Now the Green Blade Riseth: Choral Music for Easter
The Choir of King’s College / Daniel Hyde
King’s College Recordings (dist. Integral)
I normally avoid reviewing holiday-specific recordings, but this one is just too good. The men and boys of the King’s College Choir have a uniquely luscious sound — the trebles are never shrill, the blend is always luxurious. And this collection of choral pieces, most of them relatively modern, is magnificent. While I find Rossini’s O salutaris Hostia a bit bombastic (especially coming immediately after Duruflé’s delicately gorgeous Ubi caritas setting), it’s only a brief jarring moment in what is otherwise a consistently uplifting and transcendent program. In addition to the Duruflé, other highlights include the traditional hymns “Ride On! Ride On in Majesty!” and “There Is a Green Hill Far Away,” John Ireland’s “Greater Love Hath No Man,” Edward Elgar’s “Light of the World,” and of course William Byrd’s Civitas sancti tui setting, which is taken here at a careful and deliberate tempo and delivered with a burnished golden tone. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Fastes de la Grande Écurie
Syntagma Amici & Giourdina
Ricercar (dist. Naxos)
Wind bands were of particular importance in the French court from the reign of Henri IV to that of Louis XIV: oboes, bassoons, recorders, cornets, trumpets, sackbuts and drums all combined to create majestic music to accompany both ceremonial occasions and royal entertainments. For this recording, members of the Syntagma Amici and Giourdina ensembles got together to recreate the Bande de Grands Hautbois that was attached to the royal stables (the écurie) and enjoyed significant prestige at court (despite being lower in status than the musicians of the chapel and the royal chamber). This recording is significant not only for the music it contains — dances, fantasies, and fanfares by the likes of Louis Couperin, Eustache du Caurroy, André Danican Philidor and Jean-Baptiste Lully — but also for the unique timbres and textures created by the various combinations of instruments that enjoyed royal favor at this unique point in French history, sounds that haven’t been heard, in some cases, for several centuries.
Les Vents Français; Eric le Sage
Les Vents Français is something of a “supergroup” of French wind players, who normally play as a quintet. But on this album they take turns as soloists, accompanied by pianist Eric le Sage, each playing a Paul Hindemith sonata written for his individual instrument. One of the most important German composers of the 20th century, Hindemith wrote in a style that sounds simultaneously classical and modern — clear and logical structures underly melodies that often feel oddly dry and arid, though not in a bad way. His music is tonal, but his harmonic progressions are often slippery and surprising. Hindemith himself was known as an extremely gifted multi-instrumentalist (having been concertmaster of the Frankfurt Opera at a young age) and his facility with the instruments for which he wrote allowed him to write with unusual sympathy for many — including the wind instruments featured in these five sonatas. The playing is exceptional, as one would expect from members of this ensemble.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Concertos nos. 1 & 3
Kristian Bezuidenhout; Freiburger Barockorchester / Pablo Heras-Casado
Harmonia Mundi (dist. Integral)
When it comes to period-instrument performance, the late classical and early Romantic periods offer particular challenges: the instruments still in common use during those periods were structurally very different from those of today, but the music was becoming more modern and emotionally expansive, with greater dynamic range. This meant that the instruments of the period were often being pushed to their expressive limits. Which brings us to this thrilling recording of Beethoven piano concertos by fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, alongside the Freiburger Barockorchester — a period-instrument ensemble that has never sounded bigger, richer, or more powerful than it does here. Even the natural horns sound wonderful, and Bezuidenhout himself plays with both fire and tenderness as well as a deep affinity for Beethoven’s emotional sound world. This is an altogether magnificent recording and it’s highly recommended to all library collections.
Ice Land: The Eternal Music
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; The Dmitri Ensemble / Graham Ross
Harmonia Mundi (dist. Integral)
This stunningly beautiful collection of choral pieces by Icelandic composers (plus an orchestral arrangement of a Sigur Rós song) is centered on Sigurdur Sævarsson’s Magnificat and Requiem, both presented here in world-premiere recordings. Iceland has emerged in recent years as a major force in contemporary choral music, and if anyone is wondering why, a listen to this collection will explain everything. It would not be true to say that all of these ten composers sound the same — but it would be equally untrue to deny that there’s a certain unity of mood and style here: spare, generally ethereal (though sometimes intense), consonant, cool (though not cold). The Choir of Clare College have clearly been at pains to perform this music idiomatically, and their performances are quietly thrilling. And I simply can’t praise Sævarsson’s Requiem setting highly enough; although the piece is thoroughly modern, it nevertheless invokes a timeless sense of reverence, regret, and devotion. A must-have for all library collections.
Morning Glory (2 discs)
Inner Spirit (2 discs)
I received these releases a couple of months ago, while they were still under embargo, and ever since then I’ve been waiting giddily for the opportunity to recommend them to my library colleagues. Both sets are products of an ongoing collaboration between the Bill Evans estate and the Resonance label that has now resulted in the commercial release of seven previously unavailable live recordings, most of them with exceptional sound and all of them featuring extensive and informative liner notes and photos. Morning Glory documents a 1973 performance in Buenos Aires of the Evans trio with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell; Inner Spirit finds Evans back in the same city in 1979, though at a different venue, with his celebrated lineup of bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe Labarbera. Whoever miked and mixed these performances knew exactly what s/he was doing: the interplay between Evans and his bassist was always central to his musical project, and the basses are given just the right level here — Gomez’s instrument sounds particularly full and rich on the Morning Glory set. Evans himself is brilliant during both concerts, wielding his unique combination of solid swing and impressionistic bravura thrillingly. No jazz collection can afford to sleep on either of these essential releases.
I Hope to My Never
Summit (dist. MVD)
Trombonist and composer Matt Hall’s debut as a leader is a tremendously satisfying program of originals, plus one standard. Hall leads a dynamite quintet that shows itself adept at grooving in a variety of styles: “Biscuits & Gravy” is a refined blues that never quite tips over into funk, but consistently nods at it; the title track is loping, midtempo hard bop; “Charlie’s Harley” is a Charlie Parker tribute written on the “Cherokee” changes; “Spearhead” has a slightly greasy, second-line feel to it in the head, but then settles into a relaxed swing for the solos. Hall has that most enviable skill in trombonists: the ability to play bop at tempo and without any loss of clarity or note separation. And his sidemen are all absolutely killing it here as well. This album would find a welcome home in any library’s jazz collection.
Feeling Good: Her Greatest Hits & Remixes (2 discs)
I confess that for me, Nina Simone has always fallen into the “I recognize the genius but don’t much enjoy listening to the music” category. But I love creative remixes, so this two-disc collection of greatest hits plus remixes by the likes of Hot Chip, Sofi Tukker, and Rudimental caught my attention. And as it turned out, I came for the remixes but stayed for original tracks that hadn’t really sunk in for me before: Simone’s boogie-woogie take on “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” her gritty-but-slinky “I Put a Spell on You,” her absolutely eerie arrangement of the traditional song “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” — and, of course, her resignedly jaunty “Love Me or Leave Me” (her piano solo on that track is worth the price of the whole package). And the remixes? Oh, right, the remixes. Frankly, they tend to be too house/techno for me — though Rudimental’s juddering jungle remix of “Take Care of Business” activates all my bass-related pleasure centers.
Gordon Grdina’s Haram with Marc Ribot
Night’s Quietest Hour
Oddly Enough: The Music of Tim Berne
Guitarist and oud player Gordon Grdina is out with two simultaneous releases on his own Attaboygirl label, neither of which is quite a jazz album but which I wanted to review together and this seemed like the right section for them as a unit. Night’s Quietest Hour finds him working with Haram, his ensemble for contemporary music rooted in Iraqi and Arabic tradition. Here he plays the oud exclusively, alongside a large group that includes violins, trumpet, nay, darbuka, and avant-jazz-rock guitarist Marc Ribot. As one might expect, the music is a bracing blend of Middle Eastern modalities, communal improvisation, and complex time signatures. Oddly Enough is a solo album on which he plays compositions that resulted from a back-and-forth correspondence with the legendary Downtown saxophonist/composer Tim Berne. During the COVID lockdown, Berne sent Grdina a piece he had written; Grdina responded with his recording of the piece; Berne sent another one; and so forth. The result is this collection of pieces, which Grdina plays using acoustic and electric guitars and a MIDI sampler. This music tends not to be noisy or skronky, but is definitely post-tonal and harmonically strange, with lots of spidery side-stepping melodies and irregular rhythms. While not “fun,” exactly, these pieces are nevertheless consistently interesting and pleasantly challenging.
Surge and the Swell
No cat. no.
Indie-folk singer/songwriter Aaron Cabbage records under the name Surge and the Swell, and his debut release is a remarkably assured and fully-realized album for such a new artist. His sound here is actually more rockish than one might expect; resonator guitar and mandolin are there in the mix, and there are lots of twangy country licks and acoustic strumming, but on tracks like “Gravity Boots” and the soully “Hard Work” (not to mention “Full in the Now,” which actually evokes the Police in its opening section) the mood is more roots-rock than folk-pop. But genre designations are a waste of time anyway — what matter here are the songs, and they’re consistently outstanding, as is Cabbage’s delivery. Soaring choruses, tight grooves, undeniable hooks — this is the kind of album that leaves you impatient for the next one. Here’s hoping Offering marks the beginning of a long string of releases like this.
Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves
Free Dirt (dist. Redeye)
Fiddle-and-banjo duo Allison de Groot and Tatiana Hargreaves aren’t exactly traditionalists — but they aren’t exactly not traditionalists, either. Yes, they play reels and breakdowns and dance tunes (their latest album includes the traditional tunes “Brushy Fork of John’s Creek” and “Hen Cackled,” both of them old-time session favorites, as well as the beautifully driving “Nancy Blevins”), but as time goes on their concept is expanding to include both original compositions and more explicit expressions of political, social and environmental concern. Hence their rendition of the early-20th-century Patrick Hurley composition “Banks of the Miramichi,” delivered here as an anthem of environmental protest, as well as the title tune, an instrumental written with the Jewish diaspora in mind. As always, Hargreaves and de Groot are perfectly matched both as players and as singers, and sound amazing together.
Michael Scott Dawson
Music for Listening (vinyl & digital only)
We Are Busy Bodies (dist. Redeye)
Since receiving a promo download of this album I’ve found myself going back to it over and over. It’s the second release from Michael Scott Dawson, a set of twelve compositions written and recorded during the pandemic. The basic tracks were made on a rented piano, and he later overdubbed guitar parts, environmental sounds (you’ll hear birds tweeting in the background on several tracks), and other elements created using “DIY instruments” and tape loops. Most of the instruments are rendered unrecognizable: the piano parts have virtually no attack, meaning that the notes and chords seem to fade in out of silence; guitar parts are similarly softened and altered, though they are often also significantly distorted. The resulting music is both deeply relaxing and ineffably sad, and at times it reminds me of Brian Eno’s Discreet Music in both its self-effacement and its melancholy. It’s utterly beautiful.
I Just Want to Be a Good Man
Luaka Bop (dist. Redeye)
6 80899 0096-5-2
Pastor Wiley Champion, originally of Louisiana (though he was notoriously unwilling to discuss his pre-ministry past), spent the last 40 years of his life as something of a circuit preacher in Northern California’s East Bay area, delivering the gospel message by both song and sermon. For this recording, he set up at the 37th Street Baptist Church in Oakland, invited in a few friends and family to act as an audience and contribute a little call-and-response, and settled in with his electric guitar to play and sing original compositions like “I Know That You’ve Been Wounded,” “Who Do Men Say I Am?”, and the deeply moving “I Just Want to Be a Good Man (to Be Used, by You).” On some tracks he’s joined by a few other local musicians — his son Sam on drums, a bass player he’d met the day before the sessions, etc. He passed away just a few years after these direct-to-tape recordings were made, leaving behind a powerful document of testimony and spiritual encouragement.
Ki (Remixes) (digital only)
Sonic Area is an electronica artist based in Strasbourg, France. Last year he released an album titled Ki, the Japanese word signifying the life force of the universe, that which animates the human being and endows him or her with vigor and courage. The music he created for this album is intended as an homage to various aspects of Japanese culture, both musical and spiritual/philosophical, and it incorporates field recordings, live instruments, electronic samples and beats, and other sonic ephemera to create an idiosyncratic but ultimately warm and deeply involving soundscape. This year a remix album was released, on which colleagues and collaborators like Zero Gravity, Chevalien, Nocto, and Noire Antidote took turns reimagining tracks from Ki and putting their own stylistic stamps on them. If anything, the results are even more compelling — if often quite a bit darker. Chevalien gives “Gongwar” a slowly thumping sub-house treatment, for example, while Rainh takes “Lotus” into murkier, glitchier territory than the original version occupied. Both albums are highly recommended.
Free Dirt (Live) (2 discs)
Klanggalerie (dist. MVD)
Skeleton Crew didn’t last long, but they sure had a lot of fun while they did. The core membership was guitarist Fred Frith and cellist Tom Cora; for the 1982-83 concerts documented on disc 1 of this set their third member was reedman/keyboardist/percussionist Dave Newhouse; for the 1984-86 concerts on disc 2, they were joined by harpist/keyboardist/percussionist Zeena Parkins for what is now generally considered (or at least what I consider) the classic lineup. In reality, to call Frith a guitarist and Cora a cellist is to oversimplify things dramatically: both played a wild variety of homemade instruments that defy category, as indeed their music did: grooves and melodies frequently give way to scratches and caterwauls, and freely improvised noise lapses regularly into traditional folk tunes. One of the wonderful things about Fred Frith is that even when he’s making horrible noise, he does it with such obvious delight and with such a well-communicated sense of warmth and invitation that you find yourself just going with it and having a wonderful time. Cora, Newhouse, and Parkins all contribute to that same vibe on these delightful recordings.
Eleven Step Intervention
No cat. no.
Just a few months ago I recommended the eponymous debut album from Deadlights, which had come out earlier in 2021. When the second album arrived a few weeks ago I figured I probably wouldn’t cover it since I’d just recommended the previous album so recently — but it’s too good to let pass without comment. Once again, Jeff Shelton (who is essentially a one-man band here, as he is with his ongoing power pop project The Well Wishers) conjures a thoroughly winning fusion of shoegaze, dreampop, and 1990s Brit pop, creating a dense sonic structure through which lovely hooks emerge like whales breaching the surface of a beautiful but turbulent ocean. There are no weak tracks here, but the one that has me continually hitting “repeat” so I can sing harmonies in my car is “Dead Again.” Shelton is a once-in-a-generation talent, and he just keeps releasing outstanding albums no matter what name he’s recording under. For all libraries.
Small Island Big Song
No cat. no.
Small Island Big Song is a multimedia project that has ongoing since 2015, and so far has resulted in a documentary film, a concert tour, various local outreach programs, and now a compilation album. The featured artists all represent “seafaring cultures of the Pacific and Indian Oceans”: indigenous music from Mauritius, New Zealand, Taiwan, Marshall Island, Tahiti, etc. The recordings were all made outdoors, and there’s a strong message of environmental reform and political protest throughout the program, though since the songs are performed in a wide variety of languages that message may not be immediately clear to most listeners. The music itself is stylistically varied but consistently very attractive: the packaging is eco-glamorous but unwieldy and frustrating, making it hard to tell who is performing which track, but if you’re just listening for pleasure there’s a lot of that to be had here.
Amourissime (digital only)
No cat. no.
Irie Ites x Zenzile feat. Trinity
Can’t Blame the Youth
Dub It Up
DIU CD 01
As Jamaica has lost interest in producing roots reggae music — favoring instead bashment and R&B-inflected dancehall sounds — other regions have stepped up to provide it to a world audience still hungry for conscious lyrics accompanied by old-school rockers and one-drop rhythms. Berlin, Vienna, and (of course) London have long nurtured roots reggae scenes, but it’s important not to overlook the fertile reggae communities in Paris, Marseilles, and other areas of France. From the western city of Angers comes the gifted singer and songwriter Johrise Jojoba, whose new album Amourissime is replete with hooky melodies, tight harmonies, and uplifting messages about love and unity sung in both English and French. There’s a funky edge to tunes like “Good Vibes” and the soca-inflected “Auprès de toi,” but all the songs are solidly grounded in the roots-and-culture verities. The same can be said of the latest album from Zenzile, another Angers-based band; in 2019, the producer Irie Ites proposed to Zenzile that they all join with legendary Jamaican singer and toaster Trinity to record some new material while he was on tour in Europe. The project resulted in four songs; oddly enough, they’re presented here both in discomixes (in which a dub mix is appended seamlessly to the end of the regular vocal version) and in separate dub mixes. But the music is so good you won’t mind the rather idiosyncratic presentation. Trinity himself is as articulate and fluent in his delivery as he was during the roots-reggae heyday of the 1970s, and Zenzile’s steppers and rockers grooves are deep and powerful. Both albums are highly recommended.
!K7 (dist. Redeye)
“Wema” is a Swahili word that means “kindness and benevolence,” a concept that underlies the lyrical messages throughout the stylistically varied and rhythmically complex debut album from this Tanzanian group. While they sing mostly in Swahili (with occasional detours into Spanish), WEMA’s musical genre is much harder to pin down: their sound is texturally dense but light-footed at the same time, shifting nimbly from Latin to Afrobeat to a sort of pancultural electrodisco. Producer Photay creates richly orchestrated grooves punctuated with found-sound and environmental oddities, resulting in colorful and funky mixes that blend dark and light, human and electronic, and modern and ancient elements beautifully. Highlight tracks include “Kande” (with its charming samples of children singing) and the chugging “Bendir Bendir!”. (The digital copy provided to me for review purposes had some pretty significant sound-quality issues that I presume will not be present on the CD version.)