Johann Sebastian Bach
The Overtures: Original Versions
Concerto Copenhagen / Lars Ulrich Mortensen
CPO (dist. Naxos)
Bach’s four overtures BWV 1066-1069 (also known as the Orchestral Suites) are most commonly played in late arrangements that include tympani and trumpets. But there is evidence to suggest that the earliest versions were written for strings and minimal winds, with no percussion, and that these elements were added later when Bach was working in Leipzig and had more musicians available to him. This is the premise on which the Concerto Copenhagen’s performance is based; the use of a single musician on each part further pares down the sound. The result is a crisp and sprightly recording and an interesting musicological argument, one that will certainly be of interest to libraries supporting a curriculum in early music practice. For sheer listening pleasure, some will prefer this to more traditional, larger-scale arrangements, but that feeling won’t be universal.
Cut Circle / Rodin
Musique en Wallonie (dist. Naxos)
In making this world-premiere recording of two 15th-century Masses by unknown Belgian composers, the Cut Circle ensemble (under the direction of Jesse Rodin) made a bold decision: given the supreme rhythmic and contrapuntal difficulty of these works, they would avoid the obvious performing choice (camouflaging potential errors with large vocal forces and a reverberant acoustic) and instead lean into the difficulty, recording in a dry acoustic with only four voices. The result is a breathtakingly impressive and beautiful musical document, one that lays the complexity of the music out for all to hear while also making clear how exceptionally beautiful it is. As they always do, Cut Circle perform with a bracing mix of precision and passion. What a shame that the composers of these Mass settings are unknown; I’d love to hear more from them. For all classical collections.
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Münchner Rundfunksorchester / Repušić
BR-Klassik (dist. Naxos)
Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne / Capuçon
No cat. no.
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is celebrated for both his choral and his instrumental music, and these two discs offer an attractive entree into both. Each of these albums features a different version of one of Pärt’s more popular pieces, Fratres, which was originally written for an unspecified combination of instruments but is most often played on violin and piano. Under the direction of violinist Renaud Capuçon, the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra plays a relatively lush 1992 arrangement for strings and percussion, whereas the one conducted by Ivan Repušić is a sparer version that leaves out the violin soloist. Repušić uses Fratres as an introduction to an album that builds through several orchestral pieces before culminating in Pärt’s dramatic setting of the Stabat Mater text, which is sung with hushed intensity by the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks. The Capuçon album consists entirely of chamber and orchestral works, including the title composition, the very popular Spiegel im Spiegel, and the less-frequently recorded Für Lennart in memoriam. I find that conductors and musicians who take on this music tend to love it quite intensely, and that love is well in evidence on both of these excellent recordings.
Royal Requiem (compilation; 5 discs)
Alpha Classics/Outhere (dist. Naxos)
Court composers wrote both sacred and secular music in honor of their royal patrons, and regularly that meant writing funeral music for them. The Requiem (a Mass setting written explicitly for funerary purposes) was one of the most important commissions a court composer could receive, and this five-disc set brings together previously released albums that document such compositions across several centuries. It begins with the 15th-century Requiem d’Anne de Bretagne by the under-recognized Antoine de Févin (performed exquisitely by the Doulce Mémoire ensemble), then proceeds to the mid-18th century with Nicoló Jommelli’s Requiem for Princess Maria Augusta von Thurn und Taxis (a work reputedly written in three days). Then we jump to nearly the turn of the 19th century with Sigismund Neukomm’s and Luigi Cherubini’s Requiems for Louis XVI, which are followed by the setting in honor of Marie Antoinette by Charles-Henri Plantade. With the final disc we jump back to the baroque period with funerary Masses by Gilles Henri Hayne (for Marie de Medici) and Johann Joseph Fux (for Emperor Leopold I’s widow Eleonora of Neubeurg), which bracket Henry Purcell’s Funeral Sentences for the Death of Queen Mary II. This set nicely documents one of the most centrally important manifestations of sacred music across European history, in very fine recordings. Libraries that don’t already own the original issues would do well to pick up this conveniently-packaged box.
Andrew Cyrille Quartet
Having seen this group live at the Village Vanguard a few years ago, I can testify to what they’re capable of; drummer/leader Andrew Cyrille plays with an unusual sensitivity and an incredible sonic palette, which makes him a perfect match with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Ben Street. Regular keyboardist/synthesist Richard Teitenbaum has been sidelined by health issues, but he is ably replaced on this album by David Virelles, whose pianism in particular brings a new and lovely dimension to the group’s sound. Some of this music is conventionally jazzy (the blues-based Frisell composition “Go Happy Lucky” is particularly delightful), but there’s lots of abstract avant-gardism as well (note in particular the freewheeling title track). Creating abstract avant-gardism of undeniable beauty is the Andrew Cyrille Quartet’s stock in trade, and they do it with aplomb on this remarkable album.
Mode for Titan
Bassist Josh Werner has created something difficult to categorize with his first full solo album. I’m slotting it into the Jazz section because I suspect it’s jazz fans that will find it most interesting, but the music itself is quite unique. Utilizing multitracking and various electronic effects (and the highly varied tones and timbres of sitar bass, seven-string bass, and fretless bass), Werner creates compositions that define large sonic spaces but that are always warm and often groovy even though there’s no percussion and no chordal instruments involved. This is a guy who has worked with artists as diverse as Ghostface Killah, Cibo Matto, CocoRosie, and PopCaan — so it won’t come as a surprise that his influences are widely varied. And with production by Bill Laswell, you know the recorded sound will be rich and deep. Very interesting and very cool.
17 Days in December: Solo Improvisations for Acoustic & Electric Harp
Harpist Jacqueline Kerrod is classically trained — and extensively so, having begun her studies at age nine — but over the years her approach to the instrument has branched out into a variety of extended techniques and musical styles. Her résumé includes work with artists as diverse as Kanye West, Rufus Wainwright, and avant-jazz legend Anthony Braxton, as well as more traditional classical gigs. On her solo debut, she dives into the world of solo improvisation, alternating between acoustic harp (sometimes treated with mechanical alterations) and an electric instrument (with the addition of electronic effects). The music she creates here is sometimes a bit abrasive and difficult, and sometimes immediately accessible and conventionally beautiful. Interestingly, some of the most lovely tracks are those that are least recognizable as having been produced by a harp; “Glare,” with its extensive use of volume pedals, distortion, and reverb, is one such, as is the pulsing “Strummed I.” The electro-acoustic “Glassy Fingers” and “Broken: In 3” both evoke John Cage’s sonatas and interludes for prepared piano, but with much more melodic interest. All of it is fascinating and well worth hearing.
Symphony Hall Concert
Octave Music/Mack Avenue
To celebrate the 100th birthday of legendary pianist and composer Erroll Garner, the University of Pittsburgh (where Garner’s archives are housed) and the Erroll Garner Project have collaborated to created a three-tiered release of commemorative recordings. At the top of the pyramid is this one-disc recording of his concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall in January, 1959. Leading a trio that includes bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin, Garner walks us through the history of jazz, looking back to the days of stride and barrelhouse piano on “I Can’t Get Started” and to the bebop era on “Bernie’s Tune,” while (as drummer Terri Lyne Carrington points out in the liner notes) also anticipating pianistic styles to come during the 1960s. His ability to conjure an entire orchestra on the piano is everywhere evident, but nowhere more so than on his bravura rendition of “Dreamy.” This is a magnificent recording that should find a home in every library’s jazz collection. (Those with deeper pockets should consider one of the deluxe box-set versions of this album that are also being made available.)
SIG CD 2121
Twisted Pine apparently used to be a bluegrass band, though I have to say, as a latecomer to this band’s music, that I’m having a hard time imagining it. Yes, singer/fiddler Kathleen Parks definitely plays in a style with roots in Appalachia, and the same for jazzy mandolinist Dan Bui. But flutist Anh Phung is coming more from a Celtic place and also from a jazz place (check her solo on “Amadeus Party”), while Chris Satori’s bass is jazzy/funky all the way down. Which, I guess, is another way of saying that these guys represent the new generation of New Acoustic Music, alongside artists like the Punch Brothers, Nickel Creek, and Crooked Still. The best way to enjoy this thoroughly charming album, though, is to try and forget genre boundaries and just give yourself up to the funky, folky, poppy fun.
From Dreams to Dust
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)
It takes a minute to get used to Ian Felice’s singing — he’s got that Dylan-y tendency to swipe at notes rather than hit them — but that doesn’t really matter much of the time, because some of these songs are practically spoken-word pieces, while others (like “Inferno”) alternate between verses and sung choruses. When these guys do write tunes, they tend to be really nice ones; the Felices have a real way with a melody, and they support the melodies with sturdy roots-folk-rock grooves. And then you notice the topical lyrics (“Tick tock goes the doomsday clock,” etc.) and the wryly absurdist ones (“Once spent over two months stuck in a painting by Bruegel the Elder,” etc.), and then you notice the production: rich, gritty, spacious but not airy. This album was my first introduction to the Felice Brothers, and I have to say I’m intrigued.
Fire (dist. Redeye)
Rain’s Break (EP)
Marina Allen’s seven-song EP evokes a lost era of folk-pop by women; you’ll hear stylistic echoes of Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, and Judee Sill, but don’t be fooled — this music is 100% modern, with carefully elaborate production (“Believer”) bumping up alongside minimalist, acoustic singer-songwriter fare (“Ophelia”). Don’t be fooled by her voice, either; it’s light but not soft, tender but not wispy. I kind of wish Candlepower were a full-length album. Same goes for Rain’s Break by Lucy Gooch, an even shorter EP that I admit doesn’t really fit the Folk/Country category but seemed like a good companion entry anyway. Gooch is working in a more cinematic/ambient mode, with quiet and wispy vocals layered over floating synths and occasional very subtle beats (“Chained to a Woman”). Her influences include not only classic film but also the sounds of women’s choirs from the 1930s, church music, and weather. Again, this is the kind of album that would ideally be about 75 minutes long, rather than 19.
Backwards and Forwards: The WEA Recordings 1984-1995 (compilation; 9 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
If you weren’t around and paying attention to alternative pop music in the early- to mid-1980s, there’s a good chance you don’t have any (or much) memory of Aztec Camera. The band was really singer/songwriter Roddy Frame and a shifting array of sidemen, until he dropped the group moniker and started recording under his own name in the late 1990s. This luxurious nine-disc set (containing Aztec Camera’s five Warner albums plus four discs of live performances, alternate takes, remixes, etc.) can’t be said to contain everything you might need, because it leaves out his debut album, the triumphantly perfect High Land, Hard Rain. And it can’t be characterized as “all killer, no filler,” because it does at times devolve into superfluity (no fewer than seven mixes of “Good Morning, Britain,” a great song that nearly breaks here under the weight of over-attention) and non-necessity (the solo acoustic set from Ronnie Scott’s Club). But it would be fair to say that the studio albums represented here vary in quality from very good to outstanding, and that the disc of live 1984 performances in Glasgow and London offer powerful renditions of the High Land material. Libraries that collect pop music overlook this box at their peril. Hand-sell it to any patron who loves a colorful, fruity chord progression and an anthemic chorus.
Box (compilation; 4 discs)
New West (dist. Redeye)
And heck, while we’re at it, here’s another monumental box set from a band that made its mark in the 1980s. Pylon was much more short-lived than Aztec Camera, and its influence — while significant — was a bit more subterranean. Pylon emerged from the fecund Athens, Georgia scene at the same time as the B-52s, REM, and Love Tractor. Though multiple bands from the region cite them as an important influence on their sound (and REM would record a very fine cover of “Crazy,” the group’s best song), Pylon’s tendency towards melody-free muttered/shouted vocals probably limited their appeal, despite the power of their grooves and the occasionally surprising hookiness of their songs. Pylon released only two albums formally; Gyrate and Chomp are both included here, along with Razz Tape (a collection of early studio recordings that were never released commercially) and a fourth disc consisting of other non-album and unreleased tracks. Along with the discs, the box also includes a large and lavishly produced hardcover book filled with photos and historical information. Does this package have a limited natural audience? Sure — but it’s a very devoted one, and libraries supporting research into the history of American pop music would do well to consider adding this retrospective document.
CYAN Remixes (EP; digital only)
Tru Thoughts (dist. Redeye)
In February of this year, the San Francisco-based band The Seshen released CYAN, an album named “for a color that is both strong and soft.” It turned out to be an apt title for a release that featured ethereal, echoing vocals tethered to tight and bubbling grooves, creating a feel that was simultaneously gentle and propulsively funky. Now comes a five-track collection of remixes created by the likes of Kumar Butler, SNVS, and FEVRMOON, all of which shed a different light on the album’s original vision. But interestingly, the remixers don’t generally choose to pull their chosen tracks dramatically far from CYAN‘s overriding vibe; for example, although FEVRMOON’s take on “4AM” is a bit denser and busier than the original, it generally preserves the original version’s feel. The two exceptions are Kumar Butler’s mix of “Wander,” which playful messes around with the original’s lilting 3/4 time signature, bumping it into and out of a four-on-the-floor dance pulse, and Mahawam’s mix of “Still Dreaming,” which turns it into a sort of ambient-dub fever dream. Both this collection and the original album would make great additions to any pop collection.
The Pop Group
Y in Dub
The Pop Group’s 1979 debut, Y, was one of those “important” albums that, despite its historical significance, you have to admit is pretty tough to listen to. Jagged guitars, chugging bass, and Mark Stewart’s unhinged yowling all combine to create a sound that had a huge impact on the UK post-punk scene, and that is frankly much more impressive than enjoyable. Interestingly, that album was produced by legendary reggae producer Dennis Bovell. It had little or nothing sonically to do with reggae, but Bovell brought his highly-developed sense of space and layering to the mix. On this remix project, he applies the techniques of dub (instruments and voices dropping in and out, with varying levels of effects applied) to the original recordings, creating a wild pastiche of sounds and noises. The effect of this approach is actually a softening of the original music; with the echo and delay and the expanded sonic space, what was once a fairly assaultive listening experience becomes somewhat softer and more accessible one. Somewhat, that is. This album was a great idea and it was a long time coming.
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)
Afro-Nordic music collective Monoswezi continue their pattern of releasing an album about every four years, and I’m continuing my pattern of recommending every single one of them. The band’s name might look like a Swahili word, but it’s actually an acronym formed by combining the first couple of letters from the names of the bandmembers’ home countries: Mozambique, Norway, Sweden, and Zimbabwe. And as one might expect, the music itself is a complex and colorful tapestry of styles built on a foundational fusion of Nordic jazz and African rhythms. This is music that simultaneously celebrated tradition and explodes it: delicate Afro-Latin beats underpin jazzy improvisations; complex time signatures are thethered to steady pulses; singer Hope Masike defiantly plays the mbira, an instrument traditionally played only by men in her home country. And the songs are wonderful. Highly recommended.
Sub Signals, Vol. 2: Selected and Mixed by Gaudi
Dubmission (dist. MVD)
Gaudi is one of the most celebrated producers, remixers, and creators of original music on the always-bubbling global dub scene. His second contribution to the Sub Signals series is billed, accurately, as a “deep dive into underground bass”; to create this compilation Gaudi dug deep into his crates and, it appears, cashed in a few IOUs, resulting in a generous and blissfully heavy collection of tracks by the likes of Steel Pulse, African Head Charge, Paolini Dub Files, the Orb, and Alpha Steppa — some of them previously unreleased in any format. The sounds are a mix of analog and digital, and the sonic spaces are consistently both huge and microscopically detailed. If, like me, you somehow slept on Sub Signals Vol. 1, then take this as your cue to pick up both collections.
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
Traditional Tuvan throat singing and rock’n’roll might not seem like an obvious combination, but hey — we live in a world of less-than-obvious musical fusions these days, and all the better for that, I say. Khöömei Beat play a mix of modern and traditional instruments in support of vocals that veer back and forth between conventional singing and the Tuvan people’s particular approach to throat singing — a technique that uses guttural vocalization to produce overtones, which are then manipulated by changing the shape of the mouth while the singer maintains a steady fundamental pitch. It’s a unique sound, surely not to everyone’s taste, but always interesting and objectively impressive. Combine it with punky bass and guitars, aggressive drums, and an array of regional traditional instruments and you have an album that is sure to enliven any party.
Jah Sun & The Rising Tide
Running Through Walls (digital only)
No cat. no.
Here’s some tight and tuneful roots reggae from the Bay Area. Jah Sun and his band have been lighting up the California reggae scene for some time now, and you can hear a tightness and discipline in their sound that comes only with lots and lots of gigging. Honestly, I’m always a bit uncomfortable when white American guys acquire Jamaican accents to sing reggae, but Jah Sun does it only very subtly — and the quality of his songs is so consistently high that it’s easy to just go with it. Interestingly, while some of this material is straight-up modern roots, other songs push the stylistic boundaries: for example, the title track is more reggae-adjacent than reggae, while “Stuck with You” is sort of a soca-pop fusion (and works very well). But there’s not a weak track here, no matter what the genre or style, and Jah Sun’s consistent message of positivity and uplift is a joy. Highly recommended to all reggae and/or pop collections.