Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic
"Brahms, Dvorak: Dances " (Vinyl)

The inimitable Herbert von Karajan leads the incomparable Berlin Philharmonic through a series of dances composed by Brahms and Dvorak.  Some of these are very well known, some less so, but all are given the care and finesse they deserve.  Some are appropriately charming while others are romantic.

This may seem like a recording project beneath the caliber of the Berlin Phil and Karajan, but I think it speaks to the music: Karajan regarded these slavic showpieces as worthy of inclusion along with Brahms and Dvorak's other works.

This is a Deutsche Grammaphon with the lesser-seen tulip label.  I'm told this is the equivalent of RCA shaded dogs in terms of their rarity and desirability.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Ozawa, Berlin Philharmonic
"Prokofiev: Symphony no. 5, 'Lt. Kije Suite'" (CD)

I got to play the first movement of Prokofiev's fifth symphony in youth orchestra.  I was steeped in his tradition of lush, romantic melodies that received his unique embellishment and have loved the work ever since, although I've still not had the chance to play the entire work yet.

In addition to the fifth symphony, this CD also includes Prokofiev's 'Lieutenant Kije' suite, culled from a soundtrack that Prokofiev wrote for a 1934 Soviet film of the same name.  The music ranks amongst Prokofiev's most popular works, full of charming melodies and light-heartedness.  Ozawa performs with baritone Andreas Schmidt for two movements of 'Kije.'
Frank Zappa
"Hot Rats" (CD)

Meanwhile, in another galaxy, Zappa was forging ahead in his exploration of the musical universe...

Released in 1969, this was Zappa's first solo project after the dissolution of the Mothers of Invention.   To put it in context, this was the same year the Beatles released 'Abbey Road' and the same year of Led Zeppelin's debut. 

In contrast, 'Hot Rats' opens with the instrumental 'Peaches in Regalia' which features soprano saxophones and oboes. 

Zappa was unafraid in a way I don't know if we've ever seen elsewhere.  His ability to look to new horizons may be unmatched in his interest in the cross-pollination of genres and art forms. 
Mr. Zappa has to be near the top of a list of artists I need to know more about.
Heifetz, Primrose & Feuermann
"Dohnanyi: Serenade" (Vinyl)

I found this recording amongst the literal trove of records I brought back with me from Omaha.  It will take me a while to listen to all of them.  I'm not making this task any easier...

Ironically, the last time I stopped in this particular antique gallery I found another recording of the Dohnanyi serenade. 
This one is an RCA re-issue of a shaded dog Victor recording featuring the one-the-only Jascha Heifetz, William Primrose and Emmanuel Feuermann playing (what was then) the newly-composed treasure, Ernst Dohnanyi's 'Serenade' for string trio.   

The recording technology wasn't great at this point, so there's an adequate level of 'muffle' going on, but it's not enough to stand in the way of hearing these three musicians at the height of their power.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Steely Dan
"Katy Lied" (Vinyl)

Steely Dan's fourth album, released in 1975 was only a moderate success for the studio-only band. 

Bandleaders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen reportedly refused to listen to the completed album because of a diminished final product because of a malfunctioning DBX unit.
Go figure.

I'm writing on the fly, so if there's anything more notable to write about this record, I'll fill it in later...
The Chamber Brothers
"Greatest Hits" (Vinyl)

I did not know anything about the Chamber Brothers before I saw this album sitting at the Imaginerium in Omaha, NE.  I picked it up because a bunch of brothers and a white dude in the late 60's certainly had to make something good, right?

Well, yes, the did. 
A collection of funky, psychedelic rock n' roll tunes, this sounds like the output of a band that never quite became a household name, but no one can figure out why.   This band's worth exploring further...

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Led Zeppelin
"Led Zeppelin" (CD + Vinyl)

In 1969, unbeknownst to the world, the Beatles were on the verge of break-up.  It causes any musical mind to question "what's next?"
The most explosive, exploratory music-making group in history had accomplished more in six years than anyone else has even attempted in a lifetime.

Minds like Clapton, Beck et al were leaning towards the "heavier" riff-oriented rock, but it took these four lads to give shape to the next decade of music.  Blues, ballads, folk, heavy rock, metal...it all comes from here, and it all starts here.

This is how debuts should be.  Bursting from the womb fully-formed and raging, I can think of few other examples where their lead-off album would go on to contain so many of their classic cuts. 

Zeppelin will stand amongst the greatest rock acts of all time. Their chemistry is key, but for me the one key ingredient that helped propel Zeppelin to uncharted heights was John Bonham's drumming which was the closest thing to maniacal precision I've ever heard.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Cleveland Quartet
"Debussy, Ravel: String Quartets" (CD)

My bias will show, I'm certain of it.  I can't help it. 

I studied chamber music for years with Peter Salaff, the second violinist of the Cleveland Quartet.  His was amongst only a handful of experiences I've had of teachers who actually did what they told us to do.  The experience of watching him demonstrate in lessons or play with colleagues in recital was amazing. 

I think the thing I learned the most from Mr. Salaff (aside from the obvious things like rhythm, intonation and ensemble) was the delicate art of texture.  This is a brilliant recording to listen to for quartet textures.

Just like an impressionist painting is out of focus, composers emulated this technique with their music.  The finest musicians are capable of re-creating these fuzzy images with a precise balance of bow speed and contact point without sacrificing ensemble.  It's very very difficult to accomplish, and its among the reasons why this is amongst my favorite quartet recordings.  Ensemble and intonation are never sacrificed, but the range of colors and flavors they accomplish are the widest range I've ever heard.  I can practically hear Mr. Salaff issuing gentle orders to me about how to accomplish such a mystery.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Bad Plus
"For All I Care" (CD)

The music on this album was how I came to know of Minneapolis-based jazz fusion trio, the Bad Plus.  They were on a televised broadcast of the Rochester Jazz Festival along with vocalist Wendy Lewis.  They were rockin' it pretty hard.  Even for a jazz trio.

In many respects, I still feel this is the Plus' best to date.  Surely, their audience is a jazz-focused one, but the addition of a vocalist makes the impact of these well-known tunes all the more striking.
Honestly, the cover of Pink Floyd's 'Comfortably Numb' might be even better than the original.

Additionally, the treatment given to Ligeti and Stravinsky is equally playful and virtuosic. Easily my favorite album from these boys.  Best of all, I believe these guys have the potential to exceed my expectations again and again.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Rudolf Serkin, Ormandy
"Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 2" (Vinyl)

Rudolf Serkin recorded the piano concertos of Beethoven at least twice in his long career.  This cycle, done in the 50's and 60's has been available in one form or another in countless ways over the decades.  Later, he would record an entire cycle for Telarc with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony.

I've already learned that this "complete" cycle was released separately  on Columbia Masterworks LPs that I'll be eagerly keeping my eyes open for - their value would certainly be higher, and it makes more sense that these recordings would be divided by the conductor/orchestra Serkin performs with.  During this age, New York and Philadelphia had a healthy competition; it would be uncommon for them to appear alongside one another in a single compendium.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Henri Rene
"Riot in Rhythm" (Vinyl)

Released in 1959, this album self-proclaims itself to be a glimpse at the rowdy side of music director/arranger Henri Rene after years of helming the RCA Victor orchestras as principal orchestrator and arranger.

The music is swingin' jazz with a heavy flavor of latin beats throughout. 

There's little about Mr. Rene to read online except for the fact that he served the Allies during WWII and after returning to the US became a part of the RCA Victor family for decades before striking out on his own. 

I found this in a thrift shop, and while many of these slow-swinging cocktail-sipping records can be found, I'm learning it's half instinct and half knowledge to help weed through the boring to the interesting ones.  This is definitely an interesting one.
Silvestre Mendez
"Oriza" (Vinyl)

Another thrift store find of the day, I am quite excited at finding this one.  Since I consider myself a participant in the revival of interest of soul, funk and Afro-beat music championed by the likes of Dap-tone, it is really interesting to hear an album of Afro-Cuban music. From 1958.

On the back of the jacket it goes into explanation for what all of the instruments you hear on the album are.  It is exciting to realize that at this point in time, the audience didn't recognize the sound of a conga, bongo or cow bell.

The album sounds much like you would expect: a group of boys that have played this music together for years.  Decades later, music like this would enjoy its own revival through albums such as the 'Buena Vista Social Club.'

Monday, February 11, 2013

Itzhak Perlman, Leinsdorf
"Prokofiev: Concerto no. 2" (Vinyl)

This is a re-release of one of Perlman's earliest recordings (I believe he originally recorded both the Prokofiev and Sibelius with Leinsdorf on an LP released in 1967.)

The jacket isn't an improvement, but the recording itself is a sturdy "Gold Seal" RCA which they still took great care to release properly.
The recording itself sounds untouched/re-mastered which means you hear all of the sounds the 21-year old violinist made during his meteoric rise to be the greatest violinist of the late 20th century.

Update: I decided it prudent to check, since the original '67 jacket looked familiar.  Yes, I do in fact own a copy of the original RCA red label release.  This review will work for both copies as I won't keep the later Gold Seal copy.   That's what I get for filing it under Prokofiev and Sibelius violin concertos.
Nancy Wilson
"How Glad I Am" (Vinyl)

Another great voice from the age of our grandparents (I feel like I should designate this generation as something memorable.  I have a feeling it will become all the more important in future years as musicians look backwards for inspiration) is Nancy Wilson.

This record was released in 1965 and I know many of these tunes as standards, including "Don't Rain on My Parade" or the gender specific "The Boy from Ipanema."

Nancy Wilson is probably most well known today for her work with Cannonball Adderly, but she has recorded solo albums for over fifty years.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Anne-Sophie Mutter, Kurt Masur
"Beethoven: Violin Concerto, Romances" (CD)

Anne-Sophie Mutter has enjoyed a prominence as a concert violinist that is rarely seen today.  She may have come along a the right time, ready to be held up by the likes of Herbert von Karajan, whereas after that time, we haven't seen anyone rise with the same superhero status as the famed German conductor.

This recording is probably the sort of conversation topic where four people in the room love it and the next seven can't stand it.  I don't know Beethoven's violin concerto well enough to have such firm opinions, but it is enjoyable to sit here listening to her beautiful, wonderful sound and remind myself of what it can and should sound like.

Kurt Masur leads the New York Philharmonic on this live recording that was originally released in 2002 at the end of Masur's tenure as music director for the Philharmonic.  Let me repeat a bit of that again: live recording.  Now I don't care about anyone's feelings for her interpretation.
Pink Floyd
"Wish You Were Here" (CD)

Pink Floyd's ninth album was released in 1975 and continued the band's voyage into sonic exploration through the use of synthesizers and other electronic innovations.

While 'Dark Side' will forever be their most well-known work, there's a lot to suggest that 'Wish You Were Here' is really a better, more well-rounded work.  Similarly, 'the Wall' is one of the best sounding records I've ever heard, so there are quite a few trophies that Gilmour & co. can lay hold of.

I can't consider Pink Floyd one of my favorite bands, but I can consider them amongst the most innovative musical explorers in rock n' roll.  A present day contemporary could be Radiohead, but Floyd's emergence at the dawn of electronic sound production and recording meant the exponential increase in possibilities that may only come around once.
Frank Sinatra
"Come Swing with Me" (Vinyl)

In honor of playing a concert this weekend of Sinatra's music, I thought I'd pull out this record and bathe in the sumptuousness that was popular music in the 1950's-60's.

Sinatra recorded this (along with orchestrater/conductor Billy May) over three days in 1961.  A big push was made to accentuate the stereo recording with instruments pushed into (almost comical) arrangements so that their aural presence was obviously intended for the left or right channel.

Sinatra is one of the great voices in American songbook singing.  I regard him as a name that will be remembered for generations as one of the important figures in music.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

"Eat to the Beat" (Vinyl)

Blondie can now be regarded amongst the champions of New Wave.  I've learned a distinct appreciation for New Wave, but it applies only to select corners of the genre.  Don't ask me why.

Blondie (Debbie Harry & co.) were nearly MTV before there was MTV.  There are a lot of elements about this album that are forward-looking: the music's polished, radio-ready appeal, the gorgeous front(wo)man.  Even the album's artwork (released in 1979) predates the neon, geometric panache of the 80's by at least five years.

All in all, it's a sound that is worth acknowledging, but I don't know if I will keep it in the stacks.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Count Basie
"Verve: Jazz Masters 2" (CD)

There is SO much I don't know about jazz. So much.  I suppose I make up for it with my knowledge of classical music (probably as rare a beast, no?) but there are so many conversations I'll hear about jazz that I wish I knew what was being talked about.

A 'greatest hits' album from Basie's recordings on Verve, this is a re-mastered compilation including many of the Basie songs that we would all know. (Including 'April in Paris' and 'One o'clock Jump')

Basie stands amongst the most important figures of 20th century American jazz, probably exceeded only by Duke Ellington in terms of how their music has been received/perceived by history.

The jazz education continues...

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Rudolph Barshai, Moscow Chamber Ensemble
"Bartok: Divertimento for Strings" (Vinyl)

This has a particularly boring album cover.  It can't even snap a decent shot in Photo Booth!

Bartok's 'Divertimento' for strings is one of the most fun works to perform with a strings-only ensemble.  Gratefully, talented composers pull out some of their most fun, memorable music for the ensemble and we have been given Mozart's Divertimenti, Holst's Holberg Suite, Britten's Simple Symphony and many more.  While none of these pieces are particularly monumental they are all works that musicians are grateful for the chance to perform.

Bartok wrote this piece in 1939 while living in Switzerland and trying to decide whether he would leave Europe under the impending shadow of World War II.  The work is surprisingly light-hearted for such troubled times.

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Flaming Lips
"Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" (CD)

This is the Lips' tenth album released in 2002, three years after their break-through "Soft Bulletin."  If it isn't their number one best-selling album, it's in the top three.

The Flaming Lips have found themselves occupying the same room in my musical mansion as Bjork.  All of these musicians are respected, talented and creative, but for some reason their music has stopped being as relevant to me as it was 5-6 years ago.  Was it ever relevant? That's a question I just consider too harsh to consider...

I'm a big fan of Steve Drozd and I still consider him the musical motor behind the Lips.  Wayne Coyne will forever get the headlines for his zany...everything, but Drozd is the guy.  The real guy.

This album is trippy, weird and a lot of fun.  It's also full of musical genius, so when I'm in the right mood, there's nothing else like it.
Eric Clapton
"Slowhand" (CD)

This was Clapton's fifth solo album, released in 1977.  Clapton's solo path had been cemented by this point, and this is regarded as the high-water mark for his solo ouput.

I've been trying to understand the cultural need to proclaim Clapton the King of Guitar.  (I'm sorry, Clapton is god.  I misspoke.) I'm a big fan of Cream and the giant, fuzzy riff-laden heavy rock phase the world stumbled through in the late 60's, but once Clapton struck out on his own, I find many of his big hits to be pretty mild in the hot sauce of life.

Clapton himself is the first to admit he acts as a mirror for his favorite influences, whether that be recording Robert Johnson's tunes or an entire album with B.B. King.  Clapton is the first to speak up and tell everyone his stylings are often not his own.  So why is people treat his music like is revolutionary or even new? I have a list of guitarists I adore and Clapton's not on it.

Still, this is an album I will keep on hand because I have the sense that I may come to grow into an understanding, an appreciation for the adult Clapton that I don't possess today.
"New Way to be Human" (CD)

Many of my similarly-aged friends reference particular music as the soundtrack of their teenage years.  One that comes up a lot is Sublime's self-titled album.  Inversely,  I don't think I've ever heard that entire album.

No, for me this is the soundtrack to my late high school years! Switchfoot: Christian-turned-mainstream surfer rock-pop trio from SoCal.  This was before they made their attempt at the Top 40 market.  At this time, it was simply two brothers and their amigo banging out tuneful pop songs that they (obviously) loved to play.

It was released in 1999, produced by Charlie Peacock, and, true to Switchfoot's m.o., all songs were written by Jon Foreman.  Probably within the span of an afternoon.

Sadly, there's nothing earth shattering about this album.  There isn't a weak, uninspired tune on here, but everything digests harmlessly and is remembered as fondly as an afternoon at the beach.   For me, this is senior year of high school.
Ray LaMontagne
"God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise" (Vinyl)

Ray LaMontagne's fourth LP was released in 2010. It was recorded in his home and is the first time that LaMontagne is credited with sole production duties and also the first time he recorded "with" anyone. (In this case, the Pariah Dogs.)

An AR rep for a record label once handed me LaMontagne's "Gossip in the Grain" after we discussed our mutual taste in music (and I complimented him on his Klipsch Cornwalls) and since that time I've been hooked on LaMontagne's cornsilk vocals and laid-back sentiment.  I still think "Gossip" is his best work, but I've dutifully sampled his other works until now, where I unwittingly now own all four of his albums.

"God Willin'" is a little too kicked back for me. The tempos are all very relaxed, the lights a little too dim and there's far too much pedal steel.  And by that I mean there is pedal steel, so therefore there is too much pedal steel.    Ray's voice is as calming and soothing as ever, but I've yet to hear him rise to the same heights as 2008's "Gossip."  I truly hope he does.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Brodsky Quartet, Anne sofie von Otter
"Respighi: String Quartet, 'Il tramonto'" (CD)

Crossover acts in the realm of classical music are an oddity, but hardly a rarity any more.  Perhaps any hot young string quartet who gets to record on Alicia Keyes' latest album owes a debt of gratitude to the British Brodsky Quartet.
While they never leaned as far over the diving line as the Kronos or Turtle Island String Quartets, Brodsky has carved a name for themselves as purveyors of the finest repertoire while getting to enjoy exposure to mainstream audiences by recording with the likes of Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney and Björk.   (Björk's "Hyperballad" with Brodsky is far superior to the original album version.)

This album features the quartet writing of the Italian impressionist Ottorino Respighi.  Impressionism is a world almost exclusively owned by the French, but Respighi made his name known (most notably with his "Rome" tone poems.)

These quartets are not well known so I'm glad to have a recording of them.  For one shorter work the quartet is joined by mezzo-soprano Anne sofie von Otter for Respighi's single-movement "Il Tramonto"  which was a work very nearly performed by myself earlier this year.
Erykah Badu
"Mama's Gun" (CD)

Ms. Badu is probably best known for performing with the biggest head of hair.  Who cares if it isn't really her own hair that's sculpted into a six-foot afro?

'Mama's Gun,' her sophomore album, was released in 2000 after being recorded in New York's Electric Lady Studios. Drumming sound particularly bad-a**? That's the Roots' ?uestlove creating a particularly thumpy groove.

It's groovy, it's jazzy, it's a window into black musical pop culture at the point when some important divisions were happening.  Mainstream hip-hop was going in a new (lesser) direction and, much like today, real talent was being driven underground, known by those who knew and traded around like unofficial currency.  Hipster before it was hipster. How hipster.
Lorin Maazel, Cleveland Orchestra
"Beethoven: Symphony no. 7" (Vinyl)

I have three cycles of the Beethoven symphonies recorded by Cleveland.  Perhaps there are more (Rodzinski?) but my incomplete knowledge today knows only of the Szell, Maazel and Dohnanyi cycles.

Collecting recordings of the Cleveland Orchestra should be its own sub-hobby for me.  The great affectation with which I listen to this ensemble not only recollects my college days, but I'm constantly able to learn from them about how to behave as a musician, both on and off stage.

Beethoven's seventh symphony is in my top three favorites.  I was having a discussion to decide if I was really serious about this, and we decided it was a race between the third, the sixth and the seventh.
I wholeheartedly believe that if I was confronted with someone unfamiliar with classical music at all and needed to be taught of its value, all I would have to do is play the slow movement ('Allegretto') from this symphony.  Not a word need be said.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Jimi Hendrix
"Band of Gypsys" (CD)

The "eponymous" live album, released in 1970, just months before Hendrix's untimely death, is the last album officially released by Hendrix.

Recorded over two nights of New Years Eve shows at the Fillmore East, this represents the last stage of musical evolution that Hendrix achieved before shuffling off this mortal coil.  Akin to Miles Davis' 'Bitches Brew,' this is an album that extends beyond the average listener's palette.  If your traditional rock 'n roller loves listening to 'Voodoo Chile' he/she may never have heard the tunes on this album. 

The Experience was gone, and in their place Hendrix was backed by Billy Cox and Buddy Miles.  The feel of the ensemble is very different than with Hendrix's Experience albums.
Ella Fitzgerald
"Sings the Rogers & Hart Songbook" (Vinyl)

Released in 1956, this album features the one-and-only Ella Fitzgerald singing songs from the songwriting duo Richard Rogers and Larry Hart.  Some of these songs are still known today ("Bewitched," "My Funny Valentine," "The Lady is a Tramp") but many of them have passed into obscurity.  What's equally interesting is how there were so many musicals that have passed out of common knowledge. 

I am coming to regard Ella Fitzgerald as one of the two most important figures in American songbook performance.  The music penned by Rogers and Hart, the Gershwin brothers and Rogers and Hammerstein are quickly becoming canonized American art song tradition.  The performances by Ms. Fitzgerald (and another fellow called Frank Sinatra) are the benchmark for jazz and contemporary vocal standards that everyone should learn from.
Vladimir Ashkenazy
"Beethoven: Piano Sonatas 17 - 20" (CD)

Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas over the course of 27 years.  As a whole, the represent one of the most important bodies of musical work ever completed.  Hans Bülow has called Beethoven's piano sonatas the "new testament" of music.  I wonder if that's akin to John Lennon saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus?

I possess this complete recorded cycle of the sonatas by Vladimir Ashkenazy, long regarded as one of the most important musical figures of his generation.  I saw Ashkenazy conduct the Cleveland Orchestra on several occasions and had a classmate who religiously worshiped Ashkenazy's work.  I consider it a great privilege to have seen this man work.  Seeing this box set at Academy Records in New York City was a coup.  I snatched it up; could there be a better set to own?
Borodin String Quartet
"Tchaikovsky: String Quartet no. 1 in D" (CD)

I mentioned in an earlier listening to some of these recordings that the Borodin made a rather excessive amount of recordings of Tchaikovsky's exhuberant "Souvenir de Florence" string sextet. 
It makes me laugh to think about it.

Today, however, we are listening to Tchaikovsky's 1st string quartet, which was one of the pieces that I learned during my first proper time away from home at a music festival in 1998.  I still re-live the memories fondly.

Today, especially, I pulled this recording out to hear the quartet's beautiful second movement, 'Andante Cantabile.'  Music such as this was written for days like these.

Friday, February 01, 2013

The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra w/ Warren Covington
"Tea for Two Cha Chas" (Vinyl)

Today we have a beautifully preserved Decca stereo record that looks like its been played twice in the last seventy years.  Yay for us!

Tommy Dorsey is a gold standard in big band jazz (we'll see other recordings of his on here) so it shouldn't surprise that, just like today, his ensemble would endure after his death in 1956.  Warren Covington took over the leadership role and released this successful album in 1958.

Today this genre of music is more associated with ironic comedy, but in the day it was as innocent and pure as sunlight.     To top it off, it's been recorded beautifully.  It's fun hearing this era of music-making preserved so well.
Hugh Wolff, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
"Dvorak: String & Wind Serenades" (CD)

I had a music history teacher once proclaim Dvorak to be a B-grade composer.   This was met by cries of derision from the room of music dorks, but in the subsequent years I've been forced to agree with her.

Dvorak has some of the most beautiful melodies ever written, but beyond this penchant, he often seems unsure of what to do with his accompanying voices that are often undeveloped when compared to other composers.

Still, Dvorak hit a couple of home runs.  His cello concerto is a tour de force.  Alongside that piece I would put his serenade for strings (op. 22.)  Every movement is world-class, beautiful and interesting while also being very challenging to perform.

Hugh Wolff was the music director of the SPCO when I came into a musical awareness in the 90's.  I think my teacher may have been serving as principal viola of this orchestra at the time of this recording.