PICK OF THE MONTH
Halfway through its opening track — a brilliant arrangement of Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right with Me” — I knew that guitarist/composer Jocelyn Gould’s debut album was going to be April’s Pick of the Month. Her warm, burnished tone, her ability to infuse even the most straightforwardly swinging tune with a subtle hint of funky groove, and her exceptional compositional chops would make this a star turn no matter what, but what’s also impressive is the way she leads this band; they stick tightly to her, maneuvering tricky progressions and rhythmic changes nimbly, but everyone has plenty of space and they never sound like they’re not having fun. There are so many highlight tracks here: the Cole Porter number is definitely one, but Gould’s own knotty-but-joyful bebop workout “Center of the Universe” is another, as is her solo rendition of the standard “It Might As Well Be Spring.” Several tracks in the middle of the program give her the chance to show off her ability to write for horns (guests include trombonist Michael Dease, trumpeter Anthony Stanco, and tenor saxophonist Brandon Wright). Overall this is a truly outstanding jazz album and a jaw-droppingly fine debut effort. For all library collections.
Ludwig Van Beethoven; Friedrich Kuhlau
Kühl, nicht lau
Tami Krausz; Shuann Chai
Ramée (dist. Naxos)
This is a somewhat strange but ultimately delightful album that documents some of the significant stylistic changes in European art music that took place during the course of the early 19th century. It consists of two works for flute and piano, one written by Beethoven and one by his friend and champion Friedrich Kuhlau. In addition, there is a brief capriccio for solo flute by Kuhlau and the title piece — a charming vocal canon written by Beethoven as a punning tribute to his friend (it translates as “cool, not lukewarm”). Tami Krausz plays a wooden eight-keyed flute like those that would have been used at the time this music was written, and Shuann Chai plays a fortepiano; the playing is outstanding and both instruments sound great, though wooden flutes tend to sound a bit shrill in the higher registers, especially when being put through the expressive paces of early Romantic music. Definitely worth acquiring.
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach
Complete Chamber Music (reissue; 2 discs)
Ricerar (dist. Naxos)
Wilhelm Friedemann was the eldest of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons, and while he never achieved the international fame of his brother Carl Philip Emmanuel, he did leave behind some truly outstanding music. One reason for the relative obscurity of his chamber works may be that they don’t really seem to have been intended as concert music, but instead were written primarily for the private enjoyment of the musicians themselves. On these two discs (recorded and originally issued in 1992), you might notice that the duets for flutes and for violas seem particularly inward-looking — quiet and intellectual even though they’re very lovely and accessible. They definitely partake of the legendarily mathematical style of Wilhelm Friedemann’s father, but there’s a lightness and a melodic flair to them that is quite unique. The playing by members of the Ricercar Consort is outstanding, as is the production quality.
Zosha Di Castri
Tachitipo (digital only)
This is the first release dedicated entirely to the work of Canadian composer and pianist Zosha Di Castri. Opening with the weird and sometimes distressing The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named (a piece that combines live singing, sprechgesange, and electronics), it then continues through a widely varied program of modernist works for various combinations of instruments and electronics: there’s the relatively large-scale Cortège (for 13 musicians), a very intense work for string quartet and another for piano, and others, as well as a video track made available online to purchasers of the album. Di Castri has recruited absolutely top-notch talent for these dramatic and demanding works, and the album can be confidently recommended to all contemporary music collections.
Chamber Music with Clarinet
Dario Zingales; Marco Sala; Alexey Grots
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
Amazingly, this disc includes world-premiere recordings — well, not of newly-discovered works, but of new arrangements for clarinet, basset-horn, and piano of movements from Mendelssohn’s third and fourth symphonies. Alongside these are lovely performances of the composer’s Konzertstücke nos. 1 and 2, his E-flat sonata for clarinet and piano, and seven Liede ohne Worte for clarinet and piano along with two more for piano solo. As one might expect, Mendelssohn’s special talent for heartbreakingly bittersweet melody is a perfect match for the mellow-but-piercing tonalities of the clarinet and basset-horn, and everything about this album is simply wonderful. Strongly recommended to all libraries.
Robert Thies & Damjan Krajacic
Blue Landscapes III: Frontiers: Music from a Quieter Place
Robert Thies; Damjan Krajacic
Struggling to figure out where to categorize this one, I noted that the press sheet characterized the music as “New Age/Contemporary Instrumental,” whereas on Spotify it’s been slotted onto the “Not Quite Classical” and “Chilled Classical” playlists. It’s certainly not Rock or Pop, so I guess “classical” it will have to be for our purposes. Why is that problematic? Well, although the music sounds composed, it’s actually mostly improvised; it’s all for flute and piano, but the melodies and chord progressions are quite simple and — how shall I put this — vernacular: lots of easy-listening pentatonic melodies, lots of poppy sliding into the high notes. But simple doesn’t mean simplistic, and there are some twists: the sudden multiphonics on “Forest Path,” and the melismatic flights of melodic strangeness on “Infinity,” for example. Needless to say, all of it is pretty, but unlike New Age music, most of it is more than merely pretty.
The Gesualdo Six / Owain Park
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
O gemma clarissima: Music in Praise of St. Catharine
Choirs of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge / Edward Wickham
Resonus (dist. Naxos)
These are two themed collections of a capella choral music, both featuring a mix of Renaissance works with other pieces. And there the similarities end. The Gesualdo Six offer a varied program of works written for Compline, the traditional end-of-day service that marks the beginning of dusk and typically calls for divine protection through the night. Hymns and songs by Gombert, Tallis, Byrd, and Tye rub shoulders with a more ancient song by Hildegard of Bingen and modern ones by Sarah Rimkus, Joanna Marsh, and others. The all-male ensemble’s sound is fittingly dark, but also rich and sweet; particular kudos go to the countertenors Guy James and Alexander Chance. O gemma clarissima, by contrast, has as its unifying theme music written in honor of St. Catharine, and includes a selection of Franco-Flemish works — motets and hymns by the likes of Willaert, Senfl, and Regnart — alternating with selections of Sarum plainchant. This choir’s larger numbers and mixed voices, combined with a more spacious and resonant chapel acoustic, make for a grander and less intimate sound, but one that is every bit as detailed and lovely as that of the Gesualdo Six performance. For all libraries.
And That One Too
Coviello Classics (dist. Naxos)
The debut album from New York ensemble Sandbox Percussion features a nicely varied array of works all arising from long-term relationships that the group has forged with contemporary composers. It opens with Andy Akiho’s Haiku 2, a shimmering piece for tuned bowls and a variety of not-usually-musical objects (wooden slats, metal pot lid, etc.). David Crowell’s Music for Percussion Quartet focuses on mallet keyboards (both struck and bowed) and also features the composer on guitar, whereas Amy Beth Kirsten’s she is a myth blends the composer’s multitracked vocals with very soft and delicate percussion elements. The title work, by Thomas Kotcheff, is the most abstract — at times bordering on pointillistic — piece on the program; it’s written in three movements, each focusing on a different category of percussion instrument. Everything is well worth hearing, and Sandbox Percussion’s playing is consistently brilliant.
Mood (currently digital only; CD may be available in future)
Always in the market for some good jazz flute, I was very excited to see this new release from the brilliant Gerald Beckett — nor was I disappointed when I gave it a spin. Leading a shifting array of sidemen that includes saxophonist Ruben Salzedo, pianist Steve McQuarry, bassist Carl Herder and drummer Greg German, he gives us some slinky, funky blues (the original “Down Low”), some strange abstraction (Ron Carter’s “Doom”), some hard bop (Harold Mabern’s “John Neely-Beautiful People”), and some stylistic salad (Cyrus Chestnut’s “Minor Funk,” which starts out funky and then careens into headlong bop territory for the blowing sections). All of it is wonderful; highly recommended.
The Classic Albums 1955-1960 (reissue; 4 discs)
Enlightenment (dist. MVD)
Gigi Gryce was a giant of the hard-bop movement in the 1950s, a celebrated and in-demand sideman but a bandleader insufficiently recognized for his skills in that arena. This collection brings together eight of his best recordings as a leader, originally issued on labels like Savoy, Riverside, and New Jazz. The first disc consists of material written or arranged for biggish bands, including some great tunes with Thelonious Monk, some of them relatively obscure Monk compositions like “Shuffle Boil” and “Brake’s Sake”; there is also a wonderfully hard-swinging uptempo version of “Over the Rainbow.” Disc 2 features two late-1950s albums that find Gryce leading tight, disciplined, and powerfully swinging small combos that include the likes of trumpeter Donald Byrd, pianist Hank Jones, and drummer Art Taylor and that continue his practice of playing ballads as up numbers — note in particular his explosive bebop treatment of “Love for Sale.” On his self-titled album from 1958, he is multitracked on various saxophones and flutes, creating the sound of a much larger ensemble than the quartet in the studio; his tenor solo on “It Don’t Mean a Thing” is especially noteworthy. (I’m not sure we really needed a celeste obbligato on “My Ideal,” but Gryce’s playing on that cut is lovely.) And one of the things you really notice, listening to these eight albums end to end, is that while Gryce has always been justly celebrated for his writing, he was equally creative and adept as an arranger. This might not be an absolutely essential set for every jazz collection, but it’s certainly recommendable.
Trumpeter/composer Avishai Cohen’s musical vision is getting more and expansive as time goes on, and now borders on the cinematic. It’s been ages since he felt bound in any meaningful degree by the stylistic strictures of straight-ahead jazz, even as he’s continued to work largely within that music’s instrumental conventions. Here he leads a quintet that also includes guitarist Uzi Ramirez, guitarist/bassist Yonathan Albalak, drummer Aviv Cohen, and drummer/sampler Ziv Ravitz. Their sound can be downright rockish at times (“King Kutner”), but mostly it’s more fusion-y; Cohen himself plays all over his register, soaring and muttering and moaning, while the band supports him with atmospherics and grooves that are similarly diverse in sound. This may not be a relaxing album, but it’s a beautiful and often surprising one.
On his latest album, guitarist/composer Wolfgang Muthspiel returns to the format with which he began his recording career as a leader: the trio. Accompanied by the powerhouse rhythm section of bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade, he delivers one of the most rewarding and satisfying jazz albums I’ve heard so far this year. His tone is soft in the middle but crisp around the edges, and without seeming to show off at all he manages to show off a tremendous stylistic range: bluesy passages that evoke middle-period John Scofield (check out “Everything I Love”), a 6/8 canon that manages somehow to be funky (“Kanon in 6/8”), which is followed by a gorgeous solo canon in 5/4, played by guitar alone with a digital delay. “Ride” is a wonderfully cool, smooth piece of harmonically angular bebop, while “Hüttengriffe” is simple, subdued, and beautiful, like something Bill Frisell might have written. There is not a single weak track on this marvelous album.
The TNEK Jazz Quintet
Plays the Music of Sam Jones (digital only; CD may be available in future)
No cat. no.
Jazz afficionados will recognize Sam Jones’ name, though during his unfortunately short life he didn’t record very often as a leader. Most will be familiar with his work as a sideman on foundational albums by the likes of Cannonball Adderley (Somethin’ Else), Chet Baker (It Could Happen to You), Bill Evans (Everybody Digs Bill Evans) and Thelonious Monk (At Town Hall). But he was also a tremendously gifted composer, and the TNEK Jazz Quintet came together at the instigation of bassist Kent Miller to pay tribute to that facet of Jones’ genius. The result is an outstanding set of hard bop and jazz blues that includes such highlight tracks as “Unit 7” (a mainstay of Cannonball Adderley’s live set) and the subtly complex “Some More of Dat.” The playing is virtuosic throughout, but more importantly joyful and bright. Recommended to all jazz collections.
Scatter the Light
Fiddler Eileen Ivers has built a tremendous reputation over the course of a career that has found her sharing stages with the Boston Pops, the Chieftains, Sting, and Cherish the Ladies, of which she is a founding member. Though her roots are in Irish music (and those roots are clearly in evidence here) she is adept at a variety of styles. Scatter the Light finds her in New Orleans mode (on a raucous second-line arrangement of “Go Tell It on the Mountain”), in rollicking gospel mode (“Children Go”), and leading her band through a variety of original songs and tunes that go everywhere from tradition-based Irish reels to folk rock and experimental solo violin material. Not for Irish music purists, but definitely for everyone else.
Compass (dist. Naxos)
7 4740 2
Michael Doucet is a legend, undoubtedly the preeminent current torch-carrier of the Cajun music tradition. As leader of BeauSoleil, he’s recorded more than 25 albums since the band was founded in 1976; how he’s formed a side group, called Lâcher Prise (creole French for “let go”), and made a new album that expands the boundaries of Cajun tradition significantly. The roots are still there (note the group’s rollicking take on Boozoo Chavis’ “Lula Lula Don’t You Go to Bingo” and the traditional waltz “Dites-moi pas”), but the band often rocks out harder and more electrically than Doucet’s fans might be used to. That’s not a bad thing, mind. Nor is the Doucet’s collaboration with the Turtle Island String Quartet on the surprisingly decorous “Cajun Gypsy.” Recommended.
We Still Go to Rodeos
The sound of Whitney Rose’s new album might be a bit puzzling to her fans until they learn that her new musical direction was inspired by hearing Marty Stuart refer to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as the “best country band of all time.” That backstory sheds particularly revealing light on the midtempo “Home with You,” which I can easily imagine Petty singing (though he wouldn’t sound as good as Rose). Her voice actually reminds me of the criminally underrated Sarah Elizabeth Campbell; it’s powerful without being overbearing, pretty without being too smooth. And the songs really are great: “In a Rut” borders on cowpunk, while “You’d Blame Me for the Rain” is slinky and smoky, with –believe it or not — a funky wah-wah guitar. Recommended to all country and Americana collections.
The Complete Keen Years: 1957-1960 (compilation; 5 discs)
Consisting of five CDs, each of which faithfully reproduces the packaging of its original release (right down to the plastic sleeve), this box set pulls together all of the albums that Sam Cooke made for the Keen label between 1957 and 1960, along with a generous scattering of bonus tracks and a handful of songs from a 1960 compilation album that featured him. Those who know and love Cooke for his gospel and R&B performances will find plenty to love here, from hits like “Only Sixteen” and “You Send Me” to more sanctified material like “I Thank God” and “Steal Away” (in two versions). But those who have a more casual acquaintance with his genius might be surprised to see him doing an entire album of Billie Holiday songs (a program provided in both mono and stereo versions for this reissue), not to mention American Songbook standards like “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Blue Moon.” Cooke’s voice was such that he could sing just about anything, even the schlockiest novelty tune, and make you want to hear it over and over — and he could take a song like “Danny Boy,” which is about as stylistically remote from his usual repertoire as one could imagine, and make it utterly his own. The packaging is lovely and includes extensive photos and liner notes, and this box is simply a treasure. For all libraries.
Sekunder, eoner (digital & cassette only)
No cat. no.
To characterize these two albums as “ambient” would be an oversimplification. In both cases, the music is slow and quiet and fairly unassertive. However, Chihei Hatakeyama’s Illusion Harbor is more than just pretty; it’s also programmatic, a collection of musical images designed to reflect memories of places from his childhood. Consisting of layers of carefully processed guitars, pianos, and vibraphones, the music is by turns deeply emotive and strangely disconcerting. I found listening to it during a crisis to be surprisingly reassuring. Swedish producer Snufmumriko takes a different compositional approach: his pieces are based on field recordings and old records, though once he’s finished manipulating them it’s rare that you’ll hear anything recognizable. Sometimes there are beats, but they tend to register as rhythmic glitches; sometimes there are voices, but they rarely sound human. You’ll hear birds, but you’ll suspect that they aren’t really birds. Whereas Hatakeyama’s album is beautiful with an undertow of eeriness, Snufmumriko’s is eerie with a strong subtratum of beauty. Both are strongly recommended.
Bloom: The Full Story 1985-1992 (compilation; 5 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
For those of us who loved pop music in the late 1980s, the Primitives’ first album came with the force of revelation, reminding us what we had been missing so intensely without necessarily knowing it: straight-up guitars and straight-up hooks delivered by a young woman with a lovely voice. Of course, the standard industry progression for such a band is short and brutal: the first stage is “Yay! Guitars and Hooks!” (at which point they get a Fat Record Deal) followed quickly by “Sellout!” (when their original fans notice that the band’s album is on a major label but don’t notice that all of the band members still have day jobs) and then the “Fall from Grace” (when their third album fails to chart). The Primitives are a textbook case of the brevity and brutality of that process, but their trajectory was glorious while it lasted. This generous and well-annotated box brings together all three of the studio albums from the band’s original incarnation along with a not-entirely-essential array of demos and an absolutely essential disc of radio sessions and live tracks.
Black Focus (dist. Redeye)
If you like house music, but prefer it to have a little edge of weirdness, then the latest from Steve Spacek is just for you. Its title is apt: there are multiple styles of house music here, from the gentle but relentless “Bright Eyes Rev” (with its creepily cut-up and disjointed vocals) to the somewhat more slippery and abstract “Where We Go.” Throughout the album Spacek expresses his South London milieu while sticking close to his Detroit stylistic roots, cannily selecting the occasional vocalist who can bring an added dimension to his rhythmic excursions.
James Hunter Six
Nick of Time (vinyl and digital only)
Daptone (dist. Redeye)
The brilliance of James Hunter’s approach is its consistency: over the course of seven albums now, he has walked an absolutely straight path, purveying 1950s-and-60s R&B with style, class, wit, and zero innovation. (True, his earlier albums featured the occasional ska and bluebeat track; we haven’t heard any of that from him in a while now.) His grainy voice and his very occasional stinging, minimalist guitar solos are the frosting on a cake that consists primarily of carefully constructed arrangements played by an absolutely perfect band, recorded in mono with minimal production. Then there are the songs themselves, which average about two and a half minutes in length and are consistently brilliant exercises in an art that is otherwise all but lost.
Voices of the Sani
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
The Sani are an ethnic group who live primarily in the Yunnan province of southwest China, and who have maintained a relatively isolated existence in the rural hill country for thousands of years. Their traditional music is not well known outside of their home region, and the debut album by the Sani ensemble Manhu (“fierce tigers”) celebrates that music in all of its variety, from drinking songs to lullabies to banquet songs to ballads. The group’s approach is not strictly traditionalist, though: alongside traditional instruments you’ll hear electric bass and drum kit, and Manhu bring an infectious energy and joy to this little-heard music. For all international music collections.
Seasons of India: Seasonal Ragas by Baluji Shrivastav
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
This album opens, inauspiciously, with the sound of rain falling — leaving the skittish listener to wonder whether this is going to be a sappy New Age recording of pseudo-Indian music with nature sounds. Have no fear, though: very quickly the sound effect phases out and delivers us into a generously packed and virtuosically played program of classical music performed by sitarist Baluji Shrivastav, based on ragas of his own composition. In addition to the sitar he also plays the lower-pitched surbahar, and is accompanied generally by tabla and tambura, but also by the less commonly heard jori (a wooden drum associated with Sikh devotional music) and natavangam (hand bells). Each piece is designed to reflect the moods of different seasons of the year, from the monsoon season (hence the rain sounds) through autumn, winter, spring, late spring, and summer. The playing is very good, as is the recording quality (though, weirdly, one track seems to have been recorded monaurally).
Shalhevet (currently digital only)
No cat. no.
The all-woman quintet Divahn is dedicated to preserving and performing songs from a variety of Middle Eastern cultures and traditions. Their second album is a collection of specifically Sephardi/Mizrahi songs, which are performed in Hebrew, Persian, and Arabic. This diversity is intentional, and politically motivated: according to the group’s founding member, “the world needs an all-female Middle Eastern Jewish album that celebrates what connects us, rather than what tears us apart.” The instruments used are strings and percussion (not always Middle Easter percussion, either — those are tabla you’re hearing on “Hamavdil”); the vocals tend strongly towards call-and-response, with the reedy modal melodies you’d expect. Expertly done, and of course very timely.
Aditya Prakash Ensemble
Growing up Indian in Los Angeles, Aditya Prakash was steeped simultaneously in Carnatic classical music and in the pop, hip hop, jazz, and R&B of his adopted community. He has now found a way to blend those influences into a sound uniquely his own: richly complex Indian melodies and long, mindblowingly complicated rhythmic patterns wind their way through jazz and rock arrangements, without either tradition ever feeling at all diluted or compromised. This is not lite Indian music, nor is it pseudo-spiritual pop music; it’s a unique musical and cultural emulsion that attains the elusive goal of drawing the best from every source it touches. And none of this is even to talk about Prakash’s voice, which is quite simply a wonder of nature: rich, powerful, clear, and seemingly without technical limitations. An astounding album that portends a wildly successful career, if he can get enough people to open their ears to this kind of polycultural fusion.