The Life and Passion of the Christ
Orkester Nord; Vox Nidrosiensis / Martin Wåhlberg
Aparte Music (dist. Integral)
Though almost entirely unknown today, the Bohemian composer Augustin Pfleger was an influential figure in the transition from the late Renaissance to the early baroque, one who was widely praised by his contemporaries. This important and unusual recording takes six of Pfleger’s “sacred concertos” (what we would now call cantatas, though his style is very different from that of his junior near-contemporary Bach) and arranges them into a program that functions as a Passion setting: each of the six recounts a different segment of the story of Christ’s birth, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection. The sound is spare — almost sere — and quietly somber throughout, even during the relatively joyful resurrection narrative; solo voices predominate, and the instrumental accompaniment is minimal. Bass viols and a theorbed lute are the predominant elements, and the use of a psaltery is interesting (and explained in the notes). The vocal soloists are consistently outstanding, and this album is excellent overall — both a valuable historical document and a richly rewarding listening experience. For all collections.
Le jour variable: Four Symphonies
Kölner Akademie / Michael Alexander Willens
CPO (dist. Naxos)
These four symphonies by Mannheim School stalwart Carl Stamitz are notable for several reasons: first of all, they are among the earliest of Stamitz’s symphonies, of which he is known to have written 50. Each of them introduces formal innovations that would have stirred things up a bit in early-1770s Germany, but the final work in the program — his Grand Pastoral Symphony in G major nicknamed “Le jour variable” — is the one that really catches the attention. It’s a programmatic work (meaning a piece of music designed to invoke non-musical imagery, especially scenes of nature) that anticipates musical strategies that wouldn’t become widespread for another hundred years. All of this reflects Stamitz’s hunger to innovate, and he does so highly effectively here. The playing by Kölner Akademie (on period instruments) is outstanding, and this recording should find a welcome home in all library classical collections.
Stimme aus der Ferne: A Voice from the Distance
The fortepiano — the keyboard instrument that served as something of a transition between the harpsichord and the modern pianoforte — has become a fixture on recordings of music from the classical period, but is far less often featured when the program draws on the Romantic. For this album, Andrea Botticelli has chosen to use the unique sonorities of the fortepiano to shed a different light on pieces by Franz Schubert, Carl Czerny, and Robert and Clara Schumann. Schubert’s early-Romantic and Czerny’s rather academic styles make an obvious fit, but where Botticelli really shines is when she’s making an argument for the fortepiano in the context of Robert Schumann’s opus 2 Papillons suite and Clara Schumann’s “Notturno” from the opus 6 Soirées musicales. Here the fortepiano is pushed much closer to its expressive limits, and under her virtuosic but sensitive fingers it meets the challenge admirably. Libraries supporting programs in music history and keyboard pedagogy should pay particular attention to this release.
Wulfstan of Winchester
Swithun!: Demons and Miracles from Winchester around 1000
Dialogos / Katarina Livljanić
Arcana/Outhere (dist. Naxos)
The cult of St. Swithun formed the lyrical basis for the music of the Winchester Cathedral in the 11th century. Wulfstan, the cathedral’s cantor during this period, composed a long Anglo-Latin narrative based on St. Swithun’s life, and this recording by the all-woman quartet Dialogos is centered on that narrative; director Katarina Livljanić has created a setting that alternates melodic improvisation on the Wulfstan text with composed polyphonic selections from the Winchester Troper. As one might expect, the polyphonic passages are astringently beautiful, while the monophonic sections tend towards the ecstatic, in a style that will remind many listeners of the music of Hildegard von Bingen. The singers of Dialogos don’t go to great lengths to create a seamless sonic blend; instead, they embrace the differing textures of their voices, and the effect is striking and quite lovely. This is a truly unique and very beautiful recording.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
The Art of Fugue (2 discs)
Alpha Classics/Outhere (dist. Naxos)
These two very different releases of music by J.S. Bach have something important in common: addressing issues that go beyond the notes of the compositions in question. One focuses on the issue of temperament (in the musical sense); the other, of feeling. Mak Grgic plays a microtonal guitar — an instrument equipped with sliding frets that allow the player to adjust the notes available to each string individually, thus making it possible (in this case) to play it according to a keyboard temperament invented by a member of Bach’s household. Without going into all the technicalities of just intonation vs. equal temperament, I’ll just say here that the sound of this guitar is in fact quite different from what modern ears are used to; the harmonies are a bit more vinegary, the flavors changing subtly but audibly as the music modulates. Grgic plays transcriptions of various Bach chorales, partitas, and sonatas, and makes a powerful musical argument for his approach. One need not believe that “equal temperament destroys everything” to hear why specialists get as passionate as they do on this issue. Pianist Filippo Gorini is making a very different argument with his recording of Bach’s Art of Fugue; here he’s pushing back on those who regard Bach’s magisterial study of counterpoint as “solely a theoretical marvel.” He plays each of these canons, fugues, and contrapuncti as musical statements laden with feeling and rhetorical meaning. This isn’t to say that he treats them like Romantic pieces, but rather than he interprets them through a lens that isn’t strictly academic. The result is a truly enlightening and deeply moving performance. Both discs are recommended to all classical collections.
Comes Love: Lost Session 1960
Sheila Jordan is a celebrated singer and an NEA Jazz Master, and her official discography begins with her 1963 debut Portrait of Sheila. Or it did, until the discovery of this standards session she recorded in 1960 with an unidentified trio. Now 92 years old, Jordan herself has no recollection of making the recording or of who her accompanists were on the date, which is unfortunate but also adds to the delightful mystery of this wonderful album. It’s mastered from an acetate transfer that was found without any identifying label beyond an attached studio portrait of Jordan, but there’s no mistaking the voice — young but confident, idiosyncratic in its horn-like phrasing and occasional but expressive vibrato — and the songs themselves are familiar enough to create something of a blank canvas onto which she was able to paint her very personal interpretations. She nods gently to Billie Holiday on “Don’t Explain,” but doesn’t imitate her; she scats deftly on “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” but not in a showy way. Everywhere she wears her heart on her sleeve, but you never get the feeling that she’s fully revealing herself. All of it points to the illustrious career to come. No deep jazz collection should pass up this wonderful release.
Oh my gosh, this album is so much fun. Here’s an example of what I mean: it opens with “Cool Mint,” a tune that, frankly, struck me at first as maybe just a bit saccharine. Shanker’s alto and Daisuke Abe’s guitar play the head in tandem, partly in unison and partly in harmony, over a relentlessly chugging rhythm and the whole thing sounds a bit like the theme music from a 1970s sitcom. And then comes the second tune, the aptly titled “Prestissimo.” This one is pure, lickety-split bebop, with a head that could have been written by Dizzy Gillespie and a quintet arrangement that harks back to the salad days of Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Charlie Christian. The rest of the album is split between Shanker originals and standards, including some gorgeous ballads (at times featuring either uncredited or maybe synthesized strings) and a brilliant, angular arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud.” The title track closes the album in a lovely, lyrical mode. Recommended to all jazz collections.
Guitarist Will Bernard has always operated around the edges of straight-ahead jazz, exploring the overlapping universes of jazz and funk with T.J. Kirk, playing as a sideman to such experimental eminences as Jai Uttal and Peter Apfelbaum, and delivering solo albums that keep one foot solidly in the jazz mainstream while the other dips in and out of other adjacent styles and approaches. His latest effort as a leader delves deep into one specific tradition: the funky organ trio. Playing alongside Hammond organist Sam Yahel and drummer Donald Edwards, Bernard delivers a solid set of originals (plus one Thelonious Monk tune) that marry slippery, sideways chord progressions with grooves that are sometimes skittery, sometimes funky, and always swinging. Bernard’s tone remains one of the chief delights of his sound, but his compositional chops are absolutely top-notch here as well. Highlights are a bit hard to identify when a program is as consistently good as this one, but I love the marriage of hard funk and abstract chord changes on “Five Finger Discount” and the fleet-fingered, bluesy lyricism of “Pleasure Seekers.” And of course his take on Monk’s “Boo Boo’s Birthday” is delivered with that special love that Bernard has always held for the towering hero of off-kilter bebop. Highly recommended.
Wayne Coniglio & Scott Whitfield
Summit (dist. MVD)
Seven years ago I recommended Wayne Coniglio and Scott Whitfield’s first duo project, titled Fast Friends. It’s been a long wait for the follow-up, but it was worth it. Once again the two trombonists are supported by a piano trio, but this time they also feature a few guest vocalists (who provide wordless vocalise on a lively, skipping version of Rodgers & Hart’s “Mimi”). Coniglio offers several great originals, including one based on the changes to “Giant Steps” (“Step Checkitude”) and a lovely boppish tribute to his deceased fellow Ray Charles Band alumnus James Farnsworth. And in the context of “boppish,” it’s important to point out here — again — how difficult it is to play the trombone as nimbly as these guys do at tempo. Ballads with lots of legato phrasing represent the real comfort zone for the ‘bone; notey uptempo charts are notoriously challenging for an instrument that depends so heavily on a slide. Coniglio and Whitfield aren’t show-offs, but the phrase “fast friends” is still impressively apt. Highly recommended.
I read the album title as “Love Bird,” but I hear the music as more than just a love letter to the still-towering colossus of modern jazz: saxophonist Kevin Sun spent a significant amount of lockdown time immersing himself again in the music of Charlie Parker, listening to hours and hours of Parker’s compositions and solos, and used that raw material to fashion a highly personal but deeply respectful tribute to Parker’s legacy. The 15 brief tracks that compose this album draw on melodic elements from the Parker book (you’ll hear scraps of “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” “Dexterity, “Bloomdido,” and many others) but present them to the listener as refracted through the prism of Sun’s own musical personality. “Adroitness, Parts I & II” deftly juxtapose balladic lyricism with briskly swinging bebop, while “Onomatopoeia” is a relatively direct tribute on which Sun and guitarist Max Light play a highly complex head in unison at thrilling tempo. Elsewhere things get a bit more idiosyncratic: “Du Yi’s Choir” (a pun on the Parker composition “Dewey Square”) incorporates the sound of the sheng, while “Sturgis” brings together transcriptions of Parker’s various recorded solos on “Mohawk” in counterpoint. This album is both conceptually fascinating and a huge amount of fun to listen to.
Ten Thousand Roses
Blue Hens Music
No cat. no.
Every time a new album from Dori Freeman arrives in the mail, I practically jump up and down with gleeful anticipation. And she has yet to disappoint. Her latest is the first one produced by her husband, drummer Nicholas Falk, and he’s created a sound for her songs that nicely blends elements of country, old-time, and rock (and even a bit of funk if you listen carefully), but throughout the album, the Appalachian culture of which Freeman is so fiercely proud pushes its way through the modern-ish sound like a flower coming up through gravel. The assertive independence of her lyrical vision is always clear as well, particularly on tracks like the sharp “get rid of that loser” song “The Storm” and on “Appalachian” (“I’m an Appalachian, I’m a Cripple Creek pearl/I’m a can to ash in, for the rest of the world”). Her voice, as always, is a wonder — an entrancing blend of gritty and sweet — as is her unassailable way with a melody. Highly recommended to all libraries.
New Time & Old Acoustic
Mandolinist John Reischman’s new solo album bears a sly title, one that references his long, storied, and musically diverse past. He’s an adept of “old time” (i.e. pre-bluegrass) trad American music, as well as of bluegrass, of course; but he’s also one of the founding architects of what came to be called “New Acoustic” music back in the early 1980s. Its better-known exponents include Tony Rice and, especially, Reischmann’s fellow mandolin innovator David Grisman. But while Grisman used bluegrass as a jumping-off point for excursions into jazzier territories, Reischmann has tended to dig deeper into traditional musical styles. On this album he performs mostly original compositions, all of which have their stylistic feet firmly embedded in the soil of the American southeast (and the closely related soil of the British Isles), but most of which still manage to range into more complex melodic and harmonic regions. For example: his “Suzanne’s Journey” could easily have come straight out of the O’Neill Collection, whereas “Cascadia” could have been an outtake from an early Tony Rice Unit album. “Rosco’s Ramble” is straight-up bluegrass with a couple of sly twists (and some great use of Scruggs/Keith tuners by banjo picker Patrick Sauber), and his take on the traditional “Sugar in the Gourd” is a joyful twin-mandolin romp (featuring bassist/mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist) — and don’t miss the guest appearance by string quartet The Fretless. For all libraries.
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)
Sometimes Jim Lauderdale’s personal brand of country music is as trad as trad can get: he’s made records with Ralph Stanley and with former Kentucky Colonel Roland White, for example. But sometimes he catches you by surprise, as on this startlingly genre-busting album. It’s not that it doesn’t have plenty of twang to it; Lauderdale’s vocal style is still fully informed by his South Carolina upbringing, and there’s plenty of steel guitar throughout. But “Mushrooms Are Growing After the Rain” is as much 70s pop as anything else, “Brave One” and “We Fade In We Fade Out” both frankly rock out, and “Breathe Real Slow” is just its own thing — a gentle combination of country and rock balladry. Lyrically, these songs consistently reflect a deeply and sweetly human worldview: song titles like “The Opportunity to Help Somebody Through It” and “It’s Almost More Than All the Joy” give you an idea of what to expect here. Jim Lauderdale is a national treasure, and this is another quiet triumph.
The Many Sides of Buck Owens: After the Dance
Atomicat (dist. MVD)
There are basically two kinds of reissue label: the Quick-and-Dirty Moneymaker (business model: throw together some old recordings to which you don’t have the rights but over which you’re unlikely to be sued, package them cheaply, sell them at a mid-budget price), and the Labor of Love (business model: carefully curate vintage recordings, remaster as necessary, provide extensive historical and personnel notes, sell them at whatever price makes sense). Atomicat is definitely in the latter category. This collection pulls together a generous program of Owens recordings from the 1950s, just before he made it big. Much of this material will be familiar to his fans (“Excuse Me,” “Foolin’ Around,” “Above and Beyond,” etc.), but almost half of the disc is dedicated to more obscure fare — a couple of songs he recorded under the pseudonym Corky Jones, duo and support performances with the likes of Jean Shepherd, Wanda Jackson, and Tommy Collins, much of it more rockabilly than country. And it pays proper respect to Owens’ sideman and harmony singer Don Rich, whose contribution to the development of the Bakersfield Sound was as important as Owens’, but much less conspicuous (due in part to his death at a tragically young age). The sound is startlingly clear and rich throughout, even when the source recordings are of slightly dodgy quality. Any library with a collecting interest in country music should snap this one up.
Maia Doi Todd
It took me a while to figure out what it was that struck me as odd about this album. It wasn’t just the gently introspective chamber-pop vibe (complete with bassoon, flute, and Fender Rhodes piano). It’s Todd’s voice — or, more accurately, her singing style, which sounds more classically cultivated than poppily emotive. Her vowels are round and decorously covered; her delivery is unfailingly restrained, with just a hint of bel canto vibrato. What makes this approach particularly interesting is the stylistic variety on offer here, and the lyrical sharpness. “Little Bird,” a gentle bossa nova, starts with my nominee for Opening Line of the Year: “Why don’t these problems just go away?” And later on, the song titled “If I Don’t Have You” completes the thought with: “nobody else will.” Eek. Clearly there’s something of an emotional iron fist tucked away in the velvet glove of these arrangements, and it makes everything that much more interesting. (A digital-only remix collection based on this album has just been released, too. Titled Ten Views of Music Life, it features reworks by such producers as SunEye, Jira, and DNTEL, all of whom treat the songs with maybe a bit more respect than I might have liked — a slamming breakbeat here and there wouldn’t have hurt — but all of whom bring new musical insight to the material.)
Maramar (cassette/digital only)
No cat. no.
Persian-American producer and sound artist Aria Rostami is currently based in Brooklyn, but grew up in California and has absorbed a wide variety of electronic music styles throughout his busy career. On Maramar he simultaneously explores the intelligent dance music (IDM), ambient, and breakbeat genres; on the lovely “Under the Glass House,” for example, busy beats percolate and bubble underneath languid synth washes, while “Further and Further” is built mainly of a complex and bustling rhythmic structure onto which subtle melody is draped in very delicate wisps. The album closes with “Going,” a floating and drifting cloud of string textures that leaves rhythm behind in favor of gradually building harmonies that become denser and more complicated as the track progresses — but are never less than lushly beautiful. This is an unusually lovely release from a major young talent.
Ninja Tune (dist. Redeye)
The music of Kevin Martin, d.b.a. The Bug, will most likely get filed under “dance,” but that designation has become less and less appropriate over time, as his music has become more and more dark and abstract. On his latest effort, the song titles give you an idea of the general mood: “Demon”; “Vexed”; “Clash’; “War”; “Bomb”; etc. The music is dense and powerful, and MCs like Irah, Logan, and Nazamba bring bitter and unsparing lyrics that fit the backing tracks perfectly. Unsurprisingly, the highlight here is Daddy Freddy, whose “Ganja Baby” is a brilliant grime/dancehall fusion performance; another very fine entry is “High Rise,” featuring Manga Saint Hilare spitting over one of the darkest, most intense, and rhythmically indeterminate Bug tracks I’ve yet heard. Most serious is “The Missing,” on which poet Roger Robinson intones a brief and grim elegy for the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster, and The Bug creates a soundscape that offers no rhythm, no real chord changes — little except for a dense and billowing cloud of distortion. No, despite its numerous grooves this really isn’t a “dance” album; but what it does very effectively is illustrate some ways in which dance music tropes can be put to highly serious and thoughtful social and political use.
I’ll Meet You Here
If you haven’t heard Dar Williams’ name before, it’s probably because you’re not a professional songwriter — in that sphere, she’s been a legend for decades now. Among her other great attributes, she has that most elusive of gifts: the ability to write a complicated song that sounds simple. She demonstrates that gift all over her new album, notably on the hair-raisingly beautiful “You Give It All Away” (on which you may not even notice the outstanding horn chart until the second time you listen to it) and “Let the Wind Blow” (on which she pushes a secondary dominant into the chord progression on the lines “So here comes the wave” and “So here comes the fire,” adding a little nudge of harmonic momentum at the perfect lyrical moment). Her sense of humor is still there as well, wrapping the sadness and occasional bitter edge of her lyrics in just the right thickness of velvet. Yet another quiet triumph from one of our finest songwriting talents.
Up, Bustle & Out
Vol. 2: Satellite Junk Jukebox, Fresh Outta de Galaxy
Collision: Cause of Chapter 3
If you (and your library patrons) aren’t already familiar with the globe-trotting, sampladelic, jazzy electro-hip-hop of Up, Bustle & Out, then there’s no better time to be brought up to speed than this very minute. And a handy way of doing so is this, the second in a series of compilations designed to provide an overview of the trio’s work since its establishment 25 years ago. The first volume was titled 24 Track Almanac and focused on the group’s earliest work, compiling both released and unreleased material; this one brings together tracks on which the group collaborated with artists from around the world, resulting in tracks with titles like “Okraina Okean-E, 79,” “Descarga Caramelo,” “Hip Hop Barrio,” and “Taksim’s Elektro Streets.” Funky beats, anachronistic wah-wah guitars, languid rapping, and abstract found-sound collages all bump and rub up against each other promiscuously, producing an overall sound that is completely unique and entirely Up, Bustle & Out. Personally, I’d recommend purchasing their whole back catalog — but this is a great starting place if you just want to dip your toe in.
Longyin: The Dragon Chants
Cheng Yu with Dennis Kwong Thye Lee
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
The guqin (a zither closely related to the Japanese koto) and the xiao (an end-blown bamboo flute) are instruments centrally important to traditional Chinese music, instruments for which some of the world’s oldest annotated music was written. On this album, celebrated guqin virtuoso Cheng Yu has teamed up with xiao player Dennis Kwong Thye Lee to present a program of classic melodies for the two instruments played in a highly traditional style; for the recording Lee strung her instrument with silk strings made in the 1930s, creating a uniquely soft and gentle tone that blends marvelously with the breathy, woody sound of the xiao. This is quiet but deeply beautiful music that should find a home in any library with a collecting interest in the traditional music of China.
Bibel in Dub
Thiiiiiiiiis… is a weird one. On the one hand, it seems kind of obvious: ever since reggae music was essentially overtaken by the Rastafari movement in the early 1970s, it has been steeped in Biblical apocalypticism. (There are many competing strands of lyrical orientation within the genre, of course, but Biblical Rastafarianism remains core to the music’s cultural identity.) So why not put together an album of Bible readings set to exceedingly dark, dread reggae accompaniment? Of course, having those readings performed by a deep, stentorian voice — in German — is perhaps not the most obvious choice. And the music itself departs significantly from what one might expect; there are no familiar Studio One rhythms, and not even much in the way of regular grooves. Instead, we get bass-heavy but idiosyncratic soundscapes that are (for the most part) built on a reggae foundation but in no way constrained by it — and in some cases, the “music” is so abstract as to be nearly non-musical. What you hear behind the readings from Ezekiel is closer to ambient industrial music than anything else. So yeah, definitely a weird one. And definitely worth a listen.
Since moving to France from her native Côte d’Ivoire in 1999, Dobet Gnahoré has enjoyed global success as a bandleader and recording artist performing in a style that incorporates elements from around Eastern and Southern Africa. But business troubles were compounded by the impacts of the COVID pandemic in 2020, leading her to return to Abidjan and regroup. The result is this lovely and compelling solo album, one that combines slamming beats with liltingly beautiful melodies and lyrical messages that range from female empowerment (“Yakané”) and self-determination (“Lève-toi”) to domestic love (“Ma maison”) and submissive spirituality (“Rédemption”). Throughout the album are melodies and arrangements that glisten, bounce, and soar, and the constant unifying thread if Gnahoré’s gorgeous and powerful voice. Highly recommended to all libraries.