RSS Feed

Category Archives: Uncategorized

May 2021

Posted on


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

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)

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

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.

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)

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.


Not about Heroes

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

Natsuki Tamura; Satoko Fujii

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!

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.


Maia Sharp
Mercy Rising
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

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

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
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.”



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.

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.”

Goats & Distortions 5
Denovali (dist. Redeye)

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.


Manika Kaur
Ek (digital only)
Six Degrees

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
Tiber River

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


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

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

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)

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)

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.


Alexa Tarantinotarantino

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

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

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.


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.


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

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.

Digital Bonfire (digital only)
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)

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)

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.


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

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)

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


Josquin Des Prez
The Golden Renaissance
Stile Antico
485 1340

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

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)

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.

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.


Franco Ambrosetti Band
Lost within You
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

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
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)

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.


Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno
Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno
Free Dirt

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

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

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.)


Jane Weaver
Fire (dist. Redeye)

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

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

Cabaret Voltaire
Shadow of Funk

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)

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.


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)

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

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


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

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.


Henry Robinett Quartet
Then Again: Jazz Standards Volume 2

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

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.


Ian Fisher
American Standards

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)

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.


The Bug feat. Dis Fig
In Blue
Hyperdub (dist. Redeye)

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)
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.


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


Various Composers
Here I Stand

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

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.


Guillaume Nouaux & the Stride Piano Kings
Guillaume Nouaux & the Stride Piano Kings

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)

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.


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

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
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.


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

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

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.


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

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)
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


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

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

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)

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.


Ella Fitzgerald
Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes

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)

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.


Scroggins & Rose
Fresh Grass

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
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.


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

Every Ones & Nothings (vinyl/digital only)

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

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.


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

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


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

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.


Rina (digital only)
Yamaha Music

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

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.


Suzzy Roche & Lucy Wainwright Roche
I Can Still Hear You

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.

Promise (digital & vinyl only)
Northern Spy

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.


Asian Dub Foundation
Access Denied
X-Ray Productions

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 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.


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

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.

Take Me As I Am (vinyl & digital only)
No cat. no.

Le sens
Dub Akom (dist. Baco)

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


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

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

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.


Bob James
Once upon a Time: The Lost 1965 New York Studio Sessions

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)

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.


Bronwyn Keith-Hynes
Fiddler’s Pastime
Sugar Petunia

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)

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.


Well Wishers
Shelf Life
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.

Earplayed (digital only)
Disco Gecko

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.


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

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)
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.

September 2020


Various Composers
Anders Miolin
Prima Classic (dist. MVD)

Ander Miolin plays a twelve-string guitar–but not the kind you’re imagining. A twelve-string folk guitar is strung in six courses of two strings each, each pair tuned either in unison or in octaves. This means that the guitar is played essentially the same way as a six-string guitar would be, each pair of strings being fretted together, but it gives a different sound because of the additional strings. Miolin’s guitar is very different: it has twelve separate, independently tuned strings, which create the same essential sound as a six-string guitar, but with a much wider range of pitches. This enables him to put together a program like this one, which consists of Renaissance and baroque works for the (similarly configured) lute, as well as unusually complete arrangements of piano pieces by Erik Satie and several original pieces by Miolin himself, all of which make use of his guitar’s expanded range. This is not only a technically impressive album, but also a deeply enjoyable one, that any library would do well to add to its classical collection.

Thomas Tallis, James MacMillan et al.
Spem in alium; Vidi aquam (CD + DVD)
ORA Singers / Suzi Digby
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 902669.70

I’ll just go ahead and say it: although Thomas Tallis is one of my favorite composers and Spem in alium–his widely celebrated motet written in forty(!) parts–is indisputably one of his masterworks, I’ve never cared for that piece very much. The chord progression seems awkward to me, and the soprano parts often sound shrill to me, no matter how carefully and skillfully they’re sung. But the 450th anniversary of its composition is an auspicious moment at which to celebrate this monumental work, and the ORA Singers do so not just by recording a particularly able performance of the piece, but also by placing it in historical context with a generous program of choral music by Tallis’ contemporaries, including Alfonso Ferrabosco, Philip van Wilder, and William Byrd. And the program ends with a contemporary work, actually a response to Tallis’ composition: William MacMillan’s forty-voice motet Vidi aquam initially imitates Tallis’ brilliant use of multiple choirs and strict counterpoint, but gradually shifts into a more modern and impressionistic style. This is a wonderful album overall, strongly recommended to all classical collections. (As a bonus, the package also includes a DVD with footage from the recording sessions and documentary material.)


Champian Fulton
Champian Records

What’s so great about Champian Fulton as a singer is that she blends Ella Fitzgerald’s sweetness and clarity of tone with Billie Holiday’s playful approach to rhythm (and sometimes pitch). And what’s so great about her as a pianist and bandleader is that she can switch from quicksilver bebop virtuosity to florid romanticism at the drop of a beat. She demonstrates all of these skills prodigiously on this centenary tribute to bop pioneer Charlie Parker, which features tunes written by him alongside others he was famous for playing. Leading her usual quartet (pianist Hide Tanaka, drummer Fukushi Tainaka, and her father Stephen Fulton on flugelhorn) along with tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, she delivers a beautiful program that reflects her lifelong immersion in Parker’s music: highlights include a sweetly rollicking take on the inevitable “Yardbird Suite” and a limpidly gorgeous vocal performance of “This Is Always” — but honestly, there’s not a weak track anywhere on this wonderful album.

Trio Linguae

Lots of jazz combos engage in group improvisation; very few, in my experience, do so in a way that’s worth spending much time listening to–outside the confines of trad jazz, anyway. Trio Linguae (trumpeter/flugelhornist Kevin Woods, guitarist John Stowell, pianist Miles Black) is one of those very few combos. Their musical communication is such that you’ll often hear them improvising in counterpoint, which is a pretty amazing feat when you think about it. Nor does their playing ever lapse into self-indulgent noodling: on tracks like their swinging take on the Bill Evans composition “Peri’s Scope” and the Harold Arlen standard “My Shining Hour,” they sound almost straight-ahead, but even on their more adventurous original tunes the playing is simultaneously disciplined and unconstrained. Any library that supports a jazz education program should consider this album a must-have.


Colter Wall
Western Swings & Waltzes & Other Punchy Songs
LaHonda/Thirty Tigers

With a voice that sounds a bit like a cross between Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt and a style that harks back to Texas in its pre-Outlaw Country days, you could be forgiven for thinking that relative newcomer Colter Wall is actually an old-timer making his belated entry onto the musical stage. But in fact he’s 24 years old, and he’s from Canada. Of course, Canada’s cowboy culture is no less hard-bitten and authentic than Texas’s, and Wall’s songs are deeply steeped in that culture. His originals are great, but he can also play and sing hoary classics like “Big Iron” and “Diamond Joe” with impressive authority. He takes his tempos slow and his band is small, nimble and unobtrusive–and recorded with lots of room sound, for added old-time verisimilitude. Mainstream country audiences won’t give an album like this the time of day, but anyone who likes hardcore cowboy music will love it.

No Time for Enemies

I know, I know–I thought the same thing when I heard about this album. A bluegrass/hip-hop hybrid? Give me a break. I could imagine it maybe being slightly funny as an Internet meme, but that was about it. But then I listened. And after I heard how well it worked, I started thinking about why it obviously should work: the roots of bluegrass are as much in African-American blues and gospel as they are in Scots-Irish ballads and fiddle tunes, and whether the backbeat is a mandolin chop or a snare drum (or an 808), it’s still just a backbeat. And there’s no reason why the vocal hook in a rap song can’t consist of high and lonesome vocal harmony, or why fiddles can’t be keening behind the rappers and a five-string banjo playing a break between verses. What makes this album do more than just work, though, and what really stops it from being a novelty, is that there is zero joking here: songs like “Freedom,” “Go You One Hundred,” and “This Land Is” are dead serious–as is the group’s gentle and heartbreaking version of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More.” For all libraries.


The Neon

It’s the eternal debate: should a band evolve, or should it continue to offer what its earliest fans loved? There are reasonable (and unreasonable) people and positions on both sides of that question, but ultimately every band has to decide for itself. Erasure–now on their 18th album–seem to have decided firmly on the latter course, continuing to purvey the same bright, colorful, emotionally intense music that won them an international following almost 40 years ago. The group still consists entirely of singer Andy Bell and synth player Vince Clarke, and their latest finds the duo creating an album that is all about “refreshing… our love of great pop.” Songs like “Tower of Love” and “Diamond Lies” refract that love through the band’s now-signature style of bleepy, bloopy synth pop, and while the album is suffused with joy there’s some emotional complexity in there as well. Watch for the remix EPs based on singles “Hey Now (I Think I Got a Feeling)” and “Shot a Satellite,” too.

Various Artists
Make More Noise!: Women in Independent Music UK 1977-1987 (4 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)

It was baked into the antinomian nature of punk rock that its norms and stylistic templates would fall apart almost as soon as they emerged. (No one can, or should, take seriously any sentence that begins “It’s not real punk rock unless it…”.) This was both punk’s greatest weakness as a musical movement, and its great gift to popular music: it broke the corral fence that had existed around rock’n’roll and let all the horses out to run in whatever direction they wished. So the title of this collection is doubly instructive: the ten years it defines were an incredibly fertile period of experimentation and innovation, and the term “independent” wisely includes any number of those experiments and innovations. As always with these carefully-curated Cherry Red boxes, you get a mix of artists you’ve almost certainly heard of (Bananarama, Cocteau Twins), some you may possibly have heard of (Grab Grab the Haddock, Talulah Gosh), and some you almost certainly have never heard of (Go! Service, Fatal Microbes). Interestingly, some of these artists actually elect to make less noise (Jane’s “It’s a Fine Day” is a softly-sung a cappella tune of wistful loveliness), while some make deeply uncomfortable noise (Rhoda Dakar, backed by the Special A.K.A., delivers an account of rape that is so disturbing that I sincerely hope I’ll never have to hear it again). It’s also worth noting that the “independent” designation doesn’t necessarily mean “amateurish.” As strange as Lene Lovich’s “Lucky Number” and Sinéad O’Connor’s “Mandinka” may have sounded at the time, they did not sound in any way unprofessional. The same is decidedly not true of, say, The Fabulous Dirt Sisters’ shambolic “Wood Song” or Marine Girls’ minimalist “A Place in the Sun”–and that’s a big part of what makes this compilation so much fun: it’s so diverse in so many different dimensions.


Max Romeo
Revelation Time (reissue)
VP/17 North Parade

Max Romeo is one of the greatest living exponents of roots-and-culture reggae, a sweet-voiced singer who has been on the scene from the beginning. His first big hit was a negligible and notorious piece of slackness titled “Wet Dream,” but he soon got on the Rasta train and recorded some of the darkest, dreadest, and deepest examples of conscious reggae ever made, many of them at Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark studio. This expanded reissue of his classic 1975 album Revelation Time duplicates substantially (though not entirely) the long out-of-print Open the Iron Gate: 1973-1977 collection that was released 20 years ago on the much-lamented Blood & Fire label. If you own that release, but are a big enough Romeo fan, this one will be worth the money for the additional content, which includes I Roy’s deejay cut on the title track, a fine dub version of “Tacko,” and the pairing of Romeo’s “No Joshua” with Prince Far I’s thundering response track “Yes Joshua.” If you don’t own the Blood & Fire collection, then pick this one up right away.

Falu & Karyshma
Someday (EP; digital only)

Man, yet another utterly gorgeous EP that I really wish was a full-length album. For this, their first formal release, Falu & Karyshma have taken traditional songs from classical, Sufi, and folk traditions and created modern settings for them using harmonium, dulcimer, bansuri, electric bass, violin, tabla, drum kit, acoustic guitar, and other instruments. The production is almost as important as the playing and singing here; to listen to this music on good headphones is revelatory. But central to everything is the singing of Falu, whose voice is simultaneously silky and powerful and who communicates joy, longing, anguish, and peaceful relaxation with equal skill. Here’s hoping for much more from this wonderful ensemble.

August 2020


Chris Dingman
Peace (5 discs)
No cat. no.

When vibraphonist and composer Chris Dingman’s father was at home under hospice care during his last months of life, Dingman moved a vibraphone into his father’s house and improvised music for him designed to soothe and relax him and help him sleep. But his father reacted to the music somewhat differently; he expressed gratitude that it had “open(ed) up patterns of thought and being” for him, going so far as to characterize the music as a “miracle” that “has transformed me over and over again. It has made me stronger, made me want to live life again.” For most listeners, hearing this music out of its original context may not be quite as transformative an experience–how could it be? But the love and warmth that existed between Dingman and his father is everywhere apparent in these compositions, and Dingman’s exceptional skills as a writer and improviser mean that the music is never static or needlessly repetitive or random-sounding; it’s always interesting and frequently complex, while always conveying a sense of gentleness, love, and peace. One could use it as ambient music, but it constantly rewards one’s close attention as well. Frankly, this is the most beautiful and touching recording I’ve heard so far this year.


George Crumb
Metamorphoses (Book 1)
Marcantonio Barone
Bridge (dist. Albany)

Subtitled “Ten Fantasy-pieces (after Celebrated Paintings) for Amplified Piano,” this collection of brief compositions finds the great American composer George Crumb responding musically to modernist paintings by the likes of Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, Jasper Johns, and Salvador Dalí. He does so using a certain amount of extended piano technique as well as electric amplification. By turns contemplative and abrasive, the music explores the piano’s unique resonant properties as well as the opportunities created by the player’s simultaneous proximity to the instrument’s keyboard and its interior; for example, on “Clowns at Night,” the performer must hit a woodblock, stroke a set of chimes, run a wire brush across the strings inside the piano, and play the keys–while also moaning and humming. These pieces were written in the past few years, demonstrating once again that Crumb continues to be an American treasure well into the eighth(!) decade of his musical career.

Uri Caine/Ludwig van Beethoven
Diabelli Variations after Ludwig van Beethoven (reissue)
Uri Caine; Concerto Köln
Winter & Winter (dist. Naxos)
910 265-2

It’s very important to understand, going in, that this is not a typical performance of Beethoven’s legendary variations on a theme of Anton Diabelli. For one thing, pianist and composer Uri Caine has written orchestral accompaniment for the original keyboard piece, turning it into what amounts to a 34-movement piano concerto. Second of all, Caine’s performance is wildly, willfully personal: at various times, his take on the variations incorporate boogie-woogie interludes, outbreaks of stride piano, clangorous and nearly atonal excursions, handclaps, and a sneeze–alongside wonderfully lyrical classical and semi-classical passages as well. Given the modernistic and even postmodern approach to the music, the fact that both Caine and Concerto Köln are playing on period instruments seems ironic, if not actually sarcastic. But the mood of the music itself, even at its most outlandish, is consistently joyful and fun. For obvious reasons, this should not be any library’s only recording of the Diabelli Variations–but it should be one of them.

Orlande de Lassus
Cappella Amsterdam / Daniel Reuss
Harmonia Mundi (dist. PIAS)
HMM 902650

I was startled when this disc arrived in the mail–could it be that the great master of the late Franco-Flemish school had set texts of Dante Alighieri? Sadly, no. But this is still an outstanding collection of late Lassus motets for six and eight voices, united by themes of melancholy and regret. Inexplicably, given the album’s title, it does not include his De profundis (nor any of the other penitential psalms), but it does consist of a carefully curated cycle of other Biblical and non-Biblical settings characterized by exquisitely crafted interactions between music and text, as well as the sumptuous harmonies for which he remains famous. Cappella Amsterdam are marvelous on these recordings, and their voices are perfectly showcased by the acoustics of Amsterdam’s de Waalse Kerk. For all early music collections.

Leopold Anton Kozeluch
Piano Trios Vol. 3
Trio 1790
CPO (dist. Naxos)
555 096-2

This is the third entry in an ongoing series by the period-instrument ensemble Trio 1790 featuring trios for piano, cello, and violin by the highly-esteemed Bohemian composer Leopold Kozeluch. During his life his reputation was such that he was offered the chance to succeed Mozart as court organist at Salzburg, but he refused; after achieving significant success as an independent composer and teacher, he later accepted a court appointment under Emperor Francis II (again, following Mozart). Interestingly, he invested a significant amount of time and energy into creating chamber-music settings of folk music from the British Isles, and in fact Scottish melodies were the basis for some of his earlier piano trios. These later ones, however, are quite Continental in flavor, and are characterized by a thoroughly winning lightness of tone. The playing by Trio 1790 is excellent.

Ricardo Mico
Pavans & Fancies for the Viols
Concerto di Viole
Ars Produktion (dist. Naxos)
Rick’s Pick

The Swiss viol consort Concerto di Viole made a long study of the music of little-known 17th-century composer Ricardo Mico before recording this selection of his consort music, and then made something of a puckish decision: as musicians often had during Mico’s time, they assigned a whimsical subtitle to each of the pieces presented here. Thus, Mico’s Fantasied 10 à 4 is further titled “On the Hexachord”; his Pavan 2 à 5 is subtitled “Bona Fide,” and so forth. These recordings are not only completely lovely, but they’re also important, in that Mico is rarely recorded today and in fact none of his consort music was even published during his lifetime. (The excellent Phantasm ensemble has recorded some of it, alongside consort music of William Byrd.) Here’s hoping this outstanding group will bring more of Mico’s music to light in the future.

Sir Hubert Parry et al.
Songs of Farewell
Choir of Westminster Abbey / James O’Donnell
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)

I’m sure it’s my imagination, but it just seems to me that the choral music of English composers sounds especially good when sung in Westminster Abbey, that most English of musical and liturgical spaces. And of course no choir (with the possible exception of Magdalen College’s) sounds as wonderful singing the English repertoire as the one attached to the Abbey. Anyway, this is a program of late 19th and early 20th century a cappella choral music by Sir Hubert Parry (whose Songs of Farewell is the album’s centerpiece), Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (three motets and a Magnificat setting), Alan Gray (another Magnificat and an F minor Nunc dimittis), and Charles Wood (a B-flat Nunc dimittis). The featured works are somewhat diverse in tone–notice how the burnished but restrained and reverential mood of Stanford’s third motet is joyfully burst by Gray’s exuberant Magnificat, for example. But the singing is consistently excellent and the recorded sound is as well, though the microphones were set perhaps just a bit too far from the singers for my taste. Still, all the better to hear the Abbey’s glorious acoustics, I guess.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Symphonies nos. 6-7-8 (Le Matin; Le Midi; Le Soir)
Orfeo Orchestra / György Vashegyi
Accent (dist. Naxos)

This will be the first recording in a series designed to showcase music written and published under the aegis of the Eszterházy family, which controlled large swaths of Hungary during the Habsburg dynasty. The Eszterházys employed Franz Joseph Haydn during some of his most creative years, and with these three symphonies in particular he was at pains to demonstrate that their money had been well spent. Each of these works functions almost as much as a baroque-style concerto as it does like a classical symphony, using extended soloistic sections to showcase the skills of the outstanding orchestra that the Eszterházys had put at Haydn’s disposal. The “morning,” “noon,” and “evening” moods are evoked in a somewhat programmatic manner, but the real point is to demonstrate the players’ musicianship, which these pieces do admirably. They are marvelously performed here by the Orfeo Orchestra, and libraries should be quick to snap up this disc and the others in the series that will come in the future.

Giovanni Battista Viotti
Flute Quartets op. 22
Quartetto Viotti
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
Rick’s Pick

Giovanni Battista Viotti was known primarily as a violinist and a composer for the violin, and while some of his violin pieces have been transcribed for flute, he wrote little specifically for that instrument and this set of three quartets for flute, violin, viola, and cello are his only compositions in that particular format. The music is not terribly challenging and was published with both amateur and professional players in mind, but it is thoroughly enjoyable in the high classical style, and will be warmly regarded by fans of Mozart’s flute quartets. Quartetto Viotti (playing, as far as I can determine, on modern instruments) deliver these pieces with admirable sensitivity and brio, and are beautifully recorded. A delightful listen.


Jeff Hamilton Trio
Catch Me if You Can
Rick’s Pick

Don’t tell anyone I said this, but I’m always a little bit leery of drummer-led jazz recordings. I have nothing but respect for great drummers, but not all of them understand that most people don’t listen to a jazz album specifically to hear the drummer. One of the many things that make drummer Jeff Hamilton such a compelling bandleader is that he does understand that. Another is the way he combines gentleness with swing: the way he plays quiet rimshots for just a bar or two on each chorus of “Helen’s Song,” or the way he sweetly and subtly takes little mini-solos using the brushes on “Make Me Rainbows,” or the exquisite delicacy of his brushwork on what is nevertheless a powerfully swinging title track. Whenever a new Jeff Hamilton album arrives in the mail, I know it’s going to be a winner; this one is no exception. For all collections.

Grégoire Maret & Romain Collin (with Bill Frisell)
ACT (dist. Naxos)

I also have a weird aversion to the harmonica, particularly in a jazz context. I’m not sure why, and I’m not sure it really matters. The point here is that while I would usually set aside a jazz harmonica album immediately upon receiving it, in this case I made an exception due to the presence of Bill Frisell, my favorite jazz guitarist–and I’m very glad I did, because this is an exceptionally fine recording. Harmonica player Grégoire Maret has selected an eclectic program of tunes to work with here, from pop (Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms”) to country (“Wichita Lineman”) along with a couple of Frisell originals and some by Maret himself and by pianist Romain Collin as well. The album title is not misleading; this music tends strongly towards the pastoral, not to say the bucolic (there is no rhythm section) and Maret’s harmonica playing is exquisitely tasteful–as is that of Collin and, of course, Frisell, who has never failed to make a session better by his presence.

Rez Abbasi
Whirlwind Recordings (dist. Redeye)

Dan Willis and Velvet Gentlemen
The Monk Project (digital only)
Belle Avenue
No cat. no.

On these two conceptually similar but very different albums, forward-thinking leaders look back to the past for their source material, and give it a very modern twist. On Django-shift, guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi deconstructs two separate traditions simultaneously: the music of 1930s Gypsy swing icon Django Reinhardt, and the 1960s organ trio. Reinhardt’s music was the acme of driving hot jazz as played by multiple acoustic guitars and violin; the organ trio was the prime vehicle for jazz funk. Abbasi’s take on Reinhardt’s compositions is neither driving swing nor funk–instead, it’s played in his own now well established style, which is complex, knotty, chromatic, and timbrally unique (note his extensive use of the fretless guitar). This is not an album for Django fans, but rather for fans of modern experimental jazz. Dan Willis approaches the music of Thelonious Monk in a manner similar to that in which he approached that of Erik Satie ten years ago; he takes familiar tunes from the Monk book (“Epistrophy,” “Crepuscule with Nellie,” “Rhythm-a-ning,” etc.) and uses them as the general framework for highly personal and discursive exploration. There are moments on this album when even someone who is deeply familiar with the Monk repertoire will struggle to recognize the basis of the tune, and others when you feel as if he’s pulling the essence of the tune out of its body. Both of these are challenging and rewarding albums.

The Jim Kweskin Band with Samoa Wilson
I Just Want to Be Horizontal
No cat. no.

Since the 1960s, Jim Kweskin has been interested in bringing to light the sounds of early-20th century jazz and pop music. His group is no longer called a “jug band,” gratefully, but he’s still focused on those sounds, and his latest album (which prominently features the outstanding singer Samoa Wilson) features songs both familiar (“Inch Worm,” “Lover Come Back to Me,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay”) and obscure, all played with an elegant, restrained sense of swing. Kweskin adds some lyrics of his own to the Irving Berlin standard “He Ain’t Got Rhythm,” and throughout the album Wilson’s powerful but sweet voice illuminates everything.

Various Artists
Ella 100: Live at the Apollo!
Concord Jazz

On April 25, 2017–Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday–an impressive assortment of artists gathered to celebrate on the stage of Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater, where Ella Fitzgerald had made her singing debut at age 17. (She was originally expected to dance, but when she was put on the program immediately following the dancing Edwards Sisters she was too intimidated and asked if she could sing instead.) This commemorative program was hosted and emceed by comic actor David Alan Grier and featured a variety of singers accompanied by the Count Basie Orchestra and the Ella 100 All-Star Quartet. The songs are all the standards one would expect, though occasionally with a twist: Patti Austin is featured prominently, as well as Lizz Wright, Andra Day, and the Afro Blue choir. Grier himself sings (quite nicely) on a modernized soul arrangement of “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me” and alongside Austin on a Porgy and Bess medley. All in all, it’s a fitting tribute to one of the most important figures in American music.


Cary Morin
Dockside Saints
No cat. no.

Cary Morin is an artist with a complex ethnic and musical heritage: an American Indian of Crow heritage who grew up in Great Falls, Montana, he is a virtuosic fingerstyle guitarist whose music is deeply informed by the cultures of the Mississippi Valley, particularly of Southern Louisiana. His latest album evokes (sometimes simultaneously) the sounds of New Orleans, Memphis, and Mississippi: slippery second-line beats and a Zydeco accordion underlie the album-opening “Nobody Gotta Know,” while “Prisoner” is all greasy Delta blues and “Cary’s Groove” draws deeply on Memphis and Muscle Shoals soul. The string that binds everything together is Morin’s fine songwriting combined with his astounding guitar technique. Highly recommended.

Scott Vestal et al.
Bluegrass 2020: 10 Great Instrumental Recordings
Pinecastle (MVD)

For this album, banjo player Scott Vestal leads an A-list team that includes fiddler Patrick McAvinue, guitarist Cody Kilby, mandolinist Dominick Leslie, and bassist Curtis Vestal on a stylistically varied program of traditional bluegrass and newgrass instrumentals. It opens in old-school style, with the classic Earl Scruggs banjo showcase “Foggy Mountain Chimes,” but then gets gradually more progressive, with the jazzy Moon Mullican tune “Pipeliner Blues” and the straight-up New Acoustic “Sunday Drive.” The rest of the album continues in that vein, alternating straight acidgrass (“Shenandoah Breakdown,” “Valley Forge”) with more modern newgrass fare (“Vanleer”). All of it is brilliantly played. A few more tunes would have been nice, as the whole album clocks in at barely over 35 minutes.

Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett
Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett
Real World (dist. PIAS)
Ricks’ Pick

Recordings of traditional Irish music tend to be virtuosic affairs, filled with breakneck tempos and elaborate ornamentation. Fiddler/hardanger player Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and pianist Thomas Bartlett have made something very different: an album with roots in trad music but consisting mostly of original compositions, and one that focuses on quiet, contemplative performances. Themes repeat and mutate, sometimes growing through elaboration and sometimes collapsing into new abstraction. (Note in particular the structure of the hypnotic “Zona Rosa.”) In the context of a duo like this, one might expect Bartlett to be Ó Raighallaigh’s accompanist, but that’s not how this music works at all: they play together and sometimes one plays more while the other plays less, but they always play side-by-side, each one occupying an equally important musical space. The music is exceptionally beautiful, and often deeply sad. Highly recommended to all libraries.


Richard Thompson
Live at Rock City, Nottingham November -86 (2 discs)
Angel Air (dist. MVD)
Rick’s Pick

If you’ve spent any time browsing through CDs in a market stall, you’ve seen them: shoddily packaged discs from a label you’ve never heard of, documenting live shows that were originally recorded for radio broadcast. They usually cost a few bucks, and sometimes they’re worth it. This one is very different. For one thing, the sound quality is excellent. For another, 1986 was the year that, in my opinion, Richard Thompson’s band was at its best–he had John Kirkpatrick, Christine Collister, and Clive Gregson, among others, and although you don’t have Dave Mattacks on drums the band still sounds fantastic. And he was touring songs from both Across a Crowded Room and Daring Adventures, which I still think were two of his best-ever solo albums. The patter is wry, the solos are incendiary, and the whole energy of this gig is just tremendous. Highly recommended to all pop collections.

Dan Penn
Living on Mercy
The Last Music Co. (dist. Redeye)
Rick’s Pick

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Dan Penn. Which is a crime, because there’s virtually no chance that you don’t know and love at least one song that he’s written–either alone or in partnership with others. Maybe it’s “Do Right Woman,” or “It Tears Me Up,” or “I’m Your Puppet,” or my personal fave, “Dark End of the Street” (which I maintain is the single saddest and most affecting love song in pop music history). There’s also a good chance that you’ve never heard him sing any of these songs, because over the course of his 60-year career he’s made precisely three studio albums–the last one being the wonderful Do Right Man from 1994. Listening to this new one, I was startled and thrilled that his voice still sounds so good; it was never a force of nature to begin with, but it’s every bit as strong and mellow as it was 26 years ago. Nor has his songwriting lost any of its wry humor and emotional insight. This would make a great addition to any library, but those that collect vintage soul and R&B should pay special attention.

Devon Williams
A Tear in the Fabric
Slumberland (dist. Redeye)
SLR 247

If you miss the golden age of jangle-pop (which, depending on your generational orientation, you might consider to have been the late 1960s or the late 1980s), then Devon Williams is here for you. On his third solo album, he delivers a solid set of original songs that shimmer dreamily while staying anchored in solid chord progressions, hooky melodies, and lots of arpeggiating guitars. His voice isn’t exactly a powerhouse, but he layers it nicely, power-pop style, and creates a thoroughly winning sound. Strongly recommended to fans of the Church and the Go-Betweens, and of early REM. And maybe to those who like the Rocket Summer but wish they’d ease up just a bit.

Harmonious Thelonious
Bureau B (dist. Forced Exposure)

Stefan Schwander is a Dusseldorf-based electronic musician with that most wonderful of characteristics: an equal interest in sonic experimentation and slamming beats. He’s also influenced by musical styles beyond the European dance club: “Original Member of a Wedding Band” is built a fragment of keening modal melody that could be from Egypt, or maybe from the Balkans; several other tracks evoke the history of pulse-based American minimalism. Schwander himself has indicated that with this record he was “aiming for a more industrial sound,” but what he ended up with is much more interesting than that. Recommended to all adventurous pop music collections.

Sangam & Pixelord
City High Fantasy (EP; digital & cassette only)

Let’s close out the Rock/Pop section with another example of forward-thinking electronic music, this one a collaboration between producers Sangam and Pixelord. It’s not unusual to see two electronic artists put their disparate styles together to create something new, but a joint venture by two such different artists is particularly interesting. Sangam usually works in an abstract and ambient vein, whereas Pixelord comes from more of a house/techno place and was a major figure in the short-lived “hardvapour” movement (itself a subgenre of hardstyle and/or vapourwave, which… you know what? Never mind.). The music they make together is varied in feel, with lots of sonic space but also plenty of complex, sometimes hard-hitting beats. I love the blend of big acoustics and tiny rhythmic details, and find myself getting lost in this EP every time I cue it up.


Six Degrees

The latest from Brazilian singer/songwriter Céu is an unabashed exclamation of joy. In fact, that’s where the title comes from–“apká!” is something her little son Antonino cries when he’s delighted with something. The word doesn’t mean anything beyond the emotion it expresses. Céu’s songs are somewhat more specific in their expressiveness, of course, but are every bit as joyful–even when they’re a bit more subdued. As always, Brazilian rhythms fuse with electronic beats; this time out there’s also a bit more guitar pop in the mix, and she sometimes breaks into English. Her voice continues to be a joy to hear, and the album is a pure pleasure overall.

100 Years of Theremin (The Dub Chapter)
CDDUBM103 (dist. MVD)
Rick’s Pick

You might tempted to dismiss this as a novelty album. Resist that temptation. Although the theremin is largely known (when people are aware of it at all) as a source of science-fiction sound effects, it is in fact a serious musical instrument capable of great subtlety and expressiveness. Its pitch and volume are controlled by the performer’s hands hovering at different positions around a sort of antenna, and since it produces a steady and uninterrupted tone it takes real skill to create clean breaks between notes. On this collection of tracks, producer (and longtime theremin player) Gaudi teams up with a bunch of dub/reggae luminaries including Dennis Bovell, Adrian Sherwood, Mad Professor, and Prince Fatty to create a program of modern reggae settings for his beloved instrument, resulting in an album that is simultaneously filled with familiar sounds and grooves and unlike anything else you’ve ever heard. Highly recommended.

Groupe RTD
The Dancing Devils of Djibouti

The music scene in the tiny East African country of Djibouti faces an unusual challenge: it is owned and controlled entirely by the government. Ever since independence and the establishment of one-party rule in 1977, virtually all music ensembles and all recording companies are government organizations attached to the state propaganda ministry. But the New York-based Ostinato label was able to secure official permission to spend three days in the country recording Groupe RTD, an amazing ensemble that blends regional vocal and instrumental sounds, Bollywood-derived vocals, Jamaican rhythms, and jazz horns to create a style that is simultaneously completely unique and instantly recognizable as a product of the region. Keening horns, skanking backbeats, and soaring voices combine to create something unlike anything you’ve heard before. Highly recommended.

Victor Rice
Drink (vinyl & digital only)
Easy Star
Rick’s Pick

Bassist Victor Rice was a mainstay of the New York ska and reggae revival scene throughout the 1990s, but has lived in São Paulo, Brazil for the past 20 years and has there developed a musical fusion of samba and rock steady that he calls “SRS” for short. “Rock steady” is the swinging, rubbery rhythm that served as a transitional style in the 1960s when ska was slowing down and loosening up on its way to becoming reggae. Rice is a master of that style, and on this jazzy, skanking instrumental album he demonstrates that mastery with a very tasty program of tunes that are equally great for listening and dancing to. Highlight tracks include “Five,” the straight-up ska tune “Because I Can,” and especially the beautifully composed “La Mura.” Highly recommended to all libraries, though it’s too bad that it’s not being released in CD format.

Temple (EP)
Denovali (dist. Redeye)

Here’s what it says on the one sheet: “Using kalimba, violin, cello, ney, erhu, zhonghu, jinhu, kemenche, dilruba, bansuri, rammerdam, double bass and various percussive instruments such as cajon, castanets, krotal and various organic shakers and drums MANSUR leads the listener into mystical and magical unknowns, that lie far past the realms of material perception.” Well. Maybe not entirely past the realms of material perception–unless there are instruments on the recording that I’m not hearing–but this album certainly takes us well beyond the realms of dark ambient music that are the usual bailiwick of the Denovali label. What’s particularly fun about Mansur’s music is that it sounds like it’s from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously–I can’t tell what language(s) Martina Horváth is singing in, and every time I think I’ve got a grip on the ethnic or cultural context of a track, it slips through my fingers. Also, the music is very beautiful.

The Skints
Live at Electric Brixton (digital only)
Mr Bongo/Easy Star
No cat. no.

While we all mourn the temporary loss of live music, there are a few live albums hitting the market now that were recorded just prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of them is this gem, from British reggae stalwarts the Skints. I can’t say enough about this group’s sound: the male-female lead vocals, the rich but stripped-down ensemble arrangements, the way they simultaneously revive, celebrate, and update the sound of 1970s reggae and ska. And onstage all of those characteristics are distilled and deepened. In a live setting they give more space to their speed-rap tendencies, which is tons of fun, and they engage the audience masterfully. Live albums are often disappointing, but this one is a masterpiece.