Hildegard von Bingen
Hildegard von Bingen was a 12th century abbess, now famous for being something of a Renaissance woman hundreds of years before the Renaissance. She was a composer, philosopher, theologian, and natural scientist, and recorded numerous spiritual visions. But since the 1980s she has been best known for her music, which consists of surpassingly beautiful plainchant written for the nuns she supervised in her abbey. One of her most remarkable compositions is Ordo Virtutem, a morality play that depicts a wandering soul struggling to choose between good and evil. She is enticed by the Virtues (represented by the women’s voices) and by the Devil (portrayed by a man, who never sings; he only speaks and shouts). Seraphic Fire’s performance is passionate and ethereal by turns, and they sing with a magnificent blend. In his role as the Devil, James K. Bass is suitably bombastic, sneering, and pathetic. If your library doesn’t already own a performance of this work, start here.
Harry Partch Ensemble / Danlee Mitchell
Subtitled “A Ballet Satire,” this ten-scene composition (plus prologue and epilogue) seems to have been intended as a commentary on everything in 1950s America that drove Harry Partch crazy: mindless conformity in both society and music; popular entertainments; sports (at one point an actual basketball game is played onstage); soap opera; etc. If you’re at all familiar with Partch’s work and his well-documented tendency to build homemade instruments for use in performance, you won’t be surprised that the music is percussion-heavy and draws deeply on Indonesian influences, or that the staging required the dancers to move around and sometimes even interfere with the musicians. Space doesn’t permit a summary of the story line; suffice it to say that as fun and interesting as the music is, you’ll wish you could watch the action as well. This is a recording of a live performance from 1980, and it has a suitably energetic, not to say chaotic, live-performance vibe.
Sonate à quattro
Ricercar (dist. Naxos)
I’ve always been fascinated by music that represents an inflection point of stylistic change, and the four-part sonatas of Alessandro Scarlatti are a wonderful example of such works. Around the 1700s, these compositions for four stringed instruments (the “string quartet,” as such, was not yet conceived) were unique in that they explicitly excluded the harpsichord, which at this point was still widely considered an essential element of the continuo. The music itself sounds as if it has one foot in the consort music of the Renaissance and the other in the structural rigors of baroque counterpoint; just when you think you’ve settled into one predictable set of sonorities the ground shifts beneath you. This program sets Scarlatti’s sonatas next to works by his brother Francesco and his son Domenico, as well as brief pieces by two earlier composers who exerted an influence on him: Giovanni Maria Trabaci and the celebrated Mannerist composer Carlo Gesualdo. The playing is outstanding. A must for all libraries supporting classical music pedagogy.
Seven Sacred Names
Cantaloupe Music (dist. Naxos)
Described as “music corresponding to the seven stages of universal awakening outlined in the book Nature’s Hidden Dimension by W.H.S. Gebel,” these seven chamber pieces seek to accompany what it essentially an exploration of the mystical dimension between the physical and spiritual worlds. Harrison is a student of Sufism, and that spiritual tradition is referenced explicitly in the titles of these pieces, though only a couple of them draw musically on South Indian elements. As one might expect, the music itself is quiet — sometimes it tends towards the pentatonic (as on Hayy: Revealing the Tones) and sometimes it’s quite melodically complex (as on the raga-based Alim: Polyphonic Raga Malkauns — and let’s stop here a moment and contemplate the fascinating concept of a polyphonic raga). Arrangements are for various small combinations of instruments and voices, and all of it is quite marvelous.
Johann Caspar Kerll
Missa non sine quare (reissue)
La Risonanza / Fabio Bonizzoni
Glossa (dist. Naxos)
Before hearing this album, I was only vaguely aware of the 17th century Viennese composer Johann Caspar Kerll. And now I’m experiencing that wonderful feeling that comes when you discover a new composer and have the opportunity to dig deeper and hear more. In the meantime, I can enthusiastically recommend this reissue of the outstanding La Risonanza’s performance (a 1999 recording originally issued on the Symphonia label), in which the small vocal forces serve to showcase Kerll’s mastery of imitative counterpoint and the aching loveliness of his melodies. As a student of Carissimi and a teacher of Pachelbel, Kerll was among the composers who ushered in the era of the Bach family, and you can hear Bach waiting impatiently in the wings here. Highly recommended to all libraries with a collecting interest in baroque music.
Aufbruch is a duo consisting of keyboardist/synthesist/programmer J. Peter Schwalm and touch guitarist Markus Reuter. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a “touch guitar” (of which the Chapman Stick may be the most famous example) is a stringed instrument designed so that vibration of its strings is actuated by tapping on them behind the frets; this frees up both hands to play notes all over the fretboard at once, in much the same way that a keyboard is played. On their debut recording as a duo, Schwalm and Reuter create dense, crunchy, but also oddly ethereal and sometimes explicitly uplifting soundscapes that tend not to move according to any obvious harmonic logic and are often sonically challenging, but yet never fail to invite the listener in. Sometimes you’ll hear instruments that are recognizable in timbre and character: electronic drums that sound like drums; a guitar that sounds like a guitar. But mostly you’ll hear a kaleidoscopic array of sounds and noises that sound like they came from another planet, and it’s fascinating. Also, don’t miss the subtle but excellent vocal contributions from Sophie Tassignon on “Lebewohl” and “Losgelöst.”
Graham Haynes vs. Submerged
Burning Ambulance Music
And while we’re exploring the liminal boundaries of jazz and being challenged as to our assumptions about what the word actually means, let’s check out this wild and magnificent collaboration between legendary cornettist Graham Haynes and avant-garde junglist Kurt Glück-Aeg, who produces and records under the name Submerged (and is the founder of the excellent avant-D&B label Ohm Resistance). The sounds they produce are pretty much what you’d expect if you’re familiar with their work individually: Haynes plays discursive, intelligent lines informed by his familiarity with Submerged’s music (and that were recorded in Brazil), and Submerged gives them electronic treatments and places them in a rhythmic and sonic context. In Haynes’ words, the goal was “trying to be as intense as possible and still be musical,” and I would say they achieved that goal: Haynes’ parts are altered but always respected, and the soundscapes created by Submerged draw on industrial, techno, drum’n’bass, and other electronic genres to create brand-new sounds and expansive (though often somewhat harsh and challenging) structures. Highly recommended.
Momenta (digital only)
Back in 2020 I strongly recommended bassist/composer Massimo Biolcati’s sophomore effort as a leader, and now here I am again doing the same for his third. On Momenta Biolcati leads a quartet whose members shift throughout the program, which itself consists of the usual blend of excellent original compositions, standards, and one surprising jazz adaptation of a 1980s pop song. (Last time it was Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”; this time it’s Sadé’s “Love Is Stronger Than Pride.”) As always, Biolcati leads his band strongly but modestly, showing off the other musicians’ playing more than his own. There are so many wonderful moments here: “Estate” has a beautifully swaying, “Night and Day” vibe; on “Gumbo,” I had to double-check to make sure that the guitarist wasn’t Bill Frisell (and yes, that’s definitely intended as a compliment to the actual guitarist, Mike Moreno); Biolcati’s take on “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” is one of the most gorgeous jazz performances I’ve heard this year. Throughout the album the band’s sound is gentle but firm, often floating but never aimless. It’s another brilliant outing by one of the current jazz scene’s most impressive talents.
Tobias Hoffmann Nonet
Tobias Hoffmann is a widely experienced saxophonist, composer, arranger, and educator, but this is the first album on which he has led a band on a program consistingly entirely of his own compositions and arrangements. As one might expect, he takes this opportunity to showcase his broad stylistic range and his remarkable gift for horn writing. The smooth and pleasant modern jazz of the first three tracks takes a sudden turn on “Procrastinator,” which is rhythmically knotty and calls for passages of group improvisation scattered among the tightly composed sections of the head. In fact, it’s not always easy to tell what’s composed and what isn’t on this fascinating composition. The same is true of the midtempo “Frülingserwachen” (which calls for the drummer to push things along with a bubbling stream of accents below more languid horn lines). “Who’s to Blame” has a richly-written horn chart and a swinging groove that harks back explicitly both to 1960s hard bop sound and to the 1930s heyday of big band arranging. “Remembrance” is a gorgeous ballad. Everything here is played with dynamism and virtuosity; this album would make a welcome addition to any jazz collection.
Slowly: Song for Keith Jarrett
A number of musical and life transitions led to pianist/composer Noah Haidu’s latest album. Haidu’s father passed away shortly before the two were scheduled to attend a Keith Jarrett concert together; that concert turned out to be Jarrett’s last, as he later suffered a pair of strokes that left him partially paralyzed. Jarrett turned 75 this past spring, and Haidu decided to team up with the legendary rhythm section of drummer Billy Hart and bassist Buster Williams for a tribute recording. The music is actually mostly standards and originals by members of the trio, but the program also includes Jarrett’s own “Rainbow,” which segues directly into Haidu’s joyful “Keith Jarrett.” As one might expect from this lineup, the playing is absolutely exquisite; on the ballads in particular (notably the Williams composition “Air Dancing”) the trio’s ability to stay absolutely together while implying the rhythm more than stating it is breathtaking. But there are highlights all over this tremendous album. A must-purchase for all libraries.
Jeb Loy Nichols with Cold Diamond & Mink
Granted, his current label bills Jeb Loy Nichols as a “soul/R&B” artist, and I was introduced to him when he made a somewhat incongruous (but fantastic) reggae/country album for the On-U Sound label. But I just can’t help but think of Jeb Loy Nichols as a country artist, or at least a country-inflected Americana artist. And no, it’s not just the cowboy hat and the denim jacket. It’s the fact that even when there’s a reggae backbeat or a horn section in the arrangement, and even when his voice is at its most Dan Penn-like, I still feel like I hear Nashville in his sound. And yes, that’s a compliment. Listen to the acoustic guitar part that underlies the bossa-derived beat and the smooth horns on “I Just Can’t Stop”; listen to the twang (not to mention the harmonica) that pervades “Like a Rainy Day.” And besides, his current label is Finnish. So yeah, I don’t care what you say: Jeb Loy Nichols is a country artist. And I say more power to him.
I See Hawks in L.A.
On Our Way
Western Seeds Record Company
Once referred to in the music press as “sort of a rural Steely Dan,” I See Hawks in L.A. have, over the course of 22 years, built a reputation for sharp songwriting and keen wit, gathering fans and sharing stages with artists as diverse and distinguished as the Mavericks, Dave Alvin, Peter Case, and the Meat Puppets(!). Their tenth album was recorded under COVID duress, each band member remote from the others, and at a time when global political and social concerns were top of mind. These folks being quite mature at this point, their approach to these concerns was careful; they wanted to “state (their) views without exploiting suffering.” And I would argue that they accomplished that, particularly acutely on tracks like “Mississippi Gas Station Blues” and “Geronimo.” This is one of those bands that both documents and demonstrates the constantly blurring separation between country, folk, and roots rock — while being fully able to deliver a phrase like “bumpin’ Morton Subotnick” without sounding at all funny. Recommended.
This album was my first exposure to the music of Ric Robertson, and I came away from it seriously intrigued. His roots are clearly in what has come to be called “Americana,” but there’s lots of weird stuff going on here — starting with the production: listen, for example, to the strange use of echo and delay on “Getting Over Our Love” and the squidgy equalization applied to both the guitar and the sax solos on the slinky “I Don’t Mind.” But the content is plenty unusual as well; compare, for example, the slow honky-tonk chug of “Harmless Feeling” to the blend of subtle Tin Pan Alley chord changes and even subtler electronic tweaks that give “Sycamore Hill” a sweet-and-sour complexity. (Note also the opening line: “The coffee is cold and the spliff half smoked,” which is a pretty great way to start a song.) But also check out the heartfelt “My Love Never Sleeps,” which, honestly, sounds more than a little like Paul Simon — and I mean that in only the best way. I’ll be keeping an eye on this guy.
Ora the Molecule
The concept of “avant-pop” has always been like catnip for me. I just love the tension: how avant-garde can it be and still be pop? How pop can it be and still be avant-garde? Not since the heyday of Pere Ubu has this question been so fruitfully explored by so many. Including, now, the wonderful Norwegian singer and songwriter Nora Schjelderup, who records under the much-more-pronounceable (by me, anyway) moniker Ora the Molecule. As one might expect of 21st-century avant-pop, it’s very much electronic music: steady and bubbling beats underly weird lyrics and subtly hooky melodies, all delivered with Schjelderup’s unassumingly pretty voice. Highlights? Well, “Die to Be a Butterfly” nicely evokes early Depeche Mode, and “Shadow Twin” throbs attractively while making tasteful use of subtle dubwise effects. I’m trying to decide whether the Millenial whoop that opens “Helicopter” is intended ironically, but even if it isn’t, that’s okay. This whole album is a treat, and I also recommend the various remix EPs that are available for electronic purchase alongside it.
Made to Measure, Vol. 1 (reissue)
MTM 1 CD
While we’re on the topic of avant-pop, let’s take the opportunity to revisit one of the labels that pioneered the genre, and its monumental series of compilations in that vein. Made to Measure was a series of 25 compilations that Belgium’s Crammed Discs label began issuing in 1984; it featured a wide variety of genres from neoclassical/chamber music to experimental pop music and ambient soundscapes. To celebrate the label’s upcoming 40th anniversary, Crammed Discs is reinstituting the series with new recordings, and also reissuing some of the early releases, starting with this inaugural album. It focuses on tracks by seminal acts Tuxedomoon, Aqsak Maboul, and Minimal Compact (with one contribution from Benjamin Lew); the music is unusual by pop-music standards but not particularly challenging or abrasive. There’s some puckish humor (Aqsak Maboul’s “Chez les futuristes russes”), some ironic nostalgia (Minimal Compact’s twisted cabaret tune “Immer vorbei”), and some slightly unsettling instrumental stuff (Tuxedomoon’s “No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition”). As someone who came of age listening to these artists, I’m thrilled to see this material coming back into print.
In the Tender Dream
NNA Tapes (dist. Redeye)
And, heck, while we’re drifting in this direction let’s just go for broke. There’s nothing “pop” about the avant-garde music produced by Sally Decker (a.k.a. Multa Nox). Her music comes out of rock more than classical, but it’s deeply experimental. In the Tender Dream draws on techniques and ideas that emerged from her time as a student at Mills College, where she began working with feedback in a serious way. She applies various techniques to put feedback and other varieties of noise to the service of explorations of deep emotion. At times there are vocals, but they tend to be whispered or muttered rather than sung, and everything is embroidered with glitches, overlain with clouds of static, and/or layered with chirps and bleeps and all manner of other noises. It ought to sound like chaos, but it doesn’t; it ought to be unpleasant, but it isn’t. Decker is clearly in full control of her resources, and uses them to create fascinating and complex music that doesn’t sound like anything or anyone else.
ReR Megacorp (dist. Circum-disc)
I’ve been a fan of Québecois avant-garde guitarist René Lussier for years, ever since I came across his work on a duo album with my hero Fred Frith. On his latest album he pulls together a program consisting of commissioned works dating from between 1999 and 2019. All of them were performed by the groups that commissioned them but never recorded, so he created new realizations of the music himself using multitracking techniques and a plethora of instruments including (in addition to the guitar) the daxophone and a wide variety of percussive objects. (He is also joined on one track by bassist Hugo Blouin.) As usual with Lussier, the music is simultaneously challenging and good-humored. Several of these pieces were written to accompany a clown show, and one to accompany an architectural projection; one was written for a quartet of guitars and electric toothbrushes. It’s all great stuff, and this disc would make a welcome addition to any library collecting new and experimental music.
The Disciple’s Meditation
Projekt (dist. MVD)
Mark Seelig took up the bansuri (the bamboo flute used in Indian classical music) in middle age, as part of an ongoing general spiritual and psychological quest. He is now three albums into a series of releases exploring the flute as “the expression of spirit.” It would be easy to dismiss this as dilletantish dabbling, but while neither Seelig nor tabla player Vito Gregoli demonstrates the breathtaking virtuosity of India’s finest classical musicians, they do show genuine respect for the ragas on which their musical meditations are based, and this music is much more suited to meditation and/or yoga practice than genuine classical music would be, with its focus on exciting thematic development and technical prowess. Any library with a collecting interest in East-West cultural fusion would do well to consider adding this release (and its predecessors in the Disciple series).
Mungo’s Hi Fi
Dub is a producer’s art form, the predecessor of modern remix culture. It emerged in Jamaica in the early 1970s, when reggae producers realized they could save money by backing a single with an instrumental version of the song rather than recording an entirely new song as a B side; eventually the more creative ones began experimenting with dropping voices and instruments in and out of the mix, adding effects like echo and delay for good measure. Patrons of Kingston’s famous outdoor sound system dances couldn’t get enough of it, and dub has developed a life of its own since then. The latest release from the outstanding Glasgow reggae collective Mungo’s Hi Fi is a collection of dub deconstructions of tunes both old and not-yet-released, all of it mixed in bass-heavy sound system style, some of it preserving scraps of the original vocal; highlights include the brilliant “Time Traveler” and the very minimalist and dread “Escape from the City.” For all collections.
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
Israeli percussionist Ben Aylon has spent years studying sabar drumming, a tradition that is central to the music of Mali and Senegal. His studies included time spent as a pupil of Aly Ndiaye Rose, son of Doudou Ndiaye Rose, who is widely recognized as the master of this tradition. As a direct result of his studies, Aylon developed a personal approach to playing multiple drums simultaneously, and he has toured Senegal and been featured on Senegalese television demonstrating this technique. Over the years he has also been working on a collaborative recording project featuring members of the Rose family, singer Khaira Arby, and others, recording them in hotel rooms and other improvised locations. The resulting album is entrancing: the songs and compositions sometimes sway back and forth between two chords for minutes at a time, and sometimes unfold slowly into strange but wonderful melodic lines. Any library with a collecting interest in African music should jump at the chance to pick this one up.