RSS Feed

Category Archives: Uncategorized

July 2021


CLASSICAL


Kassianí
Hymns of Kassianí
Cappella Romana / Alexander Lingas
Cappella (dist. Naxos)
CR422

This world-premiere recording showcases the earliest known music composed by a woman: the 9th(!)-century nun known only as Kassianí. A Byzantine chant hymn generally called “The Hymn of Kassianí” is relatively well known among Eastern Orthodox congregations (especially in Greece) and is customarily sung during evening services on Holy Tuesday. However, she produced much more than this single hymn; her works circulated widely in the church after her death, and many have ended up in official service books–though not always with accurate attribution. On this album, the mixed-voice Cappella Romana performs hymns that Kassianí wrote for both Christmas and Holy Week services; some are sung by men’s voices, some by women’s, and some by a mixed chorus. Often a drone pitch accompanies the unison melody, creating a sound that is structurally related to organum but sounds very different, thanks to the unique Eastern modalities involved. The performances were recorded in the wonderfully reverberant acoustic of the Madeleine Parish in Portland, Oregon, creating the perfect sonic atmosphere for this powerful and mystical music.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Concertone (reissue)
Ensemble 415 / Chiara Banchini
Alpha (dist. Naxos)
618

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Gran Partita: Wind Serenades K. 361 & 375
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Harmonia Mundi (dist. Integral)
HMM 902627

Here are two wonderful releases focusing on Mozart’s lighter side. The Akademie für Alte Musik release showcases two of Mozart’s serenades: the frequently-recorded “Gran Partita” (K. 361), and the somewhat less well-known serenade #11 (K. 375). On the Ensemble 415 recording, the centerpiece of the program is the K. 63 “cassation” (a term designating a piece much like a serenade), which is bracketed by performances of Mozart’s serenade K. 239 and a rather unusual chamber work labeled a “concertone,” a concerto-like piece written for orchestra with significant solo passages for two violins, oboe, and cello. Period instruments are a particularly attractive choice for music of this lightness and accessibility, and while the use of natural horns is always risky due to the particular difficulty of producing rich and pleasant tones with those instruments, in the cases of both of these recordings the ensemble sound is simply gorgeous–the Akademie für Alte Musik is particularly well produced, with a burnished and brilliant tone. And of course the music, being Mozart, is endlessly enjoyable. For all collections.


Claude Goudimel; Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
Psalms and Motets from Renaissance Switzerland
Ensemble Lamaraviglia / Stephanie Boller
Claves
50-3008

Originally published in 1562, the Genevan Psalter was the first musical collection to set the texts of all 150 Biblical psalms. It was put together under the aegis of John Calvin, and the texts were originally published with only single, simple melody lines for congregational singing. A couple of years later, Claude Goudimel created four-part settings for them and these were published in a new edition (along with text translations into other European languages). Later, another edition was published featuring new settings by the great Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. For this quietly luminous recording the Ensemble Lamaraviglia has taken 24 selections from the songbook and presents them in a variety of versions: the unison melodies, the Goudimel settings, and the more elaborate Sweelinck settings. The result is so lovely that you’ll be left wishing they’d done all 150 psalms and presented the result as a box set. Hopefully there will be more installments in the future.


Various Composers
Reflections
Víkingur Ólafsson
Deutsche Grammophon
00289 483 9222

The venerable Deutsche Grammophon label (founded in 1898, and possibly the most revered classical imprint in the world) has been getting adventurous in recent years. The stylistically sprawling work of Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson is one example: a musician well known for his interpretations of Bach and Chopin, he has also performed many works by Icelandic composers and has ventured into the minimalist and post-minimalist repertoire, but what really sets him apart is his willingness to mess with the classics of the repertoire–as evidenced most boldly in his recent recording of Bach “reworks.” On Reflections, artists such as Hania Rani, Helgi Jonsson, and Balmorhea have taken Olafsson’s recordings of pieces by Debussy, Rameau, and others, and (in some cases) radically re-set them using electronic treatments and additional instruments; other tracks simply feature Ólafsson himself playing miniatures and movements by Debussy or improvising. At times the pedal action on his piano is distressingly loud, but otherwise this is a lovely and surprisingly tasteful example of ways that the classical tradition can effectively be updated for a new generation.


JAZZ


Alex Collins; Ryan Berg; Karl Latham
Together
Drop Zone Jazz
DZJ202101

Technically, this is a standards album–all tracks except perhaps Wayne Shorter’s “Night Dreamer” are jazz standards–but it’s a standards album with a difference: the Collins/Berg/Lathan trio play these tunes in such a freewheeling way that they’re almost unrecognizable. Please note that I said “freewheeling,” and not “free”; there’s nothing harmolodic or “out” about these arrangements. It’s just that each member of the trio plays in an impressionistic manner and takes great liberties with both melody and rhythm (while remaining nicely tethered to each tune’s harmonic structure). Collins in particular plays in a style that might be characterized as the logical extreme of the Bill Evans approach, except with brighter chord voicings and a somewhat more obviously bravura technique. Bassist Berg plays in a style similarly connected to that of Scott LaFaro, rarely walking and in fact rarely defining a steady meter, while drummer Latham simultaneously holds things together and contributes his own pointillistic flourishes. The result is a program that harks back to tradition even as it lovingly explodes it, and on tender deconstructions of tunes like “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” the effect is electrifying. Highly recommended.


Doug MacDonald Duo
Toluca Lake Jazz
Self-released
DM18

A guitar-bass duo album is likely going to appeal to a relatively narrow spectrum of jazz fans, but there are ways to broaden the appeal. One is to keep the proceedings very straight-ahead: no skronky noise, no off-puttingly atonal free-jazz excursions, just lots of solid walking lines in the bass and lots of sweet-toned guitar. Another is to keep the program itself familiar: in other words, lots of standards. On this album, guitarist Doug MacDonald and bassist Harvey Newmark do a great job of keeping things accessible without playing it so safe that the music gets boring. MacDonald’s penchant for chord-based solos keeps the musical midrange nice and full even as he explores thoroughly the melodic contours of classic tunes like “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” and “These Foolish Things,” while Newmark holds down the harmonic bottom while also keeping the rhythm solid and consistent (and his solos nicely concise). If you’re not paying too close attention, you might not even notice how many original tunes there are on this very fine album. For all jazz collections.


Doug Webb
Apples & Oranges
Posi-tone
PR8213

When the lineup features tenor sax, organ, and drums, you know you’re in for a funky experience. (Jazz organ players generally prefer to work without bass players, opting instead to provide their own bass lines via the instrument’s pedals.) You can also expect at least one excursion into greasy blues, and on his latest album as a leader saxophonist/composer Doug Webb gets that part out of the way immediately, opening the proceedings with his original “Alexico.” This is immediately followed by his gently swinging waltz entitled “Monkey Face” and then by another original, the briskly boppish and harmonically slippery “Forethought” (and listen to how he walks right up to the edge of experimental noisiness on both his first and second solos, before pulling back from the brink; he does something similar during “Coruba,” to nice effect). What follows is a mixed program of standards and originals, on which Webb displays his mastery of multiple jazz subgenres and his unrelentingly gorgeous tone–a sound that I wouldn’t hesitate to compare to that of Stan Getz. Organist Brian Charette and drummer Andy Sanesi provide admirable backing on this exceptionally fine album.


Bill Evans
Behind the Dikes: The 1969 Netherlands Recordings (2 discs)
Elemental Music
5990441

Producer Zev Feldman continues his highly productive relationship with the Bill Evans estate by releasing this magnificent two-disc live document of concerts in Hilversum and Amsterdam in 1969. Although these performances have been circulating among collectors in low-quality bootleg recordings for years, this is the first time they’ve been remastered and prepared for formal release, and the increase in sound quality (not to mention the fact that proceeds from sales will actually go to the Evans family) makes this a must-have for all library jazz collections. The music itself is spectacularly good. Accompanied by the great bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell, Evans is in exceptional form: playing “My Funny Valentine” as a midtempo swinger was an interesting choice, and is fully justified here; “Someday My Prince Will Come” was written as a waltz, but Evans and trio play it here in an uptempo 4/4, with Evans sounding positively joyful as he inserts playfully bluesy elements and a remarkably long 16th-note passage in his solos. He delivers an unusually fresh version of the hoary “‘Round Midnight,” and the second disc concludes with something unusual: two performances with the Metropole Orkest, arrangements of pieces by Granados and Fauré. Evans’ legions of fans will of course be thrilled with this release, but it should be welcomed warmly by all jazz lovers.


FOLK/COUNTRY


J.P. Harris’ Dreadful Wind & Rain
Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man
Free Dirt (dist. Redeye)
DIRT-CD-0102

Banjo player (and builder) J.P. Harris stripped everything down for this album. His voice and his fretless banjo are the only instruments at times, while on some tracks he’s accompanied by the fiddling and harmony singing of Chance McCoy (Old Crow Medicine Show). The tunes and songs are all traditional; many will be familiar (in one version or another) to adepts of the old-time music repertoire: “Mole in the Ground,” “Old Bangum,” “Wild Bill Jones,” etc. Harris’ banjo technique is superb, and while his quavery singing style may come across as a bit mannered, it serves these weird old songs quite well, and his voice is pleasantly low and chesty. The occasional crooked rhythm and creepy lyric, along with the generally dark atmosphere, combine to create a mysterious and quite wonderful mood altogether. Here’s hoping for more from this impressive artist in the future.


Larry Sparks
Ministry in Song
Rebel
REB-CD-1875

Great bluegrass singers tend to get better as they age. Think of Ralph Stanley, for instance: even as his voice got weaker and more creaky, it became more expressive and powerful. Some of that was due to his particular otherworldly talent, which rivaled that of George Jones–an ability to use his specific vocal instrument in ways that could make the hair on your neck rise with the slightest gesture. Some of the same can be said of Larry Sparks, who, coming to the end of a 60-year music career, has earned a voice that is just as articulate in its wrinkles and crackles as in its continued reliability of intonation and expressiveness. For this gospel program Sparks has selected a list of songs that centers around compositions by Daniel Crabtree (“Don’t Take Your Eyes off Jesus,” “Holdin’ On”) but also draws on work by Hank Williams (“House of Gold,” “I Saw the Light”) and others–though to my ear, Sparks’ own “King Jesus” is the strongest track here. That said, there are no weak ones. Recommended.


Bill & the Belles
Happy Again
Ditty Boom (dist. Free Dirt)
DBO-CD-0021

People react to divorce in any number of ways. Writing songs about it is certainly one of them. What’s a bit unusual (unless you’re Loudon Wainwright) is to write funny songs about your divorce in a folk-adjacent style, and with a sometimes deeply biting wit. Bill & the Belles frontman Kris Truelsen does that here, straddling the line between folk-pop, acoustic hot jazz, and Tin Pan Alley styles with style and aplomb and a hearty helping of self-deprecation (and an occasional foray into sly sexual double entendre). There’s a darkly hilarious video of “Sobbin’ the Blues,” if you’re interested, and producer Teddy Thompson’s strategy of recording live and sticking to first or second takes succeeds at giving this album a warmth and sense of raw openness that work very well.


ROCK/POP


Scorn
The Only Place
Ohm Resistance
61 M

Within about 30 seconds of cueing this album up, you’ll know whether it’s for you–partly because Scorn’s sound has evolved over the years into something so distinctive, and partly because the sound and mood of this album in particular are both so consistent (and, some might say, unrelenting). The mood I would characterize as “grumpy”; the sound I would characterize as “rumbling”–and I mean both of those descriptors in the most positive way. The band’s roots in industrial rock are hinted at (and their roots in grindcore are hinted at more subtly), but what you hear mostly is a sort of sub-bass-heavy, avant-garde vision of post-dubstep: definite beats, smears of pitchless synth noise, the moans of dying brontosauruses. You’ll also hear Kool Keith on one track, rapping in his inimitably bizarro style. I realize I may not be selling this album effectively, but trust me, it’s outstanding–if you have ears to hear.


Lanterns on the Lake
Gracious Tide, Take Me Home (10th Anniversary Edition; vinyl and digital only)
Bella Union (dist. Integral)
BELLA1150DIG

Having secured a Mercury Prize nomination for their second album, Spook the Herd, the Newcastle, England-based dream-folk-pop ensemble Lanterns on the Lake decided to reintroduce the world to their lovely debut album. Gracious Tide, Take Me Home is, accordingly, being given the deluxe reissue treatment: this new version is remastered and offers five new tracks that were recorded during the original sessions. The group’s sound is lush and inviting, with relatively simple melodies enhanced by dense but light-textured arrangements; lead vocals are shared among the gender-diverse group members, and when the others join in they’re as likely to sing in unison as in harmony. Lyrics are deeply influenced by the band’s Northeast England heritage: sailors, rain, ships, harbors, fishing, etc. all make appearances in these songs, but they explore more universal themes of love, encouragement, and homecoming as well. And sometimes they rock, though always in a gentle way. This is an altogether lovely album, and if you slept on its original issue you now have a great opportunity to catch up.


Damiana
Vines (vinyl and digital only)
Hausu Mountain (dist. Redeye)
HAUSM0108

Damiana is a duo consisting of Natalie Chami and Whitney Johnson, each of whom has built a separate reputation in Chicago’s experimental-music scene (Chami generally records under the name TALsounds, and Johnson as Matchess, but both have worked in other ensembles as well). For their debut as a duo, Chami and Johnson have created music that is quite hard to categorize: “Wrap the Sky,” the opening track, rides on a gently relentless eighth-note rhythm while synthesized strings expand and contract in a mostly consonant way, while “Melted Reach” is more harmonically unsettled and “Sunken Lupine” floats abstractly and “Under an Aster” throbs impatiently under dubwise snatches of echoey vocal. And that’s it–at 32 minutes, this four-track “LP” is way too short. But of course that’s just a compliment to the music.


Various Artists
The Problem of Leisure: A Tribute to Andy Gill and Gang of Four (2 discs)
Gill Music LTD
GILL21CD

Billed as “a double album of Gang of Four songs covered by some of Andy Gill’s favorite artists,” this tribute collection features artists as celebrated as Helmet, Gary Numan(!), and the Dandy Warhols alongside up-and-comers like LoneLady and Warpaint. (For those not in the know, Andy Gill was Gang of Four’s guitarist and one of its principal songwriters; he died tragically and unexpectedly in 2020.) As these kinds of projects always are, this one is a bit of a dog’s breakfast–but I mean that in the best possible way. Herbert Grönemeyer’s take on “I Love a Man in a Uniform” (the closest thing to a “hit” the Gang ever had) is heartfelt but weird, while Gary Numan’s version of “Love Like Anthrax” is brilliant in its blend of crunchy rock and synth-pop sonorities, and Gail Ann Dorsey delivers a rendition of “We Live As We Dream, Alone” that manages to duplicate many elements of the original version while at the same time making a completely new and personal statement with the song. The producers’ decision to let multiple artists record versions of the same song turns out to have been inspired, as (for example) the instructive differences between LoneLady’s and Sekar Melati’s (gamelan-based and instrumental) versions of “Not Great Men” show. Tribute albums are notoriously unreliable listening experiences, but this one is a solid winner.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Kasai Allstars
Black Ants Always Fly Together, One Bangle Makes No
Crammed Discs
cram 295

Notable in part for their history of delightfully inscrutable album titles (their debut was called In the 7th Moon, the Chief Turned into a Swimming Fish and Ate the Head of His Enemy by Magic, and their second album was simply called Beware the Fetish), the Kinshasa-based Kasai Allstars is truly something of a Congolese supergroup, formed by the former members of five different bands, each of them coming from a different cultural tradition; each of its four singers performs in a different language. “Strength in unity” is the overarching theme of this album, and while those of us not conversant in Lulua, Kisonge, Tshiluba, or Kitetela may have a hard time following the lyrics, no one will have trouble being caught up in the dense sonic textures (created by a blend of modern electronic and ancient instruments) and rippling, trance-inducing rhythms. For me the highlight track is the gorgeous “Baba Bende,” but there are so many wonderful moments here. Highly recommended to all libraries with a collecting interest in African music.


Arooj Aftab
Vulture Prince (vinyl and digital only)
New Amsterdam
No cat. no.

This album, by Brooklyn-based Pakistani singer and composer Arooj Aftab, left me absolutely dumbfounded when I followed up on a mention of it that I had stumbled across in an article. I don’t even remember what the article was about; I just remember seeing reference to Aftab as someone who was expanding the boundaries of Sufi devotional music. I followed a link and fell into a spiral of musical, intellectual, and spiritual pleasure. And for those who think the phrase “spiritual pleasure” represents a contradiction in terms, I strongly urge you to check out Aftab’s music. Her voice is a thing of floating beauty, and so is the music that envelopes it; there is meter here, but rarely anything close to a beat, and yet the music proceeds with a combination of inexorable logic and free, nebulous impressionism. (There’s one exception: “Last Night,” which veers off disorientingly but weirdly perfectly into straight-up acoustic reggae.) Aftab’s melodies unfold slowly, but seem inevitable once you hear them. Her accompaniment includes guitars, harps, and other instruments not easy to identify–possible a kora, probably some synthesizers, I’m pretty sure a trumpet. The lack of immediately-obvious instrumental touchpoints is part of what makes it easy to abandon oneself to quiet and contemplative listening, which is richly, amply rewarded. For all collections.


Ronu Majumdar
The Indian Bansuri
Naxos World
NXW76110-2

Like other, similar titles on the Naxos World imprint, this one is intended as an introduction to an important world music tradition, primarily for newcomers. In this case the subject is the bansuri, a bamboo transverse flute that is one of the central instruments of India’s northern Hindustani tradition. The booklet includes a brief discussion of the instrument and of the structure of classical Indian music itself, as well as background information about the featured artist, Pandit Ronu Majumdar (who is accompanied here by tabla player Ajeet Pathak; the tamboura player is not credited). The fact that this disc is intended for those unfamiliar with Indian music should not deter the aficionado, however; Majumdar’s playing is justly celebrated, and on this excellent recording he plays three ragas of different characters, all performances reflecting his deep grounding in the maihar garānā school. Highly recommended to all collections.


Manudigital
Digital Kingston Session 2 (EP; vinyl and digital only)
X-Ray Production
XRPVY2107

For this release, French producer Manudigital used a Casio MT40 programmable keyboard–the instrument that famously produced the “Sleng Teng” rhythm–and recreated some classic rhythms from the 1980s heyday of digital dancehall, then invited some legends of the genre to come and voice new tunes on them. (Fans will recognize this as the same modus operandi behind his previous Digital Kingston Session EP, from 2018.) This time out he’s attracted such A-list talent as Capleton, Junior Cat, and Peter Metro, and since all were invited essentially to freestyle on the mic there are really no song titles on the program. But while the “tracklist,” such as it is, might lead the wary consumer to expect something along the lines of a slapped-together sound system board tape, this EP actually feels carefully constructed and hangs together very well. Any reggae collection would benefit from adding both this release and its predecessor.


June 2021


CLASSICAL


Antonio Soler
Keyboard Sonatas
Stefan Hussong
Paladino Music (dist. MVD)
PMR 0119

Antonio Soler is a relatively obscure and slightly eccentric figure in the history of Spanish music; very possibly a student of Domenico Scarlatti, he spent his life in a monastic order and was known to keep a brutal schedule as a composer, organist, and teacher, including to one of the sons of King Carlos III. His keyboard sonatas are a treasure of his country’s musical patrimony, and are frequently recorded. However, this disc introduces an important twist: Stefan Hussong plays the sonatas not on a piano, but on an accordion. My initial reaction was, I’m a bit ashamed to say, to dismiss this recording as a gimmick, but I quickly repented and decided to give it a listen–and I’m very grateful I did. Hussong’s playing is not only virtuosic but also highly sensitive to idiom and style; he’s particularly adept at conveying the joy and lightness of Soler’s musical personality. The tone of his instrument is lovely, and this album is a true pleasure overall. Any collection supporting a program of keyboard pedagogy should seriously consider adding it.


Anonymous Composers
Jistebnicky kancionál: Sound of the Bohemian Pre-Reformation
Tiburtina Ensemble / Barbara Kabátková
Supraphon (dist. Naxos)
SU 4291-2

There is a fascinating story behind the music on this sparklingly beautiful album, having to do with religious movements in medieval Czechoslovakia, but unfortunately space and time don’t permit. Suffice it to say that the sacred music from this 15th-century songbook is set to Old Czech liturgical texts, and is sung here by the all-woman Tiburtina Ensemble. All the music is plainchant; voices are sometimes solo and sometimes in unison, and there’s quite a bit of call-and-response, such as with the responsive “hallelujahs” on the trope “Hospodine, pro tvé svaté vzkriešenie.” While this music is quite different from that of Hildegard von Bingen (who was active as a composer 300 years earlier than the music in this source, and whose music was much more ecstatically melismatic), this lovely recording will be of great interest to the many who have come to love Hildegard’s music through the work of other all-woman ensembles specializing in vocal music of the medieval period. And for music historians and those interested in the political/liturgical vagaries of pre-Reformation Bohemia it will be even more so.


Marin Marais
La rêveuse et autres pièces de viole (reissue)
Sophie Watillon
Alpha (dist. Naxos)
617

Marin Marais
Marais at Midnight: Music from Aston Magna
Laura Jeppesen; Catherine Liddell
Centaur (dist. Naxos)

There was probably no greater composer of music for the viola da gamba than Marin Marais, and his various books of dance suites for the instrument (both solo and in ensembles) remain a rich source of inspiration for modern players. On these two discs, two eminent interpreters of Marais’ music present programs of his writing for solo viol. I’ve been a fan of Laura Jeppesen since my childhood, when my parents would take me with them to early-music concerts in the Boston area, where she’s been a star for decades. Accompanied by lutenist Catherine Liddell, Jeppesen plays excerpts from Books 2, 3, 4, and 5; the whole album is marvelous, but I was particularly impressed by Jeppesen’s seemingly effortless transition from the dark, bow-dragging rhythms of Book 4’s “La Biscayenne” to the bright, supple colors of “La Basque.” On Sophie Watillon’s album (originally released in 2002 and now reissued on the Alpha label’s A Collection series), she is joined by fellow viol player Friederike Heumann, lutenist and guitarist Xavier Díaz-Latorre, guitarist Evangelina Mascardi, and harpsichordist Luca Guglielmi for a program that draws on much the same repertoire but presents the music with a thicker continuo texture. Here the instruments are lower in pitch and the overall sound is darker and denser, but no less engaging and certainly no less virtuosic. Both discs are strongly recommended to all early music collections.


Heinrich Isaac
Missa Wohlauff gut Gsell von hinnen
Cinquecento
Hyperion (dist. Integral)
CDA68337

Not normally a fan of small-force, all-male choral ensembles–but being a huge fan of the Franco-Flemish masters, of whom Heinrich Isaac is a particularly noteworthy example–I approached this disc with slightly mixed expectations. And then I was blown away. Terry Wey’s crystalline countertenor voice made me repeatedly forget that I was listening to an all-male ensemble, and Cinquecento’s rich blend and big-but-gentle tone made me repeatedly forget that I was listening to a small one. As for the music, it was written around the turn of the 16th century after Isaac left politically troubled Florence and moved to the Habsburg court in Vienna, where he drastically reworked a previously written composition as a new parody Mass on the popular melody “Wohlauff gut Gsell von hinnen,” resulting in one of his most longest and most complex liturgical works–and yet one of his most accessible and sumptuously lovely. A generous handful of motets rounds out the program, which is among the most beautiful recordings I’ve heard this year. Strongly recommended to all collections.


JAZZ


Frank Morelli; Keith Oxman
The Ox-Mo Incident
Capri
74165-2

Having had a slightly traumatic experience with a jazz bassoon recording some years back, I looked at this one with real trepidation when it arrived. But I’ve learned over the years to have a nearly implicit trust of the Capri label, so I cued it up. And with the opening head of the Rodgers & Hammerstein tune “Happy Talk” I started to relax: Keith Oxman’s tenor sax and Frank Morelli’s bassoon sounded really quite good together and were thoughtfully arranged. But then, after Oxman’s excellent opening solo, came the real test: how would Morelli’s solo sound? And to my great pleasure, it was a revelation: Morelli’s tone is woody and attractive, his phrasing is idiomatic and creative, his use of vibrato more reminiscent of Lester Young than of, I don’t know, Klaus Thunemann. What makes this album extra fun is the way that classical themes rub shoulders with standards like “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Recommended particularly to collections that support both classical and jazz programs.


Almog Sharvit
Get Up or Cry
Unit
UTR 4985

The music on this album, in the words of bassist/composer/bandleader Almog Sharvit, “is for the roller skaters, job seekers, goofy neighbors, disco dancers, sleep walkers, dream chasers, and the people who insist on leaving voicemails. This music is about joy, humor, grief and despair. I hope you will find a place for yourself within it.” If that introduction leaves you expecting music with a certain emotional openness, high energy, and maybe just a hint of frantic desperation, you’re not far wrong. “Dear Hunter” opens the program with a blues-influenced chord progression and a strong undertow of New Orleans trad jazz; “Roller Disco” is what a middle-period Weather Report album might have sounded like if played at 45 rpm; “Mx Bean” (heh heh) slows things down and creates a more melancholy mood, but an oddly whimsical one at the same time. Sharvit’s quintet delivers a complex and odd but ultimately joyful listening experience here, one that should find a welcome home in any comprehensive jazz collection.


Skúli Sverrisson with Bill Frisell
Strata (digital only)
Newvelle
No cat. no.

Originally issued on vinyl as part of a fancy and ridiculously expensive boxed set with a seasonal theme, Strata is a project by bassist/composer Skúli Sverrisson on which he’s joined by legendary guitarist Bill Frisell. This is not typical jazz, nor is it even typical bass-led duo music; conventionally in a situation like this, Frisell would be playing the tunes and Skerrisson would be playing supporting parts based mainly on chord roots or walking lines. What happens here instead is that Frisell and Skerrisson play interlocking parts, melodies weaving in and around each other, defining chord progressions collaboratively as they go. The music is quiet and beautiful, but also complex. Skerrisson writes utterly unique bass parts, and Frisell’s tone, which at this point he could probably get a patent for, bathes everything in a golden light. For all collections.


Masabumi Kikuchi
Hanamichi: The Final Studio Recording
Red Hook
1001

The celebrated free-jazz pianist Masabumi Kikuchi died in 2015 at age 75, leaving behind an admirable catalog of recordings that includes collaborations with Gil Evans, Elvin Jones, Paul Motian, Sadao Watanabe and many others. The sessions documented on this album were recorded just a couple of years before he passed, over the course of two days in a New York studio. They find him improvising freely, but in several cases doing so in the context of jazz standards: the program opens with his take on “Ramona,” then proceeds to an achingly sad and beautiful rendition of “Summertime,” and then two takes on “My Favorite Things.” One track is entirely improvised, and the final one is a composed original work, a tender and lovely ballad written for his daughter Abi. Obviously, this is not your typical jazz album; nothing swings, and in fact regular meter is hard to come by. But it reflects the mature work of one of the jazz world’s truly unique pianistic talents.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Lara Hope and the Ark-Tones
Here to Tell the Tale
Sower
SOW-031

This is an album that could have ended up in the Rock/Pop section, but I just couldn’t help feeling that the defining feature of Lara Hope and the Ark-Tones’ music is the honky-tonk thread running through it at all times. You’ll hear that influence especially strongly on tracks like “Here to Tell the Tale” and “Whoa Is Me,” and you’ll hear it refracted through a spaghetti-Western prism on “Running in Circles.” On the other hand, “Some Advice” is a rollicking slice of shout-along rockabilly, and “Knocked Out” is a kind of high-octane Western swing. Hope’s voice is a cross between Tammy Wynette and Mae West, and her band provides a tight but elastic sense of swing. This is great music for driving down the highway in a vintage car, or for getting the guests out of their chairs at your next 1950s-themed party.


K.C. Jones
Queen of the In Between
Self-released (dist. Free Dirt)
No cat. no.

K.C. Jones straddles two trad-music cultures: she grew up in Appalachia and thoroughly absorbed the tunes, songs, and dance traditions of that region, but then moved to southern Louisiana, learned to speak Cajun French, and steeped herself in the musical traditions of that region as well while playing in bands like Feufollet and T’Monde. Along the line her own songwriting took on more than a hint of rock and modern country as well, and all of that preparation has now resulted in a solo debut that sounds completely unique. Yes, there’s moaning steel guitar on “Heat Rises” and the title track, and yes, the waltz-time “Stop on the Way” would probably be welcome in any Cajun bar, but the quietly gorgeous “Fall In Line” doesn’t fit any genre category I’m aware of, and it’s not the only song on this very fine album about which I could say that. Highly recommended.


The Kody Norris Show
All Suited Up
Rebel
REB-CD-1873

One thing I love is when really young kids embrace really old traditions and breathe new life into them. These days you see a lot of bearded-and-tattooed Millennnials learning to play clawhammer banjo and fiddle, and that’s great. But what you get with the Kody Norris Show is something very different: clean-shaven Millennials wearing tailored custom suits, silk scarves, and cowboy hats, and playing hard-driving, high-energy 1940s-style bluegrass–while also preserving/reviving the delightful tradition of single-mic performance (with its attendant onstage choreography and unique sound profile). Their debut on the Rebel label shows off the tightness and intensity they’ve developed over several years of performing and making self-released recordings, and they’re showcased to especially good effect on their brilliant version of “I’m Going to the Mountains” and the very fine Jimmy Martin-style original song “Love Bug.” These guys sound amazing already, and they still have plenty of runway left; keep an eye on them.


ROCK/POP


Anchorsong
Mirage
Tru Thoughts (dist. Redeye)
TRU404

Anchorsong is the nom de production of Masaaki Yoshida, a Japanese-born, London-based producer whose star has been rising for some time now. If he fails to become a household name, it will probably be because the “borderless music” he makes is so hard to fit into a prefab genre designation. Are there beats? Yes, but they’re more or less peripheral to his music’s real thrust, which is hard to pin down: you’ll hear orchestral washes, wordless vocals, a koto every once in a while, a flute or some horns, unidentifiable squidges and bleeps, and on one track some Portuguese poetry–and yet somehow it all coheres into a sound that is lush and minimal at the same time, and deeply enjoyable. Mirage is the product of a remarkable musical imagination.


Poor Clares of Arundel
Light for the World
Decca
B0032962-02

The Poor Clares are a monastic order of nuns that number around 20,000 worldwide. The Poor Clares of Arundel are an enclave in Sussex, whose goal is “to be ‘sisters’ to one another and to all whom God has made.” This recording of their devotional singing, which includes settings of common texts like “In paradisum” and “Pange lingua,” falls into a genre category that has become familiar since the massive success of the Gregorian plainchant album Chant by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos: devotional or liturgical music as, basically, New Age meditation. In this case, the meditative function of the music is buttressed by the addition of synthesized strings, gentle keyboard, etc. The music itself is modern, not classical, and there is no harmony; all melodies are sung in unison. When I describe it, I realize it may sound cloying and artificial. In practice, though, it works very well; you can essentially ignore the music and let it create a pleasant backdrop to your activities, or, if so inclined, you can pay close attention to the words and let the music guide your own devotional contemplation. Expect demand.


Paul Carrack
Love Songs (compilation; 2 discs)
Carrack-UK (dist. MVD)
PCARCD31

Not only is this a compilation of tracks from Carrack’s many solo albums going back as far as 1996, but it’s also a metacompilation: the two discs in this package were previously released separately as Love Songs Volume 1 and Volume 2. Some of Carrack’s biggest hits were recorded before his solo career had really taken off, when he was a member of Squeeze (“Tempted”) and Mike and the Mechanics (“Living Years”), and none of those are included here, but this collection demonstrates that if you’ve been sleeping on Carrack as a solo artist you’ve really been missing out. Most of the songs are originals (quite a few cowritten with his old Squeeze bandmate Chris Difford), but there are some well-chosen covers as well: songs by Burt Bacharach (“Any Day Now,” “Walk on By”), Bruce Springsteen (“If I Should Fall Behind”), and Allen Toussaint (“Tell Somebody Who Cares”), among others. His forays into American Songbook standards like “All the Way” and “Moon River” are less satisfying, because they require him to step out of his natural vocal style, which is simmering blue-eyed soulfulness. But there are really no weak tracks here; everything on this collection showcases one of the great soul-pop voices of his generation and an exceptionally gifted songwriter.


La Battue
Get Set, Go! (EP; digital only)
Self-released
No cat. no.

I confess that I was drawn into this release by one line from the accompanying press materials: “Let’s be clear: La Battue aren’t depressing!”. Intrigued by the fact that this needed to be clarified, I cued up the EP and gave it a virtual spin, and I’m glad I did. La Battue is a brother-sister-friend trio based in Rennes, France, and they make music that sounds on the surface like pretty straight-ahead synth pop: pretty melodies, breathy vocals, swirly-bleepy synths, you know the drill. But pay attention and you’ll notice the weird song structures, tricky time signatures, and general math-rock influences. That combination of a sweet surface covering a deeper crunchiness makes this release more than usually interesting–and really makes me wish La Battue would release a full-length album one of these days (this is their second EP). Allez, les gars! Foncez!


WORLD/ETHNIC


Reggae Angels (with Sly & Robbie)
Remember Our Creator (2 discs)
Self-released
No cat. no.

When you get a little ways into this new album from Oakland, California-based band Reggae Angels, you start to notice something. Not only are all of the songs spiritually oriented (by no means an anomaly in the roots reggae context), but they’re all specifically about the obligations of a spiritual disciple. In other words, whereas other reggae projects in the “truths and rights” tradition tend to focus not only on what God’s followers should be doing in order to embody and promote righteousness, but also on the depredations of Babylon and the wickedness of its inhabitants (the police, politicians, sectarian religionists, barbers, etc.), Reggae Angels’ focus here is entirely on the former. Call it “truths and responsibilities” rather than “truths and rights,” I guess. And the music itself? Absolutely solid meat-and-potatoes modern roots reggae, thanks to the contributions of legendary bass/drums/production duo Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare–and thanks also, it must be said, to the lyrics of frontman Peter “Fenton” Wardle, whose singing voice is workmanlike but whose sincerity and purity of delivery will remind you somewhat of Israel Vibration’s Apple Gabriel. And yes, that’s the great Dean Fraser on the horns cut of “Contentment,” and that’s Jim Fox providing the fine dub versions on disc 2.


Mexican Dubwiser
In Dub (digital only)
Echo Beach (dist. MVD)
EB163

Marcelo Tijerina and Ulises Lozano, originally from Mexico but located in Los Angeles since 2000, have recorded several albums under the name Mexican Dubwiser (a band name that, I suspect, is a punning reference to the common characterization of Tecate beer as “Mexican Budweiser”). As one might expect, their style blends the churning, lurching beats of electronic cumbia with the bass-heavy grooves of reggae, and this collection finds an international cast of celebrated producers giving their tunes a variety of dubwise remixes. You’ll hear reworks by Dubvisionist, iLLBILLY HiTEC, and La Gorda Dubs–but mostly by Dubvisionist–and everything is drenched in the sound quality that longstanding fans of the Echo Beach label have come to expect: digital but deep, bassy but crisp, colorful and energetic. This is a perfect summer album that practically invites you to throw your face mask out the car window while you drive on a beachside highway.


Indubious
The Bridge
Easy Star
ES-1088V

Evton and Skip Burton are brothers who were both born with cystic fibrosis, and whose outlook and approach to life have been significantly shaped by the ever-present potential of untimely death (one of the brothers has already endured a double lung transplant). In the meantime, they’re focusing on producing some of the sharpest and most forward-looking roots reggae currently in the marketplace; their dense, swirling productions compare favorably with those of John Brown’s Body, and their blend of hip hop, dancehall, and roots reggae is admirably seamless. On this, their third album, they’re joined by Jamaican legends including Sizzla, Capleton, and my personal heroine Jah9, as well as by the hugely popular Hawaiian reggae artist Mike Love on songs that glow with tuneful positivity and feature elephantine grooves. Highlights include the slow-rolling one-drop anthem “Ease and Flow” and the dancehall bubbler “Bless the Water,” but honestly there’s not a single weak track here. For all collections.


Paddy Free
In Dub II (digital only)
Dubmission
CDDUBM117

Misled Convoy
Translations II (digital only)
Dubmission
CDDUBM116

Two new collections from the always-reliable Dubmission label here, each of them representing a second volume of remixes by a label stalwart. Paddy Free is a producer based in New Zealand, and when he isn’t functioning as a member of the electronic duo Pitch Black he can often be found remixing the work of his colleagues. In Dub II finds him focusing on tracks by fellow New Zealanders, as well as work by artists from Mexico and Australia. Here he favors a dark and trancey sound, tending towards steppers and house beats but keeping things interesting with the occasional foray into junglism (Deep Fried Dub’s “Condensor”) and rockers (Kingfisha’s “Aftermath”). On Translations II, Misled Convoy (a.k.a. Mike Hodgson, who is, incidentally, the other half of Pitch Black) deconstructs the Bim Sherman version of the roots reggae classic “Mafia,” dubs up a FreQ Nasty tune (“Transform”), and creates a radically new setting of singer-songwriter Sandy Mill’s “Let It Go,” among other tracks. As great as these guys are when they work together, it’s fun to hear what they get up to on their own as well, and both of these albums are utterly solid slabs of modern dub.


Horace Andy
Broken Beats 2
Echo Beach
EB158

In 2013, the frequently brilliant Echo Beach label released a Horace Andy remix compilation called Broken Beats. It brought together a diverse collection of musicians and producers that included Oliver Frost, Umberto Echo, Dubblestandart, and Rob Smith to pay tribute to the reggae legend by giving classic hits like “Skylarking,” “Money,” and “Bad Man” thoroughly new settings reflecting all that had happened in the realm of dance and bass music in the decades since their original release. Now we have a second installment in the project, featuring some of those same producers and a whole bunch of new ones as well, including Black Star Liner, T-Jah, and Noiseshaper. As one would expect, these new versions are almost uniformly magnificent, from Adubta’s sturdy rockers dub-up of “Money” to New Bladerunner of Dub’s abstract and junglistic take on “Skylarking.” It’s too bad that these folks didn’t dig deeper into Andy’s enviable deep catalog of great songs–the CD version of this album includes three versions each of the very familiar “Skylarking” and “Cuss Cuss,” and no fewer than six of “Money”–but the mixes are so unique that you might not even notice the repetition. Overall, this disc makes an admirable companion to the original Broken Beats album. (The digital version appends a bunch of additional material.)

May 2021

Posted on


CLASSICAL


Johann Kaspar Mertz; Franz Schubert
Vienna Concert
Raphaella Smits
Soundset Recordings
SR1121

Guitarist Raphaella Smits is a treasure, and her latest recording is too. While the album title might lead you to expect a live recording, that’s not what this is; instead, it seems to be an example of what a guitar concert in an intimate domestic setting in Vienna might have sounded like, circa the early 1800s. Hence the instrument (a gut-strung, eight-string guitar built around 1827) and the repertoire (early Romantic pieces by Johann Kaspar Mertz, along with several arrangements of Schubert songs). I came to this disc fully expecting to enjoy the Mertz pieces and to be captivated by the Schubert ones, which include arranged selections from his lieder collections Schwanengesang and Winterreise, but the Mertz kept taking me by surprise — particularly the heart-stoppingly gorgeous Lied ohne Worte from his opus 13 Bardenklänge collection. Smits herself plays with subtle but astonishing virtuosity, not only of technique but of musicality — her use of rubato, of glissandi and of vibrato exquisitely tasteful throughout. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Franz Schubert
Boundless: Schubert Sonatinas Performed on Historical Instruments
Zachary Carrettín; Mina Gajić
Sono Luminus (dist. Naxos)
DSL-92240

While we’re talking about Schubert on historic instruments, it seems to be the perfect moment to bring up another fine recent recording: this collection of three sonatinas for violin and piano, performed on an 1835 Érard concert grand piano and a 20th-century violin set up to accommodate the late classical and early Romantic styles and played using a classical-style bow from 1800. The recording was made in a small recital hall with a relatively dry acoustic, the better to capture a salon-like sound. Schubert’s three sonatinas, opus 137, were published posthumously but have become some of the most familiar and beloved of his chamber repertoire; without getting bogged down in the tiresome politics of period performance and “authenticity,” I’ll simply say that it’s nice to be able to hear these pieces played on instruments designed so that their sonic properties are at least roughly what an audience at the time would have experienced, and the dynamic but sensitive renditions by Carrettín and Gajić are consistently wonderful.


Neil Rolnick
Oceans Eat Cities
Various Performers
Albany
TROY1857

It’s almost commonplace now for composers to create works that require computers and live instrumentalists to interact with each other, but it wasn’t common at all when Neil Rolnick helped to pioneer the practice in the 1980s. He continues to write exceptionally original and engaging music in that mode, as this program of three recent compositions makes clear. On the title composition, the VOXARE String Quartet plays brisk passages that are augmented and altered through repetition according to a formula based on climate change data; Rolnick’s laptop computer processes the music alongside the quartet, using a similar function. Mirages is a piece for piano and laptop, on which Rolnick plays both simultaneously, while Deal with the Devil is written for violin, piano, and laptop computer, and is something of a meditation on the role of virtuosity in musical performance (its title referencing the legend that Nicolo Paganini’s jaw-dropping violin skills were the result of a deal made with the devil). Rolnick has a reputation for making music that is modern and challenging but still accessible and even humorous; you’ll hear some of that in the other two pieces, but the title track is quite serious and sounds that way — which I mean as a compliment. All of it is beautifully played.


Neunau
Rimodulazione di flauti Paetzold durante una sessione di libera improvvisazione di Antonino Politano (cassette & digital only)
Antonino Politano
Until Riots
No cat. no.

“Repetition,” Lou Reed famously said, “is anti-glop.” And say what you like about Lou Reed: the man knew about glop, and also about repetition. And this brings us to the new album by Neunau, a.k.a. producer Sergio Maggioni, which documents a live program of improvisation from 2019. (My Italian is a bit rusty, but I think the album title would be translated “reformulation of Paetzold flutes during a free improvisation session by Antonino Politano.”) All tracks are digital manipulations of music played by Politano on a Paetzold contrabass flute; little of the music is immediately recognizable as “flute music,” partly due to Maggioni’s post hoc ministrations and partly due to Politano’s virtuosic application of extended techniques that include percussive and multiphonic effects. Maggioni’s treatments leave the music highly repetitive, radically deconstructed, and endlessly fascinating — to me anyway, but you should probably bear in mind that I’m a big Muslimgauze fan. For all avant-garde collections.


Francisco Guerrero
Magnificat, Lamentations & Canciones
El León de Oro / Peter Phillips; Marco Antonio García de Paz
Hyperion (dist. Integral)
CDA68347

Peter Phillips is best known as the founder and conductor of the Tallis Scholars, but in recent years he’s developed a side gig working with El León de Oro, a splendid Spanish choral ensemble, of which he became the Honorary Conductor in 2017 and with whom he recorded an outstanding collection of 16th-century music in 2019. They have reunited here for a program of works by the underappreciated Spanish composer Francisco Guerrero; it includes a Magnificat setting, selections from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and a handful of spiritual songs. El León de Oro is an unusually large group — I count 38 participants in this recording — with the kind of big, lush sound you’d expect, and a somewhat brighter and more colorful blend than that of the Tallis Scholars. As for the music itself, Phillips and the group make a strong argument that it should be classed alongside that of Guerrero’s more celebrated contemporary Tomás Luise de Victoria, and they perform it with admirable conviction and restrained intensity. This album is not only a sumptuous listen but also an important contribution to the scholarship of the Spanish Renaissance.


JAZZ


Azolia
Not about Heroes
Jazzwerkstatt
JW209

This is a highly unusual album by a highly unusual group. Azolia is a quartet consisting of singer Sophie Tassignon, saxophonist/clarinetist/singer Susanne Folk, saxophonist/bass clarinetist Lothat Ohlmeier, and bassist Adreas Waelti. On their third album, they have set to music ten poems by Wilfred Owen, which he wrote during his service in World War I; his book of poems was left behind after his death in 1918. Tassignon’s voice has something of a flutelike timbre, and the combination of her singing and the complex but deeply beautiful musical settings she and Folk have created remind me quite a bit of June Tabor’s later work, as she was transitioning from traditional folk singing to a sort of folk/art/salon hybrid style. The poems themselves are heartbreaking, but the music complicates things by bringing light and color to what might otherwise have been only depressing lyrical content. The music doesn’t make the poems lighter or (heaven knowns) whimsical in any way, but it breathes air into what could have been a suffocating conceptual space, and helps fulfill the musicians’ desire to “bring a little more peace into the world” through their adaptation of Owens’ observations about war. The result is both touching and musically invigorating.


Carl Saunders
Jazz Trumpet
Summit (dist. MVD)
DCD 761

Maybe you’ve never heard of Carl Saunders; it’s true that most of his long career has been spent as a sideman — though, granted, to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Harry James, and Benny freaking Goodman. And maybe you think Jazz Trumpet is a boring album title. OK, fair enough. But here’s the thing: this boringly-titled album by a guy you’ve never heard of is one of the best straight-ahead jazz albums you’re going to hear this year. Leading a quartet that includes legendary drummer Joe LaBarbera and bassist Chuck Berghofer alongside up-and-coming pianist Josh Nelson, Saunders takes us on a journey through the American Songbook with stops along the way for his own outstanding original compositions, always swinging hard and playing with a soft, golden tone. His arrangements are worth noting as well: he multitracks himself in several places, such as on the shout chorus to “Recordame” and the head to his own “Say What,” a straightforward blues on which he plays a startlingly complex solo. He makes tasteful use of the Harmon mute on “I Thought about You,” and switches appropriately to flugelhorn on the Tom Harrell composition “Sail Away.” Everywhere the playing is warm and the ensemble has that magical combination of tightness and looseness that marks a great jazz combo. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Satoko Fujii Tokyo Trio
Moon on the Lake
Libra
203-065

Natsuki Tamura; Satoko Fujii
Keshin
Libra
102-064

Pianist/composer Satoko Fujii and her husband trumpeter/composer Natsuki Tamura formed the Libra label in 1997 as an outlet for their expansive and sometimes challenging take on jazz tradition. On these two new releases, you can hear Fujii continuing to push those boundaries. Her trio album is absolutely outstanding: it’s by no means a straight-ahead jazz album, but no matter how “out” it gets, you can hear the love of tradition that she and her young bandmates bring to it. On “Hansho,” drummer Ittetsu Takemura invokes the sounds of nōh drama during his solo, and Fujii evokes her hero Bill Evans with some big chordal passages; bassist Takashi Sugawa alternates between buttressing and subverting the melody. Elsewhere, the group improvises freely in a more abstract vein (“Waiting for the Moon to Rise,” “Keep Running”), leaving lots and lots of space for independent ideas to develop. Keshin, a COVID lockdown duo album made with Tamura, is even better: here there’s plenty of improv but also thrilling passages of composed duo work that showcase both musicians’ jaw-dropping virtuosity, wit, and creativity. Fujii notes that in some ways, performing at home has freed up that creativity by disconnecting them from the need to sense how the audience is reacting and adjust accordingly. On “Donten” (notice how nearly unrecognizable the piano is during the opening passages here) they create melodies that are almost but not quite atonal, and yet at the same time strangely lyrical; “Three Scenes” finds Tamura channeling his inner John Zorn with lines that sound like they were made with bird calls, while Fujii builds whole sonic palaces with her piano; the piece then becomes more more conventionally tuneful but still harmonically challenging, as is “Dreamer.” Both albums are recommended to all jazz collections.


Pino Palladino & Blake Mills
Notes with Attachments
New Deal/Impulse!
B0033319-02

With this album, bassist Pino Palladino and multi-instrumentalist/producer Blake Mills have created a weird but wonderful mix of sounds and flavors, resulting in something that is explicitly jazz-adjacent but hardly jazz. Billed as “both a producers’ album and a players’ album,” it germinated from snippets of musical ideas that Palladino sent to Mills for his musical input, and to which Mills responded so comprehensively that eventually, in Palladino’s words, “it dawned on both of us that it would be a collaborative record.” From the tightly composed broken-beat groove of “Soundwalk” to the bubbling Afrobeat-plus-skronk of “Ekuté” to the slippery and funky “Chris Dave,” the sound has a weirdly electronic vibe, even when most of the actual sounds are being made by acoustic instruments and the drums are live. Of course, some of the instruments credited are a bit mysterious: on one track Mills is credited with “rubberized guitar”; on another, he plays a “gamelan fretless bass.” I promise this album is unlike any you’ve heard this year, or any year.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Maia Sharp
Mercy Rising
Self-released
No cat. no.

You may not know Maia Sharp’s name, but there’s a good chance you know one or more of her songs: she’s written for Bonnie Raitt, The Chicks, Trisha Yearwood, and many others. Every few years she releases an album herself, usually to significant Triple A radio success but not necessarily to worldwide acclaim. Her latest isn’t likely to change that — her style is too personal, her sound too far removed from what’s currently hip — but for those with ears to hear, her take on rootsy, Nashville-inflected singer-songwriter country/rock is magnificent and mesmerizing. But quietly so: the Tom Waits-style junkyard guitars on “You Know Who Knows You” stumble and mutter in the service of a gentle reflection on the joys of getting to know a new lover; the Hammond organ and acoustic guitars on “Nice Girl” provide a gritty but soft bed for a kiss-off song that packs its punch in a deceptively thick layer of velvet. Sharp’s singing style is attractively plainspoken, and her melodies are indelible without being showy. It all adds up to a deeply emotionally satisfying album, if not exactly a joyful one. Recommended to all libraries.


Mark Rubin, Jew of Oklahoma
The Triumph of Assimilation
Rubinchik Recordings
054

Mark Rubin (Killbilly, Bad Livers) has always been Jewish, but has only made his Jewishness a central feature of his musical identity in the past 20 years. But as you can see from the presentation of his new album (not to mention song titles like “Down South Kosher” and “Good Shabbes”), the implications of his Jewishness and its intersection with his Southernness/Westernness have become central to his musical and social concerns — and the musical result is engaging, fun, and at times chilling. Someone who grew up having crosses burned on his front lawn and bricks thrown through his window on Hitler’s birthday, but who fell in love with the music of his region early on, is inevitably going to have a — shall we say — complex relationship with American country and folk-derived music, and you’ll hear that complexity everywhere on this album: on his setting of Mordecai Gebirtig’s poem “A Day of Revenge”; on his ballad about the lynching of Leo Frank; on the “bonus Hanukkah track” “Spin the Dreidel.” And on his clawhammer banjo arrangements of Klezmer tunes. The music is genius; spin this one at a party and watch the conversations stop.


Eli West
Tapered Point of Stone
Tender & Mild
TAM-CD-060

Guitarist/mandolinist/banjoist/songwriter Eli West loves bluegrass, but isn’t a big fan of the flashy and competitive virtuosity aspect of it, preferring the more communal approach of pre-bluegrass string band music and of modern post-folk by the likes of Mandolin Orange and John Hartford. So his new album finds him creating something of a level playing field for himself to share with the other instrumentalists and singers he gathered for a set of live-in-the-studio recordings. As one might expect, their sound is tight but flexible, West’s tunes (notably the gorgeous “Ginny’s Little Longhorn”) complex but deceptively simple-sounding, his songs gently insightful. At no point do you find yourself saying “Man, I wish I could play as fast as that guy,” but at multiple points you’ll say to yourself “It would be wonderful to play in a band like this.” If your library collects folk and Americana, you should consider this album an essential purchase.


Mary Hott with the Carpenter Ants
Devil in the Hills: Coal Country Reckoning
Self-released
No cat. no.

The title of this album telegraphs the fact that singer/songwriter Mary Hott is not messing around. Her songs deal with the harsh and nasty legacy of corporate coal mining practices in West Virginia. While generations of songwriters have addressed the issues of environmental damage, union-busting, and poverty-perpetuating corporate practices on the part of these companies, Hott shines light on an even more disturbing legacy: the trafficking of young women and girls (some as young as twelve) as “comfort girls” for the managers working in more remote mining locations. The music is bluesy and dark, and benefits from outstanding production by Don Dixon (R.E.M., the Smithereens) and Michael Lipton; the program includes not only only songs by Hott but also a traditional ballad from the region, the Latter-day Saint/Baptist hymn “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” and, somewhat startlingly but not at all inappropriately, a dynamite voice-and-piano cover of John Denver’s hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”


ROCK/POP


Sagan
Anti-Ark
Seeland
537

You can get away with a lot of weirdness if you deliver it in the context of a groove. On its second album in fifteen years, avant-post-rock supergroup Sagan (whose members have spent their careers in and around ensembles and artists like Blechdom, Negativland, Fred Frith, Huun-Huur-Tu, and the Thurston Moore Group) has created a strange but charming tribute to “the early decades of space travel and the High Frontier.” The music is paradoxically dense but light, filled with bleeps and bloops and glitches and squawks all tied together by a subtle but steady rhythmic framework. If you listen for them, there are even melodies from time to time, or at least melody-adjacent pitch patterns. While one might expect music on a space-travel theme to be spacious and open, Sagan goes the other direction: in the crowded welter of sounds you’ll hear hints of 1950s sci-fi movie music, nods to 1970s Krautrock, and sudden detours into lovely clouds of ambience. The combination of subtle underlying structure and utter unpredictability makes Anti-Ark an unusually compelling album.


Kalbells
Max Heart
NNA Tapes (dist. Redeye)
NNA 135

I do love me some quirky pop music, especially when the weirdness is buttressed by genuine tunefulness, and there’s plenty of both on Kalbell’s second album. Led by former Rubblebucket front woman Annakalmia Traver, this all-woman band operates in a gently off-kilter synth-pop mode, delivering bubbling melodies that sometimes burst into startling melismatic flight and grooves that push but never shove. Those melodies and grooves carry lyrics that are quite a bit more assertive, however, and can include couplets like “Earth’s needle in my wax, pull a rumi don’t hold back/Perception doors all gone, pull a huxley but not for too long.” Note the synthesized trombone solo on “Hump the Beach” and also the sassy, salty rap interlude on “Pickles.”


Dictaphone
Goats & Distortions 5
Denovali (dist. Redeye)
den361

Releases on the Denovali label tend strongly towards a dark, sometimes foreboding drone and ambient music, much of which uses regular rhythms rarely if at all. This one is different. Its organizing principle is the concept of “morbid instruments,” which I realize sounds a bit strange, though the image is apt: one of the “instruments” used in the recording was a decrepit tape machine which produced eerie, ghostly sounds before finally dying. (Another instrument “died” in the course of these recordings as well: clarinetist Roger Döring played a bass clarinet for the first time on these sessions, and then promptly lost it in the subway.) The clarinet is central to the sonic concept throughout this album, which also features violinist Alex Stolse; all of the music is treated and given spooky background by bandleader and sound artist Oliver Doerell. There are times when regular beats might make you think of a slightly more depressive O Yuki Conjugate; at other times, the clarinet wails softly over a bed of crackles, pops, altered strings, and unidentifiable clouds of found sound. This is a terrific album, but not necessarily a great one to listen to if you’re alone in a big house at night.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Manika Kaur
Ek (digital only)
Six Degrees
SR0021

Manika Kaur is a Sikh devotional singer and philanthropist, equally devoted to kirtan singing and to her nonprofit organization Kirtan for Causes, which raises funds and awareness in support of feminine hygiene products and education for girls in Punjab. Her music is very popular in the international Sikh community, and on her latest album it’s easy to hear why: her voice is a clear and gentle as a mountain brook, and her collaborators provide a winning mix of traditional Indian and Punjabi instrumental accompaniment and bubbling Western beats. Singing primarily in Hindi (I think), she also switches to English on several songs; all of them are songs of praise to God (often addressed as Waheguru, a common Sikh usage) and all are sumptuously beautiful; Kaur’s singing style is tender and vulnerable but powerful and confident at the same time. This is an utterly lovely album that would make a welcome addition to any library collection.


Piper Street Sound (featuring Andy Bassford)
Black Eyed Peace (EP; digital & vinyl only)
Piper Street Sound
No cat. no.

Bassist and producer Matt Mansfield has been emitting wonderful roots reggae sounds from his studio in Atlanta, Georgia for years. On his latest effort — titled in sly tribute to his home region — he teams up with legendary guitarist Andy Bassford (Toots and the Maytals, Dennis Brown, Roots Radics) for an all-too-brief set of blissfully tuneful instrumental reggae that is equally perfect for quiet at-home listening and for an outdoor sound system dance. Bassford’s guitar leads are prominently featured but they don’t dominate the mix — this music is about the collective groove first and foremost, and live horns (recorded, fortuitously, just before the pandemic shutdown made indoor gatherings of wind instrumentalists impossible) are also in the mix. Mansfield’s production style draws on the techniques of dub masters like King Tubby and Dennis Bovell, but never draws undue attention to itself. The result is perfect summer music from a young master of a venerable form.



Ahmed Warshanna
Ishta
Tiber River
TR-001-CD

Sometimes deep emotional turmoil can result in amazing art. In this case, jazz guitarist and composer Ahmed Warshanna was led by watching his mother suffer through cancer treatment to compose an album of music in her honor. In doing so, he decided to celebrate simultaneously the Egyptian popular music that she loved, and that he had heard throughout his childhood, and the hard-bop jazz tradition that is his primary arena of musical expression. He adapted three Egyptian melodies; two by legendary composer and singer Umm Kulthum and one a children’s song that he had often sung with his mother. And he wrote two original compositions that blend Egyptian melodies and harmonies with a jazz idiom and arrangements. His arrangements are well worth noting — he leads a septet here, and creates settings that often blur the lines between solo and ensemble sections; there’s never a sense of chaotic disorganization, but the arrangements tend to be complex and multi-layered, with a sense of joyful freedom. My favorite composition was the slowly but powerfully swinging “Samaka,” but there’s not a weak track here.

April 2021


CLASSICAL


scotsVarious Composers
Music for the King of Scots: Inside the Pleasure Palace of James IV
Binchois Consort / Andrew Kirkman
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
CDA68333

This album’s subtitle might well lead you to expect a collection of dance tunes and songs of courtly love, written and performed for the amusement of King James IV and his court.

Yeah, that’s not what this is.

The music on this beautiful but sober, and frankly somewhat severe, program focuses on works of Marian devotion and — more interesting — music based on the story of the martyrdom of St. Catherine. Its core work is a parody mass built on the plainchant Horrendo subdenda rotarum machinamento (“subjected to the terrible machinery of wheels”), taken from the Carver Choirbook and, like all but one of the works performed here, written by an unknown composer; its harmonic structure is unusual for the time period, though it has all the astringent properties of mid-15th century polyphony, properties that are emphasized by the sound of the all-male four-voice Binchois Ensemble. Interestingly, this album is not only an exploration of the music of James IV’s court, but also of the physical acoustic properties of his chapel. That building is currently in ruins, but the sound engineers did their best to recreate its acoustics by recording the singers in an anechoic chamber, then using computer simulations of the chapel’s original structure and furnishings and applying electronic effects to recreate the chapel’s original acoustic characteristics. It’s an interesting approach that could make this album of equal interest to audio engineers and early music fans. And the singing is excellent.


Screen Shot 2021-03-30 at 10.22.40 AMKen Field
Transmitter
Neuma
141

Saxophonist Ken Field has a long and illustrious résumé that includes his tenure with Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and with the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble as well as numerous soundtrack gigs. Like most professional musicians, he has found himself somewhat at loose ends during the COVID pandemic, and like many, he used the opportunity to explore new ways of creating solo music. In his case, that meant creating a cycle of six pieces in which he collaborated with producer Erdem Helvacioglu, using echo and looping technologies to create densely layered pieces that riff off the idea of “trans”: Transoceanic, Transcendental, Translucent, etc. If this description (or familiarity with Helvacioglu’s own work) leads you to expect shimmering and unchallenging ambient soundscapes, think again: Field’s playing is often melodically complex and chromatic, the layers of sound adding up to a whole that tends to be more harmonically jagged than serene or relaxed. This isn’t to say that the music isn’t beautiful, only that its beauty isn’t simple. Highly recommended.


HK Grubergruber
Percussion Concertos
Colin Currie; BBC Philharmonic / Juanjo Mena; John Storgårds
Colin Currie Records (dist. PIAS)
CCR0004

One of the great challenges of being a percussionist is the sheer range of instruments one must master: rudimental drumming, mallet keyboards, tympani, congas and cajón, and a wide variety of other esoteric and exotic instruments have to be part of one’s repertoire. Colin Currie is already a legendary percussionist, a master of many instruments, and on his latest album he champions the music of HK Gruber, and Austrian composer whose music is both breathtakingly modern and immediately accessible. The two concertos featured here are a relatively early three-movement work titled Rough Music, and the much more recent into the open…, a single-movement piece presented here in its world-premiere performance from 2015. Rough Music, despite its title, is joyful and tightly organized; it has moments of bustling busyness and exuberance but also heart-tuggingly lyrical passages, and the percussion writing is both virtuosic and sensitive throughout (and occasionally humorous; check out the slightly drunken trombone passages in the third movement). into the open… was written in tribute to a departed musical friend, and is almost programmatic in tone; the liner notes describing the piece’s genesis are quite heartbreaking. All of the playing is brilliant, and this is a wonderful album overall.


Johann Carl Bischoffbischoff
Six Sonatas for Cello
Claudio Ronco; Emanuela Vozza
Urania (dist. Naxos)
LDV14066

Johann Carl Bischoff was a composer and celebrated cello virtuoso in the court orchestra of the Duke of Anhalt-Dessau. He was also the inventor of an instrument he called the “harmonicello,” which had five gut strings that were fingered and bowed, supplemented by ten metal strings that vibrated sympathetically. This is the world-premiere recording of his six sonatas for cello and bass, which were written in Amsterdam between 1779 and 1782 and have one stylistic foot in the high classical tradition and the other in an emerging Romanticism. (Liner notes were not provided with the review copy, so I’m not sure whether either of the period instruments used here is a harmonicello, though both sound like conventional cellos to me.) The intonation is a bit shaky from time to time, but the pieces are delightful and this album is an important document of an unjustly neglected figure.


JAZZ


Alexa Tarantinotarantino
Firefly
Posi-Tone
PR8220

The magnificent Alexa Tarantino is back with her third album as a solo leader, and it’s a doozy. Opening with the wonderfully evocative “Spider’s Dance” by pianist Art Hirahara (serving as a sideman on this date) and proceeding through a generous program of originals, standards, and tunes by her other collaborators (vibraphonist Behn Gillece, bassist Boris Kozlov, drummer Rudy Royston), Tarantino puts her prodigious chops, her intelligence, and her leadership skills on full display. Also her wit: notice the fleeting reference to “Jeepers Creepers” during her solo on Royston’s boppish “Move of the Spirit,” for example. This program has some wonderful uptempo moments, but she and her group really shine on the ballads: the band’s rendition of Gillece’s composition “Mindful Moments” is particularly lovely, and Tarantino’s own “Daybreak” is a balladic midtempo number that really knocked me out — and it’s interesting to compare it to her much more knotty and demanding “Rootless Ruthlessness.” Overall, this is yet another triumph from one of the most impressive young talents on the scene right now.


outtodinnerOut to Dinner
Play On
Posi-Tone
PR8216

I can’t resist recommending a second Posi-Tone release this month as well. The name of this quintet is a tribute to saxophonist Eric Dolphy and his classic 1964 album Out to Lunch. So is their sound: built on a straight-ahead foundation, the group’s compositions are nevertheless highly harmonically forward-looking, and their solos push the harmonic boundaries at all times, creating a sound that is one part hard bop and one part 1960s-style avant-jazz. Even when a tune is based in the blues (note saxophonist Nicole Glover’s 6/8-time “Rebecca’s Dance”), the changes still feel oddly sideways and slippery, as does the second-line beat on bassist Boris Koslov’s funky “Abe Duct.” There’s a fine cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Visions” and a great version of Lee Morgan’s classic “Short Count,” but the for most part these are original compositions by the band members. For all jazz collections.


granelliJerry Granelli Trio
Plays Vince Guaraldi & Mose Allison
RareNoise
RNR0120

Vince Guaraldi (beloved composer of music for the Peanuts TV specials of the 1960s) and Mose Allison (quirky blues/jazz singer and pianist/composer) may seem like a strange pairing for a tribute album, until you consider the leader on this date: Jerry Granelli, who played drums on Guaraldi’s TV sessions early in his career, and who served as Allison’s drummer for decades. Here leading a trio that also includes pianist Jamie Saft and bassist Bradley Christopher Jones, Granelli explores with gleeful abandon two Guaraldi tunes and several pieces of Allison’s; the latter include such groove-based fare as “Parchman Farm” and “Your Mind Is on Vacation,” while the Guaraldi tunes bracket the program: it opens with the tenderly swinging “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” and ends with, I’m sad to say, “Christmas Time Is Here” — one of Guaraldi’s most inexplicably enduring compositions, a tune that manages the seemingly impossible feat of making the approach of Christmas sound like reason for dejection and despair. (It was put to much more appropriate use in the sitcom Arrested Development.) Anyway, Granelli’s tender rendition makes the tune as attractive as it can be, and his treatment of the first Guaraldi piece is similarly loving — and he really gets kind of nuts on some of the Allison material. Recommended to all adventurous jazz collections.


quinerlyReggie Quinerly
New York Nowhere
Redefinition Music
No cat. no.

We end this month’s Jazz section with a wonderfully swinging outing by drummer/composer Reggie Quinerly. His fourth album as a leader, New York Nowhere finds Quinerly exploring a variety of styles within a generally straight-ahead, postbop-but-not-really-hard-bop approach.  I say “not really hard bop” because while his tunes have something of that late-50s feel to them, there’s nothing overtly bluesy or soul-inflected here; “Celso” is a firm but gentle Brazilian number (check out the lovely octave passages on pianist John Chin’s solo), while “Reflections on the Hudson” is a sweetly lyrical, understatedly emotional love letter to his former home town. That said, “Wine Cooler Heads Prevail” does swing particularly powerfully in a way that certainly has Art Blakey looking down from heaven and nodding with approval. The trumpet-and-tenor frontline contributes to the old school flavor, but this is an album filled with fresh ideas as well as stellar playing. Highly recommended to all libraries.


FOLK/COUNTRY


3 Pairs of Bootsboots
Long Rider
Dark Country Music
No cat. no.

When a singer is described as having a style that “falls somewhere between Cyndi Lauper and Shania Twain,” I’m going to want to at least hear what’s going on. And what’s going on in this case is a very impressive debut album by the husband-and-wife duo 3 Pairs of Boots: singer Laura Arias and songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Andrew Stern. Arias’ voice does indeed have the lightness and agility of Lauper’s, but can generate the more penetrating power of Twain’s, and the songs that Stern writes for her wander the borderlands that separate folk, country, and jangle-pop. To the group’s credit, they seem to care about genre categories hardly at all, hopping happily from boot-scooting honky tonk (“Devil Road”) to Bakersfield-meets-the-Byrds country-pop (“Take a Step”) to dreamier and more abstract acoustic fare (“I Am the Map”). It’s worth noting that both the album’s title and several of its songs are inspired by the true story of Bernice Ende (known as “Lady Long Rider“), a woman who began traversing the country alone by horseback in her middle age and has written a book about the experience. Recommended to all libraries.


Nobody’s Girlgirl
Nobody’s Girl (to be released July 30)
Lucky Hound Music
No cat. no.

The Austin-based vocal and songwriting trio Nobody’s Girl (Rebecca Loebe, BettySoo, and Grace Pettis) are back with their second release and first full-length album. It opens a bit inauspiciously, with the hooky but hackneyed “Kansas” (its chorus built around an exceptionally tired cliché), but then quickly regains its footing: “Rescued” is lovely and jangly folk-pop that takes a surprisingly Beach Boys-y turn at the bridge; “Promised Land” is hooky in the verse and features swooningly gorgeous harmonies on the chorus; “What’ll I Do” is sturdy, meat-and-potatoes country-rock (and is that, er, a sampled drum loop on the bridge?). In fact, rockishness is something of a recurring theme; while this isn’t really a rock album, the overall sound is noticeably denser and crunchier than that of the group’s previous work, and finds them expanding their sonic palette in impressive and winning ways.


ROCK/POP


Various Artistssill
Down Where the Valleys Are Low: Another Otherworld for Judee Sill (EP)
StorySound (dist. Redeye)
161-042

Hmmm… a cover album consisting of songs by an artist I’m completely unfamiliar with, performed by a bunch of other artists I’ve never heard of? Not the most obviously interesting proposition. But then, learning about new artists is kind of a big part of what CD HotList is about for me, so I dove in — and was immediately grateful I had. Judee Sill is the kind of songwriter that artists like Andy Partridge and Carrie Brownstein obsess over, and her tragic life story (she died of an overdose at age 35) of course just adds to the fascination. And indeed, her songs are magical; she wrote both melodies and chord progressions that sound unlike anyone else’s without seeming willfully weird, and her lyrics draw on deep and archetypal images from religion, Americana, and her own drug experiences. These arrangements, created by producer Lorenzo Wolff using a different singer for each track, are deliberately very different from the original versions: “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” as sung by Michael Cerveris, has a weirdly Neil Diamond vibe; I recognized “There’s a Rugged Road,” but couldn’t remember whose version I’ve heard before — I loved this one by Osei Essed. The music is wildly varied here, but every track is absolutely solid. Kind of sad that the album consists of only seven tracks, clocking in at just under 22 minutes in total.


Decouplrdecouplr
Digital Bonfire (digital only)
Self-released
No cat. no.

The intersection of indie-pop and electro has always been musically fertile territory, and the duo Decouplr is the latest example of how interesting and fruitful it can be. The group consists of vocalist Bailey Walker and electronic musician Adam Laub, and together they sound like what Erasure might have if they had come up in the 2010s rather than the 1980s: more breakbeats, more glitchiness, less four-on-the-floor and less disco. Also less melodic bombast: Erasure always went for the anthemic chorus, while Decouplr are more about introspection, even within the context of beats and undeniable melodic hooks. Walker’s vocals are sometimes tastefully treated, given a gritty overlay or some kind of compression, but they’re always admirably clear — the better to hear her sharply intelligent lyrics. There’s significant variety within the album’s stylistic unity: “In My Pocket” is a sort of dreamy synth-pop with a strong jungle undertow, while “Punchline” is more rockish despite its entirely electronic setting. All of it is well worth hearing. For all pop collections.


Various Artistsshake
Shake the Foundations: Militant Funk & the Post-punk Dancefloor 1978-1984 (3 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
CRCDBOX107

I’m such a sucker for these wonderful box sets from London’s Cherry Red label — partly because they always introduce me to artists I hadn’t known about but needed to, and partly because I work in academia and the box set titles often sound like scholarly monographs. Anyway, this one focuses on what may seem like an oddly narrow sub-sub-genre of postpunk popular music. Stylistically narrow it may be, but dance-oriented postpunk music had (and continues to have) a huge impact on the landscape of pop music generally. Think of bands like New Order, Gang of Four, Depeche Mode, Delta 5 — all emerged from the rubble of punk, and all blended punk elements with funk and dance elements to create something genuinely new. Brilliantly, this compilation contains none of those artists. Instead, it pokes around the darker corners of the immediate postpunk scene and pulls weirder, more challenging exponents out, blinking, into the light: a few you’ve probably heard of (Simple Minds, Haircut 100, the Stranglers); most you probably haven’t (The Higsons, Six Sed Red; Surface Mutants). Of course everything isn’t brilliant, but taken as a whole this document is simply fascinating and tons of fun: Fun Boy Three’s “Faith, Hope and Charity” is as arch and pretentious as you’d expect, but I mean that in a good way; “When Are We? (Now We Are)” by Space Mutants is a sort of avant-Latin fusion with fairly tuneless vocals and fairly skronky guitar in the background; Nightmares in Wax’s “Black Leather” is what disco might have sounded like if it had been the joint invention of Joy Division and the Cramps, with lyrics by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. And if I haven’t convinced you to order this by now, I probably won’t be able to.


scuzzVapour Theories
Celestial Scuzz (vinyl & digital only)
Fire (dist. Redeye)
FIRE607

Brothers John and Michael Gibbons are guitarists for the psych-drone band Bardo Pond, but on their own they’ve been recording as Vapour Theories off and on for years. Their latest is described in the press materials as “heavy ambient… like Brian Eno locked in a dark room with Sunn-O))))) rehearsing next door.” (To which my immediate reaction was “Wait — Sun-O))))) rehearses?”) Anyway, I might have described this music a little bit differently: maybe “the Meat Puppets on quaaludes” or something. The opening track, “Unoccupied Blues,” features one guitar playing a slowly-swinging two-chord progression while another solos, both of them so heavily distorted that the edges of their notes are sometimes blurred into nonexistence; “High Treason” is much more quiet and acoustic-based; there’s even a Brian Eno cover, though a slightly willful one (“The Big Ship”). There are no vocals, just lots of layers of guitars in various states of distortion, and it’s all pretty compelling.


WORLD/ETHNIC


manbaraniNatik Awayez
Manbarani (vinyl & digital only)
Sublime Frequencies (dist. Forced Exposure)
SF116

Born in Southern Iraq and educated in Bulgaria, singer and songwriter Natik Awayez learned to play the oud (a fretless lute popular throughout the Middle East) as he was growing up between Omara City and Baghdad. Later he would travel to Yemen and work with local bands around the city of Abyan before fleeing that increasingly war-torn country for Sweden. After working with various bands and founding the Art Consulate, he eventually settled in Cairo, where this album was recorded. He explains the spiritual and musical genesis of his album this way: “Iraq is the source and Yemen the soul. As for Cairo, it has offered me snippets of time and a small abode, a handful of its most beautiful musicians and a lot of love. And so, Manbarani came to be.” So how does it sound? Light, complex, restrained but emotionally intense, and filled with melodies that, to these Western ears, evoke images of dusty streets, the smell of shisha, the taste of fresh flatbread. I really wish I knew enough Arabic to understand the lyrics, which I’m sure would complicate those mental impressions. For all libraries.


Masma Dream Worldmasma
Play at Night (vinyl & digital only)
Northern Spy (dist. Redeye)
NS 131

Devi Mambouka was born to a Gambonese father and a Singaporean mother, and spent her early childhood in Brooklyn before moving to Africa at age 12. So culturally, one might expect her (and her music) to be somewhat all over the place. Interestingly, though, the music on her debut album under the moniker Masma Dream World doesn’t really sound like a welter of world-music influences; instead, it sounds like something from another planet — or another dimension. True, there are elements of gamelan and hints of the call to prayer on “The Eternal Library,” and more subtly the music is informed by Japanese butoh practice, but for the most part these songs are so disconnected from anything most listeners will recognize that it ends up feeling like a visit to someplace you never imagined existed. As far as I can tell, none of the vocals are in English, but neither are they in any other language I recognize; the rhythms are regular and the musical patterns repetitive, but this isn’t exactly “trance” music. Basically I’m running out of ways to explain why I can’t explain what it sounds like, so you’ll just have to listen for yourself.


Youth Meets Jah Wobbleyouth
Acid Punk Dub Apocalypse
Cadiz Music (dist. MVD)
CADIZCD183

Two titans of the bass got together to create this dub-inflected summit meeting of an album. Jah Wobble (Public Image Ltd, Invaders of the Heart) and Youth (Killing Joke, about a billion production gigs) are such a natural combination that it’s kind of crazy they haven’t done this before. But better late than never, and Acid Punk Dub Apocalypse is a well-titled project. As you’d expect, it’s the dub aesthetic that unites the diverse program: instruments and vocals fade in and out, sonic spaces are huge and echoey, and the bass is everywhere. “Full Metal Dub” is reggae in 5/4, which I would have said was impossible. Turns out it isn’t, though I don’t know if it’s really advisable — dancing to this track would be a great way for someone my age to break a hip. “Rise Me Up” is more conventional reggae, a soulful plea featuring singer Blue Pearl, and “Keep on Moving” covers similar territory with a steppers beat and vocalist Aurora Down. “Chariot Sky,” on the other hand, has a bit of an East African highlife vibe, with hypnotic repeating patterns and glistening guitar, and also some slightly Muzak-y synth; “Panzer Dub” combines another odd time signature (7/4 this time) with a vaguely Latin beat and crunchy guitars. Great stuff all around.


Dr. Israelisrael
Dr. Israel in Dub
Echo Beach (dist. Forced Exposure)
EB 143CD

Various Artistsdance
Dance a Dub
Echo Beach
EB 148CD

While we’re in dub territory, let’s check in on the always-interesting Echo Beach label, the Hamburg-based titan of modern dub music. Two recent releases apply a dub filter to existing recordings in different ways: one by focusing on the work of a single artist — Brooklyn avant-ragga-jungle firebrand Dr. Israel — and one by compiling radical dub remixes by Lee Groves of songs by artists as diverse as Ari Up, Horace Andy, Tackhead, and Seanie T. Dr. Israel (born Douglas Bennett) came to reggae the way many others of his generation did — via punk rock and hip hop. He helped to create the illbient sound in the 1990s, and his conversion to the Rastafari faith led him to seek out ways to blend his spiritual and political vision with a wide variety of musical styles and influences. Hence tracks like “Slaver” (here remixed by DJ Olive), “Addis Ababa,” and “Final Resistance.” His many fans will surely enjoy this generous collection of remixes and dubwise reconstructions of songs from his catalog. On Dance a Dub, dance music producer Lee Groves (Gwen Stefani, Janet Jackson, Black Eyed Peas, Goldfrapp) sets his hand to remixing tracks both new and old from the Echo Beach catalog, including the Martha and the Muffins song that gave the label its name. There are so many great songs here, and Groves shines a new light on each of them. Both albums are highly recommended.

March 2021


CLASSICAL


Josquin Des Prez
The Golden Renaissance
Stile Antico
Decca
485 1340

Josquin Des Prez
Motets and Mass Movements
Brabant Ensemble / Stephen Rice
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
CDA68321

Since 2021 marks the 500th anniversary of his death, we can look forward with keen anticipation to lots of Josquin recordings this year. One of the greatest of the Franco-Flemish polyphonic masters, Josquin is responsible for some of the most lusciously beautiful sacred music ever written, and it’s both pleasing and unsurprising that two of the first celebratory releases of the year come from two of the most lusciously beautiful choral ensembles currently dedicated to this repertoire. Long a mainstay of the Harmonia Mundi label, the Stile Antico ensemble makes its Decca debut with a brilliant program centered on Josquin’s Missa Pange lingua, one of the truly great parody Masses of the Renaissance period and a relatively familiar work, but it also includes the world-premiere recording of Josquin’s chanson “Vivrai je tousjours.” As always, Stile Antico’s purity of tone and creaminess of blend set an industry standard. The equally fine Brabant Ensemble weigh in with a selection of motets and Mass sections for their release, focusing on shorter works, some of which may be of slightly questionable provenance but are still closely associated with Josquin (some include additions by later composers). The Brabants offer not only their usual sumptuous choral sound, but also a program that is of greater than usual historical interest. Both discs are very highly recommended.


Johann Melchior Molter
Ouvertüre, Sinfonia und Concerti
Kölner Akademie / Michael Alexander Willens
Ars Produktion (dit. Naxos)
ARS38252

Molter’s name isn’t well known today, but he had an illustrious (though peripatetic) career in 18th-century Germany, mainly in the courts at Eisenach and Karlsruhe. He left behind a rich catalog of instrumental compositions, but relatively few of his vocal works survive in known editions. Here the Kölner Akademie present a lovely selection of his concertos for oboe, cello, bassoon, flute, and violin, bracketed by a sinfonia and an overture. The soloists gathered for this recording are an impressive bunch, including the world-class oboist Christopher Palameta and the illustrious violinist Catherine Martin. I’m very impressed with both the playing and the production quality on this album, and it offers an excellent opportunity to add some fine work by a little-known composer to the library collection.


Tigran Mansurian
Con anima
Kim Kashkashian, Movses Pogossian et al.
ECM

In honor of Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian’s 80th birthday, violinist Movses Pogossian and violist Kim Kashkashian organized this recording of some of his more recent chamber pieces. Mansurian’s work draws deeply on elements of Armenian culture; not necessarily folk music (though Die Tänzerin is based on a traditional dance), but certainly sacred music and the deeply complex emotional history of his country. These pieces, written for varying combinations of violin, viola, clarinet, and piano, plus a string quartet, convey an overarching mood of sadness, but not depression; even at its quietest the music is intense, and even at its most intense it seems introspective, but there is always light pulsing around the edges of its darkness. This is a remarkably lovely album and is highly recommended to all libraries.


JAZZ


Franco Ambrosetti Band
Lost within You
Unit
UTR 4970

This is really something of an all-star lineup led by trumpeter Franco Ambrosetti; the group also includes guitarist John Scofield, the killer rhythm section of bassist Scott Colley and drummer Jack DeJohnnette (who plays lovely piano on the opening track), and pianists Uri Caine and Renée Rosnes. The program is all ballads and mostly standards, with a couple of Ambrosetti originals thrown in, but even classic tunes like “Flamenco Sketches” McCoy Tyner’s lovely “You Taught My Heart to Sing” sound as if they could have been written by him. Ambrosetti’s tone is like weathered but burnished brass, and his colleagues create lovingly crafted settings for his solos and for the tunes themselves. Everything here is lovely, and though “Body and Soul” feels to me like it’s kind of lurching in a weirdly burlesque way, it’s the closest thing to a misstep on this remarkable album.


Jakob Bro
Uma Elmo
ECM
2702

Guitarist and composer Jakob Bro put together an intriguingly unusual trio for his fifth ECM album as a leader. Working with trumpeter Arve Henriksen and drummer Jorge Rossy, he creates the kind of atmospheric and reverberant sound that any longstanding fan of the “ECM jazz” genre would expect, with lots of space between notes–however, his compositions are so warmly personal and his melodies so carefully written that the music never feels abstract. Henriksen’s trumpet sometimes sounds more like a flute, and Rossy’s drumming is more about punctuation than beat, and Bro is often playing so quietly and subtly in the background that you don’t notice what he’s doing at first; what he’s doing, often, is creating quiet backdrops using echo, delay, and looping while he lets Henriksen take the melodic lead. The music is mysterious and utterly beautiful.


Benoît Delbecq
The Weight of Light
Pyroclastic
PR 13

Pianist and composer Benoît Delbecq has been working with prepared piano for years, and the pieces on The Weight of Light find him working in a sort of blended style: often playing gently percussive left-hand ostinatos using keys that actuate strings dampened or altered by the insertion of objects into the piano’s strings, while his right hand explores and creates more conventional melodies above. In some cases the technique alone is deeply impressive–consider the difficulty presented by the left-hand passages on “Family Trees,” for example–and in others the depth is more conceptual than technical: Delbecq was inspired, while writing these pieces, by his physicist brother’s studies of the mass properties of light. This is a release that could easily have gone in either the Classical or the Jazz sections, but I settled on Jazz because when Delbecq plays melodic lines they are generally more jazz-informed than classical (lots of blue notes, lots of vernacular chromaticisms) but also because his use of percussive piano preparations is deeply influenced by the playing of jazz drummers like Paul Motian and Ed Blackwell. This is a strange and wonderful album, recommended to all jazz and (yes) classical collections.


Fred Frith & Ikue Mori
A Mountain Doesn’t Know It’s Tall
Intakt (dist. Naxos)
INT352

Not all noise music is the same (believe it or not). Sure, some of it is deliberately assaultive–think Merzbow or This Heat. But some of it is subtle, complex, and even gentle, even when it’s sonically challenging. That’s how I’d characterize this marvelous album by legendary avant-guitarist Fred Frith and laptop sound artist Ikue Mori (whom Downtown denizens of a certain age may remember as the drummer for No Wave pioneers DNA). Frith plucks, scrapes, bows, thwacks, and bends his guitar strings, creating otherworldly sounds, and Mori distorts them until they sound like they come from another galaxy. To be completely clear, this music is not for everyone; but boy, it sure is for some of us. For all adventurous library collections.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno
Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno
Free Dirt
DIRT-CD-0100

Vivian Leva’s second album is a duo affair that features her partner Riley Carcagno. These songs were written mostly while the couple was separated, attending different universities, and you can hear the longing and wistfulness in both the lyrics and the music itself, which is mostly pretty quiet but frequently intense. Stylistically, it straddles that magic line that separates folk from country and tends to get one’s music labeled “Americana”: we’re talking primarily acoustic instruments, occasional steel guitar, tasteful drums, etc., but occasional drifts into full-on honky tonk territory (e.g. the classic weeper “My Teardrops Say”). The centerpiece of this duo’s sound is Vivian Leva’s clear-as-springwater voice (and her deeply personal lyrics), though Riley Calcagno’s harmony vocals are fundamental as well, and when he steps forward to take lead on a song you kind of wish he’d do it more often. Very, very nice.


Adam Hurt
Back to the Earth
Ubiquitone
006

For his latest album, clawhammer banjo player Adam Hurt delivers a follow-up to his 2010 release Earth Tones, a celebration of the gourd banjo. The resonating surface of a modern banjo is a skin or mylar sheet stretched over a shallow drum, usually constructed of wood, but the precursor to that design is a gourd with one side sliced off (creating a resonating chamber) and a skin stretched over the resulting space. Add a fretless neck and you have a reasonable facsimile of the earliest 18th-century banjos, instruments with clear antecedents in Africa. The sound of a gourd banjo is, unsurprisingly, quite a bit mellower and less twangy than that of a modern banjo, and Hurt demonstrates its unique tone both tastefully and virtuosically on this collection of traditional tunes, which also features contributions from such illustrious helpers as Jordan Tice, Marshall Wilborn, and Ricky Skaggs.


Various Artists
The Next Waltz Volume 3 (vinyl and digital only)
The Next Waltz
TNW-005

The third installment of collected singles from Bruce Robison’s The Next Waltz label is a lovely (if brief) collection of great modern country and country-rock songs with a strong Texas flavor to them. Featured artists include Jack Ingram, Cody Canada, the Panhandlers, and Robison himself, alongside his better-known half: the great singer-songwriter Kelly Willis. This crew prides itself on recording the old-fashioned way: all analog, 16 tracks to two-inch tape. Maybe that’s why Dan Dyer’s “Maiden’s Prayer” sounds like a Bob Wills recording from the 1940s–and why Robison and Willis sound like they’re waltzing all alone after hours in a cowboy bar on “Tennessee Blues.” And while Shinyribs’ version of… er… “Bitch Better Have My Money” might not have been the wisest choice for a cover, everything else here is a joy. (The label sent me a CD, but their website only offers download and vinyl versions.)


ROCK/POP


Jane Weaver
Flock
Fire (dist. Redeye)
FIRE544

One good way to capture my attention is to introduce an album by saying it was “produced on a diet of Lebanese torch songs, 1980s Russian aerobic records, and Australian punk.” To be honest, I don’t hear much of any of those influences on Jane Weaver’s latest, but it does in fact seem to represent a much poppier direction for this singer and songwriter. From the Talking Heads funk of “The Revolution of Super Visions” to the glitchy highlife dream-pop of “Sunset Dreams” to the quirky Casiotone beats on “All the Things You Do,” Weaver brings a brightly colored sound palette and a highly individual style, and her take on modern pop music is simultaneously challenging and inviting. Highly recommended to all library collections.


Matt Starling
Music for Nina
Heart Dance
HDR20066

The idea of “generative music” (also known as “process music”) is that the composer creates a system, which creates the music according to a set of predetermined rules. Those rules may create more or less the same music each time, or they may include aleatory elements that ensure a different musical outcome with each instantiation of the process. Composer Matt Starling (founder of the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble) created the motivic loops and the generative process that comprise Music for Nina in response to the experience of new love, and you can hear that tenderness and joy clearly as it’s manifest in both the composite parts of this piece and in the interactions between them; imagine something like Brian Eno’s Discreet Music, but denser, richer, and much more characterized by real human emotion. Starling expresses his hope that “this music born out of love might ease anxiety, aid in sleep, support meditation and generally assist those who are seeking inner peace,” but the fact is that it also offers a truly lovely attentive listening experience.


Cabaret Voltaire
Shadow of Fear
Mute
1009-2

Cabaret Voltaire
Shadow of Funk
Mute
12MUTE622

Cabaret Voltaire have been around forever–sort of. They got their start in 1973 and recorded steadily for 20 years before disbanding in 1994. Then the group was dormant for another 20 years, until it re-emerged (with founder Richard Kirk as the only remaining member–and, indeed, the only member at all) in 2014 for a performance at the Atonal festival in Berlin. Since then the releases have been spotty and strange; Shadow of Fear came out in 2020 as one entry in a four-part series of recordings that includes the Shadow of Funk EP and two long-form drone pieces, both of which will be released later this spring. What does Shadow of Fear sound like? At times it reminds me of early-1990s Wax Trax industrial music by the likes of Doubting Thomas, or maybe early Ministry: lots of sampled and found-sound vocals, lots of blocky beats rendered with what sound like primitive drum machines, lots of repetition. For those of us with fond memories of that period, this will be a happy exercise in weird nostalgia; those without those memories may find it more befuddling. The Shadow of Funk EP is three tracks of even darker, more repetitive proto-industrialism; still really fun, but maybe a bit more tiring.


Richard Hell and the Voidoids
Destiny Street Complete (2 discs)
Omnivore
OVCD-410

If you’re a Richard Hell fan–a real Richard Hell fan–then this two-disc expanded edition of his 1981 album Destiny Street will look like a treasure trove: on the first disc is the original album in its original version, alongside a new edition with only the album’s basic tracks, augmented by newly-recorded vocals and new guitar solos from Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, and Ivan Julian. Disc 2 contains another version of the album based on the original master tapes in a completely new mix, followed by an album’s worth of demos recorded between 1978 and 1980. Now, if you’re not a huge Richard Hell fan this might all seem like overkill–in which case, of course, you’re more than free to just listen to the original album. And how is that original album? Dang, it’s awesome. Frantic but tight, harsh but accessible, shouty but tuneful. Maybe not as monumental as Blank Generation, but not many albums are. This set amounts to a close dissection and reassembly of a sound that would soon come to be called “post punk,” and would open the door to some of the best pop music of the 1980s.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Ali Akbar Khan
Bear’s Sonic Journals: That Which Colors the Mind (2 discs)
Owsley Stanley Foundation
No cat. no.

Looking back, American youth culture’s infatuation with Indian classical music in the 1960s is a bit embarrassing. While some sincerely and intelligently explored the rich, ancient, and highly developed art music of Northern and Southern India, for many others it was largely treated as a soundtrack for drug use (and in the West it was often marketed that way, much to the consternation of the musicians themselves). The upside of all this, of course, is that hippies’ infatuation with Indian music created a huge market for it in the United States and England, and resulted in recordings that would likely never have been made otherwise. Consider, for example, this gorgeously recorded set of ragas performed by sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, accompanied by sitarist Indrani Bhattacharya and tabla player Zakir Hussain. Performed in 1970 at the Family Dog venue by Owsley Stanley (yes, that Owsley Stanley), the music is recorded in brilliant clarity and richness and finds Khan at the height of his powers and Hussain at the very beginning of what has since become a very illustrious career. The playing is exquisite, and this album should be considered a must-have for any library with a collecting interest in Hindustani classical music.


Teno Afrika
Amapiano Selections
Awesome Tapes from Africa
No cat. no.

This album was my introduction to amapiano, a genre of electronic dance music forged in the townships of South Africa’s Gauteng province. Although the label copy characterizes this music as “bleak and moving,” I have to say that I hear it completely differently: moving, yes, but hardly bleak. Created largely on outdated music software, the sound of amapiano is only a couple of levels up from Casiotone beats or eight-bit programming, but there’s a warmth and a loping, swinging joy to these tunes that I find endlessly uplifting. Unlike many of his colleagues, the young producer Teno Africa elected not to use vocals on this collection, the better to communicate his very personal instrumental vision, and the result is one of the most consistently enjoyable albums I’ve heard so far this year. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Various Artists
First Modern: Taarab Vibes from Mombasa & Tanga, 1970-1990
Buda Musique (dit. MVD)
860354

The tenth volume in Buda Musique’s justly celebrated Zanzibara series brings together examples of taarab, a popular music genre found extensively along the East African coast since its emergence in the 1920s. The style blends Swahili songs with Arabian-derived melodies (and occasionally Latin rhythmic patterns, interestingly enough), and in the 1970s its practitioners began to move away from traditional stringed-instrument accompaniment to amplified organs, clarinet, and other instruments. The sound was centered in Mombasa until the 1990s, when it was eclipsed by the new sounds (drum machines and big sound systems) coming from Dar-es Salaam. First Modern documents this progression with not only an exciting selection of tracks, but also extensive documentation, lyrics, and photos. For all libraries.


C Jones Meets Ale X
Kalimba Is My Telephone in Dub
Echo Beach
EB145

A three-way collaboration between the late Courtney Jones (who tragically died before the recording could be finished), Lore Grutsching, and Dubblestandart drummer Ali Tersch, Kalimba Is My Telephone in Dub is a strange and wonderful hybrid of steel pan music, thumb piano, and deep dub reggae. Tuned steel pans were invented in Trinidad, while the thumb piano (also known as a kalimba or an mbira) has been played in southern Africa for thousands of years. Lore Grutsching contributes flute to the mix, and Tersch pulls everything together in a rhythmic context that veers from instrumental hip hop to reggae to more abstract bass music structures. The whole album bounces and echoes and rumbles delightfully, with instruments and vocals shifting in and out of the mix in a dubwise style. Highly recommended.

February 2021


CLASSICAL


Franz Schubert
Music for Violin II
Ariadne Daskalakis; Paolo Giacometti
BIS (dist. Naxos)
BIS-2373

This is the second installment in a two-disc survey of Schubert’s music featuring the violin; the first included both chamber and orchestral music, and this one consists of two sonatas and a Rondo, all for violin and piano. Violinist Ariadne Daskalakis and keyboardist Paolo Giacometti have chosen to use period instruments for this recording: a gut-strung violin using the bridge and bow designs that prevailed during Schubert’s day, and an early-19th-century fortepiano. These not only allow us to hear tonalities closer to what Schubert’s audience would have heard during his lifetime, but also let us hear instruments being employed to something closer to the limits of their expressive range, which is exciting in itself. Schubert’s achingly beautiful melodies and the powerful emotional momentum of his ideas become all the more poignant in this instrumental context, and Daskalakis and Giacometti are exceptionally convincing exponents of their approach. Both volumes in this series are highly recommended to all classical collections.


Johann Philipp Krieger
12 Trio Sonatas op. 2 (2 discs)
Echo du Danube / Christian Zincke
CPO (dist. Naxos)
555 333-2

Born in Nuremberg and educated both there and in Copenhagen, Johann Philipp Krieger was nevertheless most obviously influenced by the Italian style; he spent important years of his career in Venice and Rome, and you can hear those years refracted through this set of twelve trio sonatas. In the unusual instrumentation chosen by Christian Zincke and his Echo du Danube ensemble, you also see reflected the performance practices of 17th-century Italy and Germany, practices that aren’t usually typically followed today even among period-instrument groups. In addition to the violin, viola da gamba, organ, and harpsichord one would expect, and the theorbed lute that comes as no surprise, the continuo also includes a triple harp and a psaltery (hammered dulcimer). These bring an unexpected texture to the proceedings and add to the impressive array of timbral colors on display, making these delightful trio sonatas all the more enjoyable. Brilliant playing of neglected music by an underappreciated composer: always a winning combination, especially for library collections.


JAZZ


Henry Robinett Quartet
Then Again: Jazz Standards Volume 2
Nefertiti
N121620

In last year’s May issue, the first volume in this series of standards recordings was one of my Rick’s Picks. Like that volume, the second one draws on tapes made in the early 1990s when guitarist Robinett got together with several close friends to spend a few hours playing through classic jazz tunes like “Milestones,” “It Could Happen to You,” and “On the Street Where You Live.” The resulting tapes were then put aside and largely forgotten until Robinett happened across them and listened to them again, at which point he decided they needed to be heard more broadly. He was entirely right: the four musicians play as if they’d been rehearsing for weeks, delivering these familiar tunes with impressive tightness and communication; Robinett leads with confidence, playing in a mellow-toned but assured style and adeptly negotiating the harmonic space he shares with pianist Joe Gilman. If your collection already holds the first volume, then this one is an essential complement to it. And if it doesn’t, then buy both of them.


Yoko Miwa Trio
Songs of Joy
Ubuntu Music
UBU0057

A new album by pianist and composer Yoko Miwa is always an exciting event. I’ve been following her career with great interest since I first heard her 20 or so years ago, and over time I’ve been impressed by a deepening lushness in her music; her writing (which was outstanding from the beginning) has become more complex and her approach to chord voicings has gotten denser and richer–all without ever giving up any sense of nimbleness and swing. The first track on Songs of Joy is a cover of the Richie Havens song “Freedom,” and it throws down a bit of a gauntlet: Miwa plays big, heavy chords while bassist Will Slater and drummer Scott Goulding play freely around her, and then they segue into… a drum solo. This is not how you open your typical straight-ahead jazz album. Miwa’s own “Largo Desolato” is something of a head fake, a swinging mid tempo number that conveys anything but desolation, though her ballad “The Lonely Hours” communicates the melancholy of its title in a beautiful way. The track I keep coming back to is her take on the Thelonious Monk standard “Think of One,” which she deconstructs and makes her own to an impressive extent. This album is yet another triumph from one of America’s finest jazz pianists, composers, and bandleaders.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Ian Fisher
American Standards
Self-released
IAN-CD-0021

Originally from Missouri but currently based in Europe, singer-songwriter Ian Fisher looks at his home country through a somewhat different lens than that of the majority of his Americana/nu-country peers. Sometimes accompanying his reedy voice with just fingerpicked guitar, and sometimes couched in expansive full-band arrangements, Fisher breaks away from the much more countrified sound that has typified his earlier recordings. And while his singing sometimes comes across as a bit of a cross between Bob Dylan and Paul Kelly (the one from Australia, not the “Stealing in the Name of the Lord” singer), his songwriting perspective is very much his own. Contrast the lyrics of “Be Thankful” with those of “AAA Station”; contrast the arrangement on “In Front of Another” with that on “Three Chords & the Truth”–not to mention the folk-rocking “It Ain’t Me.” Very nice stuff.


Phil Leadbetter and the All Stars of Bluegrass
Swing for the Fences
Pinecastle (dist. MVD)
PRC1240

There was a time when virtuosic bluegrass bands were known for their “high lonesome” sound: sharp, intense vocals and headlong tempos. Today the best bands in the business tend to sound smoother and to favor more moderate speeds; some of this new smoothness is down to improved production, but some of it is the result of genuine stylistic evolution. Resonator guitarist Phil Leadbetter and his band (each member of which is a decorated bluegrass veteran, as its name implies) exemplify the new sound of straight-ahead bluegrass, playing with supernal tightness and singing in harmonies that never waver; but that doesn’t mean their sound is soft, exactly, or by any means “progressive.” Songs like “I’m Gonne Make It After All” and the gospel raveup “Ready and Waiting” are good old-fashioned bluegrass of the meat and potatoes variety, and the “can’t go home again” ballad “I Wanna Go Home” is about as standard as bluegrass can be. The band sounds fantastic and is very well recorded, and every track is a pleasure.


ROCK/POP


The Bug feat. Dis Fig
In Blue
Hyperdub (dist. Redeye)
CD-HDB-055

January of 2021 has given all of us more than the usual complement of reasons to be grumpy and maybe even to harbor dystopian thoughts. My two Rock/Pop entries for February reflect that mood. The first is from Kevin Martin, dba The Bug, whose latest album finds him sinking deeper and deeper into the murk of dubstep-inflected grime and what I can only call post-avant-dancehall. This time out he’s accompanied on his excursion by singer Dis Fig (alias Felicia Chen), whose quiet and breathy vocals contrast nicely with The Bug’s dark and heavy sonics. The instrumental tracks used here are based on ideas he created for a set on the Solid Steel online radio show, and the music that these two create together is different from anything The Bug has done before while representing an entirely logical progression. If your patrons have responded well to the work of King Midas Sound, Scorn, and maybe the Lori Carson-era Golden Palominos, then definitely put this one in front of them.


Chrizpy Chriz
Warp Crawler (digital & vinyl only)
YUKU
No cat. no.

Here’s the entirety of the information that came with my promo download of this album: “This is a true representation of what I crave as an artist. My intention is to invite you to explore the unknown, hear the unheard, and feel the unfelt. At some point art begins to create itself, this is how it works for me. The creation of this album was less of a choice and more of a subconscious action that led to result. These are my surroundings, feelings, and visions in a body of work.Influenced by an enveloping darkness, distortion, and warped reality. A special thank you to my biggest inspiration—my grandpa.” So what’s the music like? In two words, dark and intense. “Intoxicated” and “Trauma” border on Squarepusher-style drill’n’bass, without quite the same relentlessness of attack. Elsewhere there are hints of Muslimgauze in the squidgy and repetitive beats, and generally speaking there’s a pervasive sense of funky claustrophobia. That may not be the most inviting description, but trust me–this music is well worth hearing.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Fadia Tomb el-Hage; Fragments Ensemble; Beirut Oriental Ensemble
Masārāt: Fadia Tomb el-Hage Sings Lebanese Authors and Composers (2 discs)
Orlando (dist. MVD)
or 0042

This disc could just as easily have gone into the Classical section, since the music is very much in the art music rather than the regional or ethnic folk music tradition. But these songs for contralto and various chamber ensembles are so deeply imbued with Lebanese influence that this release seems to fit better here. Most of the songs are written in Arabic, with a smattering of English, German, and French (Lebanon’s other official language). For the most part these are compositions from the past 20 years; some are written for voice with European instruments, but other arrangements include the oud, qanun, and various regional percussion instruments. Melodies are sometimes lyrical and Romantic, and at other times fly off into thrilling Middle Eastern melismas, all sometimes within the course of a single song. Tomb al-Hage’s voice is rich, sweet, and powerful, and her singing is marvelously subtle and flexible. This is a magnificent recording.


Double Tiger
The Journey (digital only)
Easy Star
No cat. no.

This is the second solo album from Jay Spaker, a.k.a. Double Tiger, familiar to fans of modern roots reggae as a guitarist and vocalist with the outstanding John Brown’s Body. His debut Sharp & Ready hit hard in 2017, and this one is even better: more than just about anyone else, Spaker has figured out how to blend seamlessly the sounds of vintage roots and dancehall reggae with modern soul and R&B flavors, as evidenced in particular on the swinging “Rub a Dub Party,” and the guest turns by such eminences as Elliot Martin (of John Brown’s Body), Suckarie (of New Kingston), and the legendary Ranking Joe bring additional stylistic diversity to his sound. The production is dense and swirling but sharp around the edges. Highly recommended.

January 2021


CLASSICAL


Various Composers
Here I Stand
iSing
Innova
058

iSing is a choir founded in the Silicon Valley area in 2013; it consists of roughly 300 girls and young women, ages 5 to 18. Over the years the group has gone from being local favorites to winning international choral competitions, and this is their first album. Its twelve tracks include five pieces commissioned for the group, some of which deal explicitly with difficult social and political topics including gun violence (Daniel Elder’s 365) and the Holocaust (Adam Schoenberg’s Never Shall I Forget). Others are devotional or celebrational in nature, and all showcase the group’s truly remarkable blend; I’m not sure I’ve ever heard so many voices sound so fully unified in timbre and tone. For me, the highlight track is the opening piece: Only in Sleep, by Ēriks Ešenvalds, an utterly gorgeous work that features a remarkable solo by soprano Mia Hamilton. But there’s not a weak piece or a shaky performance anywhere on this lovely album.


Johannes Brahms
Clarinet Sonatas
András Schiff; Jörg Widmann
ECM

I know, I know, I keep coming back to these pieces. But the combination of Brahms (master of the achingly lovely Romantic melody) and the clarinet (the soft, round tone of which is so perfectly suited to Brahms) is just so ideal that whenever a new release comes out that puts the two together it’s almost impossible not to recommend it. As long, that is, as the performances are up to snuff, and of course in this case they are: clarinetist Jorg Widmann and legendary pianist András Schiff not only perfectly complement each other, but they also have what feels like a deep spiritual affinity for this music. And while I know, I know, not everyone is a big fan of Manfred Eicher’s signature production style, I would strongly recommend that everyone give this release a listen–never has his sense of acoustic space been so tastefully and appropriately applied. This is an utterly gorgeous album and belongs in all library collections.


JAZZ


Guillaume Nouaux & the Stride Piano Kings
Guillaume Nouaux & the Stride Piano Kings
Self-released
GN2020

Chris Hopkins Meets the Jazz Kangaroos
Live! Vol. 1
Echoes of Swing Productions
EOSP 4512 2

Here are two outstanding and completely unapologetic celebrations of traditional (i.e. early swing, pre-bebop) jazz, both of them coming at it from a slightly different angle. What I find so impressive about Guillaume Nouaux’s album is that while he’s a drummer himself, the whole point of his project is to put the focus on the featured pianists, all of whom are masters of the stride style. These include Bernd Lhotzky, Rossano Sportiello (one of the mainstays of the great Arbors Jazz label), and the magnificent Chris Hopkins. Nouaux is a genius drummer, but he keeps himself very much in a supporting role on this excellent album. Hopkins himself is the leader on the second album under consideration here, another trad-jazz celebration with an unusual lineup: Hopkins on piano, guitarist David Blenkhorn, bassist Mark Elton, and violinist/singer George Washingmachine. Here the flavor is more European, with the violin evoking the spirit of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grapelli’s Hot Club de France recordings from the ’30s (though in a somewhat more relaxed and decorous style). Both discs are highly recommended to all jazz collections.


Various Artists
Early Hot Jazz & Ragtime from Pianola Rolls, 78s and Phonographic Cylinders
Saydisc (dist. Naxos)
CDSDL451

Subtitled “Rags, Cakewalks, Shuffles, Trots and Frolics from the Earliest Days of Ragtime and Jazz,” this collection draws on some of the earliest commercial recordings made: phonograph cylinders–one from 1898–and shellac 78s of course, but also piano rolls and, in one case, a music box. The music is by artists all but forgotten today: Europe’s Society Orchestra, Six Brown Brothers (a saxophone sextet), James “Slap Rags” White, and even Fred Van Eps–a legendary banjo player and banjo maker, and the father of jazz guitar great George Van Eps. (The banjo is a prominent voice on these recordings, reflecting the turn-of-the-century popularity of that instrument.) As one might expect, the sound quality varies from fair to terrible, but hearing the spirit and joy of the music through the surface noise is all part of the fun. And as a research source, this disc is a treasure trove.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Rachel Brooke
The Loneliness in Me (digital & vinyl only)
Mal
MAL004

If you’ve been longing for the old days of country music–and by “old days” I don’t mean the really old, Appalachian-Mountain days, but rather the heyday of classic Nashville honky-tonk–then there’s a small but influential cohort of youngsters out there who seem determined to bring them back. One of them is Rachel Brooke, a very fine singer-songwriter with a sweet but sharp-edged voice that explicitly harks back to the sounds of Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn–though I find that her worldly-wise delivery reminds me even more of Patsy Cline. This all-originals program sounds like it could have been written and recorded in the 1950s, complete with slightly heavy-handed echo and choral backing. Occasional fiddle and pervasive steel guitar complete the sound, and Brooke’s lyrics are simultaneously timeless and slyly modern. This is the kind of album that could have been killed by winking irony, and gratefully there’s none of that here: Brooke is all in, and that invites us in as well.


Wes Corbett
Cascade
Padiddle
No cat. no.

If you’re a banjo player and your album comes with a paragraph-length endorsement from Noam Pikelny, then you know you’ve made it. Of course, having “made it” as a banjo player doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone outside of acoustic-music circles has heard of you, but that’s because we live in a fallen world and there’s not much you can do about that. In any case, fans of what used to be called New Acoustic Music (bluegrass instrumentation, jazz chord changes) will love this leader debut by the brilliant banjo player and composer Wes Corbett. Like most of his like-minded colleagues, he’s a master of both hard-driving Scruggs-style picking and the more elaborate and decorous “melodic” style pioneered by Tony Trischka and Bill Keith and further developed by Béla Fleck and Pikelny. His writing reflects his roots but also expands on them significantly, and for this album he’s surrounded himself with similarly gifted virtuosos including mandolinist Sierra Hull, guitarist/producer Chris Eldridge (Punch Brothers), and fiddler Alex Hargreaves. There’s not a weak track on this wonderful album.


ROCK/POP


Various Artists
415 Records: Still Disturbing the Peace
Liberation Hall (dist. MVD)
LIB-5025

When punk rock was exploding as a pop-culture phenomenon and upending the dynamics of rock music as we understood it, the major “scenes” were London (the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Damned) and New York (the Ramones, the Heartbreakers, the Voidoids). Eventually a very different scene evolved in Los Angeles–this one drew on elements of country (X) and Latinx traditions (the Plugz), and after that it was Katy bar the door: punk came to Boston, Washington DC, San Francisco, and pretty much every other major urban center in the US. The Bay Area’s scene has, for some reason, never garnered as much attention as L.A.’s, even though it was arguably more fertile. The revival of the 415 label (named for San Francisco’s area code and also for the police code for “disturbing the peace”) aims to rectify that oversight, and those interested should start with this generous compilation of vintage recordings from the punk and new-wave years by bands you may have heard of (Pop-O-Pies, Red Rockers) and some you almost certainly haven’t (VKTMS, Baby Buddha). There are moments of charming amateurism but also some startlingly accomplished and advanced performances in styles that range from hard-edged punk to clicky power-pop and even some ska and an avant-garde synth-punk rendition of “Stand By Your Man.” This collection would make a great choice for any library with a collecting interest in the history of pop music.


Ólafur Arnalds
Some Kind of Peace
Mercury KX
0734831

Ólafur Arnalds is what can only be called a Renaissance man in contemporary music: heavy metal drummer, experimental techno producer, and modern-classical composer, he’s created music across an incredibly wide spectrum of styles over the course of his career despite being only 34 years old. His latest album is (as its title suggests) a soft and reassuring collection of primarily instrumental tracks that blanket the listener in a warm layer of light but rich sonics; pianos and strings and samples and what sound like found sounds are blended into music that is never challenging but also never really simple. The two vocal tracks (“Back to the Sky,” featuring JFDR and “The Bottom Line” featuring Josin) are both gently driven by beats, but they’re certainly decorous ones and the real hooks are the atmospherics. Although at under 40 minutes it’s a bit on the short side, particularly for this type of music, this is nevertheless a gorgeous and highly recommended album.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Various Artists
Puffer’s Choice Vol. 3 (digital & vinyl only)
Scotch Bonnet
SCOBLP013

Glasgow’s Scotch Bonnet continues to be one of the most exciting labels in the UK, consistently producing outstanding releases in the reggae, dancehall, UK bass and drum’n’bass genres, all of them founded on the verities of deep roots-and-culture reggae music. One of the things that makes the label so fun is that it offers frequent nods to its local culture; for example, on this, the third compilation in the Puffer’s Choice series, Mungo’s Hi Fi and Cian Finn collaborate on a track that sets the traditional Scottish song “Wild Mountain Thyme” to the rhythm track originally used for Jacob Miller’s “Baby I Love You So” (the dub version of which is internationally famous as “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown”). Not all of this music actually comes from the Scotch Bonnet stable (Jeb Loy Nichols’ “To Be Rich [Should Be a Crime”]” is an On-U Sound production) and not all of it comes from Glasgow, or even from the UK: New Zealand’s Flying Fox brings a dark and deep dubstep track, and Sweden’s Viktorious rescue a long-lost Earl Cunningham track from an old sound system cassette and give it a shiny dancehall update. But this one, like the previous volumes, is truly all killer and no filler.


Brooklyn Raga Massive
In D (currently digital only; a CD version is reportedly planned)
Self-released
No cat. no.

Brooklyn Raga Massive is a musician’s collective dedicated to building on the traditions of classical Indian and Pakistani music, which itself is built on melodic patterns called ragas. They perform and record regularly and participate in educational programs, and some of their releases have been quite unusual. One was a rendition of minimalist composer Terry Riley’s classic composition In C, which they enjoyed doing so much that they asked Riley to write a new piece for them. For a variety of reasons that project never came to fruition, but the group ended up working on an original composition in Riley’s style (and with his encouragement). The result, In D, is very much a logical next step: like its predecessor it stays within the confines of a single chord throughout its length, but shifts and transforms and develops over the course of three sections and 47 minutes. Voices and bansuris and tablas and sitars and tamburas and many other instruments fade in and out at various times, and the overall effect is that of a tremendously large musical carpet woven out of hundreds of colors. Brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable.

December 2020


CLASSICAL


Various Composers
Soundspaces
Sascha Armbruster; Johannes Schwarz; Sebastian Schottke
Orlando (dist. MVD)
OR0028

Various Composers
In Lights Starkly Different
Drew Whiting
Innova (dist. Naxos)
032

For their eponymous album, the duo soundspaces (saxophonist Sascha Armbruster and bassoonist Johannes Schwarz) commissioned works by Steingrimur Rohloff, Orm Finnendahl, Alfred Zimmerlin, and Sascha Dragicevic; in between each piece is an improvised interlude by synthesist Paul Frick. All of the pieces require Armbruster and Schwarz to interact with software and electronics, and the sounds they create are shaped further by sound designer Sebastian Schottke. Some of the music, as one would expect, is highly abstract and even pointillistic; some pieces (notably Finnendahl’s Hören und sehen) are virtuosic and thrilling. Everything here is well worth hearing. Saxophonist Drew Whiting’s solo album In Light Starkly Different also consists of commissioned works for saxophone and electronics, most of which are a bit more immediately accessible than the more challenging pieces on the soundspaces album. Random Access, by John Mayrose, uses digital delay and recall to create lovely counterpoint, for example, and Jeff Herriott’s As brightness is smeared into memory is an achingly lovely contemplation of the joy and melancholy a parent experiences as his child grows up. A gorgeous album all around, even in its occasional spikier moments.


Josquin Desprez
Masses: Hercules dux Ferrarie; D’ung aultre amer; Faysant regretz
The Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips
Gimell (dist. PIAS)
CDGIM051

This is the final installment in the Tallis Scholars’ magisterial nine-volume series of Josquin Mass recordings, which was begun in 1986. It does what this ensemble, the foremost exponent of the Oxbridge sound, does best: shine a burnished and colorful light on the choral work of one of the truly great, but until recently thoroughly neglected, composers of European history. The three Masses showcased on this release are all from Josquin’s middle period. One is a tribute Mass written in honor of his patron Ercole I d’Este of Ferrara, who was notorious for loving the sound of his own name being sung by a choir; accordingly, Josquin transmuted the Duke’s name into a melodic passage and repeated it endlessly, while also surrounding it with exquisite variations and counterpoint. The other two are parody Masses, one of which is somewhat startling in its brevity but which also forms a deeply heartfelt tribute to his stylistic idol, Johannes Ockeghem. The only disappointment posed by this album is the fact that we’ll never hear a new Josquin Mass recording from The Tallis Scholars.


JAZZ


Ella Fitzgerald
Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes
Verve
B0032590-02

Ella Fitzgerald, arguably the best jazz singer in history, had a moment in 1960 that defined so much about what made her great. She was singing “Mack the Knife” in front of an audience in Berlin, and after the second verse she forgot the words. An amateur might have stopped and tried again. Ella was a professional, and she persevered, improvising new lyrics as she went. But she was more than just a professional; she was also humble, witty, intelligent, and genuinely sweet–so the lyrics she improvised were funny and self-deprecating, and her audience went wild; the recording of that concert won two Grammys and her performance of “Mack the Knife” in particular became a monument to Ella’s brilliance. Two years later she was back in Berlin for another show, and this one was recorded too–though the tapes were squirreled away and weren’t discovered again (still in their unopened box) until recently. Surprisingly, the concert had been recorded in both mono and stereo, and the tapes were still in great shape, which means that we now have a pristine-sounding live recording of one of America’s greatest musicians at the absolute top of her game. And yes, she does “Mack the Knife” again, and the audience goes wild again, and she kills it. This one is a must for all libraries.


Ikue Mori; Satoko Fujii; Natsuka Tamura
Prickly Pear Cactus (digital only)
Libra
203-062

Is it jazz? Yeah, I don’t know. Don’t really care that much, either. It’s new music from both the legendary percussionist Ikue Mori (DNA, Death Ambient) and the always-brilliant pianist Satoko Fujii, along with trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, with whom I wasn’t previously familiar. Mori doesn’t play drums this time; instead, she took piano recordings sent to her by Fujii and “played along with” them using her laptop; later, Fujii’s partner Tamura added trumpet parts to several tracks. What does the result sound like? Nothing you’ve heard before: crazy squeals and squeaks and howls flutter around Fujii’s virtuosic piano work (think of Allen Ravenstine’s synthesizer work on the early Pere Ubu albums), and you can be forgiven if you don’t recognize Tamura in the mix very much at all–his parts have apparently been folded, spindled, and mutilated beyond easy recognition. The result? A bracing, occasionally lyrical, and often surprising smorgasbord of sounds that is always challenging but also always rewarding.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Scroggins & Rose
Curios
Fresh Grass
YPS-CD-020

The mandolin and the fiddle are natural companions; they’re tuned to the same pitches and at the same register, which means that tunes played on the two instruments will sound in unison. But the playing techniques and instrumental timbres are radically different, which makes their blend very interesting. And both are traditionally thought of as bluegrass instruments, which means that when a couple of young virtuosos take a non-bluegrass approach and focus on original compositions the result can be highly refreshing (think back to how startling and fun the early David Grisman Quintet albums were, back in the 1970s). Mandolinist Tristan Scroggins and fiddler Alisa Rose follow in a long tradition of doing new and innovative things within the sonic context of traditional music, and this collection of original tunes is a joy; they play complex compositions with sophistication and intelligence (note in particular the stylistically eclectic “I Can Find a Way to Fix It”) but also with humor (“Anxiety Jig”) and joy. This is borderline art music presented in a neo-trad style, and it’s very impressive on every level.


Deborah Silver
Glitter & Grits
NTL
No cat. no.

American music has always been a kaleidoscope of incredibly diverse styles, genres, and fusions, and Western swing has always been one of the best things to emerge from that welter of musical influences. Taking the rhythms of hot jazz and blending them with Texas fiddle tunes and cowboy songs, Western swing became one of America’s most distinctive musical innovations. It emerged at around the same time that the repertoire known as the “American Songbook” was solidifying in the national consciousness, which makes Deborah Silver’s new album particular apt: on it she’s backed up by Asleep at the Wheel, the foremost living exponents of Western swing tradition, as she sings such standards as “I Got Rhythm,” “Ballin’ the Jack,” and “Embraceable You.” Her singing style is equal parts jazz club and Broadway stage, while the band’s pitch-perfect arrangements and impeccable sense of swing, honed over a 50-year career, create a solid but nimble foundation for her vocals. This is a joyful and engaging album, just what we need at the end of an exhausting year.


ROCK/POP


Paàl
Soothing Songs for a Cultured Affair (EP; vinyl/digital only)
Midnight Shift
No cat. no.

Machinecode
Every Ones & Nothings (vinyl/digital only)
YUKU
007

German producer (and Voitax label head) Paàl has come up with an all-too-brief solo debut that is filled with juddering lows, broken yet powerful beats, and recurring hints of celestial melody. Don’t be fooled by the title, which is clearly intended ironically; these sounds are dark and heavy, but they’re also nimble and at certain points genuinely fun. You’ll hear hints of trap and jungle, but nothing that fits cleanly into those categories; you’ll also hear occasional shreds of what sound like (though may not be) human voices, but nothing that comes close to “singing.” And you’ll hear lots of fascinating tiny details in amongst the heavy beats and dark atmospheres. What you won’t hear is anything boring. From the duo of Current Value and Dean Rodell (doing business as Machinecode) comes an even more brain-jarring collection of new tunes that veer unpredictably in and out of drum’n’bass, techno, halftime, UK bass, and ambient territories. Here the vibe is pretty unremittingly intense, but I mean that in a good way. Play Every Ones & Nothings through high-quality headphones or on speakers with highly capable woofers and prepare to be thrown around like a happy rag doll. Highlights include the menacingly dubwise “King Trigger” and the seasick-robot groove of “Moksha.” Both releases are highly recommended.


Tapes and Topographies
Inoculations
Dronarivm
DR-71

For a real sonic about-face from the sturdy beats of Paàl and the bass-heavy aggression of Machinecode, consider the latest from the Russian dark-ambient label Dronarivm, which has built a very fine track record of releases from the dronier end of the ambient spectrum. The latest by Todd Gauthreaux (a.k.a. Tapes and Topographies), though, is somewhat unusual in its emotional complexity. Billed as “Contemplative melodies of sorrow and light; comforting gifts of hope,” this is music that constantly walks a tightrope between moods of foreboding and subtle uplift. In addition to the expected synth washes, there are touches of what sound like bowed vibraphone, genuine orchestra strings, and plaintive horns, as well as scritches and pops that give certain tracks the vibe of a long-lost and deeply-manipulated field recording. If you’re interested in ambient music but don’t expect it to be worth your while, this is an album that could well turn your head around.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Liraz
Zan
Glitterbeat (dist. Forced Exposure)
GBCD 101

Liraz comes from a family of Iranian Jews who moved to Tel Aviv in the 1970s. Her music is equally rooted in electro pop, Middle Eastern sonorities, and committed feminism, and on her second album she takes her political audacity a step further by collaborating with Iranian musicians. This was literally (not musically) dangerous–the project had to be conducted in secret in order to avoid the notice of Iran’s mullahs and secret police–but the result is thrilling. Liraz sings entirely in Farsi, the language that she feels connects her both to her heritage and to her future; the music is a colorful patchwork of triple-meter Persian melodies, computer beats, traditional instruments, and soaring vocals, and on every song her passion seems to be barely contained by the musical structure. On Zan Liraz is singing explicitly because of and for the women of her family, and even if you can’t understand the words you can definitely feel the spirit of her intent. Highly recommended.


Jahdan Blakkamoore
Upward Spiral Deluxe (digital)
Lustre Kings
LKCD2020-5

If you haven’t heard of Jahdan Blakkamoore, it may be because he’s spent more of his career as a writer and producer (working with such eminences as Snoop Dogg, Diplo, and Major Lazer) than as a frontman. His only solo album prior to Upward Spiral was 2010’s outstanding Babylon Nightmare, though he has been a featured performer on others’ work in the meantime as well as a force behind the scenes. Upward Spiral Deluxe is, as its title suggests, the “deluxe” version of the original album, which was released in France earlier this year. Stylistically, it ranges from hip hop to roots reggae to trap to dancehall, all of it mixed with a rich, deep, and bass-heavy sound; Blakkamoore’s vocals and songwriting are a delight throughout. This new version of the album adds five new tracks, mainly remixes, and it’s at least theoretically available in a limited-edition two-disc CD version as well as digitally–though I haven’t been able to find it anywhere. Highly recommended to all collections.

November 2020


CLASSICAL


John Luther Adams
Lines Made by Walking
JACK Quartet
Cold Blue Music (dist. Naxos)
CB0058

I’ve been following the work of John Luther Adams for some time now, often finding it irresistible and occasionally finding that it leaves me a bit cold. These two works for string quartet – Lines Made by Walking and untouched – definitely fall into the former category. As always, the music is informed by Adams’ love for nature, and in particular for nature’s huge and deceptively empty-looking expanses: oceans, deserts, tundras, etc. The inspiration for the title piece, which is built on tempo canons, came while he was walking the deserts of Mexico and the canyons of Montana. The music seems to fall continuously upwards as single melodic lines are superimposed on themselves at different speeds; the effect is difficult to describe, in that it’s simultaneously soothing and tension-inducing. With untouched, the title derives from the fact that all notes are played using harmonics, which means that the players’ fingers never touch the fingerboards of their instruments but instead rest lightly on the strings while they bow, a technique that isolates harmonic partials and creates an otherworldly, ethereal sound. All of this music is exquisitely beautiful, and the JACK Quartet’s longstanding relationship with Adams is fully demonstrated by its performance. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Johann Sebastian Bach / Józef Koffler
Goldberg Variations Arranged for Small Orchestra
Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble / Pinnock
LINN (dist. Naxos)
CKD 609

Józef Koffler was doomed. As a gifted composer and champion of the Vienna school (Schoenberg, Webern, etc.) and the European avant-garde, he had a target on his back from the moment Stalin came to power. And as a Jew living in Poland at the time of Hitler’s invasion, he spent years on the run before being arrested and executed by the Gestapo in 1944. So this recording of his remarkable chamber-orchestra arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is a bittersweet event, one that reminds us of the all-too-brief career of a remarkable musical talent, a career made artificially briefer by the fact that he destroyed many of his early works in response to pressure from the Soviet government, and was severely constrained in his musical activities during the few years he survived under Hitler. The source material for this music is, of course, one of the towering monuments of the keyboard repertoire, the Mount Everest that looms on the horizon for all serious pianists. Arranging this theme with its 30 variations for the multifarious voices of a chamber orchestra (one that includes not only strings but also flute, oboe, English horn, and bassoon) creates opportunities and challenges that few composers could have tackled as creatively and pleasingly as Koffler did; Bach’s celebrated voice-writing is made clearer and more colorful by the distribution of lines to instruments with widely different sonorities, and Koffler’s distinctively mid-century style adds another dimension of new color to what are otherwise very familiar melodic passages. To play this arrangement on baroque instruments would have been absurd and would have sounded bizarre; Trevor Pinnock leads a young modern-instrument ensemble here, and the sound is magnificent.


JAZZ


Rina
Rina (digital only)
Yamaha Music
YCCS-10089

2018 was a big year for Rina (the only name she reveals on the album and press materials, though I believe her last name is Yamazaki): during that year she took second place in the 2018 Ellis Marsalis International Jazz Piano Competition, was nominated as “Jazz Artist of the Year” by the Boston Music Awards, and graduated from the Berklee School of Music. So it’s no surprise that she’s a world-class pianist. But what’s startling is the maturity of her writing and bandleading, given her youth and where she is in her career. Her debut album consists entirely of original compositions, and the program is bookended by tremendously intelligent and winning solo pieces. In between them she leads a powerfully swinging trio that includes bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Jerome Jennings, and the trio numbers are complex, beautiful, and filled with equal parts joy and contemplation. Highlights are difficult to identify on an album this consistently fine, but I was especially impressed by playful “J.J.’s Painting,” written as a showcase for Jenning’s exceptional brush playing.


Fred Hersch
Songs from Home
Palmetto
PM2197

The great pianist and composer Fred Hersch was one of the first to take advantage of the opportunities created by the COVID crisis, instituting a “Tune of the Day” broadcast via Facebook. His experience doing so led him to create a new album of solo piano music, one specifically intended to soothe and comfort. Hersch being Hersch, though, that didn’t mean that the music would be merely simple or without depth. Instead, he takes a set of mostly familiar tunes and gives them the full benefit of his deep and wide-ranging musical intelligence: note, for example, that “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “Wichita Lineman” are quiet and achingly sad, while “After You’ve Gone” is played in a self-consciously archaic style—not just its stride structure, but also in the way he ends phrases, strongly evoking the early-jazz period it represents. “All I Want” is his take on a Joni Mitchell classic, played with love and care. “The Water Is Wide” is one of those traditional melodies, like “Shenandoah,” that seems to offer endless depth to an improviser with the right brain. Hand it to someone like, say, Bill Frisell, and you’ll see magic happen. Same is true of Fred Hersch. By contrast, his own “Sarabande” is a composition that ranges far and wide, both harmonically and melodically. Ellington’s “Solitude” is perhaps the most obvious selection here, and is delivered with deep introspection and insight. (Hersch’s gently jaunty take on “When I’m Sixty-Four” is also wryly timely, given that he just celebrated his 65th birthday.) For all jazz collections.


FOLK/COUNTRY


Suzzy Roche & Lucy Wainwright Roche
I Can Still Hear You
Storysound
161-037

The passing of Maggie Roche in 2017 brought to a sad end one of the most unusual and interesting folk-pop ensembles of the 1970s and 1980s–The Roches, whose intricate harmonies and eerily reedy voices were instantly recognizable. But the sweet and tender weirdness of the Roches lives on, and on this lovely album by Suzzy Roche and her daughter Lucy, the sweet and tender Roche genetics easily overpower the edgier (and, frankly, sometimes nasty) weirdness of Loudon Wainwright, who is Lucy’s father and whose DNA therefore also threads its way through this set of original songs, covers, and one trad number. Suzzy and Lucy’s voices blend together like oil and lemon juice, and they’re helped out instrumentally by sidepersons that include Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls. Suzzy’s “Little” is whimsical and lovely, while her “Ruins” is tender but disturbing. Lucy’s “Get the Better” is simply gorgeous, and the duo’s version of the Joe Raposo classic “Bein’ Green” accomplishes that rarest of tasks: casting new light on a song so familiar that it’s practically become part of our cultural wallpaper. Recommended.


SUSS
Promise (digital & vinyl only)
Northern Spy
NS134

The members of SUSS characterize their music as “pastoral psychedelicism”; personally, I’d call it “ambient country.” The music is strictly instrumental, with lots of floating steel guitar chords, twangy guitar lines that unfurl slowly and echo off into the distance, and a deep sense of melancholy with a small but glistening thread of hope running through it. Listeners won’t be surprised to learn that this album was recorded during the COVID quarantine, and those who are familiar with the group’s earlier work may notice a slight difference in flavor, but the basic recipe remains very much the same. Years ago Brian Eno and his brother Roger put together an ambient soundtrack album for an Apollo moon mission; Promise is a bit like that, but with its feet firmly on planet earth and with some dust on its boots.


ROCK/POP


Asian Dub Foundation
Access Denied
X-Ray Productions
XRPCD2003

Asian Dub Foundation came roaring out of the Asian Underground scene of the early 1990s with a completely unique sound that blended elements of punk rock, metal, bhangra, jungle, and dub with an absolutely fierce political agenda. At the time the group was fronted by Deeder Zaman (aka Master D), who was in his mid-teens and one of the most gifted lyricists in London. After 22 years and countless listens, the band’s U.S. debut Rafi’s Revenge remains one of the most exciting albums I’ve ever heard. Zaman departed the group in 2000 and since then ADF’s sound has become bigger, tighter, and maybe a bit less unique, but every new release is still a blast of fresh and bracing air. On Access Denied more tracks are instrumentals than before, and some feature singing by Ana Tijoux, beatboxing from Dub FX, and spoken-word samples from the likes of Greta Thunberg and political comedian Stewart Lee. None of these songs break much new ground, but all are a blast.


Victor Wainwright and the Train
Memphis Loud
Ruf
RUF 1280

As befits his band’s name and the image on the cover, Victor Wainwright’s latest album opens with a song that sounds like a massive steam-powered train chugging down the track. But then he swings into the funky, horn-driven “Walk the Walk,” a track that evokes New Orleans as much as it does Memphis, and then into the title track, which is basically a hardcore boogie-woogie workout that brings trains back into the lyrical picture. And it expresses the album’s overarching theme, which is “The train’s comin’ through your town/Everyone’s allowed.” That joyful exuberance is what this whole program is about, even when the mood is a bit quieter (as it is on the moaning “Sing” and the contemplative “Disappear”). My only criticism of this album has to do with its production: while the almost complete lack of high end was probably a deliberate choice (the better to communicate dark, muddy power), it will probably have most listeners checking to see if something’s wrong with their stereos. Highly recommended overall.


WORLD/ETHNIC


Kuljit Bhamra
Essence of Raga Tala
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)
EUCD2920

Indian music has been interacting with Western classical and pop traditions for decades now–all too often in ways that simplify or water down the essential ingredients that make India’s classical music so interesting and unique. With his latest album, however, composer and tabla virtuoso Kuljit Bhamra demonstrates new ways that East and West can interact musically, and that Indian traditions can be expanded, without any such dilution. Essence of Raga Tala finds Bhamra working primarily with Indian musicians, but also with British guitarist Jack Jennings, and using primarily traditional Indian instruments, but also a synthesizer, a cello, and a unique multi-tabla set that allows him to play clearly defined raga melodies using only percussion. Interestingly, he uses the synthesizer not to create soothing atmospherics, but rather as a single-line melody instrument, which creates a very distinctive sound. His tuned tablas also allow him to build melodies in ways not previously heard, and throughout the album he works with a variety of vocalists as well. I listen to a lot of classical Indian music, and I’ve never heard anything like this album.


Berise
Take Me As I Am (vinyl & digital only)
Self-released
No cat. no.

Innavibe
Le sens
Dub Akom (dist. Baco)
3760248832838

Here are two very fine modern roots reggae albums, both coming from rather unlikely locations. Berise is the founder and frontman of the Italian band Shanti Powa. He sings entirely in English, often lapsing into surprisingly convincing Jamaican patois, and on his solo debut he has teamed up with the exceptional Scottish producer Escape Roots. This guarantees that the grooves will be extra heavy, with strong threads of dubstep and trap running through the mixes; on tracks like “Magic Tricks” and “Roadblock” the bass booms mightily beneath a crisp high end while Cerise’s voice glides richly through the midrange. The songs are well written and hooky, the remixes are slamming, and all in all this album offers a wonderful balance of roots reggae tradition and modern sonics. Innavibe comes from a slightly different direction: this band hails from Lyon, France, and has only been on the scene for a few years; this is their first full-length album. Innavibe’s sound is just as modern as Berise’s, but in a much more straight-ahead reggae vein: live instruments predominate, and the lyrics are mainly in French. Vocalist MC Reym has a fine voice and writes hook-filled songs, and the band’s grooves are muscular and sometimes almost rockish. Highlights on this one include a sturdy steppers number called “Retour de flamme” and a singjay outing titled “Facho 2.0.” If I had to pick a single winner it would be Berise, but both of these debut releases are outstanding.

October 2020


CLASSICAL


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

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


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

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

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


JAZZ


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

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


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

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


FOLK/COUNTRY


Bronwyn Keith-Hynes
Fiddler’s Pastime
Sugar Petunia
SPR0027

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


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

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


ROCK/POP


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

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


Animat
Earplayed (digital only)
Disco Gecko
DSCGCKDIG080

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


WORLD/ETHNIC


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

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


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

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