Paladino Music (dist. MVD)
Antonio Soler is a relatively obscure and slightly eccentric figure in the history of Spanish music; very possibly a student of Domenico Scarlatti, he spent his life in a monastic order and was known to keep a brutal schedule as a composer, organist, and teacher, including to one of the sons of King Carlos III. His keyboard sonatas are a treasure of his country’s musical patrimony, and are frequently recorded. However, this disc introduces an important twist: Stefan Hussong plays the sonatas not on a piano, but on an accordion. My initial reaction was, I’m a bit ashamed to say, to dismiss this recording as a gimmick, but I quickly repented and decided to give it a listen–and I’m very grateful I did. Hussong’s playing is not only virtuosic but also highly sensitive to idiom and style; he’s particularly adept at conveying the joy and lightness of Soler’s musical personality. The tone of his instrument is lovely, and this album is a true pleasure overall. Any collection supporting a program of keyboard pedagogy should seriously consider adding it.
Jistebnicky kancionál: Sound of the Bohemian Pre-Reformation
Tiburtina Ensemble / Barbara Kabátková
Supraphon (dist. Naxos)
There is a fascinating story behind the music on this sparklingly beautiful album, having to do with religious movements in medieval Czechoslovakia, but unfortunately space and time don’t permit. Suffice it to say that the sacred music from this 15th-century songbook is set to Old Czech liturgical texts, and is sung here by the all-woman Tiburtina Ensemble. All the music is plainchant; voices are sometimes solo and sometimes in unison, and there’s quite a bit of call-and-response, such as with the responsive “hallelujahs” on the trope “Hospodine, pro tvé svaté vzkriešenie.” While this music is quite different from that of Hildegard von Bingen (who was active as a composer 300 years earlier than the music in this source, and whose music was much more ecstatically melismatic), this lovely recording will be of great interest to the many who have come to love Hildegard’s music through the work of other all-woman ensembles specializing in vocal music of the medieval period. And for music historians and those interested in the political/liturgical vagaries of pre-Reformation Bohemia it will be even more so.
La rêveuse et autres pièces de viole (reissue)
Alpha (dist. Naxos)
Marais at Midnight: Music from Aston Magna
Laura Jeppesen; Catherine Liddell
Centaur (dist. Naxos)
There was probably no greater composer of music for the viola da gamba than Marin Marais, and his various books of dance suites for the instrument (both solo and in ensembles) remain a rich source of inspiration for modern players. On these two discs, two eminent interpreters of Marais’ music present programs of his writing for solo viol. I’ve been a fan of Laura Jeppesen since my childhood, when my parents would take me with them to early-music concerts in the Boston area, where she’s been a star for decades. Accompanied by lutenist Catherine Liddell, Jeppesen plays excerpts from Books 2, 3, 4, and 5; the whole album is marvelous, but I was particularly impressed by Jeppesen’s seemingly effortless transition from the dark, bow-dragging rhythms of Book 4’s “La Biscayenne” to the bright, supple colors of “La Basque.” On Sophie Watillon’s album (originally released in 2002 and now reissued on the Alpha label’s A Collection series), she is joined by fellow viol player Friederike Heumann, lutenist and guitarist Xavier Díaz-Latorre, guitarist Evangelina Mascardi, and harpsichordist Luca Guglielmi for a program that draws on much the same repertoire but presents the music with a thicker continuo texture. Here the instruments are lower in pitch and the overall sound is darker and denser, but no less engaging and certainly no less virtuosic. Both discs are strongly recommended to all early music collections.
Missa Wohlauff gut Gsell von hinnen
Hyperion (dist. Integral)
Not normally a fan of small-force, all-male choral ensembles–but being a huge fan of the Franco-Flemish masters, of whom Heinrich Isaac is a particularly noteworthy example–I approached this disc with slightly mixed expectations. And then I was blown away. Terry Wey’s crystalline countertenor voice made me repeatedly forget that I was listening to an all-male ensemble, and Cinquecento’s rich blend and big-but-gentle tone made me repeatedly forget that I was listening to a small one. As for the music, it was written around the turn of the 16th century after Isaac left politically troubled Florence and moved to the Habsburg court in Vienna, where he drastically reworked a previously written composition as a new parody Mass on the popular melody “Wohlauff gut Gsell von hinnen,” resulting in one of his most longest and most complex liturgical works–and yet one of his most accessible and sumptuously lovely. A generous handful of motets rounds out the program, which is among the most beautiful recordings I’ve heard this year. Strongly recommended to all collections.
Frank Morelli; Keith Oxman
The Ox-Mo Incident
Having had a slightly traumatic experience with a jazz bassoon recording some years back, I looked at this one with real trepidation when it arrived. But I’ve learned over the years to have a nearly implicit trust of the Capri label, so I cued it up. And with the opening head of the Rodgers & Hammerstein tune “Happy Talk” I started to relax: Keith Oxman’s tenor sax and Frank Morelli’s bassoon sounded really quite good together and were thoughtfully arranged. But then, after Oxman’s excellent opening solo, came the real test: how would Morelli’s solo sound? And to my great pleasure, it was a revelation: Morelli’s tone is woody and attractive, his phrasing is idiomatic and creative, his use of vibrato more reminiscent of Lester Young than of, I don’t know, Klaus Thunemann. What makes this album extra fun is the way that classical themes rub shoulders with standards like “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Recommended particularly to collections that support both classical and jazz programs.
Get Up or Cry
The music on this album, in the words of bassist/composer/bandleader Almog Sharvit, “is for the roller skaters, job seekers, goofy neighbors, disco dancers, sleep walkers, dream chasers, and the people who insist on leaving voicemails. This music is about joy, humor, grief and despair. I hope you will find a place for yourself within it.” If that introduction leaves you expecting music with a certain emotional openness, high energy, and maybe just a hint of frantic desperation, you’re not far wrong. “Dear Hunter” opens the program with a blues-influenced chord progression and a strong undertow of New Orleans trad jazz; “Roller Disco” is what a middle-period Weather Report album might have sounded like if played at 45 rpm; “Mx Bean” (heh heh) slows things down and creates a more melancholy mood, but an oddly whimsical one at the same time. Sharvit’s quintet delivers a complex and odd but ultimately joyful listening experience here, one that should find a welcome home in any comprehensive jazz collection.
Skúli Sverrisson with Bill Frisell
Strata (digital only)
No cat. no.
Originally issued on vinyl as part of a fancy and ridiculously expensive boxed set with a seasonal theme, Strata is a project by bassist/composer Skúli Sverrisson on which he’s joined by legendary guitarist Bill Frisell. This is not typical jazz, nor is it even typical bass-led duo music; conventionally in a situation like this, Frisell would be playing the tunes and Skerrisson would be playing supporting parts based mainly on chord roots or walking lines. What happens here instead is that Frisell and Skerrisson play interlocking parts, melodies weaving in and around each other, defining chord progressions collaboratively as they go. The music is quiet and beautiful, but also complex. Skerrisson writes utterly unique bass parts, and Frisell’s tone, which at this point he could probably get a patent for, bathes everything in a golden light. For all collections.
Hanamichi: The Final Studio Recording
The celebrated free-jazz pianist Masabumi Kikuchi died in 2015 at age 75, leaving behind an admirable catalog of recordings that includes collaborations with Gil Evans, Elvin Jones, Paul Motian, Sadao Watanabe and many others. The sessions documented on this album were recorded just a couple of years before he passed, over the course of two days in a New York studio. They find him improvising freely, but in several cases doing so in the context of jazz standards: the program opens with his take on “Ramona,” then proceeds to an achingly sad and beautiful rendition of “Summertime,” and then two takes on “My Favorite Things.” One track is entirely improvised, and the final one is a composed original work, a tender and lovely ballad written for his daughter Abi. Obviously, this is not your typical jazz album; nothing swings, and in fact regular meter is hard to come by. But it reflects the mature work of one of the jazz world’s truly unique pianistic talents.
Lara Hope and the Ark-Tones
Here to Tell the Tale
This is an album that could have ended up in the Rock/Pop section, but I just couldn’t help feeling that the defining feature of Lara Hope and the Ark-Tones’ music is the honky-tonk thread running through it at all times. You’ll hear that influence especially strongly on tracks like “Here to Tell the Tale” and “Whoa Is Me,” and you’ll hear it refracted through a spaghetti-Western prism on “Running in Circles.” On the other hand, “Some Advice” is a rollicking slice of shout-along rockabilly, and “Knocked Out” is a kind of high-octane Western swing. Hope’s voice is a cross between Tammy Wynette and Mae West, and her band provides a tight but elastic sense of swing. This is great music for driving down the highway in a vintage car, or for getting the guests out of their chairs at your next 1950s-themed party.
Queen of the In Between
Self-released (dist. Free Dirt)
No cat. no.
K.C. Jones straddles two trad-music cultures: she grew up in Appalachia and thoroughly absorbed the tunes, songs, and dance traditions of that region, but then moved to southern Louisiana, learned to speak Cajun French, and steeped herself in the musical traditions of that region as well while playing in bands like Feufollet and T’Monde. Along the line her own songwriting took on more than a hint of rock and modern country as well, and all of that preparation has now resulted in a solo debut that sounds completely unique. Yes, there’s moaning steel guitar on “Heat Rises” and the title track, and yes, the waltz-time “Stop on the Way” would probably be welcome in any Cajun bar, but the quietly gorgeous “Fall In Line” doesn’t fit any genre category I’m aware of, and it’s not the only song on this very fine album about which I could say that. Highly recommended.
The Kody Norris Show
All Suited Up
One thing I love is when really young kids embrace really old traditions and breathe new life into them. These days you see a lot of bearded-and-tattooed Millennnials learning to play clawhammer banjo and fiddle, and that’s great. But what you get with the Kody Norris Show is something very different: clean-shaven Millennials wearing tailored custom suits, silk scarves, and cowboy hats, and playing hard-driving, high-energy 1940s-style bluegrass–while also preserving/reviving the delightful tradition of single-mic performance (with its attendant onstage choreography and unique sound profile). Their debut on the Rebel label shows off the tightness and intensity they’ve developed over several years of performing and making self-released recordings, and they’re showcased to especially good effect on their brilliant version of “I’m Going to the Mountains” and the very fine Jimmy Martin-style original song “Love Bug.” These guys sound amazing already, and they still have plenty of runway left; keep an eye on them.
Tru Thoughts (dist. Redeye)
Anchorsong is the nom de production of Masaaki Yoshida, a Japanese-born, London-based producer whose star has been rising for some time now. If he fails to become a household name, it will probably be because the “borderless music” he makes is so hard to fit into a prefab genre designation. Are there beats? Yes, but they’re more or less peripheral to his music’s real thrust, which is hard to pin down: you’ll hear orchestral washes, wordless vocals, a koto every once in a while, a flute or some horns, unidentifiable squidges and bleeps, and on one track some Portuguese poetry–and yet somehow it all coheres into a sound that is lush and minimal at the same time, and deeply enjoyable. Mirage is the product of a remarkable musical imagination.
Poor Clares of Arundel
Light for the World
The Poor Clares are a monastic order of nuns that number around 20,000 worldwide. The Poor Clares of Arundel are an enclave in Sussex, whose goal is “to be ‘sisters’ to one another and to all whom God has made.” This recording of their devotional singing, which includes settings of common texts like “In paradisum” and “Pange lingua,” falls into a genre category that has become familiar since the massive success of the Gregorian plainchant album Chant by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos: devotional or liturgical music as, basically, New Age meditation. In this case, the meditative function of the music is buttressed by the addition of synthesized strings, gentle keyboard, etc. The music itself is modern, not classical, and there is no harmony; all melodies are sung in unison. When I describe it, I realize it may sound cloying and artificial. In practice, though, it works very well; you can essentially ignore the music and let it create a pleasant backdrop to your activities, or, if so inclined, you can pay close attention to the words and let the music guide your own devotional contemplation. Expect demand.
Love Songs (compilation; 2 discs)
Carrack-UK (dist. MVD)
Not only is this a compilation of tracks from Carrack’s many solo albums going back as far as 1996, but it’s also a metacompilation: the two discs in this package were previously released separately as Love Songs Volume 1 and Volume 2. Some of Carrack’s biggest hits were recorded before his solo career had really taken off, when he was a member of Squeeze (“Tempted”) and Mike and the Mechanics (“Living Years”), and none of those are included here, but this collection demonstrates that if you’ve been sleeping on Carrack as a solo artist you’ve really been missing out. Most of the songs are originals (quite a few cowritten with his old Squeeze bandmate Chris Difford), but there are some well-chosen covers as well: songs by Burt Bacharach (“Any Day Now,” “Walk on By”), Bruce Springsteen (“If I Should Fall Behind”), and Allen Toussaint (“Tell Somebody Who Cares”), among others. His forays into American Songbook standards like “All the Way” and “Moon River” are less satisfying, because they require him to step out of his natural vocal style, which is simmering blue-eyed soulfulness. But there are really no weak tracks here; everything on this collection showcases one of the great soul-pop voices of his generation and an exceptionally gifted songwriter.
Get Set, Go! (EP; digital only)
No cat. no.
I confess that I was drawn into this release by one line from the accompanying press materials: “Let’s be clear: La Battue aren’t depressing!”. Intrigued by the fact that this needed to be clarified, I cued up the EP and gave it a virtual spin, and I’m glad I did. La Battue is a brother-sister-friend trio based in Rennes, France, and they make music that sounds on the surface like pretty straight-ahead synth pop: pretty melodies, breathy vocals, swirly-bleepy synths, you know the drill. But pay attention and you’ll notice the weird song structures, tricky time signatures, and general math-rock influences. That combination of a sweet surface covering a deeper crunchiness makes this release more than usually interesting–and really makes me wish La Battue would release a full-length album one of these days (this is their second EP). Allez, les gars! Foncez!
Reggae Angels (with Sly & Robbie)
Remember Our Creator (2 discs)
No cat. no.
When you get a little ways into this new album from Oakland, California-based band Reggae Angels, you start to notice something. Not only are all of the songs spiritually oriented (by no means an anomaly in the roots reggae context), but they’re all specifically about the obligations of a spiritual disciple. In other words, whereas other reggae projects in the “truths and rights” tradition tend to focus not only on what God’s followers should be doing in order to embody and promote righteousness, but also on the depredations of Babylon and the wickedness of its inhabitants (the police, politicians, sectarian religionists, barbers, etc.), Reggae Angels’ focus here is entirely on the former. Call it “truths and responsibilities” rather than “truths and rights,” I guess. And the music itself? Absolutely solid meat-and-potatoes modern roots reggae, thanks to the contributions of legendary bass/drums/production duo Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare–and thanks also, it must be said, to the lyrics of frontman Peter “Fenton” Wardle, whose singing voice is workmanlike but whose sincerity and purity of delivery will remind you somewhat of Israel Vibration’s Apple Gabriel. And yes, that’s the great Dean Fraser on the horns cut of “Contentment,” and that’s Jim Fox providing the fine dub versions on disc 2.
In Dub (digital only)
Echo Beach (dist. MVD)
Marcelo Tijerina and Ulises Lozano, originally from Mexico but located in Los Angeles since 2000, have recorded several albums under the name Mexican Dubwiser (a band name that, I suspect, is a punning reference to the common characterization of Tecate beer as “Mexican Budweiser”). As one might expect, their style blends the churning, lurching beats of electronic cumbia with the bass-heavy grooves of reggae, and this collection finds an international cast of celebrated producers giving their tunes a variety of dubwise remixes. You’ll hear reworks by Dubvisionist, iLLBILLY HiTEC, and La Gorda Dubs–but mostly by Dubvisionist–and everything is drenched in the sound quality that longstanding fans of the Echo Beach label have come to expect: digital but deep, bassy but crisp, colorful and energetic. This is a perfect summer album that practically invites you to throw your face mask out the car window while you drive on a beachside highway.
Evton and Skip Burton are brothers who were both born with cystic fibrosis, and whose outlook and approach to life have been significantly shaped by the ever-present potential of untimely death (one of the brothers has already endured a double lung transplant). In the meantime, they’re focusing on producing some of the sharpest and most forward-looking roots reggae currently in the marketplace; their dense, swirling productions compare favorably with those of John Brown’s Body, and their blend of hip hop, dancehall, and roots reggae is admirably seamless. On this, their third album, they’re joined by Jamaican legends including Sizzla, Capleton, and my personal heroine Jah9, as well as by the hugely popular Hawaiian reggae artist Mike Love on songs that glow with tuneful positivity and feature elephantine grooves. Highlights include the slow-rolling one-drop anthem “Ease and Flow” and the dancehall bubbler “Bless the Water,” but honestly there’s not a single weak track here. For all collections.
In Dub II (digital only)
Translations II (digital only)
Two new collections from the always-reliable Dubmission label here, each of them representing a second volume of remixes by a label stalwart. Paddy Free is a producer based in New Zealand, and when he isn’t functioning as a member of the electronic duo Pitch Black he can often be found remixing the work of his colleagues. In Dub II finds him focusing on tracks by fellow New Zealanders, as well as work by artists from Mexico and Australia. Here he favors a dark and trancey sound, tending towards steppers and house beats but keeping things interesting with the occasional foray into junglism (Deep Fried Dub’s “Condensor”) and rockers (Kingfisha’s “Aftermath”). On Translations II, Misled Convoy (a.k.a. Mike Hodgson, who is, incidentally, the other half of Pitch Black) deconstructs the Bim Sherman version of the roots reggae classic “Mafia,” dubs up a FreQ Nasty tune (“Transform”), and creates a radically new setting of singer-songwriter Sandy Mill’s “Let It Go,” among other tracks. As great as these guys are when they work together, it’s fun to hear what they get up to on their own as well, and both of these albums are utterly solid slabs of modern dub.
Broken Beats 2
In 2013, the frequently brilliant Echo Beach label released a Horace Andy remix compilation called Broken Beats. It brought together a diverse collection of musicians and producers that included Oliver Frost, Umberto Echo, Dubblestandart, and Rob Smith to pay tribute to the reggae legend by giving classic hits like “Skylarking,” “Money,” and “Bad Man” thoroughly new settings reflecting all that had happened in the realm of dance and bass music in the decades since their original release. Now we have a second installment in the project, featuring some of those same producers and a whole bunch of new ones as well, including Black Star Liner, T-Jah, and Noiseshaper. As one would expect, these new versions are almost uniformly magnificent, from Adubta’s sturdy rockers dub-up of “Money” to New Bladerunner of Dub’s abstract and junglistic take on “Skylarking.” It’s too bad that these folks didn’t dig deeper into Andy’s enviable deep catalog of great songs–the CD version of this album includes three versions each of the very familiar “Skylarking” and “Cuss Cuss,” and no fewer than six of “Money”–but the mixes are so unique that you might not even notice the repetition. Overall, this disc makes an admirable companion to the original Broken Beats album. (The digital version appends a bunch of additional material.)