Lakota Music Project
South Dakota Symphony Orchestra / Delta David Grier
Innova (dist. Naxos)
This project by the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra is very clear and direct about its goals, which are more than musical: it seeks to “(address) racial tension by creating an environment of openness through music,” and to “lay a path for reconciliation by using music to break down barriers between cultures.” This recording represents one way in which the orchestra approaches that goal. The album consists of five works, four of them commissioned by the project, all of them seamlessly fusing elements of traditional indigenous American music and European art music. Victory Songs, by Jerod Impichchachaaha’ Tate, consists of multiple movements, each honoring a legendary Lakota warrior; it’s sung in the Lakota language. A different approach is taken by Theodore Wiprud who was surprised to learn that “Amazing Grace” is a song frequently performed by Lakota drumming groups; he has written a setting that incorporates traditional drumming, singing, and flute playing along with orchestral variations on the theme. The whole album is fascinating, and highly recommended to all libraries.
Jakob Friedrich Kleinknecht
Trio Sonatas for Two Flutes and Basso Continuo
Ensemble La Cantonnade
TYX Art (dist. Naxos)
I sometimes get self-conscious about overusing the word “delightful” in this section, but honestly, there’s just no better word for this world-premiere recording of trio sonatas by Jakob Friedrich Kleinknecht, a little-known southern German composer who worked at roughly the same time as both Mozart and Haydn. However, his obscurity is not the usual case of a genius composer simply born at the wrong time and unjustly overshadowed by his towering contemporaries — even his colleagues tended to make note of his energy and productivity more than the unusually high quality of his music. But on the evidence of these pieces (performed with delicate affection by the Ensemble La Cantonnade), his skill as a composer still well exceeded the average, and there’s not a piece on this album that isn’t… well… you know, delightful. Any library collecting in the pre- and early classical periods should snap this one up.
The Turning Year
He’s not as famous as his brother Brian, but over the past several decades pianist and composer Roger Eno has been writing and recording music that treads a careful path between classical, ambient, and experimental music. His first solo album for the venerable Deutsche Grammophon label occasionally teeters on on the brink of New Ageyness, but consistently stays on the right side of that line. Quiet and contemplative piano solos alternate with pieces augmented by the strings of the Scoring Berlin ensemble, and one piece in particular — Stars and Wheels — takes an improvisation he recorded twenty years ago on a church organ and subjects it to electronic alterations that create a beautiful cloud of harmony. This is a lovely, deeply quiet album.
Pedro de Cristo
Magnificat, Marian Antiphons & Missa salve Regina
Cupertinos / Luís Toscano
Hyperion (dist. Integral)
I feel a little less guilty about my complete ignorance of this masterful 16th-century Portuguese composer after learning that, despite his hugely prolific output, none of his music was ever published. (When all religious orders in Portugal were dissolved in the early 19th century, the libraries of the monasteries fell into the hands of the government, which neglected them for over 100 years, resulting in significant damage and loss.) The Marian Mass setting recorded here — the only Mass that scholars can currently attribute to de Cristo with confidence — is from a monastic manuscript currently held in the library at Coimbra University, and the other pieces on this program are from that same collection. All are united by a theme of Marian worship, reflecting one of the primary devotional concerns of Portuguese composers during this period. The singing by the mixed-voice Cupertinos ensemble is simply exquisite, and the acoustic ambience provided by the Basilica do Bom Jesu in Braga must be noted as well. Here’s hoping more works by this composer will be discovered soon, and that this group will record them.
Sono Luminus (dist. Naxos)
Julian Brink is primarily a film composer, and this collection of brief works (itself quite brief at 36 minutes) is billed as a soundtrack to “a film that never happened.” The music was, in fact, originally written for a film, but the film project was cancelled. Brink subsequently took the original score (written for piano, harp, and string trio) and rearranged it, incorporating elements of previously-written music as well and creating a substantially new suite. The resulting music is an odd but engaging blend of turn-of-the-century salon sonorities, midcentury abstraction, and modern minimalism. The term “utility music” refers back to the German word Gebrauchsmusik, generally believed to have been coined by the composer Paul Hindemith, which denotes music intended for a functional purpose rather than only for its own sake. Film music would certainly seem to be one good example of this. Anyway, the album is lovely.
Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse 1963-1964 (2 discs)
Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse 1965-1966 (2 discs)
Jazz master sleuth Zev Feldman is at it again, launching a new label dedicated to unearthing previously-unheard recordings by jazz greats and presenting them with extensive documentation and in spectacular sound. These two two-disc sets (with a third scheduled for release on an as-yet-undetermined date) document performances by the great pianist Ahmad Jamal with his trio over the course of five years at a small Seattle club called the Penthouse. On most dates he’s accompanied by bassist Jamil Nasser, but the drummers vary — Chuck Lampkin is featured on the first volume, but there’s a different drummer for each set on the second. The recordings were made by a local radio engineer, and they sound great; Jamal is in outstanding form throughout, sometimes evoking Errol Garner in his use of big, fruity chords and sometimes evincing a Bud Powell-esque nimbleness. Now 93 years old, Jamal himself oversaw the creation of these releases and sat for interviews that are included in the booklets. No library that supports a jazz curriculum can afford to pass up this treasure trove of world-class 1960s jazz pianism.
Unstuck in Time: The Kurt Vonnegut Suite
I’ll confess here that usually the word “suite” in the title of a jazz composition turns me right off — in my experience, it too often denotes music that is too bloated and too self-important to function well as jazz. I’m glad I ignored it in this case. Pianist/composer Jason Yeager has fashioned a loving tribute to Kurt Vonnegut here (in observance of the author’s 100th birthday), giving his compositions titles that refer to characters and events in various Vonnegut novels, and his writing is (here I go again) delightful. Note the boppish complexity of “Bokonon” and how it’s leavened by textural lightness and humor; note also the tender lyricism of “Ballad for Old Salo,” and the hard-swinging groove of “Unk’s Fate,” and the noirish abstraction of “Nancy’s Revenge.” Yeager is writing for a fairly large ensemble on these compositions, but not a big band, which keeps the sound nice and flexible. For all jazz collections.
Jeff Denson; Romain Pilon; Brian Blade
Ridgeway (dist. MVD)
Finding Light is the second album from this trio, which doesn’t present itself as having a leader but, in reality, seems functionally to be led by bassist/composer Jeff Denson. Six of the album’s ten tracks are Denson compositions, while four are by guitarist Romain Pilon. All of the tunes dance a careful but joyful line between straight-ahead and modern/free jazz, with diversions into funk (the fun and knotty “This Way, Cooky”) and into music that feels oddly abstract despite its obviously careful construction (“Wishing Well,” which drifts from balladic decorousness into gentle funk). Drummer Brian Blades was made for this stuff, and he provides a strong rhythmic through-line while contributing his own pointillistic flourishes. Although the music itself sounds nothing like Bill Evans, there’s an echo of the classic Evans-LaFaro-Motian trio’s dynamic here, with each member contributing equally to the overall sound. Highly recommended.
Herb Ellis; Remo Palmier
Windflower (vinyl only)
Real Gone Music
In 1977, guitarists Herb Ellis and Reno Palmier teamed up with bassist George Duvivier and drummer Ron Traxler to deliver this gorgeous set of standards and contemporary compositions in a style that harked back explicitly to the 1940s, when both guitarists were young up-and-comers on the cutthroat New York scene. Since that time Ellis had become a household name in jazz circles, while Palmier’s career had been sidelined by health issues, but here the two play like brothers — both stretch out admirably and push each other productively, but neither seeks to outshine or blow the other one off the stage. Ellis and Palmier both favor a warm, soft-edged tone, and both achieve the almost alchemical effect of turning their gentle touch into powerful, propulsive swing. The album clocks in at 42 minutes, and you’ll wish it were twice as long. (And if you’re like me, you’ll also wish it were available on CD.)
SUSS (2 discs; compilation)
Northern Spy (dist. Redeye)
I fully realize that as a genre designation, “ambient country” sounds like the punchline to a bad joke about the nonsensical proliferation of genre designations. As I’ve noted in previous numbers of CD HotList, though, the guys in SUSS have successfully mapped out a style that is not only fully serious but also deeply rewarding. This album brings together the band’s three previous EPs (Night Suite, Heat Haze, and Winter Was Hard) and adds five more tracks under the subtitle Across the Horizon. The music represents a continuation of their ongoing exploration of ambient soundscapes in the context of country-music conventions: lots of shimmering/twanging Telecasters, lots of eerily moaning steel guitar, very little in the way of rhythm. But the twanginess is atmospheric; the steel is like smears of orange sunset; the production is spacious and abstract. While there are hints here of producer Daniel Lanois’ sound in the 1980s and ’90s, no one right now is doing anything like what SUSS is doing, and it really sounds amazing.
No cat. no.
If you miss the good old days of meat-and-potatoes honky-tonk and outlaw Texas country music, then the Waymores are here for you. Yes, the duo is based in Atlanta, but the acerbic edge in their writing (pull quote: “I’ve got everything I need/Worn-out boots and home-grown weed”) evokes Willie and Waylon more than anyone from anywhere in the Southeast (very much including Nashville), and the astringency of their harmonies brings to mind John Doe and Exene Cervenka more than Conway and Loretta or George and Tammy. On Stone Sessions, their second album, the tempos are deliberate, the rhythms tend strongly towards a sober two-step, and the lyrics are love- and world-weary (sample song titles: “Die Right Here,” “Road Worn,” “Bat Sh*t Crazy”). There’s not a surprising chord progression anywhere, and there’s not a single song that isn’t brilliant.
Moon Child (EP)
No cat. no.
Moon Child is one of those “uh-oh” album titles — the kind that is liable to trigger many listeners’ New Age Twaddle detectors. No need to worry in this case, though. The debut EP from folk singer/songwriter Kelley Smith features clear-eyed and carefully observed songs that are both softly expressed and powerfully written. There’s an Appachian twang in her delivery despite her Minnesota upbringing, and a hitch in her voice that she keeps tastefully under control. Superficially, you might characterize her voice as lightweight, but listen carefully, for example, to “Dust” and notice how much power lurks beneath the surface of her girlish timbre; note also the string arrangements on “I’ll Let Go,” which she taught herself how to create while making this EP. This is an impressive debut — let’s have more than five songs next time!
Third Eye (2 discs; expanded reissue)
Monsoon did for pop music what John McLaughlin’s Shakti ensemble did for jazz: showed that Indian music could be blended with Western music without either exoticizing or condescension. In both a compelling and a matter-of-fact way, Monsoon took the conventions of Western pop music and rhythmic/instrumental elements of Indian folk and classical music and seamlessly blended them, putting Sheila Chandra’s marvelously clear and supple voice front and center and creating a swirling kaleidoscope of melody and textures to support it. Third Eye was the group’s only full-length album; it’s reissued here in an expanded version, with live-in-the-studio tracks, remixes, and several previously unreleased items. It’s interesting how timeless this music sounds — although it was originally issued in 1983 it really doesn’t sound much like an ’80s record, perhaps because of the uniqueness (for the time) of its cultural fusion. Monsoon launched Chandra’s musical career, which was a remarkable one until injury led to her retirement from singing in 2009.
If you’re under the (understandable) impression that drum’n’bass music tends to be a bit tiresome, then I strongly recommend the debut full-length album from Gavin Hislop, a video-game sound designer who records under the name Blockdata. He’s been releasing music as Blockdata for several years, but this is his first album and unlike many longplayers in this genre, it’s conceived as a unified whole and constructed for end-to-end listening. Yes, there are the expected dense and crunchy double-speed breakbeats and wobble bass, but there’s also lots of sonic space in the mix and multiple interludes of softer, more introspective music; song titles like “Binary Warfare” and “Bone Weight” may suggest a more assaultive vibe, but there’s actually a tremendous amount of subtlety at work here, and this album amply rewards close listening. Also, it’s great for freeway driving as long as there’s a relatively generous speed limit.
Retiro e Ritmo
I’m placing this one in the Rock/Pop section because it seems like the least bad fit for this fascinating and ultimately uncategorizable album. Led by keyboardist/producer/sound designer Markus Reuter, Mata Atlântica is a musical project organized with a non-musical purpose in mind: saving the coastal rainforest of Brazil. Now, activist music is always a risky proposition, because the thing being advocated for is almost always more important than mere music, and that can lead to music that quickly becomes an afterthought while messaging muscles itself into the forefront. No such problem here: while grooves reminiscent of both prog rock and 1970s jazz fusion (leavened with bubbling Brazilian rhythms) simmer in the background, a shifting array of wind players, percussionists, vocalists, and field-recording-manipulators create a percolating sound field of melodies over the course of long, leisurely tracks. There is some explicit sermonizing, but for the most part the music speaks for the trees more subtly, and does so in a deeply engaging way. Highly recommended.
Early Moon (vinyl/digital only)
Three of Hearts/Arts & Crafts
Sally Seltmann’s latest starts out powerfully, with a story-song in which a woman pleads with a former friend whose boyfriend she stole at some point in the past. The sisterhood-is-powerful message is no less powerful for being implied rather than shouted, but the song’s real power is in its melody, which is an absolutely merciless earworm. Then Seltmann moves from strength to strength, with acoustic-pop balladry (“Table for One”), jangly dream pop (“Female Pied Piper”), acerbic romantic commentary (“Lovers Lie”), and a gently stomping honky-tonk two-step that doesn’t sound country at all (“Real Born Tragic”). Don’t let the breathy voice fool you: Seltman is a sharp-eyed and unsentimental writer, as well as a highly creative arranger. She’s spent much of the last few years writing songs for others, and that ongoing exercise in craft has really paid off.
Three Seconds|Kolme Toista
Although Finnish by birth, guitarist/composer Jussi Reijonen’s music is influenced by formative years spent in Jordan, Tanzania, Oman, Lebanon, and the US. On his second album as a leader the musical influences that come through most strongly are a combination of the modern European classical tradition and Arabic maqam. The music is largely composed — there may be improvisation going on here, but it’s not easy to tell where the written passages end and the improvised ones begin — and it features horns, strings, and various kinds of percussion in addition to Reijonen’s guitar and oud playing; in fact, his parts are seamlessly interwoven with the others rather than being “featured” in any explicit sense. Sometimes the music floats and sometimes it moves with tidal power, and the combination of Middle Eastern scales and modalities and classically-derived Western harmonies is both bracing and exciting. In a music shop, it’s hard to guess where you’d find this one — but I’d look first in the World section and then in Jazz.
Catrin Finch; Seckou Keita
Bendigedig (dist. Naxos)
The harp and the kora have a lot in common: both feature fixedly tuned strings that are plucked without (usually) being altered in pitch and that are attached to resonating chambers. But they’re also very different: the kora’s resonating chamber is a large gourd covered with hide, whereas the harp’s is a wooden box. And of course the kora is from West Africa whereas the harp is most recently a European instrument, so the playing styles differ significantly. And in that mix of difference and complementarity (plus healthy endowments of musical genius) lies the beauty of the ongoing collaboration between Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita, on which they play compositions they wrote together, compositions that beautifully intertwine their individual styles and result in something entirely new (though not without significant echoes of their separate musical heritages. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Islais a Genir
Bendigedig (dist. Naxos)
Also from the Bendigedig label is the second album from VRï (no, that’s not a typo), a brilliant Welsh trio that blends the energy of folk fiddling with the decorousness of classical technique without sacrificing the best of either tradition — and that harmonizes vocally like angels. Wales is a less commonly explored area of British folk tradition, and those unfamiliar with it (like me) will immediately hear elements that sound familiar, but from other contexts — for example, the fiddle style often contains echoes of Scandinavia (check the hardanger-sounding “Yr Ehedydd” and “March Glas”), and the foot-stomping and unison call-and-response singing on “Y Gaseg Ddu” really evoke Québecois tradition. But for the most part this music has a truly unique — and utterly gorgeous — sound.
Tiken Jah Fakoly
Braquage de pouvoir
Chapter Two/Wagram Music
Hailing from Côte d’Ivoire, Tiken Jah Fakoly has been one of the preeminent voices in African reggae since his debut album twenty years ago. On his latest release, he’s aided by a team of Jamaican and French producers (including the legendary Tyrone Downie, who served for years as Bob Marley’s keyboardist and sadly passed away just before this album came out), and several guest singers, among them Winston McAnuff and Amadou & Maria. As usual, Fakoly sings in a variety of languages, but mainly in French; as always, he writes songs that are tough and hooky but that also generate a deep, rootsy reggae vibe. Highlights include the lovely “Beau continent” (featuring Dub Inc.), and the uplifting, acoustic-based “Ça va aller.” All libraries with a collecting interest in reggae music should take notice of this one.