Alina Ibragimova; Cédric Tiberghien
Hyperion (dist. Integral)
Although in musical terms he was a titan of the German Romantic tradition, in another very real sense we could consider Mendelssohn a Rennaissance man — an accomplished artist, poet, and polyglot as well as a once-in-generation composer, keyboardist, and conductor. And also, as it turns out, an excellent violinist and violist. He published one violin sonata during his life, but upon his untimely death he left behind unpublished manuscripts of two additional completed sonatas and one fragment. All of those works, including the fragment, are performed here by a pair of astoundingly virtuosic and tasteful young musicians whose fiery and exuberant style breathes fresh life into these works.
Phantasm; Daniel Hyde
Linn (dist. Naxos)
The Flat Consort
Signum Classics (dist. Naxos)
These two recent releases both focus on consort music for viols written by 17th-century English composers who are unjustly neglected today, but whose music was groundbreaking in its time. Jenkins in particular was known for his dedication to the idea that all voices in the consort should have equal status, and his harmonic writing was restless and highly dynamic. Locke, too, wrote music that had a distinctively bustling energy, and Fretwork’s recording of his “flat consorts” (a term for which I can’t seem to find a definition anywhere) is as vibrant as one would expect from this august group. Both of these recordings are highly recommended to all libraries with a collecting interest in English Renaissance music.
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
The Complete Vocal Works (17 discs; reissue)
Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam / Harry van der Kamp
Glossa (dist. Naxos)
Sweelinck’s most significant musical contributions were as a keyboardist and organ composer — he was a pioneer of fugal composition before Bach — but his rich output of vocal music should not be overlooked. This magisterial collection brings together recordings made by the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam between 2003 and 2009 (and originally issued in separate sets) of his sacred and secular vocal compositions, including a full twelve discs of psalm settings. Chansons, madrigals, motets, and “sacred songs” are included as well, demonstrating both Sweelinck’s breathtaking productivity and his genius for rhythmic and contrapuntal invention. The Gesualdo Consort sing with impeccable intonation and a colorful blend, and are recorded in a dry, intimate acoustic that effectively showcases both the quality of their individual voices and the brilliance of Sweelinck’s part-writing. Any library that hasn’t already acquired these recordings in their original issues should seriously consider picking up this reasonably-priced box.
David Hyun-su Kim Plays Schumann
David Hyun-su Kim
Centaur (dist. Naxos)
There are two notable things about this program of piano works by Robert Schumann. The first is the exceptional sensitivity and insight of David Hyun-su Kim’s playing; his delicacy of touch, his sense of dynamics, and his use of rubato set a standard for the performance of music by this 19th-century master. The second thing is the instrument: Kim plays a modern replica of a mid-century Graf fortepiano much like the one gifted to Robert and Clara Schumann at their wedding, and on which Schumann wrote the Carnaval suite of character pieces that is the centerpiece of this program. These works are clearly written with the Graf piano’s unique tonal qualities in mind, and Kim showcases both the brilliance of the music and those unique qualities beautifully. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Jason Wayne Sneed & Toshinori Kondo
Guardians of the Most Cosmic Shrine
This was the last recording made by legendary jazz/avant-garde trumpeter Toshinori Kondo before his death in late 2020. It came about after Kondo met bassist and producer Jason Wayne Sneed at a show in Chicago in 2019; they decided to collaborate remotely on some music, and Sneed set to work creating backing tracks, over which Kondo played; shortly after the parts had been written, Kondo passed away. Sneed subsequently mixed the various parts together and created with them a richly impressionistic tapestry of sounds that brings to mind some of the dub projects of Bill Laswell. This is complex and gorgeous stuff, and it’s a shame that Sneed and Kondo were only able to produce 38 minutes of music together.
Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered
Rising Sun (dist. Integral)
Ragtime music is something of an odd duck in the history of American art and jazz music. Unlike jazz it’s fully arranged and features no improvisation; unlike European classical music its rhythmic foundation is deeply rooted in Africa — and yet its harmonic structure is entirely European. In her interpretation of a program of works by the great ragtime composer Scott Joplin, pianist Lara Downes explores many of the stylistic ambiguities of this music, freely interpreting such familiar pieces as “Maple Leaf Rag” and “Solace,” while introducing us to lesser-known works as well, some of them in chamber-orchestral settings. Her playing is exquisitely sensitive, and she makes a powerful case here for Joplin’s genius.
Martin Wind/New York Bass Quartet
There is every reason to expect a jazz album by a quartet of bass players to be unsuccessful. The bass is an instrument designed to do some things exceptionally well, but is not very well suited to other things — and some of those things are central to the success of a jazz album. Also, it has to be said that one intrinsic weakness of the instrument is how difficult it is to make it sound in tune when playing arco in higher positions. And yet, if there’s any bandleader who could make a project like this work, it’s Martin Wind, and sure enough he pulls it off. Throughout a highly diverse program that includes familiar works by Bach, Lennon/McCartney, and Joe Zawinul, he and his crew of fellow bassists (plus a few guests) coax fun and musically compelling arrangements out of this unusual and unlikely instrumental configuration. This album will be of particular interest to any library supporting a program of string pedagogy.
Breath by Breath
I know I always rant and rave about every Fred Hersch album, but honestly, this one is truly special. It consists of pieces written for a combination of his usual piano trio and a string quartet, and stylistically it kind of ranges everywhere — from heartbreakingly sweet neoclassicism (“Awakened Heart”) to agitated near-avant-gardism (“Monkey Mind”) to fugue-based Third Stream jazz/classical fusion. Hersch being Hersch, the writing is of otherworldly beauty, and his ability to shift from hard-swinging grooves to ethereal impressionism remains both astounding and inspiring. Bassist Drew Gess and drummer Jochen Rueckert join the Crosby Street String Quartet on this date, and their ensemble sound is just tremendous. I can’t recommend this one highly enough.
Del McCoury Band
Self-released (dist. Redeye)
I’ve pretty much gotten used to the idea that the whole first generation of bluegrass stars has left us. But it’s startling now to realize how few of the second generation are left. Del McCoury was a little boy when Bill Monroe was changing the whole stylistic calculus of country music, and starting in the late 1950s McCoury began a career that led to him becoming one of the preeminent torch-carriers of traditional bluegrass. At age 83 his voice is still improbably sharp and penetrating, and his sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo) still support him expertly. This album is exactly what you should be able to expect: hardcore tradgrass sung in a high-lonesome style and played and sung with tasteful virtuosity. (And with a little piano, but don’t hold it against them.)
The Cactus Blossoms
Walkie Talkie (dist. Redeye)
The obvious stylistic referent here would be the Everly Brothers (two guitar-playing guys sharing singing and songwriting duties on hook-filled pop/folk/country songs with tight harmonies), but the comparison is too facile. (Comparing them to the Louvin Brothers, as some have, is even more wrongheaded.) In fact, Jack Torrey and Page Burkum sound more like a time-stranded product of Laurel Canyon, with maybe a slight hint of Bakersfield. And that’s a compliment. The songs are gentle but firm, the lyrics sometimes subtly barbed; the arrangements are minimal and consistently perfect. Best couplet: “He was alive when I found him/His eyes were sad.”
I’m Gonna Sing: The Mother’s Best Gospel Radio Recordings (2 discs)
A couple of years ago, I recommended a six-disc box set (with massive accompanying hardbound book) that brought together all of the recordings Hank Williams made for his short-lived Mother’s Best radio show in 1951. This two-disc extract brings together the gospel songs from that collection, in surprisingly good sound quality (considering that the original recordings were acetate discs rescued from a dumpster). Williams was a particularly effective gospel singer, and this collection of both original and traditional gospel tunes (some of them several centuries old) consists of recordings made when he was at the peak of his considerable vocal powers. Any library with a collecting interest in either country or gospel music (and that doesn’t already own the comprehensive Mother’s Best set) should seriously consider picking this up.
No cat. no.
The debut full-length by indie pop singer/songwriter Jesse Norell is a concept album of sorts, dealing with the emotional odyssey of having a child with trisomy 21 (a.k.a. Down syndrome) who has needed multiple heart surgeries. The lyrics are direct; there’s not much coy metaphor here. (“Another phone call from Cardiology/They told me little ones need nourishment for brain functionality,” he sings on “Lullaby for the Frail.”) The mood varies from anguished to celebratory, but what are consistent are the sweetness of his voice, the tunefulness of the songs, and the colorful brilliance of the production. Aorta Borealis will have you dancing around the room and singing along when it doesn’t have you crying on the couch. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Don Giovanni (dist. Redeye)
If you, as I do, miss the days of meat-and-potatoes melodic pop punk, then the new album from Choked Up will come as a refreshing blast of slightly sweat-tinged fresh air. Listening to the bruising guitars and the tight vocals (and noticing the handful of Spanish-language songs), your first thought might be either “East Bay,” or “East L.A.,” but in fact this quartet is from Brooklyn. This isn’t technically their debut, but it’s their first with an entirely new lineup backing frontwoman Cristy Road, and they do sound reborn. One commenter on their Amazon page says this: “The lines I can make out are mainly about crushing on cute queers against a backdrop of fascist dystopia.” So there you go. Eleven songs, 30 minutes, no ballads — you know the drill.
A Strange Dystopian Tundra
No cat. no.
There’s not much background information I can provide on this strange and beautiful album. Mōshonsensu is the pseudonym of Daryl Robinson, a producer based in Newcastle upon Tyne who describes his musical project like this: “I make music for strange ornaments, feathered animals and secret cults of people with strange minds.” A Strange Dystopian Tundra is the product of a period of serious depression, though it doesn’t necessarily sound that way. Floating atmospherics and distorted found-sound vocals are punctuated by funky grooves, field recordings (note the rhythmic use of a crow on “The Detectives Walk”), glitchy beat patterns, and even actual singing. The music is weird and unsettling and yet sometimes oddly comforting at the same time.
The SPACE Sessions
Pravda (dist. MVD)
Josh Caterer, best known as the leader of the celebrated Chicago punk band Smoking Popes (and less known as the frontman for the less celebrated but equally fine Christian punk band Duvall) is back with a ripping live-in-the-studio set featuring a mix of original songs and covers, two of them featuring guest vocals by his daughter Phoebe. As always, his sweet tenor voice is like frosting on the crunchy core of his band’s aggro sound, and as always, he writes great tunes. It’s really fun to hear the band segue without a hitch from the sweet longing of “Something’ Stupid” to the anthemic guitar bombast of “Don’t Be Afraid,” and when Caterer jumps into “Smile” (yes, that “Smile“) it’s not nearly as disorienting as you might expect. Great stuff.
Jukebox the Ghost
Everything Under the Sun (10th anniversary vinyl reissue)
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)
My son introduced me to this stellar alt-pop band in the best way possible: by convincing his mom and me to accompany him and his girlfriend to a concert. It was the first time I’d ever heard Jukebox the Ghost’s music, and it was the perfect venue: their joyful, high-energy, hook-filled songs (and the crowd’s blissful response) threatened to lift the venue off its foundations. Now their second album, originally released in 2010 (and still available on CD), is being reissued on vinyl. And in the studio their sound is hardly any less energetic and thrilling than it is live. Pianist Ben Thornewill and guitarist Tommy Siegel share the vocals, while drummer Jesse Kristin lays down nimble but solid beats behind them; the tunes are absolutely sublime, as is the singing. It’s hard to overstate how much fun this album is. For all libraries.
Sussan Deyhim & Richard Horowitz
Desert Equations: Azax Attra (reissue)
MTM 8 CD
I think Iranian singer Sussan Deyhim is one of the most interesting and exciting vocalists in the world — I’ve never heard an album of hers that wasn’t both fascinating and entrancing. Desert Equations was originally released in 1986 and is now being reissued as part of the Crammed Discs label’s Made to Measure series. It finds Deyhim working with regular collaborator Richard Horowitz, who provides electronic accompaniment to Deyhim’s multitracked and frequently wordless vocals. Persian tradition, New York avant-gardism, minimalist repetition, and electro-funk are all put into a blender to create something that is unlike anything else you’ve heard before. Although the music is wildly different, this puts me in mind of the early work of Mouth Music, which took a somewhat similar approach to Celtic tradition, and with similarly thrilling results.
Uday Bhawalker; Hathor Consort; Romina Lischka
Fuga Libera (dist. Naxos)
Here’s one that I approached with some trepidation. I love classical Indian music and I love early European music — but I love ice cream and I love arugula, and that doesn’t mean I’d put them in the same bowl. But after spending some time with it, I found this to be both an intriguing concept (dhrupad singing achieved its peak of development at the same time that consort music was most popular in England) and a compelling musical experience. The vocal raga sections segue seamlessly into and out of works for varying combinations of flute and viols by the likes of Tobias Hume, Robert Parsons, and John Dowland; as per the strictures of Indian classical music, the program is divided into works for morning, afternoon, and night. It can be a bit unsettling to hear a dhrupad singer accompanied by a broken Renaissance consort — but unsettling isn’t always bad. Recommended to all adventurous classical and world-music library collections.
Iranian singer/composer/educator Mamak Khadem has been called “one of the wonders of world trance music” by a major American newspaper, but I think that characterization does her and her music a disservice. The songs on Remembrance are not designed to help you enter a trance state; written in the wake of her father’s death during the COVID pandemic, they express grief and mourning and, ultimately, healing. They do so by fusing ancient poetry with contemporary music that sounds simultaneously modern and ancient, using a blend of traditional and Western instruments. Khadem’s voice is the central feature here, and her quavering melismas seem to express the grief that all of us have felt at various times during the past two dreadful years. For all collections.
Tibetan Arts Management (dist. Six Degrees)
No cat. no.
Singer/songwriter Yungchen Lhamo is originally from Tibet, but over the years has migrated to India, Australia, and New York, where she is currently based. Her globetrotting history has brought her into contact with many musicians from varying traditions, and her latest album is a collaboration with Spanish producer Julio García. He and her other musical collaborators bring a Spanish influence to the music that one might expect to clash somewhat with Lhamo’s very Tibetan melodies and singing style, but in fact the result of their project is music that seamlessly fuses multiple traditions — not into a featureless “world music” but into a polymorphous style that is instantly recognizable as Lhamo’s own. This is intense but also oddly relaxing music, and it’s very lovely.