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March 2018


PICK OF THE MONTH


Various Composers
Baltic Voices (reissue; 3 discs)
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir / Paul Hillier
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)

First of all, let’s be very clear on what this package is: it’s a straight reissue of three discs originally released individually as volumes one through three in the series Baltic Voices. There’s no new content here, and the packaging has been only minimally changed (the original discs, with new tray cards but the original booklets, are bundled together in a cardboard slipcase). And it’s basically a super-budget reissue, the whole thing listing at about $18.

Now, let’s talk about the music. Here are some things that I think we can say about contemporary choral music from the Baltic states, based on the recorded evidence: for one thing, it tends to be tonal. For another thing, it tends to be religious (an interesting though perhaps not shocking characteristic, given that region’s modern political history). And for yet another thing, it is very often clearly indebted to the music of Arvo Pärt, a pioneer of what has come to be called “sacred minimalism.” I’m sure several of the composers represented here would bristle at that statement; nevertheless, there is not a single piece on these three discs that I wouldn’t confidently recommend to someone who is an established Arvo Pärt fan. Or a John Tavener fan, for that matter. Some of these pieces–notably Galina Grigorjeva’s Odes–draw very explicitly on the music of the Russian Orthodox liturgy. Some of it is deeply sad; other pieces are luminously but quietly joyful; most fall somewhere in between. (And most of the more difficult pieces are concentrated on the third disc.) All of it is gorgeous, and brilliantly sung. If your library doesn’t already own these discs in their original releases, here is an opportunity to have them now at a fraction of the original price.


CLASSICAL


Thomas Strønen/Time Is a Blind Guide
Lucus
ECM
2576

Like many of the best releases on the ECM label, this latest from drummer/composer Thomas Strønen and his ensemble Time Is a Blind Guide stoutly resists genre designation. His group consists of piano, violin, cello, string bass, and Strønen’s drums and percussion, so in strictly instrumental terms the line between classical and jazz has already been fuzzified. But Strønen’s music fuzzifies the line in much more interesting and crucial ways: here the music floats and wobbles, never swinging but also never turning purely abstract; much of it is improvised, but the improvisation is bounded by compositional structure. There are moments of more-aggressive rhythm, but the overall feel is one of light and openness. Highly recommended.


Johann Sebastian Bach
Sonates pour flûte et clavecin (download only)
Marc Hantaï; Pierre Hantaï
Mirare (dist. PIAS)
MIR 370
Rick’s Pick

Johann Sebastian Bach
Sonatas for Flute and Harpsichord
Stephen Schults; Jory Vinikour
Music & Arts (dist. Naxos)
CD-1295

Bach’s flute sonatas are recorded with some regularity, but are always worth hearing again. It had actually been some time since I’d last given them a listen, and then these two releases (both on period instruments) came across my desk, and I was reminded again how remarkably lovely these works are. I have to confess that one reason I’d neglected them for so long is that, with age, I’ve found that my tolerance for the harpsichord has declined a bit. But these very fine recordings have convinced me that I’m not ready to give up on that instrument yet, particularly when paired with the transverse flute (one of my very favorite instruments) and even more particularly in the context of Bach’s chamber music. Both of these discs are well worth recommending, but if you must pick only one I’d go with the Hantaï brothers’ album; not only does it contain five sonatas (one of them for flute alone, whereas the Schultz/Vinikour disc focuses strictly on the four works for flute with continuo), but it also offers a greater range of keyboard tonalities and a slightly more springy sense of rhythm. Still, Schultz and Vinikour play with admirable energy and élan as well, and any library that wants multiple interpretations of these works would do well to grab both of these.


Matt Dunkley
Cycles 7-16
German Film Orchestra Babelsberg
Village Green (dist. Redeye)
VGCD033

Composer and pianist Matt Dunkley’s first solo album was titled Six Cycles, so this one is clearly intended as a continuation of the ideas found on that release–but it’s also an extension of them, with a greatly expanded sound (achieved both by the use of a symphony orchestra and by the use of multiple pianos). Dunkley’s compositions often make use of repeated arpeggiations that bring to mind Philip Glass, but there’s a sweeping cinematic flavor to them that is definitely more maximalist than minimalist, even as the emotion is frequently subdued. This is deceptively soft-sounding but ultimately quite intense music, beautifully played and recorded.


Various Composers
Flute Concertos from Vienna
Sieglinde Grössinger; Ensemble Klingekunst
CPO (dist. Naxos)
555 076-2
Rick’s Pick

The flute was not a popular solo instrument during the latter years of the Hapsburg dynasty, when Empress Maria Theresia ruled at court in Vienna. So flute concertos from this time and place are rare, and this disc (which consists entirely of world-premiere recordings) is thus not only a delight to hear but also a gold mine for anyone interested in the history of the flute in the high classical period. Sieglinde Glössinger is both the soloist and the leader of this fine ensemble, and their period-instrument accounts of concertos by Georg Christoph Wagenseil, Giuseppe Bonno, Florian Leopold Gassmann, and Georg Matthias Monn are as lovely as one would expect, and are beautifully recorded. Highly recommended to all classical collections.


Francesc Valls; Henry Desmarest
In excelsis Deo: au temps de la guerre de succession d’Espagne (2 discs)
La Capella Reial de Catalonia; Le Concert des Nations / Jordi Savall
Alia Vox (dist. PIAS)
AVSA9924

There are basically two broad categories of baroque sacred music: you’ve got your Quiet Reverential music, and your Glorious Exuberant music. These two Masses, both written at the turn of the 18th century, and separated on this program by a nice little suite of wartime songs by anonymous composers, are from composers on both sides of the War of the Spanish Succession which had begun only a few years prior. That war was a truly awful one, but this music is absolutely transcendent, and solidly in the Glorious Exuberant category. As always, Jordi Savall leads his ensembles in warm, bright, and rhythmically dynamic performances that perfectly balance joy and reverence. This is the kind of thing Savall does best, and frankly no one does it better. For all early music collections.


John Cage
Electronic Music for Piano
Tania Chen; Thurston Moore; David Toop; Jon Leidecker
Omnivore
OVCD-262

Because John Cage’s scores were often so non-prescriptive, recordings of his compositions often resist real criticism: when the score consists of cryptic notes written on hotel stationery, indicating that an earlier piece should be realized using various electronic means, how does one talk about any particular performance of it? In this case, one can simply describe the recording process, which involved having pianist Tania Chen interact with several different collaborators (including Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore) and the manipulation of the resulting recordings using chance processes. As is so often the case with Cage’s compositions, the result is more interesting conceptually than musically, but it is actually quite musically interesting and Moore’s involvement guarantees a certain amount of demand.


Nicholas Ludford
Ave Maria, ancilla Trinitatis; Missa Videte miraculum
Choir of Westminster Abbey / James O’Donnell
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
CDA68192
Rick’s Pick

The worship of Mary was at its peak in England during the brief reign of Mary Tudor, and while Nicholas Ludford was employed in the Palace of Westminster. The program on this disc reflects that devotion, with three sets of works: a typical Lady Mass, a votive antiphon, and a festal Mass for the Marian feast day. Ludford is one of those Tudor composers who really deserves more attention than he typically gets, and the Westminster Abbey choir has never sounded better than they do on this recording: their blend is unusually creamy and sweet, and the acoustics of the All Hallows church are absolutely perfect for this music of hushed reverential devotion. A must for all classical collections.


Various Composers
The Medieval Piper
Silke Gwendolyn Schulze
Brilliannt Classics (dist. Naxos)
95566

The social and ceremonial roles of the traveling piper during the European Middle Ages are fascinating in themselves, but the music that would have been a part of his repertoire is perhaps even more so. Some tunes would have been traditional or anonymous, others derived from sacred melodies by the likes of Guillaume de Machaut and Hildegard von Bongen, and still others might be popular dance tunes. On this winning recording, multi-instrumentalist Silke Gwendolyn Schulze offers a plethora of such melodies, alternating between the pipe, the six-holed flute, various kinds of recorders, the shawm, and the douçaine. On some tracks she is overdubbed playing small hand drums of various kinds. This is not only a very useful recording for academic purposes, but also a very fun listen.


Steve Reich
Drumming
Colin Currie Group; Synergy Vocals
Colin Currie (dist. PIAS)
CCR0001
Rick’s Pick

Drumming is one of the foundational texts of the minimalist movement, though to call it “minimalist” seems a bit strange: it’s incredibly dense and complex, its only “minimal” aspect being its harmonic movement. Well, that and the fact that the entire piece is built on a single twelve-note phrase, one that is repeated by different instruments beginning at different points, such that the pattern goes in and out of phase depending on choices made by the ensemble’s designated leader. It’s honestly one of the most thrilling pieces of music written in the 1970s, and no two performances of it are ever exactly alike. This one, by the Colin Currie Group, is one of the most exciting versions I’ve heard; even libraries that already own multiple recordings of this monumental work should pick this one up.


JAZZ


John Surman
Invisible Threads
ECM
2588
Rick’s Pick

The makeup of this trio is quite unusual: in addition to Surman on reeds, it features pianist Nelson Ayres and vibraphonist/marimbist Rob Waring. In the hands of less thoughtful and careful musicians, it’s a configuration that could easily result in a very crowded middle lane, but these guys are all about giving each other space. And the result, as always with Surman’s projects, is blissfully lovely: “Autumn Nocturne” has a slightly tango-y flavor and “Pitanga Potomba” skips along nicely, but most of these compositions evolve dreamily, impressionistically. That’s not to say without defined melody: there are beautiful melodies here, but they generally float at you rather than drive at you. I don’t know if everyone would call it “jazz,” but I call it gorgeous.


Andy Sheppard Quartet
Romaria
ECM
2577

Similarly lovely and similarly impressionistic (and similarly on ECM, the world’s top source of lovely, impressionistic, genre-boundary-transgressing music) is this latest from pianist Andy Sheppard’s quartet, which includes the always-wonderful Eivind Aarset on guitar, bassist Michael Benita, and drummer Sebastian Rochford. These guys are more interested in swinging, though, and here much of the beauty that arises comes from the juxtaposition of steady-flowing rhythm and dreamy melody–though at times these guys do get a little more “out,” with intersecting melodic lines that don’t seem to be coordinated with each other and do seem to be flirting with free-jazz chaos–until suddenly they harmonize again. This is a release that will appeal more directly to the jazz-oriented patron.


Mike Jones & Penn Jillette
The Show Before the Show: Live at the Penn & Teller Theater
Capri
74148-2

So let’s get the novelty aspect out of the way first: yes, that’s Penn Jillette of famed magic duo Penn & Teller on bass. Here’s the backstory: Mike Jones, who is one of the true living geniuses of swing piano, has been Penn & Teller’s musical director for years, and he plays both before and (when called upon) during their performances. Jillette is a musician as well, a longtime electric bassist who took up the upright bass about 15 years ago and now regularly plays a duo set with Jones during that pre-show show. So how do they sound together? Good. Jones is, as I said, a genius, and Jillette is a fine bass player. I wish his instrument were miked a little bit less mushily (a transducer pickup feeding into a good amp would do the trick nicely), but his time is impeccable and his solos are both appropriately rare and quite tasteful. Together, they perform a very fine set of standards to an audience that we practically never hear, but that I suspect appreciated their playing as much as I did. (The final track is a jaw-dropping solo rendition of “Exactly Like You,” on which Jones takes a variety of swing-era piano techniques to a frenetic, almost deconstructed logical extreme.)


Sameer Gupta
A Circle Has No Beginning
Self-released
No cat. no.

Guillaume Barraud Quartet
Arcana: The Indo-Jazz Sessions
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
TUGCD1105
Rick’s Pick

Classical Indian music and American jazz have such obvious commonalities (rhythmic complexity, chromaticism, a strong reliance on virtuosic improvisation) that it’s really kind of surprising how rarely we see Indian-jazz fusion projects. Of course, part of the explanation probably lies in the deep differences that underly those surface commonalities–for example, while jazz is a highly chromatic music by Western standards, its melodic repertoire is almost entirely limited to the twelve-tone scale, while Indian music makes extensive melodic use of microtones, and while jazz is rhythmically complex by Western standards, Indian music is hugely more so; on the other hand, the harmonic complexity of jazz is entirely missing from classical and vernacular Indian music. Anyway, the point is, here are two very interesting examples of jazz-Indian fusion, both of which work but one of which is absolutely thrilling. Drummer Sameer Gupta’s A Circle Has No Beginning finds him working with a septet that includes strings, bansuri, bass, and keyboards, and the resulting music is quite lovely but often sounds a bit like 1970s jazz fusion with an overlay of Indian sonorities. Guillaume Barraud’s project, however, is quite different: Barraud himself is a bansuri player, and a student of the legendary Hariprasad Chaurasia, and his approach is to interpret raga melodies as if they were jazz compositions, resulting in music that is both fascinating and grooving. Notice how “Kalavati” evolves from its boppish opening section into a looser, more melodically complex middle section, and how nicely the nearly infinite flexibility of the flute couples with the highly structured funk of the rhythm section. (This juxtaposition is even more dramatic on “Giant Leap,” in which a languorous flute line snakes around the drummer’s jittery, jungle-inflected beats.) The whole album is like this, and it’s absolutely wonderful.


Dan Block
Block Party (A Saint Louis Connection)
Miles High
MMR 8628

Tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Dan Block is a living treasure of traditional swing and straight-ahead jazz, and on this album he leads his quintet in exploring a range of tunes from that broad category, including classic material like Gigi Gryce’s “Smoke Signal” and Walter Donaldson’s “Ain’t No Land Like Dixieland” alongside more forward-looking mid-century compositions like Thelonious Monk’s awkwardly lovely “Light Blue.” Everything is played with fleet-fingered grace and palpable joy, and frequently invokes the spirit of New Orleans. (The “connection” referred to in the title seems to be that between those two great Mississippi cities.) It’s a joy from start to finish.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Chris Smither
Call Me Lucky (2 discs)
Signature Sounds (dist. Redeye)
SIG CD 2093

In the Legendary Singer-Songwriter Department this month, we have a new album from Chris Smither–who’s been in this game for upwards of 50 years now, and whose New Orleans upbringing deeply informs his frequent forays into greasy blues, but whose general songwriting sounds (to me, anyway) more deeply influenced by his longtime association with the New England folk scene. Here he gives significant time to others’ work, delivering a haunting minor-key version of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” and a suitably whistling-past-the-graveyard rendition of the blues classic “Sittin’ On Top of the World,” as well as plenty of fine originals. As always, his voice sounds like a well-tuned junk car and his guitar playing is worth paying close attention to. This album is also another entry in the growing field of Inexplicable Double-Disc Sets: you know, the ones that provide roughly an hour’s worth of music but spread it across two discs for no apparent reason. (It’s priced like a single, though, so no harm done.)


Chris Hillman
The Asylum Years
Omnivore
OVCD-261
Rick’s Pick

Those who know Chris Hillman primarily as the frontman for the very mainstream Desert Rose Band may be surprised to know what a remarkably innovative figure he’s been in country and country-rock for decades. A founding member of both the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers (two of the most influential bands in the development of American roots rock), Hillman was steeped in bluegrass as a young man and has never been content to let the arbitrary boundaries of country music fence him in. Take these two long-deleted mid-70s solo albums, for example, both of which are included in their entirety on this single-disc package: Slippin’ Away includes both the explicitly reggae-inflected “Down in the Churchyard” and a gloriously harmonized take on the bluegrass gospel classic “(Take Me in Your) Lifeboat).” Clear Sailin’ opens with the New Orleans funk of “Nothing Gets Through” and proceeds to the rollicking country-rock of “Hot Dusty Roads” and then to a cover of Marvin Gaye’s hit “Ain’t That Peculiar.” If you want to argue about whether any of this is “real” country, music, go ahead. Hillman has never much cared to answer that question, and I say good for him.


Mark Erelli
Mixtape
Self-released
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

I’ve been a fan of Mark Erelli for some time now, and was excited to see this new album of covers that he self-released in January. I love his voice and I love his playing (he makes part of his living as a sideman, working with the likes of Kelly Willis and John Ritter and as a member of bands in various rootsy genres), and hearing both of those put to work in the interpretation of other great songwriters is tons of fun. In this case, those songwriters include Richard Thompson (“I Feel So Good”), Don Henley (“The Boys of Summer”), and–get this–Phil Collins, whose “Take a Look at Me Now” is given a relatively restrained, 6/8 treatment that is truly lovely. Strongly recommended to all libraries.


ROCK/POP


Giraffage
Too Real (Remixes) (download only)
Counter
COUNTDNL136T

Late last year, Charlie Yin (a.k.a. Giraffage) released a wonderful slab of electro-pop titled Too Real. In December he released this download-only remix EP, and it makes a great companion piece to the original album. Chin’s got a master producer’s sense of how to juxtapose light and darkness and how to give his tracks rhythmic solidity without weighing them down. And he’s not afraid of a little kitsch, either: an 808 cowbell here, a twee breathy vocal there. His remixers on this four-track EP honor his original intent without letting themselves be constrained by it, and as a result the beats tend to be more muscular and the soundscapes a bit more abrasive, but always in a good way. Both releases are strongly recommended to pop collections.


Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
The Punishment of Luxury
White Noise
100CD66
Rick’s Pick

Of course, when it comes to electro-pop, there’s no school like the old school. Case in point: the latest album by 1980s superstars Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, who have been back on the scene since 2006. The Punishment of Luxury sounds, in a word, awesome: very definitely a product of an eighties band, but given how much eighties revivalism we’ve seen on the part of young whippersnappers over the past decade or two, that’s just another way of saying that it sounds remarkably up-to-the-moment. What matter, of course, are the songs, and they’re outstanding: opening with the title track (which nicely juxtaposes a candy-coated synth basis with a sort of sanitized Oi! “hey hey hey” shoutalong in the chorus) and then proceeding to offer a solid program of bleepy, bloopy pop tunes, this album is like a cool drink after a long walk in the desert of derivative music. And there’s a remixes and B-sides collection too! Highly recommended to all libraries.


Recondite
Daemmerlicht (download and vinyl only)
Plangent
PLANCD001

Lorenz Brunner, a.k.a. Recondite, is a Bavarian musician who specializes creating electronic soundscapes that are often simultaneously spacious, dark, and funky. Well, maybe not “often” funky; mostly they’re spacious and dark, and once in a while they’re funky. But what they always do is make very careful and tasteful use of elements both small and large: big basslines that rumble and groan, tiny tinklings and tweets that float off into the darkness. And then sometimes you get orchestral strings, English horns, and kettledrums. A couple of these tracks kind of sound like collaborations between Mahler and Distance. It’s all very interesting and quite beautiful, and this album should find a home in any library with a collecting interest in modern electronic music.


Luca Stricagnoli
What If?
Candyrat (dist. Redeye)
CRRLSWICD2
Rick’s Pick

Luca Stricagnoli is doing a couple of things here: yes, he’s drastically, even radically, expanding the idea of what we consider technically possible when it comes to the acoustic guitar. (Check out this video of him playing Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” for an eye-rubbing example of what I’m talking about.) But it would be very easy, and a very big mistake, to dismiss him as a mere stunt guitarist. He’s also a player and interpreter of unusual thoughtfulness and emotional depth. Consider what he says about why he tends to play cover versions rather than original compositions: “I see the arrangements as a way to invent new technical solutions; they are a way not to bend the music to the technique… but to put the technique at the service of the music instead.” If you never imagined you’d hear a compelling acoustic version of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” or Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Can’t Stop,” then you owe it to yourself to check out this album–and urge it on your patrons.


James Hunter Six
Whatever It Takes
Daptone (dist. Redeye)
DAP-051

James Hunter, leading exponent of old school, small-combo rhythm-and-soul, is back for a third album with the James Hunter Six, and on this one you can detect a subtle change: he’s recently married, and his love songs have deepened as a result. But let’s be clear about this: the change is subtle. He still specializes in groovy, shuffling midtempo songs that sound like they could have been recorded in the mid-1960s (thanks in part to his unapologetically mid-1960s approach to recording technology, not to mention album length), and his band still plays with that paradoxically loose-but-tight vibe. His voice is stronger than it was on the first JH6 album, with none of the occasional pitch failures that kept that one from being an unalloyed success, and his songs continue to be marvelous. Wisely, he prefers to record live in the studio for maximum band communication in real time. I mentioned album length earlier: the only thing that keeps this one from getting a Rick’s Pick designation is its exceeding stinginess: under 28 minutes of music in total.


The Slits
The John Peel Sessions (reissue)
Hux (dist. Redeye)
HUX123

By the time they went into John Peel’s BBC studio to do participate in his famous “live-in-the-studio” recording program, The Slits were no longer the feral cats of English punk that they had been a year earlier: they genuinely knew how to play their instruments (if not virtuosically) and they definitely knew how to write a song. These performances (taken from recording sessions in 1977, 1978, and 1981, plus one track from a 2006 reunion show) find them ragged but right, delivering songs that Rancid would die for and providing a forum for Ari Up’s suitcase full of inimitable voices. Any library with a collecting interest in vintage punk rock should not miss the opportunity to get all of these sessions on a single disc.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Nordic Raga
Nordic Raga
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
TUGCD1108

Generally speaking–and regular readers of CD HotList will vouch for me on this–I’m a pretty big fan of cross-cultural fusion experiments. Not all of them make as much sense on paper as others, but even when they seem crazy they sometimes yield music of genius and beauty. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t approach the crazy-sounding ones with a bit of trepidation, and I confess that the prospect of a fusion of classical Indian and Scandinavian folk music had me raising my eyebrows. The group that calls itself Nordic Ragga consists of Swedish fiddler Mats Edén and Indian violinist Jyotsna Srikanth, alongside percussionist Dan Svensson and saxophonist/flutist/didjeridoo player Pär Moberg. For the most part, they don’t try to actually blend Scandinavian and Indian music into some third musical entity; instead, they create something of a musical emulsion, in which Edén’s droning, diatonic melodies generally alternate with Srikanth’s more complex and sinuous ones, and Svensson and Moberg create lines and rhythmic patterns that complement what’s going on. The result is both fun and fascinating.


Leah Rosier
The Black Star Tracks
Black Star Foundation
No cat. no.

This is the third album from Amsterdam-based reggae chanteuse Leah Rosier, and it finds her working with the famed Firehouse Crew on a solid set of modern roots reggae with a notable focus on the horticultural (the fiercely unapologetic weed anthem “Make It Burn” being only the most overt example). Rosier’s slightly rough-edged alto voice is lovely, and her songwriting is even better: melodic hooks are everywhere, and her producers have favored her with solid but nimble rhythms that beautifully showcase both her voice and her writing. (And her own multitracked backing vocals are impressive throughout.) For libraries that collect reggae music, this album will make a very solid selection.


Various Artists
Queens of Fado: The Next Generation
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
EUCD2760
Rick’s Pick

I have a confession to make: I’m generally not a big fan of emotionally overwrought music. The grander the sentiment, the more dramatic the delivery, the more likely I am to switch it off. But about ten years ago I fell in love with fado, the Portuguese song tradition that generally features a single female singer accompanied by a Portuguese guitar (which sounds very different from the Spanish version of the instrument with which we’re all familiar). I don’t know why it is that fado affects me the way it does: maybe it’s the bittersweet melodies, maybe it’s the wonderful shimmer of the guitar, maybe it’s just that the fadistas who get recording contracts are all such magnificent singers. But it grabs me every time, and this survey of songs by some of the top young singers in the genre right now would make a perfect addition to every library collection.


Gappy Ranks
Pure Badness
Hot Coffee/VPAL
HCM50184

Over the past eight years Gappy Ranks has emerged as a leading voice in modern roots reggae, keeping his lyrics conscious and generally keeping his sound traditional. But on Pure Badness he seems to be making a stylistic move into the reggae-as-R&B territory, with soca-derived rhythms, liberal applications of Autotune, and a uniformly slick, digital production style. Nevertheless, his lyrics remain focused on social uplift and righteousness (with, it must be acknowledged, the occasional detour into the bedroom). And he still writes great hooks and sings like an angel. So trad-minded listeners shouldn’t see this as a betrayal of his roots, but an expansion of them. I mean, come on, it’s his eight album–you’ve got to evolve sometime.

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April 2016


PICKS OF THE MONTH


grab1Paul Grabowsky
HUSH Collection 3: Music for Complete Calm (reissue)
HUSH Music Foundation (dist. Allegro)
HUSH 003

grab2Paul Grabowsky
HUSH Collection 7: Ten Healing Songs (reissue)
HUSH Music Foundation
HUSH 007

 

 

I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking it too: “Music for complete calm”? “Ten healing songs”? Oh, great — vapid New Age noodling with delusions of spirituality or (even worse) medical efficacy.

I cannot stress this enough: that’s not what we’re dealing with here.

Jazz pianist and composer Paul Grabowski was inspired some years ago, after conversations with a pediatrician at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, to create music that would help promote an atmosphere of calm and healing for the children and the practitioners there. This led to a series of recordings, some of which are just now being made available in the United States. Grabowsky could indeed have gone the chord-washes-and-ocean-sounds route, but instead he did something improbable: he created music that is complex, interesting, and also soothing (and, yes, possibly even healing). Volume 3 in the series is a straight-ahead piano trio album consisting of twelve pieces, one for each month of the year. Every one of them swings solidly but gently, and features melodies that are structurally advanced but immediately accessible. Volume 7 is even more impressive: it features his trio as well as a string quartet and oboist. The path of jazz-classical fusion is strewn with the detritus of deeply embarrassing experiments, but Grabowsky negotiates it safely by not worrying too much about being either “jazzy” or “classical,” and instead simply focusing on writing beautiful and artful music and arranging it in a manner that’s sensitive to the unique characteristics of the instruments. At no point is his music boring, but at no point does he seem to be showing off. As any serious musician will tell you, this is a remarkable achievement. And the proceeds from sales of these discs are donated to childrens’ hospitals throughout Australia. On every level, these recordings are a triumph.


CLASSICAL


haecVarious Composers
Haec dies: Music for Easter
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge / Graham Ross
Harmonia Mundi
HMU 907655

This very fine mixed-voice chapel choir has recorded four previous discs of music for the church year, including for Christmas, Passiontide, Ascensiontide/Pentecost, and All Saints/All Souls. Its fifth such program focuses on works for Easter, with pieces spanning five centuries by such composers as Samuel Scheidt, William Byrd, Patrick Hadley, and Charles Villiers Stanford, and including mutiple settings of such central scriptural texts as “Haec dies,” “Surrexit pastor bonus,” and “Terra tremuit.” The Choir of Clare College has an exceptional stylistic range, and is able to deliver Gregorian plainchant and contemporary chromaticism with equal authority, making this album a powerful listening experience from start to finish.


hurdGeorge Hurd
Navigation Without Numbers
The Hurd Ensemble
Innova (dist. Allegro)
937
Rick’s Pick

It’s one thing to create electronic classical music that sounds arty and modern and electronic; it’s another thing to make modern classical music that incorporates electronic elements into basically tonal compositions using conventional instrumental configurations and have it come out sounding both interesting and fun. (The Kronos Quartet has been doing this successfully for decades, but has had very little successful company.) Composer George Hurd and his ensemble accomplish that handily on this album, which features violin, viola, cello, piano, vibes, and other instruments in a variety of more-or-less standard chamber-music configurations, alongside electronically manipulated samples wielded by Hurd himself. The music is sometimes lyrical, sometimes clangorous, and sometimes (exhilaratingly) both. It’s a tremendous amount of fun but also dense and complex enough to be much more than merely fun. Highly recommended to all collections.


cazzatiMaurizio Cazzati; Sebastian Scherer
From Bologna to Beromünster: Mass & Psalms Op. 36
Voces Suaves / Francesco Saverio Pedrini
Claves (dist. Albany)
50-1605

I love recommending world-premiere recordings, especially of pieces that have been overlooked for centuries; there’s just a visceral thrill to hearing a piece come to life aurally after being in limbo for such a long time. When the work or works in question are as fine as these are, the thrill is even greater — and this recording really is a gem. Cazzati was a rough contemporary of Monteverdi working in Bologna. His Mass and his Laudate Dominum and Magnificat settings are notable not only for their sometimes quite forward-thinking style, but also for their relentless joyfulness, which is communicated beautifully by the Voces Suaves ensemble (singing one voice per part). The Cazzati works are interspersed with organ interludes by Sebastian Anton Scherer. Strongly recommended to all classical collections.


eaglesVarious Composers
Eagles and Seven Tears
Bassano Quartet; Daniël Brüggen
Aliud (dist. Allegro)
ACD BL 087-2

bachJohann Sebastian Bach; Toek Numan; Guus Janssen
BRISK Plays Bach
BRISK Recorder Quartet Amsterdam
Globe (dist. Allegro)
GLO 5262
Rick’s Pick

Here are two very different, but each very attractive, recordings by Dutch recorder ensembles. The Bassano Quartet album is a varied program drawing on material predictable (pavans by Dowland, a fantasia by Purcell), somewhat less predictable (an arrangement of a Haydn flute quartet) and surprising (arrangements of works by Arvo Pärt and jazz composer Bob Mintzer). These performances are designed, in part, to highlight the Dream and Eagle recorders, modern instruments created by Daniël Brüggen with the goal of “develop(ing) a better balance within the recorder sound.” The music is lovely and the recorders do sound noticeably more powerful and balanced than conventional ones. The BRISK recording takes arrangements of Bach concertos, preludes, and chorales and intersperses them with modern compositions by living composers; the juxtapositions are fascinating and are very well chosen, and the quartet’s playing is exceptional. Both of these discs would make excellent additions to any early music collection, though if you must choose between them I think the edge would go to the BRISK title.


byrdWilliam Byrd; Arvo Pärt; Thomas Tallis
The Deer’s Cry
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers
Coro (dist. Allegro)
COR16140

Speaking of interesting juxtapositions, this lovely disc features works by William Byrd–the greatest British composer of the Renaissance period and arguably the greatest ever–alternating with pieces by Arvo Pärt, the Estonian “holy minimalist” composer known for the ascetic harmonic simplicity and intense emotion of his choral works. The connection between them is more biographical than musical; both were countercultural figures in their time and place who faced fairly significant personal threat because of their religious beliefs and their work. But the stylistic contrast actually works beautifully on this program, the tracks alternating between the lush devotional polyphony of Byrd and the more astringent harmonic minimalism of Pärt. The Sixteen sing spectacularly, as always.


rablWalter Rabl
Clarinet Quartet; Fantasiestücke; Violin Sonata
Wenzel Fuchs; Geneviève Laurenceau; László Fenyö; Oliver Triendl
CPO (dist. Naxos)
777 849-2

Walter Rabl acquired a publisher in 1897 after being recommended by Johannes Brahms, whose work is the most obvious stylistic antecedent of Rabl’s. The three compositions included on this disc were all written within a few years of each other, right around the turn of the century, and Brahms’ influence is strong with each of them. Rabl’s style is essentially conservative, and there are no audible hints of the musical revolutions that were at this point already on the horizon. The musicians on this recording, especially violinist Laurenceau and the wonderful clarinetist Wenzel Fuchs, make a powerful argument for the music’s importance despite its lack of stylistic innovation, and those with a taste for the Romantic will find plenty to enjoy here.


krehlStephan Krehl
Clarinet Quintet; String Quartet
Larchmere String Quartet; Wonkak Kim
Naxos
9.70173
Rick’s Pick

Here’s another turn-of-the-century composer whose style of chamber music composition harked back explicitly to that of Brahms. Stephan Krehl is mainly remembered today as an academic music theorist, but this recording shows him also to have been an accomplished composer of utterly and unrepentantly old-fashioned chamber music in the Romantic style. Both the string quartet and the clarinet quintet are good enough that I went looking to see if he had published additional works for those configurations–and it doesn’t appear that he did. (In fact, his output of non-vocal chamber music seems to have been very meager.) Oh, well — all the more reason to acquire (and treasure) this very fine recording.


JAZZ


benitaMichel Benita & Ethics
River Silver
ECM
2483
Rick’s Pick

There’s a cardinal rule among jazz lovers; you may be familiar with it. That rule is: beware of any band that names itself after a branch of philosophy. And that rule has a corollary: if a jazz band names itself after a branch of philosophy and includes a koto player, run away. But wait! I can happily report that the rule should be suspended in the case of bassist Michel Benita and his band Ethics, which includes drummer Philippe Garcia, the redoutable guitarist Eivind Aarset, and flugelhorn player Matthieu Michel in addition to koto player Mieko Miyazaki. One’s hesitancy around the concept of jazz koto playing shouldn’t arise from any suspicion of the instrument itself, of course, which is one of the most beautiful in the world, but rather from questions about how well it will fit in with, say, flugelhorn and guitar. The answer is: spectacularly, and that’s partly because this music is “jazz” only in the loosest-possible sense. Also, very wisely, Benita decided early on that he did not want the koto to provide “exotic color” to the band’s sound, but rather to be a foundational and integral part of it. The result is ensemble music of simultaneously ethereal and dense beauty (I know, that’s quite a trick) that sounds simultaneously improvised and carefully composed (also quite a trick). Trying to describe it isn’t really worth the effort — it needs to be heard. Every library should buy it.


greenDanny Green Trio
Altered Narratives
OA2 (dist. City Hall)
OA2 22128
Rick’s Pick

On his fourth release as a leader, pianist Danny Green does something highly unusual and impressive: he gives us an album that consists entirely of what is, in every discernible way, straight-ahead piano-trio jazz, with no wild harmonic or structural experimentation, but which nevertheless sounds entirely personal and original. It’s really kind of frustrating: I keep listening and trying to figure out how he does it, and I keep failing. Now, I should point out that three of these tracks feature a string quartet in addition to his trio, and that could reasonably be characterized as an example of structural experimentation. Fine, whatever. Nevertheless, even on those tracks this music feels both entirely straight-ahead and entirely new and personal, and dang if every single tune isn’t utterly gorgeous and engaging. The field of piano trio recordings is a densely crowded one, and standing out in it is tremendously difficult. Danny Green sounds like he’s doing so almost without effort. How does he do it?


tjadeMike Freeman ZonaVibe
Blue Tjade
VOF Recordings
VOF 2015-6

Vibraphonist Mike Freeman is, like most jazz vibraphonists, a big fan of Cal Tjader, one of the pioneers of that instrument in a jazz context. Like Tjader, Freeman is not only a master of the vibes but also adept at placing the vibes in a small-combo, Latin jazz framework, which he does here on this very fine album of original compositions. Everything is light and bouncy, but never schlocky or silly. A quintet consisting of vibes, bass, sax/flute, and two percussionists is always going to be in danger of getting too busy, but Freeman keeps everything tightly controlled and, paradoxically maybe, the feeling is always loose and warm. Recommended to all jazz collections.


nysqNew York Standards Quartet
Power of 10
Whirlwind
WR 4680

In jazz parlance, “standards” are time-honored tunes (often taken from the American Songbook repertoire) that ensembles have been playing for decades and that adepts of the genre will usually recognize within the first couple of bars: tunes like “‘Round Midnight,” “I’ve Got Rhythm,” “Lush Life,” and “All of Me.” Therefore, a quartet that calls itself the New York Standards Quartet is staking out a musical territory. However, don’t let that fool you: these guys aren’t afraid to push the stylistic envelope a bit, nor are they shy about playing originals. On their tenth-anniversary recording, in fact, they offer a half-and-half program of standards and originals, and while they never get entirely “out,” they do produce some bracingly off-kilter sounds in among (and even within) their renditions of standards like “Embraceable You” and “Polkadots and Moonbeams.” And good for them. This kind of tension is what produces musical sparks, and the album is a joy.


attilaVarious Artists
Message to Attila: The Music of Attila Zoller
Enja (dist. Allegro)
ENJ-9620 2

Never heard of Attila Zoller? I confess that I hadn’t either, but plenty of people that both you and I have heard of knew, worked with, and admired him: Pat Metheny, Ron Carter, John Abercrombie, Mike Stern, Jim Hall, etc. Zoller was a Hungarian guitarist and composer known for his slightly anomalous combination of warm, traditional tone and forward-thinking, expressionistic compositional style. This tribute album is comprised partly of recordings made expressly for the project and partly of tracks recorded elsewhere and previously released; all are Zoller compositions. While the musicians here come from a variety of stylistic backgrounds, their affection for the honoree is palpable throughout and the quality of both the compositions and the performances is consistently very high.


rhythmRhythm Future Quartet
Travels
Magic Fiddle
No cat. no.

It’s always fun to hear a group creating a modern version of Gypsy jazz, and the Rhythm Future Quartet (violinist Jason Anick, guitarists Olli Soikkeli and Max O’Rourke, and bassist Greg Loughman) are doing just that. The group’s second album is simultaneously a celebration of straight-up Reinhardt/Grapelli-style acoustic swing and a determined effort to pull that tradition into the 21st century. What they are preserving is the music’s energy and joy; what they are messing with is its repertoire, its harmonic and rhythmic character (tunes in 7/8 and 5/8, anyone?), and its tendency towards purism (note, for example, the multitracked violin on the title tune, not to mention that piece’s overall structure). For the most part, these experiments work beautifully — only a rather clunky and ill-advised cover of John Lennon’s “Come Together” fails to cohere or to inspire. Great stuff overall, and a strong candidate for all jazz collections.


COUNTRY/FOLK


annaAnna & Elizabeth
Anna & Elizabeth
Free Dirt
DIRT-CD-0072
Rick’s Pick

Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle are folk song collectors, arrangers, and evangelists in the old-school style — and by “old school” I’m talking about the Folk Revival era of the 1950s and 1960s, when teenage kids suddenly discovered the riches of the Child Ballad anthologies and the Folk Legacy field recordings and other troves of traditional songs and tunes and briefly made evangelizing for them counterculturally hip. In recent years there’s been a small resurgence in that approach, leading to the emergence of small clubs and coffeehouses in Brooklyn and Portland in which bearded and tattooed hipsters drink small-batch artisanal bathtub gin while listening to 300-year-old songs performed by young people intoxicated with those songs’ deep and astringent beauty. Look at this trend on its surface and make fun of it if you want, but if you take the time to listen carefully you’ll find many gems of interpretation, including this stunning album, which features songs both obscure and familiar in arrangements both new and old, sung by voices made rich and strong by genuine love and respect for them. You’ll also hear the best rendition of “A Voice from on High,” ever — which is saying something. Recommended to all collections.


eliEli West
The Both
Self-released
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

Anna & Elizabeth turn up as guest artists on this quiet and beautiful gem of a concept album too, which is led by Eli West and features six songs in two versions each, one vocal and one instrumental. But the vocal/instrumental duality isn’t really the binding concept: rather, this is an album about West’s two grandfathers, one who served in the military in World War II and ended up as a prisoner of war, the other who served in a very different capacity as a conscientious objector and coordinated the shipping of pregnant cattle to Spain. The songs include such familiar fare as “Lonesome Valley” and “The Lone Pilgrim,” and guest musicians include not only Anna & Elizabeth but also guitarist Bill Frisell(!) and mandolinist John Reischmann. Both the vocal versions and the instrumentals are delivered with exquisite care and delicacy, and will leave you with a feeling that is hard to describe. All libraries should pick this one up.


erelliMark Erelli
For a Song
Self-released
No cat. no.

Boston-based singer/songwriter Mark Erelli has been quietly producing solo albums for some years now while also working as an in-demand sideman, playing alongside the likes of Lori McKenna, Faith Hill, and Tim McGraw. On his first solo effort since 2010’s Little Vigils, he’s in a reflective mode, looking back on his own life and career and creating new characters and stories as well. There are moments on this album when he sounds uncannily like Paul Simon (listen to his voice on “Analog Hero,” in particular), but the songs are deeply personal both stylistically and lyrically. The slide guitars and the twangy Telecasters and the Hammond organ rub up against faintly rock steady rhythms, and the ballads greatly outnumber the midtempo numbers — there are no rave-ups. The whole album is gorgeous and at times borders on heartbreaking.


shackLegendary Shack Shakers
The Southern Surreal
Alternative Tentacles
Virus 476

Seeing that they are now recording for Alternative Tentacles (Dead Kennedys old label) and noticing that the album title is The Southern Surreal, one might easily be forgiven for expecting this band’s 20th-anniversay recording to be an onslaught of screaming psychobilly or some kind of nightmarish Southern Gothic gorefest. It’s neither, though: it’s an all-fun excursion into neo-rockabilly, honky-tonk polka, and country-rock, with a definite punk edge but nothing you could reasonably categorize as assaultive or even musically confrontational. I’ll bet you anything their live shows are pretty crazy, though. And there’s a fun spoken-word cameo from Billy Bob Thornton on which he sounds like he’s channeling Tom Waits.


ROCK/POP


rebelVarious Artists
Generation Next — Volume 1 (DIGITAL ONLY)
Rebel Traxx
RTA006
Rick’s Pick

The term “bass music” encompasses a fairly wide variety of subgenres: jungle/drum’n’bass, dubstep, UK garage, and so forth. The Rebel Traxx label deals in a particularly deep and dark version of bass music — on this compilation you won’t hear any brostep ravers or house-derived party anthems. Instead, what you get are dark, spacious, deeply dubwise compositions that tend to promote contemplation more than booty shaking. And because Rebel Traxx is working with emerging artists, this compilation is not only useful as a great listening experience but also as a prompt to explore further; standout tracks like Dar Kist’s “Dekadance” and Alert’s “Cauldron” should send you straight to Soundcloud looking for more by these artists. Unfortunately this release is not available in physical formats, but those libraries that are experimenting with digital music collections should jump at the chance to acquire this excellent compilation.


shikariEnter Shikari
Mindsweep: Hospitalised
Play It Again Sam
5037092

Speaking of bass music, some readers may remember that I recommended the latest album from British post-hardcore giants Enter Shikari last year. In that review I mentioned that the band combines screaming hardcore punk and bass music in a way that’s quite unusual. On Mindsweep: Hospitalised it’s that second aspect of their sound that comes to the fore: it consists of tracks from Mindsweep remixed in a drum’n’bass style by producers from the Hospital Records stable. The result is brilliant, of course, and it makes a very fine companion to the original album — while continuing to exemplify Enter Shikari’s motto: “Abusing music’s worthless genre boundaries since 2003.”


ragsdaleThomas Ragsdale
Dear Araucaria (EP)
This Is It Forever
TIIF25

I don’t normally review EPs in CD HotList — not because I have anything against them, but because my time is scarce, and so is your budget, and it seems better to occupy my attention and yours with full-length albums. I’m making an exception in this case because the music is just so freaking beautiful. Thomas Ragsdale’s EP (only available, annoyingly, as a cassette-with-free-CD or as a digital download) is an all-too-brief collection of ambient pieces composed entirely of treated guitar sounds, most of them unrecognizable as guitar. Every track floats like a cloud bank made out of ice cream and Percoset, and the program as a whole is the most perfect afternoon nap soundtrack I’ve ever heard (and I own a complete library of Brian Eno’s ambient music). This is one of those releases that immediately sent me scampering to the artist’s back catalog, looking for more.


panicPanic Is Perfect
Cellspace
Strange Loop
No cat. no.

This indie-pop band from San Francisco occupies a sort of deceptively-sunny niche that seems to be becoming increasingly popular these days. Or I don’t know, maybe the sunniness isn’t deceptive — the older I get, the harder it is for me to sort out the irony from the pseudo-irony and the post-meta-pseudo-irony. Here’s what I do know: the sunniness is perfectly real in a musical sense, and this album comes to market just at the time when your patrons might be looking for something new to blast on their car speakers while driving with the top down. And when you’re singing along at the top of your voice with your hair whipping in the wind, the irony/metairony distinction becomes pretty much irrelevant. Very nice stuff.


enemyEnemy Planes
Beta Lowdown
Rock the Cause
No cat. no.

On their debut album, the Minneapolis-based Enemy Planes work in a sweet-and-sour mode: dreamy atmospherics within which minor-key melodies soar and drift while drums alternately prod and skip, and guitars sometimes stab and scrape and sometimes float like cloud formations. Song titles like “Bare Your Teeth” and “We Want Blood” should not mislead you: these guys aren’t vicious or nasty, but they’re definitely thinking complicated thoughts about life and love and they don’t seem to be sure what their conclusions are. Just like the rest of us, I guess. In the meantime, those prodding/skipping drums and stabbing/scraping/floating guitars sure do blend nicely with the light and multilayered vocals.


WORLD/ETHNIC


illbillyIllbilly Hitec
Reggae Not Dead
Echo Beach
111
Rick’s Pick

Once again, the reggae group with the worst band name in the history of reggae bands has come out with the best reggae album of the year. And they’re from Berlin! Which isn’t actually that surprising, give how much exceptionally fine reggae gets produced in that city every year. Illbilly Hitec’s generously-packed second album boasts a real grab-bag of multicultural elements, with cumbia beats rubbing up against rockers and one-drop reggae rhythms and guest vocalists singing and chatting in multiple languages. So what if they seem to be arguing against an assertion no one is making — did someone say reggae is dead? And why three separate songs on that same theme? — it’s fun to hear everyone repeatedly and gleefully asserting reggae’s continued vitality while simultaneously demonstrating it, and doing it so sweetly and danceably. Highly recommended to all collections.


silvaSilva
Júpiter
Six Degrees
361234

Brazilian singer-songwriter Silva has made a name for himself with lush and dense arrangements, but on his third full-length album he strips things down to a minimum — not a stark or bare minimum, but a warm and gently propulsive minimum that makes maximum use out of a handful of electric and electronic instruments. Like so much Brazilian pop music, Silva’s songs are soft on the outside and crunchy on the inside, with propulsive beats juddering along beneath the quiet and breathy vocals and the gentle guitars and keyboards. The album’s unifying lyrical theme is apparently astronomical, but it will be tough to follow unless your Portuguese is pretty strong. I found the album tremendously enjoyable without understanding more than a few words.


krakauerKrakauer’s Ancestral Groove
Checkpoint
Table Pounding
TPR-003
Rick’s Pick

Clarinetist David Krakauer has been conducting a musically idiosyncratic and deeply personal exploration for the past 25 years, digging into his Jewish family’s Russian-Polish past and coming up with all kinds of musical (and other) stuff in a variety of styles: classical, klezmer, jazz, avant-garde, funk, electronica. All of it he brings home and refashions into music that has no reasonable label — though on this album, on which the core band consists of guitar, bass, drums, and sampler, the constant stylistic thread is a sort of sampladelic jazz-funk with recurring klezmer themes. As a clarinetist Krakauer is not only a stone virtuoso but also a genuinely fun and exciting player, and his band pushes him to new heights here. Recommended to all collections.


nattyNatty Nation
Divine Spark
iNatty
INATTY015

Here’s something you don’t see every day: a reggae album that significantly incorporates references to principles of meditation, kundalini yoga and astrology. I mean, you’re going to listen to an awful lot of reggae before you encounter a couplet like “Balance the chakras in the spine/Balance the gross and the refined” — especially in the context of a thick, elephantine rockers groove. And that’s a big part of what makes this album so much fun: musically, it’s classical 1970s-style roots reggae; lyrically, it’s an almost pantheistic invocation of all-purpose spirituality that excludes no one and adheres to no particular creed. If you’re annoyed by weird metaphysics then I’m guessing you’re not much of a reggae listener — but if the metaphysics starts annoying you, just focus on the grooves. Highly recommended.