The String Quartets
Over the course of his roughly 60-year career, Steve Reich has only written three pieces for string quartet, and none of them can be called conventional. Two of them, Different Trains and WTC 9/11, were composed for string quartet with accompanying tape, and the third was actually written for three string quartets. On this disc, the Mivos Quartet presents all three works together for the first time, allowing the listening to easily compare them. Personally, I find Different Trains (a reflection on the Holocaust) the most affecting of the three compositions, though all are excellent; the Mivos Quartet plays with energy and commitment and interacts both precisely and engagingly with the taped spoken-word elements, which are fundamentally important to the two works that incorporate them. If your library collection already includes good renditions of these pieces this disc will not necessarily need to replace them, but this recording presents an excellent opportunity to fill that collecting hole if it exists.
Alpha (dist. Naxos)
John Dowland wrote this suite of 21 dance movements for consort of viols and lute in 1604, while he was in London on temporary leave from his duties as a composer at the Danish court. The collection includes the now-famous Lachrimæ or Seven Tears set of pavanes, as well as another fourteen pavanes, galliards and allemandes written at the same time — all of them infused with the sense of gentle melancholy for which Dowland is still well known (his motto was “Semper Dowland, semper dolens” or “Always Dowland, always in pain”). This was a period of time during which melancholy was very much in musical fashion, and few composers mined that mood as productively as Dowland did. Musicall Humors, a consort of five viols and and one lute, plays these pieces with admirable sensitivity and intonation as well as a rich, full tone. Highly recommended.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Complete Piano Sonatas (6 discs)
Yeol Yum Son
Naïve (dist. Naxos)
Celebrated pianist Yeol Yum Son has not recorded much Mozart in her career, so this lavish set of the complete piano sonatas comes as something of a surprise — even to her. She reports that the project came about when some recording time in a good studio unexpectedly became available, leading her to ask herself “What should I record?”, and the answer was “it has to be some Mozart sonatas.” After recording a few of them on Mozart’s birthday, she then thought “why not all of them right now?”. And the result is a model of Mozart interpretation, from her light and sparkling rendition of Sonata no. 1 (K.279) to her sensitive and insightful interpretation of the dark and anguished Sonata no. 14 (K.457) and of the maturity and balance in the final Sonata no. 18 (K.576). Son’s love for Mozart and her delight in his music are fully in evidence here, and her seemingly effortless virtuosity pulls us happily into her sound world.
Pedro Piquero; Orquestra da Extremadura / Álvaro Albiach
Piano Classics (dist. Naxos)
Although he came to America’s attention with a handful of instrumental chamber pieces, it’s his shimmering choral music for which the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has subsequently gained the most acclaim. This darkly magnificent recording reminds us how effective he can be in the context of purely instrumental music — and is actually the largest-scale orchestral work he’s ever written. Subtitled “Homage to Anish Kapoor and his sculpture ‘Marsyas’ for piano and orchestra,” Lamentate is not exactly a piano concerto; it uses the piano soloist as an aural focal point to bring a sense of sonic unity to the composition, which longtime fans will find to be more Romantic-sounding than one would normally expect. Paired with the more quietly reflective Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, it creates a powerful sense of grief, and is beautifully played and recorded.
Surprising Royer: Orchestral Suites
Les Talens Lyriques / Christophe Rousset
Aparte Music (dist. Integral)
Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer is described in the liner notes of this disc as a “(figure) of first importance in the cultural life of eighteenth-century Europe and of France in particular,” so the fact that he has “all but disappeared from the critical scene for so long” is something of a mystery. When he is remembered at all today, it’s mainly as a gifted composer for the harpsichord, but he was also an accomplished operatist, and this thoroughly delightful recording brings together overtures and dance suites from four of his operas, including Zaïde, Reine de Grenade, which was the opera most frequently performed on royal occasions during the 18th century. Anyone who has followed Christophe Rousset and his band Les Talens Lyriques will be expecting robust but elegant performances, and will not be disappointed in the slightest. For all classical collections.
Peter Klatzow; Juri Seo; Robert Honstein
The combination of marimba and vibraphone seems like an intuitively obvious one, yet I can’t think of any ensemble configured that way other than the Arx Duo: marimbist Garrett Arney and vibraphonist Mari Yoshinaga. Their uniqueness as an ensemble has led them to commission almost 100 works by contemporary composers, three of which are featured on this album — which, to be very clear, is not an album of ambient music. The title piece is a two-movement work by Peter Klatzow that combines angular harmonies and passages designed to showcase the unique timbres of each instrument, while Juri Seo’s Sonata for Marimba and Vibraphone uses rippling repetitions and sequences that evoke first-generation minimalism while also incorporating complex harmonic progressions. Robert Honstein’s Evergeen is a 30-minute work in five movements, inspired by a Susan Cooper poem and designed to evoke the feelings of darkness, loneliness, and anticipation we might experience around the winter solstice. Fascinating music, brilliantly played.
Stage & Screen
Seven String (dist. Palmetto)
There are so many reasons to love guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli. One of them, in my book, is that not only does he have a guitar sponsor (he plays a signature model seven-string Moll) but he also has — last time I checked — a suit sponsor. I’m sorry, but that is just the coolest thing. That coolness is reflected in his playing, which is virtuosic but always very traditional and swinging, and in his singing (ditto). On his latest album he continues in his favored format, a trio consisting of guitar, bass, and piano, and (as the title suggests) he focuses on standards connected with popular musicals and films: “I Want to Be Happy,” “Time After Time,” a suite of tunes from Oklahoma!, etc. But not everything here is a familiar standard: to my knowledge, this was my first encounter with the charming “I Love Betsy” and the equally fun Lane & Lerner song “You’re All the World to Me.” As is the case for any release by Pizzarelli, this one would make a welcome addition to any library’s jazz collection.
New York Saxophone Quartet
Henri Elkan Music
No cat. no.
This album is an exquisite showcase of the art of arranging. Taking what, on the surface, might look like a not-particularly-challenging set of highly familiar jazz standards (“All the Things You Are,” “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” “It Never Entered My Mind,” etc.), Wayne Alpern creates a kaleidoscopically varied and consistently gorgeous set of arrangements of them written for saxophone quartet. Some of them swing, but some of them don’t — some incorporate improvisation, and some of them are through-composed. Each arrangement sounds like it was written by a different composer, which is a pretty impressive achievement to sustain across eighteen pieces and almost an hour. Needless to say (for those familiar with them), the New York Saxophone Quartet play with not only diamond-edged precision but also soulful feeling. An essential purchase for all libraries.
Opening with the absolutely brilliant neo-bop original “Got a Chick?” (that lyrical but intricate head, that elegantly skittering brushwork from Adam Nussbaum), Chris Keefe’s debut album as a leader moves from strength to strength, showcasing both his skill as a composer and his ability to make standards his own. The aptly titled “Modern” demonstrates his ability to take dry, Tristano-esque melodies and unfold them like flowers; his take on “I Fall in Love Too Easily” finds him expounding on the familiar theme with almost classical elaboration. Nussbaum and bassist Harvie S provide exactly the sort of robust and tasteful support you’d expect. Continue to expect great things from this remarkable pianist and composer.
The Peplowski Project
No cat. no.
I confess that I hadn’t heard of saxophonist David Larsen before receiving this disc, but as a huge fan of clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Ken Peplowski I was immediately intrigued by its title. Nor was I disappointed: Peplowski himself is featured prominently on this eleven-track celebration of straight-ahead jazz, which focuses on standards delivered in a sprightly, fun, and disciplined 1950s style — complete with the kind of warm and dry production you’d expect from late-1950s recordings. There’s some really fun group improv on the Bill Byers tune “Doodle Oodle” that harks back to the heyday of trad jazz, some utterly gorgeous clarinet playing from Peplowski on “All the Things You Are,” a great bari-and-drums intro on Larsen’s Stan Getz tribute “He Who Getz the Last Laugh,” and so much more. Strongly recommended to all jazz collections.
Boppin’ in Baltimore: Live at the Left Bank (2 discs)
Another month, another priceless Jazz Detective release that I simply have to recommend to library collections. This one documents a concert by legendary saxophonist Sonny Stitt at the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore. He was leading a quartet that included pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Louie Hayes, so it won’t be surprising that the set absolutely burns — Stitt was famously, even infamously (among his colleagues) virtuosic, and even in 1973 was continuing the tradition of forbiddingly complex bebop playing; his dry, almost brittle tone only helps to showcase the complex showers of notes that poured from his horn. The sound restoration is outstanding, though I found the stereo separation a bit too stark: the sax is almost entirely isolated in the right channel and the piano in the left. Still, there’s no questioning either the value of the music or the importance of this release.
Tears of a Cloud
Trouble in the East
Mallet keyboardist Taiko Saito is as deeply rooted in contemporary classical as in jazz music, and on her latest solo album she creates music that has no obvious genre pigeonhole. Playing both marimba and vibraphone, she claims inspirations as wide-ranging as pianist Kenny Wheeler, pianist/composer Satoko Fujii, and Japanese ceremonial music, but pulls elements from all of those influences and uses them to create a wide array of unique and highly personal sounds. The album opens with the abstract and nearly pointillistic “Daichi” and then shifts to a more minimalist mode on “Sound Gradation.” “Underground” finds her using extended techniques to create sounds that one would not normally associate with the marimba — which is always fun. This album would make a great addition to any library collection that supports either jazz or classical percussion curricula.
Martin Hayes & The Common Ground Ensemble
No cat. no.
Irish fiddler Martin Hayes has long been known for his exquisitely tasteful playing which, especially in the studio, tends to eschew virtuosic pyrotechnics in favor of careful, loving interpretations of traditional tunes. (Having seen him perform live with his late collaborator Dennis Cahill, I can testify that he’s fully capable of virtuosic pyrotechnics as well.) For Peggy’s Dream he has put together something of a cross-genre supergroup to help him create new interpretations of traditional tunes based on his own County Clare-derived fiddling style. A jazz pianist, a nü-folk guitarist, a contemporary classical cellist, and others have all joined up with him to create a set of tunes that surprisingly do not end up sounding like a world-fusion experiment but rather bring new depth and color to what is really simply a marvelous trad Irish album. Like all Hayes recordings, this is one that should find a home in every library’s folk collection.
If you list the ingredients of this album it doesn’t look like something that would normally grab my attention: ascetically spare arrangements, vocals that often lapse into a weird and warbly artiness; little in the way of rhythm or hooks. And yet, and yet. Foster’s unique approach to psych-folk really does grab my attention, and holds onto it: despite the voice-as-Theremin sound of “Burnt Offering,” I find the singing compelling; despite the wobbly harmonies on “Gentlemen & Ladies,” I find the song affecting; “Song for the Dead” is simply heartbreakingly lovely. You could tell me you find her approach a bit precious and maybe pretentious, and I wouldn’t argue with you. But I’d encourage you to listen again.
Free Dirt (dist. Redeye)
Mighty Poplar is a bluegrass supergroup that includes members of the Punch Brothers and Watchhouse (including the brilliant banjo player Noam Pikelny), which might lead you to expect a sort of newgrass-cum-modern-roots-Americana experience. No: this is a straight-up bluegrass album, played and sung with warmth, respect, and unassuming virtuosity. The members take turns singing lead, with predictably varied (but never unattractive) results. Pikelny really stretches out on “Grey Eagle,” a chestnut of a fiddle tune that he approaches in both traditional Scruggs style (mainly while playing backup) and also in his own hyper-melodic neo-Keith style, to thrilling effect. There’s a Bob Dylan song and John Hartford song along with several traditional numbers. This album is perhaps the best example I’ve yet encountered of how well traditional bluegrass can be absorbed into a modern roots aesthetic without compromising either. Honestly, based on previous evidence I would have said it couldn’t be done this well.
O Yuki Conjugate
A Tension of Opposites Vols. 3 & 4 (digital & cassette only)
OYC Limited 7
The first installment in O Yuki Conjugate’s A Tension of Opposites series came about during the COVID lockdowns, during which both of the band’s central members were left trying to create music in isolation. The second installment follows the formula of the first: one “volume” in the program features solo tracks by Roger Horberry, and the other features the work of Andrew Hulme. Those who have been following O Yuki Conjugate’s unique explorations of semi-ambient instrumental bass music might be surprised by the unusual degree of abrasiveness that characterizes some of these tracks (note in particular what sounds like an aggressively processed reed instrument on “Hidden Cities”) — but even still, the music remains dark, deep, and ultimately quite beautiful.
Ticket to Fame
Opening with a pleasantly cheesy Casiotone beat, the debut album by Angel Deradoorian (ex-Dirty Projectors) and Russian experimental pop artist Kate NV might come across as a bit precious and arch at first listen. But give it some time, and its charms unfold: the subtle pleasures of the quirky synth part (and the Beethoven quote) on “Ode to Boy,” the sly reference to Gershwin on “Potato Tomato,” the humorous use of non-verbal vocals on “Voice Message.” The duo made extensive use of 1970s- and 1980s-era analog synthesizers while making this recording, which gives the whole proceedings a certain Kraftwerk/Flock-of-Seagulls vibe — maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but certainly mine. I’m very much looking forward to the inevitable remix album.
WWWIPE OUT (digital & vinyl only)
No cat. no.
The French electronic music duo Cassius had an illustrious international career from 1988 to 2019, when Zdar (a.k.a. Philippe Cerboneschi) passed away. Now surviving member Boombass (a.k.a. Hubert Blanc-Francard) is back with a solo album that celebrates music that he was hearing in London both as a boy on school trips and with Cassius while on tour. The tracks on this album draw on samples gathered in London and draw deeply on the sounds of jungle, drum’n’bass, and electro — “SSSTAND UP” layers old-school reggae vocal shouts over double-time breakbeats, while the dreamier “YYYOU DON’T KNOW” samples hip hop vocals and beats but embeds them in a spacey groove that Synkro would be proud of. “MMMERCY” is a gently thudding house track that is way too gentle to be called an anthem. Recommended to all pop collections.
Double Saturns Last Purification Exercises (digital & cassette only)
Chemical X/Mad Decent
Gaura-jīvana Dāsa, who has previously done business under the names Griffin Pyn, Sewn Leather, and Skull Catalog, is back under a new nom de musique — Antimaterial Worlds. The new name reflects the endeavors he undertook during a seven-year break from music, when he was initiated into Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya Vaisnava Hinduism and formally studied Ayurveda. If these factoids lead you to expect mystical and meditational music, think again: this is aggressive, abrasive electro-rock with a strong political edge. In fact, what the music repeatedly brought to my mind (sadly, given his untimely passing only a week ago) was the work of Mark Stewart — the snarled vocals, the dense and forbidding production, the confrontational lyrical messages. Of course, some of them are less confrontational than others: the lyrics on “Listen to Aindra Pt. 2” consist of field recordings of devotional chanting. And “Science of Self-realization” features none other than Lee “Scratch” Perry. Exhausting but fun.
Try to imagine a cross between Cocteau Twins and the Feelies. It’s hard to do, right? Well, it will be easier after you listen to the second album from the duo of Rachael and Paul Swinton, who record under the name Cloth. Rachael’s voice is gauzy and whispery — different in tone from that of Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser but similar in inflection: it floats like an instrument, describing melodic shapes more than communicating specific ideas. The clicky eighth-note patterns that Paul favors definitely evoke the Feelies, though they’re part of a bigger, more expansive sonic vision that brings to mind ’80s and ’90s dream pop. If you’re looking for shout-along choruses, look elsewhere — but if you want to sail away on a gossamer cloud of subtly crafted neo-pop music, you’ve absolutely come to the right place.
Easy Star All Stars
By odd coincidence, two reggae tributes to the late David Bowie — both of them excellent, though both saddled with slightly painful puns in their titles — have been released in recent weeks. Ziggy Stardub is a straight-up remake of Bowie’s 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars as a modern roots-reggae album. The backing band is the ever-brilliant Easy Star All Stars ensemble, supporting a shifting array of A-list singers (Maxi Priest, JonnyGo Figure, David Hinds, etc.) and some legendary guest musicians (Carlton Livingston, Vernon Reid, Alex Lifeson[!], etc.) who together create a rich, thick stew of heavy roots grooves; several tracks are also provided in dub versions. By contrast, Dubby Stardust is a full dub album, an exploration of tracks from across the Bowie catalog rendered in spacey, deeply dubwise arrangements put together by producer Lee Groves (calling himself Spaced Oddity for this project). A veteran of Hex Orchestra and Terminalhead and a producer who has worked with the likes of Ruts DC, Gwen Stefani, and Goldfrapp, Groves’ settings show clearly his love both of Bowie’s songs and of the dub tradition; the songs are clearly recognizable but are twisted into new echoing shapes that emerge from bottomless depths and float off into the night sky. Reggae fans and David Bowie fans may not be perfectly overlapping populations, but it’s hard to imagine anyone in either group failing to enjoy both of these albums.
No cat. no.
Chezidek’s latest album opens strongly, with a powerfully chugging rockers rhythm and an equally positive lyrical message, and it sets the tone both musically and lyrically for what will unfold over the next 70-plus minutes: heavy rootswise production supporting conscious and uplifting messages, all of it delivered with Chezidek’s trademark rich and sweet voice. Those messages are predictable, of course: “Jah Jah Bless,” “Bun di Ganja,” “Mr. Officer,” etc., all tread well-worn lyrical paths. But we don’t turn to reggae for new ideas; what we ask for are indelible grooves, beautiful singing, and melodic and/or rhythmic hooks. Also fine dub versions. Chezidek and the Irie Ites production crew deliver all of those in abundance here.
Danakil & ONDUBGROUND
Danakil Meets ONDUBGROUND Part 2
Danakil and Ondubground are two French reggae collectives, both of them founded in a deep love of classic dub and the roots reggae sound of the 1970s, but neither of them artificially constrained by tradition. When they get together — as they have now done for the second time in six years — the result is a really nice balance of old-school and new-school songwriting and production. On their second collaborative effort they host such eminent deejays and singers as Bounty Killer, Omar Perry (son of the legendary producer Lee “Scratch” Perry), and General Levy, as well as up-and-comers like Charlie P and Tan Tee. There’s a nice mix of rhythm styles here, from heavy one-drop to chugging steppers, and everything is produced with a rich and colorful sound with lots of bass.
Giant Panda Dub Squad
Love in Time (vinyl & digital only)
I’m just going to say it: Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad are the best reggae band in America right now. (If John Brown’s Body were still active I might be more hesitant to make that claim, but even then it would still be very close.) On their latest album they demonstrate all the qualities that have brought them to the top of that heap: exceptional songwriting (check out the well-crafted verse-to-verse lyrical variations and the sly and subtle lyrical allusions on “Most Men,” just to take one example), brilliant original musical arrangements (you won’t hear a single recycled Studio One rhythm here) and fine singing. The basslines are idiomatic, inventive, and tuneful; the production is rich and heavyweight. In short, Love in Time is everything you’d want a reggae album to be. Highly recommended to all libraries.