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November 2021


Johann Sebastian Bach
The Overtures: Original Versions
Concerto Copenhagen / Lars Ulrich Mortensen
CPO (dist. Naxos)
555 346-2

Bach’s four overtures BWV 1066-1069 (also known as the Orchestral Suites) are most commonly played in late arrangements that include tympani and trumpets. But there is evidence to suggest that the earliest versions were written for strings and minimal winds, with no percussion, and that these elements were added later when Bach was working in Leipzig and had more musicians available to him. This is the premise on which the Concerto Copenhagen’s performance is based; the use of a single musician on each part further pares down the sound. The result is a crisp and sprightly recording and an interesting musicological argument, one that will certainly be of interest to libraries supporting a curriculum in early music practice. For sheer listening pleasure, some will prefer this to more traditional, larger-scale arrangements, but that feeling won’t be universal.

Unknown Composers
Messes anonymes
Cut Circle / Rodin
Musique en Wallonie (dist. Naxos)

In making this world-premiere recording of two 15th-century Masses by unknown Belgian composers, the Cut Circle ensemble (under the direction of Jesse Rodin) made a bold decision: given the supreme rhythmic and contrapuntal difficulty of these works, they would avoid the obvious performing choice (camouflaging potential errors with large vocal forces and a reverberant acoustic) and instead lean into the difficulty, recording in a dry acoustic with only four voices. The result is a breathtakingly impressive and beautiful musical document, one that lays the complexity of the music out for all to hear while also making clear how exceptionally beautiful it is. As they always do, Cut Circle perform with a bracing mix of precision and passion. What a shame that the composers of these Mass settings are unknown; I’d love to hear more from them. For all classical collections.

Arvo Pärt
Stabat Mater
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Münchner Rundfunksorchester / Repušić
BR-Klassik (dist. Naxos)

Arvo Pärt
Tabula Rasa
Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne / Capuçon
Erato/Warner Classics
No cat. no.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is celebrated for both his choral and his instrumental music, and these two discs offer an attractive entree into both. Each of these albums features a different version of one of Pärt’s more popular pieces, Fratres, which was originally written for an unspecified combination of instruments but is most often played on violin and piano. Under the direction of violinist Renaud Capuçon, the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra plays a relatively lush 1992 arrangement for strings and percussion, whereas the one conducted by Ivan Repušić is a sparer version that leaves out the violin soloist. Repušić uses Fratres as an introduction to an album that builds through several orchestral pieces before culminating in Pärt’s dramatic setting of the Stabat Mater text, which is sung with hushed intensity by the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks. The Capuçon album consists entirely of chamber and orchestral works, including the title composition, the very popular Spiegel im Spiegel, and the less-frequently recorded Für Lennart in memoriam. I find that conductors and musicians who take on this music tend to love it quite intensely, and that love is well in evidence on both of these excellent recordings.

Various Composers
Royal Requiem (compilation; 5 discs)
Various Ensembles
Alpha Classics/Outhere (dist. Naxos)

Court composers wrote both sacred and secular music in honor of their royal patrons, and regularly that meant writing funeral music for them. The Requiem (a Mass setting written explicitly for funerary purposes) was one of the most important commissions a court composer could receive, and this five-disc set brings together previously released albums that document such compositions across several centuries. It begins with the 15th-century Requiem d’Anne de Bretagne by the under-recognized Antoine de Févin (performed exquisitely by the Doulce Mémoire ensemble), then proceeds to the mid-18th century with Nicoló Jommelli’s Requiem for Princess Maria Augusta von Thurn und Taxis (a work reputedly written in three days). Then we jump to nearly the turn of the 19th century with Sigismund Neukomm’s and Luigi Cherubini’s Requiems for Louis XVI, which are followed by the setting in honor of Marie Antoinette by Charles-Henri Plantade. With the final disc we jump back to the baroque period with funerary Masses by Gilles Henri Hayne (for Marie de Medici) and Johann Joseph Fux (for Emperor Leopold I’s widow Eleonora of Neubeurg), which bracket Henry Purcell’s Funeral Sentences for the Death of Queen Mary II. This set nicely documents one of the most centrally important manifestations of sacred music across European history, in very fine recordings. Libraries that don’t already own the original issues would do well to pick up this conveniently-packaged box.


Andrew Cyrille Quartet
The News

Having seen this group live at the Village Vanguard a few years ago, I can testify to what they’re capable of; drummer/leader Andrew Cyrille plays with an unusual sensitivity and an incredible sonic palette, which makes him a perfect match with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Ben Street. Regular keyboardist/synthesist Richard Teitenbaum has been sidelined by health issues, but he is ably replaced on this album by David Virelles, whose pianism in particular brings a new and lovely dimension to the group’s sound. Some of this music is conventionally jazzy (the blues-based Frisell composition “Go Happy Lucky” is particularly delightful), but there’s lots of abstract avant-gardism as well (note in particular the freewheeling title track). Creating abstract avant-gardism of undeniable beauty is the Andrew Cyrille Quartet’s stock in trade, and they do it with aplomb on this remarkable album.

Josh Werner
Mode for Titan
M.O.D. Reloaded

Bassist Josh Werner has created something difficult to categorize with his first full solo album. I’m slotting it into the Jazz section because I suspect it’s jazz fans that will find it most interesting, but the music itself is quite unique. Utilizing multitracking and various electronic effects (and the highly varied tones and timbres of sitar bass, seven-string bass, and fretless bass), Werner creates compositions that define large sonic spaces but that are always warm and often groovy even though there’s no percussion and no chordal instruments involved. This is a guy who has worked with artists as diverse as Ghostface Killah, Cibo Matto, CocoRosie, and PopCaan — so it won’t come as a surprise that his influences are widely varied. And with production by Bill Laswell, you know the recorded sound will be rich and deep. Very interesting and very cool.

Jacqueline Kerrod
17 Days in December: Solo Improvisations for Acoustic & Electric Harp

Harpist Jacqueline Kerrod is classically trained — and extensively so, having begun her studies at age nine — but over the years her approach to the instrument has branched out into a variety of extended techniques and musical styles. Her résumé includes work with artists as diverse as Kanye West, Rufus Wainwright, and avant-jazz legend Anthony Braxton, as well as more traditional classical gigs. On her solo debut, she dives into the world of solo improvisation, alternating between acoustic harp (sometimes treated with mechanical alterations) and an electric instrument (with the addition of electronic effects). The music she creates here is sometimes a bit abrasive and difficult, and sometimes immediately accessible and conventionally beautiful. Interestingly, some of the most lovely tracks are those that are least recognizable as having been produced by a harp; “Glare,” with its extensive use of volume pedals, distortion, and reverb, is one such, as is the pulsing “Strummed I.” The electro-acoustic “Glassy Fingers” and “Broken: In 3” both evoke John Cage’s sonatas and interludes for prepared piano, but with much more melodic interest. All of it is fascinating and well worth hearing.

Errol Garner
Symphony Hall Concert
Octave Music/Mack Avenue

To celebrate the 100th birthday of legendary pianist and composer Erroll Garner, the University of Pittsburgh (where Garner’s archives are housed) and the Erroll Garner Project have collaborated to created a three-tiered release of commemorative recordings. At the top of the pyramid is this one-disc recording of his concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall in January, 1959. Leading a trio that includes bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin, Garner walks us through the history of jazz, looking back to the days of stride and barrelhouse piano on “I Can’t Get Started” and to the bebop era on “Bernie’s Tune,” while (as drummer Terri Lyne Carrington points out in the liner notes) also anticipating pianistic styles to come during the 1960s. His ability to conjure an entire orchestra on the piano is everywhere evident, but nowhere more so than on his bravura rendition of “Dreamy.” This is a magnificent recording that should find a home in every library’s jazz collection. (Those with deeper pockets should consider one of the deluxe box-set versions of this album that are also being made available.)


Twisted Pine
Right Now
Signature Sounds
SIG CD 2121

Twisted Pine apparently used to be a bluegrass band, though I have to say, as a latecomer to this band’s music, that I’m having a hard time imagining it. Yes, singer/fiddler Kathleen Parks definitely plays in a style with roots in Appalachia, and the same for jazzy mandolinist Dan Bui. But flutist Anh Phung is coming more from a Celtic place and also from a jazz place (check her solo on “Amadeus Party”), while Chris Satori’s bass is jazzy/funky all the way down. Which, I guess, is another way of saying that these guys represent the new generation of New Acoustic Music, alongside artists like the Punch Brothers, Nickel Creek, and Crooked Still. The best way to enjoy this thoroughly charming album, though, is to try and forget genre boundaries and just give yourself up to the funky, folky, poppy fun.

Felice Brothers
From Dreams to Dust
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)

It takes a minute to get used to Ian Felice’s singing — he’s got that Dylan-y tendency to swipe at notes rather than hit them — but that doesn’t really matter much of the time, because some of these songs are practically spoken-word pieces, while others (like “Inferno”) alternate between verses and sung choruses. When these guys do write tunes, they tend to be really nice ones; the Felices have a real way with a melody, and they support the melodies with sturdy roots-folk-rock grooves. And then you notice the topical lyrics (“Tick tock goes the doomsday clock,” etc.) and the wryly absurdist ones (“Once spent over two months stuck in a painting by Bruegel the Elder,” etc.), and then you notice the production: rich, gritty, spacious but not airy. This album was my first introduction to the Felice Brothers, and I have to say I’m intrigued.

Marina Allen
Candlepower (EP)
Fire (dist. Redeye)

Lucy Gooch
Rain’s Break (EP)

Marina Allen’s seven-song EP evokes a lost era of folk-pop by women; you’ll hear stylistic echoes of Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, and Judee Sill, but don’t be fooled — this music is 100% modern, with carefully elaborate production (“Believer”) bumping up alongside minimalist, acoustic singer-songwriter fare (“Ophelia”). Don’t be fooled by her voice, either; it’s light but not soft, tender but not wispy. I kind of wish Candlepower were a full-length album. Same goes for Rain’s Break by Lucy Gooch, an even shorter EP that I admit doesn’t really fit the Folk/Country category but seemed like a good companion entry anyway. Gooch is working in a more cinematic/ambient mode, with quiet and wispy vocals layered over floating synths and occasional very subtle beats (“Chained to a Woman”). Her influences include not only classic film but also the sounds of women’s choirs from the 1930s, church music, and weather. Again, this is the kind of album that would ideally be about 75 minutes long, rather than 19.


Aztec Camera
Backwards and Forwards: The WEA Recordings 1984-1995 (compilation; 9 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)

If you weren’t around and paying attention to alternative pop music in the early- to mid-1980s, there’s a good chance you don’t have any (or much) memory of Aztec Camera. The band was really singer/songwriter Roddy Frame and a shifting array of sidemen, until he dropped the group moniker and started recording under his own name in the late 1990s. This luxurious nine-disc set (containing Aztec Camera’s five Warner albums plus four discs of live performances, alternate takes, remixes, etc.) can’t be said to contain everything you might need, because it leaves out his debut album, the triumphantly perfect High Land, Hard Rain. And it can’t be characterized as “all killer, no filler,” because it does at times devolve into superfluity (no fewer than seven mixes of “Good Morning, Britain,” a great song that nearly breaks here under the weight of over-attention) and non-necessity (the solo acoustic set from Ronnie Scott’s Club). But it would be fair to say that the studio albums represented here vary in quality from very good to outstanding, and that the disc of live 1984 performances in Glasgow and London offer powerful renditions of the High Land material. Libraries that collect pop music overlook this box at their peril. Hand-sell it to any patron who loves a colorful, fruity chord progression and an anthemic chorus.

Box (compilation; 4 discs)
New West (dist. Redeye)

And heck, while we’re at it, here’s another monumental box set from a band that made its mark in the 1980s. Pylon was much more short-lived than Aztec Camera, and its influence — while significant — was a bit more subterranean. Pylon emerged from the fecund Athens, Georgia scene at the same time as the B-52s, REM, and Love Tractor. Though multiple bands from the region cite them as an important influence on their sound (and REM would record a very fine cover of “Crazy,” the group’s best song), Pylon’s tendency towards melody-free muttered/shouted vocals probably limited their appeal, despite the power of their grooves and the occasionally surprising hookiness of their songs. Pylon released only two albums formally; Gyrate and Chomp are both included here, along with Razz Tape (a collection of early studio recordings that were never released commercially) and a fourth disc consisting of other non-album and unreleased tracks. Along with the discs, the box also includes a large and lavishly produced hardcover book filled with photos and historical information. Does this package have a limited natural audience? Sure — but it’s a very devoted one, and libraries supporting research into the history of American pop music would do well to consider adding this retrospective document.

The Seshen
CYAN Remixes (EP; digital only)
Tru Thoughts (dist. Redeye)

In February of this year, the San Francisco-based band The Seshen released CYAN, an album named “for a color that is both strong and soft.” It turned out to be an apt title for a release that featured ethereal, echoing vocals tethered to tight and bubbling grooves, creating a feel that was simultaneously gentle and propulsively funky. Now comes a five-track collection of remixes created by the likes of Kumar Butler, SNVS, and FEVRMOON, all of which shed a different light on the album’s original vision. But interestingly, the remixers don’t generally choose to pull their chosen tracks dramatically far from CYAN‘s overriding vibe; for example, although FEVRMOON’s take on “4AM” is a bit denser and busier than the original, it generally preserves the original version’s feel. The two exceptions are Kumar Butler’s mix of “Wander,” which playful messes around with the original’s lilting 3/4 time signature, bumping it into and out of a four-on-the-floor dance pulse, and Mahawam’s mix of “Still Dreaming,” which turns it into a sort of ambient-dub fever dream. Both this collection and the original album would make great additions to any pop collection.

The Pop Group
Y in Dub

The Pop Group’s 1979 debut, Y, was one of those “important” albums that, despite its historical significance, you have to admit is pretty tough to listen to. Jagged guitars, chugging bass, and Mark Stewart’s unhinged yowling all combine to create a sound that had a huge impact on the UK post-punk scene, and that is frankly much more impressive than enjoyable. Interestingly, that album was produced by legendary reggae producer Dennis Bovell. It had little or nothing sonically to do with reggae, but Bovell brought his highly-developed sense of space and layering to the mix. On this remix project, he applies the techniques of dub (instruments and voices dropping in and out, with varying levels of effects applied) to the original recordings, creating a wild pastiche of sounds and noises. The effect of this approach is actually a softening of the original music; with the echo and delay and the expanded sonic space, what was once a fairly assaultive listening experience becomes somewhat softer and more accessible one. Somewhat, that is. This album was a great idea and it was a long time coming.


Riverboat (dist. Redeye)

Afro-Nordic music collective Monoswezi continue their pattern of releasing an album about every four years, and I’m continuing my pattern of recommending every single one of them. The band’s name might look like a Swahili word, but it’s actually an acronym formed by combining the first couple of letters from the names of the bandmembers’ home countries: Mozambique, Norway, Sweden, and Zimbabwe. And as one might expect, the music itself is a complex and colorful tapestry of styles built on a foundational fusion of Nordic jazz and African rhythms. This is music that simultaneously celebrated tradition and explodes it: delicate Afro-Latin beats underpin jazzy improvisations; complex time signatures are thethered to steady pulses; singer Hope Masike defiantly plays the mbira, an instrument traditionally played only by men in her home country. And the songs are wonderful. Highly recommended.

Various Artists
Sub Signals, Vol. 2: Selected and Mixed by Gaudi
Dubmission (dist. MVD)

Gaudi is one of the most celebrated producers, remixers, and creators of original music on the always-bubbling global dub scene. His second contribution to the Sub Signals series is billed, accurately, as a “deep dive into underground bass”; to create this compilation Gaudi dug deep into his crates and, it appears, cashed in a few IOUs, resulting in a generous and blissfully heavy collection of tracks by the likes of Steel Pulse, African Head Charge, Paolini Dub Files, the Orb, and Alpha Steppa — some of them previously unreleased in any format. The sounds are a mix of analog and digital, and the sonic spaces are consistently both huge and microscopically detailed. If, like me, you somehow slept on Sub Signals Vol. 1, then take this as your cue to pick up both collections.

Khöömei Beat
Changys Baglaash
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)

Traditional Tuvan throat singing and rock’n’roll might not seem like an obvious combination, but hey — we live in a world of less-than-obvious musical fusions these days, and all the better for that, I say. Khöömei Beat play a mix of modern and traditional instruments in support of vocals that veer back and forth between conventional singing and the Tuvan people’s particular approach to throat singing — a technique that uses guttural vocalization to produce overtones, which are then manipulated by changing the shape of the mouth while the singer maintains a steady fundamental pitch. It’s a unique sound, surely not to everyone’s taste, but always interesting and objectively impressive. Combine it with punky bass and guitars, aggressive drums, and an array of regional traditional instruments and you have an album that is sure to enliven any party.

Jah Sun & The Rising Tide
Running Through Walls (digital only)
AMT Entertainment
No cat. no.

Here’s some tight and tuneful roots reggae from the Bay Area. Jah Sun and his band have been lighting up the California reggae scene for some time now, and you can hear a tightness and discipline in their sound that comes only with lots and lots of gigging. Honestly, I’m always a bit uncomfortable when white American guys acquire Jamaican accents to sing reggae, but Jah Sun does it only very subtly — and the quality of his songs is so consistently high that it’s easy to just go with it. Interestingly, while some of this material is straight-up modern roots, other songs push the stylistic boundaries: for example, the title track is more reggae-adjacent than reggae, while “Stuck with You” is sort of a soca-pop fusion (and works very well). But there’s not a weak track here, no matter what the genre or style, and Jah Sun’s consistent message of positivity and uplift is a joy. Highly recommended to all reggae and/or pop collections.

October 2021


Stephen Yip
Quietude: Music of Stephen Yip
Various Ensembles/Soloists

Doug Bielmeier
Ambient Works

The titles of these two new releases on the Albany label might lead you to expect similar listening experiences, but in fact they are very different. Quietude presents compositions for soloists and chamber ensembles by Stephen Yip, who was raised in Hong Kong and educated both there and at Rice University in Texas. The music presented here is indeed often quiet, but it’s also challenging, characterized by extended instrumental techniques and often by harmonic dissonance. (Topic: the ensemble piece Tranquility in Consonance III is neither tranquil nor consonant. Discuss.) The title work is perhaps the most difficult, but I was especially captivated by White Dew, for flute and bass flute, which calls on the musicians to create a wide variety of tones and effects in a highly reverberant acoustic. This is a fascinating and wonderful album that gives the listener plenty to chew on. Doug Bielmeier’s Ambient Works, on the other hand, comes much closer to providing exactly what its title promises: quiet and minimal ambient music, based on computer-generated sounds, samples, and (in one case) live instruments. But even here there are some crunchier moments: Photo Lab Sanctuary is a “soundwalk” piece built on environmental samples that don’t exactly soothe or lull the listener; Backscatter sounds like a cross between a Steve Reich phase piece and something Carl Stone might write when in a puckish mood. No Time is written for a quartet of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, though the music is altered and processed to the point that its sonic origins are somewhat obscured. This isn’t ambient music to fall asleep to — but it’s consistently interesting and frequently deeply beautiful.

Franz Anton Hoffmeister
6 Clarinet Quartets
Eddy Vanoosthuyse; Zemlinsky Quartet
Antarctica (dist. Naxos)
AR 032

George Friedrich Fuchs
Clarinet Chamber Music
Italian Classical Consort / Luigi Magistrelli
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
BRI 96305

Franz Hoffmeister came to Vienna in 1754, at age 14, to study law. But after completing his degree he stayed on to pursue his real passion, which was music composition. Although he had success writing music, he made his money as a publisher, and has only in recent years begun to receive his full due as a composer — and now, after years of neglect, some of his most popular works are his chamber pieces for clarinet and string trio. On this recording, the very fine Belgian clarinetist Eddy Vanoosthuyse joins three members of the Zemlinsky Quartet (all playing modern instruments) to provide us a tour of these six innovative and charming pieces, all of which are actually arrangements of pieces originally written for flute and strings or oboe and strings; this approach reflects the growing popularity of the clarinet in 18th-century Europe. Vanoosthuyse and the Zemlinskys play them with both sensitivity to period style and an admirable panache, using dynamic shifts carefully to bring out the full genius of these lovely quartets. George Friedrich Fuchs was working in France at the same time as Hoffmeister in Vienna, and while he never achieved the same notoriety as Hoffmeister, his chamber works for clarinet (in various combinations with other instruments) receive deserved attention here from the Italian Classical Consort, again on modern instruments, under the baton of clarinetist Luigi Magistrelli. There is a duo for clarinet and horn; trios for clarinets, for two clarinets and bassoon, and for two clarinets and violin; and arrangements of opera arias for various combinations of clarinets and other wind instruments. This is music of great charm, if not world-changing innovation, and this recording offers a welcome opportunity to hear from one of the minor but still considerable talents of the classical era. (Why the album cover features an image of someone playing an oboe is something of a mystery.) Both are recommended to all libraries.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Three or One
Fred Thomas; Aisha Orazbayeva; Lucy Railton

Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach for Two
Romina Lischka; Marnix De Cat
Ramée/Outhere (dist. Naxos)

Here we have two very different applications of the art of transcription to the music of J.S. Bach. The first is by pianist Fred Thomas, who has arranged an array of selections from Bach’s legendary Orgelbüchlein (“little organ book”) for a trio of piano, violin, and cello. Thomas chose violinist Aisha Orazbayeva and cellist Lucy Railton because he was familiar with their work as a duo and knew of their tendency towards “lean sonorities,” which the listener will notice — in fact, if I hadn’t known better I’d have assumed they were playing gut-strung instruments. Thomas’ arrangements are thoughtful, and the trio’s playing is more intensely emotional than one might expect. This is a quiet triumph of an album. “Quiet triumph” would also be an apt descriptor of Bach for Two, a collection of transcriptions of organ sonatas, arias, and other miscellanea for viola da gamba and organ, along with a setting of the BWV1027 sonata for viol and keyboard. While it might seem as if the mighty organ would inevitably overwhelm the much softer and wispier tonalities of the viola da gamba, in fact they complement each other beautifully on these arrangements (due in part to skillful production). Lischka and De Cat have long experience playing together, and it shows; their shared depth of understanding of and deep affection for Bach’s organ and chamber music come out with every note.


Champian Fulton & Stephen Fulton
Live from Lockdown

A new album from Champian Fulton is always cause for celebration, and when she’s joined by her father, the outstanding flugelhorn and trumpet player Stephen Fulton, you can be assured of a warm, complex, and golden-toned musical experience. As a singer, Champian acts as a sort of prism: through her brain and her voice, the melodic playfulness of Billie Holiday and the impeccable intonation of Ella Fitzgerald and the strutting confidence of Sarah Vaughn are all refracted and emerge as a unique expressive identity; as a pianist, she’s like a history book come to life, switching between (and sometimes blending) stride, bebop, boogie-woogie, and cool styles seemingly without effort. This latest album is, as its title suggests, the product of the Fultons’ forced shift from live-in-person performance to livestreamed concerts produced at home. It consists almost entirely of standards, mostly ballads and mid-tempo swingers like “You’ve Changed,” “Satin Doll,” “Look for the Silver Lining,” and “Moonglow,” with a couple of lovely originals thrown in as well. As always, both Fultons play not only with skill but with heart, and with a rare level of interpersonal communication. For all libraries.

Glad to Be Here
Storyville (dist. Naxos)

Over the course of his long career, trombonist and composer Ole Lindgreen (a.k.a. Fessor) has released almost 40 albums under his own name, not counting the scores of releases on which he has appeared as a sideman. On Glad to Be Here — an album reportedly recorded around the dining table in his home — he looks back on that illustrious career, revisiting such trad and swing standards as “Louisiana,” “Moten Swing,” “Azure,” and “Drop Me Off in Harlem,” working with a septet that includes clarinetist Chris Tanner and bassist Jens Sølund and that frequently manages to sound like a big band despite its actual size. Lindgreen and his boys shift gracefully from slippery second-line rhythms to powerful 1930s-era swing and back again, playing constantly with an uncanny blend of emotive soul and sophisticated, almost academic precision. Maybe that’s why they call him Fessor.

Graham Dechter
Major Influence

Guitarist Graham Dechter is back for another outing as leader on an all-originals program (well, almost — it includes a lovely arrangement of “Pure Imagination” from the first Willy Wonka movie) leading an all-star quartet that includes pianist Tamir Hendelman, bassist John Clayton, and master drummer Jeff Hamilton. It’s always a sign of mature confidence when a guitarist chooses to share space with a pianist, and Dechter demonstrates that confidence (and exceptional taste) in his choice of Hendelman, with whom he comfortably and companionably shares the middle pitch range and the chordal duties on this outstanding album. The blues is a recurring element on these tunes, and it’s in the blues pocket that Dechter seems particularly happy and free, but honestly there are no weak tracks here. One of my favorites was “Bent on Monk,” a lovely tribute on which Dechter incorporates elements of Thelonious Monk tunes (and technique) into a hard-swinging original that never attempts to ape the one to whom he’s paying tribute. Recommended to all collections.

Chick Corea Akoustic Band
Live (2 discs)
Concord Jazz

Never having been a big fan of his electric fusion stuff — the music for which he really became famous in the 1970s — I’ve always been quite interested in the late Chick Corea’s more straight-ahead, acoustic work. Since 1989 he’s worked intermittently with what he calls the Akoustic Band: himself on piano, John Pattitucci on bass, and (with the exception of one recording) Dave Weckl on drums. The trio has made one studio album and now three live albums; this one documents two sets played at the SPC Music Hall in Florida in January of 2018. The program consists of a mix of standards and Corea compositions, and the group plays with the suppleness and freedom that comes from years of working together, however sporadically. You can hear the fusion backgrounds of all three players, particularly in the soloing (I especially hear it when Weckl gets a chance to stretch out), and the tension between that stylistic tendency and the straight-ahead jazz framework within which they’re playing creates some wonderful moments. Highlights include a searching and tender rendition of “In a Sentimental Mood” and their thrilling take on one of my favorite standards of all time, “On Green Dolphin Street.”


Ana Egge
Between Us
Storysound (dist. Redeye)

Singer-songwriter Ana Egge takes off in something of a new direction on this, her twelfth album. Opening with the gently chugging, horn-driven “Wait a Minute” and then proceeding through a program of generally quiet and heartfelt tracks dealing with troubled relationships (“You Hurt Me,” “Heartbroken Kind”), political conflict within families (“Lie, Lie, Lie”), the death of a loved one (“We Lay Roses”), etc. Her roots in the acoustic music scene are very much evident throughout, but the production on this album is bigger and lusher than usual: steel guitars, rockish distortion, and the aforementioned horns show up every so often to give a new weight and depth to her sound. Egge’s way with a melody is subtle and engaging, as is her voice, one that can go from a whisper to a full-chested declamation so smoothly and naturally that you hardly notice the transition. My favorite couplet from this very fine album: “We let the devil come between us/And now he doesn’t want to go.”

Jeremy Stephens
How I Hear It

Multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Stephens is best known as the frontman for High Fidelity, but he also has a long history as a sideman, working with the likes of Jesse McReynolds, the Lilly Brothers, the Chuck Wagon Gang, and others. Here he breaks out of both molds and offers us a glimpse of his own personal musical vision. As it turns out, that vision is both deeply rooted in tradition and slyly eclectic. His banjo playing draws both on the Scruggs-era verities and the single-string innovations of Don Reno; when he plays mandolin he slides back and forth between hard-driving traditional approaches and the more elegant cross-picking style popularized by Jesse McReynolds. He also plays guitar on this album, beautifully, and sings — and when his wife and collaborator Corrina Rose Logston joins him in harmony, the effect is exquisite. There are so many highlights on this joyful, varied album that it’s hard to pick just one or two, but “You’ll Be Lonesome Too” is a bittersweet joy, and the album-opening rendition of the Reno & Smiley classic “Sockeye” is also especially tasty. For all libraries.

Myriam Gendron
Ma délire: Songs of Love Lost & Found
Feeding Tube (dist. Forced Exposure)

Laurel Premo
Golden Loam
Laurel Premo Sound

This is an interesting temporal coincidence: two simultaneous releases by unrelated female singers/guitarists, each creating and exploring a conceptually related but very different territory of folk/experimental guitar-based music. Myriam Gendron does so through a Québecois lens: sometimes singing in English and sometimes in French, she delivers fuzz-heavy doom-folk on “C’Est dans les vieux pays” and then switches to unadorned acoustic guitar for an instrumental rendition of “Shenandoah” (a tune that is revisited vocally, and in French, at the end of the album). She sings John Jacob Niles’ “I Wonder As I Wander” alongside understated winds and strings, and makes “Le tueur des femmes” sound lighter than it really is. Laurel Premo’s Golden Loam is more guitar-focused, and more electric; Premo’s approach is more Southern-U.S.-based, with slide guitar blues and gospel tunes rubbing up against gorgeous oddities like the Norwegian fiddle tune “Torbjørn Bjellands Bruremarsj.” There’s not much singing on this album, but when she pipes up on “Hop High” her voice is understated and perfect. Both of these albums are recommended to all libraries.


Various Artists
The Sun Shines Here: The Roots of Indie-pop 1980-1984 (3 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)

The Cherry Red label continues to produce essential box-set anthologies documenting pop music history from the later 20th century, showing particular strength in music from in and around the 1970s punk revolution. The latest is this one, which shines light on some obscure corners of the indie pop scene of the early 1980s — indie pop being distinguished from mainstream pop by its general weirdness, and from post-punk by its almost entire rejection of guitar distortion. Cherry Red being an English label, the manifestations of indie pop on offer here are all British: relatively famous names like Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout, Everything But the Girl, and Scritti Politti are all represented, as are many artists from whom we never heard again (I’m looking at you, Dolly Mixture), and quite a bit of the material on these three discs has never been available on CD before. It’s a mixed bag, of course, but a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable one. Libraries that acquired Cherry Red’s Scared to Get Happy box back in 2013 will find that this one serves essentially as a sequel to it. Libraries that collect deeply in pop music and didn’t pick that one up should probably grab both of them now.

Various Artists
R&B in DC 1940-1960: Rhythm & Blues, Doo Wop, Rockin’ Rhythm and More… (16 discs)
Bear Family (dist. MVD)
GCD 17052

Like all box sets on the Bear Family label, this one is a monument of music and scholarship — and one more in an ongoing series of gauntlets thrown down in front of the American music establishment by a German company that seems much more dedicated to the preservation and celebration of America’s musical heritage than any of the latter country’s own labels are. In this case, the specific slice of heritage under consideration is the spectrum of African American pop music styles that flourished in the Washington, DC area during the middle two decades of the 20th century. Over the course of 16 CDs (and a lavishly illustrated, LP-sized, 350-page hardbound book), this set documents the development of early R&B, jump blues, doo wop, and gospel music during that fertile period, drawing on records unearthed at regional swap meets, flea markets, yard sales, and record stores by radio host and music researcher Jay Bruder and painstakingly transferred and restored. Not only is the sound quality consistently excellent, but the accompanying book is a triumph of popular music scholarship: every track is annotated — some in astonishing historical detail — and the book itself is gorgeous, handsomely bound in such a way that it lies flat no matter what page you open to. The music itself is not consistently excellent, and that’s part of the point of the project: clunkers are presented alongside little-known masterpieces, giving us a fully-textured overview of the DC music scene at a critical point in American cultural history. But the ratio of dross to gold is highly favorable: for every eight or ten spine-tingling appearance by, say, Billy Eckstine or the Cruisers or the Young Gospel Singers, there might be a silly novelty tune or a throwaway formula exercise by someone else. (And since some artists are represented by ten or more entries, even the quality of music from individual artists and groups is somewhat uneven.) Again, though, this is the point: like most Bear Family boxes, this is one is as much about learning as about listening, which makes it a natural fit for library collections — well-funded library collections, that is, as this one lists for about $300. Very highly recommended.

Marshall Crenshaw
The Wild, Exciting Sounds of Marshall Crenshaw: Live in the 20th and 21st Century (2 discs)
Sunset Blvd

America has lots of songwriters, and a few of them are commercially successful. Of the commercially successful ones, a few are masters of the form. Marshall Crenshaw is one of that very select group. He has also been, for several decades now, a dynamite live performer, as this two-disc set illustrates. The first disc documents performances from 1982 and 1983 in the Boston and New York areas (leading a band that included his brothers Robert and John). The sound quality of these live recordings is generally good, though at times it’s unfortunately distorted (note, for example, “Whenever You’re on My Mind”). In a live context, classic tunes like “Cynical Girl” and “Mary Anne” take on an extra element of joyful abandon, and we get a clearer view of the raw rockabilly underpinnings of a song like “Got a Lot of Livin’ to Do.” On disc 2 we get to hear both solo and band performances from 1991 and 2014, and while these are quite good they’re honestly not quite as compelling as the earlier recordings. Overall, though, this album is a solid winner.

Pere Ubu
St. Arkansas (reissue)
Fire (dist. Redeye)

Pere Ubu
Pennsylvania (reissue)

Since its inception in the mid-1970s, Cleveland’s proto-art-punk stalwarts Pere Ubu have been blazing an entirely unique trail through the thickets of rock, punk, art-rock, and even straight-up pop music. By 1998, when Pennsylvania was originally issued, only frontman David Thomas and guitarists Jim Jones and Tom Herman remained from the group’s earliest days; by 2002, when St. Arkansas came out, Jones’ declining health had moved him to the sidelines; he was a featured player on the album but no longer a fully functioning member of the band. (Sadly, he would die a few years later, at age 57.) These two albums are among the darkest of the band’s discography, though not the most weird or experimental: while the pop hooks that abounded on albums like Cloudland and Worlds in Collision are nowhere to be found here, the fundamental structure is fairly standard-issue rock’n’roll, with the standard overlay of bloopy synths and Thomas’ uniquely squeaky, yelping vocals delivering distinctly odd lyrics. Longstanding Ubu themes of American geography, highways, and place names continue to thread through these albums — no songs about birds, though. Both albums were remixed by Thomas for the reissue.


Lee “Scratch” Perry
Roast Fish, Collie Weed, and Corn Bread (reissue)

With the recent passing of legendary reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, you can anticipate lots of reissues and tribute albums over the next year or so. Some will be outstanding; some will be dodgy money-grabs. This one is gold. Perry is mostly known as a producer who created an utterly unique studio sound and was at the helm for some of reggae’s most enduring recordings by the likes of the Heptones, Junior Byles, the Congos, and even Bob Marley and the Wailers. But this album represents Perry as an artist, singing his uniquely weird lyrics over classic Black Ark backing tracks. Songs like “Throw Some Water In” and “Free Up the Weed” are not only great Perry songs, they’re classics of classical-era 1970s reggae. (Though he probably should have left “Curly Locks” alone, since his performance of it pales terribly in comparison to Byles‘.) This CD is not actually a new reissue, but since the album is being reissued on red vinyl for Record Store Day I thought I’d take the opportunity to encourage all libraries to pick up the CD version. This is an absolutely essential piece of reggae history.

Dennis Bovell Meets Dubblestandart
@Repulse “Reggae Classics”
Echo Beach

This album represents a summit meeting of two reggae legends: from the old school, London-based bassist/producer Dennis Bovell (a.k.a. Blackbeard); and from the new school, Vienna’s Dubblestandart, perhaps Europe’s foremost exponents of heavy modernist roots reggae. The album’s inscrutable title notwithstanding, it’s a straightforward affair: reworks of classic reggae tunes from Jamaican and UK bands like Matumbi, Steel Pulse, Twinkle Brothers, and Culture, with Dubblestandart providing the backing tracks and Bovell singing and producing. Delightfully, the album is presented in “showcase” style, with each vocal version followed by a dub mix. Songs like “Jah Jah See Dem a Come” and “Hypocrite” may be familiar fare, but these versions shed fresh light on them and the mighty Dubblestandart crew do an excellent job of making them their own. And Bovell’s production is brilliant as always. Highly recommended.

Native Soul
Teenage Dreams
Awesome Tapes from Africa

In recent months I’ve kind of fallen in love with amapiano, a dance music genre that emerged in South Africa about ten years ago. Although it’s rooted in house music (and I really hate house music), I find it irresistible somehow: the four-on-the-floor beats that make house so tedious to my ears somehow manage to be both soothing and propulsive here, and the layers of samples and melodic fragments that create the body of the sound are both often weird and frequently uplifting. Native Soul is a duo who produce some of the most attractive examples of amapiano I’ve yet heard, and their new release is a gentle triumph of color and texture. From the bumping opening track “The Beginning” to the album-closing “End of Time,” the steady 115-bpm chug and the creative building up of musical layers is a delight. If your library has a collecting interest in sub-Saharan pop music, this album is a must-have.

September 2021


Augustin Pfleger
The Life and Passion of the Christ
Orkester Nord; Vox Nidrosiensis / Martin Wåhlberg
Aparte Music (dist. Integral)

Though almost entirely unknown today, the Bohemian composer Augustin Pfleger was an influential figure in the transition from the late Renaissance to the early baroque, one who was widely praised by his contemporaries. This important and unusual recording takes six of Pfleger’s “sacred concertos” (what we would now call cantatas, though his style is very different from that of his junior near-contemporary Bach) and arranges them into a program that functions as a Passion setting: each of the six recounts a different segment of the story of Christ’s birth, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection. The sound is spare — almost sere — and quietly somber throughout, even during the relatively joyful resurrection narrative; solo voices predominate, and the instrumental accompaniment is minimal. Bass viols and a theorbed lute are the predominant elements, and the use of a psaltery is interesting (and explained in the notes). The vocal soloists are consistently outstanding, and this album is excellent overall — both a valuable historical document and a richly rewarding listening experience. For all collections.

Carl Stamitz
Le jour variable: Four Symphonies
Kölner Akademie / Michael Alexander Willens
CPO (dist. Naxos)
555 344-2

These four symphonies by Mannheim School stalwart Carl Stamitz are notable for several reasons: first of all, they are among the earliest of Stamitz’s symphonies, of which he is known to have written 50. Each of them introduces formal innovations that would have stirred things up a bit in early-1770s Germany, but the final work in the program — his Grand Pastoral Symphony in G major nicknamed “Le jour variable” — is the one that really catches the attention. It’s a programmatic work (meaning a piece of music designed to invoke non-musical imagery, especially scenes of nature) that anticipates musical strategies that wouldn’t become widespread for another hundred years. All of this reflects Stamitz’s hunger to innovate, and he does so highly effectively here. The playing by Kölner Akademie (on period instruments) is outstanding, and this recording should find a welcome home in all library classical collections.

Various Composers
Stimme aus der Ferne: A Voice from the Distance
Andrea Botticelli

The fortepiano — the keyboard instrument that served as something of a transition between the harpsichord and the modern pianoforte — has become a fixture on recordings of music from the classical period, but is far less often featured when the program draws on the Romantic. For this album, Andrea Botticelli has chosen to use the unique sonorities of the fortepiano to shed a different light on pieces by Franz Schubert, Carl Czerny, and Robert and Clara Schumann. Schubert’s early-Romantic and Czerny’s rather academic styles make an obvious fit, but where Botticelli really shines is when she’s making an argument for the fortepiano in the context of Robert Schumann’s opus 2 Papillons suite and Clara Schumann’s “Notturno” from the opus 6 Soirées musicales. Here the fortepiano is pushed much closer to its expressive limits, and under her virtuosic but sensitive fingers it meets the challenge admirably. Libraries supporting programs in music history and keyboard pedagogy should pay particular attention to this release.

Wulfstan of Winchester
Swithun!: Demons and Miracles from Winchester around 1000
Dialogos / Katarina Livljanić
Arcana/Outhere (dist. Naxos)

The cult of St. Swithun formed the lyrical basis for the music of the Winchester Cathedral in the 11th century. Wulfstan, the cathedral’s cantor during this period, composed a long Anglo-Latin narrative based on St. Swithun’s life, and this recording by the all-woman quartet Dialogos is centered on that narrative; director Katarina Livljanić has created a setting that alternates melodic improvisation on the Wulfstan text with composed polyphonic selections from the Winchester Troper. As one might expect, the polyphonic passages are astringently beautiful, while the monophonic sections tend towards the ecstatic, in a style that will remind many listeners of the music of Hildegard von Bingen. The singers of Dialogos don’t go to great lengths to create a seamless sonic blend; instead, they embrace the differing textures of their voices, and the effect is striking and quite lovely. This is a truly unique and very beautiful recording.

Johann Sebastian Bach
MAK: Bach
Mak Grgic
MF 19

Johann Sebastian Bach
The Art of Fugue (2 discs)
Filippo Gorini
Alpha Classics/Outhere (dist. Naxos)

These two very different releases of music by J.S. Bach have something important in common: addressing issues that go beyond the notes of the compositions in question. One focuses on the issue of temperament (in the musical sense); the other, of feeling. Mak Grgic plays a microtonal guitar — an instrument equipped with sliding frets that allow the player to adjust the notes available to each string individually, thus making it possible (in this case) to play it according to a keyboard temperament invented by a member of Bach’s household. Without going into all the technicalities of just intonation vs. equal temperament, I’ll just say here that the sound of this guitar is in fact quite different from what modern ears are used to; the harmonies are a bit more vinegary, the flavors changing subtly but audibly as the music modulates. Grgic plays transcriptions of various Bach chorales, partitas, and sonatas, and makes a powerful musical argument for his approach. One need not believe that “equal temperament destroys everything” to hear why specialists get as passionate as they do on this issue. Pianist Filippo Gorini is making a very different argument with his recording of Bach’s Art of Fugue; here he’s pushing back on those who regard Bach’s magisterial study of counterpoint as “solely a theoretical marvel.” He plays each of these canons, fugues, and contrapuncti as musical statements laden with feeling and rhetorical meaning. This isn’t to say that he treats them like Romantic pieces, but rather than he interprets them through a lens that isn’t strictly academic. The result is a truly enlightening and deeply moving performance. Both discs are recommended to all classical collections.


Sheila Jordan
Comes Love: Lost Session 1960

Sheila Jordan is a celebrated singer and an NEA Jazz Master, and her official discography begins with her 1963 debut Portrait of Sheila. Or it did, until the discovery of this standards session she recorded in 1960 with an unidentified trio. Now 92 years old, Jordan herself has no recollection of making the recording or of who her accompanists were on the date, which is unfortunate but also adds to the delightful mystery of this wonderful album. It’s mastered from an acetate transfer that was found without any identifying label beyond an attached studio portrait of Jordan, but there’s no mistaking the voice — young but confident, idiosyncratic in its horn-like phrasing and occasional but expressive vibrato — and the songs themselves are familiar enough to create something of a blank canvas onto which she was able to paint her very personal interpretations. She nods gently to Billie Holiday on “Don’t Explain,” but doesn’t imitate her; she scats deftly on “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” but not in a showy way. Everywhere she wears her heart on her sleeve, but you never get the feeling that she’s fully revealing herself. All of it points to the illustrious career to come. No deep jazz collection should pass up this wonderful release.

Kenny Shanker
Beautiful Things
Wise Cat

Oh my gosh, this album is so much fun. Here’s an example of what I mean: it opens with “Cool Mint,” a tune that, frankly, struck me at first as maybe just a bit saccharine. Shanker’s alto and Daisuke Abe’s guitar play the head in tandem, partly in unison and partly in harmony, over a relentlessly chugging rhythm and the whole thing sounds a bit like the theme music from a 1970s sitcom. And then comes the second tune, the aptly titled “Prestissimo.” This one is pure, lickety-split bebop, with a head that could have been written by Dizzy Gillespie and a quintet arrangement that harks back to the salad days of Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Charlie Christian. The rest of the album is split between Shanker originals and standards, including some gorgeous ballads (at times featuring either uncredited or maybe synthesized strings) and a brilliant, angular arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud.” The title track closes the album in a lovely, lyrical mode. Recommended to all jazz collections.

Will Bernard
Ancient Grains

Guitarist Will Bernard has always operated around the edges of straight-ahead jazz, exploring the overlapping universes of jazz and funk with T.J. Kirk, playing as a sideman to such experimental eminences as Jai Uttal and Peter Apfelbaum, and delivering solo albums that keep one foot solidly in the jazz mainstream while the other dips in and out of other adjacent styles and approaches. His latest effort as a leader delves deep into one specific tradition: the funky organ trio. Playing alongside Hammond organist Sam Yahel and drummer Donald Edwards, Bernard delivers a solid set of originals (plus one Thelonious Monk tune) that marry slippery, sideways chord progressions with grooves that are sometimes skittery, sometimes funky, and always swinging. Bernard’s tone remains one of the chief delights of his sound, but his compositional chops are absolutely top-notch here as well. Highlights are a bit hard to identify when a program is as consistently good as this one, but I love the marriage of hard funk and abstract chord changes on “Five Finger Discount” and the fleet-fingered, bluesy lyricism of “Pleasure Seekers.” And of course his take on Monk’s “Boo Boo’s Birthday” is delivered with that special love that Bernard has always held for the towering hero of off-kilter bebop. Highly recommended.

Wayne Coniglio & Scott Whitfield
Faster Friends
Summit (dist. MVD)
DCD 783

Seven years ago I recommended Wayne Coniglio and Scott Whitfield’s first duo project, titled Fast Friends. It’s been a long wait for the follow-up, but it was worth it. Once again the two trombonists are supported by a piano trio, but this time they also feature a few guest vocalists (who provide wordless vocalise on a lively, skipping version of Rodgers & Hart’s “Mimi”). Coniglio offers several great originals, including one based on the changes to “Giant Steps” (“Step Checkitude”) and a lovely boppish tribute to his deceased fellow Ray Charles Band alumnus James Farnsworth. And in the context of “boppish,” it’s important to point out here — again — how difficult it is to play the trombone as nimbly as these guys do at tempo. Ballads with lots of legato phrasing represent the real comfort zone for the ‘bone; notey uptempo charts are notoriously challenging for an instrument that depends so heavily on a slide. Coniglio and Whitfield aren’t show-offs, but the phrase “fast friends” is still impressively apt. Highly recommended.

Kevin Sun
❤ Bird
Endectomorph Music

I read the album title as “Love Bird,” but I hear the music as more than just a love letter to the still-towering colossus of modern jazz: saxophonist Kevin Sun spent a significant amount of lockdown time immersing himself again in the music of Charlie Parker, listening to hours and hours of Parker’s compositions and solos, and used that raw material to fashion a highly personal but deeply respectful tribute to Parker’s legacy. The 15 brief tracks that compose this album draw on melodic elements from the Parker book (you’ll hear scraps of “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” “Dexterity, “Bloomdido,” and many others) but present them to the listener as refracted through the prism of Sun’s own musical personality. “Adroitness, Parts I & II” deftly juxtapose balladic lyricism with briskly swinging bebop, while “Onomatopoeia” is a relatively direct tribute on which Sun and guitarist Max Light play a highly complex head in unison at thrilling tempo. Elsewhere things get a bit more idiosyncratic: “Du Yi’s Choir” (a pun on the Parker composition “Dewey Square”) incorporates the sound of the sheng, while “Sturgis” brings together transcriptions of Parker’s various recorded solos on “Mohawk” in counterpoint. This album is both conceptually fascinating and a huge amount of fun to listen to.


Dori Freeman
Ten Thousand Roses
Blue Hens Music
No cat. no.

Every time a new album from Dori Freeman arrives in the mail, I practically jump up and down with gleeful anticipation. And she has yet to disappoint. Her latest is the first one produced by her husband, drummer Nicholas Falk, and he’s created a sound for her songs that nicely blends elements of country, old-time, and rock (and even a bit of funk if you listen carefully), but throughout the album, the Appalachian culture of which Freeman is so fiercely proud pushes its way through the modern-ish sound like a flower coming up through gravel. The assertive independence of her lyrical vision is always clear as well, particularly on tracks like the sharp “get rid of that loser” song “The Storm” and on “Appalachian” (“I’m an Appalachian, I’m a Cripple Creek pearl/I’m a can to ash in, for the rest of the world”). Her voice, as always, is a wonder — an entrancing blend of gritty and sweet — as is her unassailable way with a melody. Highly recommended to all libraries.

John Reischmann
New Time & Old Acoustic

Mandolinist John Reischman’s new solo album bears a sly title, one that references his long, storied, and musically diverse past. He’s an adept of “old time” (i.e. pre-bluegrass) trad American music, as well as of bluegrass, of course; but he’s also one of the founding architects of what came to be called “New Acoustic” music back in the early 1980s. Its better-known exponents include Tony Rice and, especially, Reischmann’s fellow mandolin innovator David Grisman. But while Grisman used bluegrass as a jumping-off point for excursions into jazzier territories, Reischmann has tended to dig deeper into traditional musical styles. On this album he performs mostly original compositions, all of which have their stylistic feet firmly embedded in the soil of the American southeast (and the closely related soil of the British Isles), but most of which still manage to range into more complex melodic and harmonic regions. For example: his “Suzanne’s Journey” could easily have come straight out of the O’Neill Collection, whereas “Cascadia” could have been an outtake from an early Tony Rice Unit album. “Rosco’s Ramble” is straight-up bluegrass with a couple of sly twists (and some great use of Scruggs/Keith tuners by banjo picker Patrick Sauber), and his take on the traditional “Sugar in the Gourd” is a joyful twin-mandolin romp (featuring bassist/mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist) — and don’t miss the guest appearance by string quartet The Fretless. For all libraries.

Jim Lauderdale
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)

Sometimes Jim Lauderdale’s personal brand of country music is as trad as trad can get: he’s made records with Ralph Stanley and with former Kentucky Colonel Roland White, for example. But sometimes he catches you by surprise, as on this startlingly genre-busting album. It’s not that it doesn’t have plenty of twang to it; Lauderdale’s vocal style is still fully informed by his South Carolina upbringing, and there’s plenty of steel guitar throughout. But “Mushrooms Are Growing After the Rain” is as much 70s pop as anything else, “Brave One” and “We Fade In We Fade Out” both frankly rock out, and “Breathe Real Slow” is just its own thing — a gentle combination of country and rock balladry. Lyrically, these songs consistently reflect a deeply and sweetly human worldview: song titles like “The Opportunity to Help Somebody Through It” and “It’s Almost More Than All the Joy” give you an idea of what to expect here. Jim Lauderdale is a national treasure, and this is another quiet triumph.

Buck Owens
The Many Sides of Buck Owens: After the Dance
Atomicat (dist. MVD)

There are basically two kinds of reissue label: the Quick-and-Dirty Moneymaker (business model: throw together some old recordings to which you don’t have the rights but over which you’re unlikely to be sued, package them cheaply, sell them at a mid-budget price), and the Labor of Love (business model: carefully curate vintage recordings, remaster as necessary, provide extensive historical and personnel notes, sell them at whatever price makes sense). Atomicat is definitely in the latter category. This collection pulls together a generous program of Owens recordings from the 1950s, just before he made it big. Much of this material will be familiar to his fans (“Excuse Me,” “Foolin’ Around,” “Above and Beyond,” etc.), but almost half of the disc is dedicated to more obscure fare — a couple of songs he recorded under the pseudonym Corky Jones, duo and support performances with the likes of Jean Shepherd, Wanda Jackson, and Tommy Collins, much of it more rockabilly than country. And it pays proper respect to Owens’ sideman and harmony singer Don Rich, whose contribution to the development of the Bakersfield Sound was as important as Owens’, but much less conspicuous (due in part to his death at a tragically young age). The sound is startlingly clear and rich throughout, even when the source recordings are of slightly dodgy quality. Any library with a collecting interest in country music should snap this one up.


Maia Doi Todd
Music Life
City Zen

It took me a while to figure out what it was that struck me as odd about this album. It wasn’t just the gently introspective chamber-pop vibe (complete with bassoon, flute, and Fender Rhodes piano). It’s Todd’s voice — or, more accurately, her singing style, which sounds more classically cultivated than poppily emotive. Her vowels are round and decorously covered; her delivery is unfailingly restrained, with just a hint of bel canto vibrato. What makes this approach particularly interesting is the stylistic variety on offer here, and the lyrical sharpness. “Little Bird,” a gentle bossa nova, starts with my nominee for Opening Line of the Year: “Why don’t these problems just go away?” And later on, the song titled “If I Don’t Have You” completes the thought with: “nobody else will.” Eek. Clearly there’s something of an emotional iron fist tucked away in the velvet glove of these arrangements, and it makes everything that much more interesting. (A digital-only remix collection based on this album has just been released, too. Titled Ten Views of Music Life, it features reworks by such producers as SunEye, Jira, and DNTEL, all of whom treat the songs with maybe a bit more respect than I might have liked — a slamming breakbeat here and there wouldn’t have hurt — but all of whom bring new musical insight to the material.)

Aria Rostami
Maramar (cassette/digital only)
Intimate Inanimate
No cat. no.

Persian-American producer and sound artist Aria Rostami is currently based in Brooklyn, but grew up in California and has absorbed a wide variety of electronic music styles throughout his busy career. On Maramar he simultaneously explores the intelligent dance music (IDM), ambient, and breakbeat genres; on the lovely “Under the Glass House,” for example, busy beats percolate and bubble underneath languid synth washes, while “Further and Further” is built mainly of a complex and bustling rhythmic structure onto which subtle melody is draped in very delicate wisps. The album closes with “Going,” a floating and drifting cloud of string textures that leaves rhythm behind in favor of gradually building harmonies that become denser and more complicated as the track progresses — but are never less than lushly beautiful. This is an unusually lovely release from a major young talent.

The Bug
Ninja Tune (dist. Redeye)

The music of Kevin Martin, d.b.a. The Bug, will most likely get filed under “dance,” but that designation has become less and less appropriate over time, as his music has become more and more dark and abstract. On his latest effort, the song titles give you an idea of the general mood: “Demon”; “Vexed”; “Clash’; “War”; “Bomb”; etc. The music is dense and powerful, and MCs like Irah, Logan, and Nazamba bring bitter and unsparing lyrics that fit the backing tracks perfectly. Unsurprisingly, the highlight here is Daddy Freddy, whose “Ganja Baby” is a brilliant grime/dancehall fusion performance; another very fine entry is “High Rise,” featuring Manga Saint Hilare spitting over one of the darkest, most intense, and rhythmically indeterminate Bug tracks I’ve yet heard. Most serious is “The Missing,” on which poet Roger Robinson intones a brief and grim elegy for the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster, and The Bug creates a soundscape that offers no rhythm, no real chord changes — little except for a dense and billowing cloud of distortion. No, despite its numerous grooves this really isn’t a “dance” album; but what it does very effectively is illustrate some ways in which dance music tropes can be put to highly serious and thoughtful social and political use.

Dar Williams
I’ll Meet You Here

If you haven’t heard Dar Williams’ name before, it’s probably because you’re not a professional songwriter — in that sphere, she’s been a legend for decades now. Among her other great attributes, she has that most elusive of gifts: the ability to write a complicated song that sounds simple. She demonstrates that gift all over her new album, notably on the hair-raisingly beautiful “You Give It All Away” (on which you may not even notice the outstanding horn chart until the second time you listen to it) and “Let the Wind Blow” (on which she pushes a secondary dominant into the chord progression on the lines “So here comes the wave” and “So here comes the fire,” adding a little nudge of harmonic momentum at the perfect lyrical moment). Her sense of humor is still there as well, wrapping the sadness and occasional bitter edge of her lyrics in just the right thickness of velvet. Yet another quiet triumph from one of our finest songwriting talents.

Up, Bustle & Out
Vol. 2: Satellite Junk Jukebox, Fresh Outta de Galaxy
Collision: Cause of Chapter 3
CCT 3029-2

If you (and your library patrons) aren’t already familiar with the globe-trotting, sampladelic, jazzy electro-hip-hop of Up, Bustle & Out, then there’s no better time to be brought up to speed than this very minute. And a handy way of doing so is this, the second in a series of compilations designed to provide an overview of the trio’s work since its establishment 25 years ago. The first volume was titled 24 Track Almanac and focused on the group’s earliest work, compiling both released and unreleased material; this one brings together tracks on which the group collaborated with artists from around the world, resulting in tracks with titles like “Okraina Okean-E, 79,” “Descarga Caramelo,” “Hip Hop Barrio,” and “Taksim’s Elektro Streets.” Funky beats, anachronistic wah-wah guitars, languid rapping, and abstract found-sound collages all bump and rub up against each other promiscuously, producing an overall sound that is completely unique and entirely Up, Bustle & Out. Personally, I’d recommend purchasing their whole back catalog — but this is a great starting place if you just want to dip your toe in.


Longyin: The Dragon Chants
Cheng Yu with Dennis Kwong Thye Lee
ARC Music (dist. Naxos)

The guqin (a zither closely related to the Japanese koto) and the xiao (an end-blown bamboo flute) are instruments centrally important to traditional Chinese music, instruments for which some of the world’s oldest annotated music was written. On this album, celebrated guqin virtuoso Cheng Yu has teamed up with xiao player Dennis Kwong Thye Lee to present a program of classic melodies for the two instruments played in a highly traditional style; for the recording Lee strung her instrument with silk strings made in the 1930s, creating a uniquely soft and gentle tone that blends marvelously with the breathy, woody sound of the xiao. This is quiet but deeply beautiful music that should find a home in any library with a collecting interest in the traditional music of China.

Bibel in Dub
Echo Beach

Thiiiiiiiiis… is a weird one. On the one hand, it seems kind of obvious: ever since reggae music was essentially overtaken by the Rastafari movement in the early 1970s, it has been steeped in Biblical apocalypticism. (There are many competing strands of lyrical orientation within the genre, of course, but Biblical Rastafarianism remains core to the music’s cultural identity.) So why not put together an album of Bible readings set to exceedingly dark, dread reggae accompaniment? Of course, having those readings performed by a deep, stentorian voice — in German — is perhaps not the most obvious choice. And the music itself departs significantly from what one might expect; there are no familiar Studio One rhythms, and not even much in the way of regular grooves. Instead, we get bass-heavy but idiosyncratic soundscapes that are (for the most part) built on a reggae foundation but in no way constrained by it — and in some cases, the “music” is so abstract as to be nearly non-musical. What you hear behind the readings from Ezekiel is closer to ambient industrial music than anything else. So yeah, definitely a weird one. And definitely worth a listen.

Dobet Gnahoré
CMB CD-145

Since moving to France from her native Côte d’Ivoire in 1999, Dobet Gnahoré has enjoyed global success as a bandleader and recording artist performing in a style that incorporates elements from around Eastern and Southern Africa. But business troubles were compounded by the impacts of the COVID pandemic in 2020, leading her to return to Abidjan and regroup. The result is this lovely and compelling solo album, one that combines slamming beats with liltingly beautiful melodies and lyrical messages that range from female empowerment (“Yakané”) and self-determination (“Lève-toi”) to domestic love (“Ma maison”) and submissive spirituality (“Rédemption”). Throughout the album are melodies and arrangements that glisten, bounce, and soar, and the constant unifying thread if Gnahoré’s gorgeous and powerful voice. Highly recommended to all libraries.

August 2021


Hildegard von Bingen
Ordo Virtutem
Seraphic Fire

Hildegard von Bingen was a 12th century abbess, now famous for being something of a Renaissance woman hundreds of years before the Renaissance. She was a composer, philosopher, theologian, and natural scientist, and recorded numerous spiritual visions. But since the 1980s she has been best known for her music, which consists of surpassingly beautiful plainchant written for the nuns she supervised in her abbey. One of her most remarkable compositions is Ordo Virtutem, a morality play that depicts a wandering soul struggling to choose between good and evil. She is enticed by the Virtues (represented by the women’s voices) and by the Devil (portrayed by a man, who never sings; he only speaks and shouts). Seraphic Fire’s performance is passionate and ethereal by turns, and they sing with a magnificent blend. In his role as the Devil, James K. Bass is suitably bombastic, sneering, and pathetic. If your library doesn’t already own a performance of this work, start here.

Harry Partch
The Bewitched
Harry Partch Ensemble / Danlee Mitchell

Subtitled “A Ballet Satire,” this ten-scene composition (plus prologue and epilogue) seems to have been intended as a commentary on everything in 1950s America that drove Harry Partch crazy: mindless conformity in both society and music; popular entertainments; sports (at one point an actual basketball game is played onstage); soap opera; etc. If you’re at all familiar with Partch’s work and his well-documented tendency to build homemade instruments for use in performance, you won’t be surprised that the music is percussion-heavy and draws deeply on Indonesian influences, or that the staging required the dancers to move around and sometimes even interfere with the musicians. Space doesn’t permit a summary of the story line; suffice it to say that as fun and interesting as the music is, you’ll wish you could watch the action as well. This is a recording of a live performance from 1980, and it has a suitably energetic, not to say chaotic, live-performance vibe.

Alessandro Scarlatti
Sonate à quattro
Les Récréations
Ricercar (dist. Naxos)
RIC 422

I’ve always been fascinated by music that represents an inflection point of stylistic change, and the four-part sonatas of Alessandro Scarlatti are a wonderful example of such works. Around the 1700s, these compositions for four stringed instruments (the “string quartet,” as such, was not yet conceived) were unique in that they explicitly excluded the harpsichord, which at this point was still widely considered an essential element of the continuo. The music itself sounds as if it has one foot in the consort music of the Renaissance and the other in the structural rigors of baroque counterpoint; just when you think you’ve settled into one predictable set of sonorities the ground shifts beneath you. This program sets Scarlatti’s sonatas next to works by his brother Francesco and his son Domenico, as well as brief pieces by two earlier composers who exerted an influence on him: Giovanni Maria Trabaci and the celebrated Mannerist composer Carlo Gesualdo. The playing is outstanding. A must for all libraries supporting classical music pedagogy.

Michael Harrison
Seven Sacred Names
Various Performers
Cantaloupe Music (dist. Naxos)

Described as “music corresponding to the seven stages of universal awakening outlined in the book Nature’s Hidden Dimension by W.H.S. Gebel,” these seven chamber pieces seek to accompany what it essentially an exploration of the mystical dimension between the physical and spiritual worlds. Harrison is a student of Sufism, and that spiritual tradition is referenced explicitly in the titles of these pieces, though only a couple of them draw musically on South Indian elements. As one might expect, the music itself is quiet — sometimes it tends towards the pentatonic (as on Hayy: Revealing the Tones) and sometimes it’s quite melodically complex (as on the raga-based Alim: Polyphonic Raga Malkauns — and let’s stop here a moment and contemplate the fascinating concept of a polyphonic raga). Arrangements are for various small combinations of instruments and voices, and all of it is quite marvelous.

Johann Caspar Kerll
Missa non sine quare (reissue)
La Risonanza / Fabio Bonizzoni
Glossa (dist. Naxos)

Before hearing this album, I was only vaguely aware of the 17th century Viennese composer Johann Caspar Kerll. And now I’m experiencing that wonderful feeling that comes when you discover a new composer and have the opportunity to dig deeper and hear more. In the meantime, I can enthusiastically recommend this reissue of the outstanding La Risonanza’s performance (a 1999 recording originally issued on the Symphonia label), in which the small vocal forces serve to showcase Kerll’s mastery of imitative counterpoint and the aching loveliness of his melodies. As a student of Carissimi and a teacher of Pachelbel, Kerll was among the composers who ushered in the era of the Bach family, and you can hear Bach waiting impatiently in the wings here. Highly recommended to all libraries with a collecting interest in baroque music.



Aufbruch is a duo consisting of keyboardist/synthesist/programmer J. Peter Schwalm and touch guitarist Markus Reuter. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a “touch guitar” (of which the Chapman Stick may be the most famous example) is a stringed instrument designed so that vibration of its strings is actuated by tapping on them behind the frets; this frees up both hands to play notes all over the fretboard at once, in much the same way that a keyboard is played. On their debut recording as a duo, Schwalm and Reuter create dense, crunchy, but also oddly ethereal and sometimes explicitly uplifting soundscapes that tend not to move according to any obvious harmonic logic and are often sonically challenging, but yet never fail to invite the listener in. Sometimes you’ll hear instruments that are recognizable in timbre and character: electronic drums that sound like drums; a guitar that sounds like a guitar. But mostly you’ll hear a kaleidoscopic array of sounds and noises that sound like they came from another planet, and it’s fascinating. Also, don’t miss the subtle but excellent vocal contributions from Sophie Tassignon on “Lebewohl” and “Losgelöst.”

Graham Haynes vs. Submerged
Burning Ambulance Music

And while we’re exploring the liminal boundaries of jazz and being challenged as to our assumptions about what the word actually means, let’s check out this wild and magnificent collaboration between legendary cornettist Graham Haynes and avant-garde junglist Kurt Glück-Aeg, who produces and records under the name Submerged (and is the founder of the excellent avant-D&B label Ohm Resistance). The sounds they produce are pretty much what you’d expect if you’re familiar with their work individually: Haynes plays discursive, intelligent lines informed by his familiarity with Submerged’s music (and that were recorded in Brazil), and Submerged gives them electronic treatments and places them in a rhythmic and sonic context. In Haynes’ words, the goal was “trying to be as intense as possible and still be musical,” and I would say they achieved that goal: Haynes’ parts are altered but always respected, and the soundscapes created by Submerged draw on industrial, techno, drum’n’bass, and other electronic genres to create brand-new sounds and expansive (though often somewhat harsh and challenging) structures. Highly recommended.

Massimo Biolcati
Momenta (digital only)
SO 004

Back in 2020 I strongly recommended bassist/composer Massimo Biolcati’s sophomore effort as a leader, and now here I am again doing the same for his third. On Momenta Biolcati leads a quartet whose members shift throughout the program, which itself consists of the usual blend of excellent original compositions, standards, and one surprising jazz adaptation of a 1980s pop song. (Last time it was Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”; this time it’s Sadé’s “Love Is Stronger Than Pride.”) As always, Biolcati leads his band strongly but modestly, showing off the other musicians’ playing more than his own. There are so many wonderful moments here: “Estate” has a beautifully swaying, “Night and Day” vibe; on “Gumbo,” I had to double-check to make sure that the guitarist wasn’t Bill Frisell (and yes, that’s definitely intended as a compliment to the actual guitarist, Mike Moreno); Biolcati’s take on “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” is one of the most gorgeous jazz performances I’ve heard this year. Throughout the album the band’s sound is gentle but firm, often floating but never aimless. It’s another brilliant outing by one of the current jazz scene’s most impressive talents.

Tobias Hoffmann Nonet
ALR 1076

Tobias Hoffmann is a widely experienced saxophonist, composer, arranger, and educator, but this is the first album on which he has led a band on a program consistingly entirely of his own compositions and arrangements. As one might expect, he takes this opportunity to showcase his broad stylistic range and his remarkable gift for horn writing. The smooth and pleasant modern jazz of the first three tracks takes a sudden turn on “Procrastinator,” which is rhythmically knotty and calls for passages of group improvisation scattered among the tightly composed sections of the head. In fact, it’s not always easy to tell what’s composed and what isn’t on this fascinating composition. The same is true of the midtempo “Frülingserwachen” (which calls for the drummer to push things along with a bubbling stream of accents below more languid horn lines). “Who’s to Blame” has a richly-written horn chart and a swinging groove that harks back explicitly both to 1960s hard bop sound and to the 1930s heyday of big band arranging. “Remembrance” is a gorgeous ballad. Everything here is played with dynamism and virtuosity; this album would make a welcome addition to any jazz collection.

Noah Haidu
Slowly: Song for Keith Jarrett

A number of musical and life transitions led to pianist/composer Noah Haidu’s latest album. Haidu’s father passed away shortly before the two were scheduled to attend a Keith Jarrett concert together; that concert turned out to be Jarrett’s last, as he later suffered a pair of strokes that left him partially paralyzed. Jarrett turned 75 this past spring, and Haidu decided to team up with the legendary rhythm section of drummer Billy Hart and bassist Buster Williams for a tribute recording. The music is actually mostly standards and originals by members of the trio, but the program also includes Jarrett’s own “Rainbow,” which segues directly into Haidu’s joyful “Keith Jarrett.” As one might expect from this lineup, the playing is absolutely exquisite; on the ballads in particular (notably the Williams composition “Air Dancing”) the trio’s ability to stay absolutely together while implying the rhythm more than stating it is breathtaking. But there are highlights all over this tremendous album. A must-purchase for all libraries.


Jeb Loy Nichols with Cold Diamond & Mink
Jeb Loy

Granted, his current label bills Jeb Loy Nichols as a “soul/R&B” artist, and I was introduced to him when he made a somewhat incongruous (but fantastic) reggae/country album for the On-U Sound label. But I just can’t help but think of Jeb Loy Nichols as a country artist, or at least a country-inflected Americana artist. And no, it’s not just the cowboy hat and the denim jacket. It’s the fact that even when there’s a reggae backbeat or a horn section in the arrangement, and even when his voice is at its most Dan Penn-like, I still feel like I hear Nashville in his sound. And yes, that’s a compliment. Listen to the acoustic guitar part that underlies the bossa-derived beat and the smooth horns on “I Just Can’t Stop”; listen to the twang (not to mention the harmonica) that pervades “Like a Rainy Day.” And besides, his current label is Finnish. So yeah, I don’t care what you say: Jeb Loy Nichols is a country artist. And I say more power to him.

I See Hawks in L.A.
On Our Way
Western Seeds Record Company
WSR-CD 015

Once referred to in the music press as “sort of a rural Steely Dan,” I See Hawks in L.A. have, over the course of 22 years, built a reputation for sharp songwriting and keen wit, gathering fans and sharing stages with artists as diverse and distinguished as the Mavericks, Dave Alvin, Peter Case, and the Meat Puppets(!). Their tenth album was recorded under COVID duress, each band member remote from the others, and at a time when global political and social concerns were top of mind. These folks being quite mature at this point, their approach to these concerns was careful; they wanted to “state (their) views without exploiting suffering.” And I would argue that they accomplished that, particularly acutely on tracks like “Mississippi Gas Station Blues” and “Geronimo.” This is one of those bands that both documents and demonstrates the constantly blurring separation between country, folk, and roots rock — while being fully able to deliver a phrase like “bumpin’ Morton Subotnick” without sounding at all funny. Recommended.

Ric Robertson
Carolina Child
Free Dirt

This album was my first exposure to the music of Ric Robertson, and I came away from it seriously intrigued. His roots are clearly in what has come to be called “Americana,” but there’s lots of weird stuff going on here — starting with the production: listen, for example, to the strange use of echo and delay on “Getting Over Our Love” and the squidgy equalization applied to both the guitar and the sax solos on the slinky “I Don’t Mind.” But the content is plenty unusual as well; compare, for example, the slow honky-tonk chug of “Harmless Feeling” to the blend of subtle Tin Pan Alley chord changes and even subtler electronic tweaks that give “Sycamore Hill” a sweet-and-sour complexity. (Note also the opening line: “The coffee is cold and the spliff half smoked,” which is a pretty great way to start a song.) But also check out the heartfelt “My Love Never Sleeps,” which, honestly, sounds more than a little like Paul Simon — and I mean that in only the best way. I’ll be keeping an eye on this guy.


Ora the Molecule
Human Safari

The concept of “avant-pop” has always been like catnip for me. I just love the tension: how avant-garde can it be and still be pop? How pop can it be and still be avant-garde? Not since the heyday of Pere Ubu has this question been so fruitfully explored by so many. Including, now, the wonderful Norwegian singer and songwriter Nora Schjelderup, who records under the much-more-pronounceable (by me, anyway) moniker Ora the Molecule. As one might expect of 21st-century avant-pop, it’s very much electronic music: steady and bubbling beats underly weird lyrics and subtly hooky melodies, all delivered with Schjelderup’s unassumingly pretty voice. Highlights? Well, “Die to Be a Butterfly” nicely evokes early Depeche Mode, and “Shadow Twin” throbs attractively while making tasteful use of subtle dubwise effects. I’m trying to decide whether the Millenial whoop that opens “Helicopter” is intended ironically, but even if it isn’t, that’s okay. This whole album is a treat, and I also recommend the various remix EPs that are available for electronic purchase alongside it.

Various Artists
Made to Measure, Vol. 1 (reissue)
Crammed Discs

While we’re on the topic of avant-pop, let’s take the opportunity to revisit one of the labels that pioneered the genre, and its monumental series of compilations in that vein. Made to Measure was a series of 25 compilations that Belgium’s Crammed Discs label began issuing in 1984; it featured a wide variety of genres from neoclassical/chamber music to experimental pop music and ambient soundscapes. To celebrate the label’s upcoming 40th anniversary, Crammed Discs is reinstituting the series with new recordings, and also reissuing some of the early releases, starting with this inaugural album. It focuses on tracks by seminal acts Tuxedomoon, Aqsak Maboul, and Minimal Compact (with one contribution from Benjamin Lew); the music is unusual by pop-music standards but not particularly challenging or abrasive. There’s some puckish humor (Aqsak Maboul’s “Chez les futuristes russes”), some ironic nostalgia (Minimal Compact’s twisted cabaret tune “Immer vorbei”), and some slightly unsettling instrumental stuff (Tuxedomoon’s “No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition”). As someone who came of age listening to these artists, I’m thrilled to see this material coming back into print.

Sally Decker
In the Tender Dream
NNA Tapes (dist. Redeye)
NNA 137

And, heck, while we’re drifting in this direction let’s just go for broke. There’s nothing “pop” about the avant-garde music produced by Sally Decker (a.k.a. Multa Nox). Her music comes out of rock more than classical, but it’s deeply experimental. In the Tender Dream draws on techniques and ideas that emerged from her time as a student at Mills College, where she began working with feedback in a serious way. She applies various techniques to put feedback and other varieties of noise to the service of explorations of deep emotion. At times there are vocals, but they tend to be whispered or muttered rather than sung, and everything is embroidered with glitches, overlain with clouds of static, and/or layered with chirps and bleeps and all manner of other noises. It ought to sound like chaos, but it doesn’t; it ought to be unpleasant, but it isn’t. Decker is clearly in full control of her resources, and uses them to create fascinating and complex music that doesn’t sound like anything or anyone else.

René Lussier
Complètement marteau
ReR Megacorp (dist. Circum-disc)

I’ve been a fan of Québecois avant-garde guitarist René Lussier for years, ever since I came across his work on a duo album with my hero Fred Frith. On his latest album he pulls together a program consisting of commissioned works dating from between 1999 and 2019. All of them were performed by the groups that commissioned them but never recorded, so he created new realizations of the music himself using multitracking techniques and a plethora of instruments including (in addition to the guitar) the daxophone and a wide variety of percussive objects. (He is also joined on one track by bassist Hugo Blouin.) As usual with Lussier, the music is simultaneously challenging and good-humored. Several of these pieces were written to accompany a clown show, and one to accompany an architectural projection; one was written for a quartet of guitars and electric toothbrushes. It’s all great stuff, and this disc would make a welcome addition to any library collecting new and experimental music.


Mark Seelig
The Disciple’s Meditation
Projekt (dist. MVD)

Mark Seelig took up the bansuri (the bamboo flute used in Indian classical music) in middle age, as part of an ongoing general spiritual and psychological quest. He is now three albums into a series of releases exploring the flute as “the expression of spirit.” It would be easy to dismiss this as dilletantish dabbling, but while neither Seelig nor tabla player Vito Gregoli demonstrates the breathtaking virtuosity of India’s finest classical musicians, they do show genuine respect for the ragas on which their musical meditations are based, and this music is much more suited to meditation and/or yoga practice than genuine classical music would be, with its focus on exciting thematic development and technical prowess. Any library with a collecting interest in East-West cultural fusion would do well to consider adding this release (and its predecessors in the Disciple series).

Mungo’s Hi Fi
Scotch Bonnet

Dub is a producer’s art form, the predecessor of modern remix culture. It emerged in Jamaica in the early 1970s, when reggae producers realized they could save money by backing a single with an instrumental version of the song rather than recording an entirely new song as a B side; eventually the more creative ones began experimenting with dropping voices and instruments in and out of the mix, adding effects like echo and delay for good measure. Patrons of Kingston’s famous outdoor sound system dances couldn’t get enough of it, and dub has developed a life of its own since then. The latest release from the outstanding Glasgow reggae collective Mungo’s Hi Fi is a collection of dub deconstructions of tunes both old and not-yet-released, all of it mixed in bass-heavy sound system style, some of it preserving scraps of the original vocal; highlights include the brilliant “Time Traveler” and the very minimalist and dread “Escape from the City.” For all collections.

Ben Aylon
Riverboat (dist. Redeye)

Israeli percussionist Ben Aylon has spent years studying sabar drumming, a tradition that is central to the music of Mali and Senegal. His studies included time spent as a pupil of Aly Ndiaye Rose, son of Doudou Ndiaye Rose, who is widely recognized as the master of this tradition. As a direct result of his studies, Aylon developed a personal approach to playing multiple drums simultaneously, and he has toured Senegal and been featured on Senegalese television demonstrating this technique. Over the years he has also been working on a collaborative recording project featuring members of the Rose family, singer Khaira Arby, and others, recording them in hotel rooms and other improvised locations. The resulting album is entrancing: the songs and compositions sometimes sway back and forth between two chords for minutes at a time, and sometimes unfold slowly into strange but wonderful melodic lines. Any library with a collecting interest in African music should jump at the chance to pick this one up.

July 2021


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Various Composers
Víkingur Ólafsson
Deutsche Grammophon
00289 483 9222

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


Alex Collins; Ryan Berg; Karl Latham
Drop Zone Jazz

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

Doug MacDonald Duo
Toluca Lake Jazz

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

Doug Webb
Apples & Oranges

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

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

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


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

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

Larry Sparks
Ministry in Song

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

Bill & the Belles
Happy Again
Ditty Boom (dist. Free Dirt)

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


The Only Place
Ohm Resistance
61 M

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Ronu Majumdar
The Indian Bansuri
Naxos World

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

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

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

June 2021


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Frank Morelli; Keith Oxman
The Ox-Mo Incident

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

Almog Sharvit
Get Up or Cry
UTR 4985

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

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

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

Masabumi Kikuchi
Hanamichi: The Final Studio Recording
Red Hook

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


Lara Hope and the Ark-Tones
Here to Tell the Tale

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

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

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

The Kody Norris Show
All Suited Up

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


Tru Thoughts (dist. Redeye)

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

Poor Clares of Arundel
Light for the World

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Bridge
Easy Star

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

Paddy Free
In Dub II (digital only)

Misled Convoy
Translations II (digital only)

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

Horace Andy
Broken Beats 2
Echo Beach

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

May 2021

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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.