06 julia den boer lwa8hKermès
Julia Den Boer
New Focus Recordings FCR311 (newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/julia-den-boer-kermes)

Julia Den Boer’s latest release is an invitation and a gift. The listener is drawn into a series of towering resonances and rewarded with a listening experience that redefines our acquaintance with the piano. Each of the four works on the disc extends what is sonically capable for the instrument and Den Boer’s expressive interpretations are world-class in their execution. It is through such superb performances that we are able to fully grasp the deeper communicative qualities each piece is offering the listener. 

First, Giulia Lorusso’s Déserts begins with hyper-colouristic and excited brush strokes that evolve into lonesome pinpricks of brilliant colour and imagination. Linda Catlin Smith’s The Underfolding is a harmonic wonderscape. Smith’s sound world reveals itself as one of the most compelling artistic voices one can encounter: wonderfully layered sonorities create a veil of undiscovered colours in an ideal trance haven. The distant hollowness of Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s Reminiscence produces a cerebral experience that evokes forlorn beauty. Rebecca Saunders’ Crimson uses prickly clusters and obtrusive deep interruptions that create unsettling exchanges. Den Boer’s attention to detail and expressive capabilities makes Kermes a must-listen.

07 robinson organ fyasbA Love So Fierce – Complete Solo Organ Works of David Ashley White
Daryl Robinson; Sarah Mesko; Jesús Pacheco Mánuel; Floyd Robinson; Grace Tice
Acis APL61020 (acisproductions.com)

A renowned composer of both secular and sacred works, David Ashley White is perhaps best known for his contributions to the world of church music. Using influences drawn from a variety of sources, both ancient and modern, White’s musical lexicon is diverse and ranges from simple hymn tunes to challenging vocal and instrumental pieces; it is the organ works that are put in full focus on this disc.

The state of Texas plays a pivotal role in the identity of A Love So Fierce: White is a seventh-generation Texan, the organ used for the recording is located at Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, and the disc begins with Fanfare for St. Anthony, an homage to San Antonio. Organist Daryl Robinson is also Texas-based, serving as Cathedral organist at Christ Church and director of Organ Studies at the University of Houston.

Although not always as overt as in the opening Fanfare, there is a strong sense of Americana in many of White’s works, with use of modality and extended harmonies in a manner reminiscent of Leo Sowerby, who himself was a significant contributor to liturgical music in the 20th century.

It is often challenging to separate the efforts of the performer from those of the instrument itself, so entwined is the organist with the manipulation of stops and keyboards in addition to the notes and rhythms themselves. In this instance, both Robinson and the 1938 Aeolian-Skinner organ are in top form, executing White’s often demanding scores in a fluid and seamless manner. 

Though not a household name, White’s contributions to the organ repertory are not to be overlooked, and this is recommended listening for all who enjoy the majestic sounds of what none other than Mozart considered the King of Instruments.

08 lou harrison i1hz6Lou Harrison – Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan
Sarah Cahill; Gamelan Galak Tika; Evan Ziporyn; Jody Diamond
Cleveland Museum of Art n/a (clevelandart.org/events/music-and-performances/cma-recorded-archive-editions/lou-harrison)

American composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) had an exuberant and searching spirit which extended beyond music to the graphic and literary arts and social activism. Today he is perhaps best known for incorporating in his mature scores non-mainstream tunings and other musical elements from several cultures outside Western classical music. 

Although he was nearing 60 at the time, Harrison nevertheless launched with considerable passion into an in-depth study of the gamelan musics of North, South and West Java. Each region possesses its own kind of music. No mere dilettante, he went on to compose several dozen works for various kinds of gamelan, and was among the first composers to incorporate standard Western concert instruments in his gamelan scores. He even built complete gamelans (orchestras) from scratch with his partner William Colvig. 

Harrison’s Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan (1986) is a good example of all these influences at work. In it he aimed not only for a musical synthesis of East and West, but also to bring the piano into what he fancied as just intonation’s “paradise garden of delights.” In that transcultural musical playground a pianist could experience the rare pleasure of performing with a complete gamelan. Sarah Cahill, the brilliant pianist on this album, reflects on her first encounter with Harrison’s retuned piano. She found it, “disorienting at first, since the keys typically associated with corresponding pitches now ring out with a completely different result. The disorientation, however, provokes more intense listening.”

Jody Diamond and Evan Ziporyn, both longtime champions of Harrison’s music, directed this outstanding recording of the concerto with members of Boston’s Gamelan Galak Tika.

09 mike block planispheres 2oy6ePlanispheres
Mike Block
Bright Shiny Things (brightshiny.ninja)

Cellist, singer, songwriter, composer and educator Mike Block has one of the most eclectic résumés around. From his “chopping” folk history, to jazz and cross-cultural music collaborations (check out his duo with tabla player Sandeep Das, for example) Mike Block has worked with nearly everyone from Stevie Wonder to Will.i.am to Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. From pop to jazz, classical and bluegrass, there seems to be no end to the continuous exploration and collaborations around the world for this diverse and prolific artist. As an innovator, Block was among the first wave of cellists to develop a standing style of playing in order to move while performing, and can – and does – play his challenging repertoire sitting, standing and even while singing. He was also the first standing cellist to perform at Carnegie Hall, and on top of that, his Bach is superb. What is such a diverse collaborator to do during a world pandemic? 

Bring in Block’s latest, and possibly most poignant project, Planispheres. As an exploration of human connection during a time when these connections are nearly impossible to make, each track is a full, freely improvised solo to one unknown lucky listener, in a large open space which allowed him to sonically explore and test the acoustics throughout the album. The intimacy of each performance is palpable and adds to the personal nature and timely relevance of the album. Here we have an opportunity to witness not only the wide range of sonic participation of the venue, but also the silent participation of each unnamed audience recipient. We can hear Block’s urgency to connect with others, while allowing space and time to be a fourth element in the room. This album will engage anyone who is missing the intimate experience of live chamber music, but most especially lovers of the cello.

10 chris campbell rfsvmChris Campbell – Orison
Various Artists
Innova 008 (innova.mu)

An orison is a type of prayer, perhaps better described as a plea. Maybe Chris Campbell is asking for relief, or faith in the future, as are many of us. He makes this plea by means of Orison, a chamber work for strings, piano, and percussion, 14 players in all, named but not designated by instrument. Track titles directly refer to one another. Movements three and five, for example, are Ten Thousand Streams (Forward Motion), and Ten Thousand Streams (Retrograde); the second movement is Rotating Light Mirrors the Water, the sixth, Rotating Hymns. The first movement, Parallels, Threading Light, finds an answer in the last, Ground Calls Out to Sky (an implied parallel?). The central movement, perhaps a mirroring plane, is Streams to Source, Object to Origin. 

Arvo Pärt comes to mind in the early going of Parallels, but he and the consonant, pleading intervals disappear into turmoil and opaque dissonance. Piano lines emerging from this seem improvisatory, and here as elsewhere the recording values seem hell bent on saturation. It isn’t easy to stay with, especially at a higher volume. The storm passes, as storms do, and a segue leads into the calmer second track, and middle voices expressing again those chant-like parallel intervals. The tracks run together, many times introduced by a manic drum kit. 

It’s difficult to puzzle out the structure; I take it on faith that there is one. The drum kit passages drive impetuously through the often otherwise wandering sound-cloud formations. Colours and textures recur, in patterns not immediately apparent. Is this a masterpiece? I’m not prepared to say yes or no. I do give benefit of the doubt to Campbell.

11 tiffany ng wpkj1Tiffany Ng – Dark Matters
Various Artists
Innova 050 (innova.mu)

A fascinating collection, Dark Matters features the music for carillon of Stephen Rush performed by Tiffany Ng. Questions of the technical sort arise: what microphone placements worked best; and if any ambient sound needed to be filtered out? It must have been a spectacular project to work on, purely in this regard. Musically, Rush makes brilliant use of his years spent studying the instrument, learning how to capitalize on the peculiarly diminished quality of the bells’ overtone profiles. A noticeable rise before and decline after each performance, makes for a kind of ambient “huff,” an enveloping foggy frame, like giant respiration. 

Two carillons, one in Michigan and one in the Netherlands, play so differently it reminds one of how particular this type of instrument is, and how contingent the performance is on their sounds, much like organs. Whereas an organ has a synthetic animus, or breath, bells are defined by attack, such that every note’s momentum diminishes through its sustain. What Rush makes room for, and Ng perfects in execution, is a linearity that counters this. Decay follows attack, but gently repeated notes and Ng’s impressive control of dynamics give sustenance to line.

The smaller lighter instrument in the Netherlands is featured on Sonata for Carillon from 2007, as well as on the title track, from 2013, and on Six Treatments, which uses live electronics that animate the music in fascinating ways. The U of Michigan bells are darker and deeper, and are heard only on the disc’s bookends: Three Etudes, 1987, and September Fanfares, 2018, for carillon, brass quintet and percussion.  The Sonata is a revelation, titanic chamber music by turns soulful and dancelike. Fanfares is the least effective track, possibly on account of difficult balance and timing issues, but brass quintets should find a way to program it anyway.

12 sunrise zz2gdSunrise
Jacob Cooper; Steven Bradshaw
Cold Blue Music CB0062 (coldbluemusic.com)

We need to create a new category of artistic manifestation, along the lines of “responses to the pandemic.” This disc, sung by Steven Bradshaw and embellished by the electroacoustic work of Jacob Cooper, would fit. Bradshaw and Cooper played remote call and response over the course of several months until they were satisfied with the outcome.

The title refers to an early 20th-century popular song: The World is Waiting for Sunrise, by Ernest Seitz and Gene Lockhart. Covered by Duke Ellington and Willie Nelson, to name only two, it seems to have been an anthem of hope during a dark era, as alluded to in the liner notes; the song was written during the Spanish influenza epidemic. 

This is no song cover; the closest analogy would be cantus firmus. The original lyrics, deconstructed or otherwise, are chanted at intervals throughout what amounts to a 32-minute meditation; they’re partially buried behind a more or less constant C Minor-ish drone. The events, or processes, develop gradually, but two-thirds of the way in the voice disappears into a burgeoning melee. The piano enters with a repeated motif that yearns toward G Minor. The voice returns as vocalise, soaring above on syllables from the original text, but barely recognizable. I’m reminded of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, another prayer for love in a dark time. 

There have been plenty of musical depictions of the sunrise, and this fits in that category as well. Essentially a long process piece that demands and rewards attention, even if it doesn’t offer consolation.

13 emily koh 5ovvtEmily Koh – [word]plays
New Thread Quartet; Noa Even; Philipp Stääudlin
Innova 055 (innova.mu)

Emily Koh’s biography lists her as: “composer+” a suggestion that in addition to being a composer, she is also a bassist. However, that mathematical sign does not even begin to describe her prodigious gifts as a multi-disciplinary artist. This enables her to inform her radiant music with experiences from across the visual and sonic artistic spectrum. Remarkably, on the repertoire for the album [word]plays, Koh also adds a literary dimension to her compositions.

While it is true that the five pieces on this album are – as Koh correctly subtitles the collection – “microtonal works for saxophone(s),” the artistic topography of the music is spectacularly prismatic. This is best experienced in the three items performed by the New Thread Quartet, comprising saxophonists Jonathan Hulting-Cohen (soprano), Kristen McKeon (alto), Erin Rogers (tenor) and Zach Herchen (baritone). The items are further connected like a three-movement suite with titles that play upon three words: homonym, heteronym/, cryptonym. They unfold in diaphanous layers of sound as the quite magical mystery of each is revealed in waves of microtones.

That set is bookended by medi+ation and b(locked.orders); two solo saxophone pieces, the former performed by Philipp Stäudlin (baritone) and the latter by Noa Even (soprano). These are clever miniatures, the writing of which feels as if the performance instructions suggested is one-or-more-syllables-per-non-uniform-length note. There is exquisite poetry in these charts; a rumbling gravitas in the former and a high and lonesome, swirling tonal palette in the latter.

14 chas smith c14hzThree
Chas Smith
Cold Blue Music CB0061 (coldbluemusic.com)

Multi-instrumentalist Chas Smith’s recording Three is not simply atmospheric, its ethereal sonic palette comes with a twist in that the ripples on his ocean of sound spread vertically, seemingly piercing the very dome of the sky. Even the title is subtly idiomatic; its reference being more Trinitarian than merely numeric.

The musical hypnosis begins almost immediately in the whispered, metallic hiss of a myriad of instruments on Distance, continuing through The Replicant and into the denouement of this recording on a piece aptly called The End of Cognizance. The composer says that “the spirit of Harry Partch” pervades throughout. But even a first run-through of this repertoire suggests overtones of the soundtrack of a Philip K. Dick cinematic narrative. In particular, the short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – which became Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – comes presciently to mind.    

The music throughout seems to hang in the air like dense vapour of a sonic kind. But the seeming stasis is constantly changing, metamorphosing into something quite different at every turn. Its dark melodic fragments spin and pirouette constantly, revealing Smith’s singular balletic lyricism. The three parts of the music are layered one atop the other like sonic strata evocative of the massive natural forces pervading a planet spinning its way into infinity in triumph against time. The orchestration is as brilliantly inventive as the instruments that are employed to play it; all constructed by Smith himself.

15 confinedspeak xr3ojconfined. speak.
Ensemble Dal Niente
New Focus Recordings FCR308 (newfocusrecordings.com)

The Chicago based Ensemble Dal Niente releases a collection of works that were streamed during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. With each work offering a variety of experimental techniques and sound worlds, this music reveals the ensemble’s incredible musical abilities. Igor Santos’ confined. speak. is a post-Lachenmannian work that explores themes of “confinement and liberation.” Santos’ music is carefully crafted and contains an impressive series of magical events. The harp concerto of Hilda Paredes, titled Demente Cuerda, contains endless virtuosic gestures for both soloist and ensemble members – all of which are expertly performed. With Tomás Gueglio’s Triste y madrigal we receive a delicate and mysterious soprano part amid outlandish restlessness in the ensemble – a beautifully enigmatic work. In Merce and Baby by George Lewis, the composer creates an imagined musical scenario that exists only in the documentation of a collaboration between jazz drummer Baby Dodds and avant-garde dancer Merce Cunningham in the 1940s. Finally, Andil Khumalo’s Beyond Her Mask is a disturbing and important statement that confronts violence against women in South Africa. Ensemble Dal Niente delivers stunning performances of works that truly speak to our time.

Listen to 'confined. speak.' Now in the Listening Room

16 northscapes arxllNorthscapes
Ieva Jokubaviciute
Sono Luminus DSL-92251 (sonoluminus.com)

In a release of 21st-century piano music by Lithuanian Ieva Jokubaviciute, aptly titled Northscapes, we receive a selection of ethereal sonic planes all evoking the majesty of nature’s expanse. Jokubaviciute handles each piece with a delicate touch and an inspired approach to phrasing – attributes that are necessary to reveal the wonderful poetic characteristics of each piece. With each composer being from Nordic or Baltic countries, the overall atmosphere is one of a stark, and yet endlessly colourful, depiction of engulfing northern panoramas. Whether whirling through the unrelenting chroma-glow of Lasse Thoresen’s Invocation of Pristine Light, taking pause in the crafty expressiveness of Bent Sørensen’s Nocturnes, or sinking into the dreamworld of Kaija Saariaho’s well-known Prelude, each work connects landscape to psychological enchantment. 

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Scape transports the listener into this psycho-geographical state with brilliance and ease. The innovative approach to the piano in her piece shifts the mind from the immediate to a vast apocryphal arena. This allows the sonic experience to travel much deeper than mere surface-level representations of nature scenes. When listening to this disc, one begins to wander among geographies of the mind – realms that haunt and comfort, obfuscate but also reassure. For an experience that will transport ear and mind, listen to Northscapes.

17 recap count to five jf6noCount to Five
Recap w/Transit New Music
Innova (innova.mu)

The story begins with four New Jersey middle schoolers Arlene Acevedo, Alexis Carter, Tiahna Sterlin and Aline Vasquez who began studying percussion with Joe Bergen, a member of the Mantra Percussion ensemble. Then in 2020 at ages 19 and 20 they formed Recap, a professional percussion quartet of BIPOC women.Recap seeks to reevaluate the white-male-dominated world of percussion within the contemporary classical music scene. As Acevedo said, “We’re young women of colour doing this... and you can too!” The results are impressive and they’ve now released an exciting debut album. 

Count to Five features six works, one each by Angélica Negrón, Allison Loggins-Hull, Ellen Reid, Lesley Flanigan, Mary Kouyoumdjian and Caroline Shaw. Puerto Rican composer Negrón’s surreal Count to Five opens the album. In it, everyday objects like shuffled playing cards, squeezed bubble wrap, dragged chairs and bowed and tapped wine glasses create an intimate sonic atmosphere interrupted by prerecorded children’s and other sounds; a harmonica note is incessantly repeated. And yes, the performers count to five, whispering.

Another highlight is New York experimental musician and composer Flanigan’s impressive Hedera which draws from another experimental music lineage, perhaps more Laurie Anderson than John Cage. Hedera features Flanigan’s multitrack vocalise, supported by Recap’s tonally ever-modulating bass drum and tom-tom swells. For 20 minutes, their pulsing 16th-note waves propel the work which increases in density and emotional intensity while Flanigan’s voice builds into a massive choir. In the end the drums and choir float away like clouds on a hot summer’s day.

18 loadbang 16ak5Plays Well With Others
New Focus Recordings FCR307 (newfocusrecordings.com)

The brass and woodwind ensemble, loadbang, explores what appears to the harmonious nature of humanity on Plays Well With Others, aptly titled because the quartet is expanded, joined in this odyssey by a 12-person string section plus piano. The result is an extravagantly sumptuous sound-world. The airy sculpting of this music by the horns dwells in an exquisitely dramatic recitation by Jeffery Gavett together with Andy Kozar (trumpet), William Lang (trombone) and Adrian Sandi (bass clarinet), and orchestral accompaniment.

Loadbang performs this avant-garde repertoire with architectural authority and elegant rhetoric. There are ink-dark, gossamer whispers and deep growls on Taylor Brook’s Tarantism and the work progresses with long-limbed elegance, as if spinning a beguiling web with the (principal) tarantula character. Riven, by Heather Stebbins, pulsates with appropriate irregularity before it shatters along its elliptical harmonic grain.  

Eve Beglarian’s You See Where This is Going, with its narration of a surreal poem, sees strings, piano and horns entwining until the work is twisted into a powerful musical edifice. Reiko Füting’s Mo(nu)ment for C/Palimpsest returns us to the dark world of terrorism made more sinister by the hushed performance. Scott Wollschleger’s CVS offers another sinister take on socio-political extremism. All of this leads to the dynamic sound-palette of Paula Matthusen’s Such Is Now the Necessity – a most appropriate finale to this hypnotic repertoire. Anyone reacting well to the mystery and surprise of music will certainly take this disc to heart.

Listen to 'Plays Well With Others' Now in the Listening Room

01 shannon gunn y9yugOn A Mountain
Shannon Gunn; Renee Rosnes; Neil Swainson; Billy Drummond; Brad Turner; Pat LaBarbera
Cellar Music CM052001 (cellarlive.com)

With last year’s untimely loss of gifted jazz vocalist, composer and dedicated jazz educator, Shannon Gunn, a painful shockwave passed through the Canadian jazz community. Gunn was well respected and loved as a kind, generous and inspired musical force, and with the release of this never-before-heard 2002 recording, her significance as an artist is clear. For the project, Gunn surrounded herself with dear friends and Canada’s most skilled musicians, including producer/pianist/composer Renee Rosnes, bassist Neil Swainson, drummer Billy Drummond, trumpeter/arranger Brad Turner and tenorist Pat LaBarbera. The program features a tasty selection of original tunes, as well as contributions from Tom Jobim, Cole Porter, Carla Bley and Renee Rosnes.

First up is the haunting Gunn composition, From You. Her sumptuous voice is so warm and rife with emotion – reminiscent of the great Irene Kral. Rosnes’ sensitive and harmonically sophisticated solo is a thing of beauty, as is the trio work, and the perfect complement to Gunn’s vocal. A standout is Carla’s Blues by the eminent Carla Bley and jazz vocalist Norma Winstone. The arrangement (by Gunn’s partner, Brian Dickinson) is dynamic and energizing – the solos by Turner and LaBarbera are both swinging and exquisite and Drummond’s taste, skill and rock-solid rhythmic sensibility propel everything.

Another stunner is Lerner and Loewe’s classic, I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face, featuring a duet between Gunn’s rich alto voice and Swainson’s nimble, sonorous bass. Gunn’s original On a Mountain, transports the listener to a mystical musical precipice. The beautifully arranged closer is Porter’s Everything I Love, which is quite appropriate, as it expresses not only my feelings about this CD, but the fact that Gunn herself was all about everything that we love.

02 dizzy fay wz9maSongbook
Dizzy & Fay (Amanda Walther; Mark Lalama)
Independent (dizzyandfay.com)

The dozen intriguing, piano/voice duo tunes here were all composed by Dizzy and Fay, and were produced, mixed and mastered by Dizzy. “Fay” is actually the alter ego of JUNO nominee and multiple award-winning singer/songwriter/composer Amanda Walther (familiar to many as half of the folk/roots duo Dala) and “Dizzy” is in reality, noted Canadian singer/songwriter/pianist/accordionist/producer and in-demand-performer, Mark Lalama. When Lalama and Walther met on tour, the timeline of their mutual creativity began energizing!

Walther’s dusky, sensual, pitch-perfect voice (bringing to mind Julie London) is the ideal companion for Lalama’s sensitive piano work. The opening track, Maybe Someday, inspires cinematic images of a lonely and blue lady, perched on a lone bar stool at 2am, with a final martini in hand. There are many lovely and potent musical baubles presented here, all elegantly crafted into a compelling genre and infused with compositional talent. Make no mistake – Dizzy and Fay are highly musical tunesmiths and storytellers.

Of particular beauty are Ordinary Love, replete with a moving lyric and delicious chord changes; the sweet and innocent love song Walk Me Home, which opens with a stunner of a piano solo; the sexy-cool (and a cappella) Boom and the evocative Gravity which has such a visual element, bolstered by a beautiful melodic line and lyric, that it is really a hit song looking for a film. The closer of this exquisite recording, Paris Rain, is somehow both steeped in nostalgia and breathtakingly contemporary – which could also be said of every perfectly presented, emotionally charged track here.

Listen to 'Songbook' Now in the Listening Room

03 benjamin deschamps wr8vlAugmented Reality
Benjamin Deschamps
MCM MCM053 (benjamindeschamps.com/en)

Saxophonist, clarinetist, composer and arranger Benjamin Deschamps has been very active in the Canadian jazz scene, collaborating with groups such as the Orchestre national de jazz de Montréal and JazzLab Orchestra (Effendi). He has also led his own groups, from trios to the sextet on this offering, and released several albums. Augmented Reality is an assured and swinging jazz album with a modern sound, clever tunes and impeccable musicianship. The opening tune, Unfinished Business, is a terrific and intelligent scorcher which begins with a four-note, ostinato, tenor sax riff that is underpinned by the funky drums and then joined by trombone and the rest of the ensemble. The piece works through a hopping piano solo from Charles Trudel, then an assured sax solo from Deschamps as the energy builds. The band cuts out and we are left with the ostinato played on the Wurlitzer, joined by bass and guitar with a vibrant drum solo (from Al Bourgeois) over top. The piece finishes with everyone intensely playing the riff. 

The title tune opens with a fuzz-rock, rhythm-section riff, then the ensemble plays an elegant melody which leads into a number of excellent solos over a fuzz guitar-infused background. The slower Healing Chant: The Resurrection begins with a beautiful bass clarinet line that turns into a duet with trombone (Jean-Nicolas Trottier), then moves into an exquisitely lyrical guitar solo from Nicolas Ferron. 

Augmented Reality is an excellent album which combines superb performances from all musicians with a range of intelligent and varied compositions from Deschamps. It both swings and rocks.

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