PICK OF THE MONTH
Peace (5 discs)
No cat. no.
When vibraphonist and composer Chris Dingman’s father was at home under hospice care during his last months of life, Dingman moved a vibraphone into his father’s house and improvised music for him designed to soothe and relax him and help him sleep. But his father reacted to the music somewhat differently; he expressed gratitude that it had “open(ed) up patterns of thought and being” for him, going so far as to characterize the music as a “miracle” that “has transformed me over and over again. It has made me stronger, made me want to live life again.” For most listeners, hearing this music out of its original context may not be quite as transformative an experience–how could it be? But the love and warmth that existed between Dingman and his father is everywhere apparent in these compositions, and Dingman’s exceptional skills as a writer and improviser mean that the music is never static or needlessly repetitive or random-sounding; it’s always interesting and frequently complex, while always conveying a sense of gentleness, love, and peace. One could use it as ambient music, but it constantly rewards one’s close attention as well. Frankly, this is the most beautiful and touching recording I’ve heard so far this year.
Metamorphoses (Book 1)
Bridge (dist. Albany)
Subtitled “Ten Fantasy-pieces (after Celebrated Paintings) for Amplified Piano,” this collection of brief compositions finds the great American composer George Crumb responding musically to modernist paintings by the likes of Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, Jasper Johns, and Salvador Dalí. He does so using a certain amount of extended piano technique as well as electric amplification. By turns contemplative and abrasive, the music explores the piano’s unique resonant properties as well as the opportunities created by the player’s simultaneous proximity to the instrument’s keyboard and its interior; for example, on “Clowns at Night,” the performer must hit a woodblock, stroke a set of chimes, run a wire brush across the strings inside the piano, and play the keys–while also moaning and humming. These pieces were written in the past few years, demonstrating once again that Crumb continues to be an American treasure well into the eighth(!) decade of his musical career.
Uri Caine/Ludwig van Beethoven
Diabelli Variations after Ludwig van Beethoven (reissue)
Uri Caine; Concerto Köln
Winter & Winter (dist. Naxos)
It’s very important to understand, going in, that this is not a typical performance of Beethoven’s legendary variations on a theme of Anton Diabelli. For one thing, pianist and composer Uri Caine has written orchestral accompaniment for the original keyboard piece, turning it into what amounts to a 34-movement piano concerto. Second of all, Caine’s performance is wildly, willfully personal: at various times, his take on the variations incorporate boogie-woogie interludes, outbreaks of stride piano, clangorous and nearly atonal excursions, handclaps, and a sneeze–alongside wonderfully lyrical classical and semi-classical passages as well. Given the modernistic and even postmodern approach to the music, the fact that both Caine and Concerto Köln are playing on period instruments seems ironic, if not actually sarcastic. But the mood of the music itself, even at its most outlandish, is consistently joyful and fun. For obvious reasons, this should not be any library’s only recording of the Diabelli Variations–but it should be one of them.
Orlande de Lassus
Cappella Amsterdam / Daniel Reuss
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
I was startled when this disc arrived in the mail–could it be that the great master of the late Franco-Flemish school had set texts of Dante Alighieri? Sadly, no. But this is still an outstanding collection of late Lassus motets for six and eight voices, united by themes of melancholy and regret. Inexplicably, given the album’s title, it does not include his De profundis (nor any of the other penitential psalms), but it does consist of a carefully curated cycle of other Biblical and non-Biblical settings characterized by exquisitely crafted interactions between music and text, as well as the sumptuous harmonies for which he remains famous. Cappella Amsterdam are marvelous on these recordings, and their voices are perfectly showcased by the acoustics of Amsterdam’s de Waalse Kerk. For all early music collections.
Leopold Anton Kozeluch
Piano Trios Vol. 3
CPO (dist. Naxos)
This is the third entry in an ongoing series by the period-instrument ensemble Trio 1790 featuring trios for piano, cello, and violin by the highly-esteemed Bohemian composer Leopold Kozeluch. During his life his reputation was such that he was offered the chance to succeed Mozart as court organist at Salzburg, but he refused; after achieving significant success as an independent composer and teacher, he later accepted a court appointment under Emperor Francis II (again, following Mozart). Interestingly, he invested a significant amount of time and energy into creating chamber-music settings of folk music from the British Isles, and in fact Scottish melodies were the basis for some of his earlier piano trios. These later ones, however, are quite Continental in flavor, and are characterized by a thoroughly winning lightness of tone. The playing by Trio 1790 is excellent.
Pavans & Fancies for the Viols
Concerto di Viole
Ars Produktion (dist. Naxos)
The Swiss viol consort Concerto di Viole made a long study of the music of little-known 17th-century composer Ricardo Mico before recording this selection of his consort music, and then made something of a puckish decision: as musicians often had during Mico’s time, they assigned a whimsical subtitle to each of the pieces presented here. Thus, Mico’s Fantasied 10 à 4 is further titled “On the Hexachord”; his Pavan 2 à 5 is subtitled “Bona Fide,” and so forth. These recordings are not only completely lovely, but they’re also important, in that Mico is rarely recorded today and in fact none of his consort music was even published during his lifetime. (The excellent Phantasm ensemble has recorded some of it, alongside consort music of William Byrd.) Here’s hoping this outstanding group will bring more of Mico’s music to light in the future.
Sir Hubert Parry et al.
Songs of Farewell
Choir of Westminster Abbey / James O’Donnell
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
I’m sure it’s my imagination, but it just seems to me that the choral music of English composers sounds especially good when sung in Westminster Abbey, that most English of musical and liturgical spaces. And of course no choir (with the possible exception of Magdalen College’s) sounds as wonderful singing the English repertoire as the one attached to the Abbey. Anyway, this is a program of late 19th and early 20th century a cappella choral music by Sir Hubert Parry (whose Songs of Farewell is the album’s centerpiece), Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (three motets and a Magnificat setting), Alan Gray (another Magnificat and an F minor Nunc dimittis), and Charles Wood (a B-flat Nunc dimittis). The featured works are somewhat diverse in tone–notice how the burnished but restrained and reverential mood of Stanford’s third motet is joyfully burst by Gray’s exuberant Magnificat, for example. But the singing is consistently excellent and the recorded sound is as well, though the microphones were set perhaps just a bit too far from the singers for my taste. Still, all the better to hear the Abbey’s glorious acoustics, I guess.
Franz Joseph Haydn
Symphonies nos. 6-7-8 (Le Matin; Le Midi; Le Soir)
Orfeo Orchestra / György Vashegyi
Accent (dist. Naxos)
This will be the first recording in a series designed to showcase music written and published under the aegis of the Eszterházy family, which controlled large swaths of Hungary during the Habsburg dynasty. The Eszterházys employed Franz Joseph Haydn during some of his most creative years, and with these three symphonies in particular he was at pains to demonstrate that their money had been well spent. Each of these works functions almost as much as a baroque-style concerto as it does like a classical symphony, using extended soloistic sections to showcase the skills of the outstanding orchestra that the Eszterházys had put at Haydn’s disposal. The “morning,” “noon,” and “evening” moods are evoked in a somewhat programmatic manner, but the real point is to demonstrate the players’ musicianship, which these pieces do admirably. They are marvelously performed here by the Orfeo Orchestra, and libraries should be quick to snap up this disc and the others in the series that will come in the future.
Giovanni Battista Viotti
Flute Quartets op. 22
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
Giovanni Battista Viotti was known primarily as a violinist and a composer for the violin, and while some of his violin pieces have been transcribed for flute, he wrote little specifically for that instrument and this set of three quartets for flute, violin, viola, and cello are his only compositions in that particular format. The music is not terribly challenging and was published with both amateur and professional players in mind, but it is thoroughly enjoyable in the high classical style, and will be warmly regarded by fans of Mozart’s flute quartets. Quartetto Viotti (playing, as far as I can determine, on modern instruments) deliver these pieces with admirable sensitivity and brio, and are beautifully recorded. A delightful listen.
Jeff Hamilton Trio
Catch Me if You Can
Don’t tell anyone I said this, but I’m always a little bit leery of drummer-led jazz recordings. I have nothing but respect for great drummers, but not all of them understand that most people don’t listen to a jazz album specifically to hear the drummer. One of the many things that make drummer Jeff Hamilton such a compelling bandleader is that he does understand that. Another is the way he combines gentleness with swing: the way he plays quiet rimshots for just a bar or two on each chorus of “Helen’s Song,” or the way he sweetly and subtly takes little mini-solos using the brushes on “Make Me Rainbows,” or the exquisite delicacy of his brushwork on what is nevertheless a powerfully swinging title track. Whenever a new Jeff Hamilton album arrives in the mail, I know it’s going to be a winner; this one is no exception. For all collections.
Grégoire Maret & Romain Collin (with Bill Frisell)
ACT (dist. Naxos)
I also have a weird aversion to the harmonica, particularly in a jazz context. I’m not sure why, and I’m not sure it really matters. The point here is that while I would usually set aside a jazz harmonica album immediately upon receiving it, in this case I made an exception due to the presence of Bill Frisell, my favorite jazz guitarist–and I’m very glad I did, because this is an exceptionally fine recording. Harmonica player Grégoire Maret has selected an eclectic program of tunes to work with here, from pop (Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms”) to country (“Wichita Lineman”) along with a couple of Frisell originals and some by Maret himself and by pianist Romain Collin as well. The album title is not misleading; this music tends strongly towards the pastoral, not to say the bucolic (there is no rhythm section) and Maret’s harmonica playing is exquisitely tasteful–as is that of Collin and, of course, Frisell, who has never failed to make a session better by his presence.
Whirlwind Recordings (dist. Redeye)
Dan Willis and Velvet Gentlemen
The Monk Project (digital only)
No cat. no.
On these two conceptually similar but very different albums, forward-thinking leaders look back to the past for their source material, and give it a very modern twist. On Django-shift, guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi deconstructs two separate traditions simultaneously: the music of 1930s Gypsy swing icon Django Reinhardt, and the 1960s organ trio. Reinhardt’s music was the acme of driving hot jazz as played by multiple acoustic guitars and violin; the organ trio was the prime vehicle for jazz funk. Abbasi’s take on Reinhardt’s compositions is neither driving swing nor funk–instead, it’s played in his own now well established style, which is complex, knotty, chromatic, and timbrally unique (note his extensive use of the fretless guitar). This is not an album for Django fans, but rather for fans of modern experimental jazz. Dan Willis approaches the music of Thelonious Monk in a manner similar to that in which he approached that of Erik Satie ten years ago; he takes familiar tunes from the Monk book (“Epistrophy,” “Crepuscule with Nellie,” “Rhythm-a-ning,” etc.) and uses them as the general framework for highly personal and discursive exploration. There are moments on this album when even someone who is deeply familiar with the Monk repertoire will struggle to recognize the basis of the tune, and others when you feel as if he’s pulling the essence of the tune out of its body. Both of these are challenging and rewarding albums.
The Jim Kweskin Band with Samoa Wilson
I Just Want to Be Horizontal
No cat. no.
Since the 1960s, Jim Kweskin has been interested in bringing to light the sounds of early-20th century jazz and pop music. His group is no longer called a “jug band,” gratefully, but he’s still focused on those sounds, and his latest album (which prominently features the outstanding singer Samoa Wilson) features songs both familiar (“Inch Worm,” “Lover Come Back to Me,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay”) and obscure, all played with an elegant, restrained sense of swing. Kweskin adds some lyrics of his own to the Irving Berlin standard “He Ain’t Got Rhythm,” and throughout the album Wilson’s powerful but sweet voice illuminates everything.
Ella 100: Live at the Apollo!
On April 25, 2017–Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday–an impressive assortment of artists gathered to celebrate on the stage of Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater, where Ella Fitzgerald had made her singing debut at age 17. (She was originally expected to dance, but when she was put on the program immediately following the dancing Edwards Sisters she was too intimidated and asked if she could sing instead.) This commemorative program was hosted and emceed by comic actor David Alan Grier and featured a variety of singers accompanied by the Count Basie Orchestra and the Ella 100 All-Star Quartet. The songs are all the standards one would expect, though occasionally with a twist: Patti Austin is featured prominently, as well as Lizz Wright, Andra Day, and the Afro Blue choir. Grier himself sings (quite nicely) on a modernized soul arrangement of “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me” and alongside Austin on a Porgy and Bess medley. All in all, it’s a fitting tribute to one of the most important figures in American music.
No cat. no.
Cary Morin is an artist with a complex ethnic and musical heritage: an American Indian of Crow heritage who grew up in Great Falls, Montana, he is a virtuosic fingerstyle guitarist whose music is deeply informed by the cultures of the Mississippi Valley, particularly of Southern Louisiana. His latest album evokes (sometimes simultaneously) the sounds of New Orleans, Memphis, and Mississippi: slippery second-line beats and a Zydeco accordion underlie the album-opening “Nobody Gotta Know,” while “Prisoner” is all greasy Delta blues and “Cary’s Groove” draws deeply on Memphis and Muscle Shoals soul. The string that binds everything together is Morin’s fine songwriting combined with his astounding guitar technique. Highly recommended.
Scott Vestal et al.
Bluegrass 2020: 10 Great Instrumental Recordings
For this album, banjo player Scott Vestal leads an A-list team that includes fiddler Patrick McAvinue, guitarist Cody Kilby, mandolinist Dominick Leslie, and bassist Curtis Vestal on a stylistically varied program of traditional bluegrass and newgrass instrumentals. It opens in old-school style, with the classic Earl Scruggs banjo showcase “Foggy Mountain Chimes,” but then gets gradually more progressive, with the jazzy Moon Mullican tune “Pipeliner Blues” and the straight-up New Acoustic “Sunday Drive.” The rest of the album continues in that vein, alternating straight acidgrass (“Shenandoah Breakdown,” “Valley Forge”) with more modern newgrass fare (“Vanleer”). All of it is brilliantly played. A few more tunes would have been nice, as the whole album clocks in at barely over 35 minutes.
Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett
Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett
Real World (dist. PIAS)
Recordings of traditional Irish music tend to be virtuosic affairs, filled with breakneck tempos and elaborate ornamentation. Fiddler/hardanger player Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and pianist Thomas Bartlett have made something very different: an album with roots in trad music but consisting mostly of original compositions, and one that focuses on quiet, contemplative performances. Themes repeat and mutate, sometimes growing through elaboration and sometimes collapsing into new abstraction. (Note in particular the structure of the hypnotic “Zona Rosa.”) In the context of a duo like this, one might expect Bartlett to be Ó Raighallaigh’s accompanist, but that’s not how this music works at all: they play together and sometimes one plays more while the other plays less, but they always play side-by-side, each one occupying an equally important musical space. The music is exceptionally beautiful, and often deeply sad. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Live at Rock City, Nottingham November -86 (2 discs)
Angel Air (dist. MVD)
If you’ve spent any time browsing through CDs in a market stall, you’ve seen them: shoddily packaged discs from a label you’ve never heard of, documenting live shows that were originally recorded for radio broadcast. They usually cost a few bucks, and sometimes they’re worth it. This one is very different. For one thing, the sound quality is excellent. For another, 1986 was the year that, in my opinion, Richard Thompson’s band was at its best–he had John Kirkpatrick, Christine Collister, and Clive Gregson, among others, and although you don’t have Dave Mattacks on drums the band still sounds fantastic. And he was touring songs from both Across a Crowded Room and Daring Adventures, which I still think were two of his best-ever solo albums. The patter is wry, the solos are incendiary, and the whole energy of this gig is just tremendous. Highly recommended to all pop collections.
Living on Mercy
The Last Music Co. (dist. Redeye)
There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Dan Penn. Which is a crime, because there’s virtually no chance that you don’t know and love at least one song that he’s written–either alone or in partnership with others. Maybe it’s “Do Right Woman,” or “It Tears Me Up,” or “I’m Your Puppet,” or my personal fave, “Dark End of the Street” (which I maintain is the single saddest and most affecting love song in pop music history). There’s also a good chance that you’ve never heard him sing any of these songs, because over the course of his 60-year career he’s made precisely three studio albums–the last one being the wonderful Do Right Man from 1994. Listening to this new one, I was startled and thrilled that his voice still sounds so good; it was never a force of nature to begin with, but it’s every bit as strong and mellow as it was 26 years ago. Nor has his songwriting lost any of its wry humor and emotional insight. This would make a great addition to any library, but those that collect vintage soul and R&B should pay special attention.
A Tear in the Fabric
Slumberland (dist. Redeye)
If you miss the golden age of jangle-pop (which, depending on your generational orientation, you might consider to have been the late 1960s or the late 1980s), then Devon Williams is here for you. On his third solo album, he delivers a solid set of original songs that shimmer dreamily while staying anchored in solid chord progressions, hooky melodies, and lots of arpeggiating guitars. His voice isn’t exactly a powerhouse, but he layers it nicely, power-pop style, and creates a thoroughly winning sound. Strongly recommended to fans of the Church and the Go-Betweens, and of early REM. And maybe to those who like the Rocket Summer but wish they’d ease up just a bit.
Bureau B (dist. Forced Exposure)
Stefan Schwander is a Dusseldorf-based electronic musician with that most wonderful of characteristics: an equal interest in sonic experimentation and slamming beats. He’s also influenced by musical styles beyond the European dance club: “Original Member of a Wedding Band” is built a fragment of keening modal melody that could be from Egypt, or maybe from the Balkans; several other tracks evoke the history of pulse-based American minimalism. Schwander himself has indicated that with this record he was “aiming for a more industrial sound,” but what he ended up with is much more interesting than that. Recommended to all adventurous pop music collections.
Sangam & Pixelord
City High Fantasy (EP; digital & cassette only)
Let’s close out the Rock/Pop section with another example of forward-thinking electronic music, this one a collaboration between producers Sangam and Pixelord. It’s not unusual to see two electronic artists put their disparate styles together to create something new, but a joint venture by two such different artists is particularly interesting. Sangam usually works in an abstract and ambient vein, whereas Pixelord comes from more of a house/techno place and was a major figure in the short-lived “hardvapour” movement (itself a subgenre of hardstyle and/or vapourwave, which… you know what? Never mind.). The music they make together is varied in feel, with lots of sonic space but also plenty of complex, sometimes hard-hitting beats. I love the blend of big acoustics and tiny rhythmic details, and find myself getting lost in this EP every time I cue it up.
The latest from Brazilian singer/songwriter Céu is an unabashed exclamation of joy. In fact, that’s where the title comes from–“apká!” is something her little son Antonino cries when he’s delighted with something. The word doesn’t mean anything beyond the emotion it expresses. Céu’s songs are somewhat more specific in their expressiveness, of course, but are every bit as joyful–even when they’re a bit more subdued. As always, Brazilian rhythms fuse with electronic beats; this time out there’s also a bit more guitar pop in the mix, and she sometimes breaks into English. Her voice continues to be a joy to hear, and the album is a pure pleasure overall.
100 Years of Theremin (The Dub Chapter)
CDDUBM103 (dist. MVD)
You might tempted to dismiss this as a novelty album. Resist that temptation. Although the theremin is largely known (when people are aware of it at all) as a source of science-fiction sound effects, it is in fact a serious musical instrument capable of great subtlety and expressiveness. Its pitch and volume are controlled by the performer’s hands hovering at different positions around a sort of antenna, and since it produces a steady and uninterrupted tone it takes real skill to create clean breaks between notes. On this collection of tracks, producer (and longtime theremin player) Gaudi teams up with a bunch of dub/reggae luminaries including Dennis Bovell, Adrian Sherwood, Mad Professor, and Prince Fatty to create a program of modern reggae settings for his beloved instrument, resulting in an album that is simultaneously filled with familiar sounds and grooves and unlike anything else you’ve ever heard. Highly recommended.
The Dancing Devils of Djibouti
The music scene in the tiny East African country of Djibouti faces an unusual challenge: it is owned and controlled entirely by the government. Ever since independence and the establishment of one-party rule in 1977, virtually all music ensembles and all recording companies are government organizations attached to the state propaganda ministry. But the New York-based Ostinato label was able to secure official permission to spend three days in the country recording Groupe RTD, an amazing ensemble that blends regional vocal and instrumental sounds, Bollywood-derived vocals, Jamaican rhythms, and jazz horns to create a style that is simultaneously completely unique and instantly recognizable as a product of the region. Keening horns, skanking backbeats, and soaring voices combine to create something unlike anything you’ve heard before. Highly recommended.
Drink (vinyl & digital only)
Bassist Victor Rice was a mainstay of the New York ska and reggae revival scene throughout the 1990s, but has lived in São Paulo, Brazil for the past 20 years and has there developed a musical fusion of samba and rock steady that he calls “SRS” for short. “Rock steady” is the swinging, rubbery rhythm that served as a transitional style in the 1960s when ska was slowing down and loosening up on its way to becoming reggae. Rice is a master of that style, and on this jazzy, skanking instrumental album he demonstrates that mastery with a very tasty program of tunes that are equally great for listening and dancing to. Highlight tracks include “Five,” the straight-up ska tune “Because I Can,” and especially the beautifully composed “La Mura.” Highly recommended to all libraries, though it’s too bad that it’s not being released in CD format.
Denovali (dist. Redeye)
Here’s what it says on the one sheet: “Using kalimba, violin, cello, ney, erhu, zhonghu, jinhu, kemenche, dilruba, bansuri, rammerdam, double bass and various percussive instruments such as cajon, castanets, krotal and various organic shakers and drums MANSUR leads the listener into mystical and magical unknowns, that lie far past the realms of material perception.” Well. Maybe not entirely past the realms of material perception–unless there are instruments on the recording that I’m not hearing–but this album certainly takes us well beyond the realms of dark ambient music that are the usual bailiwick of the Denovali label. What’s particularly fun about Mansur’s music is that it sounds like it’s from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously–I can’t tell what language(s) Martina Horváth is singing in, and every time I think I’ve got a grip on the ethnic or cultural context of a track, it slips through my fingers. Also, the music is very beautiful.
Live at Electric Brixton (digital only)
Mr Bongo/Easy Star
No cat. no.
While we all mourn the temporary loss of live music, there are a few live albums hitting the market now that were recorded just prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of them is this gem, from British reggae stalwarts the Skints. I can’t say enough about this group’s sound: the male-female lead vocals, the rich but stripped-down ensemble arrangements, the way they simultaneously revive, celebrate, and update the sound of 1970s reggae and ska. And onstage all of those characteristics are distilled and deepened. In a live setting they give more space to their speed-rap tendencies, which is tons of fun, and they engage the audience masterfully. Live albums are often disappointing, but this one is a masterpiece.