Johann Baptist Cramer
Piano Concertos nos. 1, 3 & 6
Howard Shelley; London Mozart Players
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
The Hyperion label’s outstanding Classical Piano Concertos series continues triumphantly, bringing unjustly neglected works by the likes of Leopold Kozeluch, Daniel Steibelt, and Johann Baptist Cramer to much-deserved light — and doing so with magnificent performances, beautifully recorded. A previous volume featuring two of Cramer’s eight concertos is now joined by a set of three more, hopefully with more to come. Cramer’s name is hardly recognized today, but he was admired in his own time by both Beethoven and Schumann, and he was among the very first piano instructors at the Royal Academy of Music. Playing sensitively, as always, on modern instruments, Howard Shelley leads the London Mozart Players through this set of works that were designed at least in part as a vehicle for Cramer to show off his own advanced keyboard technique (and that of his students). But they also demonstrate his command of the form, and his admirable melodic imagination. Three more of Cramer’s piano concertos remain to be recorded, so there’s good reason to hope that we’ll have another volume in this series dedicated to him. For all libraries, especially those that support keyboard pedagogy and/or collect deeply in the classical period.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Complete Sonatas for Piano & Violin on Historic Instruments (4 discs)
Jerilyn Jorgensen; Cullan Bryant
Ludwig van Beethoven
Complete String Quartets Volume 1: The Opus 18 Quartets (2 discs)
Cedille (dist. Naxos)
CDR 90000 198
These two new recordings of works from Beethoven’s chamber music repertoire are both outstanding, each in a different way. Jerilyn Jorgensen and Cullan Bryant provide insightful interpretations of all of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and violin, using instruments that were built at the same time the compositions were written (and, mostly, in the same city): the turn of the 19th century. The liner notes include detailed information about the instruments, and while the quality of the performances is more than enough to recommend this set on its own, the information about the instruments used will be of particular interest to libraries supporting academic instruction in period performance. The recording suffers just a bit, in my view, from microphone placement — I wish we could hear the details of the violin’s tone more intimately. Beethoven’s string quartets are among the towering masterworks of the late classical and early Romantic eras, and I think the best place to start with them is the most intuitive one: at the very beginning. His early quartets are challenging but still accessible, hinting strongly at both the harmonic density and emotional intensity that would later come fully into view (check out, for example, the adagio movement of the F major quartet) while still offering plenty of delicate melody and clear structural logic. These works are recorded frequently, but the Dovers stand out from the pack by playing with utterly perfect intonation, a near-telepathic sense of ensemble, and a lovely balance of passion and clarity (and by being recorded in the bell-like acoustic of the Sauder Concert Hall at Goshen College). For a modern-instruments performance of these essential works, it’s hard to imagine a better choice.
Once upon a Time: The Lost 1965 New York Studio Sessions
Hang on, jazz snobs — before you snort and say “Bob James? No thanks,” please read on. First of all, to be clear: yes, this is the same Bob James who was a pioneer of “smooth” jazz, who had chart hits with a jazz-ish arrangement of a Roberta Flack song and a disco arrangement of the Star Trek theme, and who wrote the theme from Taxi. All granted. But that was in the 1970s. In the 1960s, he was no one’s idea of a jazz popularizer; instead, he was accompanying Sarah Vaughn, and recording free, avant-garde, and straight-ahead jazz at the head of his own trio. This fascinating disc documents previously unreleased sessions he recorded in that format in 1965; a January 20 date with bassist Larry Rockwell and drummer Robert Polaz, and an October 9 session with bassist Bill Wood and drummer Omar Clay. The January session is equally divided between James originals and tunes by others, including a somewhat adventurous (but swinging) arrangement of Leroy Anderson’s “Seranata” and an even more adventurous take on Joe Zawinul’s “Lateef Minor 7th.” The October date is more bop-oriented, with straight uptempo arrangements of “Airegin” and “Solar” alongside lesser-known numbers. In all cases, James’ playing is crisp and idiomatic, and no one who knows him as the guy from Touchdown would likely recognize him in a million years. Highly recommended to all jazz collections.
His Eight Finest Albums (4 discs)
Enlightenment (dist. MVD)
The vagaries of international copyright law continue to make it possible for British labels to gather up mid-century jazz albums (all of which are still under copyright in the US) and reissue them in omnibus editions that offer tremendous value for money to people who don’t need much in the way of detailed information and just want to luxuriate in the music. (In fairness to the Enlightenment label, their recent box sets have started including important details like musician credits, which marks a huge improvement.) The albums in this collection were led by the magnificent alto sax and trumpet player Benny Carter date from 1995 to 1962, and cover a nice variety of styles and settings: the 1955 release New Jazz Sounds finds him in a bluesy and boppish mode alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Herb Ellis, among others; Aspects (1959) is a big-band date that burns with feverish intensity; Further Definitions is a 1961 date on which he plays with an amazing group that includes Phil Woods, Coleman Hawkins, Jimmy Garrison, and Philly Jo Jones. Are these really his eight “finest” albums? I don’t know — he recorded a lot. But they’re certainly outstanding.
In his liner notes to this album, legendary fiddler Darol Anger perfectly expresses what strikes me about Bronwyn Keith-Hynes’ playing: “uncanny precision. In the world of fiddling, it’s a rare and wonderful talent… To be able to trust a player’s unerring ability to put the note in perfect tune with everything else that’s going on is a special subliminal gift from the fiddler, saying ‘I’ve worked hard, so you can relax!'”. What Anger is calling “precision” goes way beyond intonation and time; what’s key here is the phrase “in perfect tune with everything else that’s going on.” That phrase comprehends what’s happening stylistically, in terms of groove and feel, and in the context of other people’s playing. In other words, a great fiddler doesn’t only play in tune and in time, but also in harmony, in the larger sense of that word: she hears what the guitarist is trying to do and works with him; she hears what the banjo player is doing and adds a note or leaves a note out to make the banjo sound better. And when everyone in the group is operating in that way, the result is magical. Anyway: Bronwyn Keith-Hynes is a great fiddler. She demonstrates that in a number of ways on her latest solo album, which is bluegrass-centered but not bluegrass-limited. Guests include Tim O’Brien, mandolin whiz kid Sierra Hull, all-around virtuoso Sarah Jarosz, and a singer named James Kee to whom I’m now very grateful to have been introduced. Highlights include a wonderful cover of the Buck Owens hit “Hello Trouble,” a lovely version of “Minstrel Boy,” and the twin-fiddle showcase title track. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Old Road New Again
Pinecastle (dist. MVD)
I confess I was surprised to learn that the Dillards were still a thing. They were an important part of the “progressive” bluegrass scene throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and fans of the Andy Griffith Show will recognize them as recurring cast members there (where they were called the Darlings). Doug Dillard, who died in 2012, was a towering figure among bluegrass banjo players, and the only still-living member of the original group is guitarist and singer Rodney. Old Road New Again is the first new album by a group under the Dillards name since 1992, and it finds Rodney and his confederates continuing the tradition of pushing bluegrass music’s stylistic boundaries (note, for example, the cover version of “Save the Last Dance for Me” and the acoustic-funk arrangement of “Cluck Old Hen”), edging into contemporary acoustic pop and country. Rodney Dillard’s voice isn’t as steady as it was (for crying out loud, the guy’s 78 years old), but he sure still can lead a band and arrange a tune. And the band he’s put together here, which includes Ricky Skaggs, John McEuen, Herb Pedersen, and… um… Don Henley, is a delight.
No cat. no.
Well Wishers is essentially a one-man band, the creation of former Spinning Jennies frontman Jeff Shelton. Over the course of ten albums Shelton has crafted and refined a vision of guitar-heavy power pop that never ceases to impress and satisfy, in the meat-and-potatoes way that a great album by Cheap Trick or the Shoes used to satisfy back in the day. You know how it works: crunchy guitars, sweet harmonies, and hooks hooks hooks. Shelton brings in a few hired guitar slingers for extra power on a handful of tracks here, but for the most part it’s just him playing all the instruments and singing all the parts, which continues to be seriously impressive. Highlight tracks this time out include the Marshall Crenshaw-flavored old-school rock’n’roll of “You Never Have to Sing a Lonely Song,” the sweetly melancholy “Father of the Bride,” and the medium-tempo jangle-pop gem “Be the One.” If your library collects high-quality pop music, that’s reason enough to pick up Shelf Life — but if you support programs in songwriting or audio production, this album is like a masterclass.
Earplayed (digital only)
Back in 2008, Sheffield duo Animat released an album called Earplay, which consisted of tracks they had put together as a live soundtrack to the David Lynch film The Straight Story. This being a film soundtrack, the music was fairly unobtrusive — but the film being by David Lynch, the music was also subtly weird, combining rhythmic loops, found sound, guest vocals, and Casiotone beats to create a vaguely disturbing undertow beneath the soft chords and general floating ambience. That album is being reissued this year, and to mark the occasion the Disco Gecko label is simultaneously releasing this collection of remixes and alternate versions: one remix is credited to Animat themselves, and another version is an extended edit. But the others are new mixes made by others: “The Closer You Get” is given a more beat-oriented take by Sleeping Robots, whereas “Riverbed Road” is unmoored from its original rhythmic center and abstractly dubbed-up by Echaskech, and so forth. Consistently both interesting and pleasant, both of these albums are well worth hearing.
Ghalia Benali; Romina Lischka
Call to Prayer
Fuga Libera (dist. Naxos)
Call to Prayer is a highly unusual project, a collaboration between Tunisian singer Ghalia Benali, viol player and singer Romina Lischka, and bassist/guitarist Vincent Noiret. Together the weave a complex tapestry of music that combines Arabic melodies, druphad singing, baroque music, and invocations of the Divine, all organized around the concept of prayer (though “prayer” is used here in a more abstract, humanistic sense than what one might expect). The music is quiet but deeply intense, though the intensity of the vocal pieces is regularly leavened by decorous baroque passages. Benali’s voice is a wonder of suppleness and expressivity. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Satryo (digital only)
No cat. no.
By now we’re used to seeing reggae scenes take root and thrive in locations far removed from the music’s native Jamaica: the UK’s large population of West Indian immigrants made possible a rich and varied reggae scene there, and interestingly enough you can find smaller but productive reggae outposts in places like Berlin, New York, Hawai’i, the Netherlands, and Brazil. But Indonesia? I don’t know how big the scene itself is, but I can now testify that there is absolutely top-notch roots reggae music being produced by at least one artist from that country, the Jakarta-based Ras Muhamad. He sings mostly in English (he was educated in New York), but sometimes breaks into Malay, which makes for an interesting effect. Also interesting is the doctrinal mix of his lyrical concerns, which blend invocations of both Jah and Allah. But what makes the album more than merely interesting is the consistently high quality of the songs themselves, which are hooky, well constructed, and beautifully sung — and frequently incorporate stylistic elements beyond reggae, as well. Any library with a collecting interest in world music generally or reggae in particular should take particular note of this outstanding release.