Chemistry for Gamelan and String Quartet
Nata Swara; JACK Quartet
American composers’ interest in Javanese gamelan music goes back decades — the early pulse music of Steve Reich and, before that, the more explicitly gamelan-derived music of composers and instrument builders Lou Harrison and Harry Partch are both examples. Brian Baumbusch has himself designed and built two sets of what he calls “American gamelan” instruments, for which he has written two compositions that are featured on this recording: Prisms for Gene Davis and Hydrogen(2)Oxygen (the latter incorporating advanced rhythmic concepts pioneered by Conlon Nancarrow). His Three Elements for String Quartet is also an exploration of Nancarrow’s “polytempo” concept. Part of what makes this music so compelling is its composite foundation: the blend of mathematical rhythmic formulas and the raw insistence of the gamelan style combine in various ways to produce sounds that are unusual but deeply engaging. For all adventurous library collections.
Carl Maria von Weber
The Clarinet As Prima Donna
Roeland Hendrikx; Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie / Michel Tilkin
Evil Penguin (dist. Naxos)
Yes, it’s an odd title, but here’s the explanation: “This recording celebrates Carl Maria von Weber’s unrivaled talent to turn the clarinet into an opera diva, to make it talk, sing, cry and shine.” But while there’s no denying Weber’s abilities in that regard, much of the credit for the sweetly lyrical, emotionally compelling, and thrillingly virtuosic music-making on this recording goes to the brilliant clarinetist Roeland Hendrikx, whom I don’t believe I had ever heard before and whose work I will now be seeking out. The program consists of Weber’s first and second clarinet concertos along with an arrangement for clarinet and orchestra of an aria from Der Freischütz and a set of variations on a theme from Silvano. The orchestra plays just as magnificently as Hendrikx does, and the recorded sound is nothing short of spectacular. Strongly recommended to all libraries.
Suspensions (digital only)
Better Company (dist. Orchard)
No cat. no.
Here are two excellent but very different contemporary harp albums by a pair of top-notch artists; both embrace modernism, and even share a work in common, but the music on the two releases contrasts strongly. Chelsea Lane’s is primarily a solo project (with accompaniment by pianist/composer Ludwig-Leone on his “Processional” and also violist Nathan Schram on the title composition and one other), and it includes both newly commissioned works and her own arrangements of pieces by Thomas Adés, Nico Muhly, and Chris Cerrone. This program tends towards the minimalist and was put together with the explicit goal of encouraging the listener’s attention to more subtle aspects of harp technique. Eline Groslot’s album, on the other hand, is built around Geoffrey Gordon’s haunting and intense Eolian: Concerto for Harp and Orchestra, presented here in its world-premiere recording. The program is bracketed by arrangements for harp of Japanese folksongs by Toshio Hosokawa. Both albums feature John Cage’s In a Landscape, written for piano or harp. Both harpists are brilliant, and each brings a very different vision to her project. Any library that supports a harp curriculum will want to acquire both.
This is the second installment in Stile Antico’s three-volume The Golden Renaissance series, which so far has featured the work of Josquin des Pres; the third volume will focus on Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. As one of the foremost exponents of the Oxbridge sound, the Stile Antico ensemble has a particular affinity for the work of William Byrd, who occupied a difficult position as a Catholic composer in the very dangerous environment of post-Reformation England. This luminous recording features a program built around Byrd’s Mass for four voices, one of his later works, interspersing the Mass sections with motets and sacred songs written at around the same time. Stile Antico’s rich, creamy vocal blend is a perfect match for the hushed but intense devotion expressed by Byrd’s music. Strongly recommended to all classical collections.
Arnold Schönberg; Alban Berg
Alpha (dist. Naxos)
I know the actual story behind Arnold Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht — that it’s a programmatic piece based on a poem in which a woman tells her fiancé that she’s pregnant by another man (‘”transfigured night” indeed!). But whenever I listen to it, I can’t help hearing it as something else — to me, it’s like Mahler’s symphonies in expressing the tortured abandonment of tonality and the conflicted leap into a harmonically uncertain future. The playing of Het Collectief (performing a piano trio version of the piece arranged by Eduard Steuermann) allows you to hear it either way — the emotional power of this rendition is breathtaking. Following it up with Anton Webern’s small-ensemble arrangement of Schönberg’s opus 9 chamber symphony is a very smart move, allowing you to hear the continuity between the earlier program piece and his approach to new-school polyphonic composition; the disc ends with a chamber-ensemble arrangement of Alban Berg’s B minor piano sonata and the adagio movement from Berg’s chamber concerto. This is a brilliant piece of sinus-clearing modernism played with full commitment and brio by an outstanding young ensemble.
The Early Albums Collection (4 discs)
Enlightenment (dist. MVD)
I try to avoid using (or at least overusing) the word “important” when discussing recordings, but there’s no avoiding it here: the eight 1950s and 1960s LPs collecting on this four-CD set represent not only some of the guitarist’s most important work, but also some of the most influential jazz recordings of that period, demonstrating how Hall helped to ease jazz from the dry and straight-ahead sound of the “cool” period into the more experimental approach that was ascendant in the 1960s. Jazz Guitar and The Street Swingers show him to be a master of cool, as does his lovely and understated guitar-and-voice duo album with Lee Schaefer. But then comes Jazz Abstractions, the monumental collaboration with Gunther Schuller that exemplified the Third Stream project and featured such fellow heavyweights as Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, and Scott Lafaro. Also in this set are his two duo albums with Bill Evans (Undercurrent and Intermodulation), his twin-guitar showcase with Jimmy Raney and Zoot Sims, and his 1962 recording as a co-leader with pianist Billy Taylor. Every jazz collection should own all of these albums; if your library doesn’t have all of them already (or doesn’t have them on CD), take this opportunity to pick them all up in a convenient and low-cost package.
The Classic Quartet (reissue)
Candid (dist. Redeye)
Hardcore fans may not all agree that the Charlie Rouse-Butch Warren-Frankie Dunlop quartet was Monk’s finest — no disrespect to any of these excellent players, but what about his 1950s work with Sonny Rollins, Oscar Pettiford, and Max Roach, not mention his Blue Note recordings with Art Blakey? Nevertheless, there’s no question that this band is at the peak of its powers on this recording, which was made for Japanese radio in 1963 and created a large and enthusiastic following for Monk in that country. The album was released in Japan on LP and in England on CD in the 1980s, but hasn’t been available since — and was never given the kind of loving attention it deserved. The Candid label has now restored and remastered the original recordings and brought them back to market with liner notes by the always-insightful Scott Yanow. Not only are the performances outstanding (the band’s bouncy rendition of “Epistrophy” is among the best I’ve heard), but the sound quality is also startlingly good.
Rudy Royston & Flatbed Buggy
You may recognize drummer Rudy Royston as a regular sideman to the likes of Bill Frisell and Dave Douglas. But as this album demonstrates, he’s also an exceptional composer and arranger, and an innovative bandleader. Here leading (for the second time) a quintet that includes cellist Hank Roberts, bass clarinetist John Ellis, accordionist Gary Versace and bassist Joe Martin, he has created an approach to modern jazz that is simultaneously innovative and accessible. Notice, for example, how “Morning” progresses from pastoral lyricism to second-line funk to exuberant group improvisation. Note also how the spiky head of “Limeni Village” evokes the mid-1970s work of (believe it or not) Henry Cow. As always, the subtlety and elegance of Royston’s drumming style is a constant throughline that creates a groove without dominating the band’s rhythmic approach. Brilliant stuff.
Boomer Vibes, Volume 1
Summit (dist. MVD)
Mallet keyboardist Tom Collier initiates a projected three-part series with Boomer Vibes Volume 1, a collection of arrangements that feature songs American Baby Boomers will immediately recognize (“Wild Horses,” “One Fine Day,” “Both Sides Now”) along with a couple of oddities — Frank Zappa’s “Magic Fingers,” the relatively obscure Beatles B-side “Yes It Is.” All are arranged for various combinations of vibes, marimba, other keyboards, drums, etc. and all are played by Collier (with a guest guitarist on one track and a bassist on another). Not every selection seems like it returns full value for effort — there’s nothing in Collier’s arrangement of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” that makes me think there was more to this song than I originally thought — but many shed new light on familiar tunes. His setting of “People Make the World Go ‘Round” is particularly interesting and insightful, and against all my expectations, he made me think about The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” in a completely new way. Recommended to all jazz collections.
Carry Them with Us
When most of us think of Scottish bagpipes, we think of the great highland pipes and the burly men in kilts and sporrans who carry them in parades and into battle. But Scotland’s bagpipe tradition is more diverse than that, and it includes the less well-known and celebrated Scottish smallpipes, which are a bit quieter and more intimate-sounding — sharper in tone than the more gentle and plaintive Irish uilleann pipes and a bit heavier-sounding than the Northumbrian smallpipes, but nowhere near as overbearing as the great highland pipes can be. Brìghde Chaimbeul is one of a handful of players leading a resurgence in the popularity of this instrument, and to her credit she’s not letting herself be boxed in by tradition. Though her playing is obviously deeply rooted in the tunes and playing styles of her home region, this is to a real degree an experimental album, and it includes collaborations with saxophonist Colin Stetson. The music is gorgeous and unsettling by turns.
The Wood Brothers
Heart Is the Hero
The boundaries that separate musical genres keep getting more porous, and I guess that’s probably a good thing for everyone except music critics who need to figure out what category to assign to new releases. The Wood Brothers make music that would probably be called “Americana” today — a genre designation that signifies pop music with elements of country, folk, and sometimes bluegrass or early R&B or… whatever else. Often sung with a vaguely Southern accent. On this group’s latest album, we get a horn section on “Rollin’ On,” a 12/8 soul groove on “Someone for Everyone,” acoustic guitar and cello and quietly brushed drums on “Between the Beats.” How are the songs? Oh, they’re great, of course — these guys have been doing this for a long, long time. You lucky people who don’t have to assign genre designations will love this album.
It All Goes Up
The steel guitar, the gently hiccuping near-yodels that ornament her singing from time to time — Beth Bombara’s new release has all the bones of a country album. But there’s something fundamentally different about it; maybe the subtly elegant chord changes on the gorgeous “Get On,” or maybe her unapologetically understated singing style and dusky alto voice. But on the other hand, “Curious and Free” has the vibe of a Robert Johnson Delta blues song (I’m not kidding; check it out), and “What You Wanna Hear” has a gentle Texas-by-way-of-California two-step lilt to it. But then there’s “Electricity,” which borders on dream pop. Call it whatever you want, this is an achingly beautiful album.
Reflex (dist. MVD)
Make no mistake about it: Hüsker Dü were not yet a great band when these four live sets were recorded in 1979 and 1980. The sonic-boom hardcore of Land Speed Record was still a couple of years ahead of them, and their breakthrough into aggressive prog rock and then hardcore-inflected power pop were even further in the future. But you can hear hints of their future greatness here: “I’m Not Interested” and “MTC” are featured in early versions, as are “Gravity” and “Don’t Try It” — a song whose chord progression prefigures some of their later, more sophisticated work. Oddly, on a couple of tracks (especially “Don’t Have a Life,” a rare Greg Norton song) they sound like a hardcore version of Pere Ubu — which is by no means a bad thing. This collection may not be absolutely essential for all collections, but it’s an invaluable document for any library that collects deeply in rock music.
Headspace (5 discs)
Billed as a “unique blend of ambient, trance, techno, and neo-classical,” the music of Urban Meditation (né Charles Urban) owes a heavy but graceful debt to that of Pete Namlook, the patron saint of dark and complicated ambience. Headspace is a five-hour long exploration of Urban’s musical vision, and in fact in the notes he expresses the view that it represents “the heart and soul of what Urban Meditation… was meant to be.” The music is atmospheric, of course, but it doesn’t consists merely of atmospheres; soft clouds of sound sculpture will give way unpredictably to glitchy buzzes, harshly manipulated human voices, and sometimes insistent beats. While Urban’s music doesn’t sound that much like Namlook’s, it’s in this constant undermining of ambient-music conventions that he pays the deepest and most obvious tribute to his mentor. This set could be presented as a master class on making ambient music interesting.
137 (vinyl & digital only)
Now, I will freely admit that this is a “your mileage may vary” release, and I’ll also point out up front that I normally have no time at all for techno or house music — the relentless thump-thump-thump may be great for dancing, but I find it really annoying for listening. However, Soren Jahan’s new album does what I would have thought was impossible: uses that four-on-the-floor framework and creates around it a series of subtle variations that catch my attention and hold it captive. None of the 16 tracks on this release has a conventional title; each is sort of a standalone sound sculpture that involves (in differing ways) every point on the timbral spectrum, delivering tiny glitches, booming sub bass, and mid-frequency weirdness of all kinds. Again: I don’t promise everyone will love it. I do promise that you won’t dismiss it as empty-headed dance floor nonsense.
Rhythm of the World
It’s kind of crazy to realize that the Cowsills have been doing their thing for almost 60 years now. 60 years. Or, a bit more accurately, to realize that they started doing their thing almost 60 years ago — after forming in 1965, the family band broke up in 1972 and reunited only sporadically during the ensuing decades. Their last recordings as a group were made almost 30 years ago. But you wouldn’t know that to listen to the tight, tuneful, expertly played paisley pop music purveyed on Rhythm of the World. The production sound is nice and modern, but the style is all late-1960s: ooh-aah choruses, layered harmonies, lovely melodies, charmingly open-hearted lyrics (“Lend a hand/Can you help your fellow man?”, like that). If you listen closely you can hear that their voices are aging a bit, but come on. 60 years. Amazing.
No cat. no.
Rivayat is a collection of tracks by individual artists that have been released over the past year or so, in a series organized by Mekaal Hasan of the Mekaal Hasan Band — which (if I’m understanding correctly) is also the backing band for some (maybe most?) of these tunes. On the project’s Bandcamp page, Rivayat is billed as “a traditional music series created by Mekaal Hasan which features outstanding Pakistani grass roots talent with select cuts featuring international guest artists,” but while the source material may be traditional, the arrangements and settings vary widely in style, from the gentle and acoustic-based “Ghunghat Olay” by Fiza and Hasnain Haider to the aggressively rockish “Tobah” by the Shahzad Ali Khan Qawal. Both the stylistic variety and the exceptional quality of the performances make this a highly recommended release — or, rather, series of releases (which can be purchased as a single album at the Bandcamp link above).
Is this Scandinavian folk music? Well, yes — but with a difference. Among the harps and the pipes and the fiddles are powerful, rumbling drums and slightly terrifying, guttural vocals; the Discogs database suggests the term “folk metal” as a genre designation for this album, and that actually captures the vibe quite nicely. This is not gentle, pastoral music; it’s a roar that occasionally lapses into sweet lyricism before exploding in fury again. SKÁLD is actually a musical collective founded by French producer/composer Christophe Violin-Boisvinet, and judging by their names its members seem to come from all over Europe. But all are united by a fierce love of Scandinavian musical and literary tradition in all its complexity, violence, and beauty — and you’ll hear all of that on this remarkable album.
No cat. no.
Keturah comes from a small village in Malawi, but her debut album finds her exploring rhythms and melodies from across the African diaspora — you’ll hear elements of township jive, desert blues, jazz, and afrobeat on various tracks here, all of it united by her warm and supple voice. Interestingly, you’ll also hear more than a hint of American country music on “Nchiwewe (Ode to Willie Nelson),” a stylistically odd moment on the program but certainly a charming one. Keturah is aided by an all-star cast of studio musicians including kora player Prince Diabate, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, and even former Doors drummer John Densmore. Wisely, though, the production keeps her lovely voice front and center throughout.
Holding On (digital only)
No cat. no.
Zulu Bob is originally from Antigua and Barbuda, but for the past 15 years has been living in Beijing, China. There he released an EP a few years back in something of a trap/electro style; since then he has gotten connected with the ChinaMan Yard reggae production crew, and has now released a full-length album in a more roots dancehall mode. Holding On opens with an update of the cheerful Half Pint classic “Greetings,” but then moves into darker and more socially-minded territory: “Ruffa dan Dem” may sound on the surface like a standard sound system boast, but is actually more of an expression of determination and resilience; “Cool It Down” calls for unity and healing, while “Old Pirates” (a clear reference to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”) addresses the legacy of colonization and slavery. The rhythms are crisp and clean, with a nice bassiness, and Zulu Bob’s rhymes are nimble and sharp. Highly recommended.