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Author Archives: Rick Anderson

October 2020


CLASSICAL


Johann Baptist Cramer
Piano Concertos nos. 1, 3 & 6
Howard Shelley; London Mozart Players
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
CDA68302

The Hyperion label’s outstanding Classical Piano Concertos series continues triumphantly, bringing unjustly neglected works by the likes of Leopold Kozeluch, Daniel Steibelt, and Johann Baptist Cramer to much-deserved light — and doing so with magnificent performances, beautifully recorded. A previous volume featuring two of Cramer’s eight concertos is now joined by a set of three more, hopefully with more to come. Cramer’s name is hardly recognized today, but he was admired in his own time by both Beethoven and Schumann, and he was among the very first piano instructors at the Royal Academy of Music. Playing sensitively, as always, on modern instruments, Howard Shelley leads the London Mozart Players through this set of works that were designed at least in part as a vehicle for Cramer to show off his own advanced keyboard technique (and that of his students). But they also demonstrate his command of the form, and his admirable melodic imagination. Three more of Cramer’s piano concertos remain to be recorded, so there’s good reason to hope that we’ll have another volume in this series dedicated to him. For all libraries, especially those that support keyboard pedagogy and/or collect deeply in the classical period.


Ludwig van Beethoven
Complete Sonatas for Piano & Violin on Historic Instruments (4 discs)
Jerilyn Jorgensen; Cullan Bryant
Albany
TROY1825-28

Ludwig van Beethoven
Complete String Quartets Volume 1: The Opus 18 Quartets (2 discs)
Dover Quartet
Cedille (dist. Naxos)
CDR 90000 198

These two new recordings of works from Beethoven’s chamber music repertoire are both outstanding, each in a different way. Jerilyn Jorgensen and Cullan Bryant provide insightful interpretations of all of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and violin, using instruments that were built at the same time the compositions were written (and, mostly, in the same city): the turn of the 19th century. The liner notes include detailed information about the instruments, and while the quality of the performances is more than enough to recommend this set on its own, the information about the instruments used will be of particular interest to libraries supporting academic instruction in period performance. The recording suffers just a bit, in my view, from microphone placement — I wish we could hear the details of the violin’s tone more intimately. Beethoven’s string quartets are among the towering masterworks of the late classical and early Romantic eras, and I think the best place to start with them is the most intuitive one: at the very beginning. His early quartets are challenging but still accessible, hinting strongly at both the harmonic density and emotional intensity that would later come fully into view (check out, for example, the adagio movement of the F major quartet) while still offering plenty of delicate melody and clear structural logic. These works are recorded frequently, but the Dovers stand out from the pack by playing with utterly perfect intonation, a near-telepathic sense of ensemble, and a lovely balance of passion and clarity (and by being recorded in the bell-like acoustic of the Sauder Concert Hall at Goshen College). For a modern-instruments performance of these essential works, it’s hard to imagine a better choice.


JAZZ


Bob James
Once upon a Time: The Lost 1965 New York Studio Sessions
Resonance
HCD-2045

Hang on, jazz snobs — before you snort and say “Bob James? No thanks,” please read on. First of all, to be clear: yes, this is the same Bob James who was a pioneer of “smooth” jazz, who had chart hits with a jazz-ish arrangement of a Roberta Flack song and a disco arrangement of the Star Trek theme, and who wrote the theme from Taxi. All granted. But that was in the 1970s. In the 1960s, he was no one’s idea of a jazz popularizer; instead, he was accompanying Sarah Vaughn, and recording free, avant-garde, and straight-ahead jazz at the head of his own trio. This fascinating disc documents previously unreleased sessions he recorded in that format in 1965; a January 20 date with bassist Larry Rockwell and drummer Robert Polaz, and an October 9 session with bassist Bill Wood and drummer Omar Clay. The January session is equally divided between James originals and tunes by others, including a somewhat adventurous (but swinging) arrangement of Leroy Anderson’s “Seranata” and an even more adventurous take on Joe Zawinul’s “Lateef Minor 7th.” The October date is more bop-oriented, with straight uptempo arrangements of “Airegin” and “Solar” alongside lesser-known numbers. In all cases, James’ playing is crisp and idiomatic, and no one who knows him as the guy from Touchdown would likely recognize him in a million years. Highly recommended to all jazz collections.


Benny Carter
His Eight Finest Albums (4 discs)
Enlightenment (dist. MVD)
EN4CD9187

The vagaries of international copyright law continue to make it possible for British labels to gather up mid-century jazz albums (all of which are still under copyright in the US) and reissue them in omnibus editions that offer tremendous value for money to people who don’t need much in the way of detailed information and just want to luxuriate in the music. (In fairness to the Enlightenment label, their recent box sets have started including important details like musician credits, which marks a huge improvement.) The albums in this collection were led by the magnificent alto sax and trumpet player Benny Carter date from 1995 to 1962, and cover a nice variety of styles and settings: the 1955 release New Jazz Sounds finds him in a bluesy and boppish mode alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Herb Ellis, among others; Aspects (1959) is a big-band date that burns with feverish intensity; Further Definitions is a 1961 date on which he plays with an amazing group that includes Phil Woods, Coleman Hawkins, Jimmy Garrison, and Philly Jo Jones. Are these really his eight “finest” albums? I don’t know — he recorded a lot. But they’re certainly outstanding.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Bronwyn Keith-Hynes
Fiddler’s Pastime
Sugar Petunia
SPR0027

In his liner notes to this album, legendary fiddler Darol Anger perfectly expresses what strikes me about Bronwyn Keith-Hynes’ playing: “uncanny precision. In the world of fiddling, it’s a rare and wonderful talent… To be able to trust a player’s unerring ability to put the note in perfect tune with everything else that’s going on is a special subliminal gift from the fiddler, saying ‘I’ve worked hard, so you can relax!'”. What Anger is calling “precision” goes way beyond intonation and time; what’s key here is the phrase “in perfect tune with everything else that’s going on.” That phrase comprehends what’s happening stylistically, in terms of groove and feel, and in the context of other people’s playing. In other words, a great fiddler doesn’t only play in tune and in time, but also in harmony, in the larger sense of that word: she hears what the guitarist is trying to do and works with him; she hears what the banjo player is doing and adds a note or leaves a note out to make the banjo sound better. And when everyone in the group is operating in that way, the result is magical. Anyway: Bronwyn Keith-Hynes is a great fiddler. She demonstrates that in a number of ways on her latest solo album, which is bluegrass-centered but not bluegrass-limited. Guests include Tim O’Brien, mandolin whiz kid Sierra Hull, all-around virtuoso Sarah Jarosz, and a singer named James Kee to whom I’m now very grateful to have been introduced. Highlights include a wonderful cover of the Buck Owens hit “Hello Trouble,” a lovely version of “Minstrel Boy,” and the twin-fiddle showcase title track. Highly recommended to all libraries.


The Dillards
Old Road New Again
Pinecastle (dist. MVD)
PRC1246

I confess I was surprised to learn that the Dillards were still a thing. They were an important part of the “progressive” bluegrass scene throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and fans of the Andy Griffith Show will recognize them as recurring cast members there (where they were called the Darlings). Doug Dillard, who died in 2012, was a towering figure among bluegrass banjo players, and the only still-living member of the original group is guitarist and singer Rodney. Old Road New Again is the first new album by a group under the Dillards name since 1992, and it finds Rodney and his confederates continuing the tradition of pushing bluegrass music’s stylistic boundaries (note, for example, the cover version of “Save the Last Dance for Me” and the acoustic-funk arrangement of “Cluck Old Hen”), edging into contemporary acoustic pop and country. Rodney Dillard’s voice isn’t as steady as it was (for crying out loud, the guy’s 78 years old), but he sure still can lead a band and arrange a tune. And the band he’s put together here, which includes Ricky Skaggs, John McEuen, Herb Pedersen, and… um… Don Henley, is a delight.


ROCK/POP


Well Wishers
Shelf Life
Self-released
No cat. no.

Well Wishers is essentially a one-man band, the creation of former Spinning Jennies frontman Jeff Shelton. Over the course of ten albums Shelton has crafted and refined a vision of guitar-heavy power pop that never ceases to impress and satisfy, in the meat-and-potatoes way that a great album by Cheap Trick or the Shoes used to satisfy back in the day. You know how it works: crunchy guitars, sweet harmonies, and hooks hooks hooks. Shelton brings in a few hired guitar slingers for extra power on a handful of tracks here, but for the most part it’s just him playing all the instruments and singing all the parts, which continues to be seriously impressive. Highlight tracks this time out include the Marshall Crenshaw-flavored old-school rock’n’roll of “You Never Have to Sing a Lonely Song,” the sweetly melancholy “Father of the Bride,” and the medium-tempo jangle-pop gem “Be the One.” If your library collects high-quality pop music, that’s reason enough to pick up Shelf Life — but if you support programs in songwriting or audio production, this album is like a masterclass.


Animat
Earplayed (digital only)
Disco Gecko
DSCGCKDIG080

Back in 2008, Sheffield duo Animat released an album called Earplay, which consisted of tracks they had put together as a live soundtrack to the David Lynch film The Straight Story. This being a film soundtrack, the music was fairly unobtrusive — but the film being by David Lynch, the music was also subtly weird, combining rhythmic loops, found sound, guest vocals, and Casiotone beats to create a vaguely disturbing undertow beneath the soft chords and general floating ambience. That album is being reissued this year, and to mark the occasion the Disco Gecko label is simultaneously releasing this collection of remixes and alternate versions: one remix is credited to Animat themselves, and another version is an extended edit. But the others are new mixes made by others: “The Closer You Get” is given a more beat-oriented take by Sleeping Robots, whereas “Riverbed Road” is unmoored from its original rhythmic center and abstractly dubbed-up by Echaskech, and so forth. Consistently both interesting and pleasant, both of these albums are well worth hearing.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Ghalia Benali; Romina Lischka
Call to Prayer
Fuga Libera (dist. Naxos)
FUG763

Call to Prayer is a highly unusual project, a collaboration between Tunisian singer Ghalia Benali, viol player and singer Romina Lischka, and bassist/guitarist Vincent Noiret. Together the weave a complex tapestry of music that combines Arabic melodies, druphad singing, baroque music, and invocations of the Divine, all organized around the concept of prayer (though “prayer” is used here in a more abstract, humanistic sense than what one might expect). The music is quiet but deeply intense, though the intensity of the vocal pieces is regularly leavened by decorous baroque passages. Benali’s voice is a wonder of suppleness and expressivity. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Ras Muhamad
Satryo (digital only)
Oneness
No cat. no.

By now we’re used to seeing reggae scenes take root and thrive in locations far removed from the music’s native Jamaica: the UK’s large population of West Indian immigrants made possible a rich and varied reggae scene there, and interestingly enough you can find smaller but productive reggae outposts in places like Berlin, New York, Hawai’i, the Netherlands, and Brazil. But Indonesia? I don’t know how big the scene itself is, but I can now testify that there is absolutely top-notch roots reggae music being produced by at least one artist from that country, the Jakarta-based Ras Muhamad. He sings mostly in English (he was educated in New York), but sometimes breaks into Malay, which makes for an interesting effect. Also interesting is the doctrinal mix of his lyrical concerns, which blend invocations of both Jah and Allah. But what makes the album more than merely interesting is the consistently high quality of the songs themselves, which are hooky, well constructed, and beautifully sung — and frequently incorporate stylistic elements beyond reggae, as well. Any library with a collecting interest in world music generally or reggae in particular should take particular note of this outstanding release.

September 2020


CLASSICAL


Various Composers
Odyssey
Anders Miolin
Prima Classic (dist. MVD)
PRIMA005

Ander Miolin plays a twelve-string guitar–but not the kind you’re imagining. A twelve-string folk guitar is strung in six courses of two strings each, each pair tuned either in unison or in octaves. This means that the guitar is played essentially the same way as a six-string guitar would be, each pair of strings being fretted together, but it gives a different sound because of the additional strings. Miolin’s guitar is very different: it has twelve separate, independently tuned strings, which create the same essential sound as a six-string guitar, but with a much wider range of pitches. This enables him to put together a program like this one, which consists of Renaissance and baroque works for the (similarly configured) lute, as well as unusually complete arrangements of piano pieces by Erik Satie and several original pieces by Miolin himself, all of which make use of his guitar’s expanded range. This is not only a technically impressive album, but also a deeply enjoyable one, that any library would do well to add to its classical collection.


Thomas Tallis, James MacMillan et al.
Spem in alium; Vidi aquam (CD + DVD)
ORA Singers / Suzi Digby
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 902669.70

I’ll just go ahead and say it: although Thomas Tallis is one of my favorite composers and Spem in alium–his widely celebrated motet written in forty(!) parts–is indisputably one of his masterworks, I’ve never cared for that piece very much. The chord progression seems awkward to me, and the soprano parts often sound shrill to me, no matter how carefully and skillfully they’re sung. But the 450th anniversary of its composition is an auspicious moment at which to celebrate this monumental work, and the ORA Singers do so not just by recording a particularly able performance of the piece, but also by placing it in historical context with a generous program of choral music by Tallis’ contemporaries, including Alfonso Ferrabosco, Philip van Wilder, and William Byrd. And the program ends with a contemporary work, actually a response to Tallis’ composition: William MacMillan’s forty-voice motet Vidi aquam initially imitates Tallis’ brilliant use of multiple choirs and strict counterpoint, but gradually shifts into a more modern and impressionistic style. This is a wonderful album overall, strongly recommended to all classical collections. (As a bonus, the package also includes a DVD with footage from the recording sessions and documentary material.)


JAZZ


Champian Fulton
Birdsongs
Champian Records
CR003

What’s so great about Champian Fulton as a singer is that she blends Ella Fitzgerald’s sweetness and clarity of tone with Billie Holiday’s playful approach to rhythm (and sometimes pitch). And what’s so great about her as a pianist and bandleader is that she can switch from quicksilver bebop virtuosity to florid romanticism at the drop of a beat. She demonstrates all of these skills prodigiously on this centenary tribute to bop pioneer Charlie Parker, which features tunes written by him alongside others he was famous for playing. Leading her usual quartet (pianist Hide Tanaka, drummer Fukushi Tainaka, and her father Stephen Fulton on flugelhorn) along with tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, she delivers a beautiful program that reflects her lifelong immersion in Parker’s music: highlights include a sweetly rollicking take on the inevitable “Yardbird Suite” and a limpidly gorgeous vocal performance of “This Is Always” — but honestly, there’s not a weak track anywhere on this wonderful album.


Trio Linguae
Signals
Origin
82805

Lots of jazz combos engage in group improvisation; very few, in my experience, do so in a way that’s worth spending much time listening to–outside the confines of trad jazz, anyway. Trio Linguae (trumpeter/flugelhornist Kevin Woods, guitarist John Stowell, pianist Miles Black) is one of those very few combos. Their musical communication is such that you’ll often hear them improvising in counterpoint, which is a pretty amazing feat when you think about it. Nor does their playing ever lapse into self-indulgent noodling: on tracks like their swinging take on the Bill Evans composition “Peri’s Scope” and the Harold Arlen standard “My Shining Hour,” they sound almost straight-ahead, but even on their more adventurous original tunes the playing is simultaneously disciplined and unconstrained. Any library that supports a jazz education program should consider this album a must-have.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Colter Wall
Western Swings & Waltzes & Other Punchy Songs
LaHonda/Thirty Tigers
LHR002-1

With a voice that sounds a bit like a cross between Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt and a style that harks back to Texas in its pre-Outlaw Country days, you could be forgiven for thinking that relative newcomer Colter Wall is actually an old-timer making his belated entry onto the musical stage. But in fact he’s 24 years old, and he’s from Canada. Of course, Canada’s cowboy culture is no less hard-bitten and authentic than Texas’s, and Wall’s songs are deeply steeped in that culture. His originals are great, but he can also play and sing hoary classics like “Big Iron” and “Diamond Joe” with impressive authority. He takes his tempos slow and his band is small, nimble and unobtrusive–and recorded with lots of room sound, for added old-time verisimilitude. Mainstream country audiences won’t give an album like this the time of day, but anyone who likes hardcore cowboy music will love it.


Gangstagrass
No Time for Enemies
AntiFragile
RENA16

I know, I know–I thought the same thing when I heard about this album. A bluegrass/hip-hop hybrid? Give me a break. I could imagine it maybe being slightly funny as an Internet meme, but that was about it. But then I listened. And after I heard how well it worked, I started thinking about why it obviously should work: the roots of bluegrass are as much in African-American blues and gospel as they are in Scots-Irish ballads and fiddle tunes, and whether the backbeat is a mandolin chop or a snare drum (or an 808), it’s still just a backbeat. And there’s no reason why the vocal hook in a rap song can’t consist of high and lonesome vocal harmony, or why fiddles can’t be keening behind the rappers and a five-string banjo playing a break between verses. What makes this album do more than just work, though, and what really stops it from being a novelty, is that there is zero joking here: songs like “Freedom,” “Go You One Hundred,” and “This Land Is” are dead serious–as is the group’s gentle and heartbreaking version of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More.” For all libraries.


ROCK/POP


Erasure
The Neon
Mute
CDSTUMM455

It’s the eternal debate: should a band evolve, or should it continue to offer what its earliest fans loved? There are reasonable (and unreasonable) people and positions on both sides of that question, but ultimately every band has to decide for itself. Erasure–now on their 18th album–seem to have decided firmly on the latter course, continuing to purvey the same bright, colorful, emotionally intense music that won them an international following almost 40 years ago. The group still consists entirely of singer Andy Bell and synth player Vince Clarke, and their latest finds the duo creating an album that is all about “refreshing… our love of great pop.” Songs like “Tower of Love” and “Diamond Lies” refract that love through the band’s now-signature style of bleepy, bloopy synth pop, and while the album is suffused with joy there’s some emotional complexity in there as well. Watch for the remix EPs based on singles “Hey Now (I Think I Got a Feeling)” and “Shot a Satellite,” too.


Various Artists
Make More Noise!: Women in Independent Music UK 1977-1987 (4 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
CRCDBOX99

It was baked into the antinomian nature of punk rock that its norms and stylistic templates would fall apart almost as soon as they emerged. (No one can, or should, take seriously any sentence that begins “It’s not real punk rock unless it…”.) This was both punk’s greatest weakness as a musical movement, and its great gift to popular music: it broke the corral fence that had existed around rock’n’roll and let all the horses out to run in whatever direction they wished. So the title of this collection is doubly instructive: the ten years it defines were an incredibly fertile period of experimentation and innovation, and the term “independent” wisely includes any number of those experiments and innovations. As always with these carefully-curated Cherry Red boxes, you get a mix of artists you’ve almost certainly heard of (Bananarama, Cocteau Twins), some you may possibly have heard of (Grab Grab the Haddock, Talulah Gosh), and some you almost certainly have never heard of (Go! Service, Fatal Microbes). Interestingly, some of these artists actually elect to make less noise (Jane’s “It’s a Fine Day” is a softly-sung a cappella tune of wistful loveliness), while some make deeply uncomfortable noise (Rhoda Dakar, backed by the Special A.K.A., delivers an account of rape that is so disturbing that I sincerely hope I’ll never have to hear it again). It’s also worth noting that the “independent” designation doesn’t necessarily mean “amateurish.” As strange as Lene Lovich’s “Lucky Number” and Sinéad O’Connor’s “Mandinka” may have sounded at the time, they did not sound in any way unprofessional. The same is decidedly not true of, say, The Fabulous Dirt Sisters’ shambolic “Wood Song” or Marine Girls’ minimalist “A Place in the Sun”–and that’s a big part of what makes this compilation so much fun: it’s so diverse in so many different dimensions.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Max Romeo
Revelation Time (reissue)
VP/17 North Parade
VP4222

Max Romeo is one of the greatest living exponents of roots-and-culture reggae, a sweet-voiced singer who has been on the scene from the beginning. His first big hit was a negligible and notorious piece of slackness titled “Wet Dream,” but he soon got on the Rasta train and recorded some of the darkest, dreadest, and deepest examples of conscious reggae ever made, many of them at Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark studio. This expanded reissue of his classic 1975 album Revelation Time duplicates substantially (though not entirely) the long out-of-print Open the Iron Gate: 1973-1977 collection that was released 20 years ago on the much-lamented Blood & Fire label. If you own that release, but are a big enough Romeo fan, this one will be worth the money for the additional content, which includes I Roy’s deejay cut on the title track, a fine dub version of “Tacko,” and the pairing of Romeo’s “No Joshua” with Prince Far I’s thundering response track “Yes Joshua.” If you don’t own the Blood & Fire collection, then pick this one up right away.


Falu & Karyshma
Someday (EP; digital only)
Monsoon
195448140934

Man, yet another utterly gorgeous EP that I really wish was a full-length album. For this, their first formal release, Falu & Karyshma have taken traditional songs from classical, Sufi, and folk traditions and created modern settings for them using harmonium, dulcimer, bansuri, electric bass, violin, tabla, drum kit, acoustic guitar, and other instruments. The production is almost as important as the playing and singing here; to listen to this music on good headphones is revelatory. But central to everything is the singing of Falu, whose voice is simultaneously silky and powerful and who communicates joy, longing, anguish, and peaceful relaxation with equal skill. Here’s hoping for much more from this wonderful ensemble.

August 2020


PICK OF THE MONTH


Chris Dingman
Peace (5 discs)
Self-released
No cat. no.

When vibraphonist and composer Chris Dingman’s father was at home under hospice care during his last months of life, Dingman moved a vibraphone into his father’s house and improvised music for him designed to soothe and relax him and help him sleep. But his father reacted to the music somewhat differently; he expressed gratitude that it had “open(ed) up patterns of thought and being” for him, going so far as to characterize the music as a “miracle” that “has transformed me over and over again. It has made me stronger, made me want to live life again.” For most listeners, hearing this music out of its original context may not be quite as transformative an experience–how could it be? But the love and warmth that existed between Dingman and his father is everywhere apparent in these compositions, and Dingman’s exceptional skills as a writer and improviser mean that the music is never static or needlessly repetitive or random-sounding; it’s always interesting and frequently complex, while always conveying a sense of gentleness, love, and peace. One could use it as ambient music, but it constantly rewards one’s close attention as well. Frankly, this is the most beautiful and touching recording I’ve heard so far this year.


CLASSICAL


George Crumb
Metamorphoses (Book 1)
Marcantonio Barone
Bridge (dist. Albany)
9535

Subtitled “Ten Fantasy-pieces (after Celebrated Paintings) for Amplified Piano,” this collection of brief compositions finds the great American composer George Crumb responding musically to modernist paintings by the likes of Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, Jasper Johns, and Salvador Dalí. He does so using a certain amount of extended piano technique as well as electric amplification. By turns contemplative and abrasive, the music explores the piano’s unique resonant properties as well as the opportunities created by the player’s simultaneous proximity to the instrument’s keyboard and its interior; for example, on “Clowns at Night,” the performer must hit a woodblock, stroke a set of chimes, run a wire brush across the strings inside the piano, and play the keys–while also moaning and humming. These pieces were written in the past few years, demonstrating once again that Crumb continues to be an American treasure well into the eighth(!) decade of his musical career.


Uri Caine/Ludwig van Beethoven
Diabelli Variations after Ludwig van Beethoven (reissue)
Uri Caine; Concerto Köln
Winter & Winter (dist. Naxos)
910 265-2

It’s very important to understand, going in, that this is not a typical performance of Beethoven’s legendary variations on a theme of Anton Diabelli. For one thing, pianist and composer Uri Caine has written orchestral accompaniment for the original keyboard piece, turning it into what amounts to a 34-movement piano concerto. Second of all, Caine’s performance is wildly, willfully personal: at various times, his take on the variations incorporate boogie-woogie interludes, outbreaks of stride piano, clangorous and nearly atonal excursions, handclaps, and a sneeze–alongside wonderfully lyrical classical and semi-classical passages as well. Given the modernistic and even postmodern approach to the music, the fact that both Caine and Concerto Köln are playing on period instruments seems ironic, if not actually sarcastic. But the mood of the music itself, even at its most outlandish, is consistently joyful and fun. For obvious reasons, this should not be any library’s only recording of the Diabelli Variations–but it should be one of them.


Orlande de Lassus
Inferno
Cappella Amsterdam / Daniel Reuss
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 902650

I was startled when this disc arrived in the mail–could it be that the great master of the late Franco-Flemish school had set texts of Dante Alighieri? Sadly, no. But this is still an outstanding collection of late Lassus motets for six and eight voices, united by themes of melancholy and regret. Inexplicably, given the album’s title, it does not include his De profundis (nor any of the other penitential psalms), but it does consist of a carefully curated cycle of other Biblical and non-Biblical settings characterized by exquisitely crafted interactions between music and text, as well as the sumptuous harmonies for which he remains famous. Cappella Amsterdam are marvelous on these recordings, and their voices are perfectly showcased by the acoustics of Amsterdam’s de Waalse Kerk. For all early music collections.


Leopold Anton Kozeluch
Piano Trios Vol. 3
Trio 1790
CPO (dist. Naxos)
555 096-2

This is the third entry in an ongoing series by the period-instrument ensemble Trio 1790 featuring trios for piano, cello, and violin by the highly-esteemed Bohemian composer Leopold Kozeluch. During his life his reputation was such that he was offered the chance to succeed Mozart as court organist at Salzburg, but he refused; after achieving significant success as an independent composer and teacher, he later accepted a court appointment under Emperor Francis II (again, following Mozart). Interestingly, he invested a significant amount of time and energy into creating chamber-music settings of folk music from the British Isles, and in fact Scottish melodies were the basis for some of his earlier piano trios. These later ones, however, are quite Continental in flavor, and are characterized by a thoroughly winning lightness of tone. The playing by Trio 1790 is excellent.


Ricardo Mico
Pavans & Fancies for the Viols
Concerto di Viole
Ars Produktion (dist. Naxos)
ARS38570
Rick’s Pick

The Swiss viol consort Concerto di Viole made a long study of the music of little-known 17th-century composer Ricardo Mico before recording this selection of his consort music, and then made something of a puckish decision: as musicians often had during Mico’s time, they assigned a whimsical subtitle to each of the pieces presented here. Thus, Mico’s Fantasied 10 à 4 is further titled “On the Hexachord”; his Pavan 2 à 5 is subtitled “Bona Fide,” and so forth. These recordings are not only completely lovely, but they’re also important, in that Mico is rarely recorded today and in fact none of his consort music was even published during his lifetime. (The excellent Phantasm ensemble has recorded some of it, alongside consort music of William Byrd.) Here’s hoping this outstanding group will bring more of Mico’s music to light in the future.


Sir Hubert Parry et al.
Songs of Farewell
Choir of Westminster Abbey / James O’Donnell
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
CDA68301

I’m sure it’s my imagination, but it just seems to me that the choral music of English composers sounds especially good when sung in Westminster Abbey, that most English of musical and liturgical spaces. And of course no choir (with the possible exception of Magdalen College’s) sounds as wonderful singing the English repertoire as the one attached to the Abbey. Anyway, this is a program of late 19th and early 20th century a cappella choral music by Sir Hubert Parry (whose Songs of Farewell is the album’s centerpiece), Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (three motets and a Magnificat setting), Alan Gray (another Magnificat and an F minor Nunc dimittis), and Charles Wood (a B-flat Nunc dimittis). The featured works are somewhat diverse in tone–notice how the burnished but restrained and reverential mood of Stanford’s third motet is joyfully burst by Gray’s exuberant Magnificat, for example. But the singing is consistently excellent and the recorded sound is as well, though the microphones were set perhaps just a bit too far from the singers for my taste. Still, all the better to hear the Abbey’s glorious acoustics, I guess.


Franz Joseph Haydn
Symphonies nos. 6-7-8 (Le Matin; Le Midi; Le Soir)
Orfeo Orchestra / György Vashegyi
Accent (dist. Naxos)
ACC26501

This will be the first recording in a series designed to showcase music written and published under the aegis of the Eszterházy family, which controlled large swaths of Hungary during the Habsburg dynasty. The Eszterházys employed Franz Joseph Haydn during some of his most creative years, and with these three symphonies in particular he was at pains to demonstrate that their money had been well spent. Each of these works functions almost as much as a baroque-style concerto as it does like a classical symphony, using extended soloistic sections to showcase the skills of the outstanding orchestra that the Eszterházys had put at Haydn’s disposal. The “morning,” “noon,” and “evening” moods are evoked in a somewhat programmatic manner, but the real point is to demonstrate the players’ musicianship, which these pieces do admirably. They are marvelously performed here by the Orfeo Orchestra, and libraries should be quick to snap up this disc and the others in the series that will come in the future.


Giovanni Battista Viotti
Flute Quartets op. 22
Quartetto Viotti
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
BRI95645
Rick’s Pick

Giovanni Battista Viotti was known primarily as a violinist and a composer for the violin, and while some of his violin pieces have been transcribed for flute, he wrote little specifically for that instrument and this set of three quartets for flute, violin, viola, and cello are his only compositions in that particular format. The music is not terribly challenging and was published with both amateur and professional players in mind, but it is thoroughly enjoyable in the high classical style, and will be warmly regarded by fans of Mozart’s flute quartets. Quartetto Viotti (playing, as far as I can determine, on modern instruments) deliver these pieces with admirable sensitivity and brio, and are beautifully recorded. A delightful listen.


JAZZ


Jeff Hamilton Trio
Catch Me if You Can
Capri
74163-2
Rick’s Pick

Don’t tell anyone I said this, but I’m always a little bit leery of drummer-led jazz recordings. I have nothing but respect for great drummers, but not all of them understand that most people don’t listen to a jazz album specifically to hear the drummer. One of the many things that make drummer Jeff Hamilton such a compelling bandleader is that he does understand that. Another is the way he combines gentleness with swing: the way he plays quiet rimshots for just a bar or two on each chorus of “Helen’s Song,” or the way he sweetly and subtly takes little mini-solos using the brushes on “Make Me Rainbows,” or the exquisite delicacy of his brushwork on what is nevertheless a powerfully swinging title track. Whenever a new Jeff Hamilton album arrives in the mail, I know it’s going to be a winner; this one is no exception. For all collections.


Grégoire Maret & Romain Collin (with Bill Frisell)
Americana
ACT (dist. Naxos)
9049-2

I also have a weird aversion to the harmonica, particularly in a jazz context. I’m not sure why, and I’m not sure it really matters. The point here is that while I would usually set aside a jazz harmonica album immediately upon receiving it, in this case I made an exception due to the presence of Bill Frisell, my favorite jazz guitarist–and I’m very glad I did, because this is an exceptionally fine recording. Harmonica player Grégoire Maret has selected an eclectic program of tunes to work with here, from pop (Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms”) to country (“Wichita Lineman”) along with a couple of Frisell originals and some by Maret himself and by pianist Romain Collin as well. The album title is not misleading; this music tends strongly towards the pastoral, not to say the bucolic (there is no rhythm section) and Maret’s harmonica playing is exquisitely tasteful–as is that of Collin and, of course, Frisell, who has never failed to make a session better by his presence.


Rez Abbasi
Django-shift
Whirlwind Recordings (dist. Redeye)
WR4762

Dan Willis and Velvet Gentlemen
The Monk Project (digital only)
Belle Avenue
No cat. no.

On these two conceptually similar but very different albums, forward-thinking leaders look back to the past for their source material, and give it a very modern twist. On Django-shift, guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi deconstructs two separate traditions simultaneously: the music of 1930s Gypsy swing icon Django Reinhardt, and the 1960s organ trio. Reinhardt’s music was the acme of driving hot jazz as played by multiple acoustic guitars and violin; the organ trio was the prime vehicle for jazz funk. Abbasi’s take on Reinhardt’s compositions is neither driving swing nor funk–instead, it’s played in his own now well established style, which is complex, knotty, chromatic, and timbrally unique (note his extensive use of the fretless guitar). This is not an album for Django fans, but rather for fans of modern experimental jazz. Dan Willis approaches the music of Thelonious Monk in a manner similar to that in which he approached that of Erik Satie ten years ago; he takes familiar tunes from the Monk book (“Epistrophy,” “Crepuscule with Nellie,” “Rhythm-a-ning,” etc.) and uses them as the general framework for highly personal and discursive exploration. There are moments on this album when even someone who is deeply familiar with the Monk repertoire will struggle to recognize the basis of the tune, and others when you feel as if he’s pulling the essence of the tune out of its body. Both of these are challenging and rewarding albums.


The Jim Kweskin Band with Samoa Wilson
I Just Want to Be Horizontal
Kingswood
No cat. no.

Since the 1960s, Jim Kweskin has been interested in bringing to light the sounds of early-20th century jazz and pop music. His group is no longer called a “jug band,” gratefully, but he’s still focused on those sounds, and his latest album (which prominently features the outstanding singer Samoa Wilson) features songs both familiar (“Inch Worm,” “Lover Come Back to Me,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay”) and obscure, all played with an elegant, restrained sense of swing. Kweskin adds some lyrics of his own to the Irving Berlin standard “He Ain’t Got Rhythm,” and throughout the album Wilson’s powerful but sweet voice illuminates everything.


Various Artists
Ella 100: Live at the Apollo!
Concord Jazz
CJA00280

On April 25, 2017–Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday–an impressive assortment of artists gathered to celebrate on the stage of Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater, where Ella Fitzgerald had made her singing debut at age 17. (She was originally expected to dance, but when she was put on the program immediately following the dancing Edwards Sisters she was too intimidated and asked if she could sing instead.) This commemorative program was hosted and emceed by comic actor David Alan Grier and featured a variety of singers accompanied by the Count Basie Orchestra and the Ella 100 All-Star Quartet. The songs are all the standards one would expect, though occasionally with a twist: Patti Austin is featured prominently, as well as Lizz Wright, Andra Day, and the Afro Blue choir. Grier himself sings (quite nicely) on a modernized soul arrangement of “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me” and alongside Austin on a Porgy and Bess medley. All in all, it’s a fitting tribute to one of the most important figures in American music.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Cary Morin
Dockside Saints
Self-released
No cat. no.

Cary Morin is an artist with a complex ethnic and musical heritage: an American Indian of Crow heritage who grew up in Great Falls, Montana, he is a virtuosic fingerstyle guitarist whose music is deeply informed by the cultures of the Mississippi Valley, particularly of Southern Louisiana. His latest album evokes (sometimes simultaneously) the sounds of New Orleans, Memphis, and Mississippi: slippery second-line beats and a Zydeco accordion underlie the album-opening “Nobody Gotta Know,” while “Prisoner” is all greasy Delta blues and “Cary’s Groove” draws deeply on Memphis and Muscle Shoals soul. The string that binds everything together is Morin’s fine songwriting combined with his astounding guitar technique. Highly recommended.


Scott Vestal et al.
Bluegrass 2020: 10 Great Instrumental Recordings
Pinecastle (MVD)
PRC1243

For this album, banjo player Scott Vestal leads an A-list team that includes fiddler Patrick McAvinue, guitarist Cody Kilby, mandolinist Dominick Leslie, and bassist Curtis Vestal on a stylistically varied program of traditional bluegrass and newgrass instrumentals. It opens in old-school style, with the classic Earl Scruggs banjo showcase “Foggy Mountain Chimes,” but then gets gradually more progressive, with the jazzy Moon Mullican tune “Pipeliner Blues” and the straight-up New Acoustic “Sunday Drive.” The rest of the album continues in that vein, alternating straight acidgrass (“Shenandoah Breakdown,” “Valley Forge”) with more modern newgrass fare (“Vanleer”). All of it is brilliantly played. A few more tunes would have been nice, as the whole album clocks in at barely over 35 minutes.


Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett
Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett
Real World (dist. PIAS)
RW226
Ricks’ Pick

Recordings of traditional Irish music tend to be virtuosic affairs, filled with breakneck tempos and elaborate ornamentation. Fiddler/hardanger player Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and pianist Thomas Bartlett have made something very different: an album with roots in trad music but consisting mostly of original compositions, and one that focuses on quiet, contemplative performances. Themes repeat and mutate, sometimes growing through elaboration and sometimes collapsing into new abstraction. (Note in particular the structure of the hypnotic “Zona Rosa.”) In the context of a duo like this, one might expect Bartlett to be Ó Raighallaigh’s accompanist, but that’s not how this music works at all: they play together and sometimes one plays more while the other plays less, but they always play side-by-side, each one occupying an equally important musical space. The music is exceptionally beautiful, and often deeply sad. Highly recommended to all libraries.


ROCK/POP


Richard Thompson
Live at Rock City, Nottingham November -86 (2 discs)
Angel Air (dist. MVD)
SJPCD612
Rick’s Pick

If you’ve spent any time browsing through CDs in a market stall, you’ve seen them: shoddily packaged discs from a label you’ve never heard of, documenting live shows that were originally recorded for radio broadcast. They usually cost a few bucks, and sometimes they’re worth it. This one is very different. For one thing, the sound quality is excellent. For another, 1986 was the year that, in my opinion, Richard Thompson’s band was at its best–he had John Kirkpatrick, Christine Collister, and Clive Gregson, among others, and although you don’t have Dave Mattacks on drums the band still sounds fantastic. And he was touring songs from both Across a Crowded Room and Daring Adventures, which I still think were two of his best-ever solo albums. The patter is wry, the solos are incendiary, and the whole energy of this gig is just tremendous. Highly recommended to all pop collections.


Dan Penn
Living on Mercy
The Last Music Co. (dist. Redeye)
LMCD219
Rick’s Pick

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Dan Penn. Which is a crime, because there’s virtually no chance that you don’t know and love at least one song that he’s written–either alone or in partnership with others. Maybe it’s “Do Right Woman,” or “It Tears Me Up,” or “I’m Your Puppet,” or my personal fave, “Dark End of the Street” (which I maintain is the single saddest and most affecting love song in pop music history). There’s also a good chance that you’ve never heard him sing any of these songs, because over the course of his 60-year career he’s made precisely three studio albums–the last one being the wonderful Do Right Man from 1994. Listening to this new one, I was startled and thrilled that his voice still sounds so good; it was never a force of nature to begin with, but it’s every bit as strong and mellow as it was 26 years ago. Nor has his songwriting lost any of its wry humor and emotional insight. This would make a great addition to any library, but those that collect vintage soul and R&B should pay special attention.


Devon Williams
A Tear in the Fabric
Slumberland (dist. Redeye)
SLR 247

If you miss the golden age of jangle-pop (which, depending on your generational orientation, you might consider to have been the late 1960s or the late 1980s), then Devon Williams is here for you. On his third solo album, he delivers a solid set of original songs that shimmer dreamily while staying anchored in solid chord progressions, hooky melodies, and lots of arpeggiating guitars. His voice isn’t exactly a powerhouse, but he layers it nicely, power-pop style, and creates a thoroughly winning sound. Strongly recommended to fans of the Church and the Go-Betweens, and of early REM. And maybe to those who like the Rocket Summer but wish they’d ease up just a bit.


Harmonious Thelonious
Plong
Bureau B (dist. Forced Exposure)
BB352

Stefan Schwander is a Dusseldorf-based electronic musician with that most wonderful of characteristics: an equal interest in sonic experimentation and slamming beats. He’s also influenced by musical styles beyond the European dance club: “Original Member of a Wedding Band” is built a fragment of keening modal melody that could be from Egypt, or maybe from the Balkans; several other tracks evoke the history of pulse-based American minimalism. Schwander himself has indicated that with this record he was “aiming for a more industrial sound,” but what he ended up with is much more interesting than that. Recommended to all adventurous pop music collections.


Sangam & Pixelord
City High Fantasy (EP; digital & cassette only)
Hyperboloid
HYPR081

Let’s close out the Rock/Pop section with another example of forward-thinking electronic music, this one a collaboration between producers Sangam and Pixelord. It’s not unusual to see two electronic artists put their disparate styles together to create something new, but a joint venture by two such different artists is particularly interesting. Sangam usually works in an abstract and ambient vein, whereas Pixelord comes from more of a house/techno place and was a major figure in the short-lived “hardvapour” movement (itself a subgenre of hardstyle and/or vapourwave, which… you know what? Never mind.). The music they make together is varied in feel, with lots of sonic space but also plenty of complex, sometimes hard-hitting beats. I love the blend of big acoustics and tiny rhythmic details, and find myself getting lost in this EP every time I cue it up.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Céu
APKÁ!
Six Degrees
657036130128

The latest from Brazilian singer/songwriter Céu is an unabashed exclamation of joy. In fact, that’s where the title comes from–“apká!” is something her little son Antonino cries when he’s delighted with something. The word doesn’t mean anything beyond the emotion it expresses. Céu’s songs are somewhat more specific in their expressiveness, of course, but are every bit as joyful–even when they’re a bit more subdued. As always, Brazilian rhythms fuse with electronic beats; this time out there’s also a bit more guitar pop in the mix, and she sometimes breaks into English. Her voice continues to be a joy to hear, and the album is a pure pleasure overall.


Gaudi
100 Years of Theremin (The Dub Chapter)
Dubmission
CDDUBM103 (dist. MVD)
Rick’s Pick

You might tempted to dismiss this as a novelty album. Resist that temptation. Although the theremin is largely known (when people are aware of it at all) as a source of science-fiction sound effects, it is in fact a serious musical instrument capable of great subtlety and expressiveness. Its pitch and volume are controlled by the performer’s hands hovering at different positions around a sort of antenna, and since it produces a steady and uninterrupted tone it takes real skill to create clean breaks between notes. On this collection of tracks, producer (and longtime theremin player) Gaudi teams up with a bunch of dub/reggae luminaries including Dennis Bovell, Adrian Sherwood, Mad Professor, and Prince Fatty to create a program of modern reggae settings for his beloved instrument, resulting in an album that is simultaneously filled with familiar sounds and grooves and unlike anything else you’ve ever heard. Highly recommended.


Groupe RTD
The Dancing Devils of Djibouti
Ostinato
OSTCD009

The music scene in the tiny East African country of Djibouti faces an unusual challenge: it is owned and controlled entirely by the government. Ever since independence and the establishment of one-party rule in 1977, virtually all music ensembles and all recording companies are government organizations attached to the state propaganda ministry. But the New York-based Ostinato label was able to secure official permission to spend three days in the country recording Groupe RTD, an amazing ensemble that blends regional vocal and instrumental sounds, Bollywood-derived vocals, Jamaican rhythms, and jazz horns to create a style that is simultaneously completely unique and instantly recognizable as a product of the region. Keening horns, skanking backbeats, and soaring voices combine to create something unlike anything you’ve heard before. Highly recommended.


Victor Rice
Drink (vinyl & digital only)
Easy Star
ES-1080V
Rick’s Pick

Bassist Victor Rice was a mainstay of the New York ska and reggae revival scene throughout the 1990s, but has lived in São Paulo, Brazil for the past 20 years and has there developed a musical fusion of samba and rock steady that he calls “SRS” for short. “Rock steady” is the swinging, rubbery rhythm that served as a transitional style in the 1960s when ska was slowing down and loosening up on its way to becoming reggae. Rice is a master of that style, and on this jazzy, skanking instrumental album he demonstrates that mastery with a very tasty program of tunes that are equally great for listening and dancing to. Highlight tracks include “Five,” the straight-up ska tune “Because I Can,” and especially the beautifully composed “La Mura.” Highly recommended to all libraries, though it’s too bad that it’s not being released in CD format.


Mansur
Temple (EP)
Denovali (dist. Redeye)
DEN336

Here’s what it says on the one sheet: “Using kalimba, violin, cello, ney, erhu, zhonghu, jinhu, kemenche, dilruba, bansuri, rammerdam, double bass and various percussive instruments such as cajon, castanets, krotal and various organic shakers and drums MANSUR leads the listener into mystical and magical unknowns, that lie far past the realms of material perception.” Well. Maybe not entirely past the realms of material perception–unless there are instruments on the recording that I’m not hearing–but this album certainly takes us well beyond the realms of dark ambient music that are the usual bailiwick of the Denovali label. What’s particularly fun about Mansur’s music is that it sounds like it’s from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously–I can’t tell what language(s) Martina Horváth is singing in, and every time I think I’ve got a grip on the ethnic or cultural context of a track, it slips through my fingers. Also, the music is very beautiful.


The Skints
Live at Electric Brixton (digital only)
Mr Bongo/Easy Star
No cat. no.

While we all mourn the temporary loss of live music, there are a few live albums hitting the market now that were recorded just prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of them is this gem, from British reggae stalwarts the Skints. I can’t say enough about this group’s sound: the male-female lead vocals, the rich but stripped-down ensemble arrangements, the way they simultaneously revive, celebrate, and update the sound of 1970s reggae and ska. And onstage all of those characteristics are distilled and deepened. In a live setting they give more space to their speed-rap tendencies, which is tons of fun, and they engage the audience masterfully. Live albums are often disappointing, but this one is a masterpiece.

July 2020


PICK OF THE MONTH


Jah Sun x Jallanzo
Magic & Madness (digital only)
Six Degrees/Ingrooves
No cat. no.

I listen to a lot of reggae (a LOT), so when I tell you that this is the best new reggae release I’ve heard so far in 2020, you can assume that it’s high praise. Magic & Madness is the result of a collaboration between producer and multi-instrumentalist Omar “Jallanzo” Johnson (who wrote and arranged all the music as well as playing most of the instruments and producing the album) and singer/lyricist Jah Sun. It represents a departure from Jah Sun’s usual singjay style in favor of deeply rootswise songs rendered with a modern and digitally clean sound. The rhythms tend towards a churning rockers beat, though “Suffering in Silence” chugs along in a sturdy steppers style; “Wasted Time” drifts towards psychedelia at moments, and for those who really want to submerge themselves in the mystic there are two powerful but ethereal dub mixes at the end of the program. Jah Sun’s singing voice remains a wonder of clarity and flexibility. There’s not a weak track here, and I would encourage listeners to dive into Jah Sun’s back catalog as well.


CLASSICAL


Franz Krommer
Symphonies 6 & 9
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana / Howard Griffiths
CPO (dist. Naxos)
555 337-2
Rick’s Pick

This is the third volume in an ongoing series of recordings that makes the case for Franz Krommer–remembered primarily today for his prodigious output of chamber music–as a master and innovator of the symphonic form. His symphonies are rarely performed or recorded today, and these recordings (on modern instruments) by the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana will leave most listeners wondering why. In the sixth symphony you can hear him pushing the boundaries of harmonic (if not structural) convention, and in the ninth–completed just months before his death–he continues to do so, while also experimenting with structural innovations like motivic development across multiple movements. The playing and the recorded sound on this disc are both magnificent. For all classical collections.


Johann Pachelbel
Magnificat
Himlische Cantorey / Jan Kobow
CPO (dist. Naxos)
777 707-2

Virtually everyone is aware of Johann Pachelbel, though most probably don’t know why; it’s because they can hum the melody of his ubiquitous d-minor canon, which is used constantly at weddings and as general background music in all kinds of social contexts. But on its musical merits his chamber music is actually not particularly noteworthy; his vocal music is much more impressive, though not nearly as often performed or recorded today. His Magnificat settings are particularly spectacular; this program features four of those settings alongside a Mass and two sacred concertos, all performed on period instruments, and it will come with the force of revelation to listeners used to hearing only his relatively simple and straightforward small-scale works. Highly recommended.


Catherine Christer Hennix
Unbegrenzt (reissue; vinyl/digital only)
Blank Forms Editions/Empty Editions
BF-011/EE007

It’s in the nature of works like this one–loosely defined, dependent almost entirely for their performance on the creative input of the performers–that the question of who should be credited as the “composer” is difficult to answer. The present release is the reissue of a 1974 recording by Catherine Christer Hennix of a “composition” by Karlheinz Stockhausen, in whose studio she worked during the 1960s and with whom she worked on the development of tape music. The score for Unbegrenzt consists entirely of the instruction “Play a sound with the certainty that you have an infinite amount of time and space.” The work was realized and recorded in a completely different version by the composer in 1969; in this version, Hennix uses bowed gongs, temple blocks, spoken word, controlled feedback, and computer sounds to create a dark, eerie, and foreboding soundscape that never stops moving but never feels like it’s going anywhere. The sounds themselves are fascinating, the mood nearly chthonic.


Francesco Mancini
Six Recorder Sonatas
Yi-Chang Liang; Machiko Suto; Ensemble IJ SPACE
Claves
CD-50-1907
Rick’s Pick

This one gets a Rick’s Pick designation for three reasons: the almost off-handed virtuosity of recorder player Yi-Chang Liang; the brilliant clarity of the production; and the fact that this appears to be the world-premiere recording of these sonatas by the criminally overlooked Neapolitan composer Francesco Mancini, who was a widely renowned pedagogue and court composer in his day (the turn of the 18th century) and who actually succeeded Alessandro Scarlatti as maestro of that city’s Cappella Reale. Despite his heavy teaching and performing load both at the chapel and at the nearby Santa Maria di Loreto Conservatory, he produced prodigious amounts of sacred and instrumental music, including these sonatas, which are an absolute delight. The performances sparkle, as does the recorded sound. For all classical collections.


Max Reger
Clarinet Quintet op. 148; String Sextet op. 118
Thorsten Johannes; Diogenes Quartet
CPO (dist. Naxos)
555 340-2

Various Composers
Trios for Clarinet, Viola and Piano
The Teton Trio
Centaur (dist. Naxos)
CRC3876

Here are two clarinet-centered chamber music collections that otherwise couldn’t be more different. The clarinet quintet and string sextet by Max Reger are both dense, intense, and very much a product of their time: as you listen to Reger simultaneously looking back to the Romantics and embracing the impending end of tonality, you can understand why Arnold Schönberg was such a big fan of his. In fact, throughout both of these works I found myself repeatedly thinking of Verklärte Nacht, Schönberg’s own tortured farewell to three centuries of tonal hegemony. The Teton Trio’s disc is something else entirely: it consists of works solidly in the classical and Romantic traditions. Opening with Mozart’s ever-popular “Kegelstatt” trio, the program proceeds to a couple of Schubert lieder arrangements by the group’s clarinetist, Gregory Raden; a four-movement work by Carl Reinecke; an arrangement of a song from Jules Massenet’s Scènes alsaciennes; and Schumann’s Märchenerzälungen. These are works of effortless charm and aching melancholy, perfectly suited to the round, warm sound of the clarinet. Both ensembles and all soloists perform exquisitely.


Johannes de Cleve
Missa Rex Babylonis
Cinquecento
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
CDA68241

Though I have a deep interest in the music of the Franco-Flemish masters and spend a great deal of time seeking out and listening to recordings of their music, this is the first I’ve heard of Johannes de Cleve. Born in an undetermined location in either 1528 or 1529, he published his first works in 1553 and became a court singer in Vienna. He later moved to Graz and finally settled in Augsburg; much of his published output was written in honor of members of the Habsburg dynasty. This outstanding recording by the all-male Cinquecento ensemble is centerd on a parody Mass based on Johannes Vaet’s motet Rex Babylonis (which is appended at the end of the program), but it also features a handful of de Cleve’s original motets. De Cleve’s harmonic and structural creativity is impressive, and the singing by Cinquecento is exquisite. Highly recommended.


Franz Asplmayr
Six Quartets, op. 2 (2 discs)
Eybler Quartet
Gallery Players of Niagara
GPN 20001
Rick’s Pick

The Eybler Quartet has always had as part of its mission the uncovering of music by neglected composers of the classical period. And with this recording the group has certainly accomplished that aspect of its mission: Franz Asplmayr is undoubtedly a minor player compared with some of his more illustrious contemporaries in mid-18th-century Vienna, but he was quite prolific, producing more than 40 symphonies, a similar number of string quartets, and 70 trios, not to mention many (much more popular) works for the theater. This appears to be the first time that all of the six quartets in his opus 2 have been recorded together, and while they won’t convince anyone that he should be elevated to the status of Mozart or Haydn, they will be most welcome to anyone who loves the high classical style. The Eyblers play on period instruments, with sparkle and affection for this thoroughly charming music.


JAZZ


Alexa Tarantino
Clarity
Posi-Tone
PR8211

Having raved about Alexa Tarantino’s leader debut a year ago, I was very excited to receive her sophomore effort in the mail a couple of weeks ago — and it didn’t disappoint. On Clarity she presents four original compositions, all written recently, nestled among standards by Horace Silver (“Gregory Is Here”) and Kurt Weill (“My Ship”), a couple of commissioned compositions, and a beautiful version of the Latin tune “La Puerta.” Once again, the stylistic literacy and intelligence of her solos is deeply impressive — listen, for example, to Tarantino plumb the depths of her alto saxophone’s range on “La Puerta.” Note also how gracefully her midtempo original “A Unified Front” strikes a truly difficult balance: swinging hard while maintaining a finger-popping lightness of groove. Everyone in her quartet plays brilliantly, but drummer Rudy Royston is a particular highlight. For all jazz collections.


John Fedchock NY Sextet
Into the Shadows
Summit (dist. MVD)
DCD 765

A minute or so into the latest leader session from trombonist/composer John Fedchock, I found myself thinking “MAN, do these guys swing hard.” But as the program progressed, I found myself thinking other things. Things like “Holy cow, Fedchock sure knows how to write a horn chart” (check out the contrapuntal lines on “I Should Care”) and “Wait a minute, is ‘Nature Boy’ usually in 12/8?”. As always, Fedchock has gathered a stellar crew around him to bring his original compositions and arrangements to life, and they play with all the tightness and joy you’d hope.


John Scofield
Swallow Tales
ECM
2679

There are a few guitarists who are almost instantly recognizable by their tone: Richard Thompson, Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny — and John Scofield. It’s not that his sound is idiosyncratic, it’s just that it’s personal. There’s some chorus in there, and just a touch of distortion to rough up the very edges. But it’s also the notes he plays, and the way that the blues are never far from him no matter how complex the chord changes get. On his latest solo album he’s joined by drummer Bill Stewart and bassist Steve Swallow. As the title suggests, the album is actually a tribute to Swallow, and consists entirely of the bassist’s compositions. Scofield has said that when the two of them play together “sometimes… it’s like one big guitar,” and you can definitely hear that; you can also hear why Scofield likes Swallow’s tunes so much (“they’re grounded in reality, with cadences that make sense”). As discursive as the trio sometimes gets — this is an ECM jazz recording, after all — they never lose the thread of brilliant continuity that binds these wonderful tunes together. For all jazz collections.


Kurt Rosenwinkel Trio
Angels Around
Heartcore/ACT (dist. Redeye)
HCR08

Another outstanding new jazz guitar release is this one just out from the always-rewarding Kurt Rosenwinkel. Here leading a trio that includes bassist Dario Deidda and drummer Gregory Hutchison, he opens with one of Thelonious Monk’s most beautiful and overlooked compositions: the limpidly gorgeous “Ugly Beauty.” He proceeds through a program consisting mainly of standards, but centered on his own bluesy, gospelly “Simple #2.” On either side are such delights as the distinctly boppish Paul Chambers composition “Ease It,” Charles Mingus’s “Self Portrait in Three Colors,” and the always-luscious “Time Remembered” by Bill Evans. Rosenwinkel’s tone varies to fit the tune: reverberant and at times almost rockish on the title track and “Simple #2,” hornlike on the Mingus number, rich and soft-edged on the Evans. This is a wonderful album from one of the most creative minds in straight-ahead jazz.


SONAR with David Torn
Tranceportation (Volume 2)
Rare Noise
RNR114

And, finally, a jazz (sort of) album that features not one guitar but three. Back in January I recommended the first volume of music by this group, which includes two players of “tritone guitar” (I’m still not sure what that means, since I’ve been playing tritones on a conventional guitar for decades), a “tritone bass” player, and a drummer, plus legendary avant-rock guitarist David Torn as a guest. The tracks on this volume draw on the same sessions, and once again find the group operating in a really unique mode: fundamental harmonic stasis, with no real chord changes, but constant shifting and mutation within that static structure. The core bandmembers mostly build sonic scaffolding by means of interlocking rhythmic patterns, while Torn spins out strange atmospherics and long strips of sound that he drapes over those structures. It’s unlike anything else you’ll hear, and it’s consistently fascinating.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Kristen Grainger & True North
Ghost Tattoo
Self-released
No cat. no.

These days, when acoustic music doesn’t fit cleanly into a folk or bluegrass or old-time category, it tends to get designated as “Americana.” It’s as good a label as any, I guess, though it really doesn’t tell you too much. In the case of Kristen Grainger and True North, the term suggests strong hints of bluegrass, except without the aggressive drive and the ostentatious virtuosity, and an element of country as well, though without the assertive twang (or any twang at all, really; these guys are from Oregon). What are front and center are Grainger’s songwriting, which is graceful and intelligent, and her singing, which is beautiful but plainspoken and becomes heartstopping when combined in harmony with that of guitarist Dan Wetzel. This is a quiet gem of an album.


Bill Kirchen
The Proper Years (2 discs)
Last Music Company (dist. Redeye)
LMCD208

In form and wiring, the Fender Telecaster is one of the simplest electric guitars there is. It’s also one of the most sonically distinctive, prized by country, rockabilly, blues, and rock guitarists for its bell-like treble frequencies and astringent twang. There are whole schools of guitarists known specifically as Tele players, and Bill Kirchen is one of them. He’s also a fine singer and songwriter, and between 2006 and 2013 he recorded three solo albums for the British Proper label (Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods, Word to the Wise, and Seeds and Stems), all of which are compiled on this two-disc set, along with three bonus tracks. Word to the Wise is particularly notable for guest appearances by the likes of Maria Muldaur, Elvis Costello, Paul Carrack, and Kirchen’s former boss Commander Cody. Everywhere the playing is impressive, the singing is fine, and the songs are excellent.


ROCK/POP


Liza Anne
Bad Vacation
Arts & Crafts
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

Sharp, sly, and hookier than a box of fishing tackle, Liza Anne’s second album is something of a departure from the dreamier and crunchier sound of her debut, Fine But Dying. That album was guitar-centered and fuzzboxed; this one is replete with clicking Cars-style rhythm guitars, digital handclaps, 1980s synths, and clean-edged production. What have remained the same are Liza Anne’s sense of melody, her gorgeous voice, and her therapeutic lyrical concerns. Yes, I know — albums inspired by struggles with mental or emotional illness are hit-and-miss propositions, but I promise you, this one’s a hit. Song titles like “I Shouldn’t Ghost My Therapist” and “Oops” tell you that no matter how serious her problems, she’s not going to try to force you to take them as seriously as she does. For all libraries.


Alexander Flood
Heartbeat
Ropeadope/Stretch Music
STRETCH-101

Alexander Flood is an amazing young percussionist and composer from Australia, one who has delved deeply into a variety of rhythmic traditions and emerged with a complex, exciting, and stylistically promiscuous sound of his own. On his debut album, which he recorded entirely in his own home studio, he creates rhythmic compositions that are dense and highly complex, and that make reference to a wide variety of ethnic, national, and cultural traditions without trying to replicate them. There seem to be guest musicians involved (I’m assuming that’s not him playing trumpet on “Buffalo Soldier,” for example) but since the press materials didn’t include liner notes I can’t say for sure who or how many of them they are. What I do know is that Heartbeat is a thrilling, exhausting maelstrom of sound, beats, and textures, and it heralds a very exciting new talent.


Aksak Maboul
Figures (2 discs)
Crammed Discs
cram300

Aksak Maboul was founded in the 1970s by Crammed Discs label head Marc Hollander, and shortly thereafter the band released two albums that plowed new ground for avant-rock music: though clearly influenced by agit-pop outfits like Henry Cow and Red Krayola, Aksak Maboul used those influences as a jumping-off point for a uniquely quirky, edgy, and sometimes abrasive sonic vision. This new release (spread across two discs for no apparent reason, since the program clocks in at under 76 minutes) finds Hollander and vocalist Véronique Vincent (ex-Honeymoon Killers) not such much updating the classic Aksak Maboul sound as continuing to develop it, veering from relatively tuneful song structure to gentle minimalism to angular post-rock composition to impressionistic improvisation. Listen carefully for guest appearances by Fred Frith (Henry Cow), Steven Brown (Tuxedomoon) and others.


Misled Convoy x Uncle Fester on Acid
Twilight 32
Dubmission
CDDUBM099

Uncle Fester on Acid is the pseudonym of Dutch producer Pats Dokter. In recent years he’s begun a program of radically remixing releases on the Dubmission label, beginning with Pitch Black’s Filtered Senses album. Now he’s at it again, thoroughly deconstructing Sixteen Sunsets, a 2019 release by Misled Convoy (a.k.a. New Zealand artist Michael Hodgson). In January 2019 I recommended the original album, and now I’m encouraging you to acquire this remix version, which renders each original track effectively unrecognizable and pulls it out of the realm of avant-dub and into an entirely different sonic galaxy: one defined by dark repetition, enormous sonic spaces, and microscopic textural details. Also weird spoken-word samples.


Be Bop Deluxe
Modern Music (reissue; 4 CDs + DVD)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
PECLEC52698
Rick’s Pick

Be Bop Deluxe’s fourth album, recorded in 1976, is a thrilling and exhausting listen. Thrilling because by this point it had become clear that bandleader, lead guitarist, and songwriter Bill Nelson’s brain was an inexhaustible fountain of ideas, and that his fingers could translate them into sound without any apparent limitation; exhausting because the ideas come so relentlessly. Part of what’s fun about this band at this point in time is that you can hear them sort of struggling to decide whether they’re power pop or prog rock, and eventually deciding that they don’t have to choose between them and just luxuriating in a fusion of the two. Be Bop Deluxe never became a household name in the US, but Modern Music did well over here — despite the fact that it’s filled with Nelson’s decidedly jaded observations on American cuture. This massively expanded reissue includes new stereo and 5.1 mixes of the whole album, some previously unreleased session outtakes, and both audio and video live material. Highly recommended to all pop collections.


Max Cooper
3D Reworks 001 (EP; digital only)
Mesh
MESH033

Reid Willis
3D Reworks 002 (EP; digital only)
Mesh
MESH042

This pair of new EPs — which may herald the beginning of a series, who knows — was germinated, believe it or not, by a sound engineering controversy: the term “8D audio,” which amounts to the physically impossible claim that sound can be represented in more than three dimensions. In the real world, what the term actually refers to is the practice of binaural panning (moving the balance of sound back and forth between left and right audio channels). Max Cooper’s four-track EP finds him remixing four previously-released tracks from the Mesh label to create a slowly swirling, truly immersive listening experience. The second installment in the series is by Reid Willis, who similarly takes four previously released tracks and gives them the 3D mixing treatment, to most impressive effect on his rework of his own “Building the Monolith.” To get the full effect, all of this music should be experienced with very good headphones.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Various Artists
Pure Africa
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
EUCD2903

Every so often, a particular strain of African popular or traditional music will gain the attention of listeners in the global north and west: in the past we’ve seen this happen with South African mbaqanga and isicathamiya, and more recently there’s been lots of interest in Tuareg “desert blues.” But Africa is an enormous continent, one that teems with diverse languages, folkways, and musical traditions, and exploring all of them could be the work of several lifetimes. If your library could use an overview that covers many of them in a single program, consider this collection from the ARC Music label, which pulls together songs and instrumentals from all over the continent: songs from the griot tradition, horn-driven dance music from Ethiopia, voice-and-percussion music from the Gambia, and much more. Some of it is poppier and more western-influenced, and some of it less so; all of it is very interesting.


Tubby Isiah
Riding High (vinyl & digital only)
Moonshine
MSLP011

Shankara NZ
Dawn Chorus (EP; digital only)
Dubmission
CDDUBM102

From thousands of miles apart come two takes on modern dub — both built on dark, rolling basslines and atmospheres thick with UK sub-bass and elephantine dubstep wobble, but completely distinct nevertheless. Shankara NZ (a duo consisting of Brendan Evans and Elijah Wilson-Kelly) come from New Zealand and invest their instrumental dub with elements of local color: the faint sounds of regional birds, vocals from Kiwi artist esp Mc (no, that’s not a typo), basslines from Finn Kelcher. The vocals, interestingly, are almost entirely subsumed in the bass-heavy atmosphere and end up melting into the mix. This is dub that seems almost entirely divorced from the reggae mainstream, despite its structural fidelity to the one-drop verities. Those verities are front and center, however, in the case of Tubby Isiah, a father-and-son UK roots project out of Bristol. Information about this crew is tough to come by, but their debut album is a killer: largely traditional and straight-ahead dubwise instrumental reggae, alternating between propulsive steppers grooves and lurching rockers and one-drop, its fundamental conventionality undercut by elements of avant-dubstep and grime. Tubby Isiah balance the heavy and the ethereal with a perfect (and rare) dexterity. Both releases are highly recommended to all bassheads.


Sabri Family
Spirit of India: Five Ragas for Sarangi & Tabla
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
EUCD2904

For eight generations, the Sabri family has been dedicated to promulgating the classical music of the Hindustani (North Indian) school, focusing particularly on the sarangi, a notoriously difficult bowed instrument that sounds somewhat like a cross between a violin and an erhu. Unusually, members of the family often play together in combinations of two, three, or even five sarangis simultaneously. You’ll hear examples of that approach on this outstanding collection of ragas, all of them accompanied by Sarvar Sabri on tabla. All libraries with a collecting interest in the classical music of India should consider adding this one.


Various Artists
Black Ark in Dub (2 discs)
VP/17 North Parade
VP2703.2

Of all the weird releases in Lee “Scratch” Perry’s sprawling oeuvre, Black Ark in Dub was one of the strangest. No less an expert than Mick Sleeper asserts that only half of the tracks are actual Black Ark productions, and indeed some of the production flourishes don’t sound like typical Perry fare. But the album is certainly interesting nonetheless. The expanded reissue adds Black Ark Vol. 2 to the program as a second disc; this is a somewhat more conventional and, frankly, satisfying album, which is not a dub outing, but rather a collection of vocal tracks featuring Lacksley Castell, Carol Cole, the Silvertones and others, several of their tracks presented in “showcase” style (extended versions with dub mixes appended). Not necessarily an essential purchase for all libraries, this album will nevertheless be of interest to Perry’s international cult of fans.

June 2020


PICK OF THE MONTH


Doc Watson & Gaither Carlton
Doc Watson & Gaither Carlton
Smithsonian Folkways
SFW CD 40235

Doc Watson is a legendary name in folk and bluegrass music today, one of the pioneering stylists of flatpicking lead guitar and an inspiration to generations of traditional and New Acoustic musicians. But in 1960 he was playing rockabilly electric guitar in a bar band in the western mountains of North Carolina and no one outside of that region knew anything about him. When folk impresario Ralph Rinzler followed a lead and found Watson, it took him some time to convince him that urban audiences wanted to hear the old-time tunes–Watson’s experience was that even the people in his home town of Deep Gap were more interested in rock’n’roll. Eventually Rinzler convinced Watson and Gaither Carlton, Watson’s father-in-law and a locally renowned fiddler, to come and play some shows in New York. This disc presents previously-unheard tapes from those first two concerts, played at the NYU School of Education and at a folk club called Blind Lemon’s. It’s only 38 minutes of music, but the sound quality is surprisingly good and the performances are outstanding: tunes that Doc Watson fans will recognize as favorites (“Groundhog,” “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues,” “Handsome Molly”), classic weepers (“He’s Coming to Us Dead,” “Dream of the Miner’s Child”), and hot fiddle tunes (“Billy in the Low Ground,” “Double File”). Watson and Carlton each switch to banjo once in a while, which they play in at least three distinctive styles that will be of particular interest to folklorists. This album is a literal treasure and should find a home in every library.


CLASSICAL


Various Composers
Cantilena: Piazzolla, Falla, Granados, Villa-Lobos
Tabea Zimmerman; Javier Perianes
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM902648

The viola doesn’t get enough credit as a solo instrument. It’s like the alto in a choir–generally stuck singing harmonies to the show-off sopranos. But the viola has long been one of my favorite instruments; I love its rich, throaty tone and I love the fact that it basically never shrieks or whines, so this new release caught my attention immediately. On this lovely collection, violist Tabea Zimmerman teams up with pianist Javier Perianes for a recital program that focuses on the work of Spanish and Latin American composers of the late-19th and 20th centuries, writing in a variety of styles: Astor Piazzolla’s work is a tango, of course, while Manuel de Falla’s and Enrique Granados’ suites are arrangements of popular or folk tunes. Perhaps most revelatory are the four brief pieces by Pablo Casals, the world-renowned cellist who was much less famous as a composer. All of the playing is blissfully beautiful.


Jean-Daniel Braun
Sonatas for Flute & B.C. (4 discs)
Musica ad Rhenum
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
95764
Rick’s Pick

The liner notes to this magisterial set open with an all-too-familiar refrain: “We know next to nothing about the life of Jean-Daniel Braun, composer of the works presented here.” Sure enough, Braun is yet another example of a first-rate composer who fell from from the public eye after his death–though in his case, it seems also to be true that he was relatively little known during his life. During his career he was overshadowed by his contemporary Michel Blavet, the still-famous flute virtuoso, but there’s a good argument to be made that Braun’s writing was at least as skillful and demanding as Blavet’s. Jed Wentz is a marvelous exponent for these works, and while this set does not represent a world-premiere recording of all the pieces presented (Marion Treupel-Franck recorded a selection of them a few years ago), it does appear to be the first time all of them have been recorded and made available together.


Jean Louis Duport & Felix Battanchon
Etudes for Cello (2 discs)
Martin Rummel; Sebastian Hartung
Paladino Music (dist. MVD)
PMR 0087

David Popper
Etudes for Cello Op. 76
Martin Rummel; Sebastian Hartung
Paladino Music (dist. MVD)
PMR 0084

I realize that listening to three discs worth of systematic studies for cello, designed to strengthen technique, may not sound like the most attractive prospect to the average listener. But in the cases of both of these recordings, it’s worth making the effort to overcome that natural hesitation. The duo etudes by Duport are especially lyrical and melodically attractive, while helping the cellist not only learn important fingering and bowing patterns, but also learn to listen carefully and play in tune with others. The Twelve Studies in Thumb Position by Battanchon that round out the set are designed to help the cellist gain mastery of difficult fingerings high up the neck, and also make for surprisingly enjoyable listening. The same is true of Martin Rummel and Sebastian Hartung’s other recording of etudes under consideration here, a disc consisting of two etude collections written by the great cello virtuoso David Popper. Unlike Duport and Battanchon, Popper remains famous to this day both as a soloist and as a composer. The program on this album consists of his Ten Grand Etudes of Moderate Difficulty and Fifteen Easy Melodic-harmonic Etudes with an Accompaniment of a Second Cello, and is a bit drier and more explicitly academic in tone, but still quite lovely. And, of course, both of these recordings will be of use to libraries supporting programs in cello pedagogy.


Ludwig Van Beethoven; Justin Heinrich Knecht
Symphonie Nr. 6, Op. 68 “Pastorale”; Le portrait musicale de la nature
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin / Bernhard Forck
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 902425
Rick’s Pick

Beethoven’s sixth symphony is among his most popular, and is frequently recorded. But it’s not nearly as frequently recorded by a period-instrument ensemble–and to my knowledge it has never been recorded alongside the little-known Justin Heinrich Knecht’s Portrait musical de la nature. This pairing is built on an argument: that Beethoven must surely have been aware of Knecht’s programmatic work (which was written some years before his) and that his sixth symphony was, to a significant degree, a response to it. There’s certainly no question that the two pieces combine to make a marvelous program, each of them evoking (both subtly and directly) sounds of nature and emotions connected to the pastoral life. As always, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin acquits itself admirably, playing with focus, depth, and energy. Highly recommended to all collections.


Arvo Pärt
Stabat Mater: Choral Works by Arvo Pärt
Gloriae Dei Cantores / Richard K. Pugsley
Paraclete (dist. Naxos)
GDCD 065

Arvo Pärt; Pēteris Vasks; James MacMillan
Stabat
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; The Dmitri Ensemble / Graham Ross
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 905323

Arvo Pärt grew up in Estonia, during a time when it was one of the most brutally repressive of the Soviet Bloc countries. Over time his religious devotion (and the overtly religious content of his music) got him into trouble with the authorities, and he was finally able to leave the country in 1980–and thereafter became the world’s most frequently performed living composer. These two discs offer programs centered on one of his most monumental works: the Stabat Mater setting. Originally written for three voices with string trio, both Gloriae Dei Cantores and the Choir of Clare College perform the composer’s later arrangement of the work for choir and string orchestra. Contrasting the style of the two ensembles when performing this work (and the others on the two discs) is interesting: Gloria Dei Cantores have a more fullsome, 20th-century sound, while the Choir of Clare College goes for a more straight-toned and ancient tone; my personal preference is for the latter, but a library supporting a choral curriculum would do well to collect examples of both for pedagogical purposes. Apart from the Stabat Mater setting, these two releases offer very different programs; the Clare College recording incorporates contemporary works by Pēteris Vasks and James MacMillan, that complement the Pärt pieces nicely.


Antonio Vivaldi
I colori dell’ombra (2 discs)
Ophélie Gaillard; Pulcinella Orchestra
Aparté Music (dist. PIAS)
AP226

This is something of a themed collection of pieces, inspired by the instrument that cellist Ophélie Gaillard has been playing for the past 15 years: a Goffriller cello of unknown provenance, built near Venice sometime in the 18th century, and possessed of an unusually rich lower register. Working with the Pulcinella Orchestra (on period instruments), Gaillard seeks to recreate the feeling of Vivaldi’s Venice, with all of its bustling and joyous energy. The program consists mainly of cello concertos, one of which is a reconstruction based on a notebook kept by one of Vivaldi’s students (and is presented here in a world-premiere recording), but also includes a sinfonia and, interestingly, two opera arias. These pieces do indeed show off the unqique richness and depth of Gaillard’s instrument, but more importantly they communicate the joy of Vivaldi’s music. Beautifully played, beautifully recorded.


Simon Fisher Turner & Edmund de Waal
A Quiet Corner in Time
Mute
CDSTUMM439

From bustling and joyous energy we move to unsettled and grumbling abstraction. A Quiet Corner in Time was conceived by composer Simon Fisher Turner as the sonic accompaniment to an architectural installation by ceramicist Edmund de Waal at the Schindler House in Los Angeles. The music is something of a collage work consisting mainly of field recordings made in Vienna and Los Angeles–it’s not musique concrète, exactly, but it certainly has one foot in that tradition. Sounds are radically altered in some cases and sometimes they are purely representational, evoking childhood memories or exotic scenarios, depending on the listener’s frame of reference. At no point is the music harsh or confrontational, but it’s never exactly comforting either. This is very much a 20th-century composition, and I mean that in a good way.


JAZZ


3D Jazz Trio
I Love to See You Smile
Self-released
3DCD-2020
Rick’s Pick

Pianist Jackie Warren, bassist Amy Shook, and drummer Sherrie Maricle met while playing as members of the DIVA Jazz Orchestra; recognizing in each other kindred spirits, they formed the Three Divas Jazz Trio (3D Jazz Trio for short) and have now made two albums. On I Love to See You Smile they open with a strutting, sassy take on the title tune, before then stretching out on a varied program of standards, one that jumps easily from a Latin favorite (“Besame Mucho”) to classic balladry (“Angel Eyes”) and to greasy organ-trio-style blues funk (“Back at the Chicken Shack”). No matter what style or period they cover they sound completely at ease, with Warren in particular turning every solo into a virtual survey of jazz history. This album is like an especially satisfying meal made up of a variety of delicious dishes. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Ed Bennett
Portland Calling
Saphu
SCD-0035

Great tunes and great playing on this outing by bassist and composer Ed Bennett, who (as the album title suggests) is based in Portland, Oregon. The titles of some of his tunes convey the same pride of place: “Holliday in Portland” (that’s a pun, not a typo), “March Mist,” “Way Out Left.” Bennett writes in a powerfully swinging, straight-ahead style, with complex but accessible heads that hark back unapologetically to both the bebop and the cool periods of jazz history. Among his sidemen, pianist Dan Gaynor is particularly notable as a soloist. The production is a bit iffy–both the piano and the drums sound as if they were miked at a considerable distance, and the album’s overall sound is just a bit stuffy and constrained. But the playing shines through.


Brian Landrus
For Now
Blueland
BLR-2020
Rick’s Pick

Honestly, this is not the kind of jazz that usually gets me excited: the melodies kind of meander, the chord changes are often sideways and indirect, and for the most part it doesn’t really swing. But holy cow, it’s just gorgeous. Leader Brian Landrus is a master of low reeds, but he’s also a magnificent composer. By bringing together a group that includes Fred Hersch (whose pianistic style is a perfect match for Landrus’ unusual progressions and abstract melodies) and drummer Billy Hart, he’s built a perfect team; and when he steps out solo and unaccompanied (as he does on a brilliant bass clarinet version of “‘Round Midnight” and on alto flute with his own “Night of Change”), the results are magnificent. I was also surprised by how happy I was to hear the string quartet come in every time it did. This is an altogether brilliant album by a master who knows not only how to blow and not only how to write, but also how to arrange for maximum impact.


BK Trio
Hit It
Self-released
No cat. no.

When the lineup is guitar, organ, and drums, you know what to expect: funk and soul. And guitarist/composer Brian Kooken and his trio don’t let you down. They come right out of the gate with the title track, a burning, swinging blues, and then proceed to lay down an entire album’s worth of original compositions that could have been written and recorded in this genre’s 1960s heyday: the busily bustling “Always Looking Up,” the finger-snapping “Hatzas Groove,” the slow and funky “In That Funk Again.” And there’s even some gentle bossa (“Brazilian Blues”) to break things up. Kooken’s tone is warm and soulful, and organist Greg Hatza and drummer Robert Shahid provide brilliant accompaniment. Highly recommended to all jazz collections.


Jon Balke
Discourses
ECM
2648

For his third solo album, Norwegian pianist Jon Balke continues to explore approaches to mixed-media performance, blending live acoustic piano with software-created sounds and processed recordings–and also blending composed material with improvisation. If this leads you to expect something aleatory, chaotic, or otherwise Cagean, think again: while the music isn’t strictly programmatic, it was inspired by Balke’s concerns with the state of current social and cultural discourse, and is by turns sad, discombobulated, and angry, but never disorganized or random. The electronic sounds that run like a silvery but discontinuous thread throughout these pieces are always subordinate to the sound of the piano itself, and often create timbral juxtapositions that shed new light on the notes Balke is playing. His work is always worth hearing, and this album is unusually affecting. For all jazz collections.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Pam Tillis
Looking for a Feeling (digital only)
Stellar Cat (dist. One RPM)
No cat. no.

Pam Tillis (yes, she’s the daughter of country legend Mel Tillis) has deep respect for her country roots and clearly loves and honors them–but at the same time, while her music comes out of country it is in no way defined by it. The quietly moaning steel guitar of “Lady Music” nudges up against wah-wah guitar; “Dolly 1969” and “Karma” both rock as much as they two-step; and honestly, I hear kind of a blend of Kate Bush and Eddi Reader in “Better Friends.” “Dark Turn of Mind” somehow manages simultaneously to evoke a honky-tonk and Tin Pan Alley, and thematically it reminds me of Big Sandy’s “Night Tide.” Tillis’s voice is sweet and clear, but its deceptive gentleness masks a hard core of world-weariness and resolve. Great songs, great performances, great album of modern country music.


Jake Blount
Spider Tales
Free Dirt
DIRT-CD-0097
Rick’s Pick

In recent years we’ve seen more and more attention being paid to the African-American roots of old-time and bluegrass music. On Spider Tales singer, banjo player, and fiddler Jake Blount sheds light on those roots, performing tunes and songs that in a few cases will be familiar to those with an interest in old-time music (“Grey Eagle,” “Rocky Road to Dublin”), but that for the most part hit with the force of revelation. Blount sings and fiddles alone on the keening “Brown Skin Baby” and is accompanied by the percussive sounds of dancer Nic Gareiss on the eerily beautiful gut-strung banjo solo “Goodbye, Honey, You Call That Gone.” Fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves is featured prominently as well, and the two of them make a powerhouse duo. Notes on the tunes’ origins are provided throughout. This is one of those rare albums that is as informative as it is enjoyable.


Del Barber
Easy Keeper
Acronym
DB03

Here’s a very nice helping of straight-up honky-tonk and country-fried Americana from Manitoba singer-songwriter Del Barber. His writing is deeply informed by his time spent helping his mom, who was a drug addiction counselor in a rehab center during his youth. He credits that experience with teaching him how to listen, and you can hear that skill in his lyrics about good people caught in bad situations and about deeply flawed people trying to navigate the consequences of their choices. You’ll also hear his plainspoken skill as a singer, and the somewhat flashier skill of his sidepersons, who are exceptional musicians. Most of these songs are gentle, several are pretty wry, and all of them have a big heart. And there are lots of great hooks.


ROCK/POP


Enter Shikari
Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible
So
SOAK215

Enter Shikari’s motto is “Abusing music genres’ worthless boundaries since 2003,” and they continue to live by it. In recent years, their unique blend of screaming post-hardcore, dubstep/D&B, and pop has been shifting further and further from the hardcore end of the spectrum and more and more towards pop–and, interestingly, the prog tendencies that have always lurked just below the surface are becoming more apparent. Their latest album boasts the most (and sharpest) hooks of their career, as well as the most unabashed prog moves: note, for example, the two-part conceptual suite “Marionettes,” which begins with a three-minute orchestral composition (“The Discovery of Strings,” get it?). Elsewhere we hear the usual lyrical concerns (the environment, science vs. religion, ambivalence about technology, etc.), expressed with an ever-sharpening sense of melody. Another triumph from an outstanding band.


Carla Olson
Have Harmony, Will Travel 2
Sunset Blvd (dist. Redeye)
CD-SBR-7953

Seven years ago, Californian/Texan singer-songwriter Carla Olson put out an album called Have Harmony, Will Travel, which celebrated the pop music tradition of two-voice harmony. The second installment in the series follows the same formula as the first, with Olson playing and singing alongside a stellar cast of vocal guests that includes Peter Noone (Herman’s Hermits), Stephen McCarthy (Long Ryders), Gene Clark (the Byrds) and many others. You’ll hear jangle pop, country rock, and Latin rock, among other genres, all of it delivered with gritty intensity and professional polish. The exception is her rendition of the folk classic “Scarlet Ribbons,” which she sings with Terry Reid, whose somewhat ravaged voice blends raggedly with her quiet harmony and his aggressive acoustic guitar in a very affecting way. Highly recommended.


Pere Ubu
By Order of Mayor Pawlicki: Live in Jarocin (2 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
CDBRED806
Rick’s Pick

There have been lots of live Pere Ubu albums over the past four decades, and most of them have, let’s face it, been terrible–often based on cassette recordings made by audience members. This one is an anomaly: high-quality board tapes of a recent concert in Jarocin, Poland, and of a set that prominently featured songs from Ubu’s early albums: “hits” like “Heart of Darkness,” “Codex,” “Caligari’s Mirror,” and “Real World.” And the second disc finds them playing–gasp–several covers, including “Kick Out the Jams” and “Sonic Reducer” (the latter of which, believe it or not, was actually written by Ubu frontman David Thomas, and which slyly segues directly into “Final Solution,” an early Ubu favorite that pays lyrical homage to “Sonic Reducer”). Thomas sounds, as he always has, like a somewhat strangulated penguin, and the band rocks like nobody’s business. And this being Ubu, of course things get deeply strange at the very end. This album is a must-have for any library that collects deeply in rock and pop music.


Stubbleman
Mountains and Plains
Crammed Discs/Made to Measure
MTM 44

Though it’s being billed as an “electronic/ambient” project and as something of a celebration of ambient music’s 1970s heyday, the debut from composer/producer Pascal Gabriel (recording as Stubbleman, not to be confused with Beardyman) sometimes sounds to me more like Kraftwerk than like, say, Brian Eno. “Griffith Park,” in particular, motors along quite nicely, and “South 61 West 14” also pulses with a calm energy and a definite (and fairly complex) chord progression. Mountains and Plains is quite explicitly programmatic, and is built on sounds that Gabriel recorded during a long road trip in the United States; the music ends up being pleasant, evocative, and interesting, and this album is a tremendously rewarding listen overall.


The Legendary Ingramettes
Take a Look in the Book
Virginia Folklife Program
VFL-CD-2020
Rick’s Pick

More than fifty years ago, Maggie Ingram’s husband left her with no money and several children. Having no other financial prospects, she taught her kids to sing and took them on the road with her as a gospel group. That’s the heritage of the Legendary Ingramettes, who are now led by Maggie’s daughter Almeta, and who continue the tradition of gutsy, all-female, spirited electric gospel singing. The program on this album consists mainly of songs that Maggie wrote, with a Bill Withers tune thrown in for good measure, and it’s an absolute joy. “When Jesus Comes” is perhaps the highlight, a hands-in-the-air explosion of joyful anticipation, but honestly there’s not a single weak track on the album. In fact, the word “weak” can’t even really stay in your mind while listening to this remarkable tribute to one of the strongest women America has ever known.


L. Shankar
Chepleeri Dream
Cleopatra
CLO1594

Violinist L. Shankar has been a legend for decades, a musician deeply trained in the Carnatic classical tradition. But most of his career has been spent venturing far outside the boundaries of that tradition, collaborating with jazz musicians like John McLaughlin and Jan Garbarek and rock artists like Peter Gabriel and Wendy & Lisa, among many others, while also inventing a radically new version of the violin itself–a double-necked electric model. His latest album finds him surrounding himself with what is probably the most eclectic crew to date, a shifting group that includes bassist Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel), singer Jonathan Davis (Korn), bassist Norwood Fisher (Fishbone), and saxophonist Scott Page (Supertramp), just to name a few. The music contains elements of Indian music (including the occasional vedic chant) but is overwhelmingly rockish, even proggy. Not too proggy, though–these are pop songs, unusual as they may be. Recommended.


VickiKristinaBarcelona
Pawn Shop Radio
Storysound (dist. Redeye)
161-035

VickiKristinaBarcelona is an all-female trio who combine elements of cabaret theater, folk, jazz, Cajun, and basically any other musical style that happens to cross their path into a unique blend–and on their debut album, they’ve put their multifarious talents together in a tribute to Tom Waits, covering songs like “Way Down in the Hole,” “Gun Street Girl,” “Jersey Girl,” and “Innocent When You Dream.” Because he’s such an unconventional singer–his voice famously sounds like that of a chain-smoking 80-year-old carnival barker trapped in a jalopy in the process of breaking down in the middle of a dirt road–it’s easy to overlook Tom Waits’ exceptional gift for writing conventional songs. (For crying out loud, “Jersey Girl” even rhymes “charms” with “arms.”) Of course, he can also write weird and twisted ones, and you’ll find both on this slightly weird and twisted album. VKB’s arrangements are completely new and are frequently revelatory, and their singing is a delight.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Jah9
Note to Self
VP/Steam Chalice
VP2659

On her fifth album, the brilliant reggae singer and songwriter Jah9 continues to explore themes of roots, culture, righteousness and spirituality, while also delving into deeply introspective themes and expanding her musical palette somewhat. The title track does both of the latter things, as she counsels with and encourages herself (“I’m going to be okay…”) over a slow funk-reggae groove. Elsewhere, “Field Trip” explores a sort of soul/Afrobeat fusion, “Could It Be” is explicitly soully, and she slips into singjay mode on tracks like “New Race” and “Ma’at.” But for those who love straight-up roots reggae there’s plenty on offer here as well, from the slowly churning one-drop of “Hey You” and “Feel Good” to the horns-driven paean to Haile Selassie “Love Has Found I.” Jah9 continues to set the standard for conscious reggae music.


Nathan Fischer
Tales from Malaysia: Between Two Worlds
Soundset
SR1114

Classical guitarist Nathan Fischer lived in Malaysia for six years, and during that time found himself fascinated by the cultural melting-pot it represented, thanks to its location at the crossroads of multiple Asian countries. He began investigating guitar music based on or inspired by Malaysian melodies, and his research led to this, the first-ever Malaysian-themed album of classical guitar music. It features works by such regional composers as Sharifah Faith (the first Malaysian woman to compose a concert piece for classical guitar) and Tan Hooi Song, alongside others by Western composers like Paul Cesarczyk and the great John Duarte. The pieces range widely in style, from classical to folk-inflected to jazzy, and Fischer handles all of the shifts with grace, emotional insight, and deceptive ease. This is a brilliant album of a unique repertoire.


Mark Wonder
Remz of the Dragonslayer (digital only)
Oneness
No cat. no.

I’m not sure there’s a more compelling artist on the contemporary roots reggae scene than Mark Wonder right now; a fine songwriter, he’s also a singer with an utterly beautiful voice–it’s rich and colorful, and his delivery is soully without ever lapsing into the whining nasality that so often afflicts reggae-soul stylists. His lyrics are resolutely conscious, and though I have no idea what he means by “remz” (a term that crops up in his songs as well, as in “days like these just remz me out”), the strict positivity of his messages are a balm to the soul in these troubled times. The accompanying rhythms on this album are original and modern with a clean edge, but not antiseptically digital. There’s only one weak track here, the rather abstract and slightly pretentious “Better Days,” which has no beat and is accompanied by a synthesized harp. Everything else is absolutely killer.

May 2020

Posted on

PICK OF THE MONTH


Sharon Isbin & Amjad Ali Khan
Strings for Peace
Zoho (dist. MVD)
ZM 2020004

Sharon Isbin has been a world-famous classical guitarist for decades. Less well-known has been her dedication to transcendental meditation, which she has practiced since her teens, and her concomitant longstanding interest in the classical music of India. On this album she joins a distinguished family of sarod players and an equally eminent player of the tabla for a set of ragas written for her by the patriarch of that family, Amjad Ali Khan. (He and his two sons take turns playing alongside her on these performances.) The combination of sarod–a plucked but fretless stringed instrument–and classical guitar is not an obvious one, and before cuing up the disc one immediately wonders how Isbin is going to make this work. And the answer is: with impressive good taste and skill. Notable here is not only her ability to use a chromatic instrument effectively in the context of the famously microtonal elaborations that characterize Indian music, but also her ability to complement (if not exactly match) the tone of the sarod. She also subtly uses her guitar to take the place of a tambura, quietly playing tonic-dominant drones (and, slyly, the occasional triadic chord) while the sarod solos. The result is not an East-West fusion, but rather a new articulation of Hindustani classical music. For all libraries.


CLASSICAL


Antonio Vivaldi
Vivaldi
Martin Fröst; Concerto Köln
Sony Classical
19075929912

Consisting primarily of music composed by someone other than Vivaldi and not originally written for the clarinet, one might reasonably accuse clarinetist Martin Fröst of chutzpah (at the very least) for titling his latest release Vivaldi. But some explanation is in order: the clarinet came into vogue shortly before Vivaldi died, and he only wrote five pieces for the instrument. This album is an intentionally creative and necessarily speculative answer to the question “If Vivaldi had lived long enough to see the clarinet fully mature as a solo instrument, what might his compositions for the clarinet have sounded like?” In response to that question, Fröst presents three “concertos” based on opera and oratorio arias written by Vivaldi; the orchestral accompaniment for these works was arranged (drawing on material taken from various of Vivaldi’s extant works) by Andreas Tarkmann. There are also several transcriptions and even one of the composer’s actual works for chalumeau, the clarinet’s predecessor. Fröst and Concerto Köln all play on period instruments, and although the program ends up being a bit stingy (at around 40 minutes) it’s tremendously enjoyable.


Jan Dismas Zelenka
Missa 1724
Collegium Vocale 1704; Collegium 1704 / Václav Luks
Accent (dist. Naxos)
ACC 24363

Francisco Valls
Missa Regalis
Choir of Keble College; Academy of Ancient Music / Matthew Martin
Academy of Ancient Music (dist. Naxos)
AAM008

Jan Dismas Zelenka is a relativey unknown composer today, though clearly a giant of the Czech baroque scene. The rise of the early music movement over the past five decades has served to bring a fair amount of his music to light, and the world is a much richer place for it; however, some of this process has required a certain amount of reconstructive work. Hence this new recording by Collegium 1704, which consists of Mass sections that survive only as stand-alone fragments and are pulled together to imaginatively recreate a performance as it might have occurred in 1724. As always with this composer, the music is emotionally deep and majestically conceived, and magnificently performed by the Choir of Keble College and the Academy of Ancient Music. With the Valls recording we have a genuine world premiere by a genuinely obscure composer, though one who was infamous in his time for his adventurous use of harmony. Towards the very end of his career, he wrote the last of several Masses based on a specific six-note sequence. It’s composed in the relatively scaled-back and severe style favored at the time at the Portuguese Royal Chapel, and due to its brevity the sections are interspersed with keyboard works by Juan Bautista José Cabinilles and Francisco Corrêa de Arouxo (the disc still clocks in at under 41 minutes). Both albums are strongly recommended to early music collections.


Gottfried Finger
Music for European Courts and Concerts
The Harmonious Society of Tickle-fiddle Gentlemen
Ramée/Outhere (dist. Naxos)

Ever heard of Gottfried Finger? No? Me either. So this new release by the Harmonious Society of Tickle-fiddle Gentlemen caught my attention; it brings together world-premiere recordings of twelve works for varying combinations of instruments, all culled from the latter part of his career (therefore, the latter decades of the 17th century and the early part of the 18th). Finger hailed from Moravia, but he was equally adept at writing in the French, Italian, and German styles, and this program showcases his versatility. Orchestral works rub shoulders with pieces for chamber ensembles of winds and strings, and there are even some brief vocal pieces. All are beautifully performed and recorded, and while Finger may be too obscure a figure for generalist collections, any library with a particular interest in baroque music would be wise to pick this one up.


Johann Sebastian Bach; Wilhelm Friedemann Bach; Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Sisters, Face to Face: The Bach Legacy in Women’s Hands
The Raritan Players
Acis Productions
APL41769
Rick’s Pick

This is an album that makes a musical argument: that whereas we tend to think of the fortepiano as an instrument that displaced the harpsichord in popular and concert usage in the late 18th century, in fact the two instruments not only “coexisted happily for decades,” but also “were often used together to play duets and double concertos.” (And in fact, hybrid instruments were built during this period that allowed two performers to face each other at different keyboards, each of them actuating a different action mechanism.) This argument is made–pretty compellingly, I think–by means of a program consisting of works played often in Berlin by salon hostesses using just this combination of keyboards: two duo concertos by J.S. and W.F. Bach and two sonatas by J.S. and C.P.E. Bach make up the program, all played by the outstanding duo of Rebecca Cypress and Yi-heng Yang (who perform as The Raritan Players). The timbral combination is so pleasing that it will leave the listener astonished that there aren’t more recordings like this. Highly recommended to all classical collections.


Various Composers
A Consort’s Monument
L’Achéron
Ricercar (dist. Naxos)
RIC413

The last recording by L’Achéron celebrated the physical completion of a new consort of historically-accurate viols built for the group by Arnaud Giral; this new one is occasioned by the completion of a virginal and organ built to accompany those viols by the workshops of Jean-François Brun and Dominic Gwynn. The group’s first album focused on works by Orlando Gibbons, and this one pays homage to Thomas Mace, following many of the directions laid out in his treatise Musick’s Monument and drawing on compositions of many composers mentioned in that work. Thus we have pieces by Thomas Cooper, Alfonso Ferrabosco, John Deering, John Ward, and others of the period, both famous and obscure. L’Achéron plays with almost startlingly fine intonation and wonderful balance, and are beautifully recorded. For all early music collections.


Anonymous
S:T Sigfrid’s Officium: Celebremus karissimi
Ensemble Gemma
Sterling (dist. Naxos)
CDA1840

Anonymous
Saints inouïs: Chants sacrés perdues et retrouvés de XIIe siècle
Ensemble Scholastica
ATMA Classique (dist. Naxos)
ACD2 2804

Both of these discs present medieval music for daily devotion from the 12th to 13th centuries in honor of one or more saints. S:T Sigfrid’s Officium consists of an “office” (chants sung throughout the day) in honor of St. Sigfrid, who came to Sweden in the 11th century as a missionary and is popularly believed to have baptized the first king of Sweden. Saints inouïs (“astonishing saints”) brings together music from the offices for St. Pardulf and St. Yrieix, along with music for the Feast of the Conception of the Virgin–all of which has its origins in the French region of Creuse. Both programs are sung by all-female ensembles; in the case of the St. Sigfrid disc, the voices tend to be solo and are recorded quite closely and intimately, and vocal textures are occasionally broken up by a hurdy-gurdy (which sounds surprisingly decorous and solemn in this context). The Saints inouïs collection is recorded with a more liturgical flavor, the voices ringing out in a stately manner inside a reverberant church acoustic, accompanied sparely by a droning fiddle or organetto; the singing is occasionally interrupted by readings. Both of these are outstanding releases, and are strongly recommended to any library with a collecting interest in medieval music (or where patrons have shown an interest in the music of Hildegard von Bingen).


Various Composers
Salve, Salve, Salve: Josquin’s Spanish Legacy
Contrapunctus / Owen Rees
Signum Classics (dist. Naxos)
SIGCD608

During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Josquin Desprez was one of the towering figures in a crowded field of outlandishly talented composers in the Franco-Flemish region. Interestingly, a few years after his death he suddenly became very popular in Spain, where his works deeply influenced the finest composers of that region: Tomás Luis de Victoria, Francisco Guerrero, and Cristóbal de Morales. This disc, sumptuously sung by the mixed-voice Contrapunctus ensemble, seeks to document that influence, in particular by demonstrating the way in which these composers incorporated Josquin’s pioneering use of the technique of ostinato. The centerpiece of the program is Victoria’s magnificent Missa Gaudeamus; it also features motets and antiphons by Morales, Guerrero, and Josquin himself, with a couple of Gregorian chants thrown in the keep things fresh. Contrapunctus sing with a colorful blend and glowing tone. Highly recommended.


JAZZ


LP and the Vinyl
Heard and Seen
OA2
22180
Rick’s Pick

The band here operating under the name LP and the Vinyl is actually the Danny Green Trio (whose praises I’ve sung here in CD HotList on multiple occasions), with the addition of singer Leonard Patton. Their debut album as a quartet is anything but a typical vocal jazz outing; while there are some standards (“Softly, As a Morning Sunrise”; “My One and Only Love”) the program consists mainly of re-imaginings of pop material: songs by Oasis, David Bowie, the Beatles, Tears for Fears, etc. Wisely, Green and crew don’t try to force these songs into a standard jazz structure, but instead let their arrangements be guided by the songs themselves, creating new musical hybrids that end up sounding like acoustic R&B as much as jazz, drawing the best elements from all available stylistic sources. The result sounds both comfortingly familiar and brand new–which is a pretty remarkable accomplishment, when you think about it. For all libraries.


Lara Driscoll
Woven Dreams
Firm Roots
947290

Listening to the opening track on pianist/composer Lara Driscoll’s debut album as a leader, my first thought was “Hey, Bill Evans!”. And I mean that as a compliment, of course. But then the program continued and things got more complicated. Sure, there’s floating impressionism here (notably the second movement of a suite titled “Forgiving: Black Dog Skirts Away”) but there’s also funk (a gently wild setting of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “O Morro Não Tem Vez”), some swinging waltz-time stuff (“Trespassers”), a marvelous straight-ahead standard (“Just One of Those Things”), and a tribute to the “ECM Sound” (“ECMT Blues”). Driscoll and her trio exhibit both deep and introspective emotion and a sharp wit, and no matter how freely they seem to be drifting at times, they never come apart. Highly recommended.


Henry Robinett Quartet
Jazz Standards Volume 1: Then
Nefertiti
N121619
Rick’s Pick

About 20 years ago, guitarist Henry Robinett got in touch with a few friends and invited them to join him in a recording studio just to play some tunes for fun. Over the course of two days he called standard after standard, and the quartet had a great time playing together. Then the tapes sat on a shelf for 19 years. When Robinett came across them again and listened, he realized that the sessions had been more than just fun; they had been special, and needed to be heard. Hence this album, which will be followed by a second volume; these will be followed by two more albums based on a subsequent and more recent recording date with the same personnel. Robinett’s tone is warm and burnished, but not too soft, and the whole group swings mightily. Highlight track: a gorgeous uptempo version of “The Way You Look Tonight.” For all jazz collections.


Dave Askren & Jeff Benedict
Paraphernalia: Music of Wayne Shorter
Tapestry/Capri
76029-2

For this celebration of the music of Wayne Shorter, saxophonist Jeff Benedict and guitarist Dave Askren are joined by bassist Jonathan Pintoff and percussionist Chris Garcia (who plays a variety of percussion instruments rather than a traditional drum kit here). Shorter is both prolific as a composer and also famously eclectic in style: he came up playing hard bop and then joined Miles Davis in what came to be known as Davis’ Second Great Quintet; as a founding member of Weather Report, was one of the architects of jazz fusion. His compositions are frequently gorgeous, and Askren and Benedict have put together an outstanding program here: familiar classics like “E.S.P.” and “Yes and/or No” alongside funky deep cuts like “Tom Thumb.” The quartet’s unique instrumentation makes for a fun and fresh take on Shorter’s already distinctive music.


Posi-Tone Swingtet
One for 25
Posi-Tone
PR8208
Rick’s Pick

As one might expect, the Posi-Tone Swingtet consists of musicians who regularly record for Posi-Tone Records, one of the best and most prolific straight-ahead jazz labels on the scene right now; they convened for this recording in honor of the label’s 25th anniversary. The group is called a “swingtet” partly because, you know, they swing, and partly because the number of members fluctuates from track to track: sometimes it’s an octet, sometimes a nonet. But always, they swing. The program consists mainly of originals by members of the band, like the sprightly, slippery opening number (by the always-brilliant trombonist Michael Dease) and the sumptuous ballad “For Morgan” by alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius. But there are great tunes from outside the group too, notably the hot bebop tune “Dry Clean Only” and the strutting midtempo “Schlep City,” with its lush swing-band horn chart. Altogether outstanding.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Brian Ó Headhra & Fiona MacKenzie
Tuath: Songs of the Northlands
Naxos World
NXW76116-2

Brian Ó Headhra and Fiona MacKenzie define “Northlands” liberally for this album–given their names and the disc’s Gaelic title, you might expect songs of the Scottish highlands and the Hebrides. But instead, the two singers explore connections between Gaelic music and that of other Northern European traditions, with traditional Celtic songs rubbing shoulders with tunes from Denmark, Galicia, and Norway. (And some originals are slipped into the program for good measure.) Stylistically, the album is expansive as well: electronic instruments, beats, and vocal treatments work cooperatively with traditional acoustic instruments to create truly unique and lovely settings for these songs and for Ó Headhra’s and MacKenzie’s voices. For all libraries.


Pharis & Jason Romero
Bet on Love
Lula
LULA-CD-2006
Rick’s Pick

Here’s another quiet masterpiece from husband-and-wife duo Pharis and Jason Romero: as usual, what’s on offer are original songs, in purely acoustic arrangements, sung in sweet harmony and played on varying combinations of guitar and banjo (with help from bassist Patrick Metzger and legendary mandolinist John Reischman). The Romeros are also exceptionally gifted banjo builders, which means that you hear a variety of banjo styles and sounds, including a deep-throated gourd banjo on several tracks. The gentleness and insight of their lyrics is matched by melodies that never grab you by the throat but frequently take you gently by the hand. For all libraries, as all of their albums are.


Band of Ruhks
Authentic
Rebel
REB-CD-1867

Band of Ruhks is something of a bluegrass supergroup: it consists of Ronnie Bowman, Don Rigsby, and Brian Fesler–all of whom have been members of the Lonesome River Band at various times, but who also have experience in groups like J.D. Crowe and the New South, Longview, and Rock County. Their sound threads the needle somewhat between smooth and modern newgrass and old-school high-lonesome bluegrass–or, more accurately, alternates between them: when mandolinist Rigby is singing lead, you’ll hear echoes of Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin, but when bassist Bowman is front and center the band evokes the smoother sounds of Flatt and Scruggs–and, believe it or not, George Jones. Every member is a virtuoso, of course, so the instrumentals and solos are fast and fun, but overall the vibe here is smooth and relaxed rather than sharp and intense. Great stuff.


ROCK/POP


Sophie Tassignon
Mysteries Unfold
RareNoise
RNR0119

Here’s an album that will probably be unlike any you’ve ever heard. Singer and songwriter Sophie Tassignon recorded these songs using almost nothing but her own voice (a few field recordings and electronic elements add an extra dimension from time to time), layering it to create harmonies and rhythmic patterns in support of her melodies. Most of the songs are originals, but there are some very interesting covers as well: a gorgeously haunting arrangement of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” an eerie take on Cowboy Junkies’ “Witches,” and an adaption of a section from Vivaldi’s setting of the psalm “Nisi Dominus” among them. The original song “Don’t Be So Shy with Me,” with its flirty romantic lyric and its rather silly oompah beat, is a slightly disorienting departure from the mood of the rest of the album, but overall this is a moving and thought-provoking project, and beautifully sung.


Will Bernard
Freelance Subversives
Ropeadope
Cat. no. unknown
Rick’s Pick

Technically, this one should probably be in the Jazz section, but I just can’t bring myself to put it there, for the simple reason that it’s not jazz. It has the complexity and harmonic density of jazz, but really it’s rock/funk–exceptionally accomplished rock/funk, of the kind once made by bands like the Dixie Dregs (except without the Southern Rock entanglements). Guitarist/composer Will Bernard has been out there quietly changing the world of jazz and avant-funk guitar for decades now; I got to know him as one of the two guitarist for a deeply quirky quartet called T.J. Kirk back in the 1990s. Here he’s playing aggressive, greasy, original compositions that groove powerfully and rock out joyfully. Listen to it or dance to it, or both; you’ll have a hard time sitting still no matter how you choose to listen. Highly recommended to all libraries.


The Job
Use No Hooks (digital and vinyl only)
Chapter Music
CH146LP

The turn of the 1980s was the heyday of punk-funk: in the UK, bands like Gang of Four, Delta 5, and Bush Tetras were applying the jagged edge of punk to the dance rhythms of disco, creating various kinds of hybridity. In Australia, the Job were taking a slightly different approach: fully embracing funk and early hip hop styles and leaving most of punk’s sonic edginess behind, but inserting slyly subversive lyrics. Stuart Grant (Primitive Calculators) declaimed the lyrics in a semi-Sprechgesang style, while the Greek chorus of Denise Hilton, Marisa Stirpe, and Wendy Morrissey commented wryly behind him–all over a bed of bouncing and swaying beats. Use No Hooks is a collection of recordings made in 1983 and previously unreleased; the digital version of the album adds a bunch of live and rehearsal tracks — most of which are not that great, frankly, but the studio stuff is gold.


Pulsallama
Pulsallama (EP)
Modern Harmonic
CD-MHCD-216

Percussion ensembles tends to live and die by their steadiness–even if they swing or engage in polyrhythmic complexity, you should be able to count on their solidity of beat. The all-female percussion group Pulsallama, however, has a very different idea: their approach is a gleefully shambolic mix of pop, punk, and polycultural beat music, and they don’t mind playing fast and loose with the time. Their sound comes across as a joyful mix of the Slits, the Go-Gos, and Z’ev. On “Trash,” the meter never really settles into a groove (even though you can hear it trying to); on “The Devil Lives in My Husband’s Body” you can hear an explicit debt to the B-52s. Only some of these tracks have vocals, and even on those the voices are mixed back far enough that you hear them clattering around among the bells, drums, blocks, and other percussive miscellanea like any other instrument. A perfect party record if your friends are maybe a little bit strange.


Various Artists
Cash Money: The Instrumentals (digital & vinyl only)
Cash Money/Universal
No cat. no.

Do you love hip hop, but wish it were a bit less heavy on the cursing, glorification of violence, and misogyny? Well then, have I got a treat for you: a collection of instrumentals put together by the ace production team at Cash Money Records and used as the foundation for hit songs like “Back That Azz Up,” “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy,” and “Go DJ.” The Cash Money crew have been producing a distinctive and prolifically hitmaking brand of hip hop from the headquarters deep in New Orleans for almost 30 years now, with a roster that includes Juvenile, Lil Wayne and the Hot Boy$, among many others, and these instrumental tracks provide a close look at the musical architecture underlying various hits by those artists. Recommended.


Dan Drohan
You’re a Crusher/Drocan!
Self-released
No cat. no.

If you’re after some serious fun and don’t mind an edge of weirdness, consider the latest project by drummer/producer Dan Drohan. It’s a frenetic, sonically crowded, but good-humored exploration of rhythm, layering, and sampling–imagine a fusion of Squarepusher, Carl Stone, and Aphex Twin. His drums are at the heart of most of these tracks, but they’re mostly sampled and manipulated. Similarly, there are vocals, and sometimes they make these pieces sound more or less like songs — while at other times the voices are chopped up and reoriented just like all the other source material. The vibe is sometimes industrial, sometimes drill’n’bassy, and sometimes completely sui generis. The music is never less than interesting.


Isaac Aesilie
Hidden Truths
Wonderwheel/Bastard Jazz
BJCD23
Rick’s Pick

Billed as “one of the gems of the New Zealand underground soul scene” (you’re familiar with New Zealand’s underground soul scene, right?), Isaac Aesili is back with his first full-length release since 2011’s Eye See. It’s been an unusually long wait for a sophomore outing, but the wait was worth it: on this utterly unique and individual album we hear strange, swirling songs that focus much less on Aesili’s voice than you would ever expect from a project generally identified as “soul” or “R&B.” “Jungles,” for example, is all propulsive drums pushing through a cloud of synths, while echo-laden female vocals sound like they’re backing up a non-existent lead singer; “Realms” is a spacey house/techno workout, while “Refugee” combines classical strings with layers of tropical percussion while Aesili’s voice drifts in and out of the mix with a combination of tenderness and urgency. This whole album is a delight and an inspiration, and I promise it’s unlike anything else you’ve heard.


Christopher Bissonnette
The Wine Dark Sea
Dronarivm
DR-66

Let’s round out this month’s Rock/Pop section with an utterly gorgeous and mesmerizing ambient album from Christopher Bissonnette. It comes from the Dronarivm label, which has become one of the most consistently interesting purveyors of quiet music on the scene right now; honestly, I wish I had room to review all of their releases. On this, his fifth album, Bissonnette shifts from his usual synthesized approach to one that blends electronic and acoustic source material, creating “an aural allegory to sound and colour and our tenuous understanding of abstract meaning.” If that sounds deep, it’s meant to; the music is as well. It swells and recedes, defining huge acoustic spaces while never conveying a feeling of coldness or abandonment; on the contrary, it’s consistently warm, thoughtful, and deeply evocative. For all libraries.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Mackeehan
Time and Patience (digital only)
Frankie Music Productions (dist. Tuff Gong International)
FMP001

This may be Mackeehan’s debut full-length album, but he’s an industry veteran, a songwriter with a long and distinguished history of writing and co-writing hits for the likes of Luciano, Alborosie, Jah Cure, and Tarrus Riley. (And he does have a few previous releases, several singles and an EP titled Heart Music.) And you can hear all of his experience in his skillful songwriting here, not to mention his ace production work in collaboration with Frankie Music. From the dense and swirling roots-and-culture material (“Government Yaad,” “Raise a Pay”) to lighter good-time songs (“Grooving”) and lovers rock (“Old School Girl”), Mackeehan displays both solid professionalism and deep sincerity. And the music is all original–no recycled Studio One rhythms here. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Myrkur
Folkesange
Relapse
RR7426
Rick’s Pick

“Wait,” I hear the attentive reader cry: “Isn’t Relapse a heavy metal label? And, um, isn’t Myrkur the singer/composer who left us in a state of existential despair with Scandinavian black-metal anthems like ‘Må Du Brænde i Helvede’ and ‘Mordet’?” And the answer is “Well, yes, but she’s also the one who layered a cappella vocal harmonies so winsomely on “Nattens Barn” and “Jeg Er Guden, I Er Tjenerne,” and who has indulged in other Danish folk reveries even as she was shredding guitars and destroying souls on other tracks. With Folkesange, she steps away from metal entirely (if, I suspect, temporarily) in favor of straight-up traditional Danish folk song. Now, the press materials aren’t clear about whether these are actual folk songs or original compositions in a traditional style; certainly they sound folky, and traditional Danish instruments like the nyckelharpa and mandola are used throughout. The production is lush, filled with echo and reverb, but the overall sound is quite pure and clean, and as always, Myrkur’s voice is a revelation. A gorgeous album, for all collections.


Augustus Pablo
Ancient Harmonies (2 discs)
Greensleeves
VPGS7072

Augustus Pablo remains one of the stranger and more mysterious figures in the history of reggae music. A slight, ascetic man who was in frail health for much of his adult life (he died at age 44), Pablo is almost singlehandedly responsible for popularizing the melodica as a pop-music instrument, through his use of it to play melodies over minor-key dub reggae instrumentals. He was also a gifted producer who shepherded the creation of important albums by the likes of Jacob Miller, Earl Sixteen, and the Heptones. Ancient Harmonies is a reissue set that brings together four of his instrumental and dub albums: Blowing with the Wind, One Step Dub (a dub version of Junior Delgado’s album One Step More), Rockers Come East, and Rising Sun, all cut for the Greensleeves label in the late 1980s. Reggae fans will note that during this period, Pablo was not at the peak of his powers, and some of this material is frankly mediocre: there are too many cheap digital rhythms, and several examples of poorly-produced tracks with lousy sound. But there are also some real gems here, certainly enough to justify purchase for any library with a strong collecting interest in reggae music. These include a fine dub mix of Delgado’s “One Day” (presented as “Zion Way Dub”), the spare and mysterious “Hop I Land” and “Rising Sun,” and pretty much the entirety of the relatively strong Blowing with the Wind album.

April 2020


PICK OF THE MONTH


Jocelyn Gould
Elegant Traveler
Posi-Tone
PR8207

Halfway through its opening track — a brilliant arrangement of Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right with Me” — I knew that guitarist/composer Jocelyn Gould’s debut album was going to be April’s Pick of the Month. Her warm, burnished tone, her ability to infuse even the most straightforwardly swinging tune with a subtle hint of funky groove, and her exceptional compositional chops would make this a star turn no matter what, but what’s also impressive is the way she leads this band; they stick tightly to her, maneuvering tricky progressions and rhythmic changes nimbly, but everyone has plenty of space and they never sound like they’re not having fun. There are so many highlight tracks here: the Cole Porter number is definitely one, but Gould’s own knotty-but-joyful bebop workout “Center of the Universe” is another, as is her solo rendition of the standard “It Might As Well Be Spring.” Several tracks in the middle of the program give her the chance to show off her ability to write for horns (guests include trombonist Michael Dease, trumpeter Anthony Stanco, and tenor saxophonist Brandon Wright). Overall this is a truly outstanding jazz album and a jaw-droppingly fine debut effort. For all library collections.


CLASSICAL


Ludwig Van Beethoven; Friedrich Kuhlau
Kühl, nicht lau
Tami Krausz; Shuann Chai
Ramée (dist. Naxos)
RAM1903

This is a somewhat strange but ultimately delightful album that documents some of the significant stylistic changes in European art music that took place during the course of the early 19th century. It consists of two works for flute and piano, one written by Beethoven and one by his friend and champion Friedrich Kuhlau. In addition, there is a brief capriccio for solo flute by Kuhlau and the title piece — a charming vocal canon written by Beethoven as a punning tribute to his friend (it translates as “cool, not lukewarm”). Tami Krausz plays a wooden eight-keyed flute like those that would have been used at the time this music was written, and Shuann Chai plays a fortepiano; the playing is outstanding and both instruments sound great, though wooden flutes tend to sound a bit shrill in the higher registers, especially when being put through the expressive paces of early Romantic music. Definitely worth acquiring.


Wilhelm Friedemann Bach
Complete Chamber Music (reissue; 2 discs)
Ricercar Consort
Ricerar (dist. Naxos)
RIC138

Wilhelm Friedemann was the eldest of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons, and while he never achieved the international fame of his brother Carl Philip Emmanuel, he did leave behind some truly outstanding music. One reason for the relative obscurity of his chamber works may be that they don’t really seem to have been intended as concert music, but instead were written primarily for the private enjoyment of the musicians themselves. On these two discs (recorded and originally issued in 1992), you might notice that the duets for flutes and for violas seem particularly inward-looking — quiet and intellectual even though they’re very lovely and accessible. They definitely partake of the legendarily mathematical style of Wilhelm Friedemann’s father, but there’s a lightness and a melodic flair to them that is quite unique. The playing by members of the Ricercar Consort is outstanding, as is the production quality.


Zosha Di Castri
Tachitipo (digital only)
Various Ensembles
New Focus
FCR227

This is the first release dedicated entirely to the work of Canadian composer and pianist Zosha Di Castri. Opening with the weird and sometimes distressing The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named (a piece that combines live singing, sprechgesange, and electronics), it then continues through a widely varied program of modernist works for various combinations of instruments and electronics: there’s the relatively large-scale Cortège (for 13 musicians), a very intense work for string quartet and another for piano, and others, as well as a video track made available online to purchasers of the album. Di Castri has recruited absolutely top-notch talent for these dramatic and demanding works, and the album can be confidently recommended to all contemporary music collections.


Felix Mendelssohn
Chamber Music with Clarinet
Dario Zingales; Marco Sala; Alexey Grots
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
96081
Rick’s Pick

Amazingly, this disc includes world-premiere recordings — well, not of newly-discovered works, but of new arrangements for clarinet, basset-horn, and piano of movements from Mendelssohn’s third and fourth symphonies. Alongside these are lovely performances of the composer’s Konzertstücke nos. 1 and 2, his E-flat sonata for clarinet and piano, and seven Liede ohne Worte for clarinet and piano along with two more for piano solo. As one might expect, Mendelssohn’s special talent for heartbreakingly bittersweet melody is a perfect match for the mellow-but-piercing tonalities of the clarinet and basset-horn, and everything about this album is simply wonderful. Strongly recommended to all libraries.


Robert Thies & Damjan Krajacic
Blue Landscapes III: Frontiers: Music from a Quieter Place
Robert Thies; Damjan Krajacic
Real Music
RM10002

Struggling to figure out where to categorize this one, I noted that the press sheet characterized the music as “New Age/Contemporary Instrumental,” whereas on Spotify it’s been slotted onto the “Not Quite Classical” and “Chilled Classical” playlists. It’s certainly not Rock or Pop, so I guess “classical” it will have to be for our purposes. Why is that problematic? Well, although the music sounds composed, it’s actually mostly improvised; it’s all for flute and piano, but the melodies and chord progressions are quite simple and — how shall I put this — vernacular: lots of easy-listening pentatonic melodies, lots of poppy sliding into the high notes. But simple doesn’t mean simplistic, and there are some twists: the sudden multiphonics on “Forest Path,” and the melismatic flights of melodic strangeness on “Infinity,” for example. Needless to say, all of it is pretty, but unlike New Age music, most of it is more than merely pretty.


Various Composers
Fading
The Gesualdo Six / Owain Park
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
CDA68285

Various Composers
O gemma clarissima: Music in Praise of St. Catharine
Choirs of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge / Edward Wickham
Resonus (dist. Naxos)
RES10246

These are two themed collections of a capella choral music, both featuring a mix of Renaissance works with other pieces. And there the similarities end. The Gesualdo Six offer a varied program of works written for Compline, the traditional end-of-day service that marks the beginning of dusk and typically calls for divine protection through the night. Hymns and songs by Gombert, Tallis, Byrd, and Tye rub shoulders with a more ancient song by Hildegard of Bingen and modern ones by Sarah Rimkus, Joanna Marsh, and others. The all-male ensemble’s sound is fittingly dark, but also rich and sweet; particular kudos go to the countertenors Guy James and Alexander Chance. O gemma clarissima, by contrast, has as its unifying theme music written in honor of St. Catharine, and includes a selection of Franco-Flemish works — motets and hymns by the likes of Willaert, Senfl, and Regnart — alternating with selections of Sarum plainchant. This choir’s larger numbers and mixed voices, combined with a more spacious and resonant chapel acoustic, make for a grander and less intimate sound, but one that is every bit as detailed and lovely as that of the Gesualdo Six performance. For all libraries.


Various Composers
And That One Too
Sandbox Percussion
Coviello Classics (dist. Naxos)
COV91918

The debut album from New York ensemble Sandbox Percussion features a nicely varied array of works all arising from long-term relationships that the group has forged with contemporary composers. It opens with Andy Akiho’s Haiku 2, a shimmering piece for tuned bowls and a variety of not-usually-musical objects (wooden slats, metal pot lid, etc.). David Crowell’s Music for Percussion Quartet focuses on mallet keyboards (both struck and bowed) and also features the composer on guitar, whereas Amy Beth Kirsten’s she is a myth blends the composer’s multitracked vocals with very soft and delicate percussion elements. The title work, by Thomas Kotcheff, is the most abstract — at times bordering on pointillistic — piece on the program; it’s written in three movements, each focusing on a different category of percussion instrument. Everything is well worth hearing, and Sandbox Percussion’s playing is consistently brilliant.


JAZZ


Gerald Beckett
Mood (currently digital only; CD may be available in future)
Pear Orchard
POR 101

Always in the market for some good jazz flute, I was very excited to see this new release from the brilliant Gerald Beckett — nor was I disappointed when I gave it a spin. Leading a shifting array of sidemen that includes saxophonist Ruben Salzedo, pianist Steve McQuarry, bassist Carl Herder and drummer Greg German, he gives us some slinky, funky blues (the original “Down Low”), some strange abstraction (Ron Carter’s “Doom”), some hard bop (Harold Mabern’s “John Neely-Beautiful People”), and some stylistic salad (Cyrus Chestnut’s “Minor Funk,” which starts out funky and then careens into headlong bop territory for the blowing sections). All of it is wonderful; highly recommended.


Gigi Gryce
The Classic Albums 1955-1960 (reissue; 4 discs)
Enlightenment (dist. MVD)
EN4CD9176

Gigi Gryce was a giant of the hard-bop movement in the 1950s, a celebrated and in-demand sideman but a bandleader insufficiently recognized for his skills in that arena. This collection brings together eight of his best recordings as a leader, originally issued on labels like Savoy, Riverside, and New Jazz. The first disc consists of material written or arranged for biggish bands, including some great tunes with Thelonious Monk, some of them relatively obscure Monk compositions like “Shuffle Boil” and “Brake’s Sake”; there is also a wonderfully hard-swinging uptempo version of “Over the Rainbow.” Disc 2 features two late-1950s albums that find Gryce leading tight, disciplined, and powerfully swinging small combos that include the likes of trumpeter Donald Byrd, pianist Hank Jones, and drummer Art Taylor and that continue his practice of playing ballads as up numbers — note in particular his explosive bebop treatment of “Love for Sale.” On his self-titled album from 1958, he is multitracked on various saxophones and flutes, creating the sound of a much larger ensemble than the quartet in the studio; his tenor solo on “It Don’t Mean a Thing” is especially noteworthy. (I’m not sure we really needed a celeste obbligato on “My Ideal,” but Gryce’s playing on that cut is lovely.) And one of the things you really notice, listening to these eight albums end to end, is that while Gryce has always been justly celebrated for his writing, he was equally creative and adept as an arranger. This might not be an absolutely essential set for every jazz collection, but it’s certainly recommendable.


Avishai Cohen
Big Vicious
ECM
2680

Trumpeter/composer Avishai Cohen’s musical vision is getting more and expansive as time goes on, and now borders on the cinematic. It’s been ages since he felt bound in any meaningful degree by the stylistic strictures of straight-ahead jazz, even as he’s continued to work largely within that music’s instrumental conventions. Here he leads a quintet that also includes guitarist Uzi Ramirez, guitarist/bassist Yonathan Albalak, drummer Aviv Cohen, and drummer/sampler Ziv Ravitz. Their sound can be downright rockish at times (“King Kutner”), but mostly it’s more fusion-y; Cohen himself plays all over his register, soaring and muttering and moaning, while the band supports him with atmospherics and grooves that are similarly diverse in sound. This may not be a relaxing album, but it’s a beautiful and often surprising one.


Wolfgang Muthspiel
Angular Blues
ECM
1655
Rick’s Pick

On his latest album, guitarist/composer Wolfgang Muthspiel returns to the format with which he began his recording career as a leader: the trio. Accompanied by the powerhouse rhythm section of bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade, he delivers one of the most rewarding and satisfying jazz albums I’ve heard so far this year. His tone is soft in the middle but crisp around the edges, and without seeming to show off at all he manages to show off a tremendous stylistic range: bluesy passages that evoke middle-period John Scofield (check out “Everything I Love”), a 6/8 canon that manages somehow to be funky (“Kanon in 6/8”), which is followed by a gorgeous solo canon in 5/4, played by guitar alone with a digital delay. “Ride” is a wonderfully cool, smooth piece of harmonically angular bebop, while “Hüttengriffe” is simple, subdued, and beautiful, like something Bill Frisell might have written. There is not a single weak track on this marvelous album.


The TNEK Jazz Quintet
Plays the Music of Sam Jones (digital only; CD may be available in future)
TNEK Jazz
No cat. no.

Jazz afficionados will recognize Sam Jones’ name, though during his unfortunately short life he didn’t record very often as a leader. Most will be familiar with his work as a sideman on foundational albums by the likes of Cannonball Adderley (Somethin’ Else), Chet Baker (It Could Happen to You), Bill Evans (Everybody Digs Bill Evans) and Thelonious Monk (At Town Hall). But he was also a tremendously gifted composer, and the TNEK Jazz Quintet came together at the instigation of bassist Kent Miller to pay tribute to that facet of Jones’ genius. The result is an outstanding set of hard bop and jazz blues that includes such highlight tracks as “Unit 7” (a mainstay of Cannonball Adderley’s live set) and the subtly complex “Some More of Dat.” The playing is virtuosic throughout, but more importantly joyful and bright. Recommended to all jazz collections.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Eileen Ivers
Scatter the Light
Musical Bridge
MBI-20-001

Fiddler Eileen Ivers has built a tremendous reputation over the course of a career that has found her sharing stages with the Boston Pops, the Chieftains, Sting, and Cherish the Ladies, of which she is a founding member. Though her roots are in Irish music (and those roots are clearly in evidence here) she is adept at a variety of styles. Scatter the Light finds her in New Orleans mode (on a raucous second-line arrangement of “Go Tell It on the Mountain”), in rollicking gospel mode (“Children Go”), and leading her band through a variety of original songs and tunes that go everywhere from tradition-based Irish reels to folk rock and experimental solo violin material. Not for Irish music purists, but definitely for everyone else.


Michael Doucet
Lâcher Prise
Compass (dist. Naxos)
7 4740 2

Michael Doucet is a legend, undoubtedly the preeminent current torch-carrier of the Cajun music tradition. As leader of BeauSoleil, he’s recorded more than 25 albums since the band was founded in 1976; how he’s formed a side group, called Lâcher Prise (creole French for “let go”), and made a new album that expands the boundaries of Cajun tradition significantly. The roots are still there (note the group’s rollicking take on Boozoo Chavis’ “Lula Lula Don’t You Go to Bingo” and the traditional waltz “Dites-moi pas”), but the band often rocks out harder and more electrically than Doucet’s fans might be used to. That’s not a bad thing, mind. Nor is the Doucet’s collaboration with the Turtle Island String Quartet on the surprisingly decorous “Cajun Gypsy.” Recommended.


Whitney Rose
We Still Go to Rodeos
MCG
MCG1000

The sound of Whitney Rose’s new album might be a bit puzzling to her fans until they learn that her new musical direction was inspired by hearing Marty Stuart refer to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as the “best country band of all time.” That backstory sheds particularly revealing light on the midtempo “Home with You,” which I can easily imagine Petty singing (though he wouldn’t sound as good as Rose). Her voice actually reminds me of the criminally underrated Sarah Elizabeth Campbell; it’s powerful without being overbearing, pretty without being too smooth. And the songs really are great: “In a Rut” borders on cowpunk, while “You’d Blame Me for the Rain” is slinky and smoky, with –believe it or not — a funky wah-wah guitar. Recommended to all country and Americana collections.


ROCK/POP


Sam Cooke
The Complete Keen Years: 1957-1960 (compilation; 5 discs)
ABKCO
018771850328
Rick’s Pick

Consisting of five CDs, each of which faithfully reproduces the packaging of its original release (right down to the plastic sleeve), this box set pulls together all of the albums that Sam Cooke made for the Keen label between 1957 and 1960, along with a generous scattering of bonus tracks and a handful of songs from a 1960 compilation album that featured him. Those who know and love Cooke for his gospel and R&B performances will find plenty to love here, from hits like “Only Sixteen” and “You Send Me” to more sanctified material like “I Thank God” and “Steal Away” (in two versions). But those who have a more casual acquaintance with his genius might be surprised to see him doing an entire album of Billie Holiday songs (a program provided in both mono and stereo versions for this reissue), not to mention American Songbook standards like “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Blue Moon.” Cooke’s voice was such that he could sing just about anything, even the schlockiest novelty tune, and make you want to hear it over and over — and he could take a song like “Danny Boy,” which is about as stylistically remote from his usual repertoire as one could imagine, and make it utterly his own. The packaging is lovely and includes extensive photos and liner notes, and this box is simply a treasure. For all libraries.


Chihei Hatakeyama
Illusion Harbor
Subcontinental
SCR006
Rick’s Pick

Snufmumriko
Sekunder, eoner (digital & cassette only)
Dronarivm
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

To characterize these two albums as “ambient” would be an oversimplification. In both cases, the music is slow and quiet and fairly unassertive. However, Chihei Hatakeyama’s Illusion Harbor is more than just pretty; it’s also programmatic, a collection of musical images designed to reflect memories of places from his childhood. Consisting of layers of carefully processed guitars, pianos, and vibraphones, the music is by turns deeply emotive and strangely disconcerting. I found listening to it during a crisis to be surprisingly reassuring. Swedish producer Snufmumriko takes a different compositional approach: his pieces are based on field recordings and old records, though once he’s finished manipulating them it’s rare that you’ll hear anything recognizable. Sometimes there are beats, but they tend to register as rhythmic glitches; sometimes there are voices, but they rarely sound human. You’ll hear birds, but you’ll suspect that they aren’t really birds. Whereas Hatakeyama’s album is beautiful with an undertow of eeriness, Snufmumriko’s is eerie with a strong subtratum of beauty. Both are strongly recommended.


The Primitives
Bloom: The Full Story 1985-1992 (compilation; 5 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
CRCDBOX89

For those of us who loved pop music in the late 1980s, the Primitives’ first album came with the force of revelation, reminding us what we had been missing so intensely without necessarily knowing it: straight-up guitars and straight-up hooks delivered by a young woman with a lovely voice. Of course, the standard industry progression for such a band is short and brutal: the first stage is “Yay! Guitars and Hooks!” (at which point they get a Fat Record Deal) followed quickly by “Sellout!” (when their original fans notice that the band’s album is on a major label but don’t notice that all of the band members still have day jobs) and then the “Fall from Grace” (when their third album fails to chart). The Primitives are a textbook case of the brevity and brutality of that process, but their trajectory was glorious while it lasted. This generous and well-annotated box brings together all three of the studio albums from the band’s original incarnation along with a not-entirely-essential array of demos and an absolutely essential disc of radio sessions and live tracks.


Steve Spacek
Houses
Black Focus (dist. Redeye)
BFR004CD

If you like house music, but prefer it to have a little edge of weirdness, then the latest from Steve Spacek is just for you. Its title is apt: there are multiple styles of house music here, from the gentle but relentless “Bright Eyes Rev” (with its creepily cut-up and disjointed vocals) to the somewhat more slippery and abstract “Where We Go.” Throughout the album Spacek expresses his South London milieu while sticking close to his Detroit stylistic roots, cannily selecting the occasional vocalist who can bring an added dimension to his rhythmic excursions.


James Hunter Six
Nick of Time (vinyl and digital only)
Daptone (dist. Redeye)
DAP-061

The brilliance of James Hunter’s approach is its consistency: over the course of seven albums now, he has walked an absolutely straight path, purveying 1950s-and-60s R&B with style, class, wit, and zero innovation. (True, his earlier albums featured the occasional ska and bluebeat track; we haven’t heard any of that from him in a while now.) His grainy voice and his very occasional stinging, minimalist guitar solos are the frosting on a cake that consists primarily of carefully constructed arrangements played by an absolutely perfect band, recorded in mono with minimal production. Then there are the songs themselves, which average about two and a half minutes in length and are consistently brilliant exercises in an art that is otherwise all but lost.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Manhu
Voices of the Sani
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
TUGCD1124

The Sani are an ethnic group who live primarily in the Yunnan province of southwest China, and who have maintained a relatively isolated existence in the rural hill country for thousands of years. Their traditional music is not well known outside of their home region, and the debut album by the Sani ensemble Manhu (“fierce tigers”) celebrates that music in all of its variety, from drinking songs to lullabies to banquet songs to ballads. The group’s approach is not strictly traditionalist, though: alongside traditional instruments you’ll hear electric bass and drum kit, and Manhu bring an infectious energy and joy to this little-heard music. For all international music collections.


Baluji Shrivastav
Seasons of India: Seasonal Ragas by Baluji Shrivastav
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
EUCD2883

This album opens, inauspiciously, with the sound of rain falling — leaving the skittish listener to wonder whether this is going to be a sappy New Age recording of pseudo-Indian music with nature sounds. Have no fear, though: very quickly the sound effect phases out and delivers us into a generously packed and virtuosically played program of classical music performed by sitarist Baluji Shrivastav, based on ragas of his own composition. In addition to the sitar he also plays the lower-pitched surbahar, and is accompanied generally by tabla and tambura, but also by the less commonly heard jori (a wooden drum associated with Sikh devotional music) and natavangam (hand bells). Each piece is designed to reflect the moods of different seasons of the year, from the monsoon season (hence the rain sounds) through autumn, winter, spring, late spring, and summer. The playing is very good, as is the recording quality (though, weirdly, one track seems to have been recorded monaurally).


Divahn
Shalhevet (currently digital only)
Self-released
No cat. no.

The all-woman quintet Divahn is dedicated to preserving and performing songs from a variety of Middle Eastern cultures and traditions. Their second album is a collection of specifically Sephardi/Mizrahi songs, which are performed in Hebrew, Persian, and Arabic. This diversity is intentional, and politically motivated: according to the group’s founding member, “the world needs an all-female Middle Eastern Jewish album that celebrates what connects us, rather than what tears us apart.” The instruments used are strings and percussion (not always Middle Easter percussion, either — those are tabla you’re hearing on “Hamavdil”); the vocals tend strongly towards call-and-response, with the reedy modal melodies you’d expect. Expertly done, and of course very timely.


Aditya Prakash Ensemble
Diaspora Kid
Ropeadope
RAD-547
Ricks’ Pick

Growing up Indian in Los Angeles, Aditya Prakash was steeped simultaneously in Carnatic classical music and in the pop, hip hop, jazz, and R&B of his adopted community. He has now found a way to blend those influences into a sound uniquely his own: richly complex Indian melodies and long, mindblowingly complicated rhythmic patterns wind their way through jazz and rock arrangements, without either tradition ever feeling at all diluted or compromised. This is not lite Indian music, nor is it pseudo-spiritual pop music; it’s a unique musical and cultural emulsion that attains the elusive goal of drawing the best from every source it touches. And none of this is even to talk about Prakash’s voice, which is quite simply a wonder of nature: rich, powerful, clear, and seemingly without technical limitations. An astounding album that portends a wildly successful career, if he can get enough people to open their ears to this kind of polycultural fusion.

March 2020


PICK OF THE MONTH


Juan Esquivel
Missa Hortus conclusus; Magnificat; Marian Antiphons; Motets
De Profundis / Eamonn Dougan
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
CDA68326

Several things are notable about this release. First of all, Juan Esquivel is frequently overlooked among the master composers of the Spanish Renaissance–understandably enough, given that he flourished shortly after Cristóbal de Morales and his contemporaries included Tomás Luis de Victoria and Francisco Guerrero. While no claim is made on the package or in the liner notes for this recording as a world premiere of the program’s central Mass setting, I can find no evidence that it has ever been recorded before, making this an important release on that basis alone. Also notable is the uncannily lush and velvety tone of De Profundis, an all-male ensemble that has a much more tonally rich sound than most of its peers. In this case that richness of sound is due in part to the group’s large numbers, but it’s also down to vocal balancing and careful blend. The countertenors all have an unusually dark tone, which lends an extra weight to these already somber works. Esquivel’s Magnificat setting is especially intense and lovely, and overall this is a deeply impressive recording of marvelous and rarely-heard music performed by a world-class ensemble.


CLASSICAL


Johannes Lupi; Lupus Hellinck
Motets; Te Deum; Missa Surrexit pastor
Brabant Ensemble / Stephen Rice
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
CDA68304
Rick’s Pick

Before we leave the world of obscure Renaissance choral music, it’s important to bring to your attention the latest release from the magnificent Brabant Ensemble, one of the foremost vocal groups in the “Oxbridge style” tradition. Johannes Lupi and Lupus Hellinck both came from the Franco-Flemish region, which nurtured so many of the greatest polyphonic composers of the 16th century, but despite that proximity (and the weird coincidence of both having names derived from the Latin word for “wolf”) they were somewhat separated in age and don’t seem to have crossed paths. Hellinck’s parody Mass on the motet Surrexit pastor bonus is complex and elaborate in organization but sweetly immediate in performance; the motets and Te Deum setting (something of a rarity for the Renaissance period) by Lupi are similarly lush and heart-tuggingly beautiful. As always, much of the credit for the beauty of this recording goes to the Brabants, whose blend and intonation continue to set a world standard.


Johann Sebastian Bach
English Suites BWV 806-811 (2 discs)
Andrew Rangell
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
STNS 30136
Rick’s Pick

Johann Sebastian Bach
A Bouquet of Bach
Andrew Rangell
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
STNS 30126

There are few musical pleasures greater than listening to Bach’s keyboard music played on the modern piano, and there are very few pianistic exponents of that repertoire more consistently impressive than Andrew Rangell. These two releases, issued one month apart, offer a scholarly take on one of the monuments of baroque keyboard composition and a more personal compilation of smaller works presented both in their original forms and in transcription. Rangell’s take on the six-part English Suites is simply magnificent; listen in particular to the delicacy and delight he shows in rendering the second menuet section of suite number 4; this is the kind of thing Rangell was born to do. The Bouquet of Bach collection is a bit quirkier, but every bit as lovely; the two- and three-part inventions nestle among brief selections from some of Bach’s notebooks, Egon Petri transcriptions of cantata arias, and other miscellany. Where some pianists temper what can sometimes feel like rhythmic relentlessness in Bach’s fugal compositions by means of rubato, Rangell does the same with dynamics–tenderly and tastefully executed, but with full artistic confidence. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Works for Clarinet (SACD)
Dirk Altmann; Kei Shirai; Masato Suzuki; Ludwig Chamber Players
Tacet (dist. Naxos)
S 252

Mozart was, of course, one of the greatest melodists of his (or any other) century. And of all the myriad melodies he wrote, none were more heartrendingly perfect than those found in his A major quintet for clarinet and strings (known as the “Stadler Quintet,” for the clarinetist to whom it was dedicated). The lines he wrote for his clarinet concerto are almost as affecting. Both of those works are found on this gorgeous disc, along with two song arrangements for clarinet and piano. Dirk Altmann plays conventional clarinet and basset clarinet, and his playing is exceptionally clear and focused. Some of the credit for this album’s unusually rich and bright sound goes to the production techniques, which are discussed in the liner notes. Although these are hardly rarely recorded works, this particular recording can be confidently recommended to all libraries.


Various Composers
Fantasy
Tessa Lark; Amy Yang
First Hand (dist. Naxos)
FHR86

Last month I recommended a highly unusual and deeply rewarding duo album by violinist Tessa Lark and contrabassist Michael Thurber, on which they alternated selected arrangements from Bach’s two-part inventions with original or adapted pieces of their own. This month I’m recommending a solo recording by Lark, one that is slightly less quirky but still quite unusual. She plays a selection of bravura pieces by the usual suspects (Ravel, Kreisler, Telemann), the centerpiece of which is Schubert’s marvelous C-major fantasy. But she throws in a twist: an original piece titled Appalachian Fantasy, which takes the central theme from the Schubert piece and recasts it in fiddle-tune style, and then segues into two traditional fiddle tunes: “Cumberland Gap” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” Lark is a true original in the crowded field of violin virtuosos right now, and is definitely one to keep an eye on. (Kudos to the outstanding pianist Amy Yang as well, who accompanies on three of these works.)


Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Oboe Concertos; Symphonies
Xenia Löffler; Akademie für alte Musik Berlin
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 902601
Rick’s Pick

I sometimes wonder how much more famous Carl Philipp Emanual Bach would be today if his last name weren’t “Bach.” Would he be just another unfairly obscure genius of the classical period? Or would he be more widely praised because he isn’t in his father’s shadow? Certainly he is very highly regarded in the classical community, often praised as one of the most admired keyboardists of his time and as the most influential of Bach’s several musical sons. For examples of why he is, in fact, so well respected (as distinct from famous), consider these absolutely gorgeous concertos and symphonies for winds, all of which prominently feature the oboe. Oboeist Xenia Löffler and the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin play with exceptional cleanness and élan, but it’s the works themselves that really stand out here–C.P.E. Bach’s much-celebrated stylistic independence is on full display, as is his willingness to charm the listener as well as impress the cognoscenti. Strongly recommended to all libraries.


Johann Sebastian Bach; Mike Block
Step into the Void: The Complete Bach Cello Suites with Live Phonograph Companion Album (3 discs)
Mike Block; Barry Rothman
Bright Shiny Things
BSTC-0132

We close out this month’s Bach-heavy Classical section with an example of a highly creative interaction with Bach’s music. Cellist Mike Block recorded the complete cello suites for this project; they are masterfully played and recorded, and are included on the first two discs in the package. The third disc is a live recording of Block improvising freely on themes from the Bach suites, accompanied by performance artist Barry Rothman, who uses LPs, turntables, and an effects pedal as his instruments. As one might expect, the resulting collage of sounds, words, and noises is by turns eerie, funny, disconcerting, and deeply beautiful. To be honest, I’m surprised that Christian Marclay hasn’t done something along these lines already, but it’s hard to imagine him doing it in a more interesting and witty manner than Rothman does. Highly recommended.


JAZZ


Amina Figarova/Edition 113
Persistence
Bartamina (dist. MVD)
BACD015

Pianist and composer Amina Figarova is back with a new approach–leading an electric ensemble she’s dubbed Edition 113. The group is smaller than it sounds on record, a quintet that features guitarist Rez Abbasi, flutist Bart Platteau, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Rudy Royston. All are genius players, but the real star of this project is Figarova’s writing, which is both brilliant and stylistically wide-ranging: “I’ve Got No Time” segues seamlessly from funky hip hop (featuring rapper JSWISS) to smooth-but-knotty bebop, while the chord changes to “Lil’ Poem” slide all over the place, in a leisurely and almost wistful manner, and “Morning Blue” is slow, decorous funk. Every track sheds a different light on Figarova’s genius and on that of her band, and Persistence is a thrilling and satisfying album overall.


Oded Tzur
Here Be Dragons
ECM
2676
Rick’s Pick

Here Be Dragons is the curiously forbidding title of one of the sweetest, softest, and yet most complex and musically dense jazz albums I’ve heard in ages. Oded Tzur is both a hugely gifted composer and a tenor saxophonist of uncommonly sweet and lovely tone; on top of that, he is also an arranger who shows deep respect for his sidemen by giving them plenty of room to move and never pushing himself to the front of the band’s sound. And he loves him some ballads. There’s only one up number on this whole album, and it’s a gently rollicking Latin tune that lopes rather than burns. Everything else is floating and impressionistic, though never disorganized or random. Pianist Nitai Hershkovits, bassist Petros Klampanis, and drummer Jonathan Blake play as if the four musicians share a brain–and the program closes with a version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” that is so supremely delicate it could make you cry. Strong recommended to all libraries.


Kenny Barron/Dave Holland Trio
Without Deception
Dare2
DR2-011

Legendary pianist Kenny Barron and equally legendary bassist Dave Holland first got together as a duo six years ago for The Art of Conversation. For this, their long-overdue followup, they’re joined by drummer Jonathan Blake for an absolutely top-notch trio session consisting mostly of originals with a couple of standards thrown in–the Ellington composition “Warm Valley” and Thelonious Monk’s underrated “Worry Later.” Barron has always been a solidly straight-ahead player and writer, but Holland’s career has been all over the place stylistically speaking, and has featured stints alongside Miles Davis, Anthony Braxton, John McLaughlin and others. Here the trio focuses on groove, alternating Latin, funk, swing, and ballad moods and conveying all of them with equal authority and grace. Blake is really the secret sauce here; rarely have I heard a drummer so gifted at making the rest of a combo sound so good.


Chris Dingman
Embrace
Inner Arts
No cat. no.
Ricks’ Pick

This delicately gorgeous record comes courtesy of vibraphonist and composer Chris Dingman, who for the first time steps out as leader of a trio (also including the brilliant bassist Linda Oh and drummer Tim Keper). One of the many things that struck me about this album is how counterintuitively Dingman manages both groove and abstraction: none of his compositions is rhythmically free, but many of them feel as if they’re rhythmically floating (even when, as on “Ali” and “Goddess,” the time signature is perfectly clear); none of them is melodically undefined, and yet in many cases the melody seems suspended in a shimmering cloud. Dingman is probably improvising quite a bit here, but somehow the pieces all feel through-composed, perhaps because there isn’t generally a clear head-solos-head structure at work. What is clear is how deeply beautiful it all is. Highly recommended.


Keith Oxman
Two Cigarettes in the Dark
Capri
74161-2
Rick’s Pick

We’ll wind up this month’s jazz coverage with a fantastic straight-ahead quintet date led by tenor saxophonist and composer Keith Oxman. He’s joined on the front line with fellow tenor player Houston Person, and supported by pianist Jeff Jenkins, bassist Ken Walker, and drummer Paul Romaine. The program consists mainly of standards (“I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “Everything Happens to Me,” etc.) along with some very fine originals. The word that kept coming to me as I listened to these tracks was “clean”–Oxman and his crew have a very tight and focused sound that never comes across as antiseptic or slick, just clean and tight and swinging. Vocalist Annette Murrell makes a welcome appearance on “Everything Happens to Me” and “Crazy He Calls Me,” and the whole program is just a delight. For all jazz collections.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Eliza Carthy
Restitute (reissue)
Topic (dist. Redeye)
TSCD599

This release, billed as Eliza Carthy’s “first ‘solo’ album of traditional music in 14 years,” was actually issued a while ago but was originally only available via her website. Now, as the Topic label celebrates its 80th anniversary, it’s being released on that label as well. The album is a spare, even stark document–Carthy’s slightly grainy but utterly reliable voice is accompanied by her own fiddle and occasionally by one or two other musicians (Martin Carthy on guitar, Jon Boden on concertina or harmony vocals). Some of the songs are hybrids of a sort, with traditional words but music composed by Carthy; some are modern folk songs by the likes of Leon Rosselson or modern settings of poems by Robert Burns or Rudyard Kipling. Some are tender and others are almost frightening in their intensity, which is of course as much as function of Carthy’s brilliant musicianship as of the songs themselves. Highly recommended.


Dwight Yoakam
Blame the Vain
New West (dist. Redeye)
NW6194
Rick’s Pick

Without doubt the greatest living exponent of the Bakersfield Sound, Dwight Yoakam has always operated outside the mainstream of country music, with a completely unapologetic twang to both his voice and his band sound, and a defiant embrace of the hillbilly mode, with its constant hint of high-lonesome bluegrass vocal style. There is absolutely nothing new, innovative, or genre-pushing about his latest album; if anything, his aggressively traditional edge has gotten sharper, his voice has gotten richer, and his songwriting has gotten hookier. He fairly snarls on lovelorn honky-tonkers like “Intentional Heartache” and “Three Good Reasons,” and then turns on a dime into a heartfelt crooner on “Just Passin’ Time” (which incorporates a perfectly tasteful border-town inflection on the brief guitar solo). The synth-and-British-accented-spoken-word intro to “She’ll Remember” is startling and weird, but then it segues right into a swinging midtempo honky-tonk heartbreak raveup. OK, so maybe he does push the genre boundaries just a little bit. But only for a minute; then he challenges the country music establishment precisely by showing it what it’s been missing ever since it began transforming into a subgenre of pop R&B.


Various Artists
Strut My Stuff: Obscure Country & Hillbilly Boppers
Modern Harmonic (dist. Redeye)
MHCD-051

This is a delightful compilation of genuinely obscure 1950s tunes by country artists I guarantee you’ve never heard of: Riley Crabtree, Chuck Stacey, Les & Helen Tussey, Penny West, etc. Mastered from obscure vinyl recordings and averaging about two minutes apiece, many of these songs were recorded as one-offs by artists who were hoping for a local or regional radio hit, and a few of them were well advised to keep their day jobs–some of this stuff is novelty dreck that is of interest today mainly as a curiosity or as a cringey reminder of how socially acceptable casually nasty sexism was not very long ago. But there are plenty of real gems here as well: jazzy Western swing (Roy Harris’s “South of San Antonio”), sly honky tonk (Chuck Ray’s “I May Not Be Able But I’m Willing to Try”), weird countrybilly (Penny West’s “Needle in a Haystack”). I was surprised by the number of tunes that had crooked rhythms, and also by the song “Mustache on the Cabbage Head” by Luke Gordon, which has its roots in the Child ballad “Our Goodman,” much beloved on the Britfolk circuit. Anyway, all of it is tons of fun, even the cringey stuff that you have to enjoy ironically.


ROCK/POP


Teddy Thompson
Heartbreaker Please
Thirty Tigers
68992CD
Rick’s Pick

I keep trying to put my finger on what it is I love so dang much about Teddy Thompson’s music. Clearly, some of it is his way with a melody–his tunes are always intelligent but never merely clever, always hooky but never obvious. Some of it is his voice, which is high and clear and just slightly nasal. Some of it is his lyrics, which are usually simultaneously cynical and vulnerable. And then there’s his musical catholicity, which has at times manifested itself in straight-up country songs and sometimes in jangly folk-rock. This time out it comes out as a look back at 1950s and 1960s R&B, complete with horn charts and handclaps on the offbeats. And those tunes, and those lyrics, and that voice. Don’t sleep on this one.


Nazar
Guerilla
Hyperdub (dist. Redeye)
CD-HDB-046

From the blissfully accessible to the creepily unsettling: I wouldn’t necessarily recommend listening to the Teddy Thompson album and the latest from Nazar back to back. Producer Nazar hails from Angola, a difficult and strife-ridden place, and his music reflects that background. The music serves, in fact, as a way for Nazar to process his family’s history of both witness to and direct involvement in Angola’s long civil war; dark and roiling instrumental soundscapes that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Muslimgauze album are sprinkled with vocal elements that include samples of Ovimbudu folksong and a recording of his mother recalling her experience joining the rebel movement as a teenager. Everything is buttressed by twisted electronic kuduro beats, and the sound is oppressive, dense, threatening, and deeply compelling. The first time I listened I recoiled a bit; the second time, I was captivated.


S.P.Y.
Dubplate Style (2 discs)
Hospital (dist. Redeye)
NHS346CD

Various Artists
Sick Music 2020 (3 discs)
Hospital (dist. Redeye)
NHS369CD

The genre currently known as drum’n’bass has its origins in London’s dance clubs in the early 1990s, when various strands of rave, hardcore, and dancehall reggae all converged to create a thrilling new sound, one that juxtaposed double-time breakbeats with rolling reggae basslines. That genre was originally called “jungle,” but eventually jungle shed much of its reggae influence and came to be called drum’n’bass, and it has continued to thrive in that mode as a semi-mainstream club music. The Hospital label is now one of the premier outlets of d&b, and it’s the home to S.P.Y., a producer originally from Brazil. On his latest album he blends old and new styles of jungle and d&b, providing a forum for likes of singer Shadow Child and British MC GQ, mixing up choo-choo and Amen-based rhythms and generally creating a scintillating party of a record. For an excellent overview of Hospital’s general output, don’t miss Sick Music 2020 (get it? get it?), which offers a generous two-disc compilation of modern d&b featuring artists like Fred V, Kings of the Rollers, Grafix, and Inja. The package also includes a third disc that offers a continuous mix of the tunes contained in the first two discs. Very, very nice.


Pet Shop Boys
Hotspot
x2
0018

Some bands have never changed, and never should. Right up until Lemmy Kilmister’s death, for example, Motörhead was basically making the same album over and over again, and it was glorious. Something similar can be said of Pet Shop Boys–who could hardly sound more different than Motörhead, but who have also been purveying the same sound for several decades now: smooth, ironic, smart and tuneful electropop. Their new album does exactly what all their previous albums have done, maybe with a slightly intensified sense of fatalism and with maybe a very slightly updated percussion sound. Maybe. I don’t know, though–“Happy People” sounds like the backing track was performed by New Order circa 1987, and Chris Lowe’s spoken-word bits sound like what white people thought rapping was circa 1982. And they make it all work. Recommended.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Jon Hassell/Farafina
Flash of the Spirit (reissue)
Tak:Til/Glitterbeat (dist. Forced Exposure)
GBCD 087

One of the most basic rules of music composition in the Western tradition is that you avoid the rigidly parallel movement of intervals, especially fifths; when fifths move in parallel, the harmony sounds robotic and stiff and awkward. And one of the things that has always made Jon Hassell’s music so distinctive is that he plays his trumpet through an electronic harmonizer that creates exactly that effect—and he uses that effect to create music that juxtaposes the robotic and the organic, the acoustic and the electronic, and the Western and the non-Western. This collaboration with the Burkina Faso-based ensemble Farafina was originally released in 1988 and has been out of print for years; its return to market is very welcome, though it would have been nice if the reissue had included some previously-unreleased material to justify its full-line pricing. The music itself is as strange and wonderful as all of Hassell’s projects, mysterious and unsettling while also weirdly soothing and evocative.


Lord Invader
Calypso Travels (reissue)
Smithsonian Folkways
FW08733

Originally issued on LP in 1960 and long out of print, Lord Invader’s Calypso Travels has been now been remastered from the original tapes and makes a welcome return to market in CD, vinyl, and digital formats. Longstanding calypso fans will probably know his name–at a time when calypso was enjoying a brief but intense dalliance with American audiences (thanks mostly to the hugely popular Harry Belafonte), Lord Invader was among the front rank of Trinidadian calypsonians and he recorded several albums for Folkways. This one includes all the lilting rhythms, infectious tunes, and sharply topical lyrics that you’d expect: songs about the World’s Fair, American school desegregation, and Fidel Castro rub shoulders with more whimsical material about marital infidelity and, er, keeping women in their proper place. The sound is exceptionally good for recordings of this vintage, and the music is wonderful.


Purna Loka Ensemble
Metaraga
Origin
82794

OK, this is really cool: Purnaprajna Bangere is a violinist who was raised in southern India and trained in the highly technical Parur style of Carnatic classical music. He is also a professor of mathematics and music at the University of Kansas. On this project he combines these two disciplines, creating a unique style of contemporary Indian classical music influenced by various Western genres and underpinned by mathematical structures of Bangere’s invention. Accompanied by violinist David Balakrishnan (whom you might recognize from the Turtle Island String Quartet), bassist Andy Harshbarger (Curtis Fuller, Eugene Chadbourne, Darol Anger), and tabla player Amit Kavthekar, Bangere creates compositions that range all over the place without ever losing contact with his Carnatic roots. Some of it is melodically simpler than you’d expect; some of it is more lyrical and impressionistic than you’d expect. All of it is very interesting and some of it is magnificent.


Lucky & King Toppa
Potentiel (digital only)
King Toppa/Irie Ites
KT031
Rick’s Pick

More outstanding French reggae from a growing and deepening scene in that country. Well, actually, German/French reggae, which is kind of a mindblowing concept when you think about it. Anyway, this time the music comes courtesy of producer King Toppa (a.k.a. Kassel-based Tobias Wirtz) and Lucky MC (of the Montpelier sound system Travel Sound Hi-Fi). Toppa provides a nice variety of digital dancehall rhythms, and Lucky both chats and sings on them, in French and in a delicately lovely tenor voice. Guests include Don Maleko and Louna & Nelly, and there’s not a weak track anywhere on this album. It was originally released more than a year ago and I wish I’d heard about it earlier–but better late than never. Strongly recommended to all libraries.

February 2020


PICK OF THE MONTH


Hank Williams
Pictures from Life’s Other Side: The Man and His Music in Rare Photos and Recordings (book + 6 discs)
BMG
No cat. no.

In 1951, Hank Williams had his own radio show on WSM, home of the Grand Ole Opry. Sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour, each show lasted 15 minutes, and some were performed live on the air, but because of his punishing tour schedule many of them had to be prerecorded onto acetate discs. Those discs were lost for decades, and were only saved for posterity because someone stopped them from being hauled to a dumpster. The complete transcriptions have been released before, in a 15-disc set packed into a box shaped like an antique radio, but that collection is long out of print. (If you’re interested, you can find used copies that will run you several hundred dollars.) This box is a bit more wieldy: six discs of selections from the Mother’s Best shows, packaged inside the case binding of a large book of photographs, which itself comes inside a sturdy box sleeve. The photos are beautifully reproduced and presented with minimal text; the music is incredibly well preserved (it was newly remastered for this release), and will remind anyone who listens exactly why Hank Williams is still the colossus that bestrides country music: that powerful, reedy voice; those uniquely incisive and creative lyrics; that tight, swinging band. And it has to be said that Williams’ physical beauty was always part of the package, and only enhances the attractiveness of this release: no one ever looked cooler than Hank Williams did when he stooped into the mic over his Martin D-28, his face all sharp angles, his Stetson hat shading a sly grin. Leaf through the pictures while you’re listening to him sing “Cold Cold Heart” and just see if every hair on your neck doesn’t stand on end.


CLASSICAL


Various Composers
Concurrence (CD + Blu-Ray disc)
Iceland Symphony Orchestra / Daníel Bjarnason
Sono Luminus (dist. Naxos)
DSL-92237

This is the second installment in an ongoing series of recordings dedicted to “bringing the orchestral sound world of Icelandic composers to the ears of the world,” in the words of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor Daníel Bjarnason. Four compositions are featured: the majestic and sometimes downright eerie Metacosmos by Anna Thorvaldsdóttir; Haukur Tómasson’s second piano concerto (featuring the outstanding pianist Vikingur Ólafsson); Oceans by Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir; and Páll Ragnar Pálssom’s Quake (featuring cello soloist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir). Because the program’s focus is on composers from a very specific place, one is tempted to listen for stylistic commonalities–but good luck with that. Each work is fairly modernist, but beyond that there isn’t much that unites them sonically. Instead, each composer offers a different musical vision, some more programmatic and others more impressionistic, some more tonal and some less so. All are very much worth hearing, and the playing is consistently excellent.


Claude Debussy
Etudes; Children’s Corner
Aleck Karis
Bridge (dist. Albany)
9529

There’s something a little bit curious about Claude Debussy–widely seen as the pioneer of musical impressionism–writing a set of études for the piano. How does a composer so dedicated to sonic mystery and abstraction write music designed for the cultivation of technique? The answer: idiosyncratically. Notice, for example, the almost puckish juxtaposition of arpeggios and sudden flights of melismatic fancy in the first étude of the first book. Elsewhere, though, the casual listener might be forgiven for failing to recognize these pieces as études at all. The six-movement Children’s Corner, by contrast, is a pure delight, a reflection of Debussy’s uncomplicated devotion to his daughter, for whom these pieces were written. In the final one, “Golliwog’s Cake Walk,” Debussy’s sense of humor is fully unleashed. Aleck Karis is a magnificent advocate for these works.


Franz Joseph Haydn
Haydn Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2
John O’Conor
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
30110

From the ethereal and strange impressionism of Debussy to the strict (if always melodically winning) formalism of Haydn; unless you want sonic whiplash, I wouldn’t recommend listening to the previous entry and this one back-to-back. John O’Conor is a champion of Haydn’s piano sonatas, which he believes are underappreciated. He makes a strong argument for them on his second album in the series, playing sonatas 48, 50, 54, 59, and 60 with both fluid grace and emotional insight, bringing out both the structural ingenuity that is always front and center and and the humor that always lurks just below the surface in Haydn’s work. The recorded sound is perfect; intimate but not crowded, rich without being too resonant. Highly recommended to all classical collections.


Johann Sebastian Bach; Johann Bernard Bach; Johann Ludwig Bach
Complete Ouvertures for Orchestra (2 discs)
Concerto Italiano / Rinaldo Allesandrini
Naïve (dist. Naxos)
OP 30578
Rick’s Pick

Johann Bernhard Bach
Orchestral Suites
Thüringer Bach Collegium
Audite
97.770
Rick’s Pick

J.S. Bach’s orchestral suites are among his most popular and frequently-recorded works, so it would be easy to overlook both of these new releases, one of which juxtaposes J.S. Bach’s suites with those of two of his cousins, and one of which focuses explicitly on one of those cousins, Johann Bernhard. The recording by Concerto Italiano puts two of J.S. Bach’s suites on each disc, in each case sandwiching one of his cousins’ suites between them: disc 1 features Johann Bernhard Bach’s E minor overture between J.S.’s first and second orchestral suites, and disc 2 places Johann Ludwig Bach’s G major suite between J.S. Bach’s third and fourth. The recording by the Thüringer Bach Collegium (a small chamber orchestra that functions without a conductor, though violin soloist Gernot Sußmuth is also credited as “ensemble leader”) focuses on four orchestral suites by Johann Bernhard Bach, none of which duplicates the work on the previous recording. J.B. wrote in the then-fashionable goût mixte style, blending elements of Italian and French structure in his pieces, and although these suites are rarely recorded today they were highly praised during his lifetime. Both of these releases are both historically significant and musically delightful.


Ludovici Einaudi
Seven Days Walking (reissue; 7 discs)
Decca
4818166

Ludovici Einaudi is perhaps best known as a soundtrack composer, having scored numerous Italian films and contributed music to the soundtracks of popular movies like Black Swan and I’m Still Here. But he has also written quite a bit of concert music, and this massive project was inspired by his daily walks in the Italian Alps. Over the course of 2019 he released seven individual albums, each containing quiet and contemplative music for piano, cello, and violin; now all seven are available in a single box set. Working my way through all of these recordings, I noticed something interesting: there would be moments when I’d think “I don’t know, I think this music is a bit too simple to be interesting”–and then something would happen musically that would catch and hold my attention. It was usually something subtle: a gentle harmonic mutation, or a quiet but sudden divergence from a well-established ostinato. But then I’d find that I was listening with new appreciation. Libraries that collect in contemporary music or in pop-classical crossover should definitely give this set strong consideration.


Henry Aldrich
Sacred Choral Music
Cathedral Singers of Christ Church, Oxford; The Restoration Consort; David Bannister / James Morley Potter
Convivium (dist. Naxos)
CR 052

Various Composers
The Tudor Choir Book
Croydon Minster Choir of Whitgift School; English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble / Ronny Krippner
Convivium (dist. Naxos)
CR 042

Henry Aldrich was an Oxford-based composer in the late 17th century, eventually serving as Dean of Christ Church (after his Catholic predecessor was forced to flee the city during escalations in religious tension) and then as vice-chancellor of the university itself. During his career he wrote vocal music for use in Christ Church Cathedral, as well as vocal and instrumental music to accompany the annual Oxford Act in the Sheldonian Theatre. Although this album is titled Sacred Choral Music, it actually features a variety of works for choir, solo voice, and string consort. All of it is wonderful, as are the performances. Another collection of early English vocal music from the same label is The Tudor Choir Book, which offers choral works by 16th-century English composers both familiar (Thomas Tallis, Peter Philips) and less so (Adrian Batten, Nathaniel Giles), interspersed with instrumental music for sackbutts and cornets by Italian composers of the period. Here again we have a combination of liturgical and devotional music, including Tallis’s frequently-recorded “Why Fum’th In Sight” and Adrian Batten’s rarely-heard Short Communion Service. These are performed by the Croydon Minster Choir of Whitgift School, whose boy trebles are sometimes a bit shrill but otherwise sound very fine. Both recordings are recommended to all early music collections.


Tessa Lark & Michael Thurber
Invention (digital only)
Self-released
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

Violinist Tessa Lark and contrabassist Michael Thurber make an unusual duo, but if you need to be convinced that it’s an instrumental combination that works, just check out this delightful album. On it, the pair juxtapose selections from J.S. Bach’s Two-part Inventions with pieces that they either have written themselves or adapted from traditional sources (the latter seems to be the case with “Wooden Soldier,” which sounds like a set of unidentified Irish fiddle tunes). The original compositions, which are written in a variety of styles, contrast nicely with the foursquare counterpoint of the Bach inventions–and the inventions themselves (which are more commonly played on the keyboard) sound surprisingly rich and full in these duo arrangements. This is a wonderful album overall.


JAZZ


Ken Fowser
Morning Light
Posi-Tone
PR8204
Rick’s Pick

I’ve been watching tenor saxophonist Ken Fowser’s career with great interest over the past few years, and continue to be deeply impressed by his work. For his latest album he has put together a classic tenor-and-trumpet quintet lineup (sharing the front line with trumpeter/flugelhorn player Josh Bruneau) to deliver an all-originals program that draws deeply on the hard-bop tradition that has been always been Fowser’s lodestar. If you’re a fan of 1960’s Blue Note recordings by the likes of Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, then you’re sure to enjoy this one. Which is not to say that Fowser’s playing is derivative; I’d say it’s respectful, while still forging his own stylistic path. There’s a bit more Latin flavor on this album, highlights including the nimbly bouncing “This That & the Other Thing” and the achingly sweet “Without Saying.” Also worth noting is the gently but powerfully swinging “Firefly.” Honestly, though, there’s not a weak track anywhere on the program. For all libraries.


Ben Webster
Ballads (reissue)
State of Art (dist. MVD)
81264

Ben Webster
The Soul of Ben Webster (expanded reissue)
Matchball (dist. MVD)
48023

Here are two somewhat confusing but still deeply enjoyable Ben Webster reissues, both bringing back to market releases that originally came out in the 1950s. Hold onto your porkpie hat while I  try to explain: Ballads is a one-CD reissue of a two-LP set that was originally released in the 1970s, but which itself was a reissue of two 1950s LPs: Music for Loving and Music with Feeling. Due to time constraints, the CD version lacks two tracks from the original two-LP reissue. The Soul of Ben Webster draws on the same period and duplicates a few tracks on The Soul of Ben Webster, but also includes some wonderful uptempo material — plus the two tracks that are missing from the Ballads re-reissue. So here’s the thing: yes, the pedigree of these releases is confusing. But the music isn’t. Whether Webster is crooning or burning, his tone remains the thing of wonder that it was throughout his career, and the Norman Granz-produced sessions included on these albums are beautifully recorded and feature such stellar sidemen as Teddy Wilson, Ray Brown, Milt Hinton, and Art Farmer.


Jonathan Ng
The Sphynx (EP, digital only)
Self-released
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

I don’t often review digital-only releases, and I almost never review EPs, especially in the jazz genre. But this one, the latest release from violinist Jonathan Ng, is so much fun that I just had to make an exception. Apart from its length and format it has another thing going against it: unless my ears are greatly mistaken, the music is all recorded in mono and with production techniques that make it sound like a very skillfully remastered acetate 78, which seems unnecessarily gimmicky to me. Still, though: Ng and his sextet play vintage swing and hot jazz with such infectious glee and off-hand virtuosity that it’s impossible not to be caught up in it. His website lists a bunch of previous recordings that I’ve never heard of before, so I’m going back to dig into his catalog now. Highly recommended.


Nick Finzer
Cast of Characters
Outside in Music
OiM 2000

I confess that I approached this album with some trepidation. The program looked awfully… conceptual to me. But I’ve been a fan of trombonist Nick Finzer for a while, so I decided to give it a shot, and I’m very glad I did. The operant concept here is indicated by the album’s title: the tunes are arranged in mini-suites that deal collectively with the idea of musical influence. With clusters of tunes that are given titles like “Brutus (the Contemporary),” “A Duke,” and “The Weatherman,” Finzer and his sextet explore the tension between musical self-determination and the veneration of one’s predecessors–and also, not incidentally I think, the tension between tight and careful composition and unfettered self-expression. There is a constant push and pull between those two approaches, resulting in some truly thrilling music-making as beautifully orchestrated ensemble passages segue unpredictably into freestyle blowing and back again. This album is conceptually impressive, but also genuinely enjoyable.


Benny Benack III
A Lot of Livin’ to Do (digital & LP only)
BB3 Productions
01242020
Rick’s Pick

I’ve always liked Postmodern Jukebox more in theory than in practice, but I have to say that the sophomore album by that group’s frontman is one of the funnest, sweetest, and most infectiously swinging jazz releases I’ve heard so far this year. With a voice that reminds me of John Pizzarelli at his best, and an equal facility as a songwriter and a song interpreter–not to mention considerable trumpet chops–Benny Benack III won my heart from the first track of this album. He then secured his hold on me with a Latin-jazz arrangement of the Mr. Rodgers song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” (“It’s You I Like” makes an appearance on the program as well). His original tunes are just as good as the pop and jazz standards he selected, and every performance is a joy. And that’s Christian McBride on bass, people. For all libraries.


Bobby Previte; Jamie Saft; Nels Cline
Music from the Early 21st Century
RareNoise
RNR115

Let’s finish out this month’s Jazz section with a palate-cleanser: a blast of brash, exploratory, alternately skronky and bluesy postmodern music from three genuine avant-jazz legends: drummer Bobby Previte, keyboardist Jamie Saft, and guitarist Nels Cline. Recorded live while on tour in early 2019, the music is mostly improvised, though there are moments when you would guess that it had been composed and carefully arranged. Saft spends most of his time on a Hammond B3 organ, which brings a disconcertingly familiar and even old-fashioned sound into a mix that is otherwise crammed with weird and futuristic noise (mostly courtesy of Cline, whose tonal palette is effectively without boundaries). Fans of downtown mainstays Massacre, Praxis, and Material (especially the albums featuring Bernie Worrell) will find much to love here, as will anyone who is coming to the end of a frustrating week and just needs her or his sinuses cleared. Turn it up and brace yourself.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Tami Neilson
Chickaboom!
Outside Music (dist. Redeye)
CD-OUTS-9130

Retro-country-rocker Tami Neilson grew up playing in a family band in her native Canada, though her solo career really took after she relocated to New Zealand. But for her latest album she felt the pull of family again, and invited her brother Jay to come and play guitar and bass for the sessions. The result is a bristling if all-too-brief set of original songs that draw on country, rockabilly, R&B and blues traditions in roughly equal measure, all of them showcases for her powerhouse of a voice. Some of the songs don’t fit any existing genre at all; “Queenie, Queenie” sounds like a nursery rhyme written by a retired madame; “You Were Mine” sounds like a Patsy Cline song being covered by Nina Simone. But genre boundaries are for suckers, and each one of these songs is a slightly different kind of revelation. The Mavis Staples tribute is both sweet and fiery. Recommended.


Seamus Egan
Early Bright (digital only)
THL
THL0003
Rick’s Pick

Composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Seamus Egan seems somehow to break new music ground with every release–and given that his recording career began 35 years ago, when he was 16, this means that he’s plowed a lot of musical soil. His latest album–and his first solo effort in 23 years–finds him in yet another new musical field, bringing his seemingly bottomless instrumental chops and his impressive compositional skills to bear on a set of tunes that draw on Irish tradition without staying bound by it. The title track is especially Celtic-sounding, but it segues into the less genre-specific “6 Then 5,” a track that could have been written by Penguin Cafe Orchestra if the Penguins weren’t so muzakky. The program proceeds accordingly, offering a kaleidoscopic array of tunes that offer layer upon layer of virtuosic playing and melodic inspiration. For all libraries.


Will Sexton
Don’t Walk the Darkness
Big Legal Mess (dist. Fat Possum)
BLM0573

Sexton comes from Austin by way of Memphis, and on his latest album he’s backed up by the New Orleans-based Iguanas. So if you hear a certain greasiness in his sound, well, he comes by it honestly. And like all the best musicians from all three of those cities, he makes music characterized simultaneously by looseness and tightness: a soft, almost casual approach to rhythm and to singing that nevertheless always stays firmly in the pocket. Songs like “Only Forever” and “Witness” draw deeply on traditions of Memphis soul (listen to those wonderfully subtle horn charts on the latter tune), while a strong whiff of outlaw Texas country wafts across everything like smoke from a mesquite campfire.


ROCK/POP


Pulse Emitter
Swirlings (LP & digital only)
Hausu Mountain (dist. Redeye)
HAUSMO92

Daryl Groetsch creates electronic music under the name Pulse Emitter, making music that straddles the increasingly fuzzy line between classical music and experimental rock. Not that his music has anything to do with “Rock,” per se–on this most recent release there are beats, more or less, and occasionally recognizable melodies, but mostly there are pulses, burbles, waves, clouds, chirps, and sighs. Listen closely and you may notice the microtonal harmonic systems that underlie his work, but if you listen more casually all you’ll hear is a sometimes rather chilly beauty and the juxtaposition of highly regular and intimate pulse-based pieces with others built out of large, echo-laden sonic spaces. This album is very, very good; I wish it had been made available on CD, and were about 30 minutes longer.


Lee Gamble
Exhaust (EP; digital & vinyl only)
Hyperdub (dist. Redeye)
SI-HDB-127

For a very different take on abstract electronic avant-pop, consider this, the second extended-play installment in what will eventually be a triptych of EPs making up a single work by Lee Gamble. The overarching project is called Flush Real Pharynx (a title of which Captain Beefheart would have been proud), and the first entry in the series was In a Paraventral Scale. This one features eight tracks of juddering, disorienting, but often hyperkinetically groovy electronic funk that draws on classic drill’n’bass, experimental electro, and other influences too numerous (and deconstructed) to identify. This would make a great addition to any library collection that supports curricula in modern compositional technique and/or contemporary pop music.


Squarepusher
Be Up a Hello
Warp (dist. Redeye)
WARP309
Rick’s Pick

Thomas Jankinson, a.k.a. Squarepusher, is one of the architects of the drill’n’bass sound–a style that takes the funky double-speed breakbeats of jungle and cranks them up even further, making them faster and incorporating them into grooves that can be not only thrilling but also exhausting and sometimes claustrophobically intense. I’ve always admired his work but have never been able to listen to it for more than about 30 minutes at a time. So when I received a promo for his new album I downloaded it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. To my surprise, though, it’s not only technically brilliant but also quite accessible. The beats are as fast and frenetic as ever and the arrangements just as dense and overwhelming, but there’s an undeniable sunniness and good humor to the music this time around. You may not choose this album as an accompaniment to reading a Russian novel or having a long conversation with a loved one, but for walking around downtown, tracks like “Speedcrank” and the frankly adorable “Hitsonu” are just the thing.


Various Artists
Hastur (2 discs)
Cryo Chamber
CRYO 136

Written and performed by a collective of over 20 artists in the “dark ambient” tradition, this two-disc set is the final installment in a six-volume tribute to the venerated Gothic horror author H.P. Lovecraft. I recommend this release partly based on its intrinsic merits–the music is consistently outstanding, maintaining a delicate balance between quiet and unsettlingly intense–but also as a representative example of a subgenre of electronic music with which many are unfamiliar. Ambient music is usually assumed to be relaxing and pleasant, but dark ambient artists are more interested in exploring the ways that quiet and atmospheric music can set up complex and sometimes downright disturbing emotional and psychological environments. The Cryo Chamber label specializes in this kind of thing, and is well worth exploring.


PAN-AL
PAN-AL (EP; digital only)
Apollo (dist. Redeye)
AMB1908

We’ll round out our all-electronic Rock & Pop section this month with a very promising release from Norwegian artist Alexander Thorstvedt, who makes music under the name PAN-AL. His seven-track debut EP offers a blissful but bracing blend of soft atmospherics and sturdy, sometimes almost frantic beats, expertly balancing a mix of soft and hard sounds. Thorstvedt is hardly the first artist to experiment with this kind of musical emulsion, but his mix of ambient, jungle, and dreampop ingredients nevertheless comes across with quite a unique and personal feel. I love every track on this program, but I particularly enjoyed the Aphex Twin-esque “It’s Rigged” and the extra-dreamy “Just Open Up.”


WORLD/ETHNIC


Sahra Halgan
Waa Daradaran
Buda (dist. MVD)
0827160

On her second album, Somali singer and songwriter Sahra Halgan comes roaring out of the gate with a raggedly rocking small ensemble behind her and a voice that soars, warbles, and shouts. Those who love Ethiopian pop music will recognize some similarities here in the melodic shapes and the vocal techniques of Somali singing, but Halgan’s is a unique style; it draws not only on sounds and inflections of her home region, notably the very popular qaarami song form, but also on elements of rhythm and blues (“Caaqil”) and even British new wave (listen to that cheesy Farfisa organ on “Talo”). This isn’t “fusion” music, though; it’s organic and original and honestly eclectic while still providing a window on a musical culture too little known outside of Africa. Highly recommended to all libraries.


LPT
Sin Parar (digital & vinyl only)
Self-released
No cat. no.
Rick’s Pick

When applied to pop music, the term “slick” is usually pejorative; it implies shallowness, pandering, inauthenticity. But it’s one of the best descriptors I can come up with for the debut album by LPT, an outstanding ten-piece salsa orchestra from Jacksonville, Florida, and I mean it in only the most positive way. The complexity of salsa music is such that unless your band is made up of seasoned professionals, it’s going to sound like a mess: your rhythm section has to be able to keep a complicated mathematical map in its head at all times, and your horns–of which you will need many–have to play together with absolutely airtight precision. And of course your singer had better have a rich, sweet singing voice and perfect intonation, or no one will even bother listening to the instrumentalists. LPT has all of those things and wields all of them with a winning combination of nimbleness and muscular strength. An altogether brilliant debut.


Dengue Dengue Dengue
Zenit & Nadir (digital & 2 LP only)
Enchufada
ENLP111

Billed as “the driving force in the rebirth of the South American digital cumbia scene” (try not to feel too bad if you weren’t already aware of the South American digital cumbia scene, or of its previous demise), Dengue Dengue Dengue have made several previous albums that blend various elements of Afro-Peruvian music with other traditions. But since the group’s move to Berlin, they have begun exploring more deeply the ways in which those traditions can be expanded by interaction with electronic dance elements. The results, as documented here, are wonderful: the music is hypnotic but varied, dense but nimble, regular but funky, old but new. I’ve listened to the album several times now, and I hear something new and exciting every time. Highly recommended to all libraries, though sadly it’s only available digitally and on LP–and the LP version would appear to be sold out already.


Mortimer
Fight the Fight (EP)
Easy Star/Overstand
ES-1077

This is a six-track EP from a very promising young reggae talent. Mortimer has made guest appearances on recent albums by Protoje and has released a couple of well-received singles, and this extended release should whet the marketplace’s appetite for a full-length album. Mortimer exemplifies the best of what’s happening in contemporary roots reggae right now: unafraid of incorporating elements of hip hop and R&B into the mix, he is nevertheless deeply grounded in the one-drop verities, and his lyrics are pretty strictly conscious. And he can do that singjay thing too, singing and chatting with equal felicity on the very rootsy and dubwise “Careful.” Great stuff.


Busy Signal
Parts of the Puzzle
VP
VP2503
Rick’s Pick

The relationship between reggae and American R&B has been deeply incestuous since the beginning–reggae emerged, in large part, as a Jamaican interpretation of the rhythms that were heard on Miami and Memphis radio stations in Kingston in the 1950s and 1960s. To see how that relationship continues today, look no further than the latest album from dancehall sensation Busy Signal, whose Parts of the Puzzle partakes deeply of such standard R&B tropes as smooth bedroom lyrics and the lavish and unapologetic application of AutoTune. Rhythmically, this album leaves reggae almost entirely aside in favor of the loping, stutter-step soca beat that has come to typify dancehall music in recent decades. Every song is smooth and beautifully crafted, and Busy Signal is a fine (if maybe a bit overproduced) singer. This is perfect driving music for a spring evening.

January 2020


PICK OF THE MONTH


Burial
Tunes 2011-2019 (2 discs)
Hyperdub (dist. Redeye)
HDBCD048

William Bevan managed to record eponymously under the name Burial for several years before his growing popularity led to an inevitable unmasking. He was the first signing to Kode9’s now-legendary Hyperdub label, and his first album was released in 2005. He released one more full-length in 2007, but since then he has focused on smaller projects, releasing a long series of EPs consisting of several tracks each. This generously-packed two-disc set draws on those releases, bringing together the entirely of Street Halo, Kindred, Truant/Rough Sleeper, Rival Dealer, Young Death/Nightmarket, and Subtemple/Beachfires; unfortunately, none of the music is new, but the collection does provide an outstanding survey of the work of one of electronic dance music’s most mysterious and consistently compelling figures (and six of the tracks have never before been released on CD). Of course, in the case of Burial the term “dance music” should be taken with something of a grain of salt. Some of his work deploys no beats at all, but instead builds dark, glitchy, and sometimes oppressive and slightly frightening atmospheres out of samples, synth chords, and disembodied shreds of vocals; most of it, however, is rhythmically engagiung even if it’s dark and dense.

If you want some context for Burial’s work, it’s also worth checking out the recently-released digital-only Hyperdub label compilation Hyperswim. It features releases by label head Kode9 and Burial, alongside work by other luminaries like DJ Spinn, Lee Gamble, Ikonika, and Cooly G. Here the variety of styles and approaches is much broader, extending into hip hop and avant-garde pop, but the label’s overarching aesthetic is pretty consistent.


CLASSICAL


Various Composers
Chinese Fantasies
Fangye Sun
Blue Griffin (dist. Albany)
BGR 521

This lovely collection of chamber works for violin by Chinese composers opens with Gang Chan’s flowing and mellifluously pentatonic Morning of Miao Mountain, for violin and piano. It’s a gorgeous and immediately accessible piece, played with limpid grace by violinist Fagye Sun, and it does not exactly prepare one for the somewhat spikier and more challenging works to come, three of which are written by the celebrated contemporary composer Bright Sheng: The Stream Flows, A Night at the Chinese Opera, and Three Fantasies. Things get soft and lyrical again with works by Huwei Huang (E’Mei Mountain Moon Song) and Qingxiang Zhang (Jade Gate Fantasy), and the program ends with a piece for unaccompanied solo violin written by cellist Daniel Tressel and commissioned for this recording by Sun. Her playing is magnificent throughout, as is that of her accompanists. Highly recommended.


Christobal de Morales
Lamentabatur Iacob
La Grande Chapelle / Albert Recasens
Lauda (dist. Naxos)
LAU019
Rick’s Pick

This collection of motets by one of the towering figures of the Spanish Renaissance focuses on Lent, the period preceding Easter. The music is liturgical in function: responsories, antiphons, introits, and motets intended for use during worship on the three Sundays leading up to Holy Week. As one might expect, the prevailing mood is somber and dark, an effect that is heightened by the almost all-male makeup of the ensemble La Grande Chapelle. I can’t stress enough how deeply beautiful this album is; every passage aches with devotional passion, but the singing is carefully restrained and always impeccable in both intonation and blend. This is the most impressive recording of Easter music I encountered in 2019, and I recommend it strongly to all classical collections.


Johann Sebastian Bach
The Six Partitas (2 discs)
Angela Hewitt
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
CDA68271/2
Rick’s Pick

There are lots of people playing Bach on the piano these days, but I’m not sure there’s anyone doing so with greater authority, facility, and insight than Angela Hewitt. Her latest foray into the Bach keyboard repertoire is this magnificent recording of the six keyboard partitas. It follows a year spent performing these works in concert halls around the world, and is one component of her “Bach Odyssey” project, which will end in 2020. Attentive readers may note that she recorded these pieces once before, in the mid-1990s, but she now approaches them with an additional 20 years of thought, practice, and experience. Her playing is exquisite as always, and she makes perhaps the most sensitive and tasteful use of dynamics–and even of subtle rubato–I’ve ever heard. Bach is not just a genius clockmaker under Hewitt’s hands, but also a soaring singer. For all collections.


Charles Amirkhanian
Loudspeakers (2 discs)
New World (dist. Albany)
81817-2

Charles Amirkhanian has composed enthusiastically for the Synclavier–a pioneering sampling keyboard–during much of his career. Three of the pieces on this two-disc set consist of sounds sampled and then altered using that instrument, and the fourth reflects his fascination with a much earlier example of a mechanical-music instrument: the player piano. The album opens with the latter, the ten-movement work Pianola (Pas de mains), which consists of the sampled and manipulated sounds of player pianos. By turns puckish and forbidding, it’s a bit like a musical carnival ride. Im Frühling draws on sounds recorded in nature, some of which (burbling water and bird calls, for instance) remain recognizable, while others are distorted beyond recognition. Son of Metropolis San Francisco is quite programmatic in tone as well, though (predictably) more urban and less pastoral–here the samples include human speech and the piece gives the impression of a random exploration of the radio dial. The title work is dedicated to Morton Feldman, and manipulates recordings of Feldman’s speaking voice in a way that is both playful and affectionate.


Kristin Bolstad
Tomba Sonora (CD + Blu-Ray disc)
Stemmeklang
2L (dist. Naxos)
2L-155-SABD
Rick’s Pick

The Emanuel Vigeland Museum in Oslo is both a major work of art itself (consisting mainly of an enormous barrel-vaulted room entirely covered by a huge fresco painting by the artist) and a mausoleum; Vigeland designed and built it as the place where he would be entombed. The room’s acoustic properties have made it a popular performance and recording venue, and singer/composer Kristin Bolstad wrote five pieces for voices and strings specifically for the space. Music constantly emerges slowly from silence, and overtones are as important to the harmonic and temporal structure of the pieces as the fundamental sung and played tones are. The result is both beautiful and deeply eerie, and is perfect for listening in a dark room all alone. Strongly recommended to all collections. (The Blu-Ray disc includes the same music in a variety of different “3D” mixes.)


Ludwig Van Beethoven
Piano Sonatas
Young-Ah Tak
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
30106

Since we’re coming up on Beethoven’s 250th birthday, we can expect a bumper crop of new recordings of familiar material from his vast corpus of compositions. This set of three piano sonatas (nos. 6, 18, and 23 “Appassionata”) plus the opus 51 Rondo in C major, is performed by the brilliant young pianist Young-Ah Tak, and the program order reflects the effort and care she has put into approaching this repertoire. It opens with the charming Rondo, and then moves with increasing intensity from the relatively simple and straightforward 6th to the darker and more contemplative 18th, and then to the celebrated, much-recorded, and supremely challenging 23rd. Tak plays with supreme confidence but never virtuosic arrogance, approaching these monumental works with both authority and humility. Recommended to all classical collections.


John Luther Adams
Become Desert (CD + DVD)
Seattle Symphony / Ludovic Morlot
Cantaloupe (dist. Naxos)
CA21148

Become Desert completes a trilogy that I didn’t set out to write,” says composer John Luther Adams. The previous two related compositions are Become Ocean and Become River, but this one is the most ambitious in terms of instrumental forces (it involves five distinct instrumental and vocal “choirs”). It explores and deploys sonic space to a degree unprecedented in Adams’ always space-conscious work: opening with quietly shimmering percussion and strings, its texture and harmonic density gradually thicken, even though the harmonic movement itself is close to static. By halfway through its 40-minute length, the whispering breezes have turned into majestic cliffs of sound; by the end, everything has subsided again into a whisper. Exceptionally beautiful despite its minimal harmonic materials, Become Desert is a uniquely lovely and immersive listening experience. (The DVD offers two different mixes of the work, along with a slideshow of desert images that loops during playback.)


JAZZ


Lolly Allen
Coming Home
OA2
22178

Vibraphonist, arranger, and composer Lolly Allen leads a crack team of sidemen on her second album, on which she explores the sounds that were bubbling on Los Angeles’s energetic jazz scene in the 1950s: plenty of Latin rhythms (“Mambo Inn,” “O Grande Amor,” Luiz Bonfá’s “Gentle Rain”), some soulful hard bop (Horace Silver’s “The Hippest Cat in Hollywood”), but also some straight-up bebop, which was still happening on the West Coast several years after it had become somewhat passé in New York. Allen demonstrates not only exceptional instrumental, compositional, and arranging chops, but also a wonderful adroitness as a bandleader, taking charge of a shifting ensemble that includes varying combinations of piano, bass, drums, sax, guitar, trumpet, and trombone. Particularly impressive is her ability to work in tandem with a pianist–always something of a challenge given that vibes and piano perform pretty much identical functions in a jazz combo. A triumph overall for a major young talent.


Yimba Rudo
Yimba Rudo
Barking Hoop
BKH-012

For a very different take on the vibes-led jazz combo, consider this debut from a trio that calls itself Yimba Rudo. Consisting of vibes player Kevin Norton, bassist Steve LaSpina, and drummer Jim Pugliese (all of whom have broad and deep experience in New York’s jazz and avant-garde scene), Yimba Rudo plays jazz without stylistic constraint, swinging when they feel like it but mostly following musical paths that avoid groove in favor of melodic and harmonic exploration. This isn’t skronk, and it isn’t free improv; there are clear predetermined structures to pieces like “Over and Inside the Rainbow,” but they’re structures that leave lots of room for personal expression. All three of these musicians have been all over the place, in terms of genre and style, over the course of their long careers, and you can hear that experience in every note they play.


Sonar with David Torn
Tranceportation (Volume 1)
RareNoise
RNR0113

SONAR is a Swiss quartet made up of Stephan Thelen and Bernhard Wagner (playing “tritone guitars”), Christian Kuntner (“tritone bass”), and drummer/percussionist Manuel Pasquinelli. On their fifth album they’re joined by famed avant-jazz guitarist David Torn, and the resulting music raises all kinds of questions–first of all, what makes a guitar a “tritone guitar”? (Aren’t all guitars tritone guitars?) The next question is “Why don’t these four long pieces feature any chord changes to speak of?” But if you keep listening, you get past those questions, because what these five players manage to do is convince you that there are lots of ways to engage the listener that don’t involve complex (or even simple) chord progressions. Knotty and interlocking rhythmic patterns ebb and flow together; melodies unfold and then fold up again; Torn’s unique and otherworldly guitar effects soar and shudder and insinuate. Imagine if Terry Riley wrote music to be played by King Crimson, and you’ll get the idea. Very cool.


Delfeayo Marsalis & Uptown Jazz Orchestra
Jazz Party
Troubadour Jass
TJR083119
Rick’s Pick

Jazz has been so focused on complexity and virtuosity for so long that it can be easy to forget that its roots are in fun and celebration. Which, of course, is another way of saying that its roots are in New Orleans. Which, of course, is where Delfeayo Marsalis has been holding court for the past ten years at the Snug Harbor club with his Uptown Jazz Orchestra every Wednesday night. On Marsalis’ seventh album as a leader he takes that large ensemble through a diverse and relentlessly fun set of tunes that nod to gospel, son, R&B, and jump blues, but that never lose touch with that slippery, funky second-line feel. By turns seductive, funny, swinging, bombastic, and subtle, these tunes never, ever lose their sense of joy; Marsalis is not only a top-notch trombonist, but he’s also one of the best bandleaders out there. For all jazz collections.


Isabelle Olivier & Rez Abbasi
OASIS
Enja/Yellow Bird
ENJ-9774

Harpist Isabelle Olivier and guitarist Rez Abbasi have teamed up to create a truly unique program of music that runs gleefully back and forth across the boundaries that separate jazz, classical, Pakistani, and experimental music, in the process trampling those boundaries into nonexistence. Accompanied by tabla player Prabhu Edouard and drummer David Paycha, they begin (startlingly enough) with a respectful but still genre-bending take on “My Favorite Things.” With that, the engagement with jazz standards ends, and the remainder of the album is given over to original compositions, most of them by Olivier. Some of these pieces (“Other Tones,” “Looking for Dad”) are tightly and obviously structured; others (“Timeline,” “Stepping Stone”) are maybe a bit more amorphous. Not all are equally compelling, but all are interesting and well worth hearing–and some are deeply beautiful.


Massimo Biolcati
Incontre
Sounderscore
SO 002
Rick’s Pick

Stylistically, bassist and composer Massimo Bolcati is a serious multiple threat. On his second album as a leader (his normal gig is as part of the celebrated trio Gilfema), he shows off both his compositional chops and his unique approach to arranging: note his perfectly disjointed take on Thelonious Monk’s “Boo Boo’s Birthday,” his puckish deconstruction of the 1980s pop hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” his weirdly funky version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” and his deeply, straightforwardly funky take on Dave Holland’s “How’s Never.” Also notice how modestly but firmly he leads his quartet, directing the music with a clear vision but never centering the band’s sound on his own contributions. That’s a mark not only of musical maturity, but of personal maturity as well. An excellent album and a great choice for any jazz collection.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Ben Winship
Toolshed
Snake River
SRR-127
Rick’s Pick

Ben Winship
Acorns
Snake River
SRR-126
Rick’s Pick

Two astoundingly fine albums are released simultaneously by the quietly legendary Ben Winship, a mandolinist, singer, and songwriter who has spent lots of time as a sideman and an increasing amount of time producing and engineering other people’s recordings in his Henhouse studio in Victor, Idaho. When he started calling in IOUs and recording a bunch of his own songs (resulting in guest performances by the likes of Ivan Neville, Mollie O’Brien, Chris Coole, and Travis Book), it became clear to him that the music was falling into two genre categories: full-band folk-rock Americana, and stripped-down old-timey stringband music. Accordingly, he ended up putting music from each category onto separate albums: Acorns is the more trad (or at least trad-sounding) material, while Toolshed leans towards modern country and roots pop (with a little bit of table and tuba thrown in for good measure, and even a strong nod towards hip hop in one case). What’s immediately striking about both albums is the consistent solidity of the songs: whether he wrote them or arranged them, every single one of them is a winner, and that’s extremely unusual for any artist in any genre. And his singing voice is simply perfect. Both albums are strongly recommended to all libraries.


Humbird
Pharmakon
Self-released
No cat. no.

The band name, the album title, and the press materials’ characterization of this music as “experimental folk and environmental Americana” might lead you to expect something precious and self-conscious. But give it a chance, and the visceral directness and unfussy beauty of these songs will captivate you immediately. To be honest, I’m not sure Humbird is a band at all; in reality, it seems to be little more than Siri Undlin, who wrote and sings all the songs; there are apparently some sidepersons involved, though the information provided (to reviewers anyway) is sketchy on that score. Highlights on this concept album–organized around questions of control and the female body–include the heartbreakingly lovely title track, the more densely arranged but equally delicate “Sea Shells,” and the subtly funky “Persephone.” Every track is strong, and some are overwhelming.


Che Apalache
Rearrange My Heart
Free Dirt
DIRT-CD-0094

Look at the cover of this album and you see a young, hipstery bluegrass band. Cue up the first track and you hear West-African-sounding choral harmonies accompanied by a Latin handclap beat, which then segues into a Klezmer-candombe tune sung in Spanish. So what’s going on here? Stylistic, political, and sexual insurrection, frankly, all delivered with a swinging multicultural beat and lots of melodic-style three-finger banjo. You’ll also hear relatively straight-ahead bluegrass and newgrass, jazzy New Acoustic instrumentals, bluesy acoustic gospel, and rhythmically crooked experimental string band music. Throughout the album the vocal harmonies are tight and thrilling, the arrangements are sparkling and unique, and the politics is unapologetically in-your-face. This would make a great addition to any college library collection.


ROCK/POP


Marshall Crenshaw
Miracle of Science (reissue)
Shiny-Tone (dist. Megaforce)
020286-23000

Originally released in 1996 on the now-defunct Razor & Tie label, Marshall Crenshaw’s Miracle of Science is now reissued on Crenshaw’s own Shiny-Tone imprint with three bonus tracks. Its original release showcased an uncaged Marshall Crenshaw, one who was no longer beholden to major labels and who had acquired enough home recording equipment to do much of his work at home, playing multiple instruments. I knew he was a world-class songwriter and a fine guitarist, but until I heard this album I didn’t realize what an impressive multi-instrumentalist he was: he does a fine job not only on bass and keyboards, but on drums as well (though he cedes the drum stool to others on the most demanding tracks). Interestingly, the majority of these songs are covers–some of them from slightly surprising sources, like former Hüsker Dü member Grant Hart (“Twenty-Five Forty-One”) and Michel Pagliaro (“What the Hell I Got”). All of them demonstrate Crenshaw’s unparalleled skill as a pop artist, though. Recommended.


Killing Joke
Laugh at Your Peril: Live at the Roundhouse (2 discs)
Cadiz/Live Here Now (dist. MVD)
CADIZCD178

There’s something to be said for a band that has been playing (off and on) for four decades, and whose sound hasn’t noticeably changed during that time. Forty years after Killing Joke’s first album, they’re still making unbelievably dense, swirling, heavy, and paranoid music that has clear roots in punk rock but sounded utterly unique then and continues to do so today. These two discs document a show at London’s famous Roundhouse venue from the band’s fortieth-anniversary tour in 2018, and it offers songs from across their career, along with the between-song political interjections that fans have come to expect from frontman Jaz Coleman. Out of the sonic vortex emerge a few unusual moments: “Labyrinth” is very nearly funky, whereas “Asteroid” is unusually fast and more conventionally punky; this live version of “The Wait” is even more aggro than the studio original. Great stuff, and a fine introduction to an important band.


Modern English
Mesh & Lace (reissue)
Blixa Sounds
ETA 825

Modern English
After the Snow (reissue)
Blixa Sounds
ETA 827

The musical evolution charted by these two reissues from 1980s new wave/New Romantic darlings Modern English is absolutely fascinating. Mesh & Lace, the band’s 1981 debut, is nothing special: originally issued on 4AD, it finds the group embracing all the stylistic trappings of that label’s signature sound: dark, swirling atmospheres with alternately gothy and shouty vocals and a minimum of melodic interest. (Labelmates like Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil added compelling songs to this recipe and created magnificent works of pop art as a result.) Mesh & Lace is an interesting curiosity, but not much more than that. Then came the band’s second album, After the Snow, marking the band’s move to Sire records and containing the song “I Melt with You.” Which (you’re welcome) will now be stuck in your head for the next three days simply because you’ve read the title. It was an utterly brilliant piece of romantic post-punk pop music, and could not have marked a more complete turn from the band’s early sound. As for the rest of that album, it offers a more continuous though still transitional sound: somewhat brighter and somewhat more tuneful. But the poppy melodicism and sunny lyrics (“it’s getting better all the time”) of “I Melt with You” stand out stylistically even here. Both albums include a generous helping of outtakes and alternative versions as bonus tracks.


Locked Groove
Sunset Service (Extended Edition) (reissue; digital only)
Hotflush
HFLP015E

Earlier this year, Belgian EBM artist Locked Groove released his debut album. Titled Sunset Service, it found him exploring a variety of contemporary electronic dance genres with a particular focus on hard-hitting techno, trance, and rave stylings. A few months later came a teaser: an EP offering three tracks from that album in remixed versions by Alan Fitzpatrick, Prequel Tapes, and Anastasia Kristensen. (Then in the fall came another, two-track remix EP.) And then, in November, the mother lode: a new extended edition of the original album containing nearly four hours of music across 35 tracks, including the five from the earlier EPs. On this version, Locked Groove’s already broad stylistic palette is increased by those of his various collaborators: Fitzpatrick’s take on “From Beyond” brings a Big Beat flavor to what had been a thumping house track; Skream and Scuba funkify and deepen the original techno groove of “Do Not Freak”; Carlton Doom takes the soully vibe of “Soma” and gives it a darker and more rhythmically crowded feel, and so forth. Four hours of this may be a bit much for a single sitting, but dipping in and out of this generous collection is very rewarding.


Dreaming of Ghosts
Dreaming of Ghosts (digital only)
Trees and Cyborgs
TC013

These artists are keeping information about themselves close to the vest, but Dreaming of Ghosts seems to be a duo consisting of Trees and Cyborgs label head Robert Koch and singer Fiora. In the words of the press release, “They create music to explore their rediscovered relationship to space; dwelling calmly and slowly in the terrifying emptiness. And as they wait without time; alone but not alone. At peace in the uncomfortable dissonance. Worlds begin to reveal out of what seemed void. Bold new realities expand and take form. And reaching out, wide and open – difficult questions find answers while others remain forever unresolved.” On a more concrete level, this is experimental dream-pop–not very hooky, but certainly very pretty and filled with interesting details. Fiora’s voice is suitably breathy for the genre, but not wispy or wimpy, and Koch’s musical soundscapes provide lovely accompaniment. Recommended.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Antoinette Konan
Antoinette Konan (reissue)
Awesome Tapes from Africa
ATFA 036

This album by singer, songwriter, and ahoko player Antoinette Konan was originally released in 1986, and is simultaneously a pure product of its time (those synth drums!) and a truly unique document of a brilliant musician too little known outside her home of Côte d’Ivoire. She made a name for herself by blending the traditional sounds of the ahoko (a locally-popular percussion instrument) and baoulé culture with those of Western synth pop, along with her own multi-tracked vocals. Konan produced the album herself, working closely with arranger Bamba Moussa, and it’s a delight: her voice is pretty if not always polished, but her singing is completely assured and confident, the harmonies tight and lovely, and while the arrangements may sound a bit dated to 21st-century ears they’re still thoroughly winning. The digital transfer sounds fantastic.


Tenor Youthman/King Toppa
G.O.D.S. (Good Old Dancehall Style) (digital only)
King Toppa
KT030

If you miss the days of squidgy 1980s digital dancehall music–and really, who doesn’t?–then the German/Russian ragga team of Tenor Youthman and King Toppa are here for you. The former’s stage name is a clear homage to Tenor Saw, whose “Ring the Alarm” was a defining single of that period, and whose melodic tendencies as a singjay are strongly shared by Tenor Youthman. Producer and beatmaker King Toppa is also thoroughly steeped in the early-dancehall verities, but he does an admirable job of fusing old-school with modern elements, and when he dubs things up he does it with flair. Thematically, the album offers a nice blend of conscious and dance-oriented material. A solid and thoroughly enjoyable album.


Farafi
Calico Soul
Piranha (dist. Redeye)
PIR3268CD
Rick’s Pick

Calico Soul is a “nomadic duo” consisting of Darlini Singh Kaul and Joy Tyson, who are accompanied on this album by a large array of instrumentalists from a variety of world traditions. On the back of the package it says two important things: “File under Global Fusion” and “Songs in English, French, gibberish, Swahili inspired, Yoruba inspired, Zulu/Xhosa.” These notes are important because they might reasonably lead the potential listener to say “No, thanks.” This, however, would be a mistake. For now let’s leave aside questions of cultural appropriation and just focus on the music itself: it sparkles, bounces, rocks, and occasionally soars, from the relatively rockish “Djanya Wofu” to the constantly time-shifting “Desert Sun” and the percolating funkiness of “Ey Budida.” Sometimes the duo sing in unison and sometimes in harmony, and at all times they communicate a completely infectious energy and witty joy. Highly recommended.


Danny T & Tradesman
Re-built for Sound (digital only)
Scotch Bonnet
SCOBNET005
Rick’s Pick

Back in January 2018 I strongly recommended Built for Sound, a dancehall-reggae collaboration by Danny T and Tradesman, two stalwarts of the surprisingly fertile Glasgow reggae scene. On Re-built for Sound, the ante is upped aggressively: eight remixes in a variety of heavyweight ragga, jungle, and EDM styles provided by the likes of Chief Rockas, Aries, Stalawa, Bim One, and Samurai Breaks. It’s hard to identify highlights on such a consistently outstanding album, but Chief Rockas and Kirifi’s Amen junglist take on “Dance a Gwaan” and the gloriously low-and-slow Bim One Remix of “Distraction Trap” (featuring Earl Sixteen) are both particularly strong. This collection makes an excellent companion to the original album, both of which are strongly recommended to all libraries.