John Luther Adams
Lines Made by Walking
Cold Blue Music (dist. Naxos)
I’ve been following the work of John Luther Adams for some time now, often finding it irresistible and occasionally finding that it leaves me a bit cold. These two works for string quartet – Lines Made by Walking and untouched – definitely fall into the former category. As always, the music is informed by Adams’ love for nature, and in particular for nature’s huge and deceptively empty-looking expanses: oceans, deserts, tundras, etc. The inspiration for the title piece, which is built on tempo canons, came while he was walking the deserts of Mexico and the canyons of Montana. The music seems to fall continuously upwards as single melodic lines are superimposed on themselves at different speeds; the effect is difficult to describe, in that it’s simultaneously soothing and tension-inducing. With untouched, the title derives from the fact that all notes are played using harmonics, which means that the players’ fingers never touch the fingerboards of their instruments but instead rest lightly on the strings while they bow, a technique that isolates harmonic partials and creates an otherworldly, ethereal sound. All of this music is exquisitely beautiful, and the JACK Quartet’s longstanding relationship with Adams is fully demonstrated by its performance. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Johann Sebastian Bach / Józef Koffler
Goldberg Variations Arranged for Small Orchestra
Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble / Pinnock
LINN (dist. Naxos)
Józef Koffler was doomed. As a gifted composer and champion of the Vienna school (Schoenberg, Webern, etc.) and the European avant-garde, he had a target on his back from the moment Stalin came to power. And as a Jew living in Poland at the time of Hitler’s invasion, he spent years on the run before being arrested and executed by the Gestapo in 1944. So this recording of his remarkable chamber-orchestra arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is a bittersweet event, one that reminds us of the all-too-brief career of a remarkable musical talent, a career made artificially briefer by the fact that he destroyed many of his early works in response to pressure from the Soviet government, and was severely constrained in his musical activities during the few years he survived under Hitler. The source material for this music is, of course, one of the towering monuments of the keyboard repertoire, the Mount Everest that looms on the horizon for all serious pianists. Arranging this theme with its 30 variations for the multifarious voices of a chamber orchestra (one that includes not only strings but also flute, oboe, English horn, and bassoon) creates opportunities and challenges that few composers could have tackled as creatively and pleasingly as Koffler did; Bach’s celebrated voice-writing is made clearer and more colorful by the distribution of lines to instruments with widely different sonorities, and Koffler’s distinctively mid-century style adds another dimension of new color to what are otherwise very familiar melodic passages. To play this arrangement on baroque instruments would have been absurd and would have sounded bizarre; Trevor Pinnock leads a young modern-instrument ensemble here, and the sound is magnificent.
Rina (digital only)
2018 was a big year for Rina (the only name she reveals on the album and press materials, though I believe her last name is Yamazaki): during that year she took second place in the 2018 Ellis Marsalis International Jazz Piano Competition, was nominated as “Jazz Artist of the Year” by the Boston Music Awards, and graduated from the Berklee School of Music. So it’s no surprise that she’s a world-class pianist. But what’s startling is the maturity of her writing and bandleading, given her youth and where she is in her career. Her debut album consists entirely of original compositions, and the program is bookended by tremendously intelligent and winning solo pieces. In between them she leads a powerfully swinging trio that includes bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Jerome Jennings, and the trio numbers are complex, beautiful, and filled with equal parts joy and contemplation. Highlights are difficult to identify on an album this consistently fine, but I was especially impressed by playful “J.J.’s Painting,” written as a showcase for Jenning’s exceptional brush playing.
Songs from Home
The great pianist and composer Fred Hersch was one of the first to take advantage of the opportunities created by the COVID crisis, instituting a “Tune of the Day” broadcast via Facebook. His experience doing so led him to create a new album of solo piano music, one specifically intended to soothe and comfort. Hersch being Hersch, though, that didn’t mean that the music would be merely simple or without depth. Instead, he takes a set of mostly familiar tunes and gives them the full benefit of his deep and wide-ranging musical intelligence: note, for example, that “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “Wichita Lineman” are quiet and achingly sad, while “After You’ve Gone” is played in a self-consciously archaic style—not just its stride structure, but also in the way he ends phrases, strongly evoking the early-jazz period it represents. “All I Want” is his take on a Joni Mitchell classic, played with love and care. “The Water Is Wide” is one of those traditional melodies, like “Shenandoah,” that seems to offer endless depth to an improviser with the right brain. Hand it to someone like, say, Bill Frisell, and you’ll see magic happen. Same is true of Fred Hersch. By contrast, his own “Sarabande” is a composition that ranges far and wide, both harmonically and melodically. Ellington’s “Solitude” is perhaps the most obvious selection here, and is delivered with deep introspection and insight. (Hersch’s gently jaunty take on “When I’m Sixty-Four” is also wryly timely, given that he just celebrated his 65th birthday.) For all jazz collections.
Suzzy Roche & Lucy Wainwright Roche
I Can Still Hear You
The passing of Maggie Roche in 2017 brought to a sad end one of the most unusual and interesting folk-pop ensembles of the 1970s and 1980s–The Roches, whose intricate harmonies and eerily reedy voices were instantly recognizable. But the sweet and tender weirdness of the Roches lives on, and on this lovely album by Suzzy Roche and her daughter Lucy, the sweet and tender Roche genetics easily overpower the edgier (and, frankly, sometimes nasty) weirdness of Loudon Wainwright, who is Lucy’s father and whose DNA therefore also threads its way through this set of original songs, covers, and one trad number. Suzzy and Lucy’s voices blend together like oil and lemon juice, and they’re helped out instrumentally by sidepersons that include Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls. Suzzy’s “Little” is whimsical and lovely, while her “Ruins” is tender but disturbing. Lucy’s “Get the Better” is simply gorgeous, and the duo’s version of the Joe Raposo classic “Bein’ Green” accomplishes that rarest of tasks: casting new light on a song so familiar that it’s practically become part of our cultural wallpaper. Recommended.
Promise (digital & vinyl only)
The members of SUSS characterize their music as “pastoral psychedelicism”; personally, I’d call it “ambient country.” The music is strictly instrumental, with lots of floating steel guitar chords, twangy guitar lines that unfurl slowly and echo off into the distance, and a deep sense of melancholy with a small but glistening thread of hope running through it. Listeners won’t be surprised to learn that this album was recorded during the COVID quarantine, and those who are familiar with the group’s earlier work may notice a slight difference in flavor, but the basic recipe remains very much the same. Years ago Brian Eno and his brother Roger put together an ambient soundtrack album for an Apollo moon mission; Promise is a bit like that, but with its feet firmly on planet earth and with some dust on its boots.
Asian Dub Foundation
Asian Dub Foundation came roaring out of the Asian Underground scene of the early 1990s with a completely unique sound that blended elements of punk rock, metal, bhangra, jungle, and dub with an absolutely fierce political agenda. At the time the group was fronted by Deeder Zaman (aka Master D), who was in his mid-teens and one of the most gifted lyricists in London. After 22 years and countless listens, the band’s U.S. debut Rafi’s Revenge remains one of the most exciting albums I’ve ever heard. Zaman departed the group in 2000 and since then ADF’s sound has become bigger, tighter, and maybe a bit less unique, but every new release is still a blast of fresh and bracing air. On Access Denied more tracks are instrumentals than before, and some feature singing by Ana Tijoux, beatboxing from Dub FX, and spoken-word samples from the likes of Greta Thunberg and political comedian Stewart Lee. None of these songs break much new ground, but all are a blast.
Victor Wainwright and the Train
As befits his band’s name and the image on the cover, Victor Wainwright’s latest album opens with a song that sounds like a massive steam-powered train chugging down the track. But then he swings into the funky, horn-driven “Walk the Walk,” a track that evokes New Orleans as much as it does Memphis, and then into the title track, which is basically a hardcore boogie-woogie workout that brings trains back into the lyrical picture. And it expresses the album’s overarching theme, which is “The train’s comin’ through your town/Everyone’s allowed.” That joyful exuberance is what this whole program is about, even when the mood is a bit quieter (as it is on the moaning “Sing” and the contemplative “Disappear”). My only criticism of this album has to do with its production: while the almost complete lack of high end was probably a deliberate choice (the better to communicate dark, muddy power), it will probably have most listeners checking to see if something’s wrong with their stereos. Highly recommended overall.
Essence of Raga Tala
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
Indian music has been interacting with Western classical and pop traditions for decades now–all too often in ways that simplify or water down the essential ingredients that make India’s classical music so interesting and unique. With his latest album, however, composer and tabla virtuoso Kuljit Bhamra demonstrates new ways that East and West can interact musically, and that Indian traditions can be expanded, without any such dilution. Essence of Raga Tala finds Bhamra working primarily with Indian musicians, but also with British guitarist Jack Jennings, and using primarily traditional Indian instruments, but also a synthesizer, a cello, and a unique multi-tabla set that allows him to play clearly defined raga melodies using only percussion. Interestingly, he uses the synthesizer not to create soothing atmospherics, but rather as a single-line melody instrument, which creates a very distinctive sound. His tuned tablas also allow him to build melodies in ways not previously heard, and throughout the album he works with a variety of vocalists as well. I listen to a lot of classical Indian music, and I’ve never heard anything like this album.
Take Me As I Am (vinyl & digital only)
No cat. no.
Dub Akom (dist. Baco)
Here are two very fine modern roots reggae albums, both coming from rather unlikely locations. Berise is the founder and frontman of the Italian band Shanti Powa. He sings entirely in English, often lapsing into surprisingly convincing Jamaican patois, and on his solo debut he has teamed up with the exceptional Scottish producer Escape Roots. This guarantees that the grooves will be extra heavy, with strong threads of dubstep and trap running through the mixes; on tracks like “Magic Tricks” and “Roadblock” the bass booms mightily beneath a crisp high end while Cerise’s voice glides richly through the midrange. The songs are well written and hooky, the remixes are slamming, and all in all this album offers a wonderful balance of roots reggae tradition and modern sonics. Innavibe comes from a slightly different direction: this band hails from Lyon, France, and has only been on the scene for a few years; this is their first full-length album. Innavibe’s sound is just as modern as Berise’s, but in a much more straight-ahead reggae vein: live instruments predominate, and the lyrics are mainly in French. Vocalist MC Reym has a fine voice and writes hook-filled songs, and the band’s grooves are muscular and sometimes almost rockish. Highlights on this one include a sturdy steppers number called “Retour de flamme” and a singjay outing titled “Facho 2.0.” If I had to pick a single winner it would be Berise, but both of these debut releases are outstanding.