Various (Anonymous) Composers
A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry’s Court: Christmas 1400, London
Cappella Romana / Alexander Lingas
Cappella (dist. Naxos)
If, as I do, you have a spouse who enforces very strict rules about when Christmas music may and may not be played around the house, here’s your chance to sneak some in on the off-season. Of course, the reason you’ll be able to do that is that this album doesn’t sound at all like any Christmas music you’ve ever heard. It consists of a fascinating blend of Byzantine and Sarum chant and early polyphony performed by the Cappella Romana ensemble divided into two choirs: one singing in Greek and the other in Latin. Eerie, droning organum alternates with plainchant and the astringent open harmonies of late-medieval polyphony to create a completely unique listening experience, in a political/historical context that is well worth reading about. All of this music is previously unrecorded. Strongly recommended to all libraries with a collecting interest in early music.
Johann Sebastian Bach
The Well-tempered Consort III
LINN (dist. Naxos)
Johann Sebastian Bach
Novare: J.S. Bach Lute Works on Electric Guitar
Baroque composers often wrote music without being particularly prescriptive about the instruments that would play it. A violin sonata could just as easily be an oboe sonata; a concerto for harpsichord might be recycled later as a concerto for flute; etc. Johann Sebastian Bach was no exception to this rule, and over the centuries many performers have taken predictable liberties with his music, recasting it for instruments and ensembles that he might never have predicted. The Phantasm consort of viols has been working its way through Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier collection, distributing the contrapuntal lines of those works to the various members of the consort, making it possible to hear these familiar pieces in an entirely new light. The whole series is well worth acquiring. On the surface, Harvey Valdes’ project might seem much more bold: he has arranged a Bach lute suite and several of his preludes and fugues for electric guitar. But the resulting sound is anything but iconoclastic: Valdes plays with a warm, clean tone, applying reverb tastefully and rendering these pieces with a golden-colored sound that shows them off to beautiful effect. Both of these albums are outstanding examples of new ways of thinking about Bach’s deathless music.
Bright and Early
Naïve (dist. Naxos)
While we’re discussing lute music, let’s not overlook this new album from legendary lutenist Hopkinson Smith. Unlike the Bach releases recommended above, this one features lute music actually played on the lute. In this case, the music is by 15th-century Italian composers Francesco Spinacino, Joan Ambrosio Dalza, and Marchetto Cara, all taken from turn-of-the-16th-century collections published by Ottaviano Petrucci, known today as the first to publish polyphonic music. Playing a six-course lute built by Boston luthier Joël van Lennep, Smith makes a powerful case for the music of these relatively obscure composers — and the quality of the recording itself deserves mention. Smith’s tone is bright but rich, colorful and meaty, and the production shows it off to best advantage. For all early music collections.
Cristóbal de Morales
Missa Desilde al cavallero; Missa Mille regretz; Magnificat primi toni
De Profundis / Robert Hollingsworth; Eamonn Dougan
Hyperion (dist. Integral)
The all-male De Profundis choir has only been on the scene for just over a decade now, and has already established itself as an ensemble to be reckoned with — in terms of power and tone, the clearest Oxbridge competitor to America’s legendary Chanticleer choir. Previous recordings of works by the great composers of Renaissance Spain (including generally overlooked masters like Juan Esquivel and Bernardino de Ribera) have been met with rapturous praise, and I’m confident this new recording of Masses and a Magnificat setting by the relatively well-known Cristóbal de Morales will get a similar reception. In terms of both music and sound, this is one of the most lushly gorgeous recordings I’ve heard in years: the group’s approach in this case was to voice the pieces in such a way as to put more emphasis on the middle parts and less on the treble, with the result that the whole album seems bathed in golden, late-afternoon sunlight. The music itself is very Spanish: passages of contemplative and serene adoration contrast with moments of dark and busy intensity. Intonation and blend are impeccable throughout, and this recording is highly recommended to all libraries.
Georg Frideric Handel; William Croft; John Blow
RIAS Kammerchor Berlin; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin / Justin Doyle
Harmonia Mundi (dist. Integral)
This musical program is more diverse than its title suggests. In addition to the frequently-recorded anthems composed by Handel for the coronation of George II, it also includes his patriotic Occasional Oratorio, which was written in response to the abortive Jacobite uprising of 1745 (and repurposes some of the music from those earlier anthems), as well as William Croft’s anthem for George I titled The Lord Is a Sun and a Shield and an organ chaconne by John Blow that serves as an interlude before the Handel coronation anthems. Although the title works have become very familiar over the years and most libraries will likely already hold good recordings of them, the unusual nature of this program and absolutely stellar performances make this disc a solid recommendation for all classical collections.
Everything I Have Is Yours (compilation; 3 discs)
Dynamic Nostalgia (dist. MVD)
One big problem with these super-budget multi-disc sets is usually a paucity of liner notes. In this case, it’s worse; there are no liner notes whatsoever — not even the most rudimentary musician credits. That irritation aside, this three-disc set is a treasure trove of classic material by one of the most unique talents of the swing era. Unlike many other singers of the period, Billy Eckstine sang in the baritone range and cultivated a rich, fruity tone that was (and still is) instantly recognizable. Duke Ellington characterized his style as “the essence of cool.” Eckstine’s biggest hit was “I Apologize,” but he also brought his fresh vocal approach to the whole range of standards, and this set includes performances of just about every title from the American Songbook you can think of: “Body and Soul,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Early Autumn,” etc. The sound quality is very good, and his voice blooms out of the speakers like a huge purple-and-red peony. Sure wish I could tell you who the bands are.
As regular readers know, my strong preference in jazz is for the straight-ahead and swinging, and I particularly tend not to gravitate towards funk- or progressive jazz. Nothing against those styles, they just don’t generally speak to me. But this album by trumpeter and composer Brad Goode really connected for me — in part because his funkiness is crunchy and complex rather than poppy, in part because his tone is exquisite, and in part because he just writes really, really great heads. Also, unlike many other jazz musicians, he’s not afraid of space: notice the extended periods of unadorned groove on “Decathexis,” for example. His taste in covers is excellent, too: there’s a very fine arrangement of “The Windmills of Your Mind,” a rollicking take on the Tropicalia classic “Joía” (prominently featuring drummer Paa Kow and also featuring some very cool Jon Hassell-style trumpet treatments), and a tender version of Jania Ian’s “At Seventeen.” Highly recommended.
No cat. no.
I’ve been listening to this one over and over since receiving my review copy a few weeks ago. Pianist Margherita Fava is an exceptionally gifted composer, arranger, and interpreter, and on Tatatu she displays all of these gifts in their full glory. Her rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning” is one of the best I’ve ever heard, highlighted by her witty use of his odd dissonances throughout her solo and her alternations between regular and double time in the arrangement. Her own “Birds of Passage” evokes Eastern European modes with a hint of klezmer in Greg Tardy’s clarinet, and the aptly titled “Restless Mind” is based on an unsettled rhythmic structure that would make Lenny Tristano proud — until it lapses momentarily into a relaxed, midtempo swing and then snaps back to its jittery non-groove. This is sophisticated but accessible and deeply enjoyable music.
Six String Standards
I may be wrong about this, but I have this idea in my head that whenever a guitarist wants to make an unaccompanied solo album, he or she almost always opens with “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” And with good reason: that tune is a perfect blend of graceful melody line and swinging danceability. The same can be said of Mason Razavi’s whole album: he takes wizened chestnuts like “Body and Soul,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” and “Darn That Dream” and makes you hear them with new ears. His blend of warm (but not muted) tone, chordal inventiveness, and ability to play an extended single-note solo without ever losing the thread of the tune’s swing makes this album a joy to hear. Note also his subtle but effective use of such advanced techniques as walking basslines under comped chords, artificial harmonics, and classically-derived single-string tremolo. Very cool.
No cat. no.
This album was sent to me out of the blue by the artist — not sure how she got my contact info, but I’m very grateful she did, because I was instantly captivated by her voice as soon as I cued up the disc. Her singing style is hard to describe; whereas other Irish singers tend to favor an open, bell-like tone, Hogan’s approach is almost a murmur; her voice sometimes (as on “The Old Churchyard”) sounds like it was recorded on a wax cylinder and transferred to a shellac 78. Elsewhere she sounds as if she’s talking to herself, contemplating the workings of her heart and trying to make sense of them. The program is mostly traditional songs from the British Isles, with a few modern songs sprinkled in, and her accompanists are brilliant. This is the most compelling album of Irish music I’ve heard in years, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Price We Pay for Love
I’m putting this one in the Folk/Country category because of its overall flavor, but the content comes from all over the place: Joni Mitchell (“Hejira”), Steve Winwood (“Can’t Find My Way Home”), John Scofield (“Away with Words,” with lyrics by Christensen), etc. The arrangements are spare and delicate, as is Christensen’s voice. She’s been doing this a long time — you may or may not recognize her as a pillar of the 1980s Los Angeles punk scene and founding member of Divine Horsemen — and you can hear her experience in every note she sings. Notable sidemen include bassist/arranger Terry Lee Burns and slide player Greg Leisz, and all of the settings place her voice in the musical equivalent of a velvet jewel box. Recommended to all libraries.
The Songs Which Are
No cat. no.
And let’s close out this section with some seriously left-field stuff. Stranger Still is a Toronto-based quartet led by composer and guitarist/banjo player Pete Johnston, and on this album he has created arrangements of poems by Nova Scotian writer Alden Nowlan, who died relatively young in 1983. Johnston’s melodies tend to start out straightforward and then wobble off into strange byways, and his arrangements are pretty idiosyncratic as well. The pure, clear vocals of Mim Adams and Randi Helmers create a pleasing tonal counterpoint to the quirkiness of the tunes and chord progressions, sometimes evoking the Britfolk of Fairport Convention and sometimes carrying echoes of 13th-century ars nova singing (check out the harmonies on “Biography,” for example) or of early Aqsak Maboul. Intrigued? Yes, you should be.
Fred Frith; Susana Santos Silva
Laying Demons to Rest
Glastonbury and Elsewhere (Volume 20 of the Cow Box Redux)
ReR Megacorp (dist. MVD)
Here are a couple of new releases that prominently feature the godfather of avant-garde electric guitar, Fred Frith. Both are live recordings: Laying Demons to Rest documents his duo set with trumpeter Susanna Santos Silva at a French venue just last year. It’s a single 42-minute-long improvisation during which Frith digs deep into his bag of extended techniques, banging and sawing on his guitar and using a looper to play segments backwards, while Silva wails and moans and honks. The sound is not skronky or aggressively noisy, but often quite lyrical. Glastonbury and Elsewhere, however, is quite different. This is one of a series of releases focusing on previously “lost” live recordings of Frith’s 1960s/70s band Henry Cow, an avant-rock ensemble that was a training ground and jumping-off point for Frith and other notables like Chris Cutler, Peter Blegvad, and Dagmar Krause. The performances documented here are from 1972 to 1977 at various UK and European events, and to be honest, most of this stuff is fairly forbidding — the sound quality is generally pretty dodgy and the music itself is often not much fun. Exceptions include the tightly composed prog-classicism of the untitled closing track, and the fascinating “Road to Ruins” with its folksong tape recordings and Frith’s freak-out guitar soloing. If you’re collecting Frith in a serious way, your library should own both albums.
Our Best Place
Usually we praise artists for growing and evolving, and that’s fine. But there’s definitely something to be said for artists who remain 100% dependable over a long period of time — who, for example, make an album in 2023 that consists entirely of music that would have sounded completely at home on one of their releases from the mid-1980s. That’s Shonen Knife, an all-woman trio from Japan whose sound is pretty much built on the high-energy melodic punk approach of the Ramones, and has not changed noticeably in 50 years. One exception on this new album: “Vamos Taquitos,” a celebration of Mexican cuisine, draws on elements of Norteño music. Other than that, you know exactly what to expect. And God bless them for it.
Black Clouds above the Bows
All Hands Bury the Cliffs at Sea
So this is kind of a weird and frustrating situation. Wanderwelle is a Dutch electronic duo, and Black Clouds above the Bows and All Hands Bury the Cliffs at Sea are the first two entries in what’s projected as a three-volume series “dedicated to telling the story of the climate crisis and its effects on coastal areas around the globe.” The music does so in abstract manner, of course: it’s minimalist bordering on ambient, and consists largely of processed sounds originally created by archaic instruments: on Black Clouds, the central instrument is an old cavalry horn, used because the purpose of that instrument was to raise alarm and invoke urgency; on All Hands, the primary instrument is a church organ damaged by a climate-related seacoast cliff collapse. As one might imagine, the music is beautiful and deeply sad. What’s frustrating is that collecting all three albums will be difficult for any library: Black Clouds is available digitally and on CD, while All Hands is vinyl/digital-only and it’s not yet clear whether the third album will end up even being released on the same label.
Foreverandevernomore: Forever Voiceless Edition (digital only)
No cat. no.
In 2022, legendary producer Brian Eno released his first vocal album in many years. Titled Foreverandevernomore, it was concerned with mankind’s abuse of the earth and our need to “fall in love again, but this time with Nature, with Civilization and with our hopes for the future.” I confess that while I’ve been a huge fan of Brian Eno the producer since my teenage years, I’ve never much cared for him as a singer, so I didn’t pay much attention to this album until a new version was released that paired the original vocal tracks with instrumental versions. And now I find myself wishing I’d given the original album a chance earlier on — it’s gorgeous and sad, and his voice honestly sounds just fine, especially since it’s given heavy doses of reverb throughout. The music is mostly pretty quiet, but there are some surprising moments as well. And of course the instrumental tracks are amazing. This 2023 digital edition includes both the vocals and the instrumentals.
Tooth of a Lion
Sonne von Unten (EP; digital only)
No cat. no.
Here are the things I love about Berlin reggae band Tooth of a Lion: first, and most importantly, they deliver the heavyweight goods: tuneful old-school reggae in a rootswise style with maximum bass pressure. Second, they sing in German rather than awkward English. Third — and this is very important — they don’t put on fake Jamaican accents. Here’s what I like less: their debut is an EP rather than a full-length album. (Of course, at 34 minutes long it’s about the same length as a typical 1970s reggae album.) It’s hard to identify highlights because each track here is excellent, but “Kaun Kaun Kaun” hits extra hard due to its showcase-style dub extension, and “Flaschensammlah” incorporates a galloping dancehall interlude that is lots of fun. Highly recommended.
Bach to Folk
Delightfully, I had real trouble deciding whether to put this in the Classical or the Folk/Country or the World/Ethnic section — because the content is mostly classical music of the baroque period, but the arrangements/interpretations are all in a folk style, and the particular folk style in question is that of Scandinavia. So I finally kind of flipped a (three-sided) coin and decided that the overarching vibe of the album is Scandinavian, and here it is. Anyway, the music is a complete joy: themes and melodies from works by Bach, Couperin, and Lully, played on violin, Hardanger fiddle, and nyckelharpa in a Nordic folk style — with some traditional Norwegian tunes thrown in for good measure. It’s every bit as much fun as you’d expect.
Born in Guinea-Bissau and currently based in Portugal, Kimi Djabaté is the scion of a family of griots — musicians and historians who travel around collecting and transmitting oral traditions and cultural knowledge. His music blends elements of his home region’s musical culture (griot singing, desert blues, electric afrobeat, etc.) with strands of Caribbean and Euro-Latin musical styles; the opening track, “Afonhe,” is horn-driven reggae with a hypnotic melody and a balafon obliggato; “Dindin” lopes along on an Afro-Cuban groove; “Mbembatu” uses a stagger-step bassline to offset the sweetness of its sung melody. It’s all lovely, lovely stuff.
Impressed with the diversity of releases and the quality of these reviews!