mood, which is consistently quiet and meditative, but not soporific. Recommended.
Down in Jamaica: 40 Years of VP Records (4 CDs & 8 vinyl singles)
Reggae fans will be well aware of the VP label, one of the few that has stayed continuously in business since the music’s 1970s heyday. This 40th-anniversary celebration gives a slightly misleading impression of how far back the label actually goes (several of its earliest and best inclusions predate the founding of the label by several years), but still provides a sumptuously rich overview of VP’s wide-ranging output and, thereby, an excellent introduction to the whole spectrum of reggae styles since the late-1970s roots-and-culture period. Absolutely essential and foundational tracks by the likes of Johnny Clarke and Gregory Isaacs lead into classic early dancehall material by Yellowman, Buju Banton, Spragga Benz and others, which in turn take us into the modern sounds of Mavado, Queen Ifrica, and Raging Fyah. Along with four CDs and extensive photos and liner notes, the package also includes four vinyl 7″ singles and four vinyl 12″ singles, the latter consisting of “discomix” versions of songs–double-length tracks that include the original vocal mix followed seamless by a dub version. If your library needs a good overview of the modern history of reggae, this box would make an excellent choice.
Lee “Scratch” Perry
On-U Sound (dist. Redeye)
Legendary (not to say infamous) reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry has worked with hundreds of artists over the past 50-plus years, and with quite a few other producers. Many of his more recent projects have been lackluster affairs, but whenever he gets together with On-U Sound label head (and avant-dub producer extraordinaire) Adrian Sherwood, the results are electrifying. Earlier this year Sherwood produced Perry’s latest album, Rainford, which was strongly recommended here in CD HotList. Now comes the dub version of that album, and honestly it’s every bit as good as the original (and it even features a couple of tracks of new material). For these sometimes radical remixes, Perry and Sherwood recruited guest contributors Brian Eno and old-school reggae trombone legend Vin Gordon, but the main attraction is Sherwood’s deeply creative and very dread mixing. He is often cited as the foremost stylistic descendent of Perry’s own highly distinctive dub style, and you can see why on this outstanding collection. If your library was wise enough to acquire Rainford, you should absolutely pick up Heavy Rain as well.
King Size Dub Special (Overdubbed by Dub Pistols)
King Size Dub Special
The King Size Dub series is one of the best recurring offerings of Germany’s outstanding Echo Beach label, a chance for artists and producers to flex their mixing chops and indulge some of their most far-out musical fantasies. The two most recent installments feature the music of Illbilly Hitec (a magnificent “reggaetronic” ensemble with a terrible band name) and Noiseshaper. The Illbilly Hitec album is a continuous mix of previously-released songs presented in new mixes by Dub Pistols; you’ll hear a variety of beats from one-drop to jungle, and an equally broad variety of singers and chatters performing in many different languages. Sadly, this recording is apparently going to be Illbilly Hitec’s swan song. The Viennese duo that records as Noisehaper has made some of the sharpest albums in the Echo Beach catalog (in addition to providing soundtrack music for the TV series CSI: Miami), and their entry in the King Size Dub series is somewhat different in that it appears to be basically a “greatest hits” collection, bringing together tracks from their previous albums in their original versions. As such, it’s a very good album but not an essential one for anyone (or any library) that has been collecting their work as it has emerged.
We close out this month’s all-reggae World/Ethnic section with something quite different: the latest album from dancehall veteran Lt. Stitchie. What makes this release different from our previous entries is its extreme hardness: this is not roots-and-culture reggae, but tough-as-nails dancehall from a chatter with a voice of steel–the toughness of whose delivery is leavened by the appearance of sweet-voiced guest singers like Lukie D, Fantan Mojah and Ricky Stereo. Another thing that separates Stitchie from the pack is his outspoken Christianity–something of a rarity in the context of both roots reggae (which is almost always Rastafarian in religious orientation) and dancehall (which tends to be aggressively secular, not to say profane). The latest from this accomplished artist is a solid, if ultimately rather exhausting, musical triumph.