Complete Four-part Masses, Volume 2
St. Martin’s Chamber Choir / Timothy J. Krueger
Toccata Classics (dist. Naxos)
I was deeply impressed by these world-premiere recordings of a cappella masses written just before the French Revolution. Henri Hardouin was maitre de chapelle at Rheims Cathedral until the Revolution forced him into hiding (as a priest, he was in serious danger); he remains deeply obscure, and his works are rarely published or recorded. But these Masses are absolutely gorgeous: simple and straightforward in structure, but melodically sweet and imbued with a golden light of devotion. The St. Martin’s Chamber Choir’s delivery is maybe slightly ragged in a few places, but the group performs these works with a hushed intensity and in a reverberant acoustic that showcase the music perfectly. Every library with a classical music collection should consider picking up this disc, as well as Volume 1.
Franz Anton Dimler
Three Clarinet Concertos
Nikolaus Friedrich; Kurpfälzisches Kammerorchester Mannheim / Johannes Willig
CPO (dist. Naxos)
Also from the height of the classical era comes this delightful set of three clarinet concertos written by Franz Anton Dimler, horn player (later double bassist) and composer at the court of Carl Theodor of the Palatinate. These pieces were written near the end of the 18th century, and were probably intended to be played by Dimler’s son, who was a musician in the court at Munich at the time. There are some interesting formal innovations in this music, but the casual listener will be struck primarily by its melodic sweetness with that slight edge of melancholy that is the unique province of the clarinet. Three of the pieces on this outstanding disc represent world-premiere recordings; soloist Nikolaus Friedrich displays consistently lovely tone.
Missa Christ ist erstanden
Hyperion (dist. Integral)
The Gesualdo Six / Owain Park
Throughout 2021 — the 500th anniversary of the death of Josquin des Prez — I kept expecting a bumper crop of new recordings of music by that towering figure in the Franco-Flemish choral tradition. It never really materialized, though that doesn’t mean there weren’t some fine recordings from that tradition. Jacob Regnart is one of the less fully appreciated inheritors of Josquin’s legacy, a Douai-born composer who flourished at the Innsbruck Court of Archduke Ferdinand II. There he used music (notably these two Easter Masses) to help advance the cause of revitalizing Catholicism in Germany in the wake of the Lutheran Reformation. The music is gorgeous, and this recording should help bring more recognition to Regnart’s significant contribution to the development of Renaissance choral music. Other Franco-Flemish composers who followed in Josquin’s footsteps include Adrian Willaert, Jean l’Héritier, Antoine de Févin, and Antoine Brumel, all of whom are featured on the Josquin’s Legacy collection by the Gesualdo Six, which focuses particularly on the influence Josquin had at the court of Ferrara during the late 15th and early 16th century. There are no Mass settings here; instead, the program explores a wide range of motets; some are lamentations on the deaths of fellow composers, some are Latin texts with political overtones; some are works of Marian devotion. Both of these recordings are by small, all-male ensembles, and both feature a surprisingly rich and creamy ensemble sound. Both are highly recommended to all libraries.
Jared Hauser; Christopher Stenstrom; Francis Perry; Polly Brecht
Blue Griffin (dist. Albany)
This is a beautifully recorded and sweetly performed collection of oboe sonatas by Handel, Vivaldi, Geminiani, Telemann, and a dance suite by François Couperin. Playing on what seems to be a mix of modern and period instruments, cellist Christopher Stenstrom, lutenist Francis Perry, and harpsichordist Polly Brecht provide support to the outstanding oboist Jared Hauser, whose lightness of touch and purity of tone are a delight throughout. The quality of the compositions themselves is noteworthy too, of course — Telemann’s wonderful F-major sonata is a particular standout, as is the liltingly beautiful sixth suite from Couperin’s Concerts royaux. This would make a fine addition to any library with a collecting interest in baroque music.
As regular readers will have gathered by now, my tastes in jazz run to the straight-ahead: I tend to favor jazz that swings powerfully, that is melodically tight and coherent, and that works within relatively traditional structures. But there are exceptions, and drummer/composer Mareike Wiening’s second album as a leader is one such. It’s not that her music is “out,” at least in any fundamental sense: it swings (mostly), and it follows well-structured chord progressions. But her progressions are intriguingly impressionistic, often following unusual paths that slip and slide and leave you unsure where she’ll go next. She and her sidemen play with such confident communication, though, that you’ll never be left feeling lost or confused; on a tune like “Dance into July” or the aptly titled ballad “An Idea Is Unpredictable,” you can listen with relaxed confidence that no matter where the changes take you, it will be someplace interesting and lovely. As unusual as it is, this is one of my favorite jazz releases of the year.
When We Leave
Even by ECM standards, this is an unusually lovely and lyrical album of contemporary jazz. Norwegian trumpeter and composer Mathias Eick has become a major figure on the scene in recent years, and on his newest album he leads a septet that, unusually, features two drummers and a steel guitar along with violin, piano, and bass. While this could reasonably lead one to expect cacophony or at least gentle chaos, Eick’s arrangements create just the opposite: the music floats and flows, every musician creating something unique but leaving the others plenty of room to move. There’s a deep melancholy here, reflecting events of the past year, but an equally deep joy. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Live at Blues Alley: 25th Anniversary Edition (reissue)
Blix Street (dist. ADA)
This is a remastered reissue of a landmark album, one that was recorded for the purpose of giving the hair-raisingly talented singer Eva Cassidy something that she and her band could sell at gigs to raise extra money. Several months later she had died of cancer; posthumously, her star rose and she became a multi-platinum-selling artist who found a particularly enthusiastic audience in the UK. If you’re not already familiar with her work, this album clearly demonstrates what all the fuss was about: her voice is one of the wonders of nature. On this set she glides, shouts, and croons her way through jazz standards (“Cheek to Cheek,” “Autumn Leaves,” “What a Wonderful World”), blues burners (“Stormy Monday”), R&B (“Take Me to the River”) and pop (jaw-dropping versions of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Fields of Gold”), leaving her personal stamp on every familiar tune. I can’t say enough about how gorgeous her voice is and how beautifully her band supports her. And the remastered sound is amazing.
Michael Bakan; Brian Hall; Longineu Parsons
A History of the Future (digital only)
Not normally a big fan of jazz ensembles that don’t include a chordal instrument, I nevertheless found myself really enjoying this unusual set by trio Michael Bakan (drums), Brian Hall (bass), and Longineu Parsons (trumpet, cornet, flute, recorder). As tune titles like “St. James Infirm,” “Creole,” and “New Orleans Twisted” would suggest, the compositions tend to be centered on slippery, second-line rhythms, and structurally they don’t seem to hew very consistently to the usual head-solos-head approach: they’re certainly not unstructured, but there’s a looseness to the arrangements that adds to the general sense of fun and extemporaneity — another way in which the spirit of New Orleans imbues this whole album. For all jazz collections.
There are lots of ways to modernize the bluegrass formula: you can add jazz chord changes, you can add drums and/or electric bass, you can cover pop songs. Or you can do what Valerie Smith does, which is simply use bluegrass instrumentation to accompany rootsy songs that may or may not come from the strict folk or bluegrass tradition, sometimes playing them with that familiar drive and energy and sometimes harnessing the instruments to a more mellow and introspective style. And when you do it with this much skill, the results are consistently impressive — note in particular her take on Jude Johnstone’s gorgeously regretful “On That Train,” and the honky-tonking “Dancing with the Stars.” The intense, bluesy gospel number “The Great I Am” is a highlight, too. Smith’s voice is clear and strong, with a pleasantly grainy edge to it. Highly recommended.
11 from Kevin: Songs of Kevin Gordon
No cat. no.
I confess that I had never heard of Kevin Gordon before receiving a copy of this disc for review. But singer/songwriter Julie Christensen has admired her Nashville colleague for years, and now we can all hear why. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop program (where he earned a master’s degree in poetry), Gordon is unusually gifted at crafting evocative and thought-provoking lyrics: on “Fire at the End of the World” his verbal cadence and lyrical imagery intensely recall middle-period Tom Waits, while “Gloryland” is a dark-hued condemnation of religious hypocrisy, which Christensen delivers with prophetic intensity. Christensen’s voice is gritty and her intonation occasionally wavers, but the strength of her delivery is undeniable and the arrangements are both rootsy and rocking.
Sacred Soul: The D-Vine Spirituals Records Story, Volumes 1 & 2
Bible & Tire Recording Co.
Juan D. Phipps grew up in Memphis in the 1940s and 1950s, playing music on the sly and swearing he’d never become a preacher like his father. He actually did — but his musical background took him in a slightly different direction. He also started the D-Vine Spirituals label, recording local talent like the Gospelaires, Elizabeth King & the Gospel Souls, the Shaw Singers, and the Pure Heart Travelers and garnering significant local airplay and winning regional competitions. Now 28 of his label’s original 45s are gathered together on these two CDs, and I can promise you they sound different from anything you’ve heard before. This isn’t smooth, tight-harmony gospel music; it’s raw-boned, rocking, occasionally slightly scary gospel music, music that sometimes sounds exactly like 50s and 60s R&B except for the lyrical subject matter. For all pop music collections.
The Dawn Is Near (digital only)
Dischi del Minollo
No cat. no.
I keep wanting to say this album is “fun,” but that’s entirely the wrong word. Oneiros Way makes music that explores a dark region between dream pop, trip-hop, synthpop, and shoegaze. Maybe the word “fun” keeps popping into my mind because I love the juddering basslines, or maybe I’m tickled by the group’s occasional language shifts (from Italian to English and back), or maybe it’s the subtle puckishness that emerges from time to time, like with the 6/8 rhythms and synthesized banjo sounds on “Glass Bell” ; I don’t know. I do know that the debut album by this duo, presented only as “Regina” and “Claudio,” contains some of the more engaging pop and pop-adjacent music I heard in 2021.
Robert Görl & DAF
Nur noch Einer
Let’s be very clear about this one, though: the word “fun” will not enter your mind while listening to it. That’s partly because the music of Deutsch Amerikanische Freundshaft (DAF) has been edgy and intense throughout the duo’s 40-year on-and-off career, and it’s partly because the circumstances under which this album was created were sad and disappointing. Multi-instrumentalist Robert Görl and singer/lyricist Gabriel Delgado were scheduled to go back into the studio together after a long hiatus, when Delgado died suddenly of a heart attack. Görl moved forward with recording plans, in large part as a tribute to Delgado, but the shape of the project changed: he and Delgado had been digging through the DAF archives and finding previously-unreleased instrumental tracks, to which the latter was planning to add improvised lyrics in the studio. Instead, Görl wrote and recorded his own. The resulting sound is vintage 1980s electro pop, maybe less “pop” than “electro,” with stiff but energetic beats and lyrics that are declaimed more than sung. To paraphrase David Thomas, this is just the sort of thing for people who like this sort of thing. And I do.
Birds of Passage
The Last Garden
This is Alicia Merz’s fifth album under the name Birds of Passage, and her first in three years. As always, her music explores a deep inner space that the reclusive artist shares with the world only in this way. Her voice is hushed, breathy, and multi-tracked, making the words a bit hard to discern; the music itself is similarly soft and layered, often invoking artists like Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine, but with less edge (in the latter case) and less melodic hookiness (in the former). There’s a deeply appealing beauty to it, though, and at her best Mertz demonstrates how much you can do with atmosphere and texture. Highly recommended.
Um Gosto del Sol (digital only)
No cat. no.
The latest from Brazilian singer/songwriter Céu finds her returning to her roots — which is to say, cover versions. This is actually her first cover album, but when she was first getting started as a singer, living in New York and working day jobs, it was performing covers that helped her establish her voice. And now, a couple of decades into a successful career recording her own songs, she’s looking back and interpreting songs by others that have been meaningful to her. They range from the very familiar (“Feelings,” which she manages, against all odds, to make entirely her own, and João Gilberto’s pioneering “Bim Bom”) to songs that only adepts of Brazilian pop are likely to recognize (Ismael Silva’s samba “Ao Romper de Aurora,” Carlos & Jocafi’s “Teimosa”). The settings are all simple but elegant, and largely acoustic, the better to showcase Céu’s delicately gorgeous voice.
Dom la Nena
No cat. no.
And speaking of delicately gorgeous, check out the latest from another top-notch Brazilian talent. Dom La Nena is a singer, songwriter, producer, and cellist originally from Brazil but currently based in Paris. Her latest album is quiet but complex, both musically and emotionally; there’s a sunniness to her songs, but a gentle melancholy as well. All of the sounds were produced by her, including the percussion parts (which were created by tapping on her cello). On songs like “No Tengas Miedo” the parts are gently but densely layered, whereas on others (notably the butterfly-light “Moreno”) every sound feels like it could blow away at any moment. She writes subtle but lovely melodies and sings them in a slightly breathy voice that never feels in any way insubstantial. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Resilience: Songs of Uganda
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
On her latest album, legendary Ugandan singer and songwriter Rachel Magoola makes a triumphant return to the world stage with a set of songs that are much more serious than they sound at first listen. If you don’t speak Lusoga, Acholi, Gisu, Ateso, or Rukiga (the languages in which she performs on this album), you’d be hard put to hear the anguish that underlies songs like the sweet and sprightly “Bufuubi” or the frantically bumping and horn-driven “Maama Mutesi.” The theme of “resilience” is very important here; it explains how these songs can be simultaneously so celebratory and so concerned with tribulation and hardship. The music itself is a wonderful, uplifting mix of modern and traditional instruments with beautiful call-and-response vocals. I can’t recommend this one strongly enough.