Pomerania: Music from Northern Germany and Poland (14th-15th Centuries)
Ensemble Peregrina / Agnieszka Budzińska-Bennett
Tacet (dist. Naxos)
This is the fourth and (sadly) final volume in the Tacet label’s Mare Balticum series, which celebrates obscure early music from the Baltic region. As on the previous three volumes, which featured music from Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and northern Germany, Agnieszka Budzińska-Bennett leads the Ensemble Peregrina in a survey of forgotten and previously lost works found in various archives around the German-Polish region once known as Pomerania. Some of them have been preserved only incompletely, requiring Budzińska-Bennett to fill in a few musical blanks herself; many have never been recorded before or even heard in centuries. All of the music consists of single sung melodic lines, but this isn’t “plainchant” in the usual sense — it’s discursive, sometimes simple and sometimes elaborate, and occasionally almost ecstatic, in a style that those familiar with the music of Hildegard von Bingen will likely recognize. Like the previous volumes in this series, this one should be considered an essential purchase for any library that collects pre-baroque music.
Adriano 2 (digital/vinyl only)
Dionysos Now! / Tore Tom Denys
Creeping forward in time about 100 years, we have this absolutely luscious recording of Adriaen Willaert’s Missa Benedicta es along with a handful of motets and chansons. Willaert was one of the great Franco-Flemish masters, but one who has been relegated largely to the shadows of history in comparison to his more illustrious contemporaries like Josquin and de la Rue. The six-voice male Dionysos Now! ensemble seeks to remedy that with these sonically and musically sumptuous recordings (Adriano 1 was released last year), which not only showcase heartbreakingly beautiful compositions but also a surprisingly rich vocal sound; normally a small-force male ensemble isn’t my favorite, but this one sounds amazing. Sadly for library collections, the Evil Penguin label doesn’t release CDs, but these recordings will be available on vinyl as well as digitally.
Israel Music Institute
Israeli composer Max Stern has been focused on producing what he calls “Biblical compositions” for many years. On this collection of works written between 1979 and 2009, he draws on themes both explicitly and implicitly related to the Bible and Bible history: on the more implicit side, there is a suite titled Three Ancient Pieces for flute and guitar (which draws on Davidic musical ideas), while a lovely large-scale work for orchestra titled Song of the Morning Stars celebrates the Biblical account of the creation. Hannah’s Song of Praise sets to music a beautiful text from the Book of Samuel, while the brief cantata Prophecy for the End of Days brings a more somber mood to the proceedings. All of the music is tonal and quite approachable, but departs in marked ways from some of the stylistic conventions of Western European classical music. Fascinating and lovely stuff, for all libraries.
Johann David Heinichen
Ensemble Polyharmonique; Wrocław Baroque Orchestra / Jarosław Thiel
Accent (dist. Naxos)
CPO (dist. Naxos)
When the religiopolitical winds changed at the Dresden court with the (Protestant) Elector Prince’s marriage to (the very Catholic) Maria Josepha in 1719, its music had to change as well. Luckily for the court and its newlywed prince, the composer they had on hand was Johann David Heinichen, who was particularly well suited to creating the kind of sumptuous liturgical music that Maria Josepha had come to love in Vienna. This vespers service includes Dixit Dominus and Magnificat settings among other festal pieces, and is performed joyfully and colorfully by the always outstanding Ensemble Polyharmonique. During the same period, secular instrumental and theater music was flourishing in Dresden as well, and the Dresdner Barockorchester was formed 30 years ago to keep alive the flame of that unusually fertile musical time and place. Gloria Dresdensis brings together chamber and orchestral works from Dresden composers of the early- to mid-18th century including G.F. Händel, Antonio Caldara, Johann Adolf Hasse, and Giuseppe Pisendel: sonatas, sinfonias, overtures, and incidental music from an oratorio all rub shoulders on this crowded but consistently delightful program. The playing and the recorded sound are outstanding on both releases.
Paul Whiteman Commissions & Other Early Works
Andy Baker Orchestra; Avalon String Quartet
Cedille (dist. Naxos)
CDR 90000 205
American composer Leo Sowerby is best known for his religious music (and has been called, in fact, the Dean of American Church Music). But between 1916 and 1925 he wrote a number of neoclassical and jazz-derived pieces, two of them direct commissions from Paul Whiteman intended to be played by members of his jazz orchestra. These works — Synconata and Symphony for Jazz Orchestra — bracket the program, which also includes two pieces for string quartet and one for piano and strings. All represent world-premiere recordings. The music is not nearly as jazzy as one might expect (particularly given the cover photo of Whiteman and his band). There are elements of jazz here, especially in the Symphony, but this is not jazz; it’s reasonably straight-up art music, and definitely art music of its time and place. This recording will be a fascinating resource for any library supporting the study of American music. For that purpose, the liner notes alone are almost worth the price of the disc.
Sylvie Courvoisier; Mary Halvorson
Searching for the Disappeared Hour
“We both have an affinity towards darkening things,” says guitarist Mary Halvorson of her ongoing duo project with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, “which is great because you can start with a joyous melody and there’s all kinds of room to mess with it. We’re both really open to that.” You hear that happening all over the place on this challenging, complex, and ultimately (though not simply) joyous album. Halvorson’ unique tone and often unsettling approach to effects are on full display here: she’ll be playing a lyrical, clean-toned line that suddenly wobbles off into pitch-altered cartoon weirdness. Courvoisier, similarly, can switch from neoclassical decorousness to spiky atonality and back again at a moment’s notice. Together, they respond to each other’s subtlest gestures quickly and nimbly and always with a sense of clear musical logic, even when improvising in an entirely free style. Highly recommended.
On the Town: Peter Malinverni Plays Leonard Bernstein
This recording was released at a fortuitous moment: a time when the general public’s attention had been turned once again to the music of one of America’s national treasures, composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein (thanks to Steven Spielberg’s reimagined film version of West Side Story). Here pianist Malinverni leads bassist Ugonna Okegwo and the magnificent drummer Jeff Hamilton through a respectful but still adventurous program of Bernstein show tunes including “I Feel Pretty,” “Somewhere,” and “Lonely Town.” (At the end of the album is a Malinverni original, a tribute titled “A Night on the Town.”) Malinverni’s style is an impressive blend of the lyrical and the off-kilter — long lines that evoke Bud Powell will suddenly give way to Monkish rhythmic dysjunction. Hamilton’s brush work is a quiet and subtle highlight, as it always is. For all jazz collections.
Secret Exit to Another Dimension
I’ll be completely candid here: this isn’t my favorite jazz album of the year, or even the month. But I’m recommending it because I don’t see it as my job simply to share what I like — it’s my job to hip you to good music, and this album is objectively excellent, in terms of both the playing and (even more so) its structure and conception. Bassist Piet Verbist leads a trio that includes guitarist Hendrik Braeckman and drummer Lionel Beuvens, and they play a mixed program of originals and standards that shows off the group’s exceptional skill at arranging, as well as its impressive cohesiveness as a musical unit. Braeckman’s “Map Map” is an unusually complex chart, but wears its complexity lightly; Verbist’s arrangement of Charlie Parker’s “Cheryl” makes the tune entirely his own, and Beuvens’ “Bridge House” is a lovely, floating jazz waltz with a chord progression that stays just on the right side of predictable. Verbist keeps his solos to a minimum — always a wise choice for a bass player.
Journeys Vol. 1
No cat. no.
The meditative pieces on the latest album from vibraphonist Chris Dingman have their roots in his Peace project, which I recommended in 2020. That five-disc set consisted of improvised pieces he played for his father while the latter was in hospice care. Journeys Vol. 1 is also a set of improvisations for solo vibraphone, but these were originally created for his weekly Bandcamp subscription; subscribers helped him to choose which tracks to include on the album. They find him continuing to explore ways in which music can heal and can take you on a journey; they are also informed by his study of other instruments, notably the mbira or thumb-piano. (In fact, once you know to listen for it, you’ll hear that instrument’s influence throughout the album.) As with Peace, the music is certainly soothing and pleasant — but because Dingman is a genuinely brilliant musician, it’s also much more.
The Pine Hearts
Lost Love Songs
No cat. no.
When we think of the music scene in Olympia, Washington, what normally come to mind are the early days of grunge and the thriving local indie label K Records. And indeed, the Pine Hearts’ frontman Joey Capoccia came from the underground punk scene in that area — not that you’ll hear much of that influence in the Pine Hearts’ music. This is gentle, acoustic, folk- and bluegrass-derived pop music of the kind now generally called “Americana.” Guitar and mandolin are the instrumental foundation of these songs, with fiddle and banjo making regular appearances (notably on “Darling Don’t the Sunlight in Your Eyes,” which is not a typo, and “Ocean in Your Veins”); Capoccia’s reedy tenor is at the center, and his tendency to combine poetic lyrics with simple and straightforward melodies is what makes the songs such consistent winners. Very nice stuff.
Blue Corn Music
The title of Sarah Borges’ latest signals its context: this is a straight-up COVID album. She recorded it by remote means, sending voice-and-guitar demos to her producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, who then recruited session players who he knew would not only do a good job, but would be able to record their parts effectively at home. What Borges and Ambel have assembled from those disparate parts is an album that not only keenly reflects the anguish of the past two years (“It’s been a while now since I’ve seen my friends/Don’t know when I’m gonna see them again,” she sings) but also, improbably enough, sounds fantastic. Highlights include “Lucky Day,” a particularly hooky slab of country-rock, and “Wouldn’t Know You,” a powerful mid-tempo burner with through-composed harmonies. Borges is always impressive, and this is one of her best efforts so far.
Back in January 2018 I recommended Rhi’s album Reverie, which I hailed as basically a return of classic trip-hop informed by intervening developments in both bass music and R&B. Her latest is actually two releases, each of them billed as a “three-track single” featuring three songs alongside instrumental and a cappella versions, for a total of eighteen tracks across both EPs. Her general modus operandi hasn’t changed much: booming but not crushing basslines; slow tempos; huge sonic spaces; a voice that floats murkily rather than asserting itself in the mix and that declaims quietly rather than emoting. Producer Telemachus sounds like her musical soulmate here, and giving him equal billing seems only fair given how important his particular approach to sound is to these final products. The songs are brilliant and unsettling in equal measure.
Heavenly (dist. Integral)
Opening with the absolutely perfect “You Don’t Want This,” the sophomore effort from Amsterdam’s Pip Blom builds on the success of their 2019 debut, Boat. This is guitar-based indie rock of a type that would have been called “post punk” in the 1980s and wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place in that decade: a vocal style that evokes the Sundays, and a tight but slightly messy guitar sound that falls somewhere between the Buzzcocks and Wire. The hooks aren’t quite as plentiful across the album as that opening track might lead you to expect, but the songwriting is a consistent pleasure and songwriter/lead singer Pip Blom (after whom the band is named) delivers everything with solid authority. For all pop collections.
Bev Lee Harling
Wah Wah 45s
Bev Lee Harling is a songwriter, singer, and violinist, and this only her second release since 2012. In the intervening period she’s become a mother, and Little Anchor finds her reflecting musically on the adventures of parenthood and all of the joys, frustrations, disappointments, and euphoria that experience can bring (sometimes within the space of an hour). The sound is multi-layered, mostly built on acoustic instrumentation (often her violin, played in a variety of ways) and mutitracked vocals, though electronic beats and samples find their way into the mix too. “Is it OK that I don’t know what I’m doing?” she asks on one song, and on another she pays tender tribute to her recently deceased mother. Nothing here sounds like anything else currently on the market, but it’s all perfectly accessible. In fact, rarely has an album as willfully odd as this one been so effortlessly enjoyable.
The Living Earth Show & Danny Clay
Music for Hard Times
No cat. no.
I have pretty broad musical tastes, but at every point on the spectrum of those tastes my criteria are very particular. I love reggae, but mainly roots-and-culture reggae from the 1970s; I love punk rock, but it has to be “I’m angry because I want the world to be better” punk rock rather than “no future” punk rock. I love classical music, but mainly classical music written between 1500 and 1820 or so; and so forth. I mention all of that by way of saying that I love ambient music, but it can’t just be wispy and pretty; it must also be interesting. Both of these releases hit that target cleanly. Music for Hard Times is a collaborative project between composer Danny Clark and an ensemble called the Living Earth Show, conceived during the COVID lockdown and designed to answer the question: “Is it possible for us to use the tools of classical art music to make people feel better?”. Your mileage will vary in that regard, of course, but I have a hard time imagining anyone failing to feel better while listening to heart-tuggingly gentle “Book 1, Part 4” or the beautiful but distinctly odd backwards instruments on “Book 2, Part 1.” On a very different tip is Charles Richard’s Sonic Earth LP, an album on which Richard seeks — no joking — to “synthesize the sound of rocks.” Here’s how it works, in his words: “My recording process starts with a prepared mineral stylus that scores the surface of the material. Recording this with a piezo electric contact mic, this long recording serves as the generator. The next stage is to play this recording back into the material via a vibrational surface speaker. This means that the material is vibrating to its own resonance and the surface noise is heard less and what you hear is a cleaner amplified version of the rocks resonance.” What’s the result? Music of serene, floating, and sometimes spooky beauty — music that is not so much about making you feel better as about helping you think about your natural environment in entirely new ways. (And as a bonus, it may also make you feel better.)
The Parahamsa Mixes: White Swan Taking Flight (digital only)
Producer DJ Drez (often in collaboration with his spouse, singer Marti Nikko) has been creating exceptionally groovy music for many years now, in a variety of styles that orbit around hip hop and dub reggae. To call it “club music” wouldn’t be quite accurate; his music generally comes very explicitly from a place of yogic/Hindu devotion, and that’s certainly the case with this new collection of remixes based on tracks from his labelmates at White Swan. “Abundant Jungle” is a slow, syrupy take on Zaire Black’s “Abundance,” while “Radha’s Paint” remixes a track from Stevin McNamara’s album Shakti Guitar and “Govinda Echoes” takes Masood Ali Khan’s “Govinda Gopala” and twists it gently into a dubbed-out space jam. Nikko makes several appearances on the program, and as always her contributions are highlights.
Artikal Sound System
Welcome to Florida
Controlled Substance Sound Labs
No cat. no.
On their first full-length release, Florida’s Artikal Sound System hit that elusive sweet spot: balancing pop hooks with old-school reggae rhythms, balancing a deep and bassy groove with a clean and modern sound, and balancing serious roots-and-culture messages with laments over romance gone wrong. Their sound is tight and clean and singer Logan Rex has a voice that sounds light at first but shows its core strength as you keep listening. “One with You” delivers a powerful message of unity, and segues nicely into the dancehall groove of “Too Soon,” with its gently anthemic chorus; “Dissolve” is a regretful kiss-off song, and “Cops and Robbers” is a jaunty ska workout with a sharp social message. Rarely do modern reggae albums deliver this nice a blend of thoughtfulness and fun. Highly recommended.
Gary Stroutsos & Stevin McNamara
Moonlight Meditations: Instrumental Sound Bath (digital only)
I confess that I approached this release with interest, but also with a bit of trepidation. The title led me to be cautious about the depth/density of the musical content, and what looked like a rather casual invocation of yoga concepts in the track titles led me to wonder about its overall seriousness. But I can happily report that this is an interesting and musically satisfying album, one that draws on Indian classical tradition without using it as a shallow scrim of spiritual exotica, and that guitarist Stevin McNamara and flutist Gary Stroutsos (playing a bass flute, which brings an unusual and lovely tonality to the proceedings) create music that is both unique and oddly universal. Or maybe not “universal” but rather “nonspecific.” As the artists themselves put it, this album “doesn’t bridge two worlds; it creates its own.”