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July 2021


CLASSICAL


Kassianí
Hymns of Kassianí
Cappella Romana / Alexander Lingas
Cappella (dist. Naxos)
CR422

This world-premiere recording showcases the earliest known music composed by a woman: the 9th(!)-century nun known only as Kassianí. A Byzantine chant hymn generally called “The Hymn of Kassianí” is relatively well known among Eastern Orthodox congregations (especially in Greece) and is customarily sung during evening services on Holy Tuesday. However, she produced much more than this single hymn; her works circulated widely in the church after her death, and many have ended up in official service books–though not always with accurate attribution. On this album, the mixed-voice Cappella Romana performs hymns that Kassianí wrote for both Christmas and Holy Week services; some are sung by men’s voices, some by women’s, and some by a mixed chorus. Often a drone pitch accompanies the unison melody, creating a sound that is structurally related to organum but sounds very different, thanks to the unique Eastern modalities involved. The performances were recorded in the wonderfully reverberant acoustic of the Madeleine Parish in Portland, Oregon, creating the perfect sonic atmosphere for this powerful and mystical music.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Concertone (reissue)
Ensemble 415 / Chiara Banchini
Alpha (dist. Naxos)
618

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Gran Partita: Wind Serenades K. 361 & 375
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Harmonia Mundi (dist. Integral)
HMM 902627

Here are two wonderful releases focusing on Mozart’s lighter side. The Akademie für Alte Musik release showcases two of Mozart’s serenades: the frequently-recorded “Gran Partita” (K. 361), and the somewhat less well-known serenade #11 (K. 375). On the Ensemble 415 recording, the centerpiece of the program is the K. 63 “cassation” (a term designating a piece much like a serenade), which is bracketed by performances of Mozart’s serenade K. 239 and a rather unusual chamber work labeled a “concertone,” a concerto-like piece written for orchestra with significant solo passages for two violins, oboe, and cello. Period instruments are a particularly attractive choice for music of this lightness and accessibility, and while the use of natural horns is always risky due to the particular difficulty of producing rich and pleasant tones with those instruments, in the cases of both of these recordings the ensemble sound is simply gorgeous–the Akademie für Alte Musik is particularly well produced, with a burnished and brilliant tone. And of course the music, being Mozart, is endlessly enjoyable. For all collections.


Claude Goudimel; Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
Psalms and Motets from Renaissance Switzerland
Ensemble Lamaraviglia / Stephanie Boller
Claves
50-3008

Originally published in 1562, the Genevan Psalter was the first musical collection to set the texts of all 150 Biblical psalms. It was put together under the aegis of John Calvin, and the texts were originally published with only single, simple melody lines for congregational singing. A couple of years later, Claude Goudimel created four-part settings for them and these were published in a new edition (along with text translations into other European languages). Later, another edition was published featuring new settings by the great Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. For this quietly luminous recording the Ensemble Lamaraviglia has taken 24 selections from the songbook and presents them in a variety of versions: the unison melodies, the Goudimel settings, and the more elaborate Sweelinck settings. The result is so lovely that you’ll be left wishing they’d done all 150 psalms and presented the result as a box set. Hopefully there will be more installments in the future.


Various Composers
Reflections
Víkingur Ólafsson
Deutsche Grammophon
00289 483 9222

The venerable Deutsche Grammophon label (founded in 1898, and possibly the most revered classical imprint in the world) has been getting adventurous in recent years. The stylistically sprawling work of Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson is one example: a musician well known for his interpretations of Bach and Chopin, he has also performed many works by Icelandic composers and has ventured into the minimalist and post-minimalist repertoire, but what really sets him apart is his willingness to mess with the classics of the repertoire–as evidenced most boldly in his recent recording of Bach “reworks.” On Reflections, artists such as Hania Rani, Helgi Jonsson, and Balmorhea have taken Olafsson’s recordings of pieces by Debussy, Rameau, and others, and (in some cases) radically re-set them using electronic treatments and additional instruments; other tracks simply feature Ólafsson himself playing miniatures and movements by Debussy or improvising. At times the pedal action on his piano is distressingly loud, but otherwise this is a lovely and surprisingly tasteful example of ways that the classical tradition can effectively be updated for a new generation.


JAZZ


Alex Collins; Ryan Berg; Karl Latham
Together
Drop Zone Jazz
DZJ202101

Technically, this is a standards album–all tracks except perhaps Wayne Shorter’s “Night Dreamer” are jazz standards–but it’s a standards album with a difference: the Collins/Berg/Lathan trio play these tunes in such a freewheeling way that they’re almost unrecognizable. Please note that I said “freewheeling,” and not “free”; there’s nothing harmolodic or “out” about these arrangements. It’s just that each member of the trio plays in an impressionistic manner and takes great liberties with both melody and rhythm (while remaining nicely tethered to each tune’s harmonic structure). Collins in particular plays in a style that might be characterized as the logical extreme of the Bill Evans approach, except with brighter chord voicings and a somewhat more obviously bravura technique. Bassist Berg plays in a style similarly connected to that of Scott LaFaro, rarely walking and in fact rarely defining a steady meter, while drummer Latham simultaneously holds things together and contributes his own pointillistic flourishes. The result is a program that harks back to tradition even as it lovingly explodes it, and on tender deconstructions of tunes like “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” the effect is electrifying. Highly recommended.


Doug MacDonald Duo
Toluca Lake Jazz
Self-released
DM18

A guitar-bass duo album is likely going to appeal to a relatively narrow spectrum of jazz fans, but there are ways to broaden the appeal. One is to keep the proceedings very straight-ahead: no skronky noise, no off-puttingly atonal free-jazz excursions, just lots of solid walking lines in the bass and lots of sweet-toned guitar. Another is to keep the program itself familiar: in other words, lots of standards. On this album, guitarist Doug MacDonald and bassist Harvey Newmark do a great job of keeping things accessible without playing it so safe that the music gets boring. MacDonald’s penchant for chord-based solos keeps the musical midrange nice and full even as he explores thoroughly the melodic contours of classic tunes like “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” and “These Foolish Things,” while Newmark holds down the harmonic bottom while also keeping the rhythm solid and consistent (and his solos nicely concise). If you’re not paying too close attention, you might not even notice how many original tunes there are on this very fine album. For all jazz collections.


Doug Webb
Apples & Oranges
Posi-tone
PR8213

When the lineup features tenor sax, organ, and drums, you know you’re in for a funky experience. (Jazz organ players generally prefer to work without bass players, opting instead to provide their own bass lines via the instrument’s pedals.) You can also expect at least one excursion into greasy blues, and on his latest album as a leader saxophonist/composer Doug Webb gets that part out of the way immediately, opening the proceedings with his original “Alexico.” This is immediately followed by his gently swinging waltz entitled “Monkey Face” and then by another original, the briskly boppish and harmonically slippery “Forethought” (and listen to how he walks right up to the edge of experimental noisiness on both his first and second solos, before pulling back from the brink; he does something similar during “Coruba,” to nice effect). What follows is a mixed program of standards and originals, on which Webb displays his mastery of multiple jazz subgenres and his unrelentingly gorgeous tone–a sound that I wouldn’t hesitate to compare to that of Stan Getz. Organist Brian Charette and drummer Andy Sanesi provide admirable backing on this exceptionally fine album.


Bill Evans
Behind the Dikes: The 1969 Netherlands Recordings (2 discs)
Elemental Music
5990441

Producer Zev Feldman continues his highly productive relationship with the Bill Evans estate by releasing this magnificent two-disc live document of concerts in Hilversum and Amsterdam in 1969. Although these performances have been circulating among collectors in low-quality bootleg recordings for years, this is the first time they’ve been remastered and prepared for formal release, and the increase in sound quality (not to mention the fact that proceeds from sales will actually go to the Evans family) makes this a must-have for all library jazz collections. The music itself is spectacularly good. Accompanied by the great bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell, Evans is in exceptional form: playing “My Funny Valentine” as a midtempo swinger was an interesting choice, and is fully justified here; “Someday My Prince Will Come” was written as a waltz, but Evans and trio play it here in an uptempo 4/4, with Evans sounding positively joyful as he inserts playfully bluesy elements and a remarkably long 16th-note passage in his solos. He delivers an unusually fresh version of the hoary “‘Round Midnight,” and the second disc concludes with something unusual: two performances with the Metropole Orkest, arrangements of pieces by Granados and Fauré. Evans’ legions of fans will of course be thrilled with this release, but it should be welcomed warmly by all jazz lovers.


FOLK/COUNTRY


J.P. Harris’ Dreadful Wind & Rain
Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man
Free Dirt (dist. Redeye)
DIRT-CD-0102

Banjo player (and builder) J.P. Harris stripped everything down for this album. His voice and his fretless banjo are the only instruments at times, while on some tracks he’s accompanied by the fiddling and harmony singing of Chance McCoy (Old Crow Medicine Show). The tunes and songs are all traditional; many will be familiar (in one version or another) to adepts of the old-time music repertoire: “Mole in the Ground,” “Old Bangum,” “Wild Bill Jones,” etc. Harris’ banjo technique is superb, and while his quavery singing style may come across as a bit mannered, it serves these weird old songs quite well, and his voice is pleasantly low and chesty. The occasional crooked rhythm and creepy lyric, along with the generally dark atmosphere, combine to create a mysterious and quite wonderful mood altogether. Here’s hoping for more from this impressive artist in the future.


Larry Sparks
Ministry in Song
Rebel
REB-CD-1875

Great bluegrass singers tend to get better as they age. Think of Ralph Stanley, for instance: even as his voice got weaker and more creaky, it became more expressive and powerful. Some of that was due to his particular otherworldly talent, which rivaled that of George Jones–an ability to use his specific vocal instrument in ways that could make the hair on your neck rise with the slightest gesture. Some of the same can be said of Larry Sparks, who, coming to the end of a 60-year music career, has earned a voice that is just as articulate in its wrinkles and crackles as in its continued reliability of intonation and expressiveness. For this gospel program Sparks has selected a list of songs that centers around compositions by Daniel Crabtree (“Don’t Take Your Eyes off Jesus,” “Holdin’ On”) but also draws on work by Hank Williams (“House of Gold,” “I Saw the Light”) and others–though to my ear, Sparks’ own “King Jesus” is the strongest track here. That said, there are no weak ones. Recommended.


Bill & the Belles
Happy Again
Ditty Boom (dist. Free Dirt)
DBO-CD-0021

People react to divorce in any number of ways. Writing songs about it is certainly one of them. What’s a bit unusual (unless you’re Loudon Wainwright) is to write funny songs about your divorce in a folk-adjacent style, and with a sometimes deeply biting wit. Bill & the Belles frontman Kris Truelsen does that here, straddling the line between folk-pop, acoustic hot jazz, and Tin Pan Alley styles with style and aplomb and a hearty helping of self-deprecation (and an occasional foray into sly sexual double entendre). There’s a darkly hilarious video of “Sobbin’ the Blues,” if you’re interested, and producer Teddy Thompson’s strategy of recording live and sticking to first or second takes succeeds at giving this album a warmth and sense of raw openness that work very well.


ROCK/POP


Scorn
The Only Place
Ohm Resistance
61 M

Within about 30 seconds of cueing this album up, you’ll know whether it’s for you–partly because Scorn’s sound has evolved over the years into something so distinctive, and partly because the sound and mood of this album in particular are both so consistent (and, some might say, unrelenting). The mood I would characterize as “grumpy”; the sound I would characterize as “rumbling”–and I mean both of those descriptors in the most positive way. The band’s roots in industrial rock are hinted at (and their roots in grindcore are hinted at more subtly), but what you hear mostly is a sort of sub-bass-heavy, avant-garde vision of post-dubstep: definite beats, smears of pitchless synth noise, the moans of dying brontosauruses. You’ll also hear Kool Keith on one track, rapping in his inimitably bizarro style. I realize I may not be selling this album effectively, but trust me, it’s outstanding–if you have ears to hear.


Lanterns on the Lake
Gracious Tide, Take Me Home (10th Anniversary Edition; vinyl and digital only)
Bella Union (dist. Integral)
BELLA1150DIG

Having secured a Mercury Prize nomination for their second album, Spook the Herd, the Newcastle, England-based dream-folk-pop ensemble Lanterns on the Lake decided to reintroduce the world to their lovely debut album. Gracious Tide, Take Me Home is, accordingly, being given the deluxe reissue treatment: this new version is remastered and offers five new tracks that were recorded during the original sessions. The group’s sound is lush and inviting, with relatively simple melodies enhanced by dense but light-textured arrangements; lead vocals are shared among the gender-diverse group members, and when the others join in they’re as likely to sing in unison as in harmony. Lyrics are deeply influenced by the band’s Northeast England heritage: sailors, rain, ships, harbors, fishing, etc. all make appearances in these songs, but they explore more universal themes of love, encouragement, and homecoming as well. And sometimes they rock, though always in a gentle way. This is an altogether lovely album, and if you slept on its original issue you now have a great opportunity to catch up.


Damiana
Vines (vinyl and digital only)
Hausu Mountain (dist. Redeye)
HAUSM0108

Damiana is a duo consisting of Natalie Chami and Whitney Johnson, each of whom has built a separate reputation in Chicago’s experimental-music scene (Chami generally records under the name TALsounds, and Johnson as Matchess, but both have worked in other ensembles as well). For their debut as a duo, Chami and Johnson have created music that is quite hard to categorize: “Wrap the Sky,” the opening track, rides on a gently relentless eighth-note rhythm while synthesized strings expand and contract in a mostly consonant way, while “Melted Reach” is more harmonically unsettled and “Sunken Lupine” floats abstractly and “Under an Aster” throbs impatiently under dubwise snatches of echoey vocal. And that’s it–at 32 minutes, this four-track “LP” is way too short. But of course that’s just a compliment to the music.


Various Artists
The Problem of Leisure: A Tribute to Andy Gill and Gang of Four (2 discs)
Gill Music LTD
GILL21CD

Billed as “a double album of Gang of Four songs covered by some of Andy Gill’s favorite artists,” this tribute collection features artists as celebrated as Helmet, Gary Numan(!), and the Dandy Warhols alongside up-and-comers like LoneLady and Warpaint. (For those not in the know, Andy Gill was Gang of Four’s guitarist and one of its principal songwriters; he died tragically and unexpectedly in 2020.) As these kinds of projects always are, this one is a bit of a dog’s breakfast–but I mean that in the best possible way. Herbert Grönemeyer’s take on “I Love a Man in a Uniform” (the closest thing to a “hit” the Gang ever had) is heartfelt but weird, while Gary Numan’s version of “Love Like Anthrax” is brilliant in its blend of crunchy rock and synth-pop sonorities, and Gail Ann Dorsey delivers a rendition of “We Live As We Dream, Alone” that manages to duplicate many elements of the original version while at the same time making a completely new and personal statement with the song. The producers’ decision to let multiple artists record versions of the same song turns out to have been inspired, as (for example) the instructive differences between LoneLady’s and Sekar Melati’s (gamelan-based and instrumental) versions of “Not Great Men” show. Tribute albums are notoriously unreliable listening experiences, but this one is a solid winner.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Kasai Allstars
Black Ants Always Fly Together, One Bangle Makes No
Crammed Discs
cram 295

Notable in part for their history of delightfully inscrutable album titles (their debut was called In the 7th Moon, the Chief Turned into a Swimming Fish and Ate the Head of His Enemy by Magic, and their second album was simply called Beware the Fetish), the Kinshasa-based Kasai Allstars is truly something of a Congolese supergroup, formed by the former members of five different bands, each of them coming from a different cultural tradition; each of its four singers performs in a different language. “Strength in unity” is the overarching theme of this album, and while those of us not conversant in Lulua, Kisonge, Tshiluba, or Kitetela may have a hard time following the lyrics, no one will have trouble being caught up in the dense sonic textures (created by a blend of modern electronic and ancient instruments) and rippling, trance-inducing rhythms. For me the highlight track is the gorgeous “Baba Bende,” but there are so many wonderful moments here. Highly recommended to all libraries with a collecting interest in African music.


Arooj Aftab
Vulture Prince (vinyl and digital only)
New Amsterdam
No cat. no.

This album, by Brooklyn-based Pakistani singer and composer Arooj Aftab, left me absolutely dumbfounded when I followed up on a mention of it that I had stumbled across in an article. I don’t even remember what the article was about; I just remember seeing reference to Aftab as someone who was expanding the boundaries of Sufi devotional music. I followed a link and fell into a spiral of musical, intellectual, and spiritual pleasure. And for those who think the phrase “spiritual pleasure” represents a contradiction in terms, I strongly urge you to check out Aftab’s music. Her voice is a thing of floating beauty, and so is the music that envelopes it; there is meter here, but rarely anything close to a beat, and yet the music proceeds with a combination of inexorable logic and free, nebulous impressionism. (There’s one exception: “Last Night,” which veers off disorientingly but weirdly perfectly into straight-up acoustic reggae.) Aftab’s melodies unfold slowly, but seem inevitable once you hear them. Her accompaniment includes guitars, harps, and other instruments not easy to identify–possible a kora, probably some synthesizers, I’m pretty sure a trumpet. The lack of immediately-obvious instrumental touchpoints is part of what makes it easy to abandon oneself to quiet and contemplative listening, which is richly, amply rewarded. For all collections.


Ronu Majumdar
The Indian Bansuri
Naxos World
NXW76110-2

Like other, similar titles on the Naxos World imprint, this one is intended as an introduction to an important world music tradition, primarily for newcomers. In this case the subject is the bansuri, a bamboo transverse flute that is one of the central instruments of India’s northern Hindustani tradition. The booklet includes a brief discussion of the instrument and of the structure of classical Indian music itself, as well as background information about the featured artist, Pandit Ronu Majumdar (who is accompanied here by tabla player Ajeet Pathak; the tamboura player is not credited). The fact that this disc is intended for those unfamiliar with Indian music should not deter the aficionado, however; Majumdar’s playing is justly celebrated, and on this excellent recording he plays three ragas of different characters, all performances reflecting his deep grounding in the maihar garānā school. Highly recommended to all collections.


Manudigital
Digital Kingston Session 2 (EP; vinyl and digital only)
X-Ray Production
XRPVY2107

For this release, French producer Manudigital used a Casio MT40 programmable keyboard–the instrument that famously produced the “Sleng Teng” rhythm–and recreated some classic rhythms from the 1980s heyday of digital dancehall, then invited some legends of the genre to come and voice new tunes on them. (Fans will recognize this as the same modus operandi behind his previous Digital Kingston Session EP, from 2018.) This time out he’s attracted such A-list talent as Capleton, Junior Cat, and Peter Metro, and since all were invited essentially to freestyle on the mic there are really no song titles on the program. But while the “tracklist,” such as it is, might lead the wary consumer to expect something along the lines of a slapped-together sound system board tape, this EP actually feels carefully constructed and hangs together very well. Any reggae collection would benefit from adding both this release and its predecessor.


About Rick Anderson

I'm University Librarian at Brigham Young University, and author of the book Scholarly Communication: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2018).

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