Sunday, May 24, 2020

Of Note In 2020: Jazz, Latin, and Global

The train to catch up on 2020's music is on track, although with each station I hit, another station adds itself to the itinerary as more great music continues to be released. But no matter. This leg of the journey is stoked by three albums, two that fall under jazz and one that (for lack of a better term) falls under global. The main playlist has plenty of other goodies for your listening pleasure, but these were the ones that kept me coming back. You can find samples from each in the 40 For 2020 playlist, along with tracks from previous posts focusing on Classical, Electronic, and Hip Hop.

Wayne Escoffery - The Humble Warrior For most people, having a colleague tell them that their nephew is a musician would be an excuse to exit stage right. When that happened to me a couple of years ago, however, I a beeline back to my office to check it out. That's how I discovered this supremely skilled and passionate sax player and his album Vortex. His new one finds him exploring new areas while paying homage to his own roots and that of the music itself. For the former, he's created a searching, expansive take on Benjamin Britten's Missa Brevis, which he heard as a child growing up in London, where he sang with the Trinity Boys Choir. For the latter, his own composition Chain Gang reflects the role of work songs and slave chants in the DNA of jazz. Fittingly, it opens with a Coltrane-like voluntary, heralding in a powerfully involving piece. As on Vortex, his band is all in, especially pianist David Kikoski, who sparkles throughout. Guitarist David Gilmore (not Gilmour!) and trumpet legend Randy Brecker lend a hand to the Britten tracks, giving more foils for Escoffery's reed to work against. If more mainstream jazz was this good I would listen to more mainstream jazz.

Makaya McCraven and Gil Scott-Heron - We're New Again: A Reimagining In 2011, Jamie XX spun spooky electronic gold out of I'm New Here, Scott-Heron's somewhat misshapen final album. Now to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the original, Chicago's avatar of the new jazz scene has reimagined the album entirely with all new backing tracks for Scott-Heron's gravelly reflections - and came up with another winner. Aided by crack players like Jeff Parker (guitar) and Brandee Younger (harp) and driven by McCraven's percussion, it refers back to the master's albums with Brian Jackson while the addition of Ben Lamar Gay's diddley bow seems to take it to a more elemental place. Not only does this album honor Scott-Heron's extraordinary legacy, it's also the most convincing work McCraven has yet released. A remarkable and riveting achievement.

Yorkston/Thorne/Khan - Navarasa : Nine Emotions In 2016, I put this trio's Everything Sacred in the "rock, folk, etc." category but as Suhail Yusuf Kahn's voice and sarangi are even more to the fore this time, I'm putting it here. The title refers to a Sanskrit theory of the various emotions expressed by the performing arts and each of the nine tracks represents one sentiment. Even so, it's a consistently contemplative album, with its highest spirits reserved for the second track, The Shearing's Not For You, with James Yorkston singing what sounds like an ancient Scottish folk song. With each release, the polyglot trio's vision sounds ever more gorgeous and full of natural affinities between cultures. There's no better example of that than Westlin' Winds, which combines the Pakistani devotionals of the Qawwali tradition with the poetry of Robert Burns. If you're still unfamiliar with Yorkston/Thorne/Khan, start here but by all means trace the journey back through all three albums.

Make sure to follow this playlist to see what else gets added in these genres.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2019: Jazz, Latin, and Global

Best Of 2018: Jazz, Latin, and Global
Double Bass, How Low Can You Go
Bayeté's World

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Of Note In 2020: HIp Hop, RnB, and Reggae

As is typical for these genres, the main Of Note playlist is dominated by singles, many of which I hope bear LP-sized fruit later in the year, like those from Isaiah Rashad and (especially) Frank Ocean. For now, I want to draw your attention to an EP and two albums that have really grabbed me. Tracks can be found in the 40 For 2020 playlist, alongside those from recent posts on Classical and Electronic releases.

Charlotte Dos Santos - Harvest Time Where her divine 2017 album Cleo showcased her limber, multi-octave voice in a variety of styles, including jazz, cha-cha, and electronic R&B, the five songs here solidify what might be called the "Dos Santos" style, where all those genres melt together in one dreamy melange. Part of her skill set is also conceiving of complex vocal arrangements, which she then executes through flawless multi-tracking. There's an insular, self-sufficient feeling to Dos Santos's music, only making it seem more of a privilege to be invited into her world.

Pop Smoke - Meet The Woo 2 (Deluxe) Even knowing this once-emerging rapper is dead, killed in a home invasion in February, doesn't make it any less convincing when he says, "I said, I feel invincible" on the opening cut to his second mixtape. That's a tribute to his gravitas, which must be the mark of an old soul as he was only 20 when he died. According to several writers at Complex, he's also still the King Of New York, which is a credit to his talent and a commentary on the state of hip hop in its foundational city. But he's not wearing a crown by default. Working within the confines of Brooklyn Drill, which is what came of trap when it pinged to London and then ponged to Chicago before rolling into BK, he brings an immediately arresting authority to his flow, even when he spitting some filthy bars. But it's that weight and menace that makes you hang on every syllable, along with the way he weaves his word through the spacious beats. Apparently there's an official debut album in the can. Until we hear that, Meet The Woo 2 will serve as both a legacy of what he accomplished and a promise of how much more he had to offer.

Jay Electronica - A Written Testimony As you may or may not know (and probably care even less) I don't think much of Jay Z, although when he's on a Kanye West record (or collaborating as on Watch The Throne) he brings the heat. So the fact that he's on eight of ten tracks here and I still love it is as much as I do is a tribute to how awesome this album is. Jay Electronica is a font of creativity, whether sampling Fripp & Eno on Ezekiel's Wheel, one of six songs he produced, or rhyming with polished density as on the first verse of The Neverending Story: "Have you ever heard the tale of/The noblest of gentlemen who rose up from squalor?/Tall, dark, and decked out in customary regalia/Smellin' like paraphernalia/Hailin' from the home of Mahalia." Islam is woven throughout but it doesn't rub this atheist the wrong way, just adding an air of mystique and depth. Hopefully we don't have to wait 10 years for his next album, but A Written Testimony will likely have significant staying power.

Dig in to everything I'm tracking in these genres with the Of Note In 2020 (Hip Hop, R&B, and Reggae) playlist - and let me know what I'm missing.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2019: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae
Best Of 2018: Hip Hop, RnB and Reggae
Best Of 2017: Hip Hop, RnB and Reggae
Best Of 2016: Hip Hop and RnB

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Of Note In 2020: Electronic

Continuing on in my efforts to catch up with 2020, are the six electronic albums that have called me back the most. Listen to tracks from all them here or below, along with samples from the last post. For a wider view, scroll down for the full Of Note In 2020 (Electronic) playlist.

Roger Eno & Brian Eno - Mixing Colors Roger's name is first on this gleaming collection of electronic miniatures so I'm going to credit him with adding both melody and concision, two elements often lacking from Brian's recent albums. That's not always a bad thing, as no one else can put together an hour of generative ambiance like Eno did with Lux near the beginning of the last decade. But it was no accident that it was his more songful Small Craft On A Milk Sea that wound up on my list of the best of the 2010's. Mixing Colors is charming throughout, even nodding to Satie at times, and a dazzling display of textural variety. Even when Roger's piano comes to the fore, the sonics are likely the product of many wise choices. It's too easy to take Eno's genius for granted these days and not appreciate the music for what it is. Lose yourself in Mixing Colors long enough and who made it won't matter - but your environment may be transformed.

Seabuckthorn - Through A Vulnerable Occur If a shaft of light powers through a dense thicket to the forest floor, does it make a sound? Probably not, but if it did it might sound like this gorgeous album from Andy Cartwright. As he did on his last, A House With Too Much Fire, Cartwright treats his guitar and various other stringed instruments, building them up with loops and layers into something both monumental and diaphanous. While his music is great at painting pictures inside my eyelids, for some external visual information take a look at the accompanying art book by Australian photographer Sophie Gabrielle. You may just find it the perfect gift for that special someone with adventurous tastes. That special someone may also be you. I won't judge! Either way, delve into the world of Seabuckthorn however you can as there is literally no one else doing what he does.

Beatrice Dillon - Workaround You could breeze through this album and think all the tracks, though beautiful, are kind of the same. But further listening reveals nuances among the eely bass lines, crisp percussion, and chill keyboards. Clever samples abound, like the tabla of Kuljit Bhamra or the cello of Lucy Railton, but the experience is all Dillon and it is sublime. I'm no audio snob but I really lost myself in the sound when it bloomed in my Grado SR60 headphones, which is now my preferred method to listen to this dazzling debut.

Matt Evans - New Topographics Mea culpa - in a post earlier this year I called Evans "one of the best drummers alive," which is now revealed by this astonishing album as a severe undersell. Not only is Evans a master percussionist (catch him with Tigue or Bearthoven) but he is a deep thinker and sonic architect like few others. Taking inspiration from the high-concept thoughts of Timothy Morton, which classify massive classes of sometimes immaterial things - climate, the internet, styrofoam - as "hyperobjects," and a Richard Brautigan poem that pictures us "freed" to rejoin our mammal cousins while being babysat by robots, Evans constructs little landscapes of sound out of field recordings, percussion, and electronics. There's a cinematic structure to the album, too, with the bright, busy charms of the first three tracks giving way to the tense, nervous mood of Cold Moon. By the end, an equilibrium is reached, but it remains ambiguous. That's what I heard, anyway, you can choose just to toy with the marvelous textures as they go by. This also sounds great on headphones, but almost seems mastered for laptop - listening on my MacBook creates a space where sounds are spread in a radius of at least two feet. Or maybe infinity, held back only by my own biology. Don't let yours hold you back from hearing this masterpiece.

Nnux - Ciudad The project of Ana López-Reyes, Nnux was one of my favorite discoveries of 2018, and this short album is yet another example of why she grabbed me from first listen. The incantatory singing and nearly baroque electronics are in full force on several of the tracks, but I also hear new developments. She's giving her voice more room to breathe in parts, while also revealing more of her Mexican heritage on something like the title song, which has the ghosts of old ballads in its DNA. It's been a thrilling experience to be in Nnux's slipstream the last couple of years and I suggest you join me.

Yaeji - What We Drew Queens-born, raised in Seoul and now based in Brooklyn, Yaeji has been scattering singles and mixtapes like sweet little crumbs over the last several years, building a following that includes over one million monthly listeners on Spotify. Now she gives all those hungry ears the full cake with her delightful debut album. Pulling on at least the last 40 years of electronically-infused song craft, from house and drum'n'bass to hip hop and more avant garde realms, she proves the ruler of all she surveys, bringing a deliciously light touch to every tone, texture, and melody.

Keep up with everything I'm tracking in this category - and whatever comes next - here or below.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Of Note In 2020: Classical

Not to undersell it, but this has been one crazy year. I don't need to explain it either, because everyone is going through it simultaneously. I would like to clear the air a little about the status of AnEarful, however, as posts have been few and far between in 2020. This is due to a variety of factors, none of which have anything to do with the lack of engagement in all the wonderful music that's come out so far this year. Since I do much of my writing on the train to and from work (not to mention while traveling to concerts!) shifting to working from home each day has had an impact on my productivity.

There's also the fact that my full-time job is working in the Office of Development at the Mount Sinai Health System, which for the last many weeks has been solely focused on confronting the impact of the pandemic. This has meant longer hours - occasionally spilling over into the weekends - and intense days as we power through to write the documents our fundraisers need to meet the demand created by being at the epicenter of the epicenter. One result of this is that after a long day of all COVID all the time, often the last thing I want to do is sit in front of the computer some more and write about music. Sometimes I just need to zone out in front of the TV.

Then there was the looming project of my best of the decade list. While I knew I would never finish that in December, I had planned to get it done in January and the longer it hung out there, the more I felt I had to finish it before approaching new releases. As you likely already know, I GOT IT DONE, people! And I'm mightily satisfied with it, too.

Now is the time to move on and be firmly present in THIS decade, which has already produced an enormous amount of great music. As usual, my cup runneth over. To keep track, I'm maintaining my usual Spotify playlists, which gather the music I consider "of note," starting with a general one and then broken down by genre. I also have another secret playlist I've been building of the 40 records that have been continual companions since they came out, bearing repeat listens and revealing more glories each time. Starting now and over the next days and weeks I will be sharing what has risen to the top in each genre while also encouraging you to explore the full "of note" playlists. Here goes!

The Of Note In 2020 (Classical) playlist is now clocking over 30 albums. Eleven of my favorites are listed below. Subscribe now to the 40 For 2020 playlist for tracks from all these albums and to see what I add from other genres as I write about them in the coming weeks.

Ekmeles - A Howl, That Was Also A Prayer I think this was the first new album I received in 2020 and one listen in I knew we were going to be fine, musically speaking. I was aware of this ridiculously talented and adventurous vocal ensemble for a while but hearing their work on Zosah di Castri's insanely great Tachitipo (2019) brought them into sharp focus. This album should do the same for many more people. Even before I heard it I was psyched as not only did they record a new work by Christopher Trapani, but they have more from Taylor Brook's deeply eccentric response to David Ohle's deeply eccentric sci-fi novel Motorman, last heard in a stunning performance of Four Weather Reports by the Tak Ensemble on Ecstatic Music (2016). Just as there, we have the extraordinarily expressive voice of Charlotte Mundy to set the tone, and she somehow makes everything approachable. You won't soon grow tired of Brook's intricate scoring, which offers new crevices to explore each time. 

Trapani's piece, End Words, combines the six voices with electronics in seamless fashion to limn the words of three poets, Anis Mojgani, Clara Shuttleworth, and John Ashbery, all of whom employ sestina form. The harmonies are often close, giving it a jazzy spin slightly reminiscent of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. But this is no pastiche - merely Trapani serving notice of his preeminence as one of the most original composers of today. His intellectual questing is always grounded in deep humanism and not a little wit, all these factors combining marvelously here as they they did in Waterlines. Between Brook and Trapani is Erin Gee's wordless Three Scenes From Sleep, which uses extended techniques to explore with great creativity the murmurings of the unconscious mind in various stages of sleep. Ekmeles, under the sure direction of Jeffrey Gavett, toss it off with both precision and freedom, as they do on every track of this explosive debut album. 

Y Music - Ecstatic Science Putting a Missy Mazzoli piece on your album will always get my attention, and her title track (2016) has many of her trademark harmonic ambiguities and shifting dynamics. It's one of the more shaded pieces on the collection, which has an overall feeling of good cheer. The centerpiece is Caroline Shaw's three-part Draft Of A High Rise, a nearly pastoral soundscape that makes fine use of the warm tonalities to which these players seem drawn. Also featured are works by Gabriella Smith and Paul Wiancko, with the latter's Thous&ths (2015) boasting some exceptional trumpet scoring - and superb playing by CJ Camerieri.

Scott L. Miller - Ghost Layers I always like to be in the know so I was racking my brain in the hopes that this isn't my first exposure to Miller. Now I just have to accept that I was behind the curve on this brilliant composer's work. How did I miss Raba from 2018?? Anyhoo, I'm here now and I couldn't wish for finer companions than the TAK Ensemble, who bring their usual commitment, technique, and passion to these seven mostly electro-acoustic chamber pieces. Eidolon may be my favorite, with its drones, sparkles, and theatrical creaks and clicks, but each one contains wonders. Let's all work together to make Miller a household name. Also, subscribe NOW to Tak's podcast - it's the bomb.

Quarterly - Pomegranate The duo of Kristen Drymala (cello) and Christopher DiPietro (guitar, hammered lap steel) have also been under my radar, with their first album coming out in 2016, but I'm glad to know them now as this EP is simply lovely. They combine folk and classical traditions in a way that Penguin Cafe Orchestra fans would recognize, but without that group's occasional over-reliance on puckishness and repetition. That's a long way of saying you will be absorbed and transported by their gentle and melodic string-weaving and, like me, will look forward to exploring their earlier albums.

Barbora Kolářová - Imp In Impulse With a name like "Pascal Le Boeuf" it seems you would have to write a piece called Imp In Impulse, which receives its premiere recording here in a spectacular performance by violinist Kolářová. She's played everywhere with everyone but this is her solo debut and it should firmly put her on the map as an artist with as much personality as skill. Le Boeuf's piece, which was written for her, is not only impish but also at times approaches the gravity of Medieval plainchant to sublime effect. Other violinists should be flooding his inbox with commissions based on this recording. They can try to top Kolářová if they dare. Jean Françaix's Theme with 8 Variations for Solo Violin (1980) also has impish moments, especially when he goes for the pizzicato, but there are also shades of folk fiddle and knotty moments for a remarkable range of moods throughout. It's apparently rarely performed but the sheer delight Kolářová displays should change that. The album closes with Klement Slavický's Partita for Solo Violin, which takes Bach's model and updates it a bit, but not so much that the great man would find it unrecognizable. All those places and players used to working with Kolářová may find her datebook a little fuller than usual with solo performances once normal concert life resumes!

Richard Valitutto - Nocturnes & Lullabies Over the course of this album's eight premieres, Valitutto creates an almost entirely new landscape of piano music and sound. Mind you, the piano is unprepared and no electronics are involved - it's just the killer use of dynamics and attack along with pedal deployment of nearly unreal expertise. Notably, Valitutto also co-produced the record (with Nick Tipp) - clearly a man who knows what he wants! The pieces range from Rebecca Saunders' drama-laced Shadow (2013) and Wolfgang von Schweinitz's blocky but mellow Plainsound Lullaby (2014) to Linda Catlin Smiths chiming A Nocturne (1995), for a truly fascinating journey. 

Cenk Urgün - Sonare & Celare If Valitutto was waxing nocturnal, the first of these two single-movement string quartets by Urgün go him one further into dark night of the soul territory. Performed with frightening dedication by the JACK Quartet, who never seem to put a horsehair wrong, Sonare is a mostly ultra-rhythmic, skirling stringscape that may raise the hairs on the back of your neck. In his notes, Urgün somewhat clinically describes "building near-static sound fields made up of repeated patterns, sustained tones, and what can be called islands of sound: brief sound events surrounded by silence." Clearly he wants you to find your own way emotionally, but the power of Sonare is very real. Celare is calmer, even lyrical at times, but remains spartan enough that you never get too comfortable. Whether your introduction to Urgün's methods and sound world, or just another chapter in the JACK's ongoing pursuit of excellence, this is not a record you will easily forget.

The String Orchestra Of Brooklyn - Afterimage Christopher Cerrone's High Windows (2013) opens this debut from the SOB in glorious fashion, doing justice to the stained glass that inspired the piece. Also cleverly sampling a Paganini caprice, High Windows is further proof of Cerrone's multifarious talents, even if it's not  as momentous as what he presented on last year's The Pieces That Fall To Earth. Led by Eli Spindel, the SOB and guests the Argus Quartet play with wonderful delicacy, finding cohesion in the spare textures. Jacob Cooper's Stabat Mater Dolorosa (2009) includes Melissa Hughes (soprano) and Kate Maroney (mezzo-soprano) and is almost ambient as it traverses - for nearly 30 minutes - a "time-stretched" variation of Pergolesi’s first movement for his Stabat Mater (1736). Including bits of Paganini and Pergolesi to end the album makes sense only for a scholar, but that's a minor quibble.

Clarice Jensen - The Experience Of Repetition As Death If you want to keep Jacob Cooper's mood going, skip the old stuff on Afterimage and play this gorgeously meditative album. Jensen, the Artistic & Executive Director of ACME, further comes into her own as  creator of exquisite music for cello and electronics, looping and layering her instrument to come up with a string orchestra of her own. As the title hints, Jensen has some dark thoughts on her mind and any of these five pieces would not be out of place soundtracking images of peril and suspense. Find your story within.

Luis Ianes - Instrucciones De Uso Paying homage to the late Georges Perec and his monumental novel, La vie mode d’emploi (Life, A User's Manual), is not something that happens often enough, so kudos to Ianes for injecting him into the conversation. Beyond all that, Ianes is a marvelous guitarist on either acoustic or electric instruments, conjuring all kinds of woody plucks and strums and shimmering chords for a quirky, engaging listen.

Ted Hearne & Saul Willams - Place This big, bold, bombshell of an album builds on seeds Hearne and Williams planted on last year's remarkable Hazy Heart Pump, driving further into an intersection of chamber music, electronic, R&B, spoken word, jazz, hip hop, and progressive rock, only to arrive in a uniquely addictive spot. There are powerful ideas here, too, thoughts about gentrification, family, masculinity, social justice, and more, but they never outweigh the music. The collage-like blend of sounds and voices comes together through the blazing artistry of the singers and players, caught here in an incandescent performance that is at least partially live (the booklet is short on details). I could as easily write a haiku or a book about this rara avis of a record. It truly must be heard to be believed. 

You may also enjoy:
2019 First Quarter Report: The Albums
Record Roundup: One Day In 2018
How To Survive 2017