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An Epic, Historically-Inspired Collection of Rarities For One of the World’s Most Soulful Instruments

What better to brighten a dreary January in apartheid-era New York than an epic album dedicated to little-known material for the vastly underrated bassoon? Laurence Perkins knows as well as anyone else who plays a low-register instrument that his axe of choice is just as well suited to somber depths as it is to buffoonery. There’s some of both and a lot in between on his fascinating latest album Voyage of a Sea-God, which isn’t online yet It’s a dynamically vast collaboration with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Carducci String Quartet, among others. Just as ambitiously, Perkins has assembled the program as a musical capsule history of the 20th century.

He takes the album title from a Mozart bio which likened the instrument to a mythical triton blowing a conch shell. He teams up with pianist Michael Hancock to open the record with the moodily expressive flamenco echoes of a real rarity, British Romantic composer Richard Henry Walthew’s Introduction and Allegro,

His fellow bassoonists Amy Thompson, Matthew Kitteringham and Catriona McDermid join him for another rarity, Prokofiev’s blithely strolling miniature Scherzo Humoristique: cartoonish as this is, the textures of the more resonant moments are luscious. A little later, they negotiate William Schumann’s colorful Quartettino for Four Bassoons, from an initial dervish dance, to nocturnal solemnity, a playfully fleeting waltz and a fugue.

One of the better-known pieces here is Saint-Saens’ Bassoon Sonata, with Hancock rising from a chiming triumph to more torrential heights as Perkins stays in wistful mode in the first movement. The second gives Perkins a challenging, slithery workout as well as moments of poignancy over a coy operatic bounce. Yet the baroque-flavored third movement is where Perkins squeezes out the most subtlety and pathos.

Thompson and McDermid return for two segments of Granville Bantock’s Incidental Music for Macbeth, the first a bagpipe-like Scottish air, the second a cheerily strutting “witches dance” for the full bassoon quartet. The string quartet, bolstered by bassist Michael Escreet, violist Susie Meszaros and harpist Eira Lynn Jones join Perkins for an expressively reflective, dynamic performance of Arnold Bax’s Threnody and Scherzo, shifting from a striking sense of longing to more puckish, Gershwinesque terrain, then bouncing and blipping between the baroque and, eventually, a more darkly acerbic chase scene.

This is a long album: there are many more treats here!

Hindemith’s Bassoon Sonata is more tuneful than most of his repertoire, veering in and out of rainy-day focus against Hancock’s steadily waltzing backdrop, then unexpected glitter, goofiness and pastoral touches. Henri Dutilleux’s Sarabande and Cortege for piano and bassoon have a bracing, chromatically-fueled bite matched by moments of creepy phantasmagoria with some devious quotes from more famous works.

Elizabeth Maconchy’s Concertino For Bassoon and String Orchestra, William Goodchild conducting the ensemble, begins with some jarring contrasts between vigorous lushness and Perkins’ introspectively wandering lines, then a more seamless counterpoint ensues. Serioso strings anchor Perkins’ moody march in the second movement; the similarly disquieted third features one of Perkins’ most incisive solos here.

Perkins premiered Alan Ridout’s two Shakespearean character studies for solo bassoon, Caliban and Ariel, in 1974. The former has a gnomic creepiness; the latter is spacious and airy yet far from carefree. The highlight of Andrzej Panufnik’s haunting Concerto for Bassoon and Small Orchestra – inspired by the murder of Polish dissident priest Jerzy Popieluszko – is a long, sparse, woundedly resonant Perkins solo in the second movement. From there, stabbing string motives alternate with methodical bassoon lines, then give way to vast Shostakovian desolation, distantly hopeful austerity, and Gorecki-esque prayerfulness. What a profound piece of music for an era where big pharma whistleblowers are being assassinated.

The last of the piano-and-bassoon pieces is Richard Rodney Bennett’s Bassoon Sonata, the most modernist but also strangely compelling piece on the program, with a persistently restless, sometimes furtive feel. The final track is David Bedford’s Dream of Stac Pollaidh, a Scottish mountainscape which Perkins plays solo with matter-of-factly cadenced, syncopated steps toward the summit.

Wait, there’s more: an enigmatically marching miniature by Herbert Howells. The amount of creativity and singleminded dedication that went into this record is awe-inspiring.

An Epically Genre-Smashing, Deliciously Unpredictable Album From Charlotte Greve

Over the years there have been a ton of jazz records made with a string section, or even an orchestra. But jazz with a choir? Has anyone ever made a jazz album with a choir? Saxophonist/singer Charlotte Greve has. Her latest release Sediments We Move – where she bolsters her quartet of guitarist Keisuke Matsuno, bassist Simon Jermyn and drummer Jim Black with adventurous, endlessly shapeshifting choir Cantus Domus – is streaming at Bandcamp.

This seven-part suite is like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Sometimes Caroline Shaw‘s new classical work comes to mind when the phrasing gets particularly cellular. Some of the most rhythmically straightforward interludes evoke bands like Wye Oak and My Brightest Diamond, when they straddle the line between artsy indie rock and modern classical music. There’s so much going on in this catchy but endlessly permutating album that what you see here is just the highlights. Conductor Ralf Sochaczewsky does Herculean work keeping the choir on the rails through Greve’s endlessly kaleidoscopic twists and turns.

The first interlude begins with a series of airy loops intertwining at glacial tempos. A delicate guitar figure enters and enlaces the choir’s stately vocals . Bass and drums become more prominent as the choir’s highs and lows coalesce into a quasi-canon. Greve moves to the mic with a stately, gracefully leaping melody over terse, steadily rhythmic bass and guitar, the men of the choir answering. The rainy-day feel warms as Black picks up the energy again. That’s just the first eight minutes of the record.

The second segment has a determined, emphatic sway, Greve’s unaffected, clear voice giving way to uneasy close harmonies from the choir and a simmering distorted guitar solo. From there she takes a carefree sax solo over subtly contrapuntal, looped choral parts, Matsuno finally kicking in toward the end.

A dancing bassline and incisive guitar lead to an unselfconsciously joyous crescendo of voices, then the sound grows more stark as the voices back brief sax and bass solos. Press repeat for extra joy…and whisper en masse when it’s almost over.

The deep-space interlude midway through comes as a complete shock, first with starry guitar, then pensive sax and ambience disappearing into the ether, followed by agitation and roar. Greve’s sax pulls the melody together tersely over Black’s steady tumbles before the nebula sonics return.

Part four opens with a couple of slow, lingering choral themes. There’s extra reverb on Greve’s judicious sax spirals and warmly conversational counterpoint from there, winding down to the most minimalist point here. But Black gets restless…he doesn’t want to let the pull of deep space get the best of everybody a second time around.

Guitar jangle and clang careens over calm resonance as the fifth segment kicks in and motors along: the point where the choir pick on the punk rhythm is irresistibly funny. Likewise, this is probably the first album to feature a sputtering bass solo backed by a towering choir in insistent 4/4 time. Scrambling guitar over an enveloping atmosphere evaporates for a funkier sway, the choir at the center.

Calmly and hypnotically, band and ensemble segue into the concluding portion, the bandleader’s sailing solo introducing a funky/stately dichotomy and hints of circling Afrobeat. Greve’s sax leads a reprise of the lush opening interweave. After a couple of triumphant, well-deserved crescendos, the choir take over with a carefree but unwavering rhythm. At this point, there’s no sense in giving away the ending: it’s not what anyone would expect. Maybe, ultimately, it’s not even an ending.

A Relentlessly Dark, Chilly Soundtrack For a Relentlessly Dark, Chilly Time

Joseph Trapanese‘s epic soundtrack to season two of The Witcher – streaming at Spotify – is a feast for fans of unrelenting, dark music. And yet, throughout the album’s thirty-two tracks, Trapanese works a vast dynamic range, from a whisper to a roar. Plenty of familiar tropes take centerstage: gloomy minor-key vamps, shivery violins, ominously drifting low-register ambience, and the occasional stormy orchestral interlude or horror-stricken swell. There are plenty of less expected sounds as well: gamelanesque belltones, guttural monstrous allusions and rhythms that run the gamut from motorik to Frankensteinian.

Sudden bursts of sound pounce in from the shadows at the edge of a vast desolation. There’s a long sequence that starts out as a surreal, echoey, solitary nocturnal trip on a subway of the mind and grows to a frantic, thundering chase scene. Down-the-drainpipe industrial ambience gives way to stalker footfalls. A funereal Balkan-tinged tableau recedes into the mist and then makes an unexpected return. An oboe sails mournfully above the waves.

Joey Batey, who plays the role of Jaskier in the series, takes the mic for three songs. Burn Butcher Burn is a soaringly vengeful, Elizabethan folk-tinged art-rock ballad. Whoreson Prison Blues is a funny proto-bluegrass tune; there’s another number that seems to be a spoof of mythological faux-Celtic pop.

Etsuko Hirose Plays Thoughtful, Impressionistic Pancho Vladigerov Suites

If Pancho Vladigerov’s music is becoming a meme, so much the better. And if the recent release of two versions of his Impressions suite is only a coincidence, it’s a case of great minds thinking alike. Nadejda Vlaeva’s recording, reviewed here last month, reveled in the composer’s protean individualism, morphing from the High Romantic to the Balkans and portents of where artists like Chano Dominguez would take flamenco jazz. Etsuko Hirose‘s recording – streaming at Spotify – has somewhat more restraint, the advantage being that she focuses on different subtleties in the composer’s portrait of a love affair.

The unhurried initial movement, if anything, is more circumspect than Vlaeva’s version. Likewise, Hirose’s take of the Embrace is a little more spacious but also reaches a triumphant plateau pretty early on and hangs there. The Waltz-Capriccio has more of a contrast between romping joy and reflective glitter, although Hirose also downplays the uneasy Saint-Saens-esque vampiness.

The Caress is very much that, while Elegance is matter-of-factly expressive High Romantic joy. Hirose holds back from dramatic overstatement in Confession, although she lets the jaunty ragtime loose in Laughter.

Ripe little crescendoing waves permeate Hirose’s interpretation of Passion: it’s a rewarding ride. The same for the pervasive darkness in Surprise, even when the rhythm picks up – Hirose draws a straight line back to nocturnal Janacek wanderings. The finale, Resignation has both muted distress and towering angst: what a story Hirose has to tell.

Vladigerov’s Suite Bulgare, Op.21 and the Prélude, Op.15. get a similarly insightful treatment here. The suite’s regally marching, colorfully ornamented, increasingly Middle Eastern-tinged first movement gives way to enticingly allusive, quintessentially Bulgarian tonalities in the misterioso second, Hirose opting to let it trail out with a ghostly menace.

The chromatically gleaming dance that follows seems on the muted side as well, until she launches into a stilleto attack to set up the cheerier if labyrinthine Ratschenitza coda. With the concluding prelude, Hirose reverts to a glistening, expressive Romanticism, arguably a more chromatic take on Rachmaninoff: her execution of those ratcheting climbs is breathtaking. This is a feast for fans of music from the Balkans as well as more harmonically predictable points further west.

Rare Unreleased Psychedelic Funk and Jamband Sounds From a New York Gone Forever

It’s a sweltering night on New York’s Lower East Side in June of 1987: summer has gotten off to a scorching start. Inside CBGB, there’s a good crowd, and they’re in a dancing mood. High on the stage, drummer Bobby Previte lays down a colorful clave. Elliott Sharp and Dave Tronzo play skronky, smoky guitar funk. Bassist Dave Hofstra is too low in the mix, and bandleader Wayne Horvitz adds layers of woozy keyboard textures. It’s the missing link between Defunkt’s jagged dancefloor attack and sprawling mid-70s Can. About four and a half minutes in, the song ends cold.

That’s the opening number, This New Generation, on Horvitz’s fifteen-track initial release in a series of archival recordings, Live Forever Volume 1, The President NY Live in the 80s, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a party in a box. From the perspective of the Orwellian nightmare that 2022 has been so far in this city, what an incredible time and place that was. The door guy at CB’s never bothered to ask customers to show ID, never mind a vaxxport or a muzzle. And if vaxxports had existed in 1987, the crowd would have laughed him off and bumrushed the stage. For the young people of the Reagan era, everybody’s bullshit detector for authoritarianism was set to stun. How far we’ve fallen since then.

The rest of the album is a period piece. In his extensive liner notes, Horvitz avers to how messy and uneven some of it is, but there’s no question this band could jam their asses off. There are also a handful of rare studio recordings as well as a quartet of songs from the earliest incarnation of this snarkily named ensemble, The President of the United States of America, from a CB’s show five years earlier.

The next song is Bring Yr Camera. Tronzo slips and dives and tenor saxoponist Doug Wieselman soars over a gritty groove that could be a 1960s incarnation of the Crusaders. After that, These Hard Times foreshadows what Susie Ibarra would do with Filipino kulintang music, albeit with a harder edge.

There are two versions of Andre’s Mood here. The first is from that 1987 set, a tumbling, blippy, downtown New York take on what the Talking Heads were doing with Burning Down the House. The second is a more skittish, Afrobeat-flavored studio recording with Horvitz’s organ further to the front.

Likewise, there are two takes of Three Crows, a swaying, midtempo funk tune. The live version has a reggae bassline from Hofstra and a snazzy handoff from Wieselman to a jagged Sharp solo; the studio take is a little faster. The final song from the live set is Ride the Wide Streets, which veers further toward frantic punk-funk.

The rest of the studio material here is on the techy side, focusing on Horvitz’s incisively layered, punchy keyboard riffs. There’s Serious, which prefigures that expansive Afrobeat jams of bands like the Brighton Beat, and Science Diet (a reference to cat food), which is short and snarling.

The 1982 CBGB tracks are the most expansive and jam-oriented here. Despite a completely different lineup – Stew Cutler on guitar, Joe Gallant on bass and Dave Sewelson on alto sax – they’re testament to the consistency of Horvitz’s vision. The appropriately titled On and On is basically a reggae tune with a couple of big screaming peaks. Horvitz dedicates the more Booker T-flavored Flat on Yr Back to the sound guy – hmmmm!

Kevin Cosgrove is the guitarist on the two earliest live numbers. Of Thee I Sing is the most haphazard one here – hearing Sewelson’s sax through the board with all that reverb on it is a trip, as are Horvitz’s synth settings. The final number, Boy, is a surreal mashup of New Orleans second-line groove and abrasive no wave. All this is reason to look forward to what else Horvitz has lying around for the next installment.

Catchy Jangle and Clang and Roar

Veteran Seattle band Chastity Belt‘s new single Fake/Fear is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s not about the lockdown or any kind of fake fear.

Guitarist Julia Shapiro sings the A-side, Fake over a jangly rainy-day backdrop with a slinky, sinuous lead guitar line. As she’s done many times, Gretchen Grimm distinguishes herself as a rock drummer who really swings. The B-side is slower and more hypnotic, in a growly post-Velvets vein – not quite as catchy, which seems to explain why it’s a B-side.

Don Davis’ Relentless, Harrowing Matrix Score Finally Available on Vinyl

If reissuing classic film soundtracks on vinyl is a meme, it’s long overdue. One auspicious development is the recent release of Don Davis‘ complete music from The Matrix, just out as a triple vinyl record and streaming at Spotify. Much of the score is very still, with tense highs from the strings and occasionally the cymbals. Suspense is everything, until in a split second something goes haywire, or trouble looms and then explodes, often triggering frenetic bouts of activity. Themes or riffs burst into the sonic picture, only to be cut off mid-phrase. Several of the interludes are especially fleeting, under the one-minute mark.

Big swells and striking, loopy phrasing are recurrent tropes: Philip Glass’ film work appears to be a big influence. An anvil rhythm returns as a foreshadowing device. While the overall sense of terror seldom lifts, Davis’ sense of humor occasionally percolates to the surface, whether in a galloping gamelanesque interlude, or a ridiculously blithe passage for solo harp. One of the tracks is titled Switches Brew. A steady, pulsing theme, Switch Works Her Boa gets frantically fleshed out as Switch Woks Her Boar.

There are also a couple of smartly chosen references to a fugitive riff from Shostakovich’s macabre String Quartet No. 8. The last disc is where Davis gets the orchestra’s brass to dig in hard throughout a long series of stormy, bellicose passages. Taken as a microtonally-tinged stand-alone suite for orchestra and occasional keyboards, this is as entertaining as it is forward-looking – which dovetails with the sensibility of the film.

Vast, Magical, Mystical Russian Choral Works

What’s most striking about 56-man Russian choral ensemble PaTRAM‘s album More Honourable Than the Cherubim – streaming at Spotify – is the group’s vast range. The basses reach gravelly lows usually unheard of beyond the world of throat-singing, often balanced on the top end by harmonies that rise into soprano territory.

Many of the Russian Orthodox works which the group sing here are considerably more colorful than you might expect. It’s not all glacial tempos and minor keys – although those are abundant. Most of the music on the program dates from the pre-Revolution era, the early 20th century in particular.

Vocal acrobatics typically take a backseat to unwavering resonance. The longest and arguably most dynamic work is a remarkable student composition by Rachmaninoff. The ensemble follow a matter-of-fact trajectory from muted, stygian rapture, to a triumphant wavelike motion, and eventually a rustic cheer. Likewise, an expansive eighteenth-century composition by Stepan Degtiariov has a folksy charm and a surprisingly animated, proto-operatic coda.

The most recent works – a slowly drifting prayer and a warmly enveloping tableau – are by Sergiy Trubachov, born in 1919. The oldest piece here, dating from the late 1600s, is a brief, soberly minimalistic setting of the central Russian Orthodox Marian hymn. The group open the record with a considerably more bracingly harmonized version by 20th century composer Petar Dinev.

The album’s most memorable interlude is a set of four hymns by Pavel Chesnokov, which give the choir a chance to cut loose with the closest thing to reckless abandon they reach for here, through sudden crescendos and toweringly anthemic passages,

Perhaps serendipitously, the album recording session coincided with an exhibit of a well-traveled 725-year-old relic known as the Kursk Root Icon, to which miracles have been attributed. Did any miracles take place there? Maybe it’s a miracle that the group managed to finish the record before choral performance was criminalized throughout most of the world. Considering that this repertoire has survived Tsarist tyranny and soul-crushing Soviet censorship, it’s a good bet that it will survive this moment’s global totalitarianism. In the meantime, we have PaTRAM to thank for helping to keep such a rich, robust tradition alive for future generations.

A Summery, Psychedelically Loopy World Premiere to Brighten Your Winter

Contemporary music ensemble Wild Up’s world premiere studio recording of Julius Eastman’s Femenine – streaming at Spotify – is playful, upbeat, hypnotic and utterly surreal. Baritone sax – played alternately by Erin Rogers, Marta Tasienga or Shelley Washington – figures heavily as the lead instrument. Bells, played by seemingly the entire ensemble, often anchor a shimmery backdrop. The group perform Eastman’s suite as a contiguous whole, broken up into comfortable individual tracks, some going on for as much as twelve minutes. You could call this the b-side to Terry Riley’s In C.

The introduction, titled Prime, is a dreamy, hypnotic tableau, a series of slowly expanding cellular vibraphone and piano phrases over peaceful ambience akin to a choir of tree frogs. A warm, gospel-tinged melody slowly coalesces as the rest of the orchestra slowly flesh out the vibraphone’s loopy riffs.

The orchestra run a jaggedly syncopated staccato loop in the second segment, Unison as percussion and then baritone sax add occasional embellishments. The title of part three, Create New Pattern, is a giveaway that Eastman’s initial device will be come around again, this time as more of a celebration.

Immersive, churning riffage morphs out of and then gives way again to the initial syncopation in Hold and Return. A cheery, balletesque atmosphere takes over in All Changing, with bells, vibes and eventually flutes at the forefront. Flugelhornist Jonah Levy moves to the front with a carefree, soulful solo as the group dig into the rhythm in Increase, singer Odeya Nini pushing the top end with her vocalese. Eventually Jiji’s guitar gets to add grit over the chiming waterworks, followed by a blissful Pharaoh Sanders-inspired sax interlude.

The group morph into the next part, Eb, with big portentous accents in the lows, sax fluttering and flaring amid the orchestra’s steady circles. The energy picks up significantly in Be Thou My Vision/Mao Melodies, then exuberant echoes of the disco era that Eastman came up in rise in Can Melt.

An unexpected if muted discontent surfaces in the final segment, Pianist Will Interrupt Must Return, everyone fading back into the woods. This is a tenacious, dauntingly articulated recording by a cast that also includes pianist Richard Valitutto; cellist Seth Parker Woods; vibraphonists Sidney Hopson and Jodie Landau; violinsts Andrew Tholl and Mona Tian; violist Linnea Powell; cellist Derek Stein; bell players Lewis Pesacov and music director Christopher Rountree; horn player Allen Fogle; tenor saxophonist Brian Walsh; flutists Isabel Gleicher and Erin McKibben.

Entertaining, Dynamic New Classical Orchestral Works on the Latest Polarities Compilation

The second volume of the Polarities compilations of new orchestral music – streaming at Spotify – came out last summer and is very much worth your time if you like colorful, translucent, robustly performed sounds. To open the album, Pavel Šnajdr conducts the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra in Margaret Brandman‘s Spirit Visions, a “symphonic tone poem.” It’s variations on a catchy, folksy theme straight out of Nashville circa 1972. Brandman sends it goodnaturedly around the orchestra: everybody gets to indulge, especially the brass.

The orchestra’s second contribution here is Kamala Sankaram‘s 91919, playful flourishes contrasting with a nebulous density that no doubt draws on her time working with Anthony Braxton’s large ensembles. Natalia Anikeeva’s terse, astringent viola stands out resolutely against the smoky backdrop and occasional deviously twinkling accent or drumroll. Sankaram’s signature sense of humor comes to the forefront as a goofy march ensues.

The second piece on the album is Beth Mehocic’s Tango Concerto, played in striking high definition by the Zagreb Festival Orchestra under Ivan Josip Skender, with Charlene Farrugia on piano and Franko Božac on accordion and bandoneon, Don’t let the strangely tremoloing strings make you believe that there’s something wrong with the recording: the two keyboardists’ regal introduction quickly brings the first movement down to earth, right up to what could be a sly allusion to a famous Led Zep song.

Movement two has an elegant pas de deux between accordion and piano over increasing deep-sky nocturnal lustre. The muscularly pulsing third movement is where the inevitable Piazzolla comparisons arise, but Mehocic chooses her spots and packs a lot into not much time – around thirteen minutes. It’s inspiring to hear a piece like this that matches the iconic Argentine composer’s outside-the-box sensibility without being imitative.

Stanislav Vavřínek conducts the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra in the album’s three other works. Echo figures filter in over drifting suspense in Larry Wallach’s Species of Motion, rising to a flurrying agitation as the main theme coalesces and winds animatedly through the ensemble. From there the piece is calm without losing brightness. Everybody has a good time with this one – what a fun piece to play!

Does Mel Mobley‘s Labored Breathing allude to a recently ubiquitous divide-and-conquer technique? Probably not, although this ominously colorful piece quickly escalates from brooding resonance to a bellicose intensity that sometimes borders on the macabre. A desolate, fugally-tinged interlude sets the stage for the next skirmish; from there, the suspense doesn’t let up. It’s the most distinctly noirish and most memorable piece on the program.

The final work is Brian Latchem’s picturesque, Dvorakian Suffolk Variations, a relatively brief (ten-minute) viola concerto. A wistful canon sets the stage, soloist Vladimír Bukač following a steady, restrained, baroque-tinged upward trajectory. There’s a rustic, rather lushly dancing passage and then a wry crescendo before the orchestra bring it full circle. Spin this for anyone who might feel daunted finding their way around the new classical scene: it’s as good a place to start as any.