PICK OF THE MONTH
Jah Sun x Jallanzo
Magic & Madness (digital only)
No cat. no.
I listen to a lot of reggae (a LOT), so when I tell you that this is the best new reggae release I’ve heard so far in 2020, you can assume that it’s high praise. Magic & Madness is the result of a collaboration between producer and multi-instrumentalist Omar “Jallanzo” Johnson (who wrote and arranged all the music as well as playing most of the instruments and producing the album) and singer/lyricist Jah Sun. It represents a departure from Jah Sun’s usual singjay style in favor of deeply rootswise songs rendered with a modern and digitally clean sound. The rhythms tend towards a churning rockers beat, though “Suffering in Silence” chugs along in a sturdy steppers style; “Wasted Time” drifts towards psychedelia at moments, and for those who really want to submerge themselves in the mystic there are two powerful but ethereal dub mixes at the end of the program. Jah Sun’s singing voice remains a wonder of clarity and flexibility. There’s not a weak track here, and I would encourage listeners to dive into Jah Sun’s back catalog as well.
Symphonies 6 & 9
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana / Howard Griffiths
CPO (dist. Naxos)
This is the third volume in an ongoing series of recordings that makes the case for Franz Krommer–remembered primarily today for his prodigious output of chamber music–as a master and innovator of the symphonic form. His symphonies are rarely performed or recorded today, and these recordings (on modern instruments) by the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana will leave most listeners wondering why. In the sixth symphony you can hear him pushing the boundaries of harmonic (if not structural) convention, and in the ninth–completed just months before his death–he continues to do so, while also experimenting with structural innovations like motivic development across multiple movements. The playing and the recorded sound on this disc are both magnificent. For all classical collections.
Himlische Cantorey / Jan Kobow
CPO (dist. Naxos)
Virtually everyone is aware of Johann Pachelbel, though most probably don’t know why; it’s because they can hum the melody of his ubiquitous d-minor canon, which is used constantly at weddings and as general background music in all kinds of social contexts. But on its musical merits his chamber music is actually not particularly noteworthy; his vocal music is much more impressive, though not nearly as often performed or recorded today. His Magnificat settings are particularly spectacular; this program features four of those settings alongside a Mass and two sacred concertos, all performed on period instruments, and it will come with the force of revelation to listeners used to hearing only his relatively simple and straightforward small-scale works. Highly recommended.
Catherine Christer Hennix
Unbegrenzt (reissue; vinyl/digital only)
Blank Forms Editions/Empty Editions
It’s in the nature of works like this one–loosely defined, dependent almost entirely for their performance on the creative input of the performers–that the question of who should be credited as the “composer” is difficult to answer. The present release is the reissue of a 1974 recording by Catherine Christer Hennix of a “composition” by Karlheinz Stockhausen, in whose studio she worked during the 1960s and with whom she worked on the development of tape music. The score for Unbegrenzt consists entirely of the instruction “Play a sound with the certainty that you have an infinite amount of time and space.” The work was realized and recorded in a completely different version by the composer in 1969; in this version, Hennix uses bowed gongs, temple blocks, spoken word, controlled feedback, and computer sounds to create a dark, eerie, and foreboding soundscape that never stops moving but never feels like it’s going anywhere. The sounds themselves are fascinating, the mood nearly chthonic.
Six Recorder Sonatas
Yi-Chang Liang; Machiko Suto; Ensemble IJ SPACE
This one gets a Rick’s Pick designation for three reasons: the almost off-handed virtuosity of recorder player Yi-Chang Liang; the brilliant clarity of the production; and the fact that this appears to be the world-premiere recording of these sonatas by the criminally overlooked Neapolitan composer Francesco Mancini, who was a widely renowned pedagogue and court composer in his day (the turn of the 18th century) and who actually succeeded Alessandro Scarlatti as maestro of that city’s Cappella Reale. Despite his heavy teaching and performing load both at the chapel and at the nearby Santa Maria di Loreto Conservatory, he produced prodigious amounts of sacred and instrumental music, including these sonatas, which are an absolute delight. The performances sparkle, as does the recorded sound. For all classical collections.
Clarinet Quintet op. 148; String Sextet op. 118
Thorsten Johannes; Diogenes Quartet
CPO (dist. Naxos)
Trios for Clarinet, Viola and Piano
The Teton Trio
Centaur (dist. Naxos)
Here are two clarinet-centered chamber music collections that otherwise couldn’t be more different. The clarinet quintet and string sextet by Max Reger are both dense, intense, and very much a product of their time: as you listen to Reger simultaneously looking back to the Romantics and embracing the impending end of tonality, you can understand why Arnold Schönberg was such a big fan of his. In fact, throughout both of these works I found myself repeatedly thinking of Verklärte Nacht, Schönberg’s own tortured farewell to three centuries of tonal hegemony. The Teton Trio’s disc is something else entirely: it consists of works solidly in the classical and Romantic traditions. Opening with Mozart’s ever-popular “Kegelstatt” trio, the program proceeds to a couple of Schubert lieder arrangements by the group’s clarinetist, Gregory Raden; a four-movement work by Carl Reinecke; an arrangement of a song from Jules Massenet’s Scènes alsaciennes; and Schumann’s Märchenerzälungen. These are works of effortless charm and aching melancholy, perfectly suited to the round, warm sound of the clarinet. Both ensembles and all soloists perform exquisitely.
Johannes de Cleve
Missa Rex Babylonis
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
Though I have a deep interest in the music of the Franco-Flemish masters and spend a great deal of time seeking out and listening to recordings of their music, this is the first I’ve heard of Johannes de Cleve. Born in an undetermined location in either 1528 or 1529, he published his first works in 1553 and became a court singer in Vienna. He later moved to Graz and finally settled in Augsburg; much of his published output was written in honor of members of the Habsburg dynasty. This outstanding recording by the all-male Cinquecento ensemble is centerd on a parody Mass based on Johannes Vaet’s motet Rex Babylonis (which is appended at the end of the program), but it also features a handful of de Cleve’s original motets. De Cleve’s harmonic and structural creativity is impressive, and the singing by Cinquecento is exquisite. Highly recommended.
Six Quartets, op. 2 (2 discs)
Gallery Players of Niagara
The Eybler Quartet has always had as part of its mission the uncovering of music by neglected composers of the classical period. And with this recording the group has certainly accomplished that aspect of its mission: Franz Asplmayr is undoubtedly a minor player compared with some of his more illustrious contemporaries in mid-18th-century Vienna, but he was quite prolific, producing more than 40 symphonies, a similar number of string quartets, and 70 trios, not to mention many (much more popular) works for the theater. This appears to be the first time that all of the six quartets in his opus 2 have been recorded together, and while they won’t convince anyone that he should be elevated to the status of Mozart or Haydn, they will be most welcome to anyone who loves the high classical style. The Eyblers play on period instruments, with sparkle and affection for this thoroughly charming music.
Having raved about Alexa Tarantino’s leader debut a year ago, I was very excited to receive her sophomore effort in the mail a couple of weeks ago — and it didn’t disappoint. On Clarity she presents four original compositions, all written recently, nestled among standards by Horace Silver (“Gregory Is Here”) and Kurt Weill (“My Ship”), a couple of commissioned compositions, and a beautiful version of the Latin tune “La Puerta.” Once again, the stylistic literacy and intelligence of her solos is deeply impressive — listen, for example, to Tarantino plumb the depths of her alto saxophone’s range on “La Puerta.” Note also how gracefully her midtempo original “A Unified Front” strikes a truly difficult balance: swinging hard while maintaining a finger-popping lightness of groove. Everyone in her quartet plays brilliantly, but drummer Rudy Royston is a particular highlight. For all jazz collections.
John Fedchock NY Sextet
Into the Shadows
Summit (dist. MVD)
A minute or so into the latest leader session from trombonist/composer John Fedchock, I found myself thinking “MAN, do these guys swing hard.” But as the program progressed, I found myself thinking other things. Things like “Holy cow, Fedchock sure knows how to write a horn chart” (check out the contrapuntal lines on “I Should Care”) and “Wait a minute, is ‘Nature Boy’ usually in 12/8?”. As always, Fedchock has gathered a stellar crew around him to bring his original compositions and arrangements to life, and they play with all the tightness and joy you’d hope.
There are a few guitarists who are almost instantly recognizable by their tone: Richard Thompson, Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny — and John Scofield. It’s not that his sound is idiosyncratic, it’s just that it’s personal. There’s some chorus in there, and just a touch of distortion to rough up the very edges. But it’s also the notes he plays, and the way that the blues are never far from him no matter how complex the chord changes get. On his latest solo album he’s joined by drummer Bill Stewart and bassist Steve Swallow. As the title suggests, the album is actually a tribute to Swallow, and consists entirely of the bassist’s compositions. Scofield has said that when the two of them play together “sometimes… it’s like one big guitar,” and you can definitely hear that; you can also hear why Scofield likes Swallow’s tunes so much (“they’re grounded in reality, with cadences that make sense”). As discursive as the trio sometimes gets — this is an ECM jazz recording, after all — they never lose the thread of brilliant continuity that binds these wonderful tunes together. For all jazz collections.
Kurt Rosenwinkel Trio
Heartcore/ACT (dist. Redeye)
Another outstanding new jazz guitar release is this one just out from the always-rewarding Kurt Rosenwinkel. Here leading a trio that includes bassist Dario Deidda and drummer Gregory Hutchison, he opens with one of Thelonious Monk’s most beautiful and overlooked compositions: the limpidly gorgeous “Ugly Beauty.” He proceeds through a program consisting mainly of standards, but centered on his own bluesy, gospelly “Simple #2.” On either side are such delights as the distinctly boppish Paul Chambers composition “Ease It,” Charles Mingus’s “Self Portrait in Three Colors,” and the always-luscious “Time Remembered” by Bill Evans. Rosenwinkel’s tone varies to fit the tune: reverberant and at times almost rockish on the title track and “Simple #2,” hornlike on the Mingus number, rich and soft-edged on the Evans. This is a wonderful album from one of the most creative minds in straight-ahead jazz.
SONAR with David Torn
Tranceportation (Volume 2)
And, finally, a jazz (sort of) album that features not one guitar but three. Back in January I recommended the first volume of music by this group, which includes two players of “tritone guitar” (I’m still not sure what that means, since I’ve been playing tritones on a conventional guitar for decades), a “tritone bass” player, and a drummer, plus legendary avant-rock guitarist David Torn as a guest. The tracks on this volume draw on the same sessions, and once again find the group operating in a really unique mode: fundamental harmonic stasis, with no real chord changes, but constant shifting and mutation within that static structure. The core bandmembers mostly build sonic scaffolding by means of interlocking rhythmic patterns, while Torn spins out strange atmospherics and long strips of sound that he drapes over those structures. It’s unlike anything else you’ll hear, and it’s consistently fascinating.
Kristen Grainger & True North
No cat. no.
These days, when acoustic music doesn’t fit cleanly into a folk or bluegrass or old-time category, it tends to get designated as “Americana.” It’s as good a label as any, I guess, though it really doesn’t tell you too much. In the case of Kristen Grainger and True North, the term suggests strong hints of bluegrass, except without the aggressive drive and the ostentatious virtuosity, and an element of country as well, though without the assertive twang (or any twang at all, really; these guys are from Oregon). What are front and center are Grainger’s songwriting, which is graceful and intelligent, and her singing, which is beautiful but plainspoken and becomes heartstopping when combined in harmony with that of guitarist Dan Wetzel. This is a quiet gem of an album.
The Proper Years (2 discs)
Last Music Company (dist. Redeye)
In form and wiring, the Fender Telecaster is one of the simplest electric guitars there is. It’s also one of the most sonically distinctive, prized by country, rockabilly, blues, and rock guitarists for its bell-like treble frequencies and astringent twang. There are whole schools of guitarists known specifically as Tele players, and Bill Kirchen is one of them. He’s also a fine singer and songwriter, and between 2006 and 2013 he recorded three solo albums for the British Proper label (Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods, Word to the Wise, and Seeds and Stems), all of which are compiled on this two-disc set, along with three bonus tracks. Word to the Wise is particularly notable for guest appearances by the likes of Maria Muldaur, Elvis Costello, Paul Carrack, and Kirchen’s former boss Commander Cody. Everywhere the playing is impressive, the singing is fine, and the songs are excellent.
Arts & Crafts
No cat. no.
Sharp, sly, and hookier than a box of fishing tackle, Liza Anne’s second album is something of a departure from the dreamier and crunchier sound of her debut, Fine But Dying. That album was guitar-centered and fuzzboxed; this one is replete with clicking Cars-style rhythm guitars, digital handclaps, 1980s synths, and clean-edged production. What have remained the same are Liza Anne’s sense of melody, her gorgeous voice, and her therapeutic lyrical concerns. Yes, I know — albums inspired by struggles with mental or emotional illness are hit-and-miss propositions, but I promise you, this one’s a hit. Song titles like “I Shouldn’t Ghost My Therapist” and “Oops” tell you that no matter how serious her problems, she’s not going to try to force you to take them as seriously as she does. For all libraries.
Alexander Flood is an amazing young percussionist and composer from Australia, one who has delved deeply into a variety of rhythmic traditions and emerged with a complex, exciting, and stylistically promiscuous sound of his own. On his debut album, which he recorded entirely in his own home studio, he creates rhythmic compositions that are dense and highly complex, and that make reference to a wide variety of ethnic, national, and cultural traditions without trying to replicate them. There seem to be guest musicians involved (I’m assuming that’s not him playing trumpet on “Buffalo Soldier,” for example) but since the press materials didn’t include liner notes I can’t say for sure who or how many of them they are. What I do know is that Heartbeat is a thrilling, exhausting maelstrom of sound, beats, and textures, and it heralds a very exciting new talent.
Figures (2 discs)
Aksak Maboul was founded in the 1970s by Crammed Discs label head Marc Hollander, and shortly thereafter the band released two albums that plowed new ground for avant-rock music: though clearly influenced by agit-pop outfits like Henry Cow and Red Krayola, Aksak Maboul used those influences as a jumping-off point for a uniquely quirky, edgy, and sometimes abrasive sonic vision. This new release (spread across two discs for no apparent reason, since the program clocks in at under 76 minutes) finds Hollander and vocalist Véronique Vincent (ex-Honeymoon Killers) not such much updating the classic Aksak Maboul sound as continuing to develop it, veering from relatively tuneful song structure to gentle minimalism to angular post-rock composition to impressionistic improvisation. Listen carefully for guest appearances by Fred Frith (Henry Cow), Steven Brown (Tuxedomoon) and others.
Misled Convoy x Uncle Fester on Acid
Uncle Fester on Acid is the pseudonym of Dutch producer Pats Dokter. In recent years he’s begun a program of radically remixing releases on the Dubmission label, beginning with Pitch Black’s Filtered Senses album. Now he’s at it again, thoroughly deconstructing Sixteen Sunsets, a 2019 release by Misled Convoy (a.k.a. New Zealand artist Michael Hodgson). In January 2019 I recommended the original album, and now I’m encouraging you to acquire this remix version, which renders each original track effectively unrecognizable and pulls it out of the realm of avant-dub and into an entirely different sonic galaxy: one defined by dark repetition, enormous sonic spaces, and microscopic textural details. Also weird spoken-word samples.
Be Bop Deluxe
Modern Music (reissue; 4 CDs + DVD)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
Be Bop Deluxe’s fourth album, recorded in 1976, is a thrilling and exhausting listen. Thrilling because by this point it had become clear that bandleader, lead guitarist, and songwriter Bill Nelson’s brain was an inexhaustible fountain of ideas, and that his fingers could translate them into sound without any apparent limitation; exhausting because the ideas come so relentlessly. Part of what’s fun about this band at this point in time is that you can hear them sort of struggling to decide whether they’re power pop or prog rock, and eventually deciding that they don’t have to choose between them and just luxuriating in a fusion of the two. Be Bop Deluxe never became a household name in the US, but Modern Music did well over here — despite the fact that it’s filled with Nelson’s decidedly jaded observations on American cuture. This massively expanded reissue includes new stereo and 5.1 mixes of the whole album, some previously unreleased session outtakes, and both audio and video live material. Highly recommended to all pop collections.
3D Reworks 001 (EP; digital only)
3D Reworks 002 (EP; digital only)
This pair of new EPs — which may herald the beginning of a series, who knows — was germinated, believe it or not, by a sound engineering controversy: the term “8D audio,” which amounts to the physically impossible claim that sound can be represented in more than three dimensions. In the real world, what the term actually refers to is the practice of binaural panning (moving the balance of sound back and forth between left and right audio channels). Max Cooper’s four-track EP finds him remixing four previously-released tracks from the Mesh label to create a slowly swirling, truly immersive listening experience. The second installment in the series is by Reid Willis, who similarly takes four previously released tracks and gives them the 3D mixing treatment, to most impressive effect on his rework of his own “Building the Monolith.” To get the full effect, all of this music should be experienced with very good headphones.
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
Every so often, a particular strain of African popular or traditional music will gain the attention of listeners in the global north and west: in the past we’ve seen this happen with South African mbaqanga and isicathamiya, and more recently there’s been lots of interest in Tuareg “desert blues.” But Africa is an enormous continent, one that teems with diverse languages, folkways, and musical traditions, and exploring all of them could be the work of several lifetimes. If your library could use an overview that covers many of them in a single program, consider this collection from the ARC Music label, which pulls together songs and instrumentals from all over the continent: songs from the griot tradition, horn-driven dance music from Ethiopia, voice-and-percussion music from the Gambia, and much more. Some of it is poppier and more western-influenced, and some of it less so; all of it is very interesting.
Riding High (vinyl & digital only)
Dawn Chorus (EP; digital only)
From thousands of miles apart come two takes on modern dub — both built on dark, rolling basslines and atmospheres thick with UK sub-bass and elephantine dubstep wobble, but completely distinct nevertheless. Shankara NZ (a duo consisting of Brendan Evans and Elijah Wilson-Kelly) come from New Zealand and invest their instrumental dub with elements of local color: the faint sounds of regional birds, vocals from Kiwi artist esp Mc (no, that’s not a typo), basslines from Finn Kelcher. The vocals, interestingly, are almost entirely subsumed in the bass-heavy atmosphere and end up melting into the mix. This is dub that seems almost entirely divorced from the reggae mainstream, despite its structural fidelity to the one-drop verities. Those verities are front and center, however, in the case of Tubby Isiah, a father-and-son UK roots project out of Bristol. Information about this crew is tough to come by, but their debut album is a killer: largely traditional and straight-ahead dubwise instrumental reggae, alternating between propulsive steppers grooves and lurching rockers and one-drop, its fundamental conventionality undercut by elements of avant-dubstep and grime. Tubby Isiah balance the heavy and the ethereal with a perfect (and rare) dexterity. Both releases are highly recommended to all bassheads.
Spirit of India: Five Ragas for Sarangi & Tabla
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
For eight generations, the Sabri family has been dedicated to promulgating the classical music of the Hindustani (North Indian) school, focusing particularly on the sarangi, a notoriously difficult bowed instrument that sounds somewhat like a cross between a violin and an erhu. Unusually, members of the family often play together in combinations of two, three, or even five sarangis simultaneously. You’ll hear examples of that approach on this outstanding collection of ragas, all of them accompanied by Sarvar Sabri on tabla. All libraries with a collecting interest in the classical music of India should consider adding this one.
Black Ark in Dub (2 discs)
VP/17 North Parade
Of all the weird releases in Lee “Scratch” Perry’s sprawling oeuvre, Black Ark in Dub was one of the strangest. No less an expert than Mick Sleeper asserts that only half of the tracks are actual Black Ark productions, and indeed some of the production flourishes don’t sound like typical Perry fare. But the album is certainly interesting nonetheless. The expanded reissue adds Black Ark Vol. 2 to the program as a second disc; this is a somewhat more conventional and, frankly, satisfying album, which is not a dub outing, but rather a collection of vocal tracks featuring Lacksley Castell, Carol Cole, the Silvertones and others, several of their tracks presented in “showcase” style (extended versions with dub mixes appended). Not necessarily an essential purchase for all libraries, this album will nevertheless be of interest to Perry’s international cult of fans.