Johann Sebastian Bach
Clavichord (2 discs)
You say you don’t like the harpsichord? Too clattery and trebly and thin-sounding to your ears? Well, wait ’til you hear the clavichord — a precursor of the harpsichord with a very different action, and with a sound that is both quieter and less sustained than that of the harpsichord. Even to a lover of early music (like me), it is frankly a somewhat difficult sound to get used to. So why would the acclaimed pianist András Schiff create a two-disc set of Bach keyboard works using that instrument? Two reasons: First, it was Bach’s favorite keyboard, which makes listening to his music on it intrinsically interesting. Second, Schiff himself loves the clavichord for its “intimate and personal” sound. I’m not sure I’m entirely sold myself, but there’s no question about Schiff’s playing and any library that supports a serious keyboard curriculum should be sure to pick this up.
Ariane et Bacchus (2 discs)
Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles; Le Concert Spirituelle / Hervé Niquet
Alpha (dist. Naxos)
Though primarily remembered today for his chamber music, especially for the viola da gamba, French baroque composer Marin Marais was also an accomplished composer of opera, in which he was trained by his mentor, Jean-Baptiste Lully. This recording of Marais’ Ariane et Bacchus carefully recreates the work using the exact instrumental and vocal forces prescribed in the originally published score; while of course this does not guarantee that we’re hearing exactly what the composer had in mind (or what his contemporary listeners heard), it nevertheless brings historically informed perspective to this underappreciated work; the playing and singing are both excellent, as is the sound production.
Adriano4: St. John Passion
Evil Penguin (dist. Naxos)
I realize that I’ve been recommending every release from the all-male choral ensemble Dionysos Now!, and I apologize if it’s getting tiresome. But a) everything they release is amazing, and b) this latest features the world-premiere recording of Adriaan Willaert’s setting of the St. John Passion. The music is written in an unusual style: polyphonic, but homorhythmic — which is to say that all voices sing the same syllables at the same time, allowing the composer to exercise his harmonic creativity without sacrificing comprehensibility for the congregation. As always, the ensemble has a rich and dark tonality with perfect intonation, and the recording is not only important but also deeply enjoyable.
Distant Intervals (cassette & digital only)
NNA Tapes (dist. Redeye)
Richard Carr; Cales Burhans; Clarice Jensen
August Dreams (digital only)
No cat. no.
Both of these albums consist of contemporary classical music created using standard stringed instruments in innovative ways. Issei Herr is a cellist and composer who created Distant Intervals by recording multiple cello parts in her bedroom closet and then overdubbing them, processing and looping them, and adding synthesized elements. This is music that alternates between quiet uplift and eerie foreboding, and that keeps you guessing — it’s sometimes dense and sometimes airy, but always fascinating. August Dreams features a conventional string trio (violin, viola, cello) playing music that is anything but conventional. All of the music is improvised, though based on a handful of predetermined musical ideas intended to serve as a sort of scaffolding or jumping-off point. Here, too, electronic elements are layered in from time to time, but the major substance of these spontaneous compositions is the string sounds, which float and drift prettily — but with an edge. Both recordings are recommended to all libraries.
Canticum canticorum caritatis
Collegium Musicale Chamber Choir / Endrik Üksvärav
Alpha (dist. Naxos)
Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür is almost certainly tired of being compared to his compatriot Arvo Pärt, and he’d be justified in protesting that their styles are quite different. But at the same time you can see why the comparison would be made: Tüür shares Pärt’s love of spare textures put in service to serene and devotional intensity, and of consonant but sometimes astringent harmony. That’s all simply by way of saying that if your patrons have an appetite for Pärt I would recommend hand-selling this collection of choral works by Tüür, which includes a stunning Missa Brevis as well as the magnificent title work, which draws on one of the Pauline epistles for its text. Strongly recommended.
Come to Me in the Silence of the Night
Trinity College Choir / Stephen Layton
Hyperion (dist. Integral)
And let’s just close out this month’s Classical section with one more choral recording — though this one a collection of contemporary works. Composer Ivo Antognini has a background in jazz and soundtrack music, though you wouldn’t necessarily guess that from the tone and texture of these brief sacred and secular works. The title composition opens the program with an achingly sweet setting of Christina Rosetti’s poem; we then proceed to the more lively and syncopated “Cantate Domino canticum novum” setting, and from there to a shimmering and awestruck “O magnum mysterium.” And that’s how things go throughout the program, with moments of joy alternating with devotional wonder. This is one of the loveliest albums in any genre I’ve heard so far this year.
Blue Room: The 1979 Vara Studio Sessions in Holland (2 discs)
Was Chet Baker at the height of his powers in 1979? Arguably, no. He was in comeback mode after having spent several years living on welfare and getting into legal trouble connected with his longstanding heroin addiction. But when he made these recordings for radio broadcast at the beautifully appointed Vara Studio in Holland he had been relocated to Europe for a few years and enjoying success there — and astoundingly, his playing and singing on these sessions sound as if he had never left. That pure, dry tone that had helped to define the “cool” jazz sound of the 1950s is still there, his phrasing is as creative as ever (listen to his use of triplets on “Luscious Lou”), and his expansive but controlled sense of melodic invention are undiminished. I confess that I was surprised by how very, very good these performances are — I was expected something a bit weaker, more dissipated. Baker was a once-in-a-generation talent, and these previously unreleased recordings are an absolute treasure.
Delfeayo Marsalis & Uptown Jazz Orchestra
Uptown on Mardi Gras Day
Look at the title, look at the cover art, and you know what to expect: this is going to be a big, colorful, funky celebration. And who better to host it than trombonist, composer, and bandleader Delfeayo Marsalis, one of the heirs to the Marsalis New Orleans jazz dynasty that includes his father Ellis and his brothers Branford and Wynton? The songs and tunes on this program include classics by Crescent City legends like Professor Longhair and the Meters, as well as originals by Marsalis himself, and the styles range from the blues shuffle of “Big Chief” to Dollis Boudreaux’s slippery Second Line funk anthem “All on a Mardi Gras Day” and the Latin-inflected “Mardi Gras Mambo” (in two versions). This whole album is infused with joy and is a nonstop pleasure. Laissez les bon temps rouler!
Though he has long been pigeonholed as mainly a blues guy, Taj Mahal has actually worked in a wide variety of styles over the course of his 60-year(!) career, so an album of jazz standards shouldn’t exactly come as a shock. Neither should it be terribly surprising that his interpretations of these American Songbook classics should tend towards a certain bluesiness, or that the selections themselves would tend in that direction as well: “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” “Mood Indigo,” and “Summertime” are all deeply blues-inflected, and his renditions of jump blues favorites like “Caledonia” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” are as rough-edged and raucous as you’d expect. At age 80, his voice is rough-edged as well, but certainly in a good way — and he has as much energy as other singers a third of his age.
With her second album as a leader, mallet keyboardist and composer Patricia Brennan continues to push the boundaries of jazz vibraphone (and marimba), using an unusual quartet format and extended techniques, notably the use of electronic effects to expand her instruments’ expressive capacity. On “Unquiet Respect” she uses those effects in a manner similar to the approach of guitarist Mary Halvorsen, using pitch-bending to alter her instruments’ sounds during decay; on the title track she, her percussionists, and her bassist get quietly skronky and free, while “Space for Hour” is an extended meditation that goes on for nearly 15 minutes, becoming more explicitly structured in the second half. And that’s just the first three tracks. This whole album is like a global exploration, and it’s unlike anything you’re likely to have heard before.
April Verch & Cody Walters
Passages and Partings
Natalie MacMaster & Donnell Leahy
Husband-and-wife duo April Verch (fiddle) and Cody Walters (clawhammer banjo, guitar, bass) have made a fantastic old-time album with a subtle difference: Verch comes from Canada’s Ottawa Valley, while Walters is from Kansas, and that means that each brings a unique perspective to the Appalachian repertoire as well as tunes from their own regions — not to mention fine originals from Verch. Guest players include the great Pharis and Jason Romero, and there are more highlights here than I can list (though the delightfully crooked “Horse and Buggy-O” is perhaps my favorite moment). Canvas, by fiddlers Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy (also a married couple), has a very different flavor. MacMaster is an international star, a fiddler in the Cape Breton style who has set the standard in that genre for years; on this album, she and her husband incorporate their fiddling styles into big, expansive, and rockish arrangements that feature guest artists as diverse as Rhiannon Giddens (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Yo-Yo Ma. At times the flavor veers into Western swing (“Choo Choo”) or an almost punky intensity (“The Case of the Mysterious Squabbyquash”). All in all, it’s a thrilling ride.
Say What You Like
Outside Music (dist. Redeye)
No cat. no.
Fifteen years into his recording career, singer-songwriter Doug Paisley is still making delicately soulful, remarkably quiet and reflective country music that manages to evoke the honky tonk without ever delivering stomping two-step rhythms (well, almost never) or obvious “tears in my beer” lyrical tropes. Heaven help me — and I promise, I mean this in the best possible way — there were multiple moments on Say What You Like that made me think of Chris Isaak, especially in his Baja Sessions mode. This particular set was actually selected by Paisley’s producer, Afie Jurvanen, who culled through over 250 songs written over the past ten years and pulled the eleven that he felt were strongest. They’re remarkable, and I was particularly struck by both “I Wanted It Too Much” and “Rewrite History,” perhaps because of the gorgeous female harmonies. Strongly recommended to all libraries.
Results Not Typical
No cat. no.
Hailing from Seattle, Ian Jones makes a kind of music that his publicist characterizes as “Northwest Americana.” Honestly, to me it just feels like country. Not necessarily Nashville country (there’s a horn section on “Lost Highway,” for example), but solid, meat-and-potatoes modern country music with modest and carefully crafted arrangements and great hooks. Jones’ songwriting is outstanding, but it’s his voice that I really want to praise here: it’s clear and warm, with what sounds like effortless intonation and what also sounds like (but probably isn’t) effortless tunefulness. Honestly, I could listen to him sing all day. And, by the way — that’s Joey Waronker on drums. Very, very nice.
Live from the 40 Watt
Strolling Bones (dist. Redeye)
The sticker on the front says “Most of us weren’t in Athens in the early ’80s, but now you can be!”. For the record, that’s Athens, Georgia, the early-80s home of bands like R.E.M, Pylon, and the B-52s. Now, unlike those other bands you’ve almost certainly never heard of Squalls — though they were darlings of the Athens scene at the time, virtually all of their studio work is long out of print. The 24 tracks on this disc are soundboard recordings made over the course of five different shows at the 40 Watt club between 1984 and 1985; the sound is startlingly good, and the music itself is the sort of angular, herky-jerk guitar pop that back then we used to call “quirky.” Squalls don’t really sound like their Athens contemporaries, but they definitely sound like they came from Athens. And I absolutely mean that in a good way.
Kosogor (vinyl & digital only)
Here’s a nice slab of dark, moody electronic rock from a pair of Russian experimentalists: producer/singer Kedr Livansky and producer/visual artist Flaty. Livansky’s vocals are given a variety of settings within which to work: skittery breakbeat funk (“Muzika Voln”); gauzy Cocteau Twins-esque dream pop (“V Pole na Vole”); heavy, shoegazey trip hop (“Motorcyclists Die”). Mostly she sings in Russian, but some songs are in English; you’ll hear occasional elements of Slavic folk music (that may or may not be an acoustic guitar on “Voy Veter”), but for the most part the mood here is brooding and intense, and it’s all very good. This is the debut album for this duo, and here’s hoping we’ll hear more from them in the future.
The Red Hunter (vinyl & digital only)
Dutch-born producer and DJ Steffi is now on her fourth solo album — and apparently her third record label. In addition to running the Klarkson and Dolly labels, she has now co-founded Candy Mountain, and her first release on that imprint reflects both her creativity and her maturity as an electronic dance music creator. On The Red Hunter she builds compositions that draw on elements of techno (check out the steady throb of “Alternation of High and Low”) and broken beat (the lurching stutter-step of “Tragedy Turns to Comedy”) among other electro genres, but none of it sounds derivative; this music is highly original and constantly interesting.
What Do You Say? (EP; digital only)
No cat. no.
Hailing from Milan, Italy, Æsthetic Will play in a style that harks back explicitly to 1980s postpunk (there are strong echoes of both early-80s Cure and New Order here), but manage to channel those influences in a way that still feels fresh and new. They sing in English, but the vocals are generally pretty buried in the mix, which makes the lyrics hard to decipher; the songs tend to stand or fall on both melody and texture. As for melodies, they come close to dream-pop blissfulness, particularly on the lovely “Saturn Collides.” As for texture, it’s consistently both thick and shimmery, with lots of trebly synth parts and guitars that alternate between clicky quarter notes and big noisy chords (and occasional outbreaks of punky squall). Recommended.
These Are Dreams
Klanggalerie (dist. MVD)
Robin Story, who records under the name Rapoon, has got to be tired of being compared to Muslimgauze — but the comparison is inevitable. They operate from a conceptually similar template, each producing hypnotically repetitive music based on looped samples that draw on multicultural (but often explicitly Middle Eastern) sources. But the fundamental difference between them is just as important: Muslimgauze’s music is abrasive and political to the point of hectoring, whereas Rapoon’s is quiet and contemplative. On These Are Dreams, several tracks even feature spoken-word elements — there are no credits, so it’s impossible to know whether the speaker is Storey himself (though one of them sounds like a woman). As always, the music is notable for its ability to hold your interest even with all of its repetition and minimal development.
Marcus Gad & Tribe
Ready for Battle
Top-notch modern roots reggae here from New Caledonia, a small island archipelago off the coast of New Zealand. You’d think this music came straight from Kingston, though: compared to 2021’s more electronically-focused Brave New World, Gad and his band play in a very traditional roots-and-culture style on this album, with all live instruments including a skillfully wielded horn section. Note in particular the complex, swinging arrangement on “Long Term” (which brings to mind Steel Pulse during that band’s heyday) and the sweet melody and chugging groove on “Long Way Home.” When it comes to contemporary reggae, I would put Marcus Gad and his band on the same level as John Brown’s Body — and that’s high praise. Recommended to all libraries.
On Indian instruments, the taraf is a sympathetic string that vibrates when certain related pitches are played on the plucked or bowed strings. That idea of resonance underlies the music on the debut album of Hiss Sound, a project of Dutch producer Oliver Schreuder, who wanted to create a sort of summit meeting of electronica and classical Indian music. He brought together a group of Dutch and Indian musicians playing a range of instruments including the bansuri, tabla, and sarod along with voice and electronic and acoustic percussion to create a genuinely new fusion of raga-based and electronic dance music; the result is sometimes jazzy, sometimes funky, often a bit gritty, and consistently both fun and interesting. Definitely not New Age but also not as aggro as, say, Asian Dub Foundation, this music is as useful for dancing as it is enjoyable for listening.
Murder in the Temple (vinyl & digital only)
Zohra is a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who grew up in a family of Afghan refugees, surrounded by both Afghani folk and pop music and a range of Western pop styles, from punk to electro and prog. You can hear all of those elements on her debut album, which she created over the course of several years, building up elements one at a time and getting help from producer Ben Greenberg and even from legendary No Wave artiste Lydia Lunch. This is tough, uncompromising music — not abrasive but certainly aggressive, with thudding techno beats, keening modal melodies and industrial textures. It’s very impressive stuff — here’s hoping her next release doesn’t take as long as this one did to prepare.