Quietude: Music of Stephen Yip
The titles of these two new releases on the Albany label might lead you to expect similar listening experiences, but in fact they are very different. Quietude presents compositions for soloists and chamber ensembles by Stephen Yip, who was raised in Hong Kong and educated both there and at Rice University in Texas. The music presented here is indeed often quiet, but it’s also challenging, characterized by extended instrumental techniques and often by harmonic dissonance. (Topic: the ensemble piece Tranquility in Consonance III is neither tranquil nor consonant. Discuss.) The title work is perhaps the most difficult, but I was especially captivated by White Dew, for flute and bass flute, which calls on the musicians to create a wide variety of tones and effects in a highly reverberant acoustic. This is a fascinating and wonderful album that gives the listener plenty to chew on. Doug Bielmeier’s Ambient Works, on the other hand, comes much closer to providing exactly what its title promises: quiet and minimal ambient music, based on computer-generated sounds, samples, and (in one case) live instruments. But even here there are some crunchier moments: Photo Lab Sanctuary is a “soundwalk” piece built on environmental samples that don’t exactly soothe or lull the listener; Backscatter sounds like a cross between a Steve Reich phase piece and something Carl Stone might write when in a puckish mood. No Time is written for a quartet of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, though the music is altered and processed to the point that its sonic origins are somewhat obscured. This isn’t ambient music to fall asleep to — but it’s consistently interesting and frequently deeply beautiful.
Franz Anton Hoffmeister
6 Clarinet Quartets
Eddy Vanoosthuyse; Zemlinsky Quartet
Antarctica (dist. Naxos)
George Friedrich Fuchs
Clarinet Chamber Music
Italian Classical Consort / Luigi Magistrelli
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
Franz Hoffmeister came to Vienna in 1754, at age 14, to study law. But after completing his degree he stayed on to pursue his real passion, which was music composition. Although he had success writing music, he made his money as a publisher, and has only in recent years begun to receive his full due as a composer — and now, after years of neglect, some of his most popular works are his chamber pieces for clarinet and string trio. On this recording, the very fine Belgian clarinetist Eddy Vanoosthuyse joins three members of the Zemlinsky Quartet (all playing modern instruments) to provide us a tour of these six innovative and charming pieces, all of which are actually arrangements of pieces originally written for flute and strings or oboe and strings; this approach reflects the growing popularity of the clarinet in 18th-century Europe. Vanoosthuyse and the Zemlinskys play them with both sensitivity to period style and an admirable panache, using dynamic shifts carefully to bring out the full genius of these lovely quartets. George Friedrich Fuchs was working in France at the same time as Hoffmeister in Vienna, and while he never achieved the same notoriety as Hoffmeister, his chamber works for clarinet (in various combinations with other instruments) receive deserved attention here from the Italian Classical Consort, again on modern instruments, under the baton of clarinetist Luigi Magistrelli. There is a duo for clarinet and horn; trios for clarinets, for two clarinets and bassoon, and for two clarinets and violin; and arrangements of opera arias for various combinations of clarinets and other wind instruments. This is music of great charm, if not world-changing innovation, and this recording offers a welcome opportunity to hear from one of the minor but still considerable talents of the classical era. (Why the album cover features an image of someone playing an oboe is something of a mystery.) Both are recommended to all libraries.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Three or One
Fred Thomas; Aisha Orazbayeva; Lucy Railton
Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach for Two
Romina Lischka; Marnix De Cat
Ramée/Outhere (dist. Naxos)
Here we have two very different applications of the art of transcription to the music of J.S. Bach. The first is by pianist Fred Thomas, who has arranged an array of selections from Bach’s legendary Orgelbüchlein (“little organ book”) for a trio of piano, violin, and cello. Thomas chose violinist Aisha Orazbayeva and cellist Lucy Railton because he was familiar with their work as a duo and knew of their tendency towards “lean sonorities,” which the listener will notice — in fact, if I hadn’t known better I’d have assumed they were playing gut-strung instruments. Thomas’ arrangements are thoughtful, and the trio’s playing is more intensely emotional than one might expect. This is a quiet triumph of an album. “Quiet triumph” would also be an apt descriptor of Bach for Two, a collection of transcriptions of organ sonatas, arias, and other miscellanea for viola da gamba and organ, along with a setting of the BWV1027 sonata for viol and keyboard. While it might seem as if the mighty organ would inevitably overwhelm the much softer and wispier tonalities of the viola da gamba, in fact they complement each other beautifully on these arrangements (due in part to skillful production). Lischka and De Cat have long experience playing together, and it shows; their shared depth of understanding of and deep affection for Bach’s organ and chamber music come out with every note.
Champian Fulton & Stephen Fulton
Live from Lockdown
A new album from Champian Fulton is always cause for celebration, and when she’s joined by her father, the outstanding flugelhorn and trumpet player Stephen Fulton, you can be assured of a warm, complex, and golden-toned musical experience. As a singer, Champian acts as a sort of prism: through her brain and her voice, the melodic playfulness of Billie Holiday and the impeccable intonation of Ella Fitzgerald and the strutting confidence of Sarah Vaughn are all refracted and emerge as a unique expressive identity; as a pianist, she’s like a history book come to life, switching between (and sometimes blending) stride, bebop, boogie-woogie, and cool styles seemingly without effort. This latest album is, as its title suggests, the product of the Fultons’ forced shift from live-in-person performance to livestreamed concerts produced at home. It consists almost entirely of standards, mostly ballads and mid-tempo swingers like “You’ve Changed,” “Satin Doll,” “Look for the Silver Lining,” and “Moonglow,” with a couple of lovely originals thrown in as well. As always, both Fultons play not only with skill but with heart, and with a rare level of interpersonal communication. For all libraries.
Glad to Be Here
Storyville (dist. Naxos)
Over the course of his long career, trombonist and composer Ole Lindgreen (a.k.a. Fessor) has released almost 40 albums under his own name, not counting the scores of releases on which he has appeared as a sideman. On Glad to Be Here — an album reportedly recorded around the dining table in his home — he looks back on that illustrious career, revisiting such trad and swing standards as “Louisiana,” “Moten Swing,” “Azure,” and “Drop Me Off in Harlem,” working with a septet that includes clarinetist Chris Tanner and bassist Jens Sølund and that frequently manages to sound like a big band despite its actual size. Lindgreen and his boys shift gracefully from slippery second-line rhythms to powerful 1930s-era swing and back again, playing constantly with an uncanny blend of emotive soul and sophisticated, almost academic precision. Maybe that’s why they call him Fessor.
Guitarist Graham Dechter is back for another outing as leader on an all-originals program (well, almost — it includes a lovely arrangement of “Pure Imagination” from the first Willy Wonka movie) leading an all-star quartet that includes pianist Tamir Hendelman, bassist John Clayton, and master drummer Jeff Hamilton. It’s always a sign of mature confidence when a guitarist chooses to share space with a pianist, and Dechter demonstrates that confidence (and exceptional taste) in his choice of Hendelman, with whom he comfortably and companionably shares the middle pitch range and the chordal duties on this outstanding album. The blues is a recurring element on these tunes, and it’s in the blues pocket that Dechter seems particularly happy and free, but honestly there are no weak tracks here. One of my favorites was “Bent on Monk,” a lovely tribute on which Dechter incorporates elements of Thelonious Monk tunes (and technique) into a hard-swinging original that never attempts to ape the one to whom he’s paying tribute. Recommended to all collections.
Chick Corea Akoustic Band
Live (2 discs)
Never having been a big fan of his electric fusion stuff — the music for which he really became famous in the 1970s — I’ve always been quite interested in the late Chick Corea’s more straight-ahead, acoustic work. Since 1989 he’s worked intermittently with what he calls the Akoustic Band: himself on piano, John Pattitucci on bass, and (with the exception of one recording) Dave Weckl on drums. The trio has made one studio album and now three live albums; this one documents two sets played at the SPC Music Hall in Florida in January of 2018. The program consists of a mix of standards and Corea compositions, and the group plays with the suppleness and freedom that comes from years of working together, however sporadically. You can hear the fusion backgrounds of all three players, particularly in the soloing (I especially hear it when Weckl gets a chance to stretch out), and the tension between that stylistic tendency and the straight-ahead jazz framework within which they’re playing creates some wonderful moments. Highlights include a searching and tender rendition of “In a Sentimental Mood” and their thrilling take on one of my favorite standards of all time, “On Green Dolphin Street.”
Storysound (dist. Redeye)
Singer-songwriter Ana Egge takes off in something of a new direction on this, her twelfth album. Opening with the gently chugging, horn-driven “Wait a Minute” and then proceeding through a program of generally quiet and heartfelt tracks dealing with troubled relationships (“You Hurt Me,” “Heartbroken Kind”), political conflict within families (“Lie, Lie, Lie”), the death of a loved one (“We Lay Roses”), etc. Her roots in the acoustic music scene are very much evident throughout, but the production on this album is bigger and lusher than usual: steel guitars, rockish distortion, and the aforementioned horns show up every so often to give a new weight and depth to her sound. Egge’s way with a melody is subtle and engaging, as is her voice, one that can go from a whisper to a full-chested declamation so smoothly and naturally that you hardly notice the transition. My favorite couplet from this very fine album: “We let the devil come between us/And now he doesn’t want to go.”
How I Hear It
Multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Stephens is best known as the frontman for High Fidelity, but he also has a long history as a sideman, working with the likes of Jesse McReynolds, the Lilly Brothers, the Chuck Wagon Gang, and others. Here he breaks out of both molds and offers us a glimpse of his own personal musical vision. As it turns out, that vision is both deeply rooted in tradition and slyly eclectic. His banjo playing draws both on the Scruggs-era verities and the single-string innovations of Don Reno; when he plays mandolin he slides back and forth between hard-driving traditional approaches and the more elegant cross-picking style popularized by Jesse McReynolds. He also plays guitar on this album, beautifully, and sings — and when his wife and collaborator Corrina Rose Logston joins him in harmony, the effect is exquisite. There are so many highlights on this joyful, varied album that it’s hard to pick just one or two, but “You’ll Be Lonesome Too” is a bittersweet joy, and the album-opening rendition of the Reno & Smiley classic “Sockeye” is also especially tasty. For all libraries.
Ma délire: Songs of Love Lost & Found
Feeding Tube (dist. Forced Exposure)
Laurel Premo Sound
This is an interesting temporal coincidence: two simultaneous releases by unrelated female singers/guitarists, each creating and exploring a conceptually related but very different territory of folk/experimental guitar-based music. Myriam Gendron does so through a Québecois lens: sometimes singing in English and sometimes in French, she delivers fuzz-heavy doom-folk on “C’Est dans les vieux pays” and then switches to unadorned acoustic guitar for an instrumental rendition of “Shenandoah” (a tune that is revisited vocally, and in French, at the end of the album). She sings John Jacob Niles’ “I Wonder As I Wander” alongside understated winds and strings, and makes “Le tueur des femmes” sound lighter than it really is. Laurel Premo’s Golden Loam is more guitar-focused, and more electric; Premo’s approach is more Southern-U.S.-based, with slide guitar blues and gospel tunes rubbing up against gorgeous oddities like the Norwegian fiddle tune “Torbjørn Bjellands Bruremarsj.” There’s not much singing on this album, but when she pipes up on “Hop High” her voice is understated and perfect. Both of these albums are recommended to all libraries.
The Sun Shines Here: The Roots of Indie-pop 1980-1984 (3 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
The Cherry Red label continues to produce essential box-set anthologies documenting pop music history from the later 20th century, showing particular strength in music from in and around the 1970s punk revolution. The latest is this one, which shines light on some obscure corners of the indie pop scene of the early 1980s — indie pop being distinguished from mainstream pop by its general weirdness, and from post-punk by its almost entire rejection of guitar distortion. Cherry Red being an English label, the manifestations of indie pop on offer here are all British: relatively famous names like Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout, Everything But the Girl, and Scritti Politti are all represented, as are many artists from whom we never heard again (I’m looking at you, Dolly Mixture), and quite a bit of the material on these three discs has never been available on CD before. It’s a mixed bag, of course, but a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable one. Libraries that acquired Cherry Red’s Scared to Get Happy box back in 2013 will find that this one serves essentially as a sequel to it. Libraries that collect deeply in pop music and didn’t pick that one up should probably grab both of them now.
R&B in DC 1940-1960: Rhythm & Blues, Doo Wop, Rockin’ Rhythm and More… (16 discs)
Bear Family (dist. MVD)
Like all box sets on the Bear Family label, this one is a monument of music and scholarship — and one more in an ongoing series of gauntlets thrown down in front of the American music establishment by a German company that seems much more dedicated to the preservation and celebration of America’s musical heritage than any of the latter country’s own labels are. In this case, the specific slice of heritage under consideration is the spectrum of African American pop music styles that flourished in the Washington, DC area during the middle two decades of the 20th century. Over the course of 16 CDs (and a lavishly illustrated, LP-sized, 350-page hardbound book), this set documents the development of early R&B, jump blues, doo wop, and gospel music during that fertile period, drawing on records unearthed at regional swap meets, flea markets, yard sales, and record stores by radio host and music researcher Jay Bruder and painstakingly transferred and restored. Not only is the sound quality consistently excellent, but the accompanying book is a triumph of popular music scholarship: every track is annotated — some in astonishing historical detail — and the book itself is gorgeous, handsomely bound in such a way that it lies flat no matter what page you open to. The music itself is not consistently excellent, and that’s part of the point of the project: clunkers are presented alongside little-known masterpieces, giving us a fully-textured overview of the DC music scene at a critical point in American cultural history. But the ratio of dross to gold is highly favorable: for every eight or ten spine-tingling appearance by, say, Billy Eckstine or the Cruisers or the Young Gospel Singers, there might be a silly novelty tune or a throwaway formula exercise by someone else. (And since some artists are represented by ten or more entries, even the quality of music from individual artists and groups is somewhat uneven.) Again, though, this is the point: like most Bear Family boxes, this is one is as much about learning as about listening, which makes it a natural fit for library collections — well-funded library collections, that is, as this one lists for about $300. Very highly recommended.
The Wild, Exciting Sounds of Marshall Crenshaw: Live in the 20th and 21st Century (2 discs)
America has lots of songwriters, and a few of them are commercially successful. Of the commercially successful ones, a few are masters of the form. Marshall Crenshaw is one of that very select group. He has also been, for several decades now, a dynamite live performer, as this two-disc set illustrates. The first disc documents performances from 1982 and 1983 in the Boston and New York areas (leading a band that included his brothers Robert and John). The sound quality of these live recordings is generally good, though at times it’s unfortunately distorted (note, for example, “Whenever You’re on My Mind”). In a live context, classic tunes like “Cynical Girl” and “Mary Anne” take on an extra element of joyful abandon, and we get a clearer view of the raw rockabilly underpinnings of a song like “Got a Lot of Livin’ to Do.” On disc 2 we get to hear both solo and band performances from 1991 and 2014, and while these are quite good they’re honestly not quite as compelling as the earlier recordings. Overall, though, this album is a solid winner.
St. Arkansas (reissue)
Fire (dist. Redeye)
Since its inception in the mid-1970s, Cleveland’s proto-art-punk stalwarts Pere Ubu have been blazing an entirely unique trail through the thickets of rock, punk, art-rock, and even straight-up pop music. By 1998, when Pennsylvania was originally issued, only frontman David Thomas and guitarists Jim Jones and Tom Herman remained from the group’s earliest days; by 2002, when St. Arkansas came out, Jones’ declining health had moved him to the sidelines; he was a featured player on the album but no longer a fully functioning member of the band. (Sadly, he would die a few years later, at age 57.) These two albums are among the darkest of the band’s discography, though not the most weird or experimental: while the pop hooks that abounded on albums like Cloudland and Worlds in Collision are nowhere to be found here, the fundamental structure is fairly standard-issue rock’n’roll, with the standard overlay of bloopy synths and Thomas’ uniquely squeaky, yelping vocals delivering distinctly odd lyrics. Longstanding Ubu themes of American geography, highways, and place names continue to thread through these albums — no songs about birds, though. Both albums were remixed by Thomas for the reissue.
Lee “Scratch” Perry
Roast Fish, Collie Weed, and Corn Bread (reissue)
With the recent passing of legendary reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, you can anticipate lots of reissues and tribute albums over the next year or so. Some will be outstanding; some will be dodgy money-grabs. This one is gold. Perry is mostly known as a producer who created an utterly unique studio sound and was at the helm for some of reggae’s most enduring recordings by the likes of the Heptones, Junior Byles, the Congos, and even Bob Marley and the Wailers. But this album represents Perry as an artist, singing his uniquely weird lyrics over classic Black Ark backing tracks. Songs like “Throw Some Water In” and “Free Up the Weed” are not only great Perry songs, they’re classics of classical-era 1970s reggae. (Though he probably should have left “Curly Locks” alone, since his performance of it pales terribly in comparison to Byles‘.) This CD is not actually a new reissue, but since the album is being reissued on red vinyl for Record Store Day I thought I’d take the opportunity to encourage all libraries to pick up the CD version. This is an absolutely essential piece of reggae history.
Dennis Bovell Meets Dubblestandart
@Repulse “Reggae Classics”
This album represents a summit meeting of two reggae legends: from the old school, London-based bassist/producer Dennis Bovell (a.k.a. Blackbeard); and from the new school, Vienna’s Dubblestandart, perhaps Europe’s foremost exponents of heavy modernist roots reggae. The album’s inscrutable title notwithstanding, it’s a straightforward affair: reworks of classic reggae tunes from Jamaican and UK bands like Matumbi, Steel Pulse, Twinkle Brothers, and Culture, with Dubblestandart providing the backing tracks and Bovell singing and producing. Delightfully, the album is presented in “showcase” style, with each vocal version followed by a dub mix. Songs like “Jah Jah See Dem a Come” and “Hypocrite” may be familiar fare, but these versions shed fresh light on them and the mighty Dubblestandart crew do an excellent job of making them their own. And Bovell’s production is brilliant as always. Highly recommended.
Awesome Tapes from Africa
In recent months I’ve kind of fallen in love with amapiano, a dance music genre that emerged in South Africa about ten years ago. Although it’s rooted in house music (and I really hate house music), I find it irresistible somehow: the four-on-the-floor beats that make house so tedious to my ears somehow manage to be both soothing and propulsive here, and the layers of samples and melodic fragments that create the body of the sound are both often weird and frequently uplifting. Native Soul is a duo who produce some of the most attractive examples of amapiano I’ve yet heard, and their new release is a gentle triumph of color and texture. From the bumping opening track “The Beginning” to the album-closing “End of Time,” the steady 115-bpm chug and the creative building up of musical layers is a delight. If your library has a collecting interest in sub-Saharan pop music, this album is a must-have.