PICK OF THE MONTH
Sharon Isbin & Amjad Ali Khan
Strings for Peace
Zoho (dist. MVD)
Sharon Isbin has been a world-famous classical guitarist for decades. Less well-known has been her dedication to transcendental meditation, which she has practiced since her teens, and her concomitant longstanding interest in the classical music of India. On this album she joins a distinguished family of sarod players and an equally eminent player of the tabla for a set of ragas written for her by the patriarch of that family, Amjad Ali Khan. (He and his two sons take turns playing alongside her on these performances.) The combination of sarod–a plucked but fretless stringed instrument–and classical guitar is not an obvious one, and before cuing up the disc one immediately wonders how Isbin is going to make this work. And the answer is: with impressive good taste and skill. Notable here is not only her ability to use a chromatic instrument effectively in the context of the famously microtonal elaborations that characterize Indian music, but also her ability to complement (if not exactly match) the tone of the sarod. She also subtly uses her guitar to take the place of a tambura, quietly playing tonic-dominant drones (and, slyly, the occasional triadic chord) while the sarod solos. The result is not an East-West fusion, but rather a new articulation of Hindustani classical music. For all libraries.
Martin Fröst; Concerto Köln
Consisting primarily of music composed by someone other than Vivaldi and not originally written for the clarinet, one might reasonably accuse clarinetist Martin Fröst of chutzpah (at the very least) for titling his latest release Vivaldi. But some explanation is in order: the clarinet came into vogue shortly before Vivaldi died, and he only wrote five pieces for the instrument. This album is an intentionally creative and necessarily speculative answer to the question “If Vivaldi had lived long enough to see the clarinet fully mature as a solo instrument, what might his compositions for the clarinet have sounded like?” In response to that question, Fröst presents three “concertos” based on opera and oratorio arias written by Vivaldi; the orchestral accompaniment for these works was arranged (drawing on material taken from various of Vivaldi’s extant works) by Andreas Tarkmann. There are also several transcriptions and even one of the composer’s actual works for chalumeau, the clarinet’s predecessor. Fröst and Concerto Köln all play on period instruments, and although the program ends up being a bit stingy (at around 40 minutes) it’s tremendously enjoyable.
Jan Dismas Zelenka
Collegium Vocale 1704; Collegium 1704 / Václav Luks
Accent (dist. Naxos)
Choir of Keble College; Academy of Ancient Music / Matthew Martin
Academy of Ancient Music (dist. Naxos)
Jan Dismas Zelenka is a relativey unknown composer today, though clearly a giant of the Czech baroque scene. The rise of the early music movement over the past five decades has served to bring a fair amount of his music to light, and the world is a much richer place for it; however, some of this process has required a certain amount of reconstructive work. Hence this new recording by Collegium 1704, which consists of Mass sections that survive only as stand-alone fragments and are pulled together to imaginatively recreate a performance as it might have occurred in 1724. As always with this composer, the music is emotionally deep and majestically conceived, and magnificently performed by the Choir of Keble College and the Academy of Ancient Music. With the Valls recording we have a genuine world premiere by a genuinely obscure composer, though one who was infamous in his time for his adventurous use of harmony. Towards the very end of his career, he wrote the last of several Masses based on a specific six-note sequence. It’s composed in the relatively scaled-back and severe style favored at the time at the Portuguese Royal Chapel, and due to its brevity the sections are interspersed with keyboard works by Juan Bautista José Cabinilles and Francisco Corrêa de Arouxo (the disc still clocks in at under 41 minutes). Both albums are strongly recommended to early music collections.
Music for European Courts and Concerts
The Harmonious Society of Tickle-fiddle Gentlemen
Ramée/Outhere (dist. Naxos)
Ever heard of Gottfried Finger? No? Me either. So this new release by the Harmonious Society of Tickle-fiddle Gentlemen caught my attention; it brings together world-premiere recordings of twelve works for varying combinations of instruments, all culled from the latter part of his career (therefore, the latter decades of the 17th century and the early part of the 18th). Finger hailed from Moravia, but he was equally adept at writing in the French, Italian, and German styles, and this program showcases his versatility. Orchestral works rub shoulders with pieces for chamber ensembles of winds and strings, and there are even some brief vocal pieces. All are beautifully performed and recorded, and while Finger may be too obscure a figure for generalist collections, any library with a particular interest in baroque music would be wise to pick this one up.
Johann Sebastian Bach; Wilhelm Friedemann Bach; Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Sisters, Face to Face: The Bach Legacy in Women’s Hands
The Raritan Players
This is an album that makes a musical argument: that whereas we tend to think of the fortepiano as an instrument that displaced the harpsichord in popular and concert usage in the late 18th century, in fact the two instruments not only “coexisted happily for decades,” but also “were often used together to play duets and double concertos.” (And in fact, hybrid instruments were built during this period that allowed two performers to face each other at different keyboards, each of them actuating a different action mechanism.) This argument is made–pretty compellingly, I think–by means of a program consisting of works played often in Berlin by salon hostesses using just this combination of keyboards: two duo concertos by J.S. and W.F. Bach and two sonatas by J.S. and C.P.E. Bach make up the program, all played by the outstanding duo of Rebecca Cypress and Yi-heng Yang (who perform as The Raritan Players). The timbral combination is so pleasing that it will leave the listener astonished that there aren’t more recordings like this. Highly recommended to all classical collections.
A Consort’s Monument
Ricercar (dist. Naxos)
The last recording by L’Achéron celebrated the physical completion of a new consort of historically-accurate viols built for the group by Arnaud Giral; this new one is occasioned by the completion of a virginal and organ built to accompany those viols by the workshops of Jean-François Brun and Dominic Gwynn. The group’s first album focused on works by Orlando Gibbons, and this one pays homage to Thomas Mace, following many of the directions laid out in his treatise Musick’s Monument and drawing on compositions of many composers mentioned in that work. Thus we have pieces by Thomas Cooper, Alfonso Ferrabosco, John Deering, John Ward, and others of the period, both famous and obscure. L’Achéron plays with almost startlingly fine intonation and wonderful balance, and are beautifully recorded. For all early music collections.
S:T Sigfrid’s Officium: Celebremus karissimi
Sterling (dist. Naxos)
Saints inouïs: Chants sacrés perdues et retrouvés de XIIe siècle
ATMA Classique (dist. Naxos)
Both of these discs present medieval music for daily devotion from the 12th to 13th centuries in honor of one or more saints. S:T Sigfrid’s Officium consists of an “office” (chants sung throughout the day) in honor of St. Sigfrid, who came to Sweden in the 11th century as a missionary and is popularly believed to have baptized the first king of Sweden. Saints inouïs (“astonishing saints”) brings together music from the offices for St. Pardulf and St. Yrieix, along with music for the Feast of the Conception of the Virgin–all of which has its origins in the French region of Creuse. Both programs are sung by all-female ensembles; in the case of the St. Sigfrid disc, the voices tend to be solo and are recorded quite closely and intimately, and vocal textures are occasionally broken up by a hurdy-gurdy (which sounds surprisingly decorous and solemn in this context). The Saints inouïs collection is recorded with a more liturgical flavor, the voices ringing out in a stately manner inside a reverberant church acoustic, accompanied sparely by a droning fiddle or organetto; the singing is occasionally interrupted by readings. Both of these are outstanding releases, and are strongly recommended to any library with a collecting interest in medieval music (or where patrons have shown an interest in the music of Hildegard von Bingen).
Salve, Salve, Salve: Josquin’s Spanish Legacy
Contrapunctus / Owen Rees
Signum Classics (dist. Naxos)
During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Josquin Desprez was one of the towering figures in a crowded field of outlandishly talented composers in the Franco-Flemish region. Interestingly, a few years after his death he suddenly became very popular in Spain, where his works deeply influenced the finest composers of that region: Tomás Luis de Victoria, Francisco Guerrero, and Cristóbal de Morales. This disc, sumptuously sung by the mixed-voice Contrapunctus ensemble, seeks to document that influence, in particular by demonstrating the way in which these composers incorporated Josquin’s pioneering use of the technique of ostinato. The centerpiece of the program is Victoria’s magnificent Missa Gaudeamus; it also features motets and antiphons by Morales, Guerrero, and Josquin himself, with a couple of Gregorian chants thrown in the keep things fresh. Contrapunctus sing with a colorful blend and glowing tone. Highly recommended.
LP and the Vinyl
Heard and Seen
The band here operating under the name LP and the Vinyl is actually the Danny Green Trio (whose praises I’ve sung here in CD HotList on multiple occasions), with the addition of singer Leonard Patton. Their debut album as a quartet is anything but a typical vocal jazz outing; while there are some standards (“Softly, As a Morning Sunrise”; “My One and Only Love”) the program consists mainly of re-imaginings of pop material: songs by Oasis, David Bowie, the Beatles, Tears for Fears, etc. Wisely, Green and crew don’t try to force these songs into a standard jazz structure, but instead let their arrangements be guided by the songs themselves, creating new musical hybrids that end up sounding like acoustic R&B as much as jazz, drawing the best elements from all available stylistic sources. The result sounds both comfortingly familiar and brand new–which is a pretty remarkable accomplishment, when you think about it. For all libraries.
Listening to the opening track on pianist/composer Lara Driscoll’s debut album as a leader, my first thought was “Hey, Bill Evans!”. And I mean that as a compliment, of course. But then the program continued and things got more complicated. Sure, there’s floating impressionism here (notably the second movement of a suite titled “Forgiving: Black Dog Skirts Away”) but there’s also funk (a gently wild setting of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “O Morro Não Tem Vez”), some swinging waltz-time stuff (“Trespassers”), a marvelous straight-ahead standard (“Just One of Those Things”), and a tribute to the “ECM Sound” (“ECMT Blues”). Driscoll and her trio exhibit both deep and introspective emotion and a sharp wit, and no matter how freely they seem to be drifting at times, they never come apart. Highly recommended.
Henry Robinett Quartet
Jazz Standards Volume 1: Then
About 20 years ago, guitarist Henry Robinett got in touch with a few friends and invited them to join him in a recording studio just to play some tunes for fun. Over the course of two days he called standard after standard, and the quartet had a great time playing together. Then the tapes sat on a shelf for 19 years. When Robinett came across them again and listened, he realized that the sessions had been more than just fun; they had been special, and needed to be heard. Hence this album, which will be followed by a second volume; these will be followed by two more albums based on a subsequent and more recent recording date with the same personnel. Robinett’s tone is warm and burnished, but not too soft, and the whole group swings mightily. Highlight track: a gorgeous uptempo version of “The Way You Look Tonight.” For all jazz collections.
Dave Askren & Jeff Benedict
Paraphernalia: Music of Wayne Shorter
For this celebration of the music of Wayne Shorter, saxophonist Jeff Benedict and guitarist Dave Askren are joined by bassist Jonathan Pintoff and percussionist Chris Garcia (who plays a variety of percussion instruments rather than a traditional drum kit here). Shorter is both prolific as a composer and also famously eclectic in style: he came up playing hard bop and then joined Miles Davis in what came to be known as Davis’ Second Great Quintet; as a founding member of Weather Report, was one of the architects of jazz fusion. His compositions are frequently gorgeous, and Askren and Benedict have put together an outstanding program here: familiar classics like “E.S.P.” and “Yes and/or No” alongside funky deep cuts like “Tom Thumb.” The quartet’s unique instrumentation makes for a fun and fresh take on Shorter’s already distinctive music.
One for 25
As one might expect, the Posi-Tone Swingtet consists of musicians who regularly record for Posi-Tone Records, one of the best and most prolific straight-ahead jazz labels on the scene right now; they convened for this recording in honor of the label’s 25th anniversary. The group is called a “swingtet” partly because, you know, they swing, and partly because the number of members fluctuates from track to track: sometimes it’s an octet, sometimes a nonet. But always, they swing. The program consists mainly of originals by members of the band, like the sprightly, slippery opening number (by the always-brilliant trombonist Michael Dease) and the sumptuous ballad “For Morgan” by alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius. But there are great tunes from outside the group too, notably the hot bebop tune “Dry Clean Only” and the strutting midtempo “Schlep City,” with its lush swing-band horn chart. Altogether outstanding.
Brian Ó Headhra & Fiona MacKenzie
Tuath: Songs of the Northlands
Brian Ó Headhra and Fiona MacKenzie define “Northlands” liberally for this album–given their names and the disc’s Gaelic title, you might expect songs of the Scottish highlands and the Hebrides. But instead, the two singers explore connections between Gaelic music and that of other Northern European traditions, with traditional Celtic songs rubbing shoulders with tunes from Denmark, Galicia, and Norway. (And some originals are slipped into the program for good measure.) Stylistically, the album is expansive as well: electronic instruments, beats, and vocal treatments work cooperatively with traditional acoustic instruments to create truly unique and lovely settings for these songs and for Ó Headhra’s and MacKenzie’s voices. For all libraries.
Pharis & Jason Romero
Bet on Love
Here’s another quiet masterpiece from husband-and-wife duo Pharis and Jason Romero: as usual, what’s on offer are original songs, in purely acoustic arrangements, sung in sweet harmony and played on varying combinations of guitar and banjo (with help from bassist Patrick Metzger and legendary mandolinist John Reischman). The Romeros are also exceptionally gifted banjo builders, which means that you hear a variety of banjo styles and sounds, including a deep-throated gourd banjo on several tracks. The gentleness and insight of their lyrics is matched by melodies that never grab you by the throat but frequently take you gently by the hand. For all libraries, as all of their albums are.
Band of Ruhks
Band of Ruhks is something of a bluegrass supergroup: it consists of Ronnie Bowman, Don Rigsby, and Brian Fesler–all of whom have been members of the Lonesome River Band at various times, but who also have experience in groups like J.D. Crowe and the New South, Longview, and Rock County. Their sound threads the needle somewhat between smooth and modern newgrass and old-school high-lonesome bluegrass–or, more accurately, alternates between them: when mandolinist Rigby is singing lead, you’ll hear echoes of Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin, but when bassist Bowman is front and center the band evokes the smoother sounds of Flatt and Scruggs–and, believe it or not, George Jones. Every member is a virtuoso, of course, so the instrumentals and solos are fast and fun, but overall the vibe here is smooth and relaxed rather than sharp and intense. Great stuff.
Here’s an album that will probably be unlike any you’ve ever heard. Singer and songwriter Sophie Tassignon recorded these songs using almost nothing but her own voice (a few field recordings and electronic elements add an extra dimension from time to time), layering it to create harmonies and rhythmic patterns in support of her melodies. Most of the songs are originals, but there are some very interesting covers as well: a gorgeously haunting arrangement of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” an eerie take on Cowboy Junkies’ “Witches,” and an adaption of a section from Vivaldi’s setting of the psalm “Nisi Dominus” among them. The original song “Don’t Be So Shy with Me,” with its flirty romantic lyric and its rather silly oompah beat, is a slightly disorienting departure from the mood of the rest of the album, but overall this is a moving and thought-provoking project, and beautifully sung.
Cat. no. unknown
Technically, this one should probably be in the Jazz section, but I just can’t bring myself to put it there, for the simple reason that it’s not jazz. It has the complexity and harmonic density of jazz, but really it’s rock/funk–exceptionally accomplished rock/funk, of the kind once made by bands like the Dixie Dregs (except without the Southern Rock entanglements). Guitarist/composer Will Bernard has been out there quietly changing the world of jazz and avant-funk guitar for decades now; I got to know him as one of the two guitarist for a deeply quirky quartet called T.J. Kirk back in the 1990s. Here he’s playing aggressive, greasy, original compositions that groove powerfully and rock out joyfully. Listen to it or dance to it, or both; you’ll have a hard time sitting still no matter how you choose to listen. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Use No Hooks (digital and vinyl only)
The turn of the 1980s was the heyday of punk-funk: in the UK, bands like Gang of Four, Delta 5, and Bush Tetras were applying the jagged edge of punk to the dance rhythms of disco, creating various kinds of hybridity. In Australia, the Job were taking a slightly different approach: fully embracing funk and early hip hop styles and leaving most of punk’s sonic edginess behind, but inserting slyly subversive lyrics. Stuart Grant (Primitive Calculators) declaimed the lyrics in a semi-Sprechgesang style, while the Greek chorus of Denise Hilton, Marisa Stirpe, and Wendy Morrissey commented wryly behind him–all over a bed of bouncing and swaying beats. Use No Hooks is a collection of recordings made in 1983 and previously unreleased; the digital version of the album adds a bunch of live and rehearsal tracks — most of which are not that great, frankly, but the studio stuff is gold.
Percussion ensembles tends to live and die by their steadiness–even if they swing or engage in polyrhythmic complexity, you should be able to count on their solidity of beat. The all-female percussion group Pulsallama, however, has a very different idea: their approach is a gleefully shambolic mix of pop, punk, and polycultural beat music, and they don’t mind playing fast and loose with the time. Their sound comes across as a joyful mix of the Slits, the Go-Gos, and Z’ev. On “Trash,” the meter never really settles into a groove (even though you can hear it trying to); on “The Devil Lives in My Husband’s Body” you can hear an explicit debt to the B-52s. Only some of these tracks have vocals, and even on those the voices are mixed back far enough that you hear them clattering around among the bells, drums, blocks, and other percussive miscellanea like any other instrument. A perfect party record if your friends are maybe a little bit strange.
Cash Money: The Instrumentals (digital & vinyl only)
No cat. no.
Do you love hip hop, but wish it were a bit less heavy on the cursing, glorification of violence, and misogyny? Well then, have I got a treat for you: a collection of instrumentals put together by the ace production team at Cash Money Records and used as the foundation for hit songs like “Back That Azz Up,” “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy,” and “Go DJ.” The Cash Money crew have been producing a distinctive and prolifically hitmaking brand of hip hop from the headquarters deep in New Orleans for almost 30 years now, with a roster that includes Juvenile, Lil Wayne and the Hot Boy$, among many others, and these instrumental tracks provide a close look at the musical architecture underlying various hits by those artists. Recommended.
You’re a Crusher/Drocan!
No cat. no.
If you’re after some serious fun and don’t mind an edge of weirdness, consider the latest project by drummer/producer Dan Drohan. It’s a frenetic, sonically crowded, but good-humored exploration of rhythm, layering, and sampling–imagine a fusion of Squarepusher, Carl Stone, and Aphex Twin. His drums are at the heart of most of these tracks, but they’re mostly sampled and manipulated. Similarly, there are vocals, and sometimes they make these pieces sound more or less like songs — while at other times the voices are chopped up and reoriented just like all the other source material. The vibe is sometimes industrial, sometimes drill’n’bassy, and sometimes completely sui generis. The music is never less than interesting.
Billed as “one of the gems of the New Zealand underground soul scene” (you’re familiar with New Zealand’s underground soul scene, right?), Isaac Aesili is back with his first full-length release since 2011’s Eye See. It’s been an unusually long wait for a sophomore outing, but the wait was worth it: on this utterly unique and individual album we hear strange, swirling songs that focus much less on Aesili’s voice than you would ever expect from a project generally identified as “soul” or “R&B.” “Jungles,” for example, is all propulsive drums pushing through a cloud of synths, while echo-laden female vocals sound like they’re backing up a non-existent lead singer; “Realms” is a spacey house/techno workout, while “Refugee” combines classical strings with layers of tropical percussion while Aesili’s voice drifts in and out of the mix with a combination of tenderness and urgency. This whole album is a delight and an inspiration, and I promise it’s unlike anything else you’ve heard.
The Wine Dark Sea
Let’s round out this month’s Rock/Pop section with an utterly gorgeous and mesmerizing ambient album from Christopher Bissonnette. It comes from the Dronarivm label, which has become one of the most consistently interesting purveyors of quiet music on the scene right now; honestly, I wish I had room to review all of their releases. On this, his fifth album, Bissonnette shifts from his usual synthesized approach to one that blends electronic and acoustic source material, creating “an aural allegory to sound and colour and our tenuous understanding of abstract meaning.” If that sounds deep, it’s meant to; the music is as well. It swells and recedes, defining huge acoustic spaces while never conveying a feeling of coldness or abandonment; on the contrary, it’s consistently warm, thoughtful, and deeply evocative. For all libraries.
Time and Patience (digital only)
Frankie Music Productions (dist. Tuff Gong International)
This may be Mackeehan’s debut full-length album, but he’s an industry veteran, a songwriter with a long and distinguished history of writing and co-writing hits for the likes of Luciano, Alborosie, Jah Cure, and Tarrus Riley. (And he does have a few previous releases, several singles and an EP titled Heart Music.) And you can hear all of his experience in his skillful songwriting here, not to mention his ace production work in collaboration with Frankie Music. From the dense and swirling roots-and-culture material (“Government Yaad,” “Raise a Pay”) to lighter good-time songs (“Grooving”) and lovers rock (“Old School Girl”), Mackeehan displays both solid professionalism and deep sincerity. And the music is all original–no recycled Studio One rhythms here. Highly recommended to all libraries.
“Wait,” I hear the attentive reader cry: “Isn’t Relapse a heavy metal label? And, um, isn’t Myrkur the singer/composer who left us in a state of existential despair with Scandinavian black-metal anthems like ‘Må Du Brænde i Helvede’ and ‘Mordet’?” And the answer is “Well, yes, but she’s also the one who layered a cappella vocal harmonies so winsomely on “Nattens Barn” and “Jeg Er Guden, I Er Tjenerne,” and who has indulged in other Danish folk reveries even as she was shredding guitars and destroying souls on other tracks. With Folkesange, she steps away from metal entirely (if, I suspect, temporarily) in favor of straight-up traditional Danish folk song. Now, the press materials aren’t clear about whether these are actual folk songs or original compositions in a traditional style; certainly they sound folky, and traditional Danish instruments like the nyckelharpa and mandola are used throughout. The production is lush, filled with echo and reverb, but the overall sound is quite pure and clean, and as always, Myrkur’s voice is a revelation. A gorgeous album, for all collections.
Ancient Harmonies (2 discs)
Augustus Pablo remains one of the stranger and more mysterious figures in the history of reggae music. A slight, ascetic man who was in frail health for much of his adult life (he died at age 44), Pablo is almost singlehandedly responsible for popularizing the melodica as a pop-music instrument, through his use of it to play melodies over minor-key dub reggae instrumentals. He was also a gifted producer who shepherded the creation of important albums by the likes of Jacob Miller, Earl Sixteen, and the Heptones. Ancient Harmonies is a reissue set that brings together four of his instrumental and dub albums: Blowing with the Wind, One Step Dub (a dub version of Junior Delgado’s album One Step More), Rockers Come East, and Rising Sun, all cut for the Greensleeves label in the late 1980s. Reggae fans will note that during this period, Pablo was not at the peak of his powers, and some of this material is frankly mediocre: there are too many cheap digital rhythms, and several examples of poorly-produced tracks with lousy sound. But there are also some real gems here, certainly enough to justify purchase for any library with a strong collecting interest in reggae music. These include a fine dub mix of Delgado’s “One Day” (presented as “Zion Way Dub”), the spare and mysterious “Hop I Land” and “Rising Sun,” and pretty much the entirety of the relatively strong Blowing with the Wind album.