Luís de Freitas Branco; Maurice Ravel; Heitor Villa-Lobos
Bruno Monteiro; João Paulo Santos
This program by violinist Bruno Monteiro and pianist João Paulo Santos brings together two little-known works of turn-of-the-century Romanticism by a Portuguese and a Brazilian composer, along with a more familiar work from the same period by Ravel. The Branco sonata created some controversy when it was published in 1908; the composer was only 17 at the time, but the piece won first prize in a national competition despite discomfiting many in the Portuguese musical establishment with its forward-thinking harmonic vision and odd structure. The second violin sonata of Villa-Lobos is less challenging stylistically but certainly a virtuosic piece, while Ravel’s second sonata serves as something of a soothing palate cleanser between them. Monteiro and Santos play with empathy and passion.
Lou Harrison et al.
6 Pieces for Gamelan Slendro
Eklekto; ensemble 0
Mode (dist. Naxos)
Gamelan music has fascinated European and American composers since the turn of the 20th century, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that a Western composer actually started composing music for gamelan ensemble, and that — famously — was Lou Harrison. This new recording, a collaborative effort by the Swiss percussion ensemble Eklekto and the French Gamelan Oksitan, is bracketed by Harrison compositions but also includes works by Larry Polanski, Peter Klanac, Billy Martin, and Roland Dahinden. The composers all demonstrate respect for the harmonic and structural conventions of gamelan music, but are also quite fearless in pushing those conventions and bringing in other compositional elements; Polansky’s Voice Canon no. 7 is particularly indebted to 1960s minimalism, for example. This is a fascinating and beautiful release.
Cachua serranita: Music, Dance, and Our Lady on the Far Side of the World
Supraphon (dist. Naxos)
The novel theme for this recording is the musical “line (connecting) Central Europe and South America,” a line that was largely drawn by Catholic missionaries who came to South America from Czechoslovakia in the 17th and 18th centuries and brought with them European musical training and liturgical practices, and then adapted them to the musical traditions of the populations they sought to convert. The music of European composers like Josef Brentner was brought to the Chiquitano and Moxos peoples by Jesuit missionaries, among whom were such accomplished composers as Domenico Zipoli and Martin Schmid. The music on this delightful recording features both juxtapositions and fusions of rhythms and melodies from European cities and mountain regions, South American instrumentation, secular songs, and liturgical texts. The Collegium Marianum play these pieces with the perfect balance of lighthearted delight and devotional decorum, and the album should find a home in any library supporting the study of either early music or ethnomusicology.
Carlo Gesualdo; Thomas Tallis;
Tenebrae Responsories: Feria quinta
The Gesualdo Six / Owain Park
Hyperion (dist. Integral)
The music of 16th-century composer Carlo Gesualdo has exerted a broad fascination ever since the beginning of the early-music movement, in part because his compositions sound so little like early music. They involved a level of chromaticism unique for the period, and evoked an intensity of emotion that mirrored his tortured psyche: famously, he had caught his wife and her lover in bed and murdered them both, and then spent the rest of his life in moral and spiritual torment. Thus, his setting of the Tenebrae Responses for Maundy Thursday is, shall we say, unusually intense for the period — as is illustrated by its pairing with the notably cooler (though no less brilliant) setting of Jeremiah’s Lamentations by Gesualdo’s rough contemporary Thomas Tallis (and Judith Bingham’s stark and intense “Watch with Me,” which serves as a transitional piece between the Tallis and the Gesualdo). The all-male Gesualdo Six ensemble — which includes the finest countertenors I’ve heard outside of Chanticleer — perform all of these works with carefully restrained passion and an almost unearthly blend, handily establishing their right to use the composer’s name.
Opera in musica: Carlo Monza Quartets (digital only)
Europa Galante / Fabio Bondi
Naïve (dist. Naxos)
Apart from the fact that it’s not being released on CD, this is exactly the kind of release for which CD HotList was invented: world-premiere recordings of top-notch works by a forgotten composer, performed by a world-class group. Fabio Bondi, violinist and leader of the Europa Galante ensemble, discovered these string quartets by the Milanese composer Carlo Monza while he was doing research on Mozart’s travels in Milan. Monza was apparently a fairly important figure in that city during the 18th century, but his works are almost entirely lost today. Bondi came across a manuscript volume of his string quartets in a private library but was denied extended access to them; only later, when he found another copy in the French National Library, was he able to organize these recordings. The works themselves are lovely, deeply influenced by the conventions of opera, and Europa Galante (on period instruments) deliver them with admirable panache. For all classical collections.
Tapani Rinne & Juha Mäki-Patola
This is jazz of a rather unusual type. Billed as “ambient/jazz,” Open is a collaboration between reedman Tapani Rinne and producer/multi-instrumentalist Juha Mäki-Patola; Rinne is a well-regarded veteran of the adventurous Helsinki jazz scene, while Mäki-Patola is more of an up-and-comer, but they sound like soul brothers on this utterly beautiful album. There are no beats here, only slowly developing compositions that, despite their quietude, can be described neither as “abstract” nor as “ethereal.” Rinne’s reed instruments create a gentle but solid thread that brings obvious coherence to the cloudlike soundscapes created for them by Mäki-Patola — I say “obvious coherence” because the structural integrity of those soundscapes is actually there all the time, but it’s Rinne’s parts that make that integrity aurally clear. Sometimes those are solo parts, and sometimes he’s multitracked, and the overall listening experience is absolutely lovely. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Chet Baker Trio
Live in Paris: The Radio France Recordings 1983-1984 (2 discs)
This is not one of those albums about which one is going to say “here is the artist at the peak of his powers.” In the mid-1980s, Chet Baker was not in a particularly good place, as the cover and other accompanying photos suggest — he looks haggard and strung-out. Back on heroin and coke again, he would die a few years later from a fall out of his hotel window. But despite it all he was playing well at this time, and his performance here is actually quite good; his singing voice is weaker than it had been in the past, but his intonation is still accurate and he remains an inventive scat singer. And on trumpet, his tone is as smooth and golden as ever. The three dates documented on these two discs find him in a drummerless trio with pianist Michel Grailler and an alternating cast of bass players, focusing on standards. The group is really stretching out here; average track length is about 13 minutes, but they never sound like they’re wandering or filling time. The sound quality is generally very good, though the mix is a bit unfortunate on the 1983 date, on which the bass is barely audible, and when he sings Baker is somewhat hard to hear as well. Overall, though, these previously unreleased recordings are a treasure trove.
This One’s for Joey
This excellent album has a heartbreaking backstory. Tenor saxophonist Keith Oxman teaches high school in Denver, and recently learned that one of his former students, Joey Pearlman, had died tragically at a very young age. This One’s for Joey is a tribute to the young man, who was an exceptionally talented bassist (as documented on the album’s final track, a rendition of John Coltrane’s “John Paul Jones” that Oxman recorded in 2014 with Joey on bass and his twin brother Stevie on drums). Pearlman was also a gifted writer, as illustrated by his lovely composition “Garden Song,” which Oxman plays here with his quartet. The rest of the program consists of several original compositions, some written in explicit tribute to Joey, and a couple of standards. The emotion in these recordings is palpable, as one would expect — but perhaps less predictably, the overarching emotion is one of joy.
Lynne Arriale Trio
The Lights Are Always On
Challenge (dist. Naxos)
With her expansive harmonic vocabulary, her impressionistic approach to chord voicing, and her controlled but intense emotionalism, it would seem like the most obvious stylistic comparison pianist and composer Lynne Arriale would be Bill Evans. And yet she really sounds nothing like him: listen to the title track of her new album (conceived as a tribute to heroes of health care provision and truth-telling during a time of both political and medical crisis), and you’ll hear glorious cascading melody overlaid on straight rhythms; this then segues into “Sisters,” a jazz waltz that struts with a shoulders-back/chin-up sense of swing. Arriale is not just a double threat but a quadruple one: a virtuosic pianist and improviser and a brilliant composer whose conceptual brilliance never overpowers the accessibility of her compositions. This had made every one of her albums a must-hear, and The Lights Are Always On is among her best.
No cat. no.
Singer-songwriter Mark Joseph is one of those artists who tricks you into thinking he’s a straight-ahead honky-tonk country guy and then surprises you when you notice some of the song structures and listen more carefully to the lyrics. Sure, songs like “Nate’s Garage” and “Vegas Motel” make a definite play for the PBR-and-muddy-tires constituency, but “The Life of a Pipe Welder” is more complex both melodically and lyrically (and clocks in at six minutes — not exactly a typical country move), while “Early Riser” is a lovely fiddle and guitar instrumental that somehow manages not to sound very country at all; in fact, it might actually be more accurate to call it a violin and guitar instrumental. And dang if the Hammond organ and horns on “I Love You ‘Till I Die” don’t sound more like… R&B. Categorize it in whatever way you want, this album’s a solid winner.
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Here’s a solid slab of bluesy, soully country-rock from the former frontperson of Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers. It features a production style simultaneously forward- and backward-looking (note the saturated mic sound on “Feel”), some horns, some Hammond B3, an occasional whiff of ’60s girl group, and lots and lots of rock-solid songcraft. Bluhm’s voice is gritty but sweet, and her lyrics are full of regret and disappointment but devoid of self-pity. The COVID pandemic meant that most of her sidemen had to record their parts remotely, while she performed hers in her living room, but there’s nothing in either the sound quality or the intimate ensemble sound that would lead you to think they weren’t all gathered around a kitchen table the whole time.
The Slocan Ramblers
Up the Hill and Through the Fog
Here’s the first thing to understand about the Slocan Ramblers: despite their guitar-mandolin-banjo instrumentation, they are not a bluegrass band. Well, they’re not exactly a bluegrass band. I mean, “You Said Goodbye” is straight-up acid grass, so they certainly can be a bluegrass band when they want. But “I Don’t Know” is a sort of bluesy country acoustic pop, and “A Mind with a Heart of Its Own” is rock’n’roll by any reasonable definition of the term (despite its lack of any drums or electric instruments). “Snow Owl” is a lovely example of jazzy New Acoustic Music of the 1980s variety, à la David Grisman and Tony Rice — but with “Bill Fernie” they’re back in bluegrass territory, and “Platform Four” is a sort of avant-old-time instrumental. So maybe it’s not really accurate to say that the Slocan Ramblers aren’t a bluegrass band; it’s better to say that they’re about five kinds of band, including bluegrass. Great album.
Generally speaking, I’d say I’m a pretty cheerful person. So it’s surprising to me how much of the music I love can reasonably be characterized as “grumpy.” Case in point: the new album from Jason Goodrich (a.k.a. Badrich), whose new album is a dense, bustling, dark, and, yes, grumpy exploration of the musical borderlands that divide glitch, drill’n’bass, industrial, and IDM. The release’s 15 tracks are remarkably consistent in tone and texture, but constantly shift to reveal new patterns and ideas in a kaleidoscopic fashion. One reviewer described Badrich’s overall sound as “fractured fluidity,” and that’s actually not bad at all. Rhythmically, there’s actually pretty consistent continuity — everything else is up in the air, which means you can either pay close attention to this album or let it run in the background while you read a book. Either way, it works great. (Though if I were assigning grades, I’d dock it one grade for the cover image.)
I Just Want to Be Wild for You
Kill Rock Stars (dist. Redeye)
Here’s what the label copy says: “Over the course of 11 tracks, the record hones [sic] in on the passion that exists within moments of extreme disconnect, crafting a sonic portrait that grows and shifts with each singular emotion. MAITA allows for the heavier, cathartic moments to reach new intensities…” etc. etc. Here’s what you’ll hear: clever and hooky pop music, not lightweight but not particularly heavy either, driven by guitars and pianos and supporting the gentle, clear voice of Maria Maita-Keppeler. The lyrics tend a bit toward Millennial irony, but not aggressively so. I’m not really hearing much in the way of “extreme disconnect” or, frankly, passion, though it may be that I’m not listening hard enough. What I am hearing are brilliant pop songs, wonderfully sung and produced with subtle effectiveness.
Zones, Drones & Atmospheres
Projekt (dist. MVD)
Steve Roach/Jeffrey Fayman
Trance Spirits (reissue)
I’ve been watching guitarist and composer Steve Roach’s career for decades now. His music has often been just a little bit too New Agey for me, but this new release and reissue of a 20-year-old album have me reconsidering my assessment of his work. Trance Spirits is a remastered release of an album he made in 2002 with percussionist Jeffrey Fayman; guitarist Robert Fripp (!) and percussionist Momodou Kah. Here it’s actually drums that occupy center stage: Kah and Fayman build steady, rippling patterns under which Roach and Fripp create floating clouds of chordal ambience that shift slowly under the busy drumming. On Roach’s new solo album Zones, Drones & Atmospheres, he delivers ambient music that hits the sweet spot for me: pleasant but not cloying; contemplative but not faux-mystical; unobtrusive but interesting — and sometimes downright eerie, which is always fun. Interestingly, while the CD version of this album is nicely packed with music, the digital version is even more so — clocking in at a startlingly generous three and a half hours. That version adds the 73-minute-long dark ambient track “Submerged,” and an additional hour-long track (similarly dark and immersive) called “Isolation Station.”
Don’t Let the Sunlight Fool Ya
Pirates Press (dist. MVD)
As ska bands often do if they stay active long enough, the Slackers have drifted somewhat from their stylistic roots — not that there’s anything at all wrong with that. The opening track on their latest album is a sort of Latin-soul bubbler with a faint whiff of Broadway lingering around it, while the title track is vintage R&B with a slippery rock steady backbeat. But they skank it up old-school style on “Hangin’ On” and ride a gentle one-drop rhythm on “I Almost Lost You.” And those are only the first four tracks. Throughout the album, this veteran band flexes the songwriting muscles that have kept them active and in demand on the national scene for 30 years, with particular kudos due to frontman and primary songwriter Vic Ruggiero and charter members Dave Hillyard (saxophone) and “Agent Jay” Nugent (guitar).
“Your next Scandinavian indie pop obsession,” said Flood magazine, and I have to agree. Though honestly, Hater could turn out to be your next global indie pop obsession — though if the term “indie pop” evokes for you images of candy-coated guitars and weird-but-sunny melodic hooks, you might need to expand that definition a bit to accommodate this group, which has more in common with My Bloody Valentine and, occasionally, Cocteau Twins than it does with Jukebox the Ghost or, I don’t know, Autoharp. You’ve got your guitars that are so distorted and layered that they sound soft; you’ve got your female singer mixed so far back that you can’t understand what she’s saying; you’ve got your sudden irruptions of aching tunefulness. Sing along if you can or just let it throb in the background while you read a book — this is an outstanding all-purpose album.
You Never Know
Club d’Elf is an odd ensemble, and You Never Know is an odd and intriguing release. The album is based on a traumatizing event in bandleader Mike Rivard’s recent past, a health crisis that led to an extended period of depression and PTSD. Rivard’s escape from the emotional morass came through his immersion in the trance-inducing gnawa music of North Africa. While You Never Know is not really a gnawa album, it draws deeply on the idea of transcendence through repetition and incorporates elements of that music (as well as Sufi and classical Indian traditions) into the band’s semi-free fusion-ish jazz. You’ll hear funk, turntablism, and Weather Report in there as well — and the program ends with an extended Frank Zappa tune. So, yeah — odd. And intriguing.
The Rough Guide to Spiritual India
Rough Guides/World Music Network (dist. Redeye)
Granted, the title is a bit off-putting — there’s a longstanding tendency in the West to characterize any music that seems “exotic” (especially if it comes from the Indian subcontinent) as “spiritual,” regardless of its actual content. That misgiving aside, there’s no questioning the content of this album, which includes glorious selections from both singer Anandi Bhattacharya and her father, the legendary slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya (not to mention from her tabla-playing uncle Subhasis), from Bengali Sufi mystic Babu Fakir, and from Baul singer Paban Das Baul. It also includes several examples of West-East fusion music from the likes of Guy Buttery and the Guillaume Barraud Quartet. As with most Rough Guide titles, one of the great benefits of this collection is that it can lead you to dig deeper in any number of musical directions.
Indian by ethnic heritage, Glaswegian by birth and upbringing, Soon T is maybe not the most obvious person to have become a dancehall reggae MC. And yet, as my kids used to say, here we are. Her new album is perhaps her best work yet: supported by rock-hard rhythms laid down by her band The StoneMonks, she delivers strictly conscious lyrics in her trademarked charmingly gritty voice, and she consistently goes entirely her own way. “World We Live In” is unfashionably straight-up ska; “Yes My People” is startlingly specific in what sounds very much like a Christian witness (“And the Lord, he came down one day and he gave us his life/And he told us he’s the only way that we could follow, find light”); “Don’t Stand for Dis” and “Steps” find her collaborating with the brilliant Neo-dub producer Gaudi, who brings out some of her best and most impassioned vocals. This is one of the best reggae releases I’ve heard so far this year.