Here I Stand
iSing is a choir founded in the Silicon Valley area in 2013; it consists of roughly 300 girls and young women, ages 5 to 18. Over the years the group has gone from being local favorites to winning international choral competitions, and this is their first album. Its twelve tracks include five pieces commissioned for the group, some of which deal explicitly with difficult social and political topics including gun violence (Daniel Elder’s 365) and the Holocaust (Adam Schoenberg’s Never Shall I Forget). Others are devotional or celebrational in nature, and all showcase the group’s truly remarkable blend; I’m not sure I’ve ever heard so many voices sound so fully unified in timbre and tone. For me, the highlight track is the opening piece: Only in Sleep, by Ēriks Ešenvalds, an utterly gorgeous work that features a remarkable solo by soprano Mia Hamilton. But there’s not a weak piece or a shaky performance anywhere on this lovely album.
András Schiff; Jörg Widmann
I know, I know, I keep coming back to these pieces. But the combination of Brahms (master of the achingly lovely Romantic melody) and the clarinet (the soft, round tone of which is so perfectly suited to Brahms) is just so ideal that whenever a new release comes out that puts the two together it’s almost impossible not to recommend it. As long, that is, as the performances are up to snuff, and of course in this case they are: clarinetist Jorg Widmann and legendary pianist András Schiff not only perfectly complement each other, but they also have what feels like a deep spiritual affinity for this music. And while I know, I know, not everyone is a big fan of Manfred Eicher’s signature production style, I would strongly recommend that everyone give this release a listen–never has his sense of acoustic space been so tastefully and appropriately applied. This is an utterly gorgeous album and belongs in all library collections.
Guillaume Nouaux & the Stride Piano Kings
Guillaume Nouaux & the Stride Piano Kings
Chris Hopkins Meets the Jazz Kangaroos
Live! Vol. 1
Echoes of Swing Productions
EOSP 4512 2
Here are two outstanding and completely unapologetic celebrations of traditional (i.e. early swing, pre-bebop) jazz, both of them coming at it from a slightly different angle. What I find so impressive about Guillaume Nouaux’s album is that while he’s a drummer himself, the whole point of his project is to put the focus on the featured pianists, all of whom are masters of the stride style. These include Bernd Lhotzky, Rossano Sportiello (one of the mainstays of the great Arbors Jazz label), and the magnificent Chris Hopkins. Nouaux is a genius drummer, but he keeps himself very much in a supporting role on this excellent album. Hopkins himself is the leader on the second album under consideration here, another trad-jazz celebration with an unusual lineup: Hopkins on piano, guitarist David Blenkhorn, bassist Mark Elton, and violinist/singer George Washingmachine. Here the flavor is more European, with the violin evoking the spirit of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grapelli’s Hot Club de France recordings from the ’30s (though in a somewhat more relaxed and decorous style). Both discs are highly recommended to all jazz collections.
Early Hot Jazz & Ragtime from Pianola Rolls, 78s and Phonographic Cylinders
Saydisc (dist. Naxos)
Subtitled “Rags, Cakewalks, Shuffles, Trots and Frolics from the Earliest Days of Ragtime and Jazz,” this collection draws on some of the earliest commercial recordings made: phonograph cylinders–one from 1898–and shellac 78s of course, but also piano rolls and, in one case, a music box. The music is by artists all but forgotten today: Europe’s Society Orchestra, Six Brown Brothers (a saxophone sextet), James “Slap Rags” White, and even Fred Van Eps–a legendary banjo player and banjo maker, and the father of jazz guitar great George Van Eps. (The banjo is a prominent voice on these recordings, reflecting the turn-of-the-century popularity of that instrument.) As one might expect, the sound quality varies from fair to terrible, but hearing the spirit and joy of the music through the surface noise is all part of the fun. And as a research source, this disc is a treasure trove.
The Loneliness in Me (digital & vinyl only)
If you’ve been longing for the old days of country music–and by “old days” I don’t mean the really old, Appalachian-Mountain days, but rather the heyday of classic Nashville honky-tonk–then there’s a small but influential cohort of youngsters out there who seem determined to bring them back. One of them is Rachel Brooke, a very fine singer-songwriter with a sweet but sharp-edged voice that explicitly harks back to the sounds of Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn–though I find that her worldly-wise delivery reminds me even more of Patsy Cline. This all-originals program sounds like it could have been written and recorded in the 1950s, complete with slightly heavy-handed echo and choral backing. Occasional fiddle and pervasive steel guitar complete the sound, and Brooke’s lyrics are simultaneously timeless and slyly modern. This is the kind of album that could have been killed by winking irony, and gratefully there’s none of that here: Brooke is all in, and that invites us in as well.
No cat. no.
If you’re a banjo player and your album comes with a paragraph-length endorsement from Noam Pikelny, then you know you’ve made it. Of course, having “made it” as a banjo player doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone outside of acoustic-music circles has heard of you, but that’s because we live in a fallen world and there’s not much you can do about that. In any case, fans of what used to be called New Acoustic Music (bluegrass instrumentation, jazz chord changes) will love this leader debut by the brilliant banjo player and composer Wes Corbett. Like most of his like-minded colleagues, he’s a master of both hard-driving Scruggs-style picking and the more elaborate and decorous “melodic” style pioneered by Tony Trischka and Bill Keith and further developed by Béla Fleck and Pikelny. His writing reflects his roots but also expands on them significantly, and for this album he’s surrounded himself with similarly gifted virtuosos including mandolinist Sierra Hull, guitarist/producer Chris Eldridge (Punch Brothers), and fiddler Alex Hargreaves. There’s not a weak track on this wonderful album.
415 Records: Still Disturbing the Peace
Liberation Hall (dist. MVD)
When punk rock was exploding as a pop-culture phenomenon and upending the dynamics of rock music as we understood it, the major “scenes” were London (the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Damned) and New York (the Ramones, the Heartbreakers, the Voidoids). Eventually a very different scene evolved in Los Angeles–this one drew on elements of country (X) and Latinx traditions (the Plugz), and after that it was Katy bar the door: punk came to Boston, Washington DC, San Francisco, and pretty much every other major urban center in the US. The Bay Area’s scene has, for some reason, never garnered as much attention as L.A.’s, even though it was arguably more fertile. The revival of the 415 label (named for San Francisco’s area code and also for the police code for “disturbing the peace”) aims to rectify that oversight, and those interested should start with this generous compilation of vintage recordings from the punk and new-wave years by bands you may have heard of (Pop-O-Pies, Red Rockers) and some you almost certainly haven’t (VKTMS, Baby Buddha). There are moments of charming amateurism but also some startlingly accomplished and advanced performances in styles that range from hard-edged punk to clicky power-pop and even some ska and an avant-garde synth-punk rendition of “Stand By Your Man.” This collection would make a great choice for any library with a collecting interest in the history of pop music.
Some Kind of Peace
Ólafur Arnalds is what can only be called a Renaissance man in contemporary music: heavy metal drummer, experimental techno producer, and modern-classical composer, he’s created music across an incredibly wide spectrum of styles over the course of his career despite being only 34 years old. His latest album is (as its title suggests) a soft and reassuring collection of primarily instrumental tracks that blanket the listener in a warm layer of light but rich sonics; pianos and strings and samples and what sound like found sounds are blended into music that is never challenging but also never really simple. The two vocal tracks (“Back to the Sky,” featuring JFDR and “The Bottom Line” featuring Josin) are both gently driven by beats, but they’re certainly decorous ones and the real hooks are the atmospherics. Although at under 40 minutes it’s a bit on the short side, particularly for this type of music, this is nevertheless a gorgeous and highly recommended album.
Puffer’s Choice Vol. 3 (digital & vinyl only)
Glasgow’s Scotch Bonnet continues to be one of the most exciting labels in the UK, consistently producing outstanding releases in the reggae, dancehall, UK bass and drum’n’bass genres, all of them founded on the verities of deep roots-and-culture reggae music. One of the things that makes the label so fun is that it offers frequent nods to its local culture; for example, on this, the third compilation in the Puffer’s Choice series, Mungo’s Hi Fi and Cian Finn collaborate on a track that sets the traditional Scottish song “Wild Mountain Thyme” to the rhythm track originally used for Jacob Miller’s “Baby I Love You So” (the dub version of which is internationally famous as “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown”). Not all of this music actually comes from the Scotch Bonnet stable (Jeb Loy Nichols’ “To Be Rich [Should Be a Crime”]” is an On-U Sound production) and not all of it comes from Glasgow, or even from the UK: New Zealand’s Flying Fox brings a dark and deep dubstep track, and Sweden’s Viktorious rescue a long-lost Earl Cunningham track from an old sound system cassette and give it a shiny dancehall update. But this one, like the previous volumes, is truly all killer and no filler.
Brooklyn Raga Massive
In D (currently digital only; a CD version is reportedly planned)
No cat. no.
Brooklyn Raga Massive is a musician’s collective dedicated to building on the traditions of classical Indian and Pakistani music, which itself is built on melodic patterns called ragas. They perform and record regularly and participate in educational programs, and some of their releases have been quite unusual. One was a rendition of minimalist composer Terry Riley’s classic composition In C, which they enjoyed doing so much that they asked Riley to write a new piece for them. For a variety of reasons that project never came to fruition, but the group ended up working on an original composition in Riley’s style (and with his encouragement). The result, In D, is very much a logical next step: like its predecessor it stays within the confines of a single chord throughout its length, but shifts and transforms and develops over the course of three sections and 47 minutes. Voices and bansuris and tablas and sitars and tamburas and many other instruments fade in and out at various times, and the overall effect is that of a tremendously large musical carpet woven out of hundreds of colors. Brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable.
Would like to wish Rick and all readers best wishes for the new year. It’s going to be a rough one. Music is a precious and daily respite from this odd time. Thank you Rick for your monthly reviews as they represent a treasure trove. You favourably reviewed Zephaniah Ohoras’ first album and he released a second one last year. Didn’t see it on this site and would like to recommend it as it is excellent. It’s called Listening to the Music.
Thanks for the kind words and the tip, Michael! I’ll see if I can scare up a review copy of the new Zephaniah Ohoras album.
Apologies, I fear I’m sowing confusion. That should be Zephaniah Ohora’s album. It’s by a man, not a band. Apostrophe fail!
I figured that out myself when I searched the blog for “Zephaniah”. 🙂