Sascha Armbruster; Johannes Schwarz; Sebastian Schottke
Orlando (dist. MVD)
In Lights Starkly Different
Innova (dist. Naxos)
For their eponymous album, the duo soundspaces (saxophonist Sascha Armbruster and bassoonist Johannes Schwarz) commissioned works by Steingrimur Rohloff, Orm Finnendahl, Alfred Zimmerlin, and Sascha Dragicevic; in between each piece is an improvised interlude by synthesist Paul Frick. All of the pieces require Armbruster and Schwarz to interact with software and electronics, and the sounds they create are shaped further by sound designer Sebastian Schottke. Some of the music, as one would expect, is highly abstract and even pointillistic; some pieces (notably Finnendahl’s Hören und sehen) are virtuosic and thrilling. Everything here is well worth hearing. Saxophonist Drew Whiting’s solo album In Light Starkly Different also consists of commissioned works for saxophone and electronics, most of which are a bit more immediately accessible than the more challenging pieces on the soundspaces album. Random Access, by John Mayrose, uses digital delay and recall to create lovely counterpoint, for example, and Jeff Herriott’s As brightness is smeared into memory is an achingly lovely contemplation of the joy and melancholy a parent experiences as his child grows up. A gorgeous album all around, even in its occasional spikier moments.
Masses: Hercules dux Ferrarie; D’ung aultre amer; Faysant regretz
The Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips
Gimell (dist. PIAS)
This is the final installment in the Tallis Scholars’ magisterial nine-volume series of Josquin Mass recordings, which was begun in 1986. It does what this ensemble, the foremost exponent of the Oxbridge sound, does best: shine a burnished and colorful light on the choral work of one of the truly great, but until recently thoroughly neglected, composers of European history. The three Masses showcased on this release are all from Josquin’s middle period. One is a tribute Mass written in honor of his patron Ercole I d’Este of Ferrara, who was notorious for loving the sound of his own name being sung by a choir; accordingly, Josquin transmuted the Duke’s name into a melodic passage and repeated it endlessly, while also surrounding it with exquisite variations and counterpoint. The other two are parody Masses, one of which is somewhat startling in its brevity but which also forms a deeply heartfelt tribute to his stylistic idol, Johannes Ockeghem. The only disappointment posed by this album is the fact that we’ll never hear a new Josquin Mass recording from The Tallis Scholars.
Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes
Ella Fitzgerald, arguably the best jazz singer in history, had a moment in 1960 that defined so much about what made her great. She was singing “Mack the Knife” in front of an audience in Berlin, and after the second verse she forgot the words. An amateur might have stopped and tried again. Ella was a professional, and she persevered, improvising new lyrics as she went. But she was more than just a professional; she was also humble, witty, intelligent, and genuinely sweet–so the lyrics she improvised were funny and self-deprecating, and her audience went wild; the recording of that concert won two Grammys and her performance of “Mack the Knife” in particular became a monument to Ella’s brilliance. Two years later she was back in Berlin for another show, and this one was recorded too–though the tapes were squirreled away and weren’t discovered again (still in their unopened box) until recently. Surprisingly, the concert had been recorded in both mono and stereo, and the tapes were still in great shape, which means that we now have a pristine-sounding live recording of one of America’s greatest musicians at the absolute top of her game. And yes, she does “Mack the Knife” again, and the audience goes wild again, and she kills it. This one is a must for all libraries.
Ikue Mori; Satoko Fujii; Natsuka Tamura
Prickly Pear Cactus (digital only)
Is it jazz? Yeah, I don’t know. Don’t really care that much, either. It’s new music from both the legendary percussionist Ikue Mori (DNA, Death Ambient) and the always-brilliant pianist Satoko Fujii, along with trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, with whom I wasn’t previously familiar. Mori doesn’t play drums this time; instead, she took piano recordings sent to her by Fujii and “played along with” them using her laptop; later, Fujii’s partner Tamura added trumpet parts to several tracks. What does the result sound like? Nothing you’ve heard before: crazy squeals and squeaks and howls flutter around Fujii’s virtuosic piano work (think of Allen Ravenstine’s synthesizer work on the early Pere Ubu albums), and you can be forgiven if you don’t recognize Tamura in the mix very much at all–his parts have apparently been folded, spindled, and mutilated beyond easy recognition. The result? A bracing, occasionally lyrical, and often surprising smorgasbord of sounds that is always challenging but also always rewarding.
Scroggins & Rose
The mandolin and the fiddle are natural companions; they’re tuned to the same pitches and at the same register, which means that tunes played on the two instruments will sound in unison. But the playing techniques and instrumental timbres are radically different, which makes their blend very interesting. And both are traditionally thought of as bluegrass instruments, which means that when a couple of young virtuosos take a non-bluegrass approach and focus on original compositions the result can be highly refreshing (think back to how startling and fun the early David Grisman Quintet albums were, back in the 1970s). Mandolinist Tristan Scroggins and fiddler Alisa Rose follow in a long tradition of doing new and innovative things within the sonic context of traditional music, and this collection of original tunes is a joy; they play complex compositions with sophistication and intelligence (note in particular the stylistically eclectic “I Can Find a Way to Fix It”) but also with humor (“Anxiety Jig”) and joy. This is borderline art music presented in a neo-trad style, and it’s very impressive on every level.
Glitter & Grits
No cat. no.
American music has always been a kaleidoscope of incredibly diverse styles, genres, and fusions, and Western swing has always been one of the best things to emerge from that welter of musical influences. Taking the rhythms of hot jazz and blending them with Texas fiddle tunes and cowboy songs, Western swing became one of America’s most distinctive musical innovations. It emerged at around the same time that the repertoire known as the “American Songbook” was solidifying in the national consciousness, which makes Deborah Silver’s new album particular apt: on it she’s backed up by Asleep at the Wheel, the foremost living exponents of Western swing tradition, as she sings such standards as “I Got Rhythm,” “Ballin’ the Jack,” and “Embraceable You.” Her singing style is equal parts jazz club and Broadway stage, while the band’s pitch-perfect arrangements and impeccable sense of swing, honed over a 50-year career, create a solid but nimble foundation for her vocals. This is a joyful and engaging album, just what we need at the end of an exhausting year.
Soothing Songs for a Cultured Affair (EP; vinyl/digital only)
No cat. no.
Every Ones & Nothings (vinyl/digital only)
German producer (and Voitax label head) Paàl has come up with an all-too-brief solo debut that is filled with juddering lows, broken yet powerful beats, and recurring hints of celestial melody. Don’t be fooled by the title, which is clearly intended ironically; these sounds are dark and heavy, but they’re also nimble and at certain points genuinely fun. You’ll hear hints of trap and jungle, but nothing that fits cleanly into those categories; you’ll also hear occasional shreds of what sound like (though may not be) human voices, but nothing that comes close to “singing.” And you’ll hear lots of fascinating tiny details in amongst the heavy beats and dark atmospheres. What you won’t hear is anything boring. From the duo of Current Value and Dean Rodell (doing business as Machinecode) comes an even more brain-jarring collection of new tunes that veer unpredictably in and out of drum’n’bass, techno, halftime, UK bass, and ambient territories. Here the vibe is pretty unremittingly intense, but I mean that in a good way. Play Every Ones & Nothings through high-quality headphones or on speakers with highly capable woofers and prepare to be thrown around like a happy rag doll. Highlights include the menacingly dubwise “King Trigger” and the seasick-robot groove of “Moksha.” Both releases are highly recommended.
Tapes and Topographies
For a real sonic about-face from the sturdy beats of Paàl and the bass-heavy aggression of Machinecode, consider the latest from the Russian dark-ambient label Dronarivm, which has built a very fine track record of releases from the dronier end of the ambient spectrum. The latest by Todd Gauthreaux (a.k.a. Tapes and Topographies), though, is somewhat unusual in its emotional complexity. Billed as “Contemplative melodies of sorrow and light; comforting gifts of hope,” this is music that constantly walks a tightrope between moods of foreboding and subtle uplift. In addition to the expected synth washes, there are touches of what sound like bowed vibraphone, genuine orchestra strings, and plaintive horns, as well as scritches and pops that give certain tracks the vibe of a long-lost and deeply-manipulated field recording. If you’re interested in ambient music but don’t expect it to be worth your while, this is an album that could well turn your head around.
Glitterbeat (dist. Forced Exposure)
Liraz comes from a family of Iranian Jews who moved to Tel Aviv in the 1970s. Her music is equally rooted in electro pop, Middle Eastern sonorities, and committed feminism, and on her second album she takes her political audacity a step further by collaborating with Iranian musicians. This was literally (not musically) dangerous–the project had to be conducted in secret in order to avoid the notice of Iran’s mullahs and secret police–but the result is thrilling. Liraz sings entirely in Farsi, the language that she feels connects her both to her heritage and to her future; the music is a colorful patchwork of triple-meter Persian melodies, computer beats, traditional instruments, and soaring vocals, and on every song her passion seems to be barely contained by the musical structure. On Zan Liraz is singing explicitly because of and for the women of her family, and even if you can’t understand the words you can definitely feel the spirit of her intent. Highly recommended.
Upward Spiral Deluxe (digital)
If you haven’t heard of Jahdan Blakkamoore, it may be because he’s spent more of his career as a writer and producer (working with such eminences as Snoop Dogg, Diplo, and Major Lazer) than as a frontman. His only solo album prior to Upward Spiral was 2010’s outstanding Babylon Nightmare, though he has been a featured performer on others’ work in the meantime as well as a force behind the scenes. Upward Spiral Deluxe is, as its title suggests, the “deluxe” version of the original album, which was released in France earlier this year. Stylistically, it ranges from hip hop to roots reggae to trap to dancehall, all of it mixed with a rich, deep, and bass-heavy sound; Blakkamoore’s vocals and songwriting are a delight throughout. This new version of the album adds five new tracks, mainly remixes, and it’s at least theoretically available in a limited-edition two-disc CD version as well as digitally–though I haven’t been able to find it anywhere. Highly recommended to all collections.