PICK OF THE MONTH
Missa Hortus conclusus; Magnificat; Marian Antiphons; Motets
De Profundis / Eamonn Dougan
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
Several things are notable about this release. First of all, Juan Esquivel is frequently overlooked among the master composers of the Spanish Renaissance–understandably enough, given that he flourished shortly after Cristóbal de Morales and his contemporaries included Tomás Luis de Victoria and Francisco Guerrero. While no claim is made on the package or in the liner notes for this recording as a world premiere of the program’s central Mass setting, I can find no evidence that it has ever been recorded before, making this an important release on that basis alone. Also notable is the uncannily lush and velvety tone of De Profundis, an all-male ensemble that has a much more tonally rich sound than most of its peers. In this case that richness of sound is due in part to the group’s large numbers, but it’s also down to vocal balancing and careful blend. The countertenors all have an unusually dark tone, which lends an extra weight to these already somber works. Esquivel’s Magnificat setting is especially intense and lovely, and overall this is a deeply impressive recording of marvelous and rarely-heard music performed by a world-class ensemble.
Johannes Lupi; Lupus Hellinck
Motets; Te Deum; Missa Surrexit pastor
Brabant Ensemble / Stephen Rice
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
Before we leave the world of obscure Renaissance choral music, it’s important to bring to your attention the latest release from the magnificent Brabant Ensemble, one of the foremost vocal groups in the “Oxbridge style” tradition. Johannes Lupi and Lupus Hellinck both came from the Franco-Flemish region, which nurtured so many of the greatest polyphonic composers of the 16th century, but despite that proximity (and the weird coincidence of both having names derived from the Latin word for “wolf”) they were somewhat separated in age and don’t seem to have crossed paths. Hellinck’s parody Mass on the motet Surrexit pastor bonus is complex and elaborate in organization but sweetly immediate in performance; the motets and Te Deum setting (something of a rarity for the Renaissance period) by Lupi are similarly lush and heart-tuggingly beautiful. As always, much of the credit for the beauty of this recording goes to the Brabants, whose blend and intonation continue to set a world standard.
Johann Sebastian Bach
English Suites BWV 806-811 (2 discs)
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
Johann Sebastian Bach
A Bouquet of Bach
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
There are few musical pleasures greater than listening to Bach’s keyboard music played on the modern piano, and there are very few pianistic exponents of that repertoire more consistently impressive than Andrew Rangell. These two releases, issued one month apart, offer a scholarly take on one of the monuments of baroque keyboard composition and a more personal compilation of smaller works presented both in their original forms and in transcription. Rangell’s take on the six-part English Suites is simply magnificent; listen in particular to the delicacy and delight he shows in rendering the second menuet section of suite number 4; this is the kind of thing Rangell was born to do. The Bouquet of Bach collection is a bit quirkier, but every bit as lovely; the two- and three-part inventions nestle among brief selections from some of Bach’s notebooks, Egon Petri transcriptions of cantata arias, and other miscellany. Where some pianists temper what can sometimes feel like rhythmic relentlessness in Bach’s fugal compositions by means of rubato, Rangell does the same with dynamics–tenderly and tastefully executed, but with full artistic confidence. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Works for Clarinet (SACD)
Dirk Altmann; Kei Shirai; Masato Suzuki; Ludwig Chamber Players
Tacet (dist. Naxos)
Mozart was, of course, one of the greatest melodists of his (or any other) century. And of all the myriad melodies he wrote, none were more heartrendingly perfect than those found in his A major quintet for clarinet and strings (known as the “Stadler Quintet,” for the clarinetist to whom it was dedicated). The lines he wrote for his clarinet concerto are almost as affecting. Both of those works are found on this gorgeous disc, along with two song arrangements for clarinet and piano. Dirk Altmann plays conventional clarinet and basset clarinet, and his playing is exceptionally clear and focused. Some of the credit for this album’s unusually rich and bright sound goes to the production techniques, which are discussed in the liner notes. Although these are hardly rarely recorded works, this particular recording can be confidently recommended to all libraries.
Tessa Lark; Amy Yang
First Hand (dist. Naxos)
Last month I recommended a highly unusual and deeply rewarding duo album by violinist Tessa Lark and contrabassist Michael Thurber, on which they alternated selected arrangements from Bach’s two-part inventions with original or adapted pieces of their own. This month I’m recommending a solo recording by Lark, one that is slightly less quirky but still quite unusual. She plays a selection of bravura pieces by the usual suspects (Ravel, Kreisler, Telemann), the centerpiece of which is Schubert’s marvelous C-major fantasy. But she throws in a twist: an original piece titled Appalachian Fantasy, which takes the central theme from the Schubert piece and recasts it in fiddle-tune style, and then segues into two traditional fiddle tunes: “Cumberland Gap” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” Lark is a true original in the crowded field of violin virtuosos right now, and is definitely one to keep an eye on. (Kudos to the outstanding pianist Amy Yang as well, who accompanies on three of these works.)
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Oboe Concertos; Symphonies
Xenia Löffler; Akademie für alte Musik Berlin
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
I sometimes wonder how much more famous Carl Philipp Emanual Bach would be today if his last name weren’t “Bach.” Would he be just another unfairly obscure genius of the classical period? Or would he be more widely praised because he isn’t in his father’s shadow? Certainly he is very highly regarded in the classical community, often praised as one of the most admired keyboardists of his time and as the most influential of Bach’s several musical sons. For examples of why he is, in fact, so well respected (as distinct from famous), consider these absolutely gorgeous concertos and symphonies for winds, all of which prominently feature the oboe. Oboeist Xenia Löffler and the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin play with exceptional cleanness and élan, but it’s the works themselves that really stand out here–C.P.E. Bach’s much-celebrated stylistic independence is on full display, as is his willingness to charm the listener as well as impress the cognoscenti. Strongly recommended to all libraries.
Johann Sebastian Bach; Mike Block
Step into the Void: The Complete Bach Cello Suites with Live Phonograph Companion Album (3 discs)
Mike Block; Barry Rothman
Bright Shiny Things
We close out this month’s Bach-heavy Classical section with an example of a highly creative interaction with Bach’s music. Cellist Mike Block recorded the complete cello suites for this project; they are masterfully played and recorded, and are included on the first two discs in the package. The third disc is a live recording of Block improvising freely on themes from the Bach suites, accompanied by performance artist Barry Rothman, who uses LPs, turntables, and an effects pedal as his instruments. As one might expect, the resulting collage of sounds, words, and noises is by turns eerie, funny, disconcerting, and deeply beautiful. To be honest, I’m surprised that Christian Marclay hasn’t done something along these lines already, but it’s hard to imagine him doing it in a more interesting and witty manner than Rothman does. Highly recommended.
Amina Figarova/Edition 113
Bartamina (dist. MVD)
Pianist and composer Amina Figarova is back with a new approach–leading an electric ensemble she’s dubbed Edition 113. The group is smaller than it sounds on record, a quintet that features guitarist Rez Abbasi, flutist Bart Platteau, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Rudy Royston. All are genius players, but the real star of this project is Figarova’s writing, which is both brilliant and stylistically wide-ranging: “I’ve Got No Time” segues seamlessly from funky hip hop (featuring rapper JSWISS) to smooth-but-knotty bebop, while the chord changes to “Lil’ Poem” slide all over the place, in a leisurely and almost wistful manner, and “Morning Blue” is slow, decorous funk. Every track sheds a different light on Figarova’s genius and on that of her band, and Persistence is a thrilling and satisfying album overall.
Here Be Dragons
Here Be Dragons is the curiously forbidding title of one of the sweetest, softest, and yet most complex and musically dense jazz albums I’ve heard in ages. Oded Tzur is both a hugely gifted composer and a tenor saxophonist of uncommonly sweet and lovely tone; on top of that, he is also an arranger who shows deep respect for his sidemen by giving them plenty of room to move and never pushing himself to the front of the band’s sound. And he loves him some ballads. There’s only one up number on this whole album, and it’s a gently rollicking Latin tune that lopes rather than burns. Everything else is floating and impressionistic, though never disorganized or random. Pianist Nitai Hershkovits, bassist Petros Klampanis, and drummer Jonathan Blake play as if the four musicians share a brain–and the program closes with a version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” that is so supremely delicate it could make you cry. Strong recommended to all libraries.
Kenny Barron/Dave Holland Trio
Legendary pianist Kenny Barron and equally legendary bassist Dave Holland first got together as a duo six years ago for The Art of Conversation. For this, their long-overdue followup, they’re joined by drummer Jonathan Blake for an absolutely top-notch trio session consisting mostly of originals with a couple of standards thrown in–the Ellington composition “Warm Valley” and Thelonious Monk’s underrated “Worry Later.” Barron has always been a solidly straight-ahead player and writer, but Holland’s career has been all over the place stylistically speaking, and has featured stints alongside Miles Davis, Anthony Braxton, John McLaughlin and others. Here the trio focuses on groove, alternating Latin, funk, swing, and ballad moods and conveying all of them with equal authority and grace. Blake is really the secret sauce here; rarely have I heard a drummer so gifted at making the rest of a combo sound so good.
No cat. no.
This delicately gorgeous record comes courtesy of vibraphonist and composer Chris Dingman, who for the first time steps out as leader of a trio (also including the brilliant bassist Linda Oh and drummer Tim Keper). One of the many things that struck me about this album is how counterintuitively Dingman manages both groove and abstraction: none of his compositions is rhythmically free, but many of them feel as if they’re rhythmically floating (even when, as on “Ali” and “Goddess,” the time signature is perfectly clear); none of them is melodically undefined, and yet in many cases the melody seems suspended in a shimmering cloud. Dingman is probably improvising quite a bit here, but somehow the pieces all feel through-composed, perhaps because there isn’t generally a clear head-solos-head structure at work. What is clear is how deeply beautiful it all is. Highly recommended.
Two Cigarettes in the Dark
We’ll wind up this month’s jazz coverage with a fantastic straight-ahead quintet date led by tenor saxophonist and composer Keith Oxman. He’s joined on the front line with fellow tenor player Houston Person, and supported by pianist Jeff Jenkins, bassist Ken Walker, and drummer Paul Romaine. The program consists mainly of standards (“I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “Everything Happens to Me,” etc.) along with some very fine originals. The word that kept coming to me as I listened to these tracks was “clean”–Oxman and his crew have a very tight and focused sound that never comes across as antiseptic or slick, just clean and tight and swinging. Vocalist Annette Murrell makes a welcome appearance on “Everything Happens to Me” and “Crazy He Calls Me,” and the whole program is just a delight. For all jazz collections.
Topic (dist. Redeye)
This release, billed as Eliza Carthy’s “first ‘solo’ album of traditional music in 14 years,” was actually issued a while ago but was originally only available via her website. Now, as the Topic label celebrates its 80th anniversary, it’s being released on that label as well. The album is a spare, even stark document–Carthy’s slightly grainy but utterly reliable voice is accompanied by her own fiddle and occasionally by one or two other musicians (Martin Carthy on guitar, Jon Boden on concertina or harmony vocals). Some of the songs are hybrids of a sort, with traditional words but music composed by Carthy; some are modern folk songs by the likes of Leon Rosselson or modern settings of poems by Robert Burns or Rudyard Kipling. Some are tender and others are almost frightening in their intensity, which is of course as much as function of Carthy’s brilliant musicianship as of the songs themselves. Highly recommended.
Blame the Vain
New West (dist. Redeye)
Without doubt the greatest living exponent of the Bakersfield Sound, Dwight Yoakam has always operated outside the mainstream of country music, with a completely unapologetic twang to both his voice and his band sound, and a defiant embrace of the hillbilly mode, with its constant hint of high-lonesome bluegrass vocal style. There is absolutely nothing new, innovative, or genre-pushing about his latest album; if anything, his aggressively traditional edge has gotten sharper, his voice has gotten richer, and his songwriting has gotten hookier. He fairly snarls on lovelorn honky-tonkers like “Intentional Heartache” and “Three Good Reasons,” and then turns on a dime into a heartfelt crooner on “Just Passin’ Time” (which incorporates a perfectly tasteful border-town inflection on the brief guitar solo). The synth-and-British-accented-spoken-word intro to “She’ll Remember” is startling and weird, but then it segues right into a swinging midtempo honky-tonk heartbreak raveup. OK, so maybe he does push the genre boundaries just a little bit. But only for a minute; then he challenges the country music establishment precisely by showing it what it’s been missing ever since it began transforming into a subgenre of pop R&B.
Strut My Stuff: Obscure Country & Hillbilly Boppers
Modern Harmonic (dist. Redeye)
This is a delightful compilation of genuinely obscure 1950s tunes by country artists I guarantee you’ve never heard of: Riley Crabtree, Chuck Stacey, Les & Helen Tussey, Penny West, etc. Mastered from obscure vinyl recordings and averaging about two minutes apiece, many of these songs were recorded as one-offs by artists who were hoping for a local or regional radio hit, and a few of them were well advised to keep their day jobs–some of this stuff is novelty dreck that is of interest today mainly as a curiosity or as a cringey reminder of how socially acceptable casually nasty sexism was not very long ago. But there are plenty of real gems here as well: jazzy Western swing (Roy Harris’s “South of San Antonio”), sly honky tonk (Chuck Ray’s “I May Not Be Able But I’m Willing to Try”), weird countrybilly (Penny West’s “Needle in a Haystack”). I was surprised by the number of tunes that had crooked rhythms, and also by the song “Mustache on the Cabbage Head” by Luke Gordon, which has its roots in the Child ballad “Our Goodman,” much beloved on the Britfolk circuit. Anyway, all of it is tons of fun, even the cringey stuff that you have to enjoy ironically.
I keep trying to put my finger on what it is I love so dang much about Teddy Thompson’s music. Clearly, some of it is his way with a melody–his tunes are always intelligent but never merely clever, always hooky but never obvious. Some of it is his voice, which is high and clear and just slightly nasal. Some of it is his lyrics, which are usually simultaneously cynical and vulnerable. And then there’s his musical catholicity, which has at times manifested itself in straight-up country songs and sometimes in jangly folk-rock. This time out it comes out as a look back at 1950s and 1960s R&B, complete with horn charts and handclaps on the offbeats. And those tunes, and those lyrics, and that voice. Don’t sleep on this one.
Hyperdub (dist. Redeye)
From the blissfully accessible to the creepily unsettling: I wouldn’t necessarily recommend listening to the Teddy Thompson album and the latest from Nazar back to back. Producer Nazar hails from Angola, a difficult and strife-ridden place, and his music reflects that background. The music serves, in fact, as a way for Nazar to process his family’s history of both witness to and direct involvement in Angola’s long civil war; dark and roiling instrumental soundscapes that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Muslimgauze album are sprinkled with vocal elements that include samples of Ovimbudu folksong and a recording of his mother recalling her experience joining the rebel movement as a teenager. Everything is buttressed by twisted electronic kuduro beats, and the sound is oppressive, dense, threatening, and deeply compelling. The first time I listened I recoiled a bit; the second time, I was captivated.
Dubplate Style (2 discs)
Hospital (dist. Redeye)
Sick Music 2020 (3 discs)
Hospital (dist. Redeye)
The genre currently known as drum’n’bass has its origins in London’s dance clubs in the early 1990s, when various strands of rave, hardcore, and dancehall reggae all converged to create a thrilling new sound, one that juxtaposed double-time breakbeats with rolling reggae basslines. That genre was originally called “jungle,” but eventually jungle shed much of its reggae influence and came to be called drum’n’bass, and it has continued to thrive in that mode as a semi-mainstream club music. The Hospital label is now one of the premier outlets of d&b, and it’s the home to S.P.Y., a producer originally from Brazil. On his latest album he blends old and new styles of jungle and d&b, providing a forum for likes of singer Shadow Child and British MC GQ, mixing up choo-choo and Amen-based rhythms and generally creating a scintillating party of a record. For an excellent overview of Hospital’s general output, don’t miss Sick Music 2020 (get it? get it?), which offers a generous two-disc compilation of modern d&b featuring artists like Fred V, Kings of the Rollers, Grafix, and Inja. The package also includes a third disc that offers a continuous mix of the tunes contained in the first two discs. Very, very nice.
Pet Shop Boys
Some bands have never changed, and never should. Right up until Lemmy Kilmister’s death, for example, Motörhead was basically making the same album over and over again, and it was glorious. Something similar can be said of Pet Shop Boys–who could hardly sound more different than Motörhead, but who have also been purveying the same sound for several decades now: smooth, ironic, smart and tuneful electropop. Their new album does exactly what all their previous albums have done, maybe with a slightly intensified sense of fatalism and with maybe a very slightly updated percussion sound. Maybe. I don’t know, though–“Happy People” sounds like the backing track was performed by New Order circa 1987, and Chris Lowe’s spoken-word bits sound like what white people thought rapping was circa 1982. And they make it all work. Recommended.
Flash of the Spirit (reissue)
Tak:Til/Glitterbeat (dist. Forced Exposure)
One of the most basic rules of music composition in the Western tradition is that you avoid the rigidly parallel movement of intervals, especially fifths; when fifths move in parallel, the harmony sounds robotic and stiff and awkward. And one of the things that has always made Jon Hassell’s music so distinctive is that he plays his trumpet through an electronic harmonizer that creates exactly that effect—and he uses that effect to create music that juxtaposes the robotic and the organic, the acoustic and the electronic, and the Western and the non-Western. This collaboration with the Burkina Faso-based ensemble Farafina was originally released in 1988 and has been out of print for years; its return to market is very welcome, though it would have been nice if the reissue had included some previously-unreleased material to justify its full-line pricing. The music itself is as strange and wonderful as all of Hassell’s projects, mysterious and unsettling while also weirdly soothing and evocative.
Calypso Travels (reissue)
Originally issued on LP in 1960 and long out of print, Lord Invader’s Calypso Travels has been now been remastered from the original tapes and makes a welcome return to market in CD, vinyl, and digital formats. Longstanding calypso fans will probably know his name–at a time when calypso was enjoying a brief but intense dalliance with American audiences (thanks mostly to the hugely popular Harry Belafonte), Lord Invader was among the front rank of Trinidadian calypsonians and he recorded several albums for Folkways. This one includes all the lilting rhythms, infectious tunes, and sharply topical lyrics that you’d expect: songs about the World’s Fair, American school desegregation, and Fidel Castro rub shoulders with more whimsical material about marital infidelity and, er, keeping women in their proper place. The sound is exceptionally good for recordings of this vintage, and the music is wonderful.
Purna Loka Ensemble
OK, this is really cool: Purnaprajna Bangere is a violinist who was raised in southern India and trained in the highly technical Parur style of Carnatic classical music. He is also a professor of mathematics and music at the University of Kansas. On this project he combines these two disciplines, creating a unique style of contemporary Indian classical music influenced by various Western genres and underpinned by mathematical structures of Bangere’s invention. Accompanied by violinist David Balakrishnan (whom you might recognize from the Turtle Island String Quartet), bassist Andy Harshbarger (Curtis Fuller, Eugene Chadbourne, Darol Anger), and tabla player Amit Kavthekar, Bangere creates compositions that range all over the place without ever losing contact with his Carnatic roots. Some of it is melodically simpler than you’d expect; some of it is more lyrical and impressionistic than you’d expect. All of it is very interesting and some of it is magnificent.
Lucky & King Toppa
Potentiel (digital only)
King Toppa/Irie Ites
More outstanding French reggae from a growing and deepening scene in that country. Well, actually, German/French reggae, which is kind of a mindblowing concept when you think about it. Anyway, this time the music comes courtesy of producer King Toppa (a.k.a. Kassel-based Tobias Wirtz) and Lucky MC (of the Montpelier sound system Travel Sound Hi-Fi). Toppa provides a nice variety of digital dancehall rhythms, and Lucky both chats and sings on them, in French and in a delicately lovely tenor voice. Guests include Don Maleko and Louna & Nelly, and there’s not a weak track anywhere on this album. It was originally released more than a year ago and I wish I’d heard about it earlier–but better late than never. Strongly recommended to all libraries.