Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano (reissue; 6 discs)
Andrew Smith; Joshua Pierce
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The “Palatine” Sonatas, K. 301-306
Daniel-Ben Pienaar; Peter Sheppard Skærved
Athene (dist. Naxos)
Mozart’s chamber music for violin and piano has always been interesting not only for the melodic and harmonic invention that always characterizes Mozart’s music, but also for its somewhat odd tendency to relegate the violin to an accompanying role for the keyboard (not a hard-and-fast rule, but a marked tendency). Among the earliest of Mozart’s mature sonatas are those called the “Palatine” because they were written during his Mannheim years and dedicated to Maria Elisabeth, Electress of the Palatinate. These six pieces are performed with vigor and charm on a new recording by pianist Daniel-Ben Pienaar and violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved, though I found the production off-puttingly odd — the violin sounds as if it’s about ten feet away from its microphone. The same works are recorded in a warmer, dryer, and more intimate acoustic (and equally well played) on a six-disc boxed set of Mozart’s complete sonatas by violinist Andrew Smith and the always-brilliant pianist Joshua Pierce. This set, of course, offers the opportunity to hear the “Palatine” sonatas in context with Mozart’s earliest and latest works for this combination of instruments, which should be of particular interest to academic libraries. (The discs in this box were previously released separately.)
Cyclical musical structures were very much in vogue during the 1970s, when the initial wave of 1960s minimalism had crested and led to a surge of new ideas around the concept of process music. Over the course of this decade, composer John McGuire put together several pieces under the title Pulse Music and one titled 108 Pulses. Three of these are electronic pieces based on tape loops, while Pulse Music II is a work for four pianos and small orchestra; all of them consist of processes that result in constantly-shifting sonorities within fairly constricted harmonic frameworks, cycling in a highly regular meter. Unsurprisingly, these compositions are very much of their time — anyone familiar with 20th century art music will have no trouble guessing the decade in which they were written. But they also illustrate how much interesting, creative, and yes, fun academic music was being produced during this period, and this disc should find a welcome home in any academic library collection.
Francesco Tristano on Early Music
Sony Classical (dist. Naxos)
Pianist Francesco Tristano (sadly, no apparent relation to Lennie Tristano — I checked) has always had a particular affinity for early music, and on this album he explores Renaissance and baroque keyboard music in a unique way: by alternating searching renditions of works by composers like John Bull, Peter Philips, Girolamo Frescobaldi, and Orlando Gibbons with original pieces that are written according to the structural forms of those periods. An original toccata opens the program, and is followed by a rendition of a galliard by Bull; a Frescobaldi partita is followed by a Tristano ritornello; etc. Apart from his sensitive and lovely interpretations of the early pieces, it’s fascinating to hear more contemporary musical ideas being framed in these ancient musical structures. A deeply lovely album.
Where Song Was Born: Music Inspired by the Birds of Australia
Sara Minelli; Roderick Chadwick
Métier (dist. Naxos)
Composer Edward Cowie was captivated by the sounds of nature from his earliest childhood, and even learned how to summon and “converse” with various kinds of birds. Because he was a musically precocious child who eventually became a composer, it’s not surprising that this fascination would eventually find expression in his music. This disc brings together compositions for flute and piano that are based on the songs of Australian birds, and the music might be a bit surprising to some listeners; each brief piece is named simply for the bird on whose song patterns it is based (“Kookaburra”; “Wedge-tailed Eagle”; “Brolga Crane”; etc.), and while none of them is abrasively atonal, none is melodically straightforward either. These are sophisticated explorations of sound based on elaborations of birdsong, not pretty tunes that simply incorporate birdsong. That said, the music is truly beautiful, as is the playing by flutist Sara Minelli and pianist Roderick Chadwick.
Ermenegildo del Cinque
Sonatas for Three Cellos
Ludovico Minasi; Cristina Vidoni; Teodoro Baù; et al.
Arcana (dist. Naxos)
For a practically unknown composer, Ermenegildo del Cinque was astoundingly productive in his time: among others, he’s credited with no fewer than 87 cantatas, six oratorios, 313 trios, over 100 sonatas for two cellos, and at least 18 for the unusual (though not unprecedented) combination of three cellos with continuo. Del Cinque, in fact, contributed more to the cello repertoire than any other single composer. Eight of his sonatas (six for three cellos, two for two) are performed here, on period instruments, by an outstanding ensemble led by Ludovico Minasi. Continuo parts are provided by lutenist Simone Vallerotonda and harpsichordist Andrea Buccarella, both of whom are excellent (though perhaps mixed a bit too far into the background). This is music very much of its time, an outstanding expression of the ideals of the high baroque, and although the liner notes don’t say so explicitly, from what I can determine these seem to be world-premiere recordings.
The Margaret Slovak Trio
Ballad for Brad
Guitarist/composer Margaret Slovak is that rarest of things — a jazz guitarist with a truly unique style. And by “style” I don’t mean her tone, which is genuinely lovely in its warmth and depth but not radically different from that of most straight-ahead players. It’s the shape of her writing and her playing. Listening to this program of original tunes, it’s not always easy to discern the line separating heads from solos, for one thing. For another, her supporting players (bassist Harvie S and drummer Michael Sarin) tend to function almost like co-leaders, helping her create joint musical statements rather than just laying back and providing scaffolding for her own personality. And it’s worth noting that she writes beautiful, beautiful tunes. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk
Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk (reissue; 2 discs)
This is not the first deluxe-reissue treatment for this landmark 1958 album; it expands on a 1999 one-disc version released by Rhino, which added three alternate takes to the original program. Somewhat confusingly, this two-disc version adds a further three tracks, but in fact two of the original three that appeared on the Rhino version appear to be different alternate takes — meaning that for libraries collecting deeply in the music of either Monk or Blakey (or even in jazz generally), this new deluxe reissue probably should serve as a complement to rather than a replacement for the 1999 version. In any case, the music itself remains as superb as ever, a magisterial summit meeting between the renegade high priest of bebop composition and one of the chief architects of the hard-bop style. After these 1958 sessions, the two never recorded together again.
Planet D Nonet
Live at the Scarab Club: Tribute to Buddy Johnson
Buddy Johnson was a legendary jump blues artist who made his mark on jazz and also on the development of rhythm & blues in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, although these performances of his compositions by the Planet D Nonet (“Detroit’s Down & Dirty Swing Band”) are swinging and jazzy, the song and tune titles evoke Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway more than Duke Ellington: “Hello Sweet Potato,” “Crazy ’bout a Saxophone,” “Dr. Jive Jives,” etc. But the line between jazz and R&B was fuzzy during this period anyway, and on this spirited live recording the Planet D Nonet revels in that stylistic fuzziness. Give it a listen, and if you can stop dancing for a moment, listen carefully to how this music anticipates the rock’n’roll revolution that was just over the horizon when it was written.
J. Peter Schwalm & Stephan Thelen
It may be a bit daunting to see that this album is made by a duo consisting of an “electro-acoustic composer” (Schwalm) and a “guitarist/composer/mathematician” (Thelen), but don’t worry. The music may be complex and somewhat cerebral, but it’s also quite approachable. And even, believe it or not, groovy. Assisted by guests that include drummer Manuel Pasquinelli and the brilliant avant-jazz guitarist Eivind Aarset, Schwalm and Thelen have created a sort of concept album that centers on the theme of celestial objects that inhabit the space around Pluto. This is by no means ambient music — it doesn’t evoke open space or peaceful emptiness. Instead, these compositions are dark, dense, and often jagged, with relatively static harmonic movement and steady but complex polyrhythms — and interludes of genuinely contemplative beauty.
Americana Railroad (vinyl only)
Ever since its invention, the train has exerted an irresistible pull on American songwriters. This collection of newly-recorded tracks brings together a nice array of train songs in a variety of styles, from chugging country-rock to acoustic gospel to loping honky-tonk to folk-pop. And some straight-up rock’n’roll, as on Gary Myrick’s crunchy version of “Train Kept a-Rollin.'” But the prevailing mood is folkie-country, with contributions from the likes of Dave Alvin, Dustbowl Revival, Alice Howe, and Deborah Poppink. I found it a little bit puzzling that instead of Sister Rosetta Tharpe singing “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” we get Peter Case performing what is explicitly billed as Tharpe’s arrangement of that song, and why we have John Fogerty (and his family), rather than Steve Goodman (or at least Arlo Guthrie), performing “City of New Orleans,” but my guess is that it’s all about licensing issues. And it’s cool, because none of these versions is less than fine — and some are amazing.
Obsessed with the West
Signature Sounds (dist. Redeye)
Brennen Leigh’s smooth voice, wry sense of humor, and gentle but powerful sense of swing are all beautifully showcased on her latest album, a collaboration with the equally fun, powerful, and swinging Asleep at the Wheel — without doubt the foremost torchbearers of the Western swing sound. Song titles like “If Tommy Duncan’s Voice Was Booze” and “Riding Off onto Sunset Boulevard” give you a good idea of what to expect, lyrics-wise, while the brilliant kiss-off song “Tell Him I’m Dead” and the subtly sexy “Comin’ in Hot” might take you a bit more by surprise. Throughout the album the vibe is smooth and midtempo, not as raucous and headlong as this genre can sometimes get, all the better to keep your focus on the songs themselves. Ray Benson and the Asleep at the Wheel team back her up both expertly and tastefully. Highly recommended to all libraries.
“Dark folk” is exactly the right term for the music made by this duo. Both multi-instrumentalists, Amy Lou Keeler and Lisa Maria play varying combinations of guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, cello, and percussion on these songs and tunes, all of which appear to be original compositions — despite the fact that several could easily be mistaken for trad fiddle tunes and the pair’s reedy, modal harmonies draw deeply from Appalachian influences. Not only Appalachian, either; you’ll hear hints of Eastern Europe (absorbed from Lisa Maria’s grandfather’s collection of Ukrainian folk records) and Canada’s maritime provinces here as well. There are moments when they sound like they’re about to tip over into straight-up bluegrass, but those moments are brief; what Mama’s Broke have actually done is to create an entirely unique sound composed of familiar raw materials.
Nothing to Declare
Hyperdub (dist. Redeye)
I don’t follow hip hop that closely — for the most part, my rule is “the weirder it is, the more likely I am to give it a listen.” But I do follow the Hyperdub label closely, and when a two-woman hip hop team comes out with a Hyperdub release I’m definitely going to check it out. The new album from 700 Bliss (consisting of DJ Haram and Moor Mother) has plenty of weirdness — dark, burbling grooves that are long on atmosphere and that border on subtle when it comes to beats, not to mention idiosyncratic vocal delivery — but also plenty of booming 808 bass and sharp-edged lyrics. Those lyrics tend to be a bit heavy on the “bitches” rhetoric for my personal taste, but since the rappers are women and I’m just a guy I’m not sure how much standing I have to object. Overall, this is a challenging and deeply inventive slab of avant-hip-hop.
Archive Series Volume 2 (reissue)
Sunset Blvd (dist. Redeye)
Phil Seymour died of cancer at age 41, before his full promise as a songwriter and singer could be realized. But in the late 1970s and 1980s he recorded some of the best power pop the genre had to offer, as both a solo artist and a founding member of the Dwight Twilley Band. (He also sang backup on others’ hits, notably Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and “Breakdown.”) This reissue of his second solo album — complete with charmingly 1980s cover art — features entirely remixed versions of the album’s original songs, plus an additional ten previously unreleased tracks, including an outstanding version of Petty’s “Surrender.” The guitars are crunchy, the hooks are abundant, Seymour’s voice is chesty and powerful. (And if you close your eyes just a little, he kind of looked like Shaun Cassidy, didn’t he?)
And while we’re on the topic of pop music geniuses, let’s turn our attention to the most recent release from Marshall Crenshaw, the man who has been giving the world a pop-songwriting master class for the past 40 years. #447 is actually a reissue made possible by his acquisition of the rights to albums he recorded in the 1990s for the Razor & Tie label. The songs have all been remastered and the program expanded by a couple of bonus tracks, and as usual there’s little here to indicate the period during which the songs were written and recorded: Crenshaw is a classicist, whose ability to compose and sing genuinely timeless pop music is unparalleled. Notable guests here include legendary guitarist Pat Buchanan (note his stinging solo on “Dime a Dozen Guy”), E Street Band alumnus David Sancious on electric piano, and steel player Greg Leisz. Great stuff.
May Day (digital only)
No cat. no.
You may know Harold Whit Williams as the guitarist for Austin-based indie rockers Cotton Mather, but he also has a productive sideline as a solo artist, in which mode he records under the name Daily Worker. As you can see from his Bandcamp page, he’s quite prolific in this mode, and his latest album is a tasty low-fi jangle pop treat. May Day (heh) offers ten tracks self-recorded to four-track — and while for those of us of a certain age that may suggest really crappy cassette mastering, in this case the sound is relatively lo-fi but still plenty listenable. Layers of voices and guitars are supported by rudimentary percussion in delivering truly hooky songs that offer plenty of opportunities for blissful singing along. I particularly liked “The Love We Give,” which juxtaposes Byrdsy 12-string guitar with pseudo-steel licks to create a nicely countrified slab of retro-pop. Spend some time exploring Williams’ catalog and see if you don’t find a bunch of stuff that sucks you right in.
Magic Pony Ride
Planet Mu (dist. Redeye)
Lunatic Harness (reissue; 2 discs)
Mike Paradinas has been creating fun and challenging IDM (“intelligent dance music”) under the name µ-Ziq since the early 1990s, and is also the founder and owner of the equally adventurous Planet Mu label. His newest album, Magic Pony Ride, is a pure pleasure — the beats are as frenetic as always, but the overall mood is joyful and light, with a theme of familial love subtly threaded throughout the proceedings. At the same time, Paradinas has released a deluxe reissue of his monumental 1997 album Lunatic Harness, which represented his real breakthrough as an artist. It’s where he truly started showing his depth, leavening drill’n’bass breakbeats with a variety of tonal colors, letting air and light into the dense complexity of the compositions. The 25th-anniversary edition adds a second disc of EPs and rarities from the same period — taken together, all of it makes clear again how unique and, yes, important Paradinas’ contribution to the development of this music was in the 1990s.
It’s hard to see what the future of this delightful ensemble will be in the wake of the sudden and untimely death of its singer/songwriter/accordionist Belle du Berry, who succumbed last year at age 54 to an aggressive cancer. It seems likely that this, their seventh studio album, will be their last, which would be be a double tragedy: the Paris Combo has a truly unique sound, a blend of Gypsy jazz, Latin, cabaret, and 1970s pop that is simultaneously familiar and odd but always sweetly engaging. On Quesaco? we get horn-driven modal pop with weird ululations (“Quesaco?”), reggae-inflected pop (“Barre espace”), kittenish chamber jazz (“Paresser par içi”), and other tracks that are frankly hard to describe. All of it is delightful, and the listening experience is truly bittersweet.
Clinton Fearon got his start at a tender age as bassist, vocalist, and songwriter for the Gladiators — a legendary roots reggae band with which he performed for almost two decades. He then relocated to Seattle and formed the Defenders there; that band lasted only five years, but since then he has built an impressive body of solo work. Fearon’s latest finds him continuing in a roots-and-culture mode, leading the Riddim Source, a crack team of French reggae musicians from the Bordeaux area, where this album was recorded — since touring with him in 2021, they have become his regular backing band. One of the great things about Fearon is that he generally avoids the tired two-chord clichés that can make reggae so tiresome; these are beautifully crafted songs, and his voice remains remarkably clear and strong. Highly recommended.
Mista Savona Presents: Havana Meets Kingston, Part 2
This is the long-awaited follow-up to 2017’s Mista Savona Presents Havana Meets Kingston (which I recommended heartily), a surprisingly effective fusion project that brought together top-notch musicians from the worlds of calypso, son, reggae, rumba, and other Caribbean regional styles to see what kind of music they might make together. As it turns out, it kind of sounded like Latin-tinged reggae when it didn’t sound like reggae-tinged son — and it was pretty awesome, so why not do it again? How producer Jake Savona was able, in both cases, to assemble this amazing cast of musicians (which here includes Sly & Robbie, Prince Alla, Beatriz Marquez, and Brenda Navarrete, among many others) is hard to imagine, but the results were worth whatever the cost must have been in time and treasure. Cultural-fusion projects are rarely as successful or fun to listen to as this one is.