PICK OF THE MONTH
You say that Reggae Forever is a startlingly dumb album title–one that will inevitably lead people who don’t know better to assume that this is just another generic exercise in reggae formalism. Fair enough; I agree. But the key words in that argument are “people who don’t know better.” Those who have encountered the modern-roots juggernaut that is Etana will see past the title and expect to hear exactly what the album actually offers: smooth-but-powerful production, impeccably written songs, irresistible hooks, and a voice as strong and assured that of any reggae singer in the past 30 years. What these listeners will also notice is how completely comfortable Etana is working in every reggae subgenre: swinging big-band ska (“You’re the One”); dubby lovers rock (“Sprung”); calypso-inflected gospel reggae (“Free”); rockish pop reggae (“Burned”); digital dancehall (“No Money, No Love”). The rhythms are all great, but on every track the chief attractant is her magnificent voice, which never draws undue attention to itself with acrobatic melismas or other look-at-me trickery, but which is at all times both strong and sweet and always perfectly assured. If you were to ask me at any point during the past ten years “What was this year’s best reggae album?” the chances would have been very high that I’d have pointed to a 1970s reissue. This year the answer would be Etana’s “Reggae Forever.”
String Quartet, Serenade & Sextet
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
The Nash Ensemble did something rather sly with this recording: they lured potential listeners in with Hungarian composer Ernö Dohnányi’s popular serenade for string trio (the first selection on the program) and then sneaks up on them with the rarely-recorded third string quartet and sextet for piano, clarinet, horn, and string trio. The quarte and sextet are knottier and more challenging than the serenade, but all of them are quite stunningly beautiful, particularly in these performances. I was particularly struck by the alternately lyrical and stately middle movement of the string quartet, labeled “Andante religioso con variazioni,” and by the majestic opening theme of the sextet. Recommended to all libraries.
Mare Balticum, Vol. 1: Music in Medieval Denmark
Ensemble Peregrina / Agnieszka Budzinska-Bennett & Benjamin Bagby
Tacet (dist. Naxos)
This is the first in a projected four-volume series of recordings that will present medieval music of the Baltic Sea region, each of them to explore “the local character of a different coastal region of Balticum.” The first installment deals with Denmark, presenting both vocal and instrumental music from a variety of manuscript sources: there are songs about regicide, some hymns and sequences and antiphons, and a smattering of instrumental pieces. The vocal works are sometimes sung by a solo voice and sometimes in unison by the wonderful Ensemble Peregrina; the liner notes are extensive and informative, and all of this will be of great interest to libraries that collect early music.
Cello Concertino; Solo Cello Sonata; Solo Cello Suite
Matthew Sharp; English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods
Avie (dist. Naxos)
Franz Joseph Haydn
Zuill Bailey; Philharmonia Orchestra / Robin O’Neill
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
Just for fun, I decided to review two very different cello recordings together. The first features works by a relatively obscure Austrian composer of the early- to mid-twentieth century, one whose music fell out of favor during the prime of his life, a time when tonal composition was considered retrograde and non-academic. The fact that he remains substantially unknown says something about the continued suspicion towards tonal music of that period, and these recordings–of a cello “concertino” and two solo works for cello–make clear how much we’ve been missing out on. The solo pieces are outstanding, but the concertino (a term he used somewhat idiosyncratically) is a tour de force, and is presented here in its world-premiere recording. Matthew Sharp’s playing is brilliant throughout. Zuill Bailey’s recording of Haydn’s two cello concertos (not counting the lost one and the two misattributed ones) doesn’t offer any of the musical surprises of the Gál recording, but it is no less rewarding: although the works themselves are familiar, he plays with enough fire and passion to make them sound fresh and new. The live setting undoubtedly contributes to the vitality of this recording, but mostly it’s Bailey’s natural talent and energy. Both of these disc are highly recommended.
Tomás Luis de Victoria
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
I await a new release from stile antico the way a seven-year-old awaits Christmas. And so far, I’ve never been disappointed. The group’s latest was released, appropriately enough, around Eastertide: it features the Responses for Holy Week by the greatest composer of the Spanish Renaissance, Tomás Luis de Victoria. These pieces are generally considered to be among Victoria’s finest achievements, and recordings of them are not exactly rare, so what justifies yet another? The unparalleled richness of stile antico’s blend, their flawless intonation, and their unsurpassed ability to balance intensity and inwardness, that’s what. Over the past ten years this group has emerged as the supreme exponents of the Oxbridge sound, and every one of their recordings belongs in every library that collects classical music.
6 Flute Quartets
Ensemble Il Demetrio
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
Sometimes, I confess, I feel guilty for loving the music of the classical period so much–kind of the same way I feel guilty for liking cake. It can feel like empty calories: all form and grace and prettiness, and not much in the way of meaning or substance. (Not all of it, obviously, but a lot of it.) And yet here we are, contemplating this delightful recording of flute quartets by an Italian composer known far more for his violin compositions and methods than for his flute writing. Ensemble Il Demetrio (on period instruments, including a keyed chromatic wooden flute) give these pieces a very fine presentation here, and flutist Gabriele Formenti is particularly to be commended for his tone. If you think you might feel guilty indulging, then maybe listen to an early Beethoven symphony first and have these lovely Italian pastries for dessert.
Anthony Paul De Ritis
Electroacoustic Music: In Memoriam David Wessel
When synthesizers first started really coming on the scene in the 1960s and 1970s, one of the reactions against them was rooted in the concern that they would take the place of analog and acoustic instruments. But to me, what always made synthesizers interesting wasn’t how good they were at imitating other instruments, but the enormous variety of sounds they could create that were unlike anything else. And when synthesizers actually interact with acoustic instruments–well, the sky’s the limit. In the mid- to late-20th century, some of the most interesting avant-garde music consisted of exactly such interactions, and over the past 25 years composer Anthony Paul De Ritis has continued developing that tradition. This disc brings together a large and varied assortment of electroacoustic pieces for such instruments as piano, alto saxophone, kalimba, trombone, and Chinese instruments like the erhu, pipa, and sheng. The music is sometimes whimsical and sometimes stark, and always interesting.
Fred Hersch Trio
Live in Europe
Are we now at the point where we can say that Fred Hersch is our greatest living jazz pianist? I don’t know. I can tell you that I listen to many, many jazz pianists over the course of any given year, and I have yet to encounter another one with his combination of bravura technique, deep sense of structure, and pure taste. And in a live setting, he and his trio (which includes bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson) move together like a well-oiled machine. No, that’s not the right simile: they move together like a cloud of starlings, shifting into unpredictable but beautiful patterns in response to cues that the listener can’t hear or comprehend. On this set, recorded in Brussels just a few months ago, the group plays two Monk tunes (one of them a Hersch solo encore), two Wayne Shorter tunes, and six originals–sometimes swinging, sometimes floating delicately, sometimes growling and thrashing, but always singing. For any library with a jazz collection, every Fred Hersch album is quite simply a must-buy.
The Classic Collaborations 1957-1963 (4 discs)
Enlightenment (dist. MVD)
As classic jazz recordings of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s pass out of copyright in the UK, labels like Real Gone Jazz and Enlightenment are putting them out in super-budget multidisc packages and selling them internationally–including in the US, where the recordings are often (though not always) still under copyright. Is this legal? Technically yes, partly because there’s no such thing as international copyright law. Is it ethical? Eh. Your mileage may vary. When the artists involved are long dead and their labels no longer exist, I tend to feel better about it. (Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone isn’t getting cheated out of royalties, whether it’s an artist’s descendants or the new owner of the defunct label’s catalog.) For right now let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there are no legal or ethical impediments to buying the latest box from Enlightenment, this one focusing on recordings made by tenor saxophone legend John Coltrane alongside various co-leaders during what I consider his best period. It includes eight albums he made with Thelonious Monk, Red Garland, Kenny Burrell, Tadd Dameron, Paul Quinichette, Duke Ellington, Milt Jackson, and Johnny Hartman, and finds him mastering the hard bop language and then expanding it–a process that would continue into the mid-1960s (a period that many other people consider to be his best). It’s hard to exaggerate both the quality and the historical importance of the music he made on these albums, and if your library doesn’t already own them in CD format this is a great opportunity to beef up your collection at minimal cost in terms of both dollars and shelf space.
Age of Remix (3 discs)
Cherry Red/Strike First Entertainment (dist. MVD)
You thought they were dead? Think again. Bronski Beat has never really gone away since the group’s heyday in the 1980s, and Steve Bronski continues to put out solid electro-disco under that moniker 35 years later. The most recent release is The Age of Reason–which is itself a modern remake of the band’s debut The Age of Consent–and this three-disc remix extravaganza takes that album and folds, spindles, and mutilates it into a sprawling array of neo-disco reconfigurations. Mixes by the likes. of Laether Strip, Jose Jimenez, and Scandall ‘n’ Ros fill up the first two discs, and the third consists of a selection of tracks from those discs presented in a continuous mix for maximum dance floor pressure. It’s important to note that while each producer gives his or her assigned track a unique flavor, there is a strong rhythmic consistency here: this is all about the house banger, with only rare and brief forays away from that familiar four-on-the-floor thump. But when it comes to that neo-disco sound, there’s hardly anyone better.
OK, let’s get this out of the way right up front: yes, Miniatures sound an awful lot like Cocteau Twins. You’ve got your massed harsh-soft guitars, your inscrutable and barely audible (but gorgeous) female vocals, your beats that are much more aggressive than you think they are at first blush. What you don’t have quite as much of are the unexpected flights of melismatic melody that stop your heart for just a moment, but still, Miniatures bring back to the music scene a vein of dreamy, analog experimental pop music that never did get fully mined back during the shoegaze heyday. Is it innovative, strictly speaking? Nah. But it sure is pretty, and isn’t that what really counts?
The #1 Sound from the Vaults, Vol. 1
Studio One (dist. Redeye)
Studio One was perhaps the most important single recording operation in Jamaica during the middle to late 20th century. The rhythms (or instrumental tracks) recorded there in the 1970s are still used by reggae artists today, and artists as influential as the Ethiopians, Burning Spear, and Bob Marley recorded early work there. Most compilations of Studio One tracks lean heavily on familiar and popular tunes, but this one collects rare singles by artists both famous (Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis) and obscure (The Officials, Bop and the Beltones), spanning the rock steady and roots eras. None of the tracks featured here have been previously released on CD, so libraries with a collecting interest in reggae should definitely pick this one up.
Disco Gecko (dist. MVD)
Dr trippy characterizes his style as “Punjabi swamp music,” which I think is pretty accurate as far as it goes, but doesn’t go far enough. For one thing, American readers are likely to associate “swamp music” with Southern Louisiana and its various flavors of Cajun and Zydeco music. There’s nothing like that here. The swamp that dr trippy has in mind is more conceptual, and more globally eclectic: at any given moment you’ll hear elements of Punjabi bhangra, Jamaican skank, R&B horns, techno beats, dubwise breakdowns, and more. It’s global dance music, I guess, but with a pretty specifically South Asian (or at least East London) flavor, and it’s all lots of fun.
Jeux de vérité (digital only)
No cat. no.
There’s quite a bit of good roots reggae coming out of France these days, but what sets both of these artists apart from the competition (apart from the sheer quality of their work) is the fact that they perform almost excusively in French. Good for them, I say–all too often, when people write lyrics in a second language the results are embarrassing, and when they try to approximate a Jamaican patois the results are even worse. So with both Ryon and Wach’da, there’s nothing to distract you from the deep, solid rhythms and the great songs. Ryon is a band whose lyrics suggest a deep religiosity–and perhaps even specifically Christianity. Their sound on this album is deeply traditional, with a great horn section and lots of thick, heavyweight one-drop and rockers grooves and dubwise production flourishes–they frequently remind me of early-period John Brown’s Body. Wach’da (born Joseph Rano) is an Antillean artist whose approach to reggae is a bit more oblique than Ryon’s; he makes use of African and Latin elements from time to time, with particularly interesting effect on “Leave a Chance for Life” (see?), an acoustic and Nyabinghi-flavored tune that features a guest appearance by reggae legend Winston McAnuff. Elsewhere his sound is sharp and direct, with a strong 1980s roots flavor. Both of these albums would fit equally well in a world music or reggae collection.