Piano Trio & Sextets
Hyperion (dist. Integral)
Ferdinand Ries is better known as a student of (and administrative assistant to) Beethoven than as a composer in his own right, but this recording should help to bring him out of his undeserved obscurity. Opening powerfully with Ries’s Grand Sextet in C Major, in which brilliantly cascading piano lines are supported by a Romantic-inflected but classically structured scaffolding of string parts to create an effect quite close to that of a piano concerto, the program then proceeds to a charming piece for cello and piano based on a Russian folk tune, an aching minor-key trio for piano, violin, and cello, and then another sextet — this one for piano, harp, winds, and double bass. That last one is my favorite, but all are well worth hearing. The Nash Ensemble plays sensitively on modern instruments.
Franz Liszt et al.
Consolations and Other Reflective Pieces for Violin & Piano
Maya Magub; Hsin-I Huang
CRD (dist. Naxos)
While these two recordings are very different in just about every way, what they have in common is that both convey the personal musical vision of a brilliant young violinist. Consolations is exactly what its title suggests: a collection of quiet, comforting music for violin and piano created during the pandemic lockdown. Its centerpiece is a world-premiere recording of Maya Magub’s arrangement for violin and piano of Liszt’s set of six Consolations (written originally for piano solo), but it also includes works by Schumann, Handel, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and others. Amazingly, Magub and pianist Huang recorded their parts separately, each in her own home studio; the sense of an intimate ensemble they created under those conditions is remarkable, as is the quiet virtuosity of their playing. Magub’s tone is a particular joy. Sarah Plum’s album is something else entirely, a challenging and exciting program consisting primarily of contemporary works for violin and electronics, many written specifically for Plum and recorded here for the first time. The composers were all unfamiliar to me, so it was fun to be introduced to them through these works. Highlights include the lovely title piece (Personal Noise with Accelerants for solo violin, by Eric Lyon) and the bustling, haunting Full Moon by Mari Taken.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sergei Kvitko; Madrid Soloists Chamber Orchestra / Tigran Shiganyan
It’s easy to greet most new Mozart recordings with a yawn — few composers’ works have been recorded as often as his, and new performances of his works rarely bring dramatically new insight to a market in which there may be scores or even hundreds of previous versions of those works still available. For this recording of the Rondos K. 382 and 386 and the popular piano concerto #20, however, pianist Sergei Kvitko has made a concerted effort to provide a listening experience “full of surprises.” The Rondos are presented in world-premiere editions prepared by Kvitko himself, editions that take some fairly dramatic liberties with orchestration, ornamentation, and dynamics, and his cadenzas in the concerto are indeed highly original and filled with musical surprises. This fine modern-instrument recording should be seriously considered for all libraries’ classical collections.
The Complete Rags (2 discs)
Hyperion (dist. Integral)
One of the delightful challenges of dealing with ragtime music is trying to decide whether to put it into the Classical or the Jazz category. I tend to favor the former, because while ragtime music is highly syncopated and has the shiny melodic veneer of the vernacular, scratch that shiny surface and you find through-composed music that is often melodically and harmonically complex and virtuosic in a way that has as much in common with Scarlatti as with Jelly Roll Morton. In the case of William Bolcom’s contemporary rag compositions, I think that argument is especially strong, and on this absolutely wonderful recording the great Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin makes a powerful argument for the brilliance of these pieces. While never seeming to be challenged at all by their fearsome technical demands, he also uses a subtle rubato and careful dynamics to reveal their depth and, frequently, their tenderness. This is an altogether wonderful recording.
Cold Blue Music
Like George Crumb before him, Chas Smith has a musical vision that is unique enough that it requires him to invent his own instruments. Each of the three pieces on this disc was created using several of these custom-created instruments. For example, The End of Cognizance is a piece for “Towers, Lockheed, Big Ti, (and) bass steel guitar,” whereas the monumental The Replicant is performed on “steel guitars, JrBlue, Guitarzilla, Pez Eater, Bertoia, Lockheed, Que Lastas, (and) copper box.” (When Smith refers to a “steel guitar,” he’s not talking about a slide guitar, but a contraption actually made out of steel.) One wishes that more photos and descriptions of the instruments were provided, but on the other hand it’s kind of fun to listen to these somber, floating soundscapes and try to imagine the objects creating the sounds. There’s something unsettling but also deeply moving about these works — listen to them at high volume on really good speakers and prepare to be transported.
Activities (vinyl/digital only)
This odd but thoroughly wonderful album came about somewhat spontaneously, when bassist and composer Anna Butterss was invited to participate in what was intended as a one-day studio session, but which evolved into a large-scale solo composition and recording project. Most of this music is jazz-adjacent rather than “jazz”; there is tremendous diversity on this record, from the sweet melancholy of “Doo Wop” to the funky “Rich in Dextrose” and the more obviously jazzy “Number One.” But throughout the program there is one fundamentally important constant: Butterss’ quietly bubbling bass, which delivers lines that perfectly support the busy, quirky, and sometimes abstract-sounding compositions but that also stand easily on their own when you pay closer attention to them. Activities is a hugely impressive debut album, and at 35 minutes it is way too short.
Ella at the Hollywood Bowl: The Irving Berlin Songbook
Honestly, is there any point in writing a review of this one? Ella Fitzgerald. 1958. Irving Berlin. Once you have those three facts in hand, do you really need to know anything else? Well, maybe. These represent the only live recordings drawing on Ella’s famous Songbooks series, and also they document the only time she worked with arranger and conductor Paul Weston. The tapes were lost for decades, and only recently came to light when they were discovered in the private collection of Norman Granz (famed Jazz at the Philharmonic impresario). And they sound amazing. OK, that’s really all you need to know. Buy a copy for your library, and another for yourself. Maybe another three or four copies as Christmas presents for your favorite family members.
2003-2006 (2 discs)
No cat. no.
The late Frank Kimbrough — who died far too young, at age 64, in 2020 — is beautifully commemorated by this loving reissue of two of his trio albums from earlier in the 2000s: Lullabluebye (from 2003, featuring bassist Ben Allison and drummer Matt Wilson) and Play (from 2005, featuring bassist Masa Kamaguchi and legendary drummer Paul Motian). The joint reissue is a project of guitarist and producer Matt Balitsaris, who remastered and remixed the original recordings to create more balance between the instruments. It was a musically wise choice, given the degree to which Kimbrough and his rhythm players acted as equal partners in the creation of these recordings. In fact, there are multiple points at which the listener is reminded of the free-flowing exchange of ideas that characterized the work of Bill Evans with bassist Scott LaFaro — and there were moments when I heard shades of Joey Baron’s work with Bill Frisell in Wilson’s drumming on Lullabluebye. This is a lovely but bittersweet album, one that reminds us how much we lost when Kimbrough departed this world too early.
Here’s the challenge when you’re a jazz flugelhorn player: avoiding sounding like a TV commercial soundtrack from 1979. It’s not your fault; it’s just that the flugelhorn has such a sweet, soft tone that it was the favorite vehicle for easy-listening music during that heavily easy-listening decade. So what does Dmitri Matheny do? He takes the dangerous path: he embraces the softness of his instrument, but puts it to work delivering sharp, serious music. Check out the title track, for instance: it’s all soft edges and bumping Latin rhythms, but there’s a sly sophistication to the chord changes underneath the gentle melody; “Dark Eyes” is a ballad with an evocative noir vibe, on which Matheny’s flugelhorn and Charles McNeal’s tenor sax trade off so silkily that you almost don’t notice the transitions. And almost as if daring us to underestimate him, he even performs an arrangement of Glen Campbell’s 1970s pop-country classic “Wichita Lineman” — and makes it emotionally powerful. For all libraries.
I Hope I Know
Royal Potato Family
No cat. no.
There have been lots of interesting COVID albums coming out this year, many of them stemming from recording or touring plans that were suddenly thrown into chaos by the pandemic, resulting in both lost opportunities and new ones. In Seth Walker’s case, this disruption coincided with a relationship breakup, and it shouldn’t be surprising that all of this would result in a darker and more introspective album than some of his earlier work. His particular take on gritty, rootsy Americana is a bit of an anomaly, in that his guitar style owes as much to West African highlife as it does to country and blues. And there are moments on his new album when you hear echoes of Tin Pan Alley — notably on “Remember Me,” with its skiffle beat and subtle horns. On the title track, Walker’s fingerpicked guitar lines tumble down with unassuming grace while he sings lyrics of longing and ambivalence, and “Satisfy My Mind” would sound perfectly at home on an early Muddy Waters record. Add a Van Morrison cover, a Bob Dylan cover, and a Bobby Charles cover, and you’ve got one of the more affecting and soulful albums I’ve heard so far this year.
Sing to the Walls
RHR CD 320
It’s funny how one’s expectations of music can be shaped so much by the context in which it’s encountered. For example, when you see that an album is on the Red House label, you naturally expect a sort of folk-adjacent singer-songwriter program — like what you’d hear from label founder Greg Brown or from its marquee artists John Gorka, Robin & Linda Williams, and Peter Ostrouschko. And there are certainly hints of that on Chastity Brown’s new album — but only hints. This music could perhaps be called “soul Americana,” but it would more accurately simply be called “soul.” Listen to the compressed drum sound on “Loving the Questions,” the assertive lope of “Boston,” and her chesty, gospel-informed singing style throughout. Yes, this is in fact another COVID record — but it’s also pretty dang timeless. Highly recommended.
The Brother Brothers
Cover to Cover
Compass (dist. Naxos)
7 4798 2
Let’s continue this month’s theme of Folk/Country adjacency by looking at the lovely new album from the Brother Brothers. Identical twins Adam and David Moss have been making music together since childhood, and this is their third album under the Brother Brothers moniker. This one, as the title suggests, consists of versions of songs they love that were written by others. It’s pretty eclectic — John Lennon’s “I Will,” Judee Sill’s “There’s a Rugged Road,” Harley Allen’s (via Dolly/Linda/Emmylou) “High Sierra,” etc. — but what unites the whole disc is the brothers’ uncannily tight harmonies and gentle country-soul-pop arrangements, which sometimes skirt the edge of easy listening but always manage to stay on the right side of that line. This is unfailingly sweet but also quietly virtuosic music and it’s a deeply rewarding listen. Recommended to all libraries.
Domino (dist. Redeye)
You’ve heard of dream pop? Meet dream funk. The Range is James Hinton, an electronic music producer whose strategy for constructing songs is built on seeking out vocal snippets from around the internet, sampling them, and incorporating them into compositions that are sometimes dense, swirly and dreamy (“Bicameral”) and sometimes more directly adjacent to hip hop (“Urethane”) and R&B (“Ricercar,” “Not for Me”). Hinton has a particular genius is for bringing subtle detail to what are, for the most part, very straightforwardly accessible songs (notice the high-speed glitchy beats that underly sections of “Relegate”) and for finding just the right vocal extract to use as a foundation on which to build his rich and complex structures (notice the abstract but gorgeous vocal on “Violet”). Highly recommended.
Little Idiot/Deutsche Grammophon
Is it cool to like Moby these days? I can never keep track of this stuff. But I think last time I checked, being a fan of this bald, middle-aged, bespectacled, vegan post-Christian (“Taoist-Christian-agnostic-quantum mechanic“) was considered a bit passé. Whatever; as far as I’m concerned it’s the grooves that matter, and of course grooves are front-and-center on this new collection of remixes of classic Moby tracks. Deutsche Grammophon’s involvement ensures the presence of overly earnest liner notes (“at its most complex, [the remix] becomes an art form — part homage, part act of transformational creativity,” thanks for that), but again, the proof is in the musical pudding. And this pudding is rich and dense and yummy, from the straightforward house thump of Planningtorock’s remix of Moby’s version of David Bowie’s “Heroes” to Bambounou’s twisted and folded junglist take on “Porcelain” and Max Cooper’s groovy but quite abstract mix of “Natural Blues.” The general tendency is towards four-on-the-floor house and techno, but there’s lots of fun and creative detail to be heard here. Very nice stuff.
Xpujil Revisited: Made to Measure Vol. 45.2 (digital only)
No cat. no.
This dark ambient project has its origins in a walking trip through the Mexican jungle undertaken by Caroline Chaspoul and Eduardo Henriquez (who record together as Nova Materia), during which the pair made recordings of the sounds that surrounded them and used those as the basis for a 40-minute soundscape that they have released as Xpujil. That album is excellent, but I recommend this version, which begins with three reinterpretations of the Xpujil source material by Italian experimentalist Donato Dozzy, Colombian avant-garde musician Lucrecia Salt, and Honduran-born Frenchman Philippe Hallais (a.k.a. Low Jack), each of whom brings his or her own unique interpretation to the sonic content. The album then offers a new presentation of the original music, divided into four segments rather than the original uninterrupted single track. This is not only a more generous program of music (offered, oddly enough, at a lower price) but also a radically reconfigured one, and it’s consistently fascinating and enjoyable.
Air Waves is the nom de pop of singer and songwriter Nicole Schneit, whose sophomore effort is a simultaneously forward- and backward-looking slice of modern pop songcraft. The first line of the first track had me wondering who Schneit reminded me of, and I was startled to realize it was Belinda Carlisle. That impression faded over the course of the program, as I started hearing echoes of Patsy Cline (“The Dance”) and, I don’t know, maybe Syd Straw (“Alien”), and eventually it became clear that what I was listening to is a genuine original. There’s some puckish humor here (note in particular the tongue-in-cheek “Black Metal Demon”) and some nice cameo appearances by the likes of Cass McCombs and Luke Temple, and although at full price and 26 minutes in length this release doesn’t offer the most solid value for money, the music is still great.
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
Just about every music culture uses melisma (stretching out sung syllables using multiple notes; think, for example, of what happens whenever Mariah Carey holds a note for more than 1/10 of a second), and all do different things with it: you hear it in Black American gospel music, where melisma intensifies emotion; you hear it in classical Indian music, where it’s an intrinsic part of the structural exploration of a raga; and you hear it in traditional Appalachian music, notably in singers like Ralph Stanley. In Ethiopian music, melisma has a unique character; to me, it sounds like lacework subtly draped over the main melody. The great Ethiopian singer Minyeshu is a master of this style of singing, and on her latest album she demonstrates the technique with great subtlety and artistry while delivering pop songs that sound as modern as they do ancient. This is the first release I’ve heard from her, and now I’m going to go explore her catalog. (Man, I love this job.)
Rabii Harnoune & V.B. Kühl
Gnawa Electric Laune II (digital only)
Tru Thoughts (dist. Redeye)
No cat. no.
Gnawa music is a genre of devotional vocal music found throughout West Africa but most densely concentrated in Morocco. Gnawa singers are traditionally accompanied by the guembri, a longnecked lute with three strings, and the songs are characterized by unique rhythmic and lyrical structures that can make them sound pretty repetitive to ears raised outside the region. Which is what makes this project — now two albums strong — between gnawa singer Rabii Harnoune and German electronica producer V.B. Kühl so much fun. As on the previous album in their ongoing project, Harnoune brings his mastery of the genre (and of the guembri) and his powerful voice to the mix, while Kühl brings a wealth of electronic beats and effects, which he integrates subtly into the more traditional instrumental sounds, creating a shimmering and rippling tapestry of rhythm and melody that is as intellectually interesting as it is trance-inducing.
King Size Dub 25
The occasion of its 25th release is an opportune moment at which to celebrate the mighty King Size Dub series, which for nearly 30 years now has offered generous platters of radically remixed songs from Europe’s wildly diverse reggae and pop worlds, and for virtually everyplace stylistically between them. A few volumes in the series have been themed collections — for example, one focused on the work of reggae supergroup Dub Syndicate, while another drew on selections from the On-U Sound label’s catalog and another on the work of producer Felix Wolter, a.k.a. Dubvisionist. But for the most part these are pretty eclectic compilations, and the 25th installment is no exception to that general rule. Here you’ll find Rob Smith’s remix of Seanie T’s and Aldubb’s take on Bob Marley’s “Punky Reggae Party,” Umberto Echo’s dub version of SEEED’s “Komm in mein Haus,” and Gaudi’s take on Almamegretta’s “O’ Dub Comme ‘e’.” As always, the grooves are dense and warm, the production heavy and colorful. I have yet to be disappointed by any of these collections.
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
No cat. no.
Two rocking fusion albums from the South Asian diaspora here — one from a Brooklyn-based Sikh trumpeter and singer of Punjabi heritage, and the other from a London-based Anglo-Bengali pop band. Khiyo’s Bondona is the most stylistically wide-ranging of the two, from the powerful guitar rock of “Shedin Aar Koto Durey” and “Ek Jomuna” to the quiet and acoustic “Ponkhi” and the guitars-tabla-and-strings meditation “Bhorer Hawa Eley.” Singer Sohini Alam’s voice is a lithe, soaring wonder, and no matter where this band goes in terms of style and genre, you’ll find yourself following happily. Sonny Singh’s approach is a bit more single-minded: better known as trumpeter and singer for the Brooklyn bhangra band Red Baraat, his solo debut is an ecstatic blast of devotional joy, reflecting the Sikh faithful’s spiritual obligation to remain in “revolutionary high spirits.” There are lots of horns, as you’d expect, and more than occasional hints of mariachi and spaghetti Western vibes — as you might not. There are hints of reggae too, and lots of straight-up rocking out. Singh’s joyful enthusiasm is infectious and his solo debut is a delight.