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Author Archives: Rick Anderson

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.

December 2019


PICK OF THE MONTH


Steve Reich
Drumming
Kuniko
Linn (dist. Naxos)
CKD 582

Drumming is one of the undisputed masterworks of Steve Reich’s oeuvre, a long and complex percussion composition that thoroughly explores his early ideas of rhythmic phasing in the context of simple harmony and highly complex multilayered polyrhythms. The piece is written in four movements, which are played in continuous sequence: the first for tuned bongos, the second for marimbas and voice, the third for glockenspiels, voices, and piccolo; and the fourth for all of the instruments and voices together. Since there is some flexibility to the score (players get to decide how many repeats to follow), a performance can last anywhere from 55 to 75 minutes. Traditionally, of course, Drumming has been played by an ensemble of musicians. But for this recording percussionist Kuniko elected to perform the entire thing herself, using overdubbing techniques in the studio to create all of the necessary parts. As always–and she has already demonstrated an impressive affinity for Reich’s music–she plays with both an intensity of focus and a virtuosic precision that are unmatched in her field; under her mallets, sticks, and fingers, this music shimmers with brilliant clarity and the dense beauty of Reich’s patterns is revealed as never before. An essential purchase for all library collections.


CLASSICAL


Various Composers
A Spanish Nativity
Stile Antico
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 902312
Rick’s Pick

Because holiday music is politically complicated, I generally avoid covering it in CD HotList. But when the album in question is the latest release from the magnificent Stile Antico choir, I have to make an exception to that general rule. With A Spanish Nativity, the group has put together a thoroughly winning program of Christmas compositions both familiar (Victoria’s deathless O Magnum mysterium, the charming carol “Riu, riu, chiu”) and less so (Alonso Lobo’s wonderful Missa Beata Dei genitrix Maria) to create a listening experience that simultaneously celebrates both the birth of the Christ child and the remarkable musical efflorescence that occurred during Spain’s “Golden Age” of the 16th century. Motets by Francisco Guerrero, Cristóbal de Morales, and Pedro Rimonte are here as well, and the singing is as sweet, powerful, and luminous as always. Every new release from Stile Antico has been a must-have for libraries, and this one is no different.


Various Composers
The Enlightened Trumpet
Paul Merkelo; Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Marios Papadopoulos
Sony Classical (dist. Naxos)

Trumpeter Paul Merkelo offers a thoroughly delightful program of trumpet concertos spanning the late baroque, classical, and early Romantic eras (hence the title). The album features concertos by Haydn, Telemann, Mozart, and Hummel–the latter a particularly interesting choice as he is known mainly as a piano composer, though the trumpet concerto featured here is a showcase of bravura technique. Merkelo’s tone is sweet and golden, and the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra (playing on modern instruments) provides rich and nuanced accompaniment. Apart from what sounds like a small intonation problem in the final movement of the Telemann concerto, the album is flawless and richly enjoyable from start to finish.


Jan Garbarek; The Hilliard Ensemble
Remember Me, My Dear
ECM
2625

Soprano saxophone and all-male vocal quartet is not an obvious combination, but in 1993 jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble were invited by ECM label head Manfred Eicher to get together and try out some collaborative music. The resulting album (Officium) was something of an unexpected hit, and the quintet toured together regularly during the following two decades. This album was recorded live during the group’s farewell tour in 2014, and finds them continuing to explore the strange but successful blending of ancient and modern vocal polyphony and eerie reed melismas that attracted so many listeners to the original album. The music won’t be to everyone’s taste, but you can certainly see why so many feel it worked so well, and there’s no questioning the deep connection between the performers on these highly unusual and frequently gorgeous pieces.


Johann Sebastian Bach
6 Flute Sonatas BWV 1030-1035
Michala Petri; Hille Perl; Mahan Esfahani
OUR Recordings (dist. Naxos)
6.220673

Bach’s flute sonatas are not new repertoire, of course; they’ve been widely interpreted in a variety of presentations. But the fact that recorder virtuoso Michala Petri has turned her attention to them (again, following her widely-praised 1998 recording alongside Keith Jarrett, without a cello or gamba player) is certainly good news. And this time she’s brought along harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani and viola da gamba player Hille Perl, filling out the sound nicely. As always, Petri’s playing is exceptionally lovely, and she manages to shed new light on these evergreen works–partly through the harder timbre of the recorder, and partly through her own deep knowledge and love of Bach’s music. Recommended to all libraries.


Sarah Pagé
Dose Curves
Backward Music (dist. Redeye)
BKWRD020

Harpist Sarah Pagé steps out as a composer on this debut album, which consists of five pieces written for harp using various extended techniques. Using pickups, pedals, loops, bows, and apparently even electrical fans(!), Pagé creates sounds that range from abrasive scraping to ethereal drones, harmonic pulses to floating washes of sound, with occasional passages of lyrical melody emerging as well. Not only is Pagé’s command of her instrument impressive, but so is her ability to coax sounds from it by means of outboard equipment in ways that expand enormously the harp’s expressive potential. Any library supporting a program of harp pedagogy or experimental music should seriously consider adding this release to the collection.


Domenico Scarlatti
52 Sonatas (4 discs)
Lucas Debargue
Sony Classical (dist. Naxos)
19075944462

If, like me, you love the keyboard music of the baroque and early classical periods but tire quickly of the sound of the harpsichord, then this four-disc set of Domenico Scarlatti’s 52 sonatas for keyboard may be the perfect gift for you (or your library collection). The music is performed on modern piano by Lucas Debargue, with what sounds to me like a perfect balance between accuracy and restraint. I say “restraint” because the modern piano permits all kinds of dynamic elaborations that would not have been in the mind of a composer writing for the harpsichord, and Debargue does a fine job of incorporating such elaborations tastefully and in ways that illuminate rather than distract from Scarlatti’s brilliant writing–notably, for example, by bringing out some surprising and lovely syncopations in the A major sonata K 113. I’m not sure how many people will want to listen to all four discs end to end, but it’s certainly an impressive accomplishment–and taken in reasonable chunks, it’s a marvelous listening experience as well.


Johannes Ockeghem
Complete Songs Volume 1
Blue Heron / Scott Metcalfe
Blue Heron (dist. Naxos)
BHCD1010
Rick’s Pick

Hot on the heels of their triumphant world-premiere recording of Cipriano de Rore’s five-voice madrigals, the magnificent Blue Heron ensemble has now released the first in what will be a two-volume set of chansons by Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem–the first complete recording of his songs in 40 years. These recordings are part of a larger Blue Heron project, called Ockeghem@600: between 2015 and 2021, the group will perform all of Ockeghem’s known music. This program of chansons is a revelation, from the delicate two-voice texture of “Aultre Venus estes sans faille” to the darker hues of “Mort tu as navré de ton dart” and the five-voice Marian motet-chanson “Permanent vierge/Pulcra es/Sancta dei genitrix.” As always, the ensemble masterfully combines a colorful vocal blend with exquisite intonation and creates a sumptuously lovely listening experience. Recommended to all libraries.


Matt Sargent
Separation Songs
Eclipse Quartet
Cold Blue Music
CB0055
Rick’s Pick

Separation Songs consists of 54 variations on hymn melodies written by the pioneering American composer William Billings in the 18th century and published in his 1770 collection New England Psalm Singer. Using two string quartets (in this case, the excellent Eclipse Quartet playing against itself by means of studio overdubbing), the composer pulls melodic fragments apart, sending them from one quartet to the other, creating a constantly-shifting array of new melodies and harmonies. Like a kaleidoscope, the music is always changing and yet always staying the same: its fundamental elements move constantly but consistently within predetermined boundaries. Its strange blend of uplift and melancholy made me think of some of Gavin Bryar’s best work. Strongly recommended.


JAZZ


Matthew Halsall
Oneness
Gondwana (dist. Redeye)
GONDCD033

Interestingly, the latest album from trumpeter Matthew Halsall consists of recordings made more than ten years ago. It was 2008, and Halsall was in an experimental mode, trying out ideas that were more contemplative and spiritual in nature than what was typical for him. Over the course of three sessions in January, March, and September of that year he led a sextet (including harp and saxophone in addition to his trumpet and a piano trio; I sometimes also hear a tambura, though no tambura player is credited) and a quartet (with sitar, bass, and tabla) through a variety of compositions that are sometimes compellingly restrained, and that occasionally teeter dangerously on the edge of aimless meandering; few regular rhythms, very abstract harmonic movement. My favorite tracks are the more explicitly Indian-flavored ones, but at all points this is a worthy experiment, and the music regularly achieves significant beauty.


Johnny Griffin & Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis
Ow!: Live at the Penthouse
Reel to Real (dist. MVD)
RTR-CD-003

This album documents a summit meeting of tenor-saxophone titans. For two weeks in 1962 (in early March and then again in early June), Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis commanded the stage at Seattle’s Penthouse club, jointly leading a quintet that also featured pianist Horace Parlan, bassist Buddy Catlett and drummer Art Taylor. The hour’s worth of tracks (along with a few slightly annoying intros, outros, and brief riffs) are absolutely fierce, except when they’re tender and soulful. But even on the ballads there’s a tremendous energy: notice, for example, the frenetic bebop workouts “Second Balcony Jump” and “Ow!”, and then compare them to the sweet and gentle opening to “Sophisticated Lady,” a rendition that keeps erupting into edgy double-time passages. This is not easy-listening jazz; it’s jazz for other musicians, though just about any fan will be able to enjoy it. The sound is quite good; only the bass lacks definition, which is par for the course with live recordings from this period.


Carmen Sandim
Play Doh
Pathways Jazz
RAD-521

Brazilian-American pianist and composer Carmen Sandim has gathered an outstanding septet to perform a set of her original compositions on this album, in arrangements that range from the complex (note the fun hocketing passages on “Aruru, Juju” and the abstract rhythmic structure and sometimes duodecaphonic melodies of “Undergrowth”) to straightforwardly swinging (the liltingly lovely jazz waltzes “Aura-Celia” and “Isaura”) and that regularly lapse into sheer lyrical loveliness (“Waiting for Art,” “Free Wilbie”). It’s hard to say whether Sandim’s compositions or her arrangements are the more impressive, but both are outstanding, as is the support she gets from her ensemble. For all jazz collections.


Michael Dease
Never More Here
Posi-Tone
PR8201

Although the program features no Charlie Parker compositions, trombonist Michael Dease’s latest album as a leader is presented as “a reflection of the influence of Charlie Parker on my life,” and is marked with an epigram from Parker: “Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom.” Interestingly, the album also only features a single Dease original (the lovely and bustling bop workout “Blue Jay”), while focusing on tunes by the likes of John Lewis, Jackie McLean, and bebop trombone pioneer J.J. Johnson. The overall mood is warm and laid-back, with lots of loping midtempo numbers, highlights of which include the strutting, gospel-flavored Billy Taylor composition “I Wish I Knew” and a restrained but strongly swinging take on J.J. Johnson’s “Lament.” This is yet another solid and deeply enjoyable outing from one of the jazz scene’s leading trombonists.


Champian Fulton & Cory Weeds
Dream a Little Dream
Cellar Live (dist. MVD)
CL022519
Rick’s Pick

Recorded in an intimate setting (a house concert in Vancouver earlier this year), the latest release from national treasure Champian Fulton finds her in duet with the excellent saxophonist Cory Weeds–no rhythm section, no nothing except piano, voice, and sax. And because Fulton is equally entrancing as a vocalist and a pianist, and Weeds is a marvelously intuitive and tasteful player himself, every track would count as a highlight on any other artist’s album. Unsurprisingly, the set focuses on ballads, and even tends to treat normally uptempo numbers with a slow, smoldering intensity that manages somehow to sound light and casual: their take on “Fly Me to the Moon” is a great example of this approach, as is their torchy version of “I Thought about You.” (Conversely, though, they take “Secret Love” at an unusually sprightly tempo.) Like every album by the wonderful Champian Fulton, this one is strongly recommended to all libraries.


Ramsey Lewis & Urban Knights
VII
Ropeadope
RAD-498

If you’re in the mood for jazz-funk fusion, then Ramsey Lewis is your man–as, indeed, he has been for, lo, these 63 (count ’em) years. Technically, of course, jazz-funk fusion itself hasn’t been around for 60-plus years, but the point is that ever since the genre began to emerge in the 1970s, Lewis was there helping to shape it. On his latest album as a leader (and, if the liner notes are to be believed, his last, as he now intends to retire at age 84) he goes deep into the groove, showing that there’s no reason to believe that the Greatest Generation can’t also be the Funkiest Generation. Leading his quintet Urban Knights, he offers a very nice set of modern jazz that appears to consist mainly of original compositions, though the lack of composer credits makes it hard to say for sure. (Certainly he’s not the composer of the album-closing tribute to his father, “Trees,” nor of “And I Love Her.”) The production is flawed–there’s noticeable distortion during louder passages, especially in the drums and especially on “Tequila Mockingbird”–but the playing isn’t.


FOLK/COUNTRY


SUSS
High Line
Northern Spy (dist. Redeye)
NS 120
Rick’s Pick

Nobody else is making music like SUSS, an instrumental band whose work I can only characterize as “ambient country.” Why “ambient”? Because their music mostly floats, sighs, and shimmers rather than loping, moseying, or honky tonking. Why “country”? Because from the middle of SUSS’s constantly-shifting clouds of sound, wails of steel guitar and twangy bass licks keep emerging, like dollops of Nashville flavoring in an otherwise otherworldly concoction. And here’s what they do that sets them apart from every other artist or group I’ve heard in any genre: they deploy basslines not to create groove, but to suddenly resolve chords that you hadn’t even realized were in tension. In its spaciousness and warmth, their music sounds like it could have been produced by Daniel Lanois; beyond that, I can’t tell you whom to compare it to. Just give it a listen.


The Revelers
At the End of the River
Self-released
No cat. no.

One of the great things about Cajun music is that while it has its own stylistic parameters (two-step rhythms, accordion-and-fiddle instrumentation, certain laissez les bons temps rouler lyrical tendencies) it can also easily adapt itself to other styles, infecting them with a distinctive South Louisiana vibe: basically, if you sing a blues or R&B song in Cajun French, it’s going to sound like Cajun music. The Revelers make the most of that flexibility on their latest album, delivering the expected rollicking genre exercises (“Au bout de la rivière,” “Pendant”) along with honky-tonk country (“She’s a Woman,” “You’re Not to Blame”), horn-heavy torch songs (“I Wouldn’t Do That to You”), and more. The main quality criterion for a Cajun album is how fun it is, and this one is tons of fun.


Jake La Botz
They’re Coming for Me
Hi-Style/Free Dirt
HSD82701

Jake La Botz came up busking in the Chicago subway, eventually breaking into stage, TV, and film acting. (You may have seen him in the arthouse film Ghostworld or playing Conway Twitty on the TV show True Detective.) But now he’s based in Nashville and writing dark, gritty, and sometimes faintly creepy (in a good way) songs informed by the often difficult life he’s lived, and for this album he returned home to Chicago and worked with producer Jimmy Sutton and JD McPherson’s backup band. What they produced is a sharply observed and dryly-produced set of songs that frequently draws on blues and country flavors and occasionally invokes Tin Pan Alley–and sometimes does all at the same time. La Botz’s voice is all the more powerful for being generally understated and plainspoken. This is great nighttime driving music.


ROCK/POP


Various Artists
Nina Kraviz Presents MASSEDUCTION Rewired (digital & vinyl only)
Loma Vista
No cat. no.

The strange nexus of dance music and the avant-garde has long been a fun and intellectually stimulating territory, and never more so than on this generous collection of remixes, all drawing on St. Vincent’s celebrated 2017 album MASSEDUCTION. The remix collection is “curated” by Russian DJ and producer Nina Kraviz, who lends her own impressive remixing skills to several of the entries; other producers represented include Jlin, ChicagoPhonic Sound System, Steffi, and Pearson Sound (whose dark and slippery take on “Dancing with a Ghost” is one of the collection’s highlights). There’s a bit too much techno for me, but since the program consists of 22 tracks and two hours of music, there’s plenty of other tracks that are more up my alley–and besides, I understand that lots of people really enjoy that four-on-the-floor thump-thump-thump stuff.
What makes the album more than just a typical remix collection is that in addition to the techno, IDM, and footwork treatments there’s also plenty of straight-up experimental weirdness that keeps things spicy. Recommended.


Various Artists
Dreams to Fill the Vacuum: The Sound of Sheffield 1978-1988 (4 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
CRCDBOX83
Rick’s Pick

Impressions of Sheffield’s music scene from the postpunk era will probably forever be shaped by the success of its most notable artists: Human League, Heaven 17, Thompson Twins. Unfortunately, this suggests that what Sheffield mostly produced was synthpop — frequently edgy and intriguing synthpop, of course, but synthpop nonetheless. The reality is much, much more complex and interesting than that, as this lavishly packaged and annotated four-disc compilation demonstrates. Indeed, much of the music produced in 1980s Sheffield reflected the city’s then-current industrial decline: these songs are often snarky and cynical, and the music tends to be scrappy, jagged around the edges, and at times brazenly progressive. You’ll hear more guitars than synthesizers here, and you’ll hear a startling amount of what sounds like experimental jazz. When punk rock flamed out quickly only a couple of years after its initial eruption, it left behind a much more open field for pop music, and it was places like Sheffield that quickly rushed in to claim the new territory; the sound of this city doing so is both bracing and exhilarating. For all libraries.


Wobbly
Monitress
Hausu Mountain (dist. Redeye)
HAUSMO96

If you’re up for an even more intensive dose of bracing experimental weirdness, consider the latest release from Jon Leidecker, who is a touring member of both Negativland and the Thurston Moore Ensemble, and who records on his own under the pseudonym Wobbly. He runs a podcast called Variations, which focuses on the history of sampling and collage music, and in the past has collaborated with such eminent avant-gardists as Fred Frith, David Toop, and Zeena Parkins. On his latest album he creates weird, glitchy, and sometimes slightly disturbing soundscapes by feeding analog samples into a MIDI device and then manipulating the digital outputs. There are sometimes regular rhythms, but never anything that could reasonably be called a “groove”; the sounds have an enormous breadth of both pitch and amplitude, creating dense and colorful sonic panoramas that often bring to mind the “action painting” of Jackson Pollock.


Various Artists
WXAXRXP Sessions (10 discs; vinyl only)
Warp (dist. Redeye)
WARPLP300

This lavish box set documents the Warp label’s history of sponsoring special radio sessions by its large stable of artists. Each of the selected sessions is reproduced on a 12″ vinyl disc, and the artists represented read like a who’s-who list of forward-thinking pop music from the past 20 years: they include Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Flying Lotus, Seefeel, and Mount Kimbie, among others. Listening through these sessions, one is immediately struck by how diverse the Warp stable has been during its 30-year history: over the course of this box set’s three-plus hours of music you’ll hear acoustic reveries, thumping techno, swinging nu jazz, floating ambient soundscapes, and tracks that fit no genre definition at all. Much of this music has never been released in any other collection or on any other album. (Each disc is also available separately in either vinyl or MP3 format. But in either of those cases you miss out on all the fun stickers and art prints that come with the full box set.)


FLOW
Promise
LMB Music
LMB201901

Are you leery of New Age music? Me, too. But I try to keep an open mind, and as long as the music in question doesn’t plunder other cultures in order to create a fake sense of spiritual exoticism or align itself with spurious health claims, I’m willing to give it a listen. FLOW is a quartet consisting of pianist Fiona Joy Hawkins, guitarist Lawrence Blatt, flugelhorn player Jeff Oster, and guitarist Will Ackerman (the latter arguably one of the architects of the New Age genre), and the music they make together is an example of everything that can be right about New Age music: yes, it’s uncomplicatedly pretty, but it’s not cloying or saccharine (though the flugelhorn part on “Last Light” does give that track just a bit of the air of a 1970s bike-safety film). The musicians are all virtuosos, but they bridle their virtuosity and keep it in service to the mood, which is consistently quiet and meditative, but not soporific. Recommended.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Various Artists
Down in Jamaica: 40 Years of VP Records (4 CDs & 8 vinyl singles)
VP
VP4224
Rick’s Pick

Reggae fans will be well aware of the VP label, one of the few that has stayed continuously in business since the music’s 1970s heyday. This 40th-anniversary celebration gives a slightly misleading impression of how far back the label actually goes (several of its earliest and best inclusions predate the founding of the label by several years), but still provides a sumptuously rich overview of VP’s wide-ranging output and, thereby, an excellent introduction to the whole spectrum of reggae styles since the late-1970s roots-and-culture period. Absolutely essential and foundational tracks by the likes of Johnny Clarke and Gregory Isaacs lead into classic early dancehall material by Yellowman, Buju Banton, Spragga Benz and others, which in turn take us into the modern sounds of Mavado, Queen Ifrica, and Raging Fyah. Along with four CDs and extensive photos and liner notes, the package also includes four vinyl 7″ singles and four vinyl 12″ singles, the latter consisting of “discomix” versions of songs–double-length tracks that include the original vocal mix followed seamless by a dub version. If your library needs a good overview of the modern history of reggae, this box would make an excellent choice.


Lee “Scratch” Perry
Heavy Rain
On-U Sound (dist. Redeye)
ONUCD145
Rick’s Pick

Legendary (not to say infamous) reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry has worked with hundreds of artists over the past 50-plus years, and with quite a few other producers. Many of his more recent projects have been lackluster affairs, but whenever he gets together with On-U Sound label head (and avant-dub producer extraordinaire) Adrian Sherwood, the results are electrifying. Earlier this year Sherwood produced Perry’s latest album, Rainford, which was strongly recommended here in CD HotList. Now comes the dub version of that album, and honestly it’s every bit as good as the original (and it even features a couple of tracks of new material). For these sometimes radical remixes, Perry and Sherwood recruited guest contributors Brian Eno and old-school reggae trombone legend Vin Gordon, but the main attraction is Sherwood’s deeply creative and very dread mixing. He is often cited as the foremost stylistic descendent of Perry’s own highly distinctive dub style, and you can see why on this outstanding collection. If your library was wise enough to acquire Rainford, you should absolutely pick up Heavy Rain as well.


Illbilly Hitec
King Size Dub Special (Overdubbed by Dub Pistols)
Echo Beach
EB142
Rick’s Pick

Noiseshaper
King Size Dub Special
Echo Beach
EB139

The King Size Dub series is one of the best recurring offerings of Germany’s outstanding Echo Beach label, a chance for artists and producers to flex their mixing chops and indulge some of their most far-out musical fantasies. The two most recent installments feature the music of Illbilly Hitec (a magnificent “reggaetronic” ensemble with a terrible band name) and Noiseshaper. The Illbilly Hitec album is a continuous mix of previously-released songs presented in new mixes by Dub Pistols; you’ll hear a variety of beats from one-drop to jungle, and an equally broad variety of singers and chatters performing in many different languages. Sadly, this recording is apparently going to be Illbilly Hitec’s swan song. The Viennese duo that records as Noisehaper has made some of the sharpest albums in the Echo Beach catalog (in addition to providing soundtrack music for the TV series CSI: Miami), and their entry in the King Size Dub series is somewhat different in that it appears to be basically a “greatest hits” collection, bringing together tracks from their previous albums in their original versions. As such, it’s a very good album but not an essential one for anyone (or any library) that has been collecting their work as it has emerged.


Lt. Stitchie
Masterclass
X-Ray Production
XRPCD1901

We close out this month’s all-reggae World/Ethnic section with something quite different: the latest album from dancehall veteran Lt. Stitchie. What makes this release different from our previous entries is its extreme hardness: this is not roots-and-culture reggae, but tough-as-nails dancehall from a chatter with a voice of steel–the toughness of whose delivery is leavened by the appearance of sweet-voiced guest singers like Lukie D, Fantan Mojah and Ricky Stereo. Another thing that separates Stitchie from the pack is his outspoken Christianity–something of a rarity in the context of both roots reggae (which is almost always Rastafarian in religious orientation) and dancehall (which tends to be aggressively secular, not to say profane). The latest from this accomplished artist is a solid, if ultimately rather exhausting, musical triumph.